A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Four)

Thor hid in the straw in the back of a wagon as it jostled him on the country road. He'd made his way to the road the night before and had waited patiently until a wagon came along large enough for him to board and not be noticed. It was dark by then, and the wagon trotted along just slowly enough for him to gain a good running pace and leap in from behind. He'd landed in the hay, and buried himself inside. Luckily, the driver had not spotted him. Thor hadn't known for certain if the wagon was going to King's Court, but it was heading in that direction, and a wagon this size, and with these markings, could be going few other places.

As Thor rode throughout the night, he had stayed awake for hours, thinking of his encounter with the beast. With Argon. Of his destiny. His former home. His mother. He felt that the universe had answered him, had told him that he had another destiny. He had lay there, hands clasped behind his head, and stared up at the night sky, visible through the tattered canvas. He'd watched the universe, so bright, its red stars so far away. He was exhilarated. For once in his life, he was on a journey. He did not know where, but he was going. One way or the other, he would make his way to King's Court.

When Thor opened his eyes it was morning, light flooding in, and he realized he'd drifted off. He sat up quickly, looking all around, chiding himself for sleeping. He should have been more vigilant – he was lucky he had not been discovered.

The cart still moved, but did not jostle as much. That could only mean one thing: a better road. They must be close to a city. Thor looked down, and saw how smooth the road was, free of rocks, of ditches, and lined with fine white shells. His heart beat faster: they were approaching King's Court.

Thor looked out the back of the cart, and was overwhelmed: the immaculate streets were flooded with activity. Dozens of carts, of all shapes and sizes, carrying all manner of things, filled the roads; one was laden with furs; another, with rugs; another, with chickens. Amidst them walked hundreds of merchants, some leading cattle, others carrying baskets of goods on their heads. Four men carried a bundle of silks, balancing them on poles. It was an army of people, all heading in one direction.

Thor felt alive. He'd never seen so many people at once, so many goods, so much happening. He'd been in a small village his entire life, and now he was in a hub, engulfed in humanity.

He heard a loud noise, the groaning of chains, the slamming of a huge piece of wood, so strong the ground shook. Moments later, he heard a different sound, of horses' hooves clacking on wood. He looked down, and realized they were crossing a bridge; beneath them passed a moat. A drawbridge.

Thor stuck his head out and saw immense stone pillars, the spiked iron gate above. They were passing through King's Gate.

It was the largest gate he had ever seen. He looked up at the spikes, and marveled that if they came down, they would slice him in half. He spotted four of the king's Silver, guarding the entry, and his heart beat faster.

They passed through a long, stone tunnel, then moments later the sky opened again. They were inside King's Court.

Thor could hardly believe it. There was even more activity here, if possible – what seemed to be thousands of people, milling in every direction. There were vast stretches of grass, perfectly cut, and flowers blooming everywhere. The road widened, and alongside it were booths, vendors, and everywhere, stone buildings. And amidst all of these, the King's men. Soldiers, bedecked in armor. Thor had made it.

In his excitement, he unwittingly stood; as he did, the cart stopped short, and he went flying backwards, landing on his back in the straw. Before he could rise, there was the sound of wood lowered, and he looked up to see an angry old man, bald, dressed in rags, scowling. The cart driver reached in, grabbed Thor by the ankles with his bony hands, and dragged him out the back.

Thor went flying, landing hard on his back on the dirt road, raising up a cloud of dust. Laughter rose up around him.

"Next time you ride my cart, boy, it will be the shackles for you! You're lucky I don't summon the Silver now!"

The old man turned and spat, then hurried back on his cart and whipped his horses on.

Thor, embarrassed, slowly gained his wits and got to his feet. He looked around: one or two passersby chuckled, and Thor sneered back until they looked away. He brushed the dirt off and rubbed his arms; his pride was hurt, but not his body.

His spirits returned as he looked around, dazzled, and realized he should be happy that at least he'd made it this far. Now that he was out of the cart he could look around freely, and an extraordinary sight it was: the court sprawled as far as the eye could see. At its center sat a magnificent stone palace, surrounded by towering, fortified stone walls, crowned by parapets, atop which, everywhere, patrolled the King's army. All around him were fields of green, perfectly maintained, stone plazas, fountains, groves of trees. It was a city. And it was flooded with people.

