A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Six)

Thor sprinted across the vast field of the arena, running with all he had. Behind him he could hear the footsteps of the King's guards, close on his tail. They chased him across the hot and dusty landscape, cursing as they went. Before him were spread out the members – and new recruits – of the Legion, dozens of boys, just like him, but older and stronger. They were training and being tested in various formations, some throwing spears, others hurling javelins, a few practicing their grips on lances. They aimed for distant targets, and rarely missed. These were his competition, and they seemed formidable.

Among them were dozens of real knights, members of the Silver, standing in a broad semi-circle, watching the action. Judging. Deciding on who would stay and who would be sent home.

Thor knew he had to prove himself, had to impress these men. Within moments the guards would be upon him, and if he had any chance of making an impression, now was the time. But how? His mind raced as he dashed across the courtyard, determined not to be turned away.

As Thor raced across the field, others began to take notice. Some of the recruits stopped what they were doing and turned, and some of the knights did as well. Within moments, Thor felt all the attention focused on him. They looked bewildered, and he realized they must be wondering who he was, sprinting across their field, three of the King's guard chasing him. This was not how he had wanted to make an impression. His whole life, when he had dreamed of joining the Legion, this was not how he had envisioned it happening.

As Thor ran, debating what to do, his course of action was made plain for him. One large boy, a recruit, decided to take it upon himself to impress the others by stopping Thor. Tall, muscle-bound, he was nearly twice Thor's size, and he raised his wooden sword and blocked Thor's way. Thor could see he was determined to strike him down, to make a fool of him in front of everyone, and thereby gain himself advantage over the other recruits.

This made Thor furious. Thor had no bone to pick with this boy, and it was not his fight. But he was making it his fight, just to gain advantage with the others.

As they got closer, Thor could hardly believe this boy's size: he towered over him, scowled down with locks of thick black hair covering his forehead, and the largest, squarest jaw Thor had ever seen. He did not see how he could make a dent against this boy.

The boy charged him with his wooden sword, and Thor knew that if he didn't act quick, he would be knocked out.

Thor's reflexes kicked in. He instinctively took out his sling, reached back, and hurled a rock at the boy's hand. It found its target, and knocked the sword from his hand, just as the boy was bringing it down. It went flying and the boy, screaming, clutched his hand.

Thor wasted no time. He charged, taking advantage of the moment, leapt into the air, and kicked the boy, planting his two front feet squarely on the boy's chest. But the boy was so thick, it was like kicking an oak tree. The boy merely stumbled back a few inches, while Thor stopped cold in his tracks and fell at the boy's feet. This did not bode well, Thor thought, as he hit the ground with a thud, his ears ringing.

Thor tried to gain his feet, but the boy was a step ahead of him: he reached down, grabbed Thor by his back, and threw him, sending him flying, face first, into the dirt.

A crowd of boys quickly gathered in a circle around them and cheered. Thor reddened, humiliated.

Thor turned to get up, but the boy was too fast. He was already on top of him, pinning him down. Before Thor knew it, it had turned into a wrestling match, and the boy's weight was immense.

Thor could hear the muted shouts of the other boys as they formed a circle, screaming, anxious for blood. He looked up and saw the face of the boy, scowling down; the boy reached out his thumbs, and brought them down for Thor's eyes. Thor could not believe it: it seemed this boy really wanted to hurt him. Did he really want to gain advantage that badly?

At the last second, Thor rolled his head out of the way, and the boy's hands went flying by, plunging into the dirt. Thor took the chance to roll out from under him.

Thor gained his feet, and faced the boy, who gained his, too. The boy charged and swung for Thor's face, and Thor ducked at the last second; the air rushed by his face, and he realized if it had hit him, it would have broken his jaw. Thor reached up and punched the boy in the gut – but it hardly did a thing: it was like striking a tree.

Before Thor could react, the boy reached around and elbowed Thor in the face.

Thor stumbled back, reeling from the blow. It was like getting hit by a hammer, and his ears rang.

While he was stumbling, still trying to catch his breath, the boy charged and kicked Thor hard in the chest. Thor went flying backwards and crashed to the ground, landing on his back. The other boys cheered.

Thor, dizzy, began to sit up, but just as he began, the boy charged, reached down and swung and punched him again, hard in the face, knocking him flat on his back again – and down for good.

