A Quest of Heroes, Page 2Morgan Rice
Thor felt his heart breaking, as he saw his life collapsing before his eyes.
No, he thought. This can’t be.
“Silence!” he screamed, so shrill it cut the air. “Enough with you. Here they come. Get out of the way, and best mind your manners while they’re here.”
His father stepped up and with one hand pushed Thor to the side, as if he were an object he’d rather not see. His beefy palm stung Thor’s chest.
A great rumbling arose, and townsfolk poured out from their homes, lining the streets. A growing cloud of dust heralded the caravan, and moments later they burst in, a dozen horse-drawn carriages, with a noise like a great thunder.
They came into town like a sudden army, and their caravan came to a halt close to Thor’s home. Their horses stood there, prancing, snorting. It took too long for the cloud of dust to settle, and Thor anxiously tried to steal a peek of their armor, their weaponry. He had never been this close to the Silver before, and his heart thumped.
The soldier on the lead horse dismounted his stallion. Here he was, a real, actual member of the Silver, covered in shiny ring mail, a long sword on his belt. He looked to be in his 30s, a real man, stubble on his face, scars on his cheek, and a nose crooked from battle. He was the most substantial man Thor had ever seen, twice as wide as the others, with a countenance that said he was in charge.
The soldier jumped down onto the dirt road, his spurs jingling as he approached the lineup of boys.
All up and down the village stood dozens of boys, at attention, hoping. Joining The Silver meant a life of honor, of battle, of renown, of glory—along with land, title, and riches. It meant the best bride, the choicest land, a life of glory. It meant honor for your family, and entering the Legion was the first step.
Thor studied the large, golden carriages, and knew they could only hold so many recruits. It was a large kingdom, and they had many towns to visit. He gulped, realizing his chances were even more remote than he thought. He would have to beat out all these other boys—many of them substantial fighters—along with his own three brothers. He had a sinking feeling.
Thor could hardly breathe as he watched the soldier pace in the silence, surveying the rows of hopefuls. He began on the far side of the street, then slowly circled. Thor knew all of the other boys, of course. Some of them he knew secretly did not want to be picked, even though their families wanted to send them off. They were afraid; they would make poor soldiers.
Thor burned with indignity. He felt he deserved to be picked, as much as any of them. Just because his brothers were older and bigger and stronger, didn’t mean he shouldn’t have a right to stand and be chosen. He burned with hatred for his father, and nearly burst out of his skin as the soldier approached.
The soldier stopped, for the first time, before his brothers. He looked them up and down, and seemed impressed. He reached out, grabbed one of their scabbards and yanked it, as if to test how firm it was.
He broke into a smile.
“You haven’t yet used your sword in battle, have you?” he asked Drake.
Thor saw Drake nervous for the first time in his life. He swallowed.
“No, my liege. But I’ve used it many times in practice, and I hope to—”
The soldier roared in laughter and turned to the other soldiers, who joined in, laughing in Drake’s face.
Drake turned bright red. It was the first time Thor had ever seen Drake embarrassed—usually, it was Drake embarrassing others.
“Well then I shall certainly tell our enemies to fear you—you who wields your sword in practice!”
The crowd of soldiers laughed again.
The soldier then turned to his other brothers.
“Three boys from the same stock,” he said, rubbing the stubble on his chin. “That can be useful. You’re all a good size. Untested, though. You’ll need much training if you are to make the cut.”
“I suppose we can find room.”
He nodded towards the rear wagon.
“Get in, and be quick of it. Before I change my mind.”
Thor’s three brothers sprinted for the carriage, beaming. Thor noticed his father beaming, too.
But he was crestfallen as he watched them go.
The soldier turned and moved on to the next home. Thor could stand it no longer.
“Sire!” Thor yelled out.
His father turned and glared at him, but Thor no longer cared.
The soldier stopped, his back to him, and slowly turned.
Thor took two steps forward, his heart beating, and stuck out his chest as far as he could.
“You haven’t considered me, sire,” he said.
The soldier, startled, looked Thor up and down as if he were a joke.
“Haven’t I?” he asked, and burst into laughter.
His men burst into laughter, too. But Thor didn’t care. This was his moment. It was now or never.
“I want to join the Legion!” Thor said.
The soldier turned and stepped towards Thor.
“Do you now?”
He looked amused.
“And have you even reached your fourteenth year?”
“I did, sire. Two weeks ago.”
“Two weeks ago!”
The soldier shrieked with laughter, as did the men behind them.
“In that case, our enemies shall surely quiver at the sight of you.”
Thor felt himself burning with indignity. He had to do something. He couldn’t let it end like this. The soldier turned his back to walk away—but Thor could not allow it.
Thor stepped forward and screamed: “Sire! You are making a mistake!”
A horrified gasp spread through the crowd, as the soldier stopped and slowly turned.
Now, he was scowling.
“Stupid boy,” his father said, grabbing Thor by his shoulder, “go back inside!”
“I shall not!” Thor yelled, shaking off his father’s grip.
The soldier stepped towards Thor, and his father backed away.
“Do you know the punishment for insulting the Silver?” the soldier snapped.