Everywhere streamed all manner of people – merchants, soldiers, dignitaries – everyone in such a rush. It took Thor several minutes to realize that something special was happening. As he ambled along, he saw preparations being made, chairs placed, an altar erected. It looked like they were preparing for a wedding.

His heart skipped a beat as he saw, in the distance, a jousting lane, with its long dirt path and a rope dividing it. On another field, he saw soldiers hurling spears at far-off targets; on another, archers, aiming at straw. It seemed as if everywhere were games, contests. There was also music, lutes and flutes and cymbals, packs of musicians wandering; and wine, huge vats being rolled out; and food, tables being prepared, banquets stretching as far as the eye could see. It was as if he'd arrived in the midst of a vast celebration.

As dazzling as all this was, Thor felt an urgency to find the Legion. He was already late, and he needed to make himself known.

He hurried to the first person he saw, an older man who seemed, by his blood-stained frock, to be a butcher, hurrying down the road. Everyone here was in such a hurry.

"Excuse me, sir," Thor said, grabbing his arm.

The man looked down at Thor's hand disparagingly.

"What is it, boy?"

"I'm looking for the King's Legion. Do you know where they train?"

"Do I look like a map?" the man hissed, and stormed off.

Thor was taken aback by his rudeness.

He hurried to the next person he saw, a woman kneading flower on a long table. There were several women at this table, all working hard, and Thor figured one of them had to know.

"Excuse me, miss," he said. "Might you know where the King's Legion train?"

They looked at each other and giggled, some of them but a few years older than he.

The eldest turned and looked at him.

"You're looking in the wrong place," she said. "Here, we are preparing for the festivities."

"But I was told they trained in King's Court," Thor said, confused.

The women broke into another chuckle. The eldest put her hands on her hips and shook her head.

"You act as if this is your first time in King's Court. Have you no idea how big it is?"

Thor reddened as the other women laughed, then finally stormed off. He did not like being made fun of.

He saw before him a dozen roads, twisting and turning every which way through King's Court. Spaced out in the stone walls were at least a dozen entrances. The size and scope of this place was overwhelming. He had a sinking feeling he could search for days and still not find it.

An idea struck him: surely, a soldier would know where the others train. He was nervous to approach an actual king's soldier, but realized he had to.

He turned and hurried to the wall, to the soldier standing guard at the closest entrance, hoping he would not throw him out. The soldier stood erect, looking straight ahead.

"I'm looking for the King's Legion," Thor said, summoning his bravest voice.

The soldier continued to stare straight ahead, ignoring him.

"I said I'm looking for the King's Legion!" Thor insisted, louder, determined to be recognized.

After several seconds, the soldier glanced down, sneering.

"Can you tell me where it is?" Thor pressed.

"And what business have you with them?"

"Very important business," Thor urged, hoping the soldier would not press him.

The soldier turned back to looking straight ahead, ignoring him again. Thor felt his heart sinking, afraid he would never receive an answer.

But after what felt like an eternity, he replied: "Take the eastern gate, then head north as far as you can. Take the third gate to the left, then fork right, and fork right again. Pass through the second stone arch, and their ground is beyond the gate. But I tell you you waste your time: they do not entertain visitors."

It was all Thor needed to hear. Without missing another beat, he turned and ran across the field, following the directions, repeating them in his head, trying to memorize them. He noticed the sun higher in the sky, and only prayed that when he arrived, it would not already be too late.

Thor sprinted down the immaculate, shell-lined paths, twisting and turning his way through King's Court. He tried his best to follow the directions, hoping he was not being led astray. As he reached the far end of the courtyard, he saw all the gates, and chose the third one on the left. He ran through it and then followed the forks, turning down path after path. He ran against traffic, thousands of people pouring into the city, the crowd growing thicker by the minute. He brushed shoulders with lute players, jugglers, clowns, and all sorts of entertainers, everyone dressed in fineries.

Thor could not stand the thought of the selection process beginning without him, and he tried his best to concentrate as he turned down path after path, looking for any sign of the training ground. He passed through an arch, turned down another road, and then, far off, he spotted what could only be his destination: a mini colosseum, built of stone, in a perfect circle. It had a huge gate in its center, guarded by soldiers. Thor heard a muted cheering from behind its walls and his heart quickened. This was the place.

