A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Two)

Thor wandered for hours in the hills, seething, until finally he chose a hill and sat, arms crossed over his legs, and watched the horizon. He watched the carriages disappear, watched the cloud of dust that lingered for hours after.

There would be no more visits. Now he was destined to remain here, in this village, for years, awaiting another chance – if they ever returned. If his father ever allowed it. Now it would be just he and his father, alone in the house, and his father would surely let out the full breadth of his wrath on him. He would continue to be his father's lackey, years would pass, and he would end up just like him, stuck here, living a small, menial life – while his brothers gained glory and renown. His veins burned with the indignity of it all: this was not the life he was meant to live. He knew it.

Thor racked his brain for anything he could do, any way he could change it. But he knew there was nothing. These were the cards life had dealt him.

After hours of sitting, he rose dejectedly and began traversing his way back up the familiar hills, higher and higher. Inevitably, he drifted back towards the flock, to the high knoll. As he climbed, the first sun fell in the sky and the second reached its peak, casting a greenish tint. He took his time as he ambled, mindlessly removing his sling from his waist, its leather grip well-worn from years of use. He reached into his sack, tied to his hip, and fingered his collection of stones, each smoother than the next, hand-picked from the choicest creeks. Sometimes he fired on birds, other times, rodents. It was a habit he'd ingrained over years. At first, he missed everything; then, once, he hit a moving target. Since then, his aim was true. Now, hurling stones had become a part of him – and it helped to release some of his anger. His brothers might be able to swing a sword through a log – but they could never hit a flying bird with a stone like he could.

Thor mindlessly placed a stone in the sling, leaned back and hurled it with all he had, pretending he was hurling it at his father. He hit a branch on a far-off tree, taking it down cleanly. Once he'd discovered he could actually kill moving animals, he'd stopped, afraid at his own power and not wanting to hurt anything; now his targets were branches. Unless of course, it was one of the fox that came after his flock; over time, they had learned to stay clear. His flock, as a result, was the safest kept in the village.

Thor thought of his brothers, of where they were right now, and he steamed. After a day's ride they would arrive in King's Court. He could see it. He saw them arriving to great fanfare, people dressed in their finest greeting them. Warriors greeting them. Members of the Silver. They would be taken in, given a place to live in the Legion's barracks, a place to train in the King's fields, given the finest weapons. Each would be named squire to a famous knight. One day, they would become knights themselves, get their own horse, their own coat of arms, and have their own squire. They would partake in all the festivals, and dine at the King's table. It was a charmed life. And it had slipped from his grasp.

Thor felt physically sick, and tried to force it all from his mind. But he could not. There was a part of him, some deep part, that screamed at him. It told him not to give up, that he had a greater destiny than this. He didn't know what it was, but he knew it wasn't here. He felt he was different. Maybe even special. That no one understood him. And that they all underestimated him.

Thor reached the highest knoll and spotted his flock. Well-trained, they were all still gathered, gnawing away contentedly at whatever grass they could find. He counted them, looking for the red marks he had stained on their backs. But he froze as he finished. One sheep was missing.

He counted again, and again. He couldn't believe it: one was gone.

Thor had never lost a sheep before, and his father would not let him live this down. Worse, he hated the idea of one of his sheep lost, alone, vulnerable in the wilderness. He hated to see anything innocent suffer.

Thor scurried to the top of the knoll and scanned the horizon. He spotted it, far-off, several hills away: the lone sheep, the red mark on its back. It was the wild one of the bunch. His heart dropped as he realized the sheep had not only fled, but had chosen, of all places, to head west, to Darkwood.

Thor gulped. Darkwood was forbidden – not just for sheep, but for humans. It was beyond the village limit, and from the time he could walk, Thor knew not to venture there. He never had. Going there, legend told, was a sure death, its woods unmarked and filled with vicious animals.

Thor looked up at the darkening sky, debating. He couldn't let his sheep go. He figured if he could move fast, he could get it back in time.

