A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Twenty-Eight)

Thor rode hard in the darkness, racing through the final gate of King's Court, barely slowing his horse as he jumped off it, breathing hard, and handed the reins to an attendant. He had been riding all day, the sun had fallen hours before, and he could see immediately from all the torchlight inside, hear from all the reverie behind the gates, that the king's feast was in full swing. He kicked himself for being away for as long as he did, and only prayed that he was not too late.

He ran to the nearest attendant.

"Is all in order inside?" he asked in a rush. He had to know that the king was okay – though of course he couldn't directly ask if he had been poisoned.

The attendant looked at him, baffled.

"And why shouldn't it be? All is in order, except that you are late. Members of the King's Legion should always be on time. And your clothes are filthy. You reflect poorly on your peers. Wash your hands, and hurry inside."

Thor rushed through the gate, sweating, put his hands in a small stone lavender of water, splashed it on his face, and ran it through his longish hair. He had been in constant motion since early in the morning, he was covered in dust from the road, and it felt as if it had been ten days in one. He took a deep breath, tried to calm himself and seem orderly, and strode quickly down corridor after corridor, towards the vast doors of the feasting hall.

As he stepped inside, through the huge arched doors, it was just like his dream: before him were the two feasting tables, at least a hundred feet long, at the far end of which sat the king, at the head of his own table, surrounded by men. The noise struck Thor like a living thing, the hall absolutely packed with people. There were not only the King's men, members of the Silver and of the Legion seated at the feasting tables, but also hundreds of others, bands of traveling musicians, groups of dancers, of clowns, dozens of women from the brothels…. There were also all manners of servants, of guards, dogs running about. It was a madhouse.

Men drank from huge casks of wine and beer, and many of them stood, singing drinking songs, arms about each other, clinking casks. There were heaps of food laid out on the tables, and boar and deer and all sorts of animals roasting on spits before the fireplace. Half the room gorged themselves, while the other half mingled about the room. Looking at the chaos in the room, seeing how drunk the men were, Thor realized that if he'd arrived earlier, when it began, it would have been more orderly. Now, at this late hour, it seemed to have evolved into more of a drunken bash.

Thor's first reaction, aside from being overwhelmed, was deep relief to see that the king was alive. He breathed a sigh of relief. He was okay. He wondered again if that omen meant nothing, if his dream meant nothing, if he was just overreacting to fancies, making something bigger in his head than it should be. But still, he just could not shake the feeling. He still felt a pressing urgency to reach the king, to warn him.

Protect our king.

Thor pushed his way into the thick crowd, trying to make it the long way towards the king. It was slow going. The men were drunk and rowdy, packed shoulder to shoulder, and MacGil sat hundreds of feet away.

Thor managed to get about halfway through the crowd when he stopped, suddenly spotted Gwendolyn. She sat at one of the small tables, off to the side of the hall, surrounded by her handmaids. She looked glum, and it seemed unlike her. Her food and drink were untouched, and she sat off to the side, separated from the others. Thor wondered what could be wrong.

Thor broke from the crowd and hurried over to her.

She looked up and saw him coming, but instead of smiling, as she always did, her face darkened. For the first time, Thor saw anger in her eyes.

Gwen slid her chair, got up, turned her back, and began to march away.

Thor felt as if a knife had been plunged into his heart. He could not understand her reaction. Had he done something wrong?

He raced around the table, hurrying over to her, and grabbed her wrist gently.

She surprised him by throwing it off roughly, turning and scowling at him.

"Don't you touch me!" she screamed.

Thor took a step back, shocked at her reaction. Was this the same Gwendolyn he knew?

"I'm sorry," he said. "I meant you no harm. And no disrespect. I just wanted to talk to you."

"I have no words left for you," she seethed, her eyes aglow with fury.

Thor could hardly breathe; he had no idea what he had done wrong.

"My lady, please tell me, what have I done to offend you? Whatever it is, I apologize."

"What you have done is beyond remedy. No apology will suffice. It is who you are."

She started to walk away again, and a part of Thor thought he should let her be; but another part of him couldn't stand to just walk away, not after what they'd had. He had to know; he had to know the reason why she hated him so much.

Thor ran in front of her, blocking her way. He could not let her go. Not like this.

"Gwendolyn, please. Just please give me one chance to at least know what it is that I have done. Please, just give me this."

She stared back, seething, hands on her hips.

"I think you know. I think you know very well."

"I do not," Thor stated earnestly.

She stared, as if summing him up, and finally, seemed to believe him.

"The night before you saw me, I am told that you visited the brothels. That you had your way with many women. And you delighted in them all night long. Then, as the sun broke, you came to me. Does that remind you? I'm disgusted by your behavior. Disgusted that I ever met you, that you ever touched me. I hope I shall never see your face again. You've made a fool of me – and no one makes a fool of me!"

"My lady!" Thor yelled out, trying to stop her, wanting to explain. "It isn't true!"

But a band of musicians got between them, and she darted off, slipping through the crowd so fast that he could not find her. Within moments, he completely lost trace of her.

Thor was burning inside. He could not believe that someone had gotten to her, had told her these lies about him, had turned her against him. He wondered who was behind it. It hardly mattered: his chances with her were now ruined. He felt that he was dying inside.

