A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Twenty-Seven)
Thor ran up beside Reece and O'Connor as they made their way out to the field, looking exhausted, and began to line up.
"Where were you last night?" Reece asked.
Thor wished he knew how to respond – but he didn't really know where he had been himself. What was he supposed to say? That he had fallen asleep outside on the ground, on Argon's mountain? It made no sense, not even to him.
"I don't know," he answered, not knowing how much to tell them.
"What do you mean you don't know?" O'Connor asked.
"I got lost," Thor said.
"Well you're lucky you made it back when you did," Reece said.
"If you had come back late for the day's assignments, they wouldn't have let you back into the Legion," Elden added, coming up beside them, clapping a beefy hand on his shoulder. "Good to see you. You were missed yesterday."
Thor was still shocked at the difference in how Elden treated him since their time on the far side of the Canyon.
"How did things go with my sister?" Reece asked, in hushed tones.
Thor blushed, unsure how to respond.
"Did you see her?" Reece prodded.
"Yes, I did," he began. "We had a great time. Although we had to leave abruptly."
"Well," Reece continued, as they all lined up side-by-side before Kolk and the King's men, "you will get to see more of her tonight. Put on your finest. It's the King's feast."
Thor's stomach dropped. He thought of his dream and felt as if destiny were dancing before his eyes – and that he was helpless, fated to do nothing but just watch it unfold.
"QUIET!" screamed Kolk, as he began to pace before the boys.
Thor stiffened, with the others, as they all fell silent.
Kolk walked slowly up and down the lines, surveying them all.
"You had your fun yesterday. Now it's back to training. And today, you will learn the ancient art of ditch digging."
A collective groan rose up among the boys.
"SILENCE!" he yelled.
The boys fell quiet.
"Ditch digging is hard work," Kolk continued. "But it is important work. You will one day find yourself out there, protecting our kingdom, in the wilderness, with no one to help you. It will be freezing, so cold you can't feel your toes, the black of night, and you will do anything to keep warm. Or you may find yourself in a battle, in which you need to take cover, to save yourself from the enemies' arrows. There may be a million reasons why you need a ditch. And a ditch may be your best friend.
"Today," he continued, clearing his throat, "you will spend all day digging, until your hands are red with calluses and your back is breaking, and you can't take it anymore. Then, on the day of battle, it will not seem as bad.
"FOLLOW ME!" Kolk yelled.
There came another groan of disappointment as the boys broke down into a line of two, and began marching across the field, following Kolk.
"Great," Elden said. "Ditch digging. Exactly how I wanted to spend the day."
"Could be worse," O'Connor said. "It could be raining."
They looked up at the sky, and Thor spotted threatening clouds overhead.
"It just might," Reece said. "Don't jinx it."
"THOR!" came a shout.
Thor turned to see Kolk glaring at him, off to the side. He ran over to him, wondering what he had done wrong.
"Your knight has summoned you," he said, curt. "Report to Erec at the castle grounds. You're lucky: you're off-duty for today. You will serve your knight instead, as all good squires should. But don't think you're getting out of ditch digging: when you return tomorrow, you will be digging ditches by yourself. Now go!" he yelled.
Thor turned and saw the envious looks of the others, then ran from the field, heading for the castle. What could Erec want from him? Had it something to do with the King?
Thor ran through King's Court, turning down a path he had never gone down before: towards the barracks of the Silver. Their barracks were much more grand than those of the Legion's, their buildings twice the size, lined with copper, and their pathways paved with new stone. To get there, Thor had to pass through an arched gate twice the size of any other, a dozen of the King's men standing guard. The path then broadened, stretching out across a huge, open field, and culminating in a complex of stone buildings, encircled by a fence, and guarded by dozens more knights. It was an imposing site, even from here.
Thor raced down the path, conspicuous in the open field, and knights already prepared for his approach, even though he was so far away, stepping forward and crossing their lances, looking straight ahead, ignoring him, as they blocked his path.
"What business have you here?" one of them asked.
"I am reporting for duty," Thor responded. "I am Erec's squire."
