A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Nine)
He'd been swept away in a royal entourage, cutting the back way through the masses, Reece tugging at his arm as he went. Thor was still shaking from the day's events. He hardly understood what he had just done back there, how it had influenced things. He had just wanted to be anonymous, just another one of the King's legion. He had not wanted to be the center of attention.
Worse, he didn't know where he was being led, if he was going to be punished somehow for interfering. Of course, he had saved Erec's life – but he had also interfered with a Knight's battle, which he knew was forbidden for a squire. He didn't know if he would be rewarded or rebuked.
"How did you do that?" Reece asked, as he yanked him along. Thor followed blindly, trying to process it all himself. As he went, the masses gawked, staring at him as if he were some kind of freak.
"I don't know," Thor answered truthfully. "I just wanted to help him and…it happened."
Reece shook his head.
"You saved Erec's life. Do you realize that? He is our most famed knight. And you saved him."
Thor felt good as he turned Reece's words over in his head, felt a wave of relief. He had liked Reece from the moment he'd met him; he had a calming effect, always knowing what to say. As he pondered it, he realized maybe he was not in for punishment after all. Maybe, in some ways, they would view him as a sort of hero.
"I didn't try to do anything," Thor said. "I just wanted him to live. It was just…natural. It was no big deal."
"No big deal?" Reece echoed. "I couldn't have done it. None of us could have."
They turned the corner, and Thor saw before them the king's castle, sprawled out, reaching high into the sky. It looked monumental. The King's army stood at attention, lining the cobblestone road leading over the drawbridge, keeping the masses at bay. They stepped aside to allowed Reece and Thor past.
The two of them walked along the road, soldiers on either side, right to the huge arched doors, covered in iron bolts. Four soldiers pulled it open and stepped aside, at attention. Thor could not believe the treatment he was receiving: he felt as if he were a member of the royal family.
They entered the castle, the doors closing behind them, and Thor was amazed at the sight before him: the inside was immense, with soaring stone walls a foot thick and vast, open rooms. Before him milled hundreds of members of the royal court, rambling about in an excited stir. He could sense the buzz and excitement in the air, and all eyes turned and looked at him as he entered. He felt overwhelmed by the attention.
They all huddled close, seemed to gawk as he went with Reece down the castle corridors. He had never seen so many people dressed in such fineries. He saw dozens of girls, of all ages, dressed in elaborate outfits, locking arms and whispering in each other's ears and giggling at him as he went. He felt self-conscious. He couldn't tell if they liked him, or if they were making fun of him. He was not used to being the center of attention – much less in a royal court – and hardly knew how to handle himself.
"Why are they laughing at me?" he asked Reece.
Reece turned and chuckled. "They're not laughing at you," he said. "They have taken a liking to you. You're famous."
"Famous?" he asked, stunned. "What do you mean? I just got here."
Reece laughed and clasped a hand on his shoulder. He was clearly amused by Thor.
"Word spreads faster in the royal court than you might imagine. And a newcomer like yourself – well, this does not happen every day."
"Where are we going?" he asked, realizing he was being led somewhere.
"My father wants to meet you," he said, as they turned down a new corridor.
"Your father? You mean…the King?" Suddenly, he was nervous. "Why would he want to meet me? Are you sure?"
"I am quite sure. Stop being so nervous. It's just my dad."
"Just your dad?" Thor said, unbelieving. "He's the King!"
"He's not that bad. I have a feeling it will be a happy audience. You saved Erec's life, after all."
Thor swallowed hard, his palms sweaty, as another large door opened, and they entered a vast hall. He looked up in awe at the ceiling, arched, covered in an elaborate design and soaring high. The walls were lined with arched, stained glass windows, and if possible, even more people were crammed into this room. There must have been a thousand of them, and the room positively swarmed. Banquet tables stretched across the room, as far as the eye could see, people sitting on endlessly long benches, dining. Between these was a narrow aisle with a long, red carpet, leading to a platform on which sat the royal throne. The crowd parted ways as Reece and Thor walked down the carpet, towards the King.
"And where do you think you're taking him?" came a hostile, nasally voice.
Thor looked up to see a man standing over him, not much older than he was, dressed in a royal garb, clearly a prince, blocking their way and scowling down.
"It's father's orders," Reece snapped back. "Better get out of our way, unless you want to defy them."
The prince stood his ground, frowning, looking as if he'd bit into something rotten as he examined Thor. Thor did not like him at all: there was something he did not trust about him, with his lean, unkind features and eyes which never stopped darting.
"This is not a hall for commoners," the prince replied. "You should leave the riffraff outside, where it came from."
Thor felt his chest tighten. Clearly this man hated him, and he had no idea why.
"Shall I tell father you said that?" Reece defended, standing his ground.