After one final look back, he turned and broke into a sprint, heading west, for Darkwood, thick clouds gathering in the sky. He had a sinking feeling, yet his legs seemed to carry him on his own. He felt there was no turning back, even if he wanted to.

It was like running into a nightmare.

Thor sped down the series of hills without pausing, into the thick canopy of Darkwood. The trails ended where the wood began, and he ran into unmarked territory, summer leaves crunching beneath his feet.

The instant he entered the wood the sky darkened, blocked by the towering pines above. It was colder in here, too, and as he crossed the threshold, he felt a chill. The chill wasn't just from the dark, or the cold – it was from something else. Something he could not name. It was a sense of…being watched.

Thor looked up at the ancient branches, gnarled, thicker than he, swaying and creaking in the breeze. He had barely gone fifty paces into the wood when he began to hear odd animal noises. He turned and could hardly see the opening from which he'd entered; he felt already as if there were no way out. He hesitated.

Darkwood had always sat on the periphery of the town and on the periphery of his consciousness, something deep and mysterious. Every herder who ever lost a sheep to the wood had never dared venture after it. Even his father. The tales about this place were too dark, too persistent.

But there was something different about today that made Thor no longer care, that made him throw caution to the wind. A part of him wanted to push the boundaries, to get as far away from home as possible, and to allow life to take him where it may.

He ventured farther, then paused, unsure which way to go. He noticed markings, bent branches where his sheep must have gone, and turned in that direction. After some time, he turned again.

Before another hour had passed, he was hopelessly lost. He turned and tried to remember the direction from which he came – but was no longer sure. An uneasy feeling settled in his stomach, but he figured the only way out was forward, so he continued on.

In the distance, Thor spotted a shaft of sunlight, and made for it. He found himself before a small clearing, and stopped at its edge. He stood there, rooted: he could not believe what he saw before him.

Standing there, his back to him, dressed in a long, blue satin robe, was a man. No – not a man, Thor could sense it from here. He was something else. A druid, maybe. He stood tall and straight, head covered by a hood, perfectly still, as if he did not have a care in the world.

Thor stood there, not knowing what to do. He had heard of druids, but had never encountered one. From the markings on his robe, the elaborate gold trim, this was no mere druid: those were royal markings. Of the King's court. Thor could not understand it. What was a royal druid doing here?

After what felt like an eternity, the druid slowly turned and faced him, and as he did, Thor recognized the face. It took his breath away. It was one of the most famous faces in the kingdom: the King's personal druid. Argon, counselor to kings of the Western Kingdom for centuries. What he was doing here, far from the royal court, in the center of Darkwood, was a mystery. Thor wondered if he were imagining it.

"Your eyes do not deceive you," Argon said, staring right at Thor.

His voice was deep, ancient, as if spoken by the trees themselves. His large, translucent eyes seemed to bore right through Thor, summing him up. He felt an intense energy radiating off of him – as if he were standing opposite the sun.

Thor immediately took a knee and bowed his head.

"My liege," he said. "I'm sorry to have disturbed you."

Thor knew that disrespect towards a King's counselor would result in imprisonment or death. It had been ingrained in him since the time he was born.

"Stand up, child," Argon said. "If I wanted you to kneel, I would have told you."

Slowly, Thor stood and looked at him. Argon took several steps closer. He stood there and stared, until Thor began to feel uncomfortable.

"You have your mother's eyes," Argon said.

Thor was taken aback. He had never met his mother, and had never met anyone, aside from his father, who knew her. From what he was told, she had died in childbirth, something for which Thor always felt a sense of guilt. He had always suspected that that was why his family hated him.

"I think you're mistaking me for someone else," Thor said. "I don't have a mother."

"Don't you?" Argon asked with a smile. "Were you born by man alone?"

"I meant to say, sire, that my mother died in birth. I think you mistake me."