The knights exchanged a wary look, but another knight stepped forward and nodded. They stepped back, uncrossed their weapons, and the gate slowly opened, its metal spikes rising, creaking. The gate was immense, at least two feet thick, and Thor thought that this place was even more fortified than even the King's Castle.
"The second building on the right." the knight yelled. "You'll find him in the stables."
Thor turned and hurried down the path through the courtyard, passing a compound of stone buildings, taking it all in. Everything was gleaming here, spotless, perfectly maintained. The whole place exuded an aura of strength.
Thor found the building, and was dazzled by the sight before him: dozens of the biggest and most beautiful horses he'd ever seen were tied up in neat rows outside the building, most of them covered in armor. The horses gleamed. Everything here was bigger, grander. He was inside the Silver's home; he could hardly believe it.
Real knights trotted by in every direction, carrying various weapons, passing through the courtyard on their way in or out of various gates. It was a busy place, and Thor could feel the presence of battle here. This place was not about training: it was about war. Life and death.
Thor passed through a small, arched entranceway, down a darkened corridor of stone, and continued hurrying through, passing by stable after stable, searching for Erec. But he reached the end of it, and he was nowhere to be found.
"Looking for Erec, are you?" a guard asked.
Thor turned and nodded.
"Yes, sire. I am his squire."
"You are late. He is already outside, preparing his horse. Move quickly, then."
Thor ran down the corridor and burst out of the stables into an open field. There was Erec, standing before a giant, valiant stallion, a gleaming black horse with a white nose. The horse snorted as Thor arrived, and Erec turned.
"I am sorry, sire," Thor said, out of breath. "I came as fast as I could. I did not mean to be late."
"You are just in time," Erec said with a gracious smile. "Thor, meet Lannin," he added, gesturing to the horse.
Lannin snorted and pranced, as if in response. Thor stepped up and reached out a hand and stroked his nose; he whinnied softly in return.
"He is my journey horse. A knight of rank has many horses, as you will learn. There is one for jousting, one for battle, and one for the long, solitary journey. This is the one you forge the closest friendship with. He likes you. That is good."
Lannin leaned forward and stuck his nose in Thor's palm. Thor was overwhelmed by the magnificence of this creature. He could see intelligence shining in his eyes. It was eerie: he felt as if he understood everything.
But something Erec said threw Thor off.
"Did you say a journey, sire?" he asked surprised.
Erec stopped tightening the harness, turned and looked at him.
"Today is the day of my birth. I have reached my twenty fifth year. That is a special day. Do you know about Selection Day?"
Thor shook his head. "Very little, sire; only what others tell me."
"We knights of the Ring must always continue on, generation after generation," Erec began. "We have until our twenty fifth year to choose a bride. If one is not chosen by then, law dictates for us to find one. We are given one year to find her, and to bring her back. If we return without one, then one is given to us by the king, and we forfeit our right to choose.
"So today, I must embark on my journey to find my bride."
Thor stared back, speechless.
"But sire, you are leaving? For one year?"
Thor's stomach dropped at the thought of it. He felt his world crumbling around him. It wasn't until this moment that he realized what a liking he had taken to Erec; in some ways, he had become like a father to him – certainly more of a father than the one he'd had.
"But then who shall I be squire to?" Thor asked. "And where will you go?"
Thor recalled how much Erec had stuck up for him, how he had saved his life. His heart sank at the idea of his leaving.
Erec laughed, a carefree laugh.
"Which question shall I answer first?" he said. "Do not worry. You have been assigned a new knight. You will be squire to him until my return. Kendrick, the king's eldest son."
Thor's heart soared to hear that; he felt an equally strong attachment to Kendrick who, after all, was the first one to look out for him and assure him a spot in the Legion.
"As far as my journey…." Erec continued, "…I do not yet know. I know I will head south, towards the kingdom that I hail from, and search for a bride in that direction. If I do not find one within the Ring, then I may even cross the sea to my own kingdom to search for one there."
"Your own kingdom, sire?" Thor asked.
Thor realized that he didn't really know that much about Erec, about where he came from. He had always just assumed he had come from within the Ring.
Erec smiled. "Yes, far from here, across the sea. But that is a tale for another time. It will be a far journey, and a long one, and I must prepare. So help me now. Time is quick. Harness my horse, and stock it with all manner of weapons."
