After returning from the construction site to the north, Helkias began acting strange. The lightness of the previous weeks remained. Yet he was more standoffish. Which is to say if you didn’t know the man he would have appeared the same. It was clear that something troubled him. Knowing how close we had been to the anniversary of the young princes I worried what it was he was carrying that we could not see. I made sure to join him on patrol one morning. So it was armed and armored alongside the dreaded Blackraven that I truly saw him and understood even more so than I could have thought the truth of why he was who he was now. And the truth that drove him ever onward.
“I miss bandits. I never thought I’d say it but I miss the durned bandits, girl.”
He was talkative that morning.
“A full breakfast,” he said before we left, “And a cool breeze at our backs. Makes me giddy it does.”
The patrol turned out to be somewhat uneventful, sighting the occasional pack of wolves, lycans or not, they bothered us not.
“They’re free,” I said as we took a break on an overlook of Kenkilit. Below us, the masons and the refugees and those Voranians that chose to live among us were hard at work. Repairs continued. But more importantly, new buildings and outlying walls were rising up. “Soon we’ll be a town proper. Hire a sheriff. Maybe a baker?”
“Aye, I’ve heard tell the elf girl makes cakes or something. Still hain’t seen it though. Ancient elf secrets are hard to pull out of her folk.”
“You okay, old man?”
He chuckled leaning against a tree just over my shoulder. He pulled out a well-burnt roll of leaf and lit it, biting off the end. Smoke billowed out around us.
“I lived the role of a legendary figure for a while there in Corbach. The shadowy billowy hellbent Blackraven. I was something out of a campfire tale,” he took a drag and shook his head. “I never killed like I did in the week after I learned what happened to the young princes.”
“You’re a warrior, Helk. Seem to me that comes with the territory.”
“Not like this, girl. Those dark and bloody days, I was lost in it all. The world focused to a pinpoint around me and nothing else mattered. Not life, love, people, nations. It was my spearpoint and their chest or backs or throats. I lived only for that. And I was wrong.”
He took his pack off and sat at the edge of the cliff, his boots dangling over a 500-foot drop. He seemed overly calm. Though calm draws upon a balance of emotion. Telling this tale he seemed devoid of the stuff.
“I killed Cronin’s men. For days. I don’t know how many my rampage took,” He stopped momentarily, “Eighty-five. Durned memory I killed Eighty-five innocent men before I turned my hatred on the ones who did the deed. Even after I confronted Councilor erm Headsman Prel. Even after I defeated the assassins. There was still a revelation to be had.”
He spat over the edge. I sat next to him. Watching for any hint or what was to come. A change in posture. A twitch of an eyebrow. All the signs my mentor had drilled into me. Signs of weakness, of feeling, of emotional attachment. In Helk’s body language I saw only regret.
“I left the refugees alone. It was dumb. But I was still that broken castoff then. It was before Cronin, Matt and I took to the Realms. Before we left Corbach. In those early days, we were lucky if we had watchmen at night. And I left. I returned to the last village we passed through.”
I knew most of this. I tracked his movements during those early days. Hooded and wearing rags I was just another refugee fleeing the Headsman’s wrath. The tale he told then, I already knew it.
“The Corbachian rains drenched us then. Unprotected in the valley it soaked through cloak, armor, and underclothes. I let it wash me. I hadn’t taken the armor off in days. But I was in search of a drink. So I barrelled through, soaked to the core of myself. I made it to the tavern in good time. It was empty save for the innkeep and a hooded someone. We drank quietly for what it was worth, good company I thought.”
A pack of wolves moved behind us. Stopping to listen.
“I drank well. And when I thought ‘last one ole boy’ I had another three. Drinking like that, with no mirth no celebration. Drinking to forget. That was how I lived then. It was my specialty. And so when the hooded man drew on me I was slow. Too slow. She gave me this,” He gestured to a faded scar on his chin.