Grudgingly, the prince turned and stormed away.
"Who was that?" Thor asked Reece, as they continued walking.
"Never mind him," Reece replied. "He's just my older brother – or one of them. Gareth. The oldest. Well, not really the oldest – he's just the oldest legitimate one. Kendrick, who you met on the battleground – he is really the oldest."
"Why does Gareth hate me? I don't even know him."
"Don't worry – he doesn't only reserve his hate for you. He hates everybody. And anyone who gets close to the family, he sees as a threat. Never mind him. He is but one of many."
As they continued walking, Thor felt increasingly grateful to Reece, who, he was realizing, was becoming a true friend.
"Why did you stand up for me?" Thor asked, curious.
"I was ordered to bring you to father. Besides, you're my sparring partner. And it's been a long time since someone came through my age here who I thought could be worthy."
"But what makes me worthy?" Thor asked.
"It's the fighter's spirit. It cannot be faked."
As they continued to walk down the aisle, towards the king, Thor felt as if he'd always known him – it was strange, but in some ways he felt as if he were his own brother. He had never had a brother – not a real brother, and it felt good.
"My other brothers are not like him, don't worry," Reece said as people flocked around them, trying to catch a glimpse of Thor. "My brother Kendrick, the one you met – he's the best of all. He's my half-brother, but I consider him a true brother – even more than Gareth. Kendrick is like a second father to me. He will be to you, too, I am sure of it. There is nothing he would not do for me – or for anyone. He is the most loved of our royal family among the people. It is a great loss that he is not allowed to become king."
"You said 'brothers.' You have another brother, too?" Thor asked.
Reece took a deep breath.
"I have one other, yes. We are not that close. Godfrey. Unfortunately, he wastes his days in the alehouse, with the commoners. He's not a fighter, like us. He's not interested in it – he's not interested in anything, really. Except ale – and the ladies."
Suddenly, they stopped short, as a girl blocked their way. Thor stood there, transfixed. Perhaps a couple of years older than him, she stared back with blue, almond eyes, perfect skin, and long, strawberry hair. She was dressed in a white satin dress, bordered by lace, and her eyes positively glowed, dancing with joy and mischief. She locked her eyes on his, and it held him completely captivated. He couldn't move if he wanted to. She was the most beautiful person he had ever seen.
She smiled, displaying perfect white teeth – and as if he weren't transfixed already, her smile held him there, lit up his heart in a single gesture. He never felt so alive.
Thor stood there, speechless, unable to speak. Unable to breathe. It was the first time in his life that he'd ever felt this way.
"And aren't you going to introduce me?" she asked Reece. Her voice went right into him – it was even more sweet than her appearance.
"And then there's my sister," he said with a smile. "Gwen, this is Thor. Thor, Gwen."
"How do you do?" she asked with a smile.
Thor stood there, frozen. Finally, Gwen giggled.
"Not so many words at once, please," she said with a laugh.
Thor felt himself redden; he cleared his throat.
"I am…I… am…sorry," he said. "I'm Thor."
"I know that already," she said. She turned to her brother. "My, Reece, your friend certainly has a way with words."
"Father wants to meet him," he said impatiently. "We are going to be late."
As Thor stood there, he wanted to speak to her, to tell her how beautiful she was, how happy he was to meet her, how grateful he was that she had stopped. But his tongue was completely tied. He had never been this nervous in his life. So, instead, all that came out was:
Gwen giggled, laughing harder.
"Thank you for what?" she asked. Her eyes lit up. Clearly, she was enjoying this.
Thor felt himself redden again.
"Um…I don't know," he mumbled.
Gwen laughed harder, and Thor felt humiliated. Reece elbowed him, prodded him on, and the two continued to walk. After a few steps, Thor checked back over his shoulder. Gwen still stood there, staring back at him.
Thor felt his heart pounding. He wanted to talk to her, to find out everything about her. He was so embarrassed for his loss of words. But he had never been exposed to girls, really, in his small village – and certainly never exposed to a girl so beautiful. He had never been taught exactly what to say, how to act.
"She talks a lot," Reece said, as they continued, approaching the king. "Never mind her."
"What is her name?" Thor asked.
Reece gave him a funny look. "She just told you!" he said with a laugh.
"I'm sorry…I…uh…I forgot," Thor said, embarrassed.
"Gwendolyn. But everyone calls her Gwen."
Gwendolyn. Thor turned her name over and over in his head. Gwendolyn. Gwen. He did not want to let it go. He wanted it to linger in his consciousness. He wondered if he would have a chance to see her again. He guessed probably not, being a commoner. The thought hurt him.
The crowd grew quiet as Thor looked up and realized they were now close to the King. King MacGil sat on his throne, dressed in his royal purple mantle, wearing his crown, and looked imposing.