Thor’s heart pounded, but he knew he could not back down.
“Please forgive him, sire,” his father said. “He’s a young child and—”
“I’m not speaking to you,” the soldier said. With a withering look, he forced his father to look away.
He turned back to Thor.
“Answer me!” he said.
Thor swallowed, unable to speak. This was not how he saw it going in his head.
“To insult the Silver is to insult the King himself,” Thor said meekly, reciting what he’d learned from memory.
“Yes,” the soldier said. “Which means I can give you forty lashes if I choose.”
“I mean no insult, sire,” Thor said. “I just want to be picked. Please. I’ve dreamt of this my entire life. Please. Let me join you.”
The soldier stood there, and slowly, his expression softened. After a long while, he shook his head.
“You’re young, boy. You have a proud heart. But you’re not ready. Come back to us when you are weaned.”
With that, he turned and stormed off, barely glancing at the other boys. He quickly mounted his horse.
Thor stood there, crestfallen, and watched as the caravan broke into action; as quickly as they’d arrived, they were gone.
The last thing Thor saw was his brothers, sitting in the back of the last carriage, looking out at him, disapproving, mocking. They were being carted away before his eyes, away from here, into a better life.
Inside, Thor felt like dying.
As the excitement faded all around him, villagers slinked back into their homes.
“Do you realize how stupid you were, foolish boy?” Thor’s father snapped, grabbing his shoulders. “Do you realize you could have ruined your brothers’ chances?”
Thor brushed his father’s ha
nds off of him roughly, and his father reached back and backhanded him across the face.
Thor felt the sting of it, and he glared back at his father. A part of him, for the first time, wanted to hit his father back. But he held himself.
“Go get my sheep and bring them back. Now! And when you return, don’t expect a meal from me. You will miss your meal tonight, and think about what you’ve done.”
“Maybe I shall not come back at all!” Thor yelled, as he turned and stormed off, away from his home, towards the hills.
“Thor!” his father screamed, as villagers stopped and watched.
Thor broke into a trot, then a run, wanting to get as far away from this place as possible. As he ran, he barely noticed he was crying, tears flooding his face, as every dream he’d ever had was crushed.
Thor wandered for hours in the hills, seething, until finally he chose a hill and sat, arms crossed over his legs, and watched the horizon. He watched the carriages disappear, watched the cloud of dust that lingered for hours after.
There would be no more visits. Now he was destined to remain here, in this village, for years, awaiting another chance—if they ever returned. If his father ever allowed it. Now it would be just he and his father, alone in the house, and his father would surely let out the full breadth of his wrath on him. He would continue to be his father’s lackey, years would pass, and he would end up just like him, stuck here, living a small, menial life—while his brothers gained glory and renown. His veins burned with the indignity of it all: this was not the life he was meant to live. He knew it.
Thor racked his brain for anything he could do, any way he could change it. But he knew there was nothing. These were the cards life had dealt him.
After hours of sitting, he rose dejectedly and began traversing his way back up the familiar hills, higher and higher. Inevitably, he drifted back towards the flock, to the high knoll. As he climbed, the first sun fell in the sky and the second reached its peak, casting a greenish tint. He took his time as he ambled, mindlessly removing his sling from his waist, its leather grip well-worn from years of use. He reached into his sack, tied to his hip, and fingered his collection of stones, each smoother than the next, hand-picked from the choicest creeks. Sometimes he fired on birds, other times, rodents. It was a habit he’d ingrained over years. At first, he missed everything; then, once, he hit a moving target. Since then, his aim was true. Now, hurling stones had become a part of him—and it helped to release some of his anger. His brothers might be able to swing a sword through a log—but they could never hit a flying bird with a stone like he could.
Thor mindlessly placed a stone in the sling, leaned back and hurled it with all he had, pretending he was hurling it at his father. He hit a branch on a far-off tree, taking it down cleanly. Once he’d discovered he could actually kill moving animals, he’d stopped, afraid at his own power and not wanting to hurt anything; now his targets were branches. Unless of course, it was one of the fox that came after his flock; over time, they had learned to stay clear. His flock, as a result, was the safest kept in the village.
Thor thought of his brothers, of where they were right now, and he steamed. After a day’s ride they would arrive in King’s Court. He could see it. He saw them arriving to great fanfare, people dressed in their finest greeting them. Warriors greeting them. Members of the Silver. They would be taken in, given a place to live in the Legion’s barracks, a place to train in the King’s fields, given the finest weapons. Each would be named squire to a famous knight. One day, they would become knights themselves, get their own horse, their own coat of arms, and have their own squire. They would partake in all the festivals, and dine at the King’s table. It was a charmed life. And it had slipped from his grasp.
Thor felt physically sick, and tried to force it all from his mind. But he could not. There was a part of him, some deep part, that screamed at him. It told him not to give up, that he had a greater destiny than this. He didn’t know what it was, but he knew it wasn’t here. He felt he was different. Maybe even special. That no one understood him. And that they all underestimated him.
Thor reached the highest knoll and spotted his flock. Well-trained, they were all still gathered, gnawing away contentedly at whatever grass they could find. He counted them, looking for the red marks he had stained on their backs. But he froze as he finished. One sheep was missing.
