A Quest Of Heroes ( The Sorcerer's Ring)
Thor barely paused 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 as 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 past, 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. Like most, its single room was divided, his father sleeping on one side and his three brothers on the other; unlike most, it had a small chicken coop in the back, and it was here that Thor was exiled to sleep. At first he’d bunked with his brothers; but over time they had grown bigger and meaner and more exclusive, and made a show of not leaving him room. Thor had been hurt, but now he relished his own space, preferring to be away from their presence. It just confirmed for him that he was the exile in his family that he already knew he was. Thor ran to his front door and burst through it without stopping. “Father!” he yelled, gasping for breath. “The Silver! They’re coming!” His father and three brothers sat hunched over the breakfast table, already dressed in their finest. At his words they jumped up and darted past him, bumping his shoulders as they ran out of the house and into the road. Thor followed them out, and they all stood watching the horizon. “I see no one,” Drake, the oldest, answered in his deep voice. With the broadest shoulders, hair cropped short like his brothers’, brown eyes, and thin, disapproving lips, he scowled down at Thor, as usual. “Nor do I,” echoed Dross, just a year below Drake, always taking his side. “They’re coming!” Thor shot back. “I swear!” His father turned to him and grabbed his shoulders sternly. “And how would you know?” he demanded. “I saw them.” “How? From where?” Thor hesitated; his father had him. He of course knew the only place Thor could have spotted them was from the top of that knoll. Now Thor was unsure how to respond. “I…climbed the knoll—” “With the flock? You know they are not to go that far.” “But today was different. I had to see.” His father glowered down. “Go inside at once and fetch your brothers’ swords and polish their scabbards, so they look their best before the King’s men arrive.” His father, done with him, turned back to his brothers, who all stood in the road looking out. “Do you think they’ll choose us?” asked Durs, the youngest of the three, a full three years ahead of Thor. “They’d be foolish not to,” his father said. “They are short on men this year. It has been a slim cropping—or else they wouldn’t bother coming. Just stand straight, the three of you, keep your chins up and chests out. Do not look them directly in the eye, but do not look away, either. Be strong and confident. Show no weakness. If you want to be in the King’s Legion, you must act as if you’re already in it.” “Yes, Father,” his three boys answered at once, getting into position. He turned and glared back at Thor. “What are you still doing there?” he asked. “Get inside!” Thor stood there, torn. He didn’t want to disobey his father, but he had to speak with him. His heart pounded as he debated. He decided it would be best to obey, to bring the swords, and then confront his father. Disobeying outright wouldn’t help. Thor raced into the house, out through the back and to the weapons shed. He found his brothers’ three swords, objects of beauty all of them, crowned with the finest silver hilts, precious gifts for which his father had toiled years. He grabbed all three, surprised as always at their weight, and ran back through the house with them. He sprinted to his brothers, handed each a sword, then turned to his father. “What, no polish?” Drake said. His father turned to him disapprovingly, but before he could say anything, Thor spoke up. “Father, please. I need to speak with you!” “I told you to polish—” “Please, Father!” His father glared back, debating. He must have seen the seriousness on Thor’s face, because finally, he said, “Well?” “I want to be considered. With the others. For the Legion.” His brothers’ laughter rose up behind him, making his face burn red. But his father did not laugh; on the contrary, his scowl deepened. “Do you?” he asked. Thor nodded back vigorously. “I’m fourteen. I’m eligible.” “The cutoff is fourteen,” Drake said disparagingly, over his shoulder. “If they took you, you’d be the youngest. Do you think they’d choose you over someone like me, five years your elder?” “You are insolent,” Durs said. “You always have been.” Thor turned to them. “I’m not asking you,” he said. He turned back to his father, who still frowned. “Father, please,” he said. “Allow me a chance. That’s all I ask. I know I’m young, but I will prove myself, over time.” His father shook his head. “You’re not a soldier, boy. You’re not like your brothers. You’re a herder. Your life is here. With me. You will do your duties and do them well. One should not dream too high. Embrace your life, and learn to love it.” Thor felt his heart breaking as he saw his life collapsing before his eyes. No, he thought. This can’t be. “But Father” “Silence!” he shrieked, so shrill it cut the air. “Enough with you. Here they come. Get out of the way, and best mind your manners while they’re here.” His father stepped up and with one hand pushed Thor to the side, as if he were an object he’d rather not see. His beefy palm stung Thor’s chest. A great rumbling arose, and townsfolk poured out from their homes, lining the streets. A growing cloud of dust heralded the caravan, and moments later they arrived, a dozen horse-drawn carriages, with a noise like great thunder. They came into town like a sudden army, halting close to Thor’s home. Their horses , pranced in place, snorting. It took a long time for the cloud of dust to settle, and Thor anxiously tried to steal a peek at their armor, their weaponry. He had never been this close to the Silver before, and his heart thumped. The soldier on the lead stallion dismounted. Here he was, a real, actual member of the Silver, covered in shiny ring mail, a long sword on his belt. He looked to be in his thirties, a real man, stubble on his face, scars on his cheek, and a nose crooked from battle. He was the most substantial man Thor had ever seen, twice as wide as the others, with a countenance that said he was in charge. The soldier jumped down onto the dirt road, his spurs jingling as he approached the lineup of boys. Up and down the village dozens of boys stood at attention, hoping. Joining the Silver meant a life of honor, of battle, of renown, of glory—along with land, title, and riches. It meant the best bride, the choicest land, a life of glory. It meant honor for your family, and entering the Legion was the first step. Thor studied the large, golden carriages, and knew they could only hold so many recruits. It was a large kingdom, and they had many towns to visit. He gulped, realizing his chances were even more remote than he thought. He would have to beat out all these other boys—many of them substantial fighters—along with his own three brothers. He had a sinking feeling. Thor could hardly breathe as the soldier paced in silence, surveying the rows of hopefuls. He began on the far side of the street, then slowly circled. Thor knew all the other boys, of course. He also knew some of them secretly did not want to be picked, even though their families wanted to send them off. They were afraid; they would make poor soldiers. Thor burned with indignity. He felt he deserved to be picked as much as any of them. Just because his brothers were older and bigger and stronger didn’t mean he shouldn’t have a right to stand and be chosen. He burned with hatred for his father, and nearly burst out of his skin as the soldier approached. The soldier stopped, for the first time, before his brothers. He looked them up and down, and seemed impressed. He reached out, grabbed one of their scabbards, and yanked it, as if to test how firm it was.