Thor's head was spinning as he sprang into action, running to the stables, to the horse armory, and grabbing the distinct black and silver armor he knew belonged to Lannin. He ran back with one piece at a time, first placing the mailcoat on the horse's back, reaching up to drape it around his huge body. Then Thor ran and grabbed the shaffron, the thin, plated metal for the horse's head.
Lannin whinnied as he did so, and he seemed to like it. He was a noble horse, a warrior, Thor could tell, and he seemed just as comfortable in armor as a knight would.
Thor ran back and retrieved Erec's golden spurs, and helped attach one to each foot as Erec mounted the horse.
"Which weapons will you need, sire?" Thor asked.
Erec looked down, seeming huge from this perspective.
"It's hard to anticipate what battles I might encounter throughout a year. But I need to be able to hunt, and to defend myself. So of course, I need my longsword. I also should bring my shortsword, a bow, a quiver of arrows, a short spear, a mace, a dagger, and my shield. I suspect that will do."
"Yes, sire," Thor said, and broke into action. He ran to Erec's weapons rack, beside Lannin's stable, and looked over the dozens of weapons. There was an impressive arsenal to choose from.
He carefully removed all the weapons that Erec needed, and brought them back one at a time, handing them to Erec or placing them securely in the harness.
As Erec sat there, tightening his leather gauntlets, preparing to leave, Thor could not stand to watch him go.
"Sire, I feel it is my duty to accompany you on this journey," Thor said. "I am your squire after all."
Erec shook his head.
"It is a journey I must take alone."
"Then may I at least accompany you to the first crossing?" Thor pressed. "If you are heading south, those are roads that I know well. I am from the south."
Erec looked down, considering.
"If you want to accompany me to the first crossing, I see no harm in that. But it is a hard day's ride, so we must leave now. Take my squire's horse, in the rear of the stable. The brown one, with the red mane."
Thor ran back to the stable and found the horse. As he mounted it, Khron stuck his head out of his shirt and looked up and whined.
"It's okay, Khron," Thor reassured.
Thor leaned forward, kicked the horse, and they burst out of the stable. Erec had barely waited for him to catch up when he kicked Lannin and raced off at a gallop. Thor kicked his horse and followed Erec as best he could.
They rode together out of King's Court, through the gate, as several guardsmen pulled it back and stood to the side. Several members of the Silver were lined up, watching, waiting, and as Erec rode by, they raised their fists in salute.
Thor was proud to ride beside him, to be his squire, and excited to accompany him, even if it was only to the first crossing.
There was so much Thor had left to say to Erec, so many things he wanted to ask him – and so much he wanted to thank him for. But there wasn't time, as the two of them galloped south, bursting across the plains, the terrain constantly changing as their horses charged down the King's road in the late morning sun. As they passed a hill, in the distance Thor could see all the Legion members on a field, breaking their backs as they dug trenches. Thor was glad he was not among them. As Thor looked, in the distance he saw one of them stop, raise a fist in the air, towards him. It was hard to see in the sun, but he felt sure it was Reece, saluting. Thor raised a fist back, as they rode on.
The well-paved roads gave way to untended country roads. The roads became more narrow, rougher, and eventually became hardly more than well-trodden paths, cutting through the countryside. Thor knew it was dangerous for common folk to ride these roads alone – especially at night, with all the thieves that lurked on them. But Thor had little worry of this himself, especially with Erec at his side – in fact, if a robber should confront them, Thor feared more for the robber's life. Of course, it would be crazy for any thief to attempt to stop a member of the Silver.
They rode all day, hardly taking a break, until Thor was exhausted, out of breath. He could hardly believe Erec's stamina – yet he dared not let Erec know he was tired, for fear of seeming weak.
They passed a major crossroads, and Thor recognized it. He knew that if they bore right, it would bring them to his village. For a moment, Thor felt overwhelmed with nostalgia, and a part of him wanted to take the road, to see his father, his village. He wondered what his father was doing right now, who was tending the sheep, how irate his father must have been at his not returning. Not that he cared for him much. He just, momentarily, missed what was familiar. He was, in fact, relieved he had escaped from that small village, and another part of him wanted to never return.