He counted again, and again. He couldn’t believe it: one was gone.
Thor had never lost a sheep before, and his father would not let him live this down. Worse, he hated the idea of one of his sheep lost, alone, vulnerable in the wilderness. He hated to see anything innocent suffer.
Thor scurried to the top of the knoll and scanned the horizon. He spotted it, far-off, several hills away: the lone sheep, the red mark on its back. It was the wild one of the bunch. His heart dropped as he realized the sheep had not only fled, but had chosen, of all places, to head west, to Darkwood.
Thor gulped. Darkwood was forbidden—not just for sheep, but for humans. It was beyond the village limit, and from the time he could walk, Thor knew not to venture there. He never had. Going there, legend told, was a sure death, its woods unmarked and filled with vicious animals.
Thor looked up at the darkening sky, debating. He couldn’t let his sheep go. He figured if he could move fast, he could get it back in time.
After one final look back, he turned and broke into a sprint, heading west, for Darkwood, thick clouds gathering in the sky. He had a sinking feeling, yet his legs seemed to carry him on his own. He felt there was no turning back, even if he wanted to.
It was like running into a nightmare.
Thor sped down the series of hills without pausing, into the thick canopy of Darkwood. The trails ended where the wood began, and he ran into unmarked territory, summer leaves crunching beneath his feet.
The instant he entered the wood the sky darkened, blocked by the towering pines above. It was colder in here, too, and as he crossed the threshold, he felt a chill. The chill wasn’t just from the dark, or the cold—it was from something else. Something he could not name. It was a sense of…being watched.
Thor looked up at the ancient branches, gnarled, thicker than he, swaying and creaking in the breeze. He had barely gone fifty paces into the wood when he began to hear odd animal noises. He turned and could hardly see the opening from which he’d entered; he felt already as if there were no way out. He hesitated.
Darkwood had always sat on the periphery of the town and on the periphery of his consciousness, something deep and mysterious. Every herder who ever lost a sheep to the wood had never dared venture after it. Even his father. The tales about this place were too dark, too persistent.
But there was something different about today that made Thor no longer care, that made him throw caution to the wind. A part of him wanted to push the boundaries, to get as far away from home as possible, and to allow life to take him where it may.
He ventured farther, then paused, unsure which way to go. He noticed markings, bent branches where his sheep must have gone, and turned in that direction. After some time, he turned again.
Before another hour had passed, he was hopelessly lost. He turned and tried to remember the direction from which he came—but was no longer sure. An uneasy feeling settled in his stomach, but he figured the only way out was forward, so he continued on.
In the distance, Thor spotted a shaft of sunlight, and made for it. He found himself before a small clearing, and stopped at its edge. He stood there, rooted: he could not believe what he saw before him.
Standing there, his back to him, dressed in a long, blue satin robe, was a man. No—not a man, Thor could sense it from here. He was something else. A druid, maybe. He stood tall and straight, head covered by a hood, perfectly still, as if he did not have a care in the world.
Thor stood there, not knowing what to do. He had heard of druids, but had never encountered one. From the marking
s on his robe, the elaborate gold trim, this was no mere druid: those were royal markings. Of the King’s court. Thor could not understand it. What was a royal druid doing here?
After what felt like an eternity, the druid slowly turned and faced him, and as he did, Thor recognized the face. It took his breath away. It was one of the most famous faces in the kingdom: the King’s personal druid. Argon, counselor to kings of the Western Kingdom for centuries. What he was doing here, far from the royal court, in the center of Darkwood, was a mystery. Thor wondered if he were imagining it.
“Your eyes do not deceive you,” Argon said, staring right at Thor.
His voice was deep, ancient, as if spoken by the trees themselves. His large, translucent eyes seemed to bore right through Thor, summing him up. He felt an intense energy radiating off of him—as if he were standing opposite the sun.
Thor immediately took a knee and bowed his head.
“My liege,” he said. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”
Thor knew that disrespect towards a King’s counselor would result in imprisonment or death. It had been ingrained in him since the time he was born.
“Stand up, child,” Argon said. “If I wanted you to kneel, I would have told you.”
Slowly, Thor stood and looked at him. Argon took several steps closer. He stood there and stared, until Thor began to feel uncomfortable.
“You have your mother’s eyes,” Argon said.
Thor was taken aback. He had never met his mother, and had never met anyone, aside from his father, who knew her. From what he was told, she had died in childbirth, something for which Thor always felt a sense of guilt. He had always suspected that that was why his family hated him.
“I think you’re mistaking me for someone else,” Thor said. “I don’t have a mother.”
“Don’t you?” Argon asked with a smile. “Were you born by man alone?”
“I meant to say, sire, that my mother died in birth. I think you mistake me.”
“You are Thorgrin, of the Clan McLeod. The youngest of four brothers. The one not picked.”
Thor’s eyes opened wide. He hardly knew what to make of this. That someone of Argon’s stature should know who he was—it was more than he could comprehend. He didn’t even imagine that he was known to anyone outside his village.