A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Fifteen)

Thor walked along the well-trodden, dirt road, flanked by Reece, O'Connor and Elden. The four of them had barely said a word to each other since they left, still in shock. Thor looked over at Reece and O'Connor with a feeling of gratitude he had never known before. He could hardly believe that they had put themselves on the line for him like that. He felt that he had found true friends, more like brothers. He had no idea what lay in store for them at the Canyon, but whatever they should face, he was happy to have them at his side.

Elden, he tried not to look at. He could see him, kicking rocks, smoldering with rage, could see how annoyed and upset he was to be here, on patrol with them. But Thor felt no pity for him. As Kolk had said, he had started the whole thing. It served him right.

The four of them, a ragtag group, proceeded down the road, following directions. They had been walking for hours, it was getting late in the afternoon, and Thor's legs were growing weary. He was also hungry. Had been given only a small bowl of barley for lunch, and he hoped some food might be waiting for them wherever they were going.

But he had bigger worries than that. He looked down at his new armor, and knew that it would not have been given to him if there were not an important reason. Before sending them off, the four of them had been given new squire's armor, leather, dressed in chainmail, given short swords of a course metal. It was hardly the fine iron used to forge a knight's sword, but it was certainly better than nothing. It felt good to have a substantial weapon at his waist – in addition, of course, to his sling, which he still carried. Though he knew that if they were to encounter real trouble tonight, the weapons and armor they were given might not suffice. He longed for the superior armor and weapons of his cohorts in the Legion: medium and long swords of the finest metal, short spears, maces, daggers, halberds. But these belonged to the boys of fame and honor, from famous families, who could afford such a thing. This was not Thor, a simple shepherd's son.

As they all marched down the interminable road, into the second sunset, far from the welcoming gates of King's Court, towards the distant divide of the Canyon, Thor could not help but feel as if this were all his fault. For some reason, some of the other members of the Legion had seemed to not taking a liking to him, as if they resented his presence. It didn't make any sense. And it gave him a sinking feeling. His whole life he had wanted nothing more than to join them. Now, he felt he had crashed into it by cheating, and he wondered if he would ever be truly accepted by his peers.

Now, on top of everything, he was singled out to be marched away for Canyon duty. It was unfair. He hadn't started the fight, and when he had used his powers, whatever they were, it had not been on purpose. He still didn't understand them, didn't know where they came from, how he summoned them, or how to turn them off. He shouldn't be punished for that.

Thor had no idea what Canyon duty meant, but from the looks of the others, clearly, it was not desirable. He wondered if he were being marched off to be killed, if this was their way of forcing him out of the Legion. He was determined not to give up.

"How much farther can the Canyon be?" O'Connor asked, breaking the silence.

"Not far enough," answered Elden. "We wouldn't be in this mess if it weren't for Thor."

"You started the fight, remember?" Reece interrupted.

"But I fought cleanly, and he did not," Elden protested. "Besides, he deserved it."

"Why?" Thor asked, wanting to know the answer that had been burning inside for a while. "Why did I deserve it?"

"Because you don't belong here, with us. You stole your position in the Legion. The rest of us, we were picked. You fought your way in."

"But isn't that what the Legion is about? Fighting?" Reece answered. "I would argue that Thor deserves his spot more than any of us. We were merely picked. He struggled and fought to gain what was not given him."

Elden shrugged, unimpressed.

"The rules are the rules. He was not picked. He shouldn't be with us. That's why I fought him."

"Well, you are not going to make me go away," Thor responded, shakiness in his voice, determined to be accepted.

"We'll see about that," Elden muttered darkly.

"And just what you mean by that?" O'Connor asked.

But Elden did not volunteer anymore; he continued walking silently. Thor's stomach tightened. He couldn't help but feel as if he had made too many enemies, and he did not understand why. He did not like the feeling.

"Don't pay any attention to him," Reece said to Thor, loudly enough to be heard. "You did nothing wrong. They sent you to Canyon duty because they see potential in you. They want to toughen you up. Or else they wouldn't bother. You're also on the radar because my father singled you out. That's all."

"But what is Canyon duty?" he asked.

Reece cleared his throat, looking anxious.

"I've never been on it myself. But I've heard stories. From some of the older kids, and from my brothers. It is patrol duty. But on the other side of the Canyon."

"The other side?" O'Connor asked, terror in his voice.

