A Quest of Heroes (Chapter One)

The boy stood on the highest knoll of the low country in the Western Kingdom of the Ring, looking north, watching the first of the rising suns. As far as he could see stretched rolling green hills, like camel humps, dipping and rising in a series of valleys and peaks. The burnt-orange rays of the first sun lingered in the morning mist, making them sparkle, lending the light a magic that matched the boy's mood. He rarely woke this early or ventured this far from home – and never ascended this high – knowing it would incur his father's wrath. But on this day, he didn't care. On this day, he disregarded the million rules and chores that had oppressed him for his fourteen years. For this day was different. It was the day his destiny had arrived.

The boy – Thorgrin of the Western Kingdom of the Southern Province of the clan McLeod – known to all he liked simply as Thor – the youngest of four boys, the least favorite of his father, had stayed awake all night in anticipation of this day. He had tossed and turned, bleary-eyed, waiting, willing, for the first sun to rise. For a day like this arrived only once every several years, and if he missed it, he would be stuck here, in this village, doomed to tend his father's flock the rest of his days. That was a thought he could not bear.

Conscription Day. It was the one day the King's Army canvassed the provinces, hand-picked volunteers for the King's Legion. As long as he had lived, Thor had dreamt of nothing else. For him, life meant one thing: joining The Silver, the king's elite force of knights, bedecked in the finest armor and the choicest arms anywhere in the two kingdoms. And one could not enter the Silver without first joining the Legion, the company of squires ranging from fourteen to nineteen years of age. And if one was not the son of a noble, or of a famed warrior, there was no other way to join the Legion.

Conscription Day was the only exception, that rare event every few years when the Legion ran low and the king's men scoured the land in search of new recruits. Everyone knew that few commoners were chosen – and that even fewer would actually make the Legion.

Thor stood there, studying the horizon intently, looking for any sign of motion. The Silver, he knew, would have to take this road, the only road into his village, and he wanted to be the first to spot them. His flock of sheep protested all around him, rose up in a chorus of annoying grunts, urging him to bring them back down the mountain, where the grazing was choicer. He tried to block out the noise, and the stench. He had to concentrate.

What had made all of this bearable, all these years of tending flocks, of being his father's lackey, his older brothers' lackey, the one cared for least and burdened most, was the idea that one day he would leave this place. One day, when the Silver came, he would surprise all those who had underestimated him, and be selected. In one swift motion, he would ascend their carriage and say goodbye to all of this.

His father, of course, had never considered him seriously as a candidate for the Legion – in fact, he had never considered him as a candidate for anything. Instead, his father devoted his love and attention to Thor's three older brothers. The oldest was nineteen and the others but a year behind each other, leaving Thor a good three years younger than any of them. Perhaps because they were closer in age, or perhaps because they looked alike and looked nothing like Thor, the three of them stuck together, barely acknowledging Thor's existence.

Worse, they were taller and broader and stronger than he, and Thor, who knew he was not short, nonetheless felt small beside them, felt his muscular legs frail beside their barrels of oak. His father made no move to rectify any of this – and in fact seemed to relish it – leaving Thor to attend the sheep and sharpen weapons, while his brothers were left to train. It was never spoken, but always understood, that Thor would spend his life in the wings, be forced to watch his brothers achieve great things. His destiny, if his father and brothers had their way, would be to stay here, swallowed by this village, and give his family the support they demanded.

Worse still was that Thor sensed that his brothers, paradoxically, were threatened by him, maybe even hated him. Thor could see it in their every glance, every gesture. He didn't understand how, but he aroused something in them, like fear or jealousy. Perhaps it was because he was different from them, didn't look like them or speak with their mannerisms; he didn't even dress like them, his father reserving the best garments – the purple and scarlet robes, the gilded weapons – for his brothers, while Thor was left wearing the coarsest of rags.

Nonetheless, Thor made the best of what he had, finding a way to make his clothes fit, tying the frock with a sash around his waist, and, now that summer was here, cutting off the sleeves to allow his toned arms to be caressed by the breezes. These were matched by coarse linen pants, his only pair, and boots made of the poorest leather, laced up his shins. They were hardly the leather of his brothers' shoes, but he made them work. He wore the typical uniform of a herder.

But he hardly had the typical demeanor: Thor stood tall and lean, with a proud jaw, noble chin, high cheekbones and gray eyes, looking like a displaced warrior. His straight, brown hair fell back in waves on his head, just past his ears, and behind them, his eyes glistened like a minnow in the light.

Thor knew that today his brothers would be allowed to sleep in, be given a hearty meal, sent off for the Selection with the finest weapons and his father's blessing – while he would not even be allowed to attend. He had tried to raise the issue with his father once. It had not gone well. His father had summarily ended the conversation, and he had not tried again. It just wasn't fair.

Thor was determined to reject the fate his father had planned for him: at the first sign of the royal caravan, he would race back to the house, confront his father, and, like it or not, make himself known to the King's Men. He would stand for selection with the others. His father could not stop him. He felt a knot in his stomach at the thought of it.

The first sun rose higher, and when the second sun began to rise, a mint green, adding a layer of light to the purple sky, Thor spotted them.

He stood upright, hairs on end, electrified. There, on the horizon, came the faintest outline of a horse-drawn carriage, its wheels kicking dust into the sky. His heart beat faster as another came into view; then another. Even from here the golden carriages gleamed in the suns, like silver-backed fish leaping from the water.

