A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Seventeen)
Thor chewed on the piece of dried meat that the others were passing around; it was tough and salty, but somehow nourished him. Erec reached over and handed him something and Thor felt a soft wineskin being pressed into his hand, the liquid sloshing in it. It was surprisingly heavy as he raised it to his lips and squirted it into the back of his mouth, for too long a time. He felt warm for the first time.
Everyone was quiet, staring into the flames. Thor was still on edge, being on this side of the Canyon, in enemy territory, still felt as if he should be on guard at every moment, and marveled at how calm Erec seemed to be, as if he were casually sitting in his own backyard. Thor was relieved, at least, to be out of the Wilds, reunited with Erec, and sitting around the reassurance of a fire. Erec watched the forest line, attentive to every little noise, yet confident and relaxed. Thor knew that if any danger was coming, Erec would protect them all.
Thor felt content around the flames, and he looked around and saw that the others seemed content, too – except, of course, for Elden, glum ever since returning from the forest. He had lost his confident swagger from earlier in the day, and he sat there, sour, without his sword. Thor knew that the commanders would never forgive such a mistake, and that Elden would be kicked out of the Legion upon their return. He wondered what Elden would do. He had a feeling he would not go down so easily, that he had some trick, some backup plan, up his sleeve. Thor assumed that, whatever it was, it would not be good.
Thor turned and followed Erec's gaze to the distant horizon, in the southern direction. There was a faint glow, an endless line as far as the eye could see, that lit up the night. Thor wondered.
"What is it?" he finally asked Erec. "That glow? The one you keep staring at?"
Erec was silent for a long time, and the only sound was that of the whipping of the wind. Finally, without turning, he said: "The Gorals."
Thor exchanged a glance with the others, who looked back, fearful. Thor's stomach tightened at the thought of it. The Gorals. So close. There was nothing in between them and him except for a simple forest and a vast plain. There was no longer the great Canyon separating them, keeping them safe. All his life he had heard tales of these violent savages from the Wilds who had no ambition except to attack the Ring. And now, there was nothing between them. He couldn't believe how many of them there were. It was a vast and waiting army.
"Aren't you afraid?" he asked Erec. "There is nothing between us."
Erec shook his head.
"The Gorals move as one. Their army camps out there every night. They have for years. They would only attack the Canyon if they mobilized the entire army and attacked as one. And they wouldn't dare try. The power of the Sword acts as a shield. They know they cannot breach it."
"So then why do they camp out there?" Thor asked.
"It is their way of intimidating. And preparing. There have been many times throughout the course of history, in the time of our fathers, when they attacked, tried to breach the canyon. But it hasn't happened in my time."
Thor looked up at the black sky, the yellow and blue and orange stars twinkling high overhead, and he wondered. He could hardly believe he was out here, on this side of the canyon. It was a place of nightmares, and had been ever since he could walk. The thought of it made him fearful, but he forced fearful thoughts from his mind. He was a member of the Legion now, and knew he had to act like it.
"Do not worry," Erec said, as if reading his thoughts. "They will not attack while we have the Destiny Sword."
"Have you ever held it?" Thor asked Erec, suddenly curious. "The Sword?"
"Of course not," Erec retorted sharply. "No one is allowed to grasp it, except for descendants of the King."
Thor looked at him, confused.
"I don't understand? Why?"
Reece cleared his throat.
"May I?" he interceded.
Erec nodded back.
"There is a legend around the Sword. It has never actually been hoisted by anyone. Legend has it that one man, the chosen one, will be able to hoist it by himself. Only the King is allowed to try, or one of the King's descendants, if named King. So there it sits, untouched."
"And what of our current King? Your father?" Thor asked. "Can't he try to hoist it?"
Reece looked down.
"He tried to hoist it once. When he was crowned. So he tells us. He could not. It sits there like an object of rebuke for him. He hates it. It weighs on him like a living thing.
"When the chosen one arrives," Reece added, "he will free the Ring from its enemies all around and lead us to a greater destiny than we've ever known. All wars will end."