"What do you mean the other side?" Thor asked, not understanding.

Reece studied him.

"Have you never been to the Canyon?"

Thor could feel the others looking at him, and he shook his head, self-conscious.

"You're kidding," Elden snapped.

"Really?" O'Connor pressed. "Not once in your life?"

Thor shook his head, reddening. "My father never took us anywhere. I've heard of it."

"You've probably never been outside your village, boy," Elden said. "Have you?"

Thor shrugged, silent. Was it that obvious?

"He hasn't," Elden added, incredulous. "Unbelievable."

"Shut up," Reece said. "Leave him alone. That doesn't make you any better than him."

Elden sneered at Reece and raised his hand briefly to his scabbard; but then relaxed it. Apparently, even though he was bigger than Reece, he didn't seem to want to provoke the king's son.

"The Canyon is the only thing keeping our kingdom of the Ring safe," Reece explained. "Nothing else stands between us and the hordes of the world. If the savages of the Wilds were to breach it, we would all be finished. The entire Ring looks to us, the King's men, to protect them. We have patrols guarding it all the time – mostly on this side, and occasionally, on the other. There is only one bridge across, only one way in or out, and the most elite of the Silver stand watch around-the-clock."

Thor had heard of the Canyon his entire life, had heard horrifying stories of the evils that lurked on the other side, the massive evil empire that surrounded the Ring, and how close they all lived to terror. It was one of the reasons why he had wanted to join the King's Legion: to help protect his family and his kingdom. He hated the idea that other men were out there, protecting him around-the-clock, while he lived comfortably in the arms of the kingdom. He wanted to do his service and help fight off the evil hordes. He could imagine nothing braver than those men who guarded the Canyon passageway.

"The Canyon is a mile wide, and surrounds the entire Ring," Reece explained. "It is not easy to breach. But of course our men are not the only thing keeping the hordes at bay. There are millions of those creatures out there, and if they wanted to overrun this Canyon, by sheer force of will, they could in a moment. Our manpower only helps supplement the energy shield of the Canyon. The real power that keeps them at bay is the power of the Sword."

Thor turned. "The Sword?"

Reece looked at him.

"The Destiny Sword. You know the legend?"

"This country rube probably never even heard of it," Elden chimed in.

"Of course I know it," Thor snapped back, defensive. Not only did he know it, but he had spent many days pondering the legend throughout his life. He had always wanted to see it. The fabled Destiny Sword, the magical sword whose energy protected the Ring, filled the Canyon with a potent force that protected the Ring from invaders.

"The sword lives in King's Court?" Thor asked.

Reece nodded.

"It has lived amongst the royal family for generations. Without it, the kingdom would be nothing. The Ring would be overrun."

"If we are protected, then why bother patrol the Canyon at all?" Thor asked.

"The Sword only blocks the major threats," Reece explained. "A small and isolated evil creature can slip in, here and there. That is why our men are needed. A single creature could cross the Canyon, or even a small group of them – they might be so bold as to try to cross the bridge, or they may act with stealth and climb down the Canyon walls on one end and up on the other. It is our job to keep them out. A single creature can cause a lot of damage. Years ago, one of them slipped in, and murdered half the children of a village before he was caught. The Sword does the bulk of the work, but we are an indispensable part."

Thor took it all in, wondering. The Canyon seemed so grand, their duty so important, he could hardly believe that he would be part of this great purpose.

"But even with all that, I haven't explained it very well," Reece said. "There's more to the Canyon than just that," he said, then fell silent.

Thor looked at him and saw something like fear or wonder in his eyes.

"How can I explain it?" Reece said, clearly struggling. He cleared his throat. "The Canyon is far bigger than all of us. The Canyon is…"

"The Canyon is a place for men," came a resounding voice.

They all turned at the sound of the voice, the sound of a horse.

Thor could not believe it. There, trotting up beside them, bedecked in full chainmail, with long gleaming weapons hanging over the side of his incredible horse, was Erec. He smiled down at them, keeping his eyes fixed on Thor.

Thor looked up, in shock.

"It is a place that will make you a man," Erec added, "if you are not one already."

Thor had not seen Erec since his jousting match, and felt so relieved at his presence, to have a real knight here with them as they headed for the Canyon – no less, Erec himself. He felt invincible having him, and prayed he was coming with them.