"You are Thorgrin, of the Clan McLeod. The youngest of four brothers. The one not picked."

Thor's eyes opened wide. He hardly knew what to make of this. That someone of Argon's stature should know who he was – it was more than he could comprehend. He didn't even imagine that he was known to anyone outside his village.

"How…do you know this?"

Argon smiled back, but did not respond.

Thor was suddenly filled with curiosity.

"How…" Thor added, fumbling for words, "…how do you know my mother? Have you met her? Who was she?"

Argon turned and walked away.

"Questions for another time," he said, his back to him.

Thor watched him go, puzzled. It was such a dizzying and mysterious encounter, and it was all happening so fast. He decided he could not let him leave; he hurried after him.

"What are you doing here?" he asked, hurrying to catch up. Argon, using his staff, an ancient ivory thing, walked deceptively fast. "You were not waiting for me, were you?"

"Who else?" Argon asked.

Thor hurried to catch up, following him into the wood, leaving the clearing behind.

"But why me? How did you know I would be here? What is it that you want?"

"So many questions," Argon said. "You fill the air. You should listen instead."

Thor followed him as he continued through the thick wood, doing his best to remain silent.

"You come in search of your lost sheep," Argon stated. "A noble effort. But you waste your time. She will not survive."

Thor's eyes opened wide.

"How do you know this?"

"I know worlds you will never know, boy. At least, not yet."

Thor wondered as he hiked to catch up.

"You won't listen, though. That is your nature. Stubborn. Like your mother. You will continue after your sheep, determined to rescue her."

Thor reddened as Argon read his thoughts.

"You are a feisty boy," he added. "Strong-willed. Too proud. Positive traits. But one day it may be your downfall."

Argon began to hike up a mossy ridge, and Thor followed.

"You want to join the King's Legion," he said.

"Yes!" Thor answered, excitedly. "Is there any chance for me? Can you make that happen?"

Argon laughed, a deep, hollow sound that sent a chill up Thor's spine.

"I can make everything and nothing happen. Your destiny was already written. But it is up to you to choose it."

Thor did not understand.

They reached the top of the ridge, and as they did Argon stopped and faced him. Thor stood only feet away, and Argon's energy burned through him.

"Your destiny is an important one," he said. "Do not abandon it."

Thor's eyed widened. His destiny? Important? He felt himself well with pride.

"I do not understand. You speak in riddles. Please, tell me more."

Suddenly, Argon vanished.

Thor could hardly believe it. He looked every which way. He stood there, listening, wondering. Had he imagined it all? Was it some delusion?

Thor turned and examined the wood; from this vantage point, high up on the ridge, he could see farther than before. As he looked, he spotted motion, in the distance. He heard a noise, and felt sure it was his sheep.

He stumbled down the mossy ridge and hurried in that direction, back through the wood. As he went, he could not shake his encounter with Argon. He could hardly conceive it had happened. What was the King's druid doing here, of all places? He had been waiting for him. But why? And what had he meant about his destiny?

The more Thor tried to unravel it, the less he understood. Argon was both warning him not to continue and at the same time tempting him to do so. Now, as he went, Thor felt an increasing sense of foreboding, as if something momentous were about to happen.

As he turned a bend, he stopped cold in his tracks at the view before him. All of his worst nightmares were confirmed in a single moment. His hair stood on end, and he realized he had made a grave mistake in coming here, this deep into Darkwood.

There, opposite him, hardly thirty paces away, was a Sybold. Hulking, muscular, standing on all fours, nearly the size of a horse, it was the most feared animal of Darkwood, maybe even of the kingdom. Thor had never seen one, but had heard legends. It resembled a lion, but was bigger, broader, its hide a deep scarlet and its eyes a glowing yellow. Legend had it that its scarlet color came from the blood of innocent children.

