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Garen The Soldier and the Hag
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Short Story • 7 Minute Read

The Soldier and the Hag

By Graham McNeill

The Lady of the Stones took a fellow soldier. Now, she'll take on Garen and his broadsword.

Lore

The old woman pulled the rope taut around the Demacian soldier's throat. He'd attempted to speak, which was forbidden by the rules she had laid out. One more infraction and she'd have the right to slice the head from his shoulders and use his widowpeaked helm as a chamberpot. Until then, she could only tighten her grip, hope and watch as the tendrils of memory leaked from his head into hers.

Of course, she could just decapitate him whenever she wished, but that wouldn't be proper. Much could be said of the gray-skinned seer, but nobody could say she didn't live by a code. By a set of rules. And without rules, where would the world be? In disarray, that's where. Simple as that.

Until he broke those rules, she would sit here, siphoning away everything he had - his joy, his memories, his identity - until she was done with him. And then: slice. Chamberpot.

A voice screamed out in pain somewhere near the entrance of her cave. One of her sentinels, no doubt.

Then another scream.

And another.

Tonight was shaping up to be very interesting.

She could tell he was an unyielding fellow by the persistent slamming of his heavy boots onto the wet cave floor, announcing his long approach. When the echoing steps finally fell silent, a handsome, broad-shouldered man stared at her from across the cavern, the look of grim determination on his face illuminated by the den's dim torches. Rivulets of blood dripped down his breastplate. Even from the back of the room, she could smell something sour in his Perseverance armor - some sort of acidic tang that calmed the magic flowing through her veins in a way she did not like.

This would be an interesting night, indeed.

The knight, Decisive Strike broadsword in hand, ascended the stone steps to the old woman's makeshift rock throne.

She smiled, waiting for him to haul the blade up and bring it screaming down toward her head - he'd be in for quite the surprise once he did.

Instead, he sheathed the sword and sat on the ground.

Wordlessly, he stared into the old woman's eyes, patiently holding her gaze. He did not break their connection even to flick his eyes in the direction of the leashed soldier at her side.

Was this a ploy to throw her off? Was he trying to wait her out, make her talk first?

Most likely.

Still, this was boring.

"Do you know who I am?" the woman asked.

"You feed off the memories of the lost and the abandoned. Children say you are as old as the cave you inhabit. You are the Lady of the Stones", he said with confidence.

"Ha! That's not what they call me, and you know it. Rock Hag. That's what they say. Afraid I'd smite you if you used that name, eh? Trying to butter me up?" she coughed.

"No", the man replied, "I just thought it was a rude name. It's impolite to insult someone in their home."

The old seer chuckled until she realized he wasn't joking.

"And yours?" she asked. "What are you called?"

"Garen OriginalSquare Garen Crownguard of Demacia."

"Here are the rules, Garen Crownguard of Demacia", she said. "You have come for your lost soldier. Correct?"

The man nodded.

"Do you intend to kill me?" the woman asked.

"I cannot lie. I think it likely that either you or I will die, yes", he replied.

The woman chuckled.

"Eager to spill my blood, are you? Maybe you'd even succeed, with that armor." She coiled the rope squeezing the soldier's neck tighter around her ancient hand. "Still - if you raise your sword against me before our dealings are through, I will pull this so quickly you'll hear the snap of his neck echo in your mind for the rest of your days."

She yanked the leash taut for emphasis.

Garen's gaze remained unflinchingly focused on her eyes.

"So, the rules. If you can give me a single memory I find more delicious than the accumulated memories in this one's mind", she said, flicking the prisoner's helmet, "I will take it from you, and give you him." She watched Garen's eyes closely now for any hint of doubt. "If you cannot, well... " she tightened her grip on the soldier's leash. "Should either of us attempt to renege on our deal, the other is entitled to take repayment however they wish, with no resistance. Do you agree?"

"I do", he said.

"Then let me hear your opening offer. What is this soldier's life to you? Apologies for my rudeness - I'd refer to him by name, but I've forgotten it already", she said.

"I do not know his name either. He joined my battalion only recently", Garen replied.

She frowned at the young man. He clearly did not know what he was getting into.

"I offer a memory", he said, from childhood. My Lux OriginalSquare sister and I astride my uncle's back as he barked like a Noxian drake-hound. We laughed for many hours. It is a good memory, unsullied by what would later happen to him at the hands of one like you."

The old woman scratched at the gelatinous film of her eye.

"You do me disrespect", she said. "You think to trade a joyous memory as if that is all I savor." She cupped the soldier's head in her hand and relished the wisps of memories flowing into her mind from his. "I want... everything. The pain, the confusion, the anger. Keeps me looking young", she laughed, dragging a twisted finger across her wrinkled cheek.

"I offer my grief, then, at my uncle's death", Garen said.

"Not good enough. You bore me", said the Lady of Stones, and pulled tighter on the leash.