"What are you doing here?" Thor asked. "Are you accompanying us?" he asked, hoping he didn't sound too eager.

Erec leaned back and laughed.

"Not to worry, young one," he said. "I'm going with you."

"Really?" Reece asked.

"It is tradition for a member of the Silver to accompany members of the Legion on their first patrol. I volunteered."

Erec turned and looked down at Thor.

"After all, you helped me yesterday."

Thor felt his heart warm, buoyed by Erec's presence. He also felt lifted up in the eyes of his friends. Here he was, being accompanied by the greatest knight of the kingdom, as they headed towards the Canyon. Much of his fear was falling away.

"Of course, I shall not go out on patrol with you," Erec added. "But I will lead you across the bridge, and to your camp. It will be your duty to venture out on patrol, alone, from there."

"It is a great honor, sire," Reece said.

"Thank you," O'Connor and Elden echoed.

Erec looked down at Thor and smiled.

"After all, if you're going to be my first squire, I can't let you die just yet."

"First?" Thor asked, his heart skipping a beat.

"Feithgold broke his leg in the jousting match. He will be out for at least eight weeks. You are my first squire now. And our training might as well begin, shan't it?"

"Of course, sire," Thor responded.

Thor's mind was swimming. He could hardly believe it. For the first time in a while, he felt as if luck was finally turning his way. Now he was first squire to the greatest knight of all. He felt as if he had leapfrogged over all his friends; he could hardly believe it.

The five of them continued on, heading west into the setting sun, Erec walking slowly on his horse beside them.

"I assume you have been to the Canyon, sire?" Thor asked.

"Many times," Erec responded. "My first patrol, I was your age, in fact."

"And how did you find it?" Reece asked.

All four boys turned and stared at him as they went, rapt with attention. Erec rode on for some time in silence, looking straight ahead, his jaw set.

"Your first time is an experience you never forget. It is hard to explain. It is a strange and foreign and mystical and beautiful place. On the other side lie unimaginable dangers. The bridge to cross it is long and steep. There are many of us patrolling – but always, you feel alone. It is nature at its best. It crushes man to be in its shadow. Our men have patrolled it for hundreds of years. It is a rite of passage. You do not fully understand danger without it; you cannot become a knight without it."

He fell back into silence. The four boys looked at each other, queasy.

"Should we expect a skirmish on the other side then?" Thor asked.

Erec shrugged.

"Anything is possible, once you reach the Wilds. Unlikely. But possible."

Erec looked down at Thor.

"Do you want to be a great squire, and one day, a great knight?" he asked, looking right at Thor.

Thor's heart beat faster.

"Yes, sire, more than anything."

"Then there are things you must learn," Erec said. "Strength is not enough; agility is not enough; being a great fighter is not enough. There is something else, something more important than all of them."

Erec fell back into silence, and Thor could wait no longer.

"What?" Thor asked. "What is most important?"

"You must be of a sound spirit," Erec replied. "Never afraid. You must enter the darkest wood, the most dangerous battle, with complete equanimity. You must carry this equanimity with you, always, whenever and wherever you go. Never fearful, always on guard. Never restful, always diligent. You don't have the luxury of expecting others to protect you anymore. You're no longer a citizen. You're now one of the King's men. The greatest qualities for a warrior are courage, and equanimity. Be not afraid of danger. Expect it. But do not seek it.

"This Ring we live in," Erec added, "our kingdom. It seems as if we, with all our men, protect it against the hordes of the world. But we do not. We are protected only by the Canyon, and only by the sorcery within it. We live in a sorcerer's ring. Don't forget it. We live and die by magic. There is no security here, boy, on either side of the canyon. Take away sorcery, take away magic, and we have nothing."

They walked on in silence for quite some time, as Thor turned Erec's words over in his head, again and again. He felt as if Erec were giving him a hidden message: he felt as if he were telling him that, whatever power he had, whatever magic he might be summoning, it was nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it was something to be proud of, and the source of all energy in the kingdom. Thor felt better. He had felt he was being sent out here, to the Canyon, as a punishment for his using his magic, and had felt guilty about it; but now he felt that his powers, whatever they were, might become a source of pride.

As the other boys drifted ahead, and Erec and Thor fell back, Erec looked down at him.

"You've already managed to make some powerful enemies at Court," he said, an amused smile on his face. "As many enemies as you have friends, it seems."