Thor lay there, hearing the muted cheers of the others, feeling the salty taste of blood running from his nose, the welt on his face. He groaned in pain. He looked up and could see the large boy turn away and walk back towards his friends, already celebrating his victory.

Thor wanted to give up. This boy was huge, fighting him was futile, and he could take no more punishment. But something inside him pushed him. He could not lose. Not in front of all these people.

Don't give up. Get up. Get up!

Thor somehow summoned the strength: groaning, he rolled over and got to his hands and knees, then, slowly, to his feet. He faced the boy, bleeding, his eyes swollen, hard to see, breathing hard, and raised his fists.

The huge boy turned around and stared down at Thor. He shook his head, unbelieving.

"You should have stayed down, boy," he threatened, as he began to walk back to Thor.

"ENOUGH!" yelled a voice. "Elden, stand back!"

A knight suddenly stepped up, getting between them, holding out his palm and stopping Elden from getting closer to Thor. The crowd quieted, as they all looked to the knight: clearly this was a man who demanded respect.

Thor looked up, in awe at his presence: he was tall, with broad shoulders, a square jaw, brown, well-kept hair, in his 20s. Thor liked him immediately. His first-rate armor, a chainmail made of a polished silver, was covered with royal markings: the falcon emblem of the MacGil family. Thor's throat went dry: he was standing before a member of the royal family. He could hardly believe it.

"Explain yourself, boy," he said to Thor. "Why have you charged into our arena uninvited?"

Before Thor could respond, suddenly, the three members of the King's guard broke through the circle. The lead guard stood there, breathing hard, pointing a finger at Thor.

"He defied our command!" the guard yelled. "I am going to shackle him and take him to the King's dungeon!"

"I did nothing wrong!" Thor protested.

"Did you now?" the guard yelled. "Barging into the King's property uninvited?"

"All I wanted was a chance!" Thor yelled, turning, pleading to the knight before him, the member of the royal family. "All I wanted was a chance to join the Legion!"

"This training ground is only for the invited boy," came a gruff voice.

Into the circle stepped a warrior, 50s, broad and stocky, with a bald head a short beard, and a scar running across his nose. He looked like he had been a professional soldier all his life – and from the markings on his armor, the gold pin on his chest, he looked to be their commander. Thor's heart quickened at the site of him: a general.

"I was not invited, sire," Thor said. "That is true. But it has been my life's dream to be here. All I want is a chance to show you what I can do. I am as good as any of these recruits. Just give me one chance to prove it. Please. Joining the Legion is all I've ever dreamt of."

"This battleground is not for dreamers, boy," came his gruff response. "It is for fighters. There are no exceptions to our rules: recruits are chosen."

The general nodded, and the King's guard approached Thor, shackles out.

But suddenly the knight, the royal family member, stepped forward and put out his palm, blocking the guard.

"Maybe, on occasion, an exception may be made," he said.

The guard looked up at him in consternation, clearly wanting to speak out, but having to hold his tongue in deference to a royal family member.

"I admire your spirit, boy," the knight continued. "Before we cast you away, I would like to see what you can do."

"But Kendrick, we have our rules – " the general said, clearly displeased.

"The royal family makes the rules," Kendrick answered sternly, "and the Legion answers to the royal family."

"We answer to your father, the King – not to you," the general retorted, equally defiant.

There was a standoff, the air thick with tension. Thor could hardly believe what he had ignited.

"I know my father, and I know what he would want. He would want to give this boy a try. And that is what we will do."

The general, after several tense moments, finally backed down.

Kendrick turned to Thor, eyes locking on his, brown and intense, the face of a prince, but also of a warrior.

"I will give you one chance," he said to Thor. "Let's see if you can hit that mark."

He gestured at a stack of hay, far across the field, with a small, red stain in its center. Several spears were lodged in the hay, but none inside the red.

"If you can do what none of these others boys could do – if you can hit that mark from here – then you may join us."

The knight stepped aside, and Thor could feel all eyes on him.

He spotted a rack of spears and looked them over carefully: they were of a finer quality than he'd ever seen, made of solid oak, wrapped in the finest leather. His heart was pounding as he stepped forward, wiping the blood from his nose with the back of his hand, feeling more nervous than he had in his life. Clearly, he was being given a nearly impossible task. But he had to try.