Reece kneeled before him, and the crowd quieted. Thor followed. A silence blanketed the room.
The king cleared his throat, a deep, hearty noise. As he spoke, his voice boomed throughout the room.
"Thorgrin of the Lowlands of the Southern Province of the Western Kingdom," he began. "Do you realize that today you interfered with the King's royal joust?"
Thor felt his throat go dry. He hardly knew how to respond; it was not a good way to begin. He wondered if he was going to be punished.
"I am sorry, my liege," he finally said. "I didn't mean to."
MacGil leaned forward and raised one eyebrow.
"You didn't mean to? Are you saying you didn't mean to save Erec's life?"
Thor was flustered. He realized he was just making it worse.
"No my liege. I did mean to – "
"So then you admit you did mean to interfere?"
Thor felt his heart pounding. What could he say?
"I am sorry, my liege. I guess I just…wanted to help."
"Wanted to help?" MacGil boomed, then leaned back and roared with laughter.
"You wanted to help! Erec! Our greatest and most famed knight!"
The room erupted with laughter, and Thor felt his face redden, one too many times for one day. Could he do nothing right here?
"Stand and come closer boy," MacGil ordered.
Thor looked up in surprise to see the king smiling down, studying him, as he stood and approached.
"I spot nobility in your face. You are not a common boy. No, not common at all…."
MacGil cleared his throat.
"Erec is our most loved knight. What you have done today is a great thing. A great thing for us all. As a reward, from this day, I take you in as part of my family, with all the same respects and honors due to any of my sons."
The King leaned back and boomed: "Let it be known!"
There came a huge cheer and stomping of feet throughout the room.
Thor looked around, flustered, hardly able to process all that was happening to him. Part of the king's family. It was beyond his wildest dreams. All he had wanted was to be accepted, to be given a spot in the Legion. Now, this. He was so overwhelmed with gratitude, with joy, he hardly knew what to do.
Before he could respond, suddenly the room broke into song and dance and feast, people celebrating all around him. It was mayhem. He looked up at the king, saw the love in his eyes, the adoration and acceptance, and hardly knew what he had done to deserve it. He had never felt the love of a father figure in his life. And now here he was, loved not just by a man, but by the King no less. Overnight, his world had changed. He only prayed that all of this was real.
Gwendolyn hurried through the crowd, pushing her way, wanting to catch site of the boy before he was ushered out of the royal court. Thor. Her heart beat faster at the thought of him, and she could not stop turning his name over in her head. She had been unable to stop thinking about him from the moment she had encountered him. He was younger than her, but not by more than a year or two – and besides, he had an air about him that made him seem older, more mature than the others, more profound. From the moment she had seen him, she had felt she had known him. She smiled to herself as she remembered meeting him, how flustered he was. She could see in his eyes that he felt the same way about her.
Of course, she did not even know the boy. But she had witnessed what he had done on the jousting lane, had seen what a liking her younger brother had taken to him. She had watched him ever since, sensing there was something special about him, something different than the others. When she met him, it had only confirmed it. He was different than all these royal types, different than all the people born and bred here. There was something refreshingly genuine about him. He was an outsider. A commoner. But oddly, with a royal bearing. It was as if he were too proud for what he was.
Gwen shoved her way to the upper balcony's edge, and looked down: below was spread out the royal court, and she caught a last glimpse of the boy as he was ushered out, her brother, Reece, by his side. They were surely heading to the barracks, to train with the other boys. She felt a pang of regret, already wondering, scheming, how she could arrange to see him again.
Gwen had to know more about him. She had to find out. For that, she would have to speak to the one woman who knew everything about anyone and everything going on in the kingdom: her mother.
Gwen turned and cut her way back through the crowd, twisting through the back corridors of the castle she knew by heart. Her head spun. It had been a dizzying day. First, the morning's meeting with her father, his shocking news that he wanted her to rule his kingdom. She was completely caught off guard, had never expected it in a million years. She still could hardly process it now. How could she ever possibly rule a kingdom? She pushed the thought from her mind, hoping that day would never come. After all, her father was healthy and strong, and more than anything, all she wanted was for him to live. To be here, with her. To be happy.
But she could not push the meeting from her mind. Somewhere, back there, lurking, was the seed planted that one day, whenever that day should come, she would be next. She would succeed him. Not any of her brothers. But her. It terrified her; it also gave her a sense of importance, of confidence, unlike any she'd ever had. He had found her fit to rule, her – her – to be the wisest of them all. She wondered why.
It also, in some ways, worried her. She assumed it would stir up a huge amount of resentment and envy, her, a girl, being chosen to rule. Already, she could feel Gareth's envy. And that scared her. She knew her older brother to be terribly manipulative, and completely unforgiving. She knew he would stop at nothing until he got what he wanted. And she hated the idea of being in his sights. She had tried to talk to him after the meeting, but he would not even look at her.