He sprinted, lungs bursting. As he reached the gate, two guards stepped forward and lowered their lances, barring the way. A third guard stepped forward and held out a palm.

"Stop there," he commanded.

Thor stopped short, gasping for breath, barely able to contain his excitement.

"You…don't…understand," he heaved, words tumbling out between breaths, "I have to be inside. I'm late."

"Late for what?"

"The selection."

The guard, a short, heavy man with pockmarked skin, turned and looked at the others, who looked back cynically. He turned and surveyed Thor with a disparaging look.

"The recruits were taken in hours ago, in the royal transport. If you were not invited, you cannot enter."

"But you don't understand. I must – "

The guard reached out and grabbed Thor by the shirt.

"You don't understand, you insolent little boy. How dare you come here and try to force your way in? Now go – before I shackle you."

He shoved Thor, who stumbled back several feet.

Thor felt a sting in his chest where the guard's hand had touched him – but more than that, he felt the sting of rejection. He was indignant. He had not come all this way to be turned away by a guard, without even being seen. He was determined to make it inside.

The guard turned back to his men, and Thor slowly walked away, heading clockwise, around the circular building. He had a plan. He waited until he was out of sight, then broke into a jog, creeping his way alongside the walls. He turned to make sure they weren't watching, then picked up speed, sprinting. He kept running until he was halfway around the building and spotted another opening into the arena: high up were arched openings in the stone, blocked by iron bars. One of them, he noticed, was missing its bars. He heard another roar, and lifted himself up onto the ledge and looked.

His heart quickened. There, spread out inside the huge, circular training ground, were dozens of recruits – including his brothers. Lined up, they all faced a dozen of the Silver. The king's men walked amidst them, summing them up.

Another group of recruits stood off to the side, under the watchful eyes of a soldier, hurling spears at a distant target. One of them missed.

Thor's veins burned with indignation. He could have hit those marks; he was just as good as any of them. Just because he was younger, a bit smaller, it wasn't fair that he was being left out.

Suddenly, Thor felt a hand on his back as he was yanked backwards, flying through the air. He landed hard on the ground below, winded.

He looked up and saw the guard from the gate, sneering down.

"What did I tell you, boy?"

Before he could react, the guard leaned back and kicked Thor hard. Thor felt a sharp thump in his ribs, as the guard wound up to kick him again.

This time, Thor caught the guard's foot in mid-air; he yanked it, knocking him off balance and making him fall.

He quickly gained his feet. At the same time, the guard gained his. Thor stood there, staring back, shocked by what he had just done. Across from him, the guard glowered.

"Not only will I shackle you," the guard hissed, "but I will make you pay. No one touches a king's guard! Forget about joining the Legion – now, you will wallow away in the dungeon! You'll be lucky if you're ever seen again!"

The guard pulled out a chain with a shackle at its end. He approached Thor, vengeance on his face.

Thor's mind raced. He could not allow himself to be shackled – yet he did not want to hurt a member of the King's Guard. He had to think of something – and fast.

He remembered his sling. His reflexes took over as he grabbed it, placed a stone, took aim, and hurled.

The stone flew through the air and knocked the shackles from the stunned guard's hand; it also hit the guard's fingers. The guard pulled back and shook his hand, screaming in pain, as the shackles went flying to the ground.

The guard looked up at Thor with a look of death. He pulled his sword from his scabbard. It came out with a distinctive, metallic ring.

"That was your last mistake," he threatened darkly, and charged.

Thor had no choice: this man would just not leave him be. He placed another stone in his sling and hurled it. He aimed deliberately: he did not want to kill him, but he had to stop him. So instead of aiming for his heart, nose, eye, or head, Thor aimed for the one place he knew would stop him, but not kill him.

He aimed between his legs.

He let the stone fly, not at full strength, but enough to put the man down.

It was a perfect strike.

The guard keeled over, dropping his sword, grabbing between his legs as he collapsed to the ground and curled up in a ball.

"You'll hang for this!" he groaned amidst grunts of pain. "GUARDS! GUARDS!"

Thor looked up and in the distance saw several of the King's Guards racing for him.

It was now or never.

Without wasting another moment, he sprinted for the window ledge. He would have to jump through, into the arena, and make himself known. And he would fight anyone who got in his way.