Thor reached over and picked one, not too long, or too short. He weighed it in his hand – it was heavy, substantial. Not like the ones he used back home. But it also felt right. He felt that maybe, just maybe, he could find his mark. After all, spear throwing was his finest skill, next to hurling stones, and many long days of roaming the wilderness had given him ample targets. He had always been able to hit targets even his brothers could not.

Thor closed his eyes and breathed deeply. If he missed, he would be pounced upon by the guards and dragged off to jail – and his chances of joining the Legion would be ruined forever. This one moment held everything he had ever dreamt of.

He prayed to God with all he had.

Without hesitating, Thor opened his eyes, took two steps forward, reached back and hurled the spear.

He held his breath as he watched it sail.

Please, God. Please.

The spear cut through the thick, dead silence, and Thor could feel the hundreds of eyes on it.

Then, after an eternity, there came the sound, the undeniable sound of a spear point piercing hay. Thor didn't even have to look. He knew, he just knew, that it was a perfect strike. It was the way the spear felt when it left his hand, the angle of his wrist, that told him it would hit.

Thor dared to look – and saw, with huge relief, that he was right. The spear found its place in the center of the red mark – the only spear in it. He'd done what the other recruits could not.

Stunned silence enveloped him, as he felt the other recruits – and knights – all gaping at him.

Finally, Kendrick stepped forward and clapped Thor hard on the back with his palm, with the sound of satisfaction. He grinned widely.

"I was right," he said. "You will stay!"

"What, my Lord!" screamed the King's guard. "It is not fair! This boy arrived uninvited!"

"He hit that mark. That's invitation enough for me."

"He is far younger and smaller than the others. This is no peewee squad," said the general.

"I would rather a smaller soldier who can hit his mark than an oaf who cannot," the knight replied.

"A lucky throw!" yelled the large boy who Thor had just fought. "If we had more chances, we would hit, too!"

The knight turned and stared down the boy.

"Would you?" he asked. "Shall I see you do it now? Shall we wager your staying here on it?"

The boy, flustered, lowered his head in shame, clearly not willing to take up the offer.

"But this boy is a stranger," protested the general. "We don't even know where he hails from."

"He comes from the lowlands," came a voice.

The others turned to see who spoke, but Thor did not need to – he recognized the voice. It was the voice that had plagued him his entire childhood. The voice of his eldest brother: Drake.

Drake stepped forward, with his other two brothers, and glared down at Thor with a look of disapproval.

"His name is Thorgrin, of the clan McCleod of the Southern Province of the Eastern Kingdom. He is the youngest of four. We all hail from the same household. He tends our father's sheep!"

The entire group of boys and knights burst into a chorus of laughter.

Thor felt his face redden; he wanted to die at that moment. He had never been more ashamed. That was just like his brother, to take away his moment of glory, to do whatever he could to keep him down.

"Tends sheep, does he?" echoed the general.

"Then our foes will surely have to watch out for him!" yelled another boy.

There was another chorus of laughter, and Thor's humiliation deepened.

"Enough!" yelled Kendrick, sternly.

Gradually, the laughter subsided.

"I'd rather have a sheepherder any day who can hit a mark than the lot of you – who seem good at laughing but not much more," Kendrick added.

With that, a silence descended on the boys, who weren't laughing anymore.

Thor was infinitely grateful to Kendrick. He vowed to find out who he was, to pay him back any way he could. Regardless of what happened to him, this man had, at least, restored his honor.

"Don't you know, boy, that it is not a warrior's way to tattle on his friends – much less his own family, his own blood?" the knight asked Drake.

Drake looked down, flustered, one of the rare times that Thor had seen him out of sorts.

But one of his other brothers, Dress, stepped forward and protested: "But Thor wasn't even chosen. We were. He is merely following us here."

"I'm not following you," Thor insisted, finally speaking up. "I'm here for the Legion. Not for you."

"It doesn't matter why he's here," the general said, annoyed, stepping forward. "He's wasting all of our time. Yes it was a good hit of the spear, but he still cannot join us. Has no knight to sponsor him, and no squire willing to partner with him."

"I will partner with him," called out a voice.