They continued galloping on, farther and farther south, to territory even Thor had never been to. He had heard of the southern crossing, though he had never had reason to be there himself. It was one of three major crossroads that led to the southern reaches of the Ring. He was a good half day's ride now from King's court, and already the sun was getting long in the sky. Thor, sweating, out of breath, was starting to wonder, with trepidation, if he would make it back in time for the king's feast tonight. Had he made a mistake to accompany Erec this far?
They rounded a hilltop, and finally Thor saw it, there on the horizon: the unmistakable sign of the first crossing. It was marked by a large, skinny tower, the King's flag draped from it in all four directions, and members of the Silver standing guard atop its parapets. At the site of Erec, the knight atop the tower blew his trumpet. Slowly, the gatehouse rose.
They were but a few hundred yards away, and Erec slowed his horse to a walk. Thor had a knot in his stomach as he realized these were his last few minutes with Erec until who knew how long. Who knew, indeed, if he would even return. One year is a long time, and anything could happen. He was glad, at least, that he had had this chance to accompany him. He felt as if he had fulfilled his duty.
The two of them walked side-by-side, their horses breathing hard, the men breathing hard, as they approached the tower.
"I may not see you for many moons," Erec said. "When I return, I will have a bride in tow. Things may change. Though no matter what happens, know that you will always be my squire."
Erec took a deep breath.
"As I leave you, there are some things I want you to remember. A knight is not forged by strength – but by intelligence. Courage alone does not make a knight, but courage and honor and wisdom together. You must work always to perfect your spirit, your mind. Chivalry is not passive – it is active. You must work on it, better yourself, every moment of every day.
"Over these moons, you will learn all manner of weapons, all manner of skills. But remember: there is another dimension to our fighting. The sorcerer's dimension. Seek out Argon. Learn to develop your hidden powers. I have sensed them in you. You have great potential. It is nothing to be ashamed of. Do you understand me?"
"Yes, sire," Thor answered, welling with gratitude for his wisdom and understanding.
"I chose to take you under my wing for a reason. You are not like the others. You have a greater destiny. Greater, perhaps, even than mine. But it remains unfulfilled. You must not take it for granted. You must work at it. To be a great warrior, you must not only be fearless and skilled. You must also have a warrior's spirit, and carry that always in your heart and your mind. You must be willing to lay down your life for others. The greatest knight does not quest for riches or honor or fame or glory. The greatest knight takes the hardest quest of all: the quest to make yourself a better person. Every day, you must strive to be better. Not just better than others – but better than yourself. You must quest to take up the cause of those lesser than yourself. You must defend those who cannot defend themselves. It is not a quest for the light-hearted. It is a quest of heroes."
Thor's mind spun as he took it all in, pondering Erec's words carefully. He was overwhelmed with gratitude for him, and hardly knew how to respond. He sensed that it would take many moons for the full message of these words to sink in.
They reached the gate of the first crossing, and as they did, several members of the Silver came out to greet Erec. They rode up to him, big grins on their faces, and as he dismounted they clapped him hard on the back, as old friends.
Thor jumped down, took Lannin's reins and led him to the keeper at the gate, to feed and wash him down. Thor stood there, as Erec turned and looked at him, one last time.
In their final goodbye, there was too much Thor wanted to say. He wanted to thank him. But he also wanted to tell him everything. Of the omen. Of his dream. Of his fears for the king. He thought maybe Erec would understand.
But he could not bring himself to. Erec was already surrounded by knights, and Thor feared that Erec – and all of them – would think him crazy. So he stood there, tongue-tied, as Erec reached up and clasped his shoulder one last time.
"Protect our King," Erec said firmly.
The words sent a chill up Thor's spine, as if Erec had read his mind.
Erec turned, walked through the gate with the other knights, and as they passed through, their backs to him, Thor watched as the metal spikes slowly lowered behind him.
Erec was gone now. Thor could hardly believe it, felt a pit in his stomach. It could be an entire year until he saw him again.
Thor mounted his horse, tightened its reins, and kicked hard. The sun was nearly falling, and he had a good half day's ride to make it back for the feast. He felt Erec's final words reverberating in his head, like a mantra.
Protect our king.
Protect our king.