Garen sprang to his feet and unsheathed his sword. The hag's heart leapt at the thought of killing the impatient young knight. But instead of attacking, he dropped to one knee, lowering his head before her, and gently placed the tip of the blade on her lap, pointed toward her midsection.

"Search my mind", he said. "Take whatever memory you wish. I am young, but I have seen much, and experienced a life of privilege that you might find pleasurable. Should you try to take more than one memory, of course, I will push this sword through you, but any single memory is yours for the keeping."

The woman could not help but cackle. The arrogance of this boy! He had the nerve to think one of his memories would outweigh the lifetime she could absorb from his colleague?

His courage - or ignorance - was unquestionable. One had to respect it.

Smacking her lips, she leaned over and placed her palms upon his head. She closed her eyes and peeled back the layers of his mind.

She saw triumph at the Battle of Whiterock. She tasted the lyrebuck roast at his lieutenant's wedding feast. She felt a lonely tear fall as he held a dying comrade on the fields of Brashmore.

And then she saw his sister.

She felt his intense love for her, mixed with... something else. Fear? Disgust? Discomfort?

She pushed deeper into his mind, past his conscious memories. Her fingers probed his thoughts, pushing aside anything unrelated to the golden-haired girl with the big smile. His armor made the search far more difficult than it would have otherwise been, but the old woman persisted until---

Childhood. The two of them playing with toy figurines. His soldiers charge her mages, ready to slaughter them. She tells him it isn't fair: they have magic, it should be an even fight. He laughs and knocks her clay mages over, batting them aside with his metal crusaders. Upset, the girl shouts and suddenly there is light shooting from her fingertips, and he is blinded, and confused, and frightened. She is taken away by their mother, but before their mother leaves the room, she kneels and tells the boy that he didn't see what he thought he saw. It wasn't real - just a game. The boy, his mouth agape, nods. Just a game. His sister is not a mage. She couldn't be. He pushes the memory as deep as it can go.

Stretching her fingers, the old woman finds more and more memories like this spread amongst the knight's childhood, each ending in a blinding splay of light. Buried deep. Cacophonous mixtures of love, fear, denial, anger, betrayal, and protectiveness.

The knight had not been wrong - these were good memories. Far juicier than those provided by the broken man.

She smiled. The knight had been clever, putting his sword to her stomach, but he wasn't clever enough. Once she took a memory, he would forget he'd ever possessed it - she could take whatever she wanted.

Branching her fingers, she sifted through his memories, searching for anything involving the girl of light. She snatched up every single one she found before pulling out of his mind.

"Yes", she said, opening her eyes. "This will do." She pointed at the cave's exit.

"Your bargain is accepted. A single memory for a single life. Take the boy and leave at once."

Garen stood and moved to the leashed soldier. He bent down, helped the soldier up, and began to walk backward out of the cave, never once looking away from her.

Quaint. He was worried she might break the deal. Poor thing didn't realize she already had.

The knight stopped.

He dropped his companion to the ground and charged, his eyes still locked on hers.

The old woman thrilled at his impetuous attempt. He was too big, too lumbering, too slow to ready his cumbersome sword before she would descend upon him. Her fingertips crackled with dark energy, thirsting to drink in more of his mind, but she couldn't take her eyes off his. In them, she saw the years of luscious memories she would feast upon, until there was nothing left to---

She felt something cold inside of her. Something metal. The sour tang of the knight's armor stronger than ever now, tickled the back of her throat.

The hag looked down to see Garen's sword jutting from her breast. Stains of red and black seeped from the wound, dripping onto the knight's gauntlets as he stared steadfast into her fading eyes.

He was faster than she'd thought.

"Why?" she tried to say, only to cough up a mouthful of black bile.

"You lied", he answered.

The hag smiled, acidic tar bubbling between her teeth. "How'd you know?"

"I felt... lighter. Unburdened", Garen replied.

He blinked.

"It didn't feel right. Give them back."

She thought for a moment as her blood mixed into the mud of the cold cave floor.

The hag's fingers went numb as she placed them on Garen's skull, forcing the memories back into his mind. He gritted his teeth with pain and when he opened his eyes, she could tell from their weariness that he'd gotten everything he wanted. The poor fool.

"Why even bother with the trade?" the old woman asked. "You are stronger than I thought. Much stronger. Leash or no, you could have sliced me to ribbons before I'd lifted a finger. Why bother letting me into your mind at all?"

"To draw first blood in a stranger's home without giving them a chance would be... impolite."

The hag cackled.

"Is that a Demacian rule?"

"A personal one", Garen said, and pulled the sword out of the hag's chest. Blood gushed from the open wound and she slumped over, dead.

He didn't spare her another look as he picked the soldier up and began their long march back to Demacia.

And without rules, he thought to himself, where would the world be?

References

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