Thor turned and began to stagger through the room, remembering the King, feeling hollowed out, as if he had nothing left to live for.

Before he'd gone a few feet, Alton suddenly appeared, blocked his way, and sneered down with a satisfied smile. He wore silk leggings, a velvet blazer, and a feathered hat. He looked down at Thor, with his long nose and chin, and with the utmost arrogance and self-pride.

"Well well," he said. "If it's not the commoner. Have you found your bride-to-be here yet? Of course you have not. I think rumors have spread already far and wide of your exploits in the brothel." He smiled and leaned in close, revealing small, yellow teeth. "In fact, I'm sure they have."

"You know what they say: if there's a glimmer of truth, it helps spark a rumor. I found that glimmer. And now your reputation is ruined, boy."

Thor, seeing with rage, could take it no longer. He charged and punched Alton in the gut, making him keel over.

Moments later, bodies were on him, fellow Legion members, soldiers, getting in their way, pulling them apart.

"You have overstepped your bounds, boy!" Alton yelled out, pointing at him over the bodies. "No one touches a royal! You will hang in the stocks for the rest of your life! I will have you arrested! Be sure of it! At first light I will have them come from you!" Alton yelled, and turned and stormed away.

Thor could care less about Alton, or his guards. He thought only of the King. He brushed the Legion members off, and turned back for MacGil. He shoved people out of the way as he hurried for the King's table. His mind was swimming with emotions, and he could hardly believe this turn of events. Here he was, just as his reputation was rising, only to have it ruined by some malignant snake, to have his love cheated away from him. And now, tomorrow, the threat of his being imprisoned. And with the Queen aligned against him, he feared that just maybe he would be.

But Thor didn't care about any of that now. All he cared about was protecting the King.

He pushed harder as he weaved his way through the crowd, bumping into a jester, walking right through his act, and finally, after pushing through three more attendants, making it to the King's table.

MacGil sat there, in the center of the table, a huge sack of wine in one hand, his cheeks red, laughing at the entertainment. He was surrendered by all of his top generals, and Thor stood before them, pushing his way right up to the bench, until finally, the King noticed him.

"My liege," Thor yelled out, hearing the desperation in his own voice. "I must speak with you! Please!"

A guard came to pull Thor away, but the King raised a palm.

"Thorgrin!" MacGil bellowed in his deep, kingly voice, drunk with wine. "My boy. Why have you approached our table? The Legion's table is there."

Thor bowed low.

"My king, I am sorry. But I must speak with you."

A musician clanged a cymbal in Thor's ear, and finally, MacGil gestured for him to stop.

The music quieted, and all the generals turned and looked at Thor. Thor could feel all the attention on him.

"Well, young Thorgrin, now you have the floor. Speak. What is it that cannot wait till tomorrow?" MacGil said.

"My liege," Thor began, but then stopped. What could he say exactly? That he had a dream? That he saw an omen? That he felt the King would be poisoned? Would it sound absurd?

But he had no choice. He had to press on.

"My liege, I had a dream," he began. "It was about you. In this feasting hall, in this place. The dream was…that you should not drink."

The King leaned forward, eyes opened wide.

"That I should not drink?" he repeated, slowly and loudly.

Then, after a moment of stunned silence, MacGil leaned back and roared with laughter, bellowing, shaking the whole table.

"That I should not drink!" MacGil repeated. "What a dream is this! I should call it a nightmare!"

The King leaned back and bellowed with laughter, and all of his men joined in. Thor reddened, but he could not back down.

MacGil gestured, and a guard stepped forward and grabbed Thor and began to take him away – but Thor roughly yanked the guard off of him. He was determined. He had to give the King this message.

Protect our King.

"My King, I demand that you listen!" Thor screamed, red-faced, pressing forward and banging the table with his fist.

It shook the table, and all the men's turned and stared at Thor.

There was a stunned silence, as the King's face dropped into a scowl.

"YOU demand?" MacGil yelled. "You demand nothing of me boy!" he screamed, his anger rising.

The table quieted even more, and Thor felt his cheeks redden in humiliation.

"My king, forgive me. I mean no disrespect. But I am concerned for your safety. Please. Do not drink. I dreamt you were poisoned! Please. I care very much about you. That is the only reason for my saying so."

Slowly, MacGil's scowl lifted. He stared deeply into Thor's eyes and took a deep breath.

"Yes, I can see that you do care. Even if you are foolish boy. I forgive you your disrespect. Go on now. And don't let me see your face again until the morning."

He gestured to his guards, and they yanked Thor away, strongly this time. The table slowly resumed its merriment, as they all went back to drinking.

Thor, dragged several feet away, burned with indignation. He feared for what he had done here tonight, and had a sinking feeling that tomorrow he would pay the price. Maybe even be asked to leave this place. Forever.

As the guards gave him one last shove, Thor found himself at the Legion's table, maybe twenty feet away from the King. He felt a hand on his shoulder and spun to see Reece standing there.

"I've been searching for you all day. What happened to you?" Reece asked. "You look as if you have seen a ghost!"