“Managed to get out the door, but they were already waiting. Council guard. The best and brightest. Most trained by my own hand. Knew some of them since they were babes at breast. And there, wearing a shiny white, soaking wet cape was Ser Quioren. Up jumped bastard. The girl came out behind me. Five total. All wearing that uniform. The blasted star of the council and their new god. And there it was staring at me from the chest of my best friend.”
“Quioren,” I asked, knowing the answer. They grew up together. Were like brothers. It was prerequisite reading before I took Helk’s contract. My mentor had a few personal tales to add. How the two of them had adventured throughout Corbach in their younger days. Were to marry sisters before tragedy struck Helk’s betrothed. Helk didn’t know I knew all of this. So he continued.
“Aye, my brother. Yrolf. Replaced it with a Ser even before he earned his armor. Turns out if you use a title as your informal name it can stick.”
“Maybe I’ll become a Lady of Whosits.”
“Hah. I’ll support yer claim.”
The levity broke whatever spell he’d been under and he was nearly cheery for a moment. After another puff of leaf, the blank face returned.
“So there I knelt drunk, wet, and stinking from days of travel. My spear was standing outside the door, maybe ten feet away may as well have been in my pops’ homestead for all the good it did there. And he stood over me then. This man who had seen me at my best. One of three people who’d ever really known me. And he laughed.”
I could see him struggle then. The emotion breaking through. I saw it as weakness for a brief moment.
“I think that laugh was the final blow. It broke the man I was. Ended him right there. I looked up into his eyes and I think I knew. I saw in him the capability to do it. In that uniform, I knew he had to have given them something. And still laughing he looked down at me. And kicked me. Right here.” He gestured to his chest.
“I fell to the ground too tired to do a damned thing about it. And he kept laughing. It was a strange thing to be reborn out of another’s callous disregard. But that’s where I changed. Where this shining example of manhood really began.”
He gestured to himself with both hands leaving the rolled leaf in between his teeth.
“I didn’t care if I died there, Quioren would tell me what he did. So I did what I could with what I had and broke his durned nose with my face. I can’t say I felt it, drunk as I was but he did. He screamed and wailed and the others came at me. I wouldn’t recommend it, but there is a grace to fighting while completely smammered on bad village ale, so long as ye don’t care about coming out the other side. So that was my rebirth. Killed three of them before they got a hold of me again. ‘Say it.’ I spat blood and a tooth into Quioren’s face. ‘I did it. You know it. Who else would young Eric have trusted enough to ride out alone with? Should’ve seen him weep and wail as we torched the place. Boy managed to kill two o’ mine before we did him in. But I did it. I ended him. But hell, I hated every minute of it. Of all of this.’ Quioren looked like he was about to fall down, blood trailing in the rain on his face, one eye swollen shut. ‘It didn’t have to be like this brother.’ And I looked up at him then. Right in his eye. And I told him ‘It really didn’t’. The arrows flew then. And some of the refugees came out of the dark. Asher, he led them to me. Quioren escaped into the dark with the woman who cut me. And I passed out. Woke up back in a wagon. Asher watching over me while I sobered up.”
He twisted out the remnant of leaf and put it out on his boot.
“My best friend was the one who did in the young prince. And he did it because of me.”
“You can’t possibly take that on yourself,” I told him, sincere as I knew how.
“I know. Forgive me a bit of melancholy. But today was the day. Quioren and I were going to marry a pair of sisters. They were warriors from the south of Corbach. I wonder what would have come of us if that day had passed as it was meant to.”
He stood and stretched. Groaning.
“Let’s continue on then. Get back to those free folk back there. See if Elowen will give us a damn cake for our wondrous patrolling.”
The pack of wolves continued on their way then. And we gathered our packs and made our way back to the path.
It was only because of my mentor’s training that I didn’t blurt it all out then. Sometimes I wonder if he already knew. It would be a while yet before it was all out in the open. But that day walking back, I hoped against hope that I wouldn’t ever have to scar him again.