Thor had heard of few sightings of this beast his entire life, and even these were thought to be dubious. Maybe that was because no one ever actually survived an encounter. Some considered the Sybold to be the God of the Woods, and an omen. What that omen was, Thor had no idea.

He took a careful step back.

The Sybold stood there, its huge jaws half-open, its fangs dripping saliva, staring back with its yellow eyes. In its mouth was Thor's missing sheep: screaming, hanging upside down, half of its body pierced by fangs. It was mostly dead. The Sybold seemed to revel in the kill, taking its time; it seemed to delight in torturing it.

Thor could not stand the sound of the cries. It wiggled, helpless, and he felt responsible.

Thor's first impulse was to turn and run; but he already knew that would be futile. He would never outrun this beast, which could outrun anything. Running would only embolden it. And he could not leave his sheep to die like that.

He stood there, frozen in fear, and knew he had to take action of some sort.

Thor felt his reflexes take over. He slowly reached down, extracted a stone, and placed it in his sling. With a trembling hand, he wound up, took a step forward, and hurled.

The stone sailed through the air and hit its mark. It was a perfect shot. It hit the sheep in its eyeball, driving through to its brain.

The sheep went limp. Dead. Thor had spared this animal its suffering.

The Sybold glared at Thor, enraged that Thor had killed its plaything. It slowly opened its immense jaws and dropped the sheep, which landed with a thump on the forest floor. Then it set its eyes on Thor.

It snarled, a deep, evil sound, rising up from its belly.

As it started hulking towards him, Thor, heart pounding, placed another stone in his sling, reached back, and prepared to fire once again.

The Sybold broke into a sprint, moving faster than anything Thor had ever seen in his life. Thor took a step forward and hurled the stone, praying that it hit, knowing he wouldn't have time to sling another before it arrived.

The stone hit the beast in its right eye, knocking it out. It was a tremendous throw, one that would've brought a lesser animal to its knees.

But this was no lesser animal. The beast was unstoppable. It shrieked at the damage, but never even slowed. Even without one eye, even with the stone lodged in its brain, it continued to charge mindlessly at Thor. There was nothing Thor could do.

A moment later, the beast was on him. It wound up with its huge claw, and swiped his arm.

Thor shrieked. It felt like three knives cutting across his flesh, as he felt hot blood gush out of it.

The beast pinned him to the ground, on all fours. The weight of it was immense, like an elephant standing on his chest. Thor felt his ribcage being crushed.

The beast pulled back its head, opened wide its jaws, revealed its fangs, and began to lower them for Thor's throat.

As it did, Thor reached up and grabbed its neck; it was like grabbing onto solid muscle. Thor could barely hang on. His arms started to shake, as the fangs descended lower. He felt its hot breath all over his face, felt the saliva drip down onto his neck. A rumble came from deep within the animal's chest, burning Thor's ears. He knew he would die.

Thor closed his eyes.

Please God. Give me strength. Allow me to fight this creature. Please. I beg you. I will do anything you ask. I will owe you a great debt.

And then, something happened. Thor felt a tremendous heat rise up within his body, course through his veins, like an energy field racing through him. As he opened his eyes, he saw something that surprised him: from his palms there emanated a yellow light, and as he pushed back into the beast's throat, amazingly, he was able to match its strength, to hold it at bay.

Thor continued to push, and realized he was actually pushing the beast back. His strength grew and he felt a cannonball of energy – and a moment later, the beast went flying backwards, Thor sending it a good ten feet. It landed on its back.

Thor sat up, not understanding what had happened.

The beast regained its feet. Then, in a rage, it charged again – but this time Thor felt different. He felt the energy course through him, and felt more powerful than he had ever been.

As the beast leapt into the air, Thor crouched down, grabbed it by its stomach and hurled it, letting its momentum carry it.

The beast flew through the wood, smashed into a tree, then collapsed to the floor.

Thor turned, amazed. Had he just thrown a Sybold?

The beast blinked twice, then looked at Thor. It charged again.