Gwen ran down the spiral staircase, twisting and turning, her shoes echoing on the stone. She turned down another corridor, passed through the rear chapel, through another door, passed several guards, and entered the private chambers of the castle. She had to speak with her mother, and she knew she would be resting here, as she saw her slipping out of the feast. Her mother had little tolerance for these long social affairs anymore. She knew that she liked to slip out to her private chambers and rest as often as possible.
Gwen passed another guard, went down another hall, then finally stopped before the door to her mother's dressing room. She was about to open it, but then she stopped. Behind the open door, she heard muted voices, their pitch rising, and sensed something wrong. It was her mother, arguing. She listened closely, and heard her father's voice. They were fighting. But why?
Gwen knew she should not be listening – but she could not help herself. She reached out and gently pushed open the heavy oak door, grabbing it by its iron knocker. She opened it just a crack and listened.
"He won't stay in my house," her mother snapped, on edge.
"You rush to judgment, when you don't even know the entire story."
"I know the story," she snapped back. "Enough of it."
Gwen heard venom in her mother's voice, and was taken aback. She rarely heard her parents fight – just a few times in her life – and she had never heard her mother so worked up. She could not understand why.
"He will stay in the barracks, with the other boys. I do not want him under my roof. Do you understand?" she pressed.
"It is a big castle," her father spat back. "His presence will not be noticed by you."
"I don't care if it is noticed or not. I don't want him here. He's your problem. It was you who chose to bring him in."
"You are not so innocent either," her father retorted.
She heard footsteps, watched her father strut across the room and out the door on the other side, slamming it behind him so hard that the room shook. Her mother stood there, alone in the center of the room, and began to cry.
Gwen stood there and felt terrible. She didn't know what to do. On the one hand, she thought it best to slip away, but on the other, she couldn't stand the sight of her mother crying, couldn't stand to leave her there like that. She also, for the life of her, could not understand what they were arguing about. She assumed they were arguing about Thor. But why? Why would her mother even care? Dozens of people lived under their roof.
Gwen couldn't bring herself to just walk away, not with her mother in that state. She had to comfort her. She reached up and gently pushed the door open.
It creaked, and her mother wheeled, caught off guard. She scowled back.
"Do you not knock?" she snapped. Gwen could see how upset she was, and felt terrible.
"What's wrong mother?" Gwen asked, walking towards her gently. "I don't mean to pry, but I heard you arguing with father."
"You are right: you shouldn't pry," her mother retorted.
Gwen was surprised: her mother was often a handful, but was rarely like this. The force of her anger made Gwen stop in her tracks, a few feet away, unsure.
"Is it about the new boy? Thor?" she asked.
Her mother turned and looked away, wiping a tear.
"I don't understand," Gwen pressed. "Why would you care where he stayed?"
"My matters are of no concern to you," she said coldly, clearly wanting to end the matter. "What do you want? Why have you come here?"
Gwen was nervous now. She wanted her mother to tell her everything about Thor, but she couldn't have picked a worse moment. She cleared her throat, hesitant.
"I…actually wanted to ask you about him. What do you know of him?"
Her mother turned and narrowed her eyes at her, suspicious.
"Why?" she asked, with deadly seriousness. Gwen could feel her summing her up, looking right through her, and seeing with her uncanny perception that Gwen liked him. She tried to hide her feelings, but knew it was no use.
"I'm just curious," she said, unconvincingly.
Suddenly, the queen took three steps towards her, grabbed her arms roughly, and stared into her face.
"Listen to me," she hissed. "I'm only going to say this once. Stay away from that boy. Do you hear me? I don't want you anywhere near him, under any circumstance."
Gwen was horrified.
"But why? He's a hero."
"He is not one of us," her mother answered. "Despite what your father might think. I want you to keep away from him. Do you hear me? Vow to me. Vow to me right now."
"I will not vow," Gwen said, yanking her arm away from her mother's too strong grip.
"He is a commoner, and you are Princess," her mother yelled. "You are a Princess. Do you understand? If I hear of you going anywhere near him, I will have him exiled from here. Do you understand?"
Gwen hardly knew how to respond. She had never seen her mother like this.
"Do not tell me what to do, mother," she said, finally.
Gwen did her best to put on a brave voice, but deep inside she was trembling. She had come here wanting to know everything; now, she felt terrified. She did not understand what was happening.
"Do as you wish," her mother said. "But his fate lies in your hands. Don't forget it."
With that, her mother turned, strutted from the room, and slammed it behind her, leaving Gwen all alone in the reverberating silence, her good mood shattered. She stood there and wondered. What could possibly elicit such a strong reaction from her mother and her father?
Who was this boy?