A Quest of Heroes
“Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.”
The boy stood on the highest knoll of the low country in the Western Kingdom of the Ring, looking north, watching the first of the rising suns. As far as he could see stretched rolling green hills, like camel humps, dipping and rising in a series of valleys and peaks. The burnt-orange rays of the first sun lingered in the morning mist, making them sparkle, lending the light a magic that matched the boy’s mood. He rarely woke this early or ventured this far from home-and never ascended this high-knowing it would incur his father’s wrath. But on this day, he didn’t care. On this day, he disregarded the million rules and chores that had oppressed him for his fourteen years. For this day was different. It was the day his destiny had arrived.
The boy-Thorgrin of the Western Kingdom of the Southern Province of the clan McLeod-known to all he liked simply as Thor-the youngest of four boys, the least favorite of his father, had stayed awake all night in anticipation of this day. He had tossed and turned, bleary-eyed, waiting,
Conscription Day. It was the one day the King’s Army canvassed the provinces, hand-picked volunteers for the King’s Legion. As long as he had lived, Thor had dreamt of nothing else. For him, life meant one thing: joining The Silver, the king’s elite force of knights, bedecked in the finest armor and the choicest arms anywhere in the two kingdoms. And one could not enter the Silver without first joining the Legion, the company of squires ranging from fourteen to nineteen years of age. And if one was not the son of a noble, or of a famed warrior, there was no other way to join the Legion.
Conscription Day was the only exception, that rare event every few years when the Legion ran low and the king’s men scoured the land in search of new recruits. Everyone knew that few commoners were chosen-and that even fewer would actually make the Legion.
Thor stood there, studying the horizon intently, looking for any sign of motion. The Silver, he knew, would have to take this road, the only road into his village, and he wanted to be the first to spot them. His flock of sheep protested all around him, rose up in a chorus of annoying grunts, urging him to bring them back down the mountain, where the grazing was choicer. He tried to block out the noise, and the stench. He had to concentrate.
What had made all of this bearable, all these years of tending flocks, of being his father’s lackey, his older brothers’ lackey, the one cared for least and burdened most, was the idea that one day he would leave this place. One day, when the Silver came, he would surprise all those who had underestimated him, and be selected. In one swift motion, he would ascend their carriage and say goodbye to all of this.
His father, of course, had never considered him seriously as a candidate for the Legion-in fact, he had never considered him as a candidate for anything. Instead, his father devoted his love and attention to Thor’s three older brothers. The oldest was nineteen and the others but a year behind each other, leaving Thor a good three years younger than any of them. Perhaps because they were closer in age, or perhaps because they looked alike and looked nothing like Thor, the three of them stuck together, barely acknowledging Thor’s existence.
Worse, they were taller and broader and stronger than he, and Thor, who knew he was not short, nonetheless felt small beside them, felt his muscular legs frail beside their barrels of oak. His father made no move to rectify any of this-and in fact seemed to relish it-leaving Thor to attend the sheep and sharpen weapons, while his brothers were left to train. It was never spoken, but always understood, that Thor would spend his life in the wings, be forced to watch his brothers achieve great things. His destiny, if his father and brothers had their way, would be to stay here, swallowed by this village, and give his family the support they demanded.
Worse still was that Thor sensed that his brothers, paradoxically, were threatened by him, maybe even hated him. Thor could see it in their every glance, every gesture. He didn’t understand how, but he aroused something in them, like fear or jealousy. Perhaps it was because he was different from them, didn’t look like them or speak with their mannerisms; he didn’t even dress like them, his father reserving the best garments-the purple and scarlet robes, the gilded weapons-for his brothers, while Thor was left wearing the coarsest of rags.
Nonetheless, Thor made the best of what he had, finding a way to make his clothes fit, tying the frock with a sash around his waist, and, now that summer was here, cutting off the sleeves to allow his toned arms to be caressed by the breezes. These were matched by coarse linen pants, his only pair, and boots made of the poorest leather, laced up his shins. They were hardly the leather of his brothers’ shoes, but he made them work. He wore the typical uniform of a herder.
But he hardly had the typical demeanor: Thor stood tall and lean, with a proud jaw, noble chin, high cheekbones and gray eyes, looking like a displaced warrior. His straight, brown hair fell back in waves on his head, just past his ears, and behind them, his eyes glistened like a minnow in the light.
Thor knew that today his brothers would be allowed to sleep in, be given a hearty meal, sent off for the Selection with the finest weapons and his father’s blessing-while he would not even be allowed to attend. He had tried to raise the issue with his father once. It had not gone well. His father had summarily ended the conversation, and he had not tried again. It just wasn’t fair.
Thor was determined to reject the fate his father had planned for him: at the first sign of the royal caravan, he would race back to the house, confront his father, and, like it or not, make himself known to the King’s Men. He would stand for selection with the others. His father could not stop him. He felt a knot in his stomach at the thought of it.
The first sun rose higher, and when the second sun began to rise, a mint green, adding a layer of light to the purple sky, Thor spotted them.
He stood upright, hairs on end, electrified. There, on the horizon, came the faintest outline of a horse-drawn carriage, its wheels kicking dust into the sky. His heart beat faster as another came into view; then another. Even from here the golden carriages gleamed in the suns, like silver-backed fish leaping from the water.
By the time he counted twelve of them, he could wait no longer. Heart pounding in his chest, forgetting his flock for the first time in his life, he turned and stumbled down the hill, determined to stop at nothing until he made himself known.
Thor barely stopped to catch his breath as he sped down the hills, through the trees, scratched by branches and not caring. He reached a clearing and saw his village spread out below: a sleepy country town, packed with one-story, white clay homes with thatched roofs, there were but several dozen families amongst them. Smoke rose from chimneys, and he knew most were up early, preparing their morning meal. It was an idyllic place, just far enough-a full day’s ride-from King’s Court to deter passersby. Just another farming village on the edge of the Ring, another cog in the wheel of the Western Kingdom.
Thor burst down the final stretch, into the village square, kicking up dirt as he went. Chickens and dogs ran out of his way, and an old woman, squatting outside her home before a cauldron of bubbling water, hissed at him.
“Slow down boy!” she screeched, as he raced passed her, stirring dust into her fire.
But Thor would not slow-not for her, not for anybody. He turned down one side street, then another, twisting and turning the way he knew by heart, until he reached home.
It was a small, nondescript dwelling, like all the others, with its white clay walls and angular, thatched roof.