Thor reddened, shamed.

"I don't know how, sire. I didn't intend to."

"Enemies are not gained by intentions. They are often gained by envy. You have managed to create a great deal of it. That is not necessarily a bad thing. You are the center of much speculation."

Thor scratched his head, trying to understand.

"But I don't know why."

Erec still looked amused.

"The queen herself is chief among your adversaries. You have somehow managed to get on her wrong side."

"My mother?" Reece asked, turning. "Why?"

"That is the very question I've been wondering myself," Erec said.

Thor felt terrible. The Queen? An enemy? What had he done to her? He could hardly conceive it. How could he even be important enough for her to take notice of? He hardly knew what was happening around him.

Suddenly, something dawned on him.

"Is she the reason that I was sent out here? To the Canyon?" he asked.

Erec turned and looked straight ahead, his face growing serious.

"She might be," he said, contemplative. "She just might be."

Thor wondered at the extent and depth of the enemies he had made. He had stumbled into a court he knew nothing about. He had just wanted to belong. He had just followed his passion and his dream, and had done whatever he could to achieve it. He did not think that by doing so, he might raise envy or jealousy. He turned it over and over in his mind, like a riddle, but could not get to the bottom of it.

As Thor was mulling these thoughts, they reached the top of a knoll, and as the site spread out before them, all thoughts of anything else fell away. Thor's breath was taken away – and not just by the strong gust of wind.

There, stretching out before them, as far as the eye could see, lay the Canyon. It was the first time Thor had ever seen it, and the site shocked him so thoroughly, he stood rooted to his place, unable to move. It was the grandest and most majestic thing he had ever seen. The huge chasm in the earth seemed to stretch for eternity, and was spanned only by a single, narrow bridge, lined with soldiers. The bridge seemed to stretch to the end of the earth itself.

The Canyon was alight with greens and blues from the second setting sun, and they bounced off its walls, sparkling. As he felt his legs again, Thor began to walk with the others, closer and closer to the bridge, and was able to look down, deep into the Canyon's cliffs: they seemed to plummet down into the bowels of the earth. Thor could not even see the bottom, and didn't know if that was because it had no bottom, or if it was because it was covered in mist. The rock that lined the cliffs looked to be a million years old, formed with patterns that storms must have left centuries before. It was the most primordial place he had ever seen. He had no idea his planet was so vast, so vibrant, so alive.

It was as if he had come to the beginning of creation.

Thor heard the others gasp all around him, too.

The thought of the four of them patrolling this Canyon seemed laughable. They were dwarfed even by the site of it.

As they walked towards the bridge, soldiers stiffened on either side, at attention, making way for the new patrol. Thor felt his heart quicken.

"I don't see how the four of us can possibly patrol this?" O'Connor said.

Elden snickered.

"There are tons of patrols beside us. We are merely one cog in the machine."

As they walked across the bridge, the only sound to be heard was that of the whipping wind, and of their boots, and Erec's horse, walking along. The hoofs left a hollow and reassuring sound, the only real thing that Thor could hang onto in this surreal place.

None of the soldiers, who all stiffened at attention in Erec's presence, said a word as they stood guard. They must have passed hundreds of them.

As they went, Thor could not help but notice, on either side of them, impaled on spikes every few feet along the railing, were the heads of barbarian invaders. Some still fresh, still dripping with blood.

Thor looked away. It made it all too real. He did not know if he was ready for this. He tried not to imagine the many skirmishes that must have produced those heads, the lives that had been lost, what awaited them on the other side. For the first time, he wondered if they would make it back. Was that the purpose of this whole expedition? To kill him off?

He looked over the edge, at the endlessly disappearing cliffs, and heard the screech of a distant bird; it was a sound he had never heard before. He wondered what kind of bird it was, and what other exotic animals lurked on the other side.

But it was not really the animals that bothered him, or even the heads on spikes. More than anything, it was the feeling of this place. He could not tell if it was the mist, or the howling wind, or the vastness of the open sky, or the light of the setting sun – but something about this place was so surreal, it transported him. Enveloped him. He felt a heavy magical energy hanging over them. He wondered if it was the protection of the Sword, or some other ancient energy. He felt as if he were crossing not just a mass of land, but crossing into another realm of existence.

He could hardly believe that, for the first time in his life, he would spend the night, unprotected, on the other side of the Canyon.