Thor spun, along with the others. He was surprised to see, standing a few feet away, a boy his age, who actually looked like him, except with blond hair and bright green eyes, wearing the most beautiful royal armor he had ever seen, chainmail covered with scarlet and black markings – clearly, another member of the King's family.

"Impossible," the general said. "The royal family does not partner with commoners."

"I can do as I choose," the boy shot back. "And I say that Thorgrin will be my partner."

"Even if we sanctioned it," the general said. "It does not matter. He has no knight to sponsor him."

"I shall sponsor him," came a voice.

Everyone turned in the other direction, and there came a muffled gasp amongst the others.

Thor turned to see a knight, mounted on a horse, bedecked in the most beautiful shining armor he had ever seen, wearing all manner of weaponry on his belt. He positively shined, and it was like looking at the sun. Thor could tell by his demeanor, his bearing, and by the markings on his helmet, that he was different than the others. He was a champion.

Thor recognized this knight. He had seen paintings of him, and had heard of his legend. Erec. He couldn't believe it. He was the greatest knight in the Ring.

"But my lord, you already have a squire," the general protested.

"Then I shall have two," Erec answered, in a deep, confident voice.

A stunned silence pervaded the group.

"Then there is nothing left to say," Kendrick said. "Thorgrin has a sponsor and a partner. The matter is resolved. He is now a member of the Legion."

"But you have forgotten about me!" the King's guard screamed, stepping forward. "None of this excuses the fact that the boy has struck a member of the King's guard, and that he must be punished. Justice must be done!"

"Justice will be done," Kendrick responded, steely. "But it will be at my discretion. Not yours."

"But my liege, he must be put in the stocks! An example must be made of him!"

"If you keep up your talk, then you shall be the one going to the stocks," Kendrick said back to the guard, glaring him down, steel in his voice.

Finally, the guard backed down; reluctantly, he turned and walked away, red-faced, glaring at Thor.

"Then it is official," Kendrick called out in a loud voice. "Welcome, Thorgrin, to the King's Legion!"

The crowd of knights and boys let out a cheer. They then turned away, back to their training.

Thor felt numb with shock. He could hardly believe it. He was now a member of the King's Legion. It was like a dream.

Thor turned to Kendrick, more grateful to him than he could ever say. He had never had anyone in his life before who cared about him, who went out of his way to look out for him, to protect him. It was a funny feeling. He already felt closer to this man than to his own father.

"I don't know how to thank you," Thor said. "I am deeply indebted to you."

Kendrick smiled down. "Kendrick is my name. You shall get to know it well. I am the King's eldest son. I admire your courage. You shall be a fine addition to this lot."

Kendrick turned and hurried off, and as he did, the huge boy that Thor had fought shuffled by.

"Watch your back," the boy said. "We sleep in the same barracks, you know. And don't think for a moment you're safe."

The boy turned and stormed off before Thor could respond; he could hardly believe he had already made an enemy.

He was beginning to wonder what was in store for him here, when suddenly the King's youngest son hurried over to him.

"Don't mind him," he said to Thor. "He's always picking fights. I'm Reece."

"Thank you," Thor said, reaching out his hand, "for choosing me as your partner. I don't know what I would have done without it."

"I'm happy to choose anyone who stands up to that brute," Reece said happily. "That was a nice fight."

"Are you kidding?" Thor asked, wiping dried blood from his face and feeling his welt swell up. "He killed me."

"But you didn't give up," Reece said. "Impressive. Any of the others of us would have just stayed down. And that was one hell of a spear throw. How did you learn to throw like that? We shall be partners for life!" He looked at Thor meaningfully as he shook his hand. "And friends, too. I can sense it."

As Thor shook his hand, he couldn't help but feel that he was making a friend for life.

Suddenly, he was poked from the side.

He spun and saw an older boy standing there, with pockmarked skin and a long and narrow face.

"I am Feithgold. Erec's squire. You are now his second squire. Which means you answer to me. And we have a tournament in minutes. Are you going to just stand there when you been made squire to the most famous knight in the kingdom? Follow me! Quickly!"

Reece had already turned away, and Thor turned and hurried after the squire as he ran across the field. He had no idea where they were going – but he didn't care. He was singing inside. He had made it.

He could hardly believe it.

He had made it.