Thor was too overwhelmed to respond. He hardly knew what to do now.

"Come sit with me – I saved you a seat," Reece said.

Reece pulled Thor down beside him, at a table set aside for the King's family. He saw Reece's brother, Godfrey, drinking with both hands, and beside him sat Gareth, watching with shifting eyes. Thor hoped beyond hope that Gwendolyn might be there, too, but she was not.

"What is it, Thor?" Reece prodded, as he sat down beside him. "You stare at this table as if it will bite you."

Thor shook his head.

"If I told you, you would not believe me. So best I just keep my mouth shut."

"Tell me. You can tell me anything," Reece urged with intensity.

Thor saw the look in his eyes, and realized, that finally, someone was taking him seriously. He took a deep breath, and began. He had nothing to lose.

"The other day, in the forest, with your sister, we saw a Whiteback. She said it was an omen of death, and I believe it is. I saw Argon, and he confirmed that a death is coming. Shortly after, I had a dream that your father would be poisoned. Here. Tonight. In this hall. I know it in my bones. He will be. Someone is trying to assassinate him," Thor said.

He said it all in a rush, and it felt good to get it off his chest. It felt good to have someone actually listen.

Reece was quiet as he stared back into his eyes for a long time. Finally, he spoke.

"You seem genuine. I have no doubt. And I appreciate your caring for my father. I believe you. I do. But dreams are tricky things. Not always what we think."

"I told the King," Thor said. "And they laughed at me. Of course, he will drink tonight."

"Thor, I believe you dreamt this. And I believe you feel this. But I've had terrible dreams, too, my entire life. The other night, I dreamt I was pushed out the castle, and I woke feeling that I was. But I was not. Do you understand? Dreams are strange things. And Argon speaks in riddles. You must not take it all so seriously. My father is fine. I am fine. We're all fine. Try to just sit back and drink and relax. And enjoy."

With that, Reece leaned back in his chair, covered in furs, and drank. He flagged a waiter, who put a huge portion of venison before Thor, along with a drinking goblet.

But Thor just sat there, staring at his food He felt his whole life dissolving around him. He didn't know what to do.

He could still think of nothing but his dream. It was like being in a waking nightmare, sitting there, watching everyone drink and feast around him. All he could do was watch the servers, all the drinks, all the goblets, heading for the King. He watched closely every server, every goblet of wine. Every time the King drank, Thor flinched.

But Thor was obsessed. He could not look away. He watched and watched, for what felt like hours.

Finally, Thor spotted one particular server. He approached the king with a goblet unlike the others. It was large, made of a very distinct gold, covered in rows of rubies and sapphires.

It was the exact goblet of Thor's dream.

Thor, his heart pounding in his chest, watched as if in slow motion as the servant came closer to the king. When he was just feet away, Thor could stand it no longer. Every ounce of his body screamed that this was the poisoned chalice.

Thor leapt from his table, shoved his way through the thick crowd, elbowed everyone roughly who was in his way.

Just as the King took the chalice into his hands, Thor leapt up onto his table, reached out, and swiped the goblet from the king's hands.

A horrified gasp filled the entire hall as the goblet flew from the king's hands, landed on the stone with a hard clink.

The entire hall went dead silent. Every musician, every juggler, stopped. Hundreds of men and women all turned and stared.

The king slowly stood, and glowered down at Thor.

"How dare you!" shrieked the King. "You insolent little boy!" he screamed. "I will put you in the stocks for this!"

Thor stood there, horrified, hardly believing what he had just done. He felt the entire world crashing down on him. He just wanted to disappear.

Suddenly, a hound walked over to the puddle of wine now forming on the floor, and lapped it up. Before Thor could respond, before the room could move again, all eyes went to the hound, who started making awful, horrible noises.

A moment later, the hound froze up, and fell on its side, dead. The entire room looked at the dog with a horrified gasp.

"You knew the drink was poison!" yelled a voice.

Thor turned and saw the Prince Gareth, standing there, coming up beside the king, pointing accusingly at Thor.

"How could you have possibly have known it was poisoned? Unless you are the one who did it! Thor tried to poison the king!" Gareth yelled out.

The entire crowd cheered in outrage.

"Take him to the dungeon," the king commanded.

A moment later, Thor felt guards grabbing him hard from behind, dragging him through the hall. He squirmed, and tried to protest.

"No!" he screamed out. "You don't understand!"

But no one listened. He was dragged through the crowd, fast and quick, and as he went, he watched them all disappear from him, his whole life disappear from him. They crossed the hall and out a side door, a door slamming shut behind them.

It was quiet here. A moment later, Thor felt himself descending. He was being pulled by several hands down a winding stone staircase. It grew darker and darker, and soon he could hear the cries of prisoners.

An iron cell door opened, and he realized where he was being taken. The dungeon.

He squirmed, trying to protest, to break free.

"You don't understand!" he yelled.

Thor looked up and saw a guard step forward, a large, crude man with an unshaven face, and yellow teeth.

He scowled down at Thor.

"Oh I understand very well," came his raspy voice.

He reached back his fist, and the last thing Thor saw was his fist, coming down right for his face.

Then his world was blackness.