A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Eight)

Thor did his best to keep up with Erec's squire, hurrying to catch up as he weaved his way through the masses. It had been such a whirlwind since the arena, he could hardly process what was happening all around him. He was still trembling inside, could still hardly believe he had been accepted into the Legion, and he had been named second squire to Erec.

"I told you boy, keep up!" Feithgold snapped.

Thor resented him calling him "boy," especially as he was hardly a few years older. He nearly lost sight of him as he darted in out of the crowd, almost as if he were trying to lose Thor.

"Is it always this crowded here?" Thor called out, trying to catch up.

"Of course not!" Feithgold yelled back. "Today is not only the summer solstice, the biggest day of the year, but also the day the king chose for his daughter's wedding – and the only day in history we've opened our gates to the McClouds. There has never been such a crowd here as now. It is unprecedented. I hadn't expected this! I fear we will be late!" he said, all in a rush, as he sped through the crowd.

"Where are we going?" Thor asked.

"We're going to do what every good squire does: to help our knight prepare!"

"Prepare for what?" Thor pressed, nearly out of breath. It was getting hotter by the minute, and he wiped the sweat from his brow.

"Why, the royal joust!"

They finally reached the edge of the crowd. They stopped before a king's guard, who recognized Feithgold and gestured to the others to let them pass.

They slipped under a rope and stepped into a clearing, free from the masses. Thor could hardly believe it: there, up close, were the jousting lanes. Behind the ropes stood mobs of spectators, and up and down the dirt lanes stood huge warhorses – the largest Thor had ever seen – mounted by knights in all manner of armor. Mixed among the Silver were knights from all over the two kingdoms, from every province, some in black armor, others in white, wearing helmets and donning weapons of every shape and size. It looked as if the entire world had descended on these jousting lanes.

There were already some competitions were in progress, knights from places Thor did not recognize charging each other, clanging lances and shields, followed always by a short cheer from the crowd. Up close, Thor could not believe the strength and speed of the horses, the sound the weapons made. It seemed like a deadly business.

"It hardly seems like a sport!" Thor said to Feithgold as he followed him along the perimeter of the lanes.

"That's because it is not," Feithgold yelled back, over the sound of a clang. "It is a serious business, masked as a game. People die here, every day. It is battle. Lucky are the ones who walk away unscathed. They are far and few between."

Thor looked up as two knights charged each other and moments later, collided at full speed. There was an awful crash of metal on metal, and one of them went flying off his horse, and landed on his back, just feet away from Thor.

The crowd gasped. The knight did not stir, and Thor looked down and saw a piece of a wooden shaft stuck in his ribs, piercing his armor. He cried out in pain, and blood poured from his mouth. Several squires ran over and attended him, dragging him off the field. The winning knight paraded slowly, raising his lance to the cheer of the crowd.

Thor was amazed. He had not envisioned the sport to be so deadly.

"What those boys just did – that is your job now," Feithgold said. "You are squire now. More precisely, second squire."

He stopped and came in close – so close, Thor could smell his bad breath.

"And don't you forget it. I answer to Erec. And you answer to me. Your job is to assist me. Do you understand?"

Thor nodded back, still trying to take it all in. He had imagined it all going differently in his head, and still didn't know exactly what was in store for him. He could feel how threatened Feithgold was by his presence, and felt he had made an enemy.

"It is not my intention to interfere with your being Erec's squire," Thor said.

Feithgold let out a short, derisive laugh.

"You couldn't interfere with me, boy, if you tried. Just stay out of my way and do as I tell you."

With that, Feithgold turned and hurried down a series of twisting paths behind the ropes. Thor followed as best he could, and soon found himself in a labyrinth of stables. He walked down a narrow corridor, all around him warhorses strutting, squires tending nervously to them. Feithgold twisted and turned and finally stopped before a giant, magnificent horse. Thor stopped and looked up, and had to catch his breath. He could hardly believe that something so big and beautiful was real, and that it could be contained behind a fence. It looked as if it were ready for war.

"Warkfin," Feithgold said. "Erec's horse. Or one of them – the one he prefers for jousting. Not an easy beast to tame. But Erec has managed. Open the gate," Feithgold ordered.

Thor looked at him, puzzled, then looked back at the gate, trying to figure it out. He stepped