"Fairytales and nonsense," Elden interceded. "That sword will be lifted by no one. It is too heavy. It is not possible. And there is no 'chosen one.' It's all hogwash. That legend was invented just to keep the common man down, to keep us all waiting for the supposed 'chosen one.' To embolden the line of MacGils. It is a very convenient legend for them."
"Shut your tongue, boy," Erec snapped. "You will always speak respectfully of your King."
Elden looked down, humbled.
Thor thought about everything, trying to take it all in. It was so much to process at once. All his life he had dreamt of seeing the Destiny Sword. He had heard stories of its perfect shape. It was rumored to be crafted from a material no one understood, was supposed to be a magical weapon. Thor looked around, at the Canyon, and could hardly imagine its energy protected the entire Ring. It made Thor wonder what would happen if they didn't have the sword to protect them. Would the King's army then be vanquished by the Empire? Thor looked out at the glowing fires on the horizon. They seemed to stretch for an eternity.
"Have you ever been out there?" Thor asked Erec. "Far out there? Beyond the forest? Into the Wilds?"
The others all turned and look at Erec, as Thor anxiously awaited his reply. In the thick silence, Erec stared at the flames for a long time – so long that Thor began to doubt he would ever answer. Thor hoped he had not been too nosy; he felt so grateful and indebted to Erec, and certainly didn't want to get on his bad side. Thor also wasn't sure if he wanted to know the answer.
Just when Thor was wishing he could retract his question, Erec responded:
"Yes," he said, solemn.
That single word hung in the air for too long, and in it, Thor heard the gravity that told him all he needed to know.
"What is it like out there?" O'Connor asked.
Thor was relieved that he was not the only one asking the questions.
"It is controlled by one ruthless empire," Erec said. "But the land is vast and varied. There is the land of the savages. The land of the slaves. And the land of the monsters. Monsters unlike any you can imagine. And there are deserts and mountains and hills as far as you can see. There are the marshes and the swamps and the great ocean. There is the land of the Druids. And the land of the Dragons."
Thor's eyes opened wide at the mention of it.
"Dragons?" he asked, surprised. "I thought they didn't exist."
Erec looked at him, deadly serious.
"I assure you, they do. And it is a place you never want to go. A place that even the Garlons fear."
Thor swallowed at the thought. He could hardly imagine venturing out that deep into the empire. He wondered how Erec had ever made it back alive. He made a note mental note to ask him at another time.
There were so many questions Thor wanted to ask him – about the nature of the evil empire, who ruled it; why they wanted to attack; when he had ventured out; when he had returned. But as Thor stared into the flames it grew colder and darker, and as all his questions swirled in his head, he felt his eyes grow heavy. He knew this was not the right time to ask.
Instead, he let sleep carry him away. He felt his eyes grow heavy, and lay his head down on the ground. Before his eyes closed for good, he looked over at the foreign soil, and wondered when – or if – he would ever return home again.
Thor opened his eyes, confused, wondering where he was and how he had gotten here. He looked down and saw a thick fog up to his waist, so thick he could not see his feet. He turned and saw dawn breaking over the canyon before him. Far, on the other side, was his homeland. He was still on this side, the wrong side, of the divide. His heart quickened.
Thor looked at the bridge, but strangely, it was now empty of soldiers. The whole place, in fact, seemed desolate. He could not understand what was happening. As he watched the bridge, its wooden planks fell one after another, like dominoes. Within moments the bridge collapsed, dropped down into the precipice. The bottom was so far down, he never even heard the planks hit.
Thor swallowed and turned, looking for the others – but they were nowhere in sight. He had no idea what to do. Now he was stuck. Here, alone, on the other side of the canyon, with no way to get back. He could not understand where everyone had gone.
He heard something and turned and looked into the forest. He detected movement. He rose to his feet and walked towards it, his feet sinking into the earth as he went. As he got closer, he saw a net hanging from a low lying branch. There, inside it, was Elden. He was spinning around and around in circles, the branches creaking as he moved.