This time, as the beast pounced, Thor grabbed it by its throat. They both went to the ground, the beast on top of Thor. But Thor rolled over, on top of it. Thor held it, choking it with both hands, as the beast kept trying to raise its head, snap its fangs at him. It just missed. Thor, feeling a new strength, dug his hands in and did not let go. He let the energy course through him. And soon, amazingly, he felt himself stronger than the beast.

Moments later, he realized he was choking the beast to death. Finally, the beast went limp.

Thor did not let go for another full minute.

He stood slowly, out of breath, staring down, wide-eyed, as he held his wounded arm. He could not believe what had just happened. Had he, Thor, just killed a Sybold?

He felt it was a sign, on this day of all days. He felt as if something momentous had happened. He had just killed the most famed and feared beast of his kingdom. Single-handedly. Without a weapon. It did not seem real. No one would believe him.

He stood there, reeling, wondering what power had overcome him, what it meant, who he really was. The only people known to have power like that were Druids. But his father and mother were not druids, so he couldn't be one.

Or could he be?

Thor suddenly sensed someone behind him, and spun to see Argon standing there, staring down at the animal.

"How did you get here?" Thor asked, amazed.

Argon ignored him.

"Did you witness what happened?" Thor asked, still unbelieving. "I don't know how I did it."

"But you do know," Argon answered. "Deep inside, you know. You are different than the others."

"It was like…a surge of power," Thor said. "Like a strength I didn't know I had."

"The energy field," Argon said. "One day you will come to know it quite well. You may even learn to control it."

Thor clutched his shoulder, the pain excruciating. He looked down and saw his hand covered in blood. He felt lightheaded, worried what would happen if he didn't get help.

Argon took three steps forward, reached out, grabbed Thor's free hand, and placed it firmly on his wound. He held it there, leaned back, and closed his eyes.

As he did, Thor felt a warm sensation course through his arm. Within seconds, the sticky blood on his hand dried up, and he felt his pain begin to fade.

He looked down, and could not comprehend it: his arm was healed. All that remained were three scars where the claws had cut – but they looked to be several days old. They were sealed. There was no more blood.

Thor looked at Argon in astonishment.

"How did you do that?" he asked.

Argon smiled.

"I didn't. You did. I just directed your power."

"But I don't have the power to heal," Thor answered, baffled.

"Don't you?" Argon replied.

"I don't understand. None of this is making any sense," Thor said, increasingly impatient. "Please, tell me."

Argon looked away.

"Some things you must learn over time."

Thor thought of something.

"Does this mean I can join the King's Legion?" he asked, excitedly. "Surely, if I can kill a Sybold, then I can hold my own with other boys."

"Surely you can," he answered.

"But they chose my brothers – they didn't choose me."

"Your brothers couldn't have killed this beast."

Thor stared back, thinking.

"But they have already rejected me. How can I join them?"

"Since when does a warrior need an invitation?" Argon asked.

His words sunk in deep. Thor felt his body warming over.

"Are you saying I should just show up? Uninvited?"

Argon smiled.

"You create your destiny. Others do not."

Thor blinked – and a moment later, Argon was gone.

Thor couldn't believe it. He spun around the wood in every direction, but there was no trace of him.

"Over here!" came a voice.

Thor turned and saw a huge boulder before him. He sensed the voice came from up top, and he immediately climbed it.

He reached the top, and was puzzled to see no sign of Argon.

From this vantage point, though, he was able to see above the treetops of Darkwood. He saw where Darkwood ended, saw the second sun setting in a dark green, and beyond that, the road leading to King's Court.

"The road is yours to take," came the voice. "If you dare."

Thor spun but saw nothing. It was just a voice, echoing. But he knew Argon was there, somewhere, egging him on. And he felt, deep down, that he was right.

Without another moment's hesitation, Thor scrambled down the rock and set off, through the wood, for the distant road.

Sprinting for his destiny.