By the time he counted twelve of them, he could wait no longer. Heart pounding in his chest, forgetting his flock for the first time in his life, he turned and stumbled down the hill, determined to stop at nothing until he made himself known.

Thor barely stopped to catch his breath as he sped down the hills, through the trees, scratched by branches and not caring. He reached a clearing and saw his village spread out below: a sleepy country town, packed with one-story, white clay homes with thatched roofs, there were but several dozen families amongst them. Smoke rose from chimneys, and he knew most were up early, preparing their morning meal. It was an idyllic place, just far enough – a full day's ride – from King's Court to deter passersby. Just another farming village on the edge of the Ring, another cog in the wheel of the Western Kingdom.

Thor burst down the final stretch, into the village square, kicking up dirt as he went. Chickens and dogs ran out of his way, and an old woman, squatting outside her home before a cauldron of bubbling water, hissed at him.

"Slow down boy!" she screeched, as he raced passed her, stirring dust into her fire.

But Thor would not slow – not for her, not for anybody. He turned down one side street, then another, twisting and turning the way he knew by heart, until he reached home.

It was a small, nondescript dwelling, like all the others, with its white clay walls and angular, thatched roof. Like most, its single room was divided, his father sleeping on one side, and his three brothers on the other; unlike most, it had a small chicken coop in the back, and it was here that Thor was exiled to sleep. At first he'd slept with his brothers; but over time they had grown bigger and meaner and more exclusive, and made a show of not leaving him room. Thor had been hurt, but now he relished his own space, preferring to be away from their presence. It just confirmed for him that he was the exile in his family that he already knew he was.

Thor ran to his front door and burst through it without stopping.

"Father!" he screamed, gasping for breath. "The Silver! They're coming!"

His father and three brothers sat, hunched over the breakfast table, already dressed in their finest. At his words they jumped up and darted past him, bumping his shoulders as they ran out of the house, into the road.

Thor followed them out, and they all stood there, watching the horizon.

"I see no one," Drake, the oldest, answered in his deep voice. With the broadest shoulders, hair cropped short like his brothers, brown eyes and thin, disapproving lips, he scowled down at Thor, as usual.

"Nor do I," echoed Dross, just a year below Drake, always taking his side.

"They're coming!" Thor shot back. "I swear!"

His father turned to him and grabbed his shoulders sternly.

"And how would you know?" he demanded.

"I saw them."

"How? From where?"

Thor hesitated; his father had him. He of course knew that the only place he could have spotted them was from the top of that knoll. Now Thor was unsure how to respond.

"I…climbed the knoll – "

"With the flock? You know they are not to go that far."

"But today was different. I had to see."

His father glowered down.

"Go inside at once and fetch your brothers' swords and polish their scabbards, so that they look their best before the king's men arrive."

His father, done with him, turned back to his brothers, who all stood in the road, looking out.

"Do you think they'll choose us?" asked Durs, the youngest of the three, a full three years ahead of Thor.

"They'd be foolish not to," his father said. "They are short on men this year. It has been a slim cropping – or else they wouldn't bother coming. Just stand straight, the three of you, keep your chins up and chest out. Do not look them directly in the eye, but do not look away, either. Be strong and confident. Show no weakness. If you want to be in the King's Legion, you must act as if you're already in it."

"Yes, father," his three boys answered at once, getting into position.

He turned and glared back at Thor.

"What are you still doing there?" he asked. "Get inside!"

Thor stood there, torn. He didn't want to disobey his father, but he had to speak with him. His heart pounded as he debated. He decided it would be best to obey, to bring the swords, and then confront his father. Disobeying outright wouldn't help.

Thor raced into the house, out though the back and to the weapons shed. He spotted his brothers' three swords, objects of beauty all of them, crowned with the finest silver hilts, precious gifts his father had toiled for for years. He grabbed all three, surprised as always at their weight, and ran back through the house with them.

He sprinted to his brothers, handed each their sword, then turned to his father.

"What, no polish?" Drake said.

His father turned to him disapprovingly, but before he could say anything, Thor spoke up.

"Father, please. I need to speak with you!"

"I told you to polish – "

"Please, father!"

His father glared back, debating. He must have seen the seriousness on Thor's face, because finally, he said: "Well?"

"I want to be considered. With the others. For the Legion."

His brothers' laughter rose up behind him, making his face burn red.

But his father did not laugh; on the contrary, his scowl deepened.

"Do you?" he asked.

Thor nodded back vigorously.

"I'm fourteen. I'm eligible."

"The cutoff is fourteen," Drake said disparagingly, over his shoulder. "If they took you, you'd be the youngest. Do you think they'd choose you over someone like me, five years your elder?"

"You are insolent," Durs said. "You always have been."

Thor turned to them. "I'm not asking you," he said.

He turned back to his father, who still frowned.

"Father, please," he said. "Allow me a chance. That's all I ask. I know I'm young, but I will prove myself, over time."

His father shook his head.

"You're not a soldier, boy. You're not like your brothers. You're a herder. Your life is here. With me. You will do your duties and do them well. One should not dream too high. Embrace your life, and learn to love it."

Thor felt his heart breaking, as he saw his life collapsing before his eyes.

No, he thought. This can't be.

"But father – "

"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 – "

"In practice!"

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."

He paused.

"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 hands 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.