A falcon sat perched on his head, a distinct looking creature with a body which gleamed of silver and a single back stripe running down its forehead, between its eyes. It bent over and plucked out his eye, and held it there. It turned to Thor, holding the eye in its mouth.
Thor wanted to look away, but could not. Just as he was realizing that Elden was a corpse, suddenly, the entire wood came to life. Charging out of it, from every direction, came an army of Gorals. Huge, wearing only loins, with immense muscled chests, three noses placed in a triangle on their face, and two long, curved sharp fangs, they hissed and snarled as they sprinted right for him. It was a hair-raising sound, and there was nowhere for Thor to go. He reached down and grabbed for his sword – but looked down to discover it was gone.
He woke sitting straight up, breathing hard, looking frantically in every direction. All around him was silence. But it was a real, alive silence, not the silence of his dream. It was then that he realized that he had, indeed, been dreaming.
Beside him, in the first light of dawn, Reece, O'Connor, and Erec slept sprawled out on the ground, the dying embers of the fire near them. On the ground, hopping, there was a falcon. It turned and cocked its head at Thor. It was large and silver and proud, with the single black stripe running down its forehead, and it stared back at him, looking him right in the eye, and screeched. The sound made him shiver. Thor could not believe it: it was the same falcon from his dream.
It was then he realized the bird was a message – that his dream had been more than a dream. That something was wrong. He could feel it, a slight vibration on his back, running up his arms.
He quickly got to his feet, looked all around, wondering what it could be. He heard nothing wrong, and nothing seemed out of place; he turned and saw that the bridge was still there, and in the distance, the soldiers were all on it.
What was it? he wondered.
And then he realized what it was. One of them was missing. Elden.
At first Thor wondered if maybe he had left them, headed back across the bridge to the other side of the Canyon. Maybe he was ashamed over losing his sword, and had left the region altogether.
But then Thor turned and looked to the forest, and he could see the fresh indentation in the moss, the footprints heading towards the trail in the morning dew. There was no doubt that those were Elden's. Elden had not left them. He had gone back into the forest. Alone. Maybe to relieve himself. Or maybe, Thor realized with a shock, to try to retrieve his sword.
It was a stupid move, to go alone like that, and it proved how desperate he was. Thor sensed right away that there was great danger. He could feel that Elden's life was at stake.
The falcon screeched at that moment, as if to confirm Thor's thoughts. Then it picked up and flew, diving right for Thor's face. Thor ducked his head, and its talons just missed, and it rose in the air, flying away.
Thor leapt into action. Without thinking, without even contemplating what he was doing, he sprinted off into the woods, following the footprints.
Thor didn't stop to feel the fear as he sprinted alone, deep into the Wilds. If he had paused to think how crazy it was, he probably would have frozen, would have felt himself flooded with panic. But instead, he just reacted. He felt a pressing need to help Elden. He ran and ran, alone, deeper into the wood in the early light of dawn.
"Elden!" he screamed.
He couldn't explain it, but somehow he sensed that Elden was about to die. He knew he shouldn't care, based on the way that Elden had treated him, but he couldn't help himself: he did. If it were he in this situation, Elden would certainly not come to rescue him. It was crazy to put his life on the line for someone who cared nothing for him – and, in fact, would gladly see him die. But he could not help it. He'd never felt a sensation like this one before, where his senses were screaming to him to react – especially over something he could not possibly have known. He was changing somehow, and he did not know how. He felt as if his body were being controlled by some new, mysterious power, and it made him feel uneasy, out of control. Was he losing his mind? Was he overreacting? Was it all just from his dream? Should he turn around?
But he did not. He let his feet lead him, and did not give in to fear or doubts. He ran and ran, until his lungs were bursting.
Thor turned a bend, and what he saw made him stop short in his tracks. He stood there, trying to catch his breath, trying to reconcile the image before him, which did not make any sense. It was enough to strike terror into any hardened warrior.
There stood Elden, holding his short sword and looking up at a creature unlike any Thor had ever seen. It was horrific. It towered over them both, at least nine feet tall, and as wide as four men. It leaned back and raised its muscular, red arms, with three long fingers, like nails, at the end of each hand, and a head like that of a demon, with four horns, a long jaw, and a broad forehead. It had two large yellow eyes and fangs curled like tusks. It leaned back and screeched.
Beside him, a thick tree, hundreds of years old, split in two at the sound.
Elden stood there, frozen in fear. He dropped his sword, and the ground beneath him went wet; Thor realized Elden must have peed his pants.
The creature drooled and snarled, and took a step towards Elden.
Thor, too, was filled with fear, but unlike Elden, it did not immobilize him. For some reason, the fear heightened him. It heightened his senses, made him feel more alive. It gave him tunnel vision, allowed him to focus supremely on the creature before him, on its position to Elden, on its width and breadth and strength and speed. On its every movement. It also allowed him to focus on his own body position, his own weapons.
Thor fearlessly burst into action. He charged forward, past Elden, and came between him and the beast. The beast roared, its breath so hot, Thor could feel it even from here. The sound raised every hair on Thor's spine, and made him want to turn around. But he heard Erec's voice in his head, telling him to be strong. To be fearless. To retain equanimity. And he forced himself to stand his ground.
Thor raised his sword high and charged, plunging it into the beast's ribs, aiming for his heart.
The beast shrieked in agony, its blood pouring down Thor's hand as Thor plunged the sword all the way in, to the hilt.
But to Thor's surprise, it did not die. The beast seemed invincible.
Without missing a beat, the beast swung around and swiped Thor so hard that he felt his ribs cracking. Thor went flying, through the air, all the way across the clearing, and smashed into a tree before collapsing to the ground. He felt a terrible headache as he lay there.
Thor looked up, dazed and confused, the world spinning. The beast reach down and extracted Thor's sword from its stomach. The sword seemed tiny in its hands, like a toothpick, and the beast reached back and hurled it; it went flying through the trees, taking down branches, and disappeared into the wood.
It turned its full attention on Thor, and began to bear down on him.
Elden stood there, still frozen in fear. But as the beast charged Thor, suddenly, Elden burst into action. He charged the beast from behind, and jumped onto its back. It slowed the beast just enough for Thor to sit up; the beast, furious, flung back his arms and threw Elden. He went flying across the clearing, smashed into a tree, and slumped to the ground.
The beast, still bleeding, panting heavily, turned its attention back to Thor. It snarled and widened its fangs, as it bore down on him.
Thor was out of options. His sword was gone, and there was nothing between him and the monster. The monster dove down for him, and at the last second, Thor rolled out of the way. The monster hit the tree were Thor had been with such force that it uprooted it from the ground.
The beast raised its foot, and brought it down for Thor's head. Thor rolled out of the way and it left a footprint were Thor's head had been.
Thor rolled to his feet, placed a stone in his sling and hurled.
He hit the monster square between the eyes, a fiercer throw than he had ever made, and the creature staggered back. Thor was certain he had killed it.
But to his amazement, the beast did not stop.
Thor tried his best to summon his power, whatever power it was that he had. He charged the beast, leaping forward, crashing into it, aiming to tackle it and drive it down to the ground with a superhuman power.
But to Thor's shock, this time his power never kicked in. He was just another boy. A frail boy, next to this massive beast.
The beast merely reached down, grabbed Thor by his waist and hoisted him high above its head. Thor felt so helpless, dangling high in the air – and then he was thrown. He went flying like a missile across the clearing, and smashed again into a tree.
Thor lay there, stunned, his head splitting, his ribs feeling cracked in two. The beast raced for him, and he knew that this time he was finished. It raised its red, muscular foot, bringing it down right for Thor's head. Thor looked up, and prepared to die.
Then, for some reason, the beast froze in midair. Thor blinked, trying to understand why.
The beast reached up and clutched its throat, and Thor saw an arrow, piercing through it. A moment later, the beast keeled over, dead.
Erec came running into view, followed by Reece and O'Connor. Thor saw Erec looking down on him, asking if he was okay, and he wanted to answer, more than anything. But the words would not come out. A moment later, his eyes closed on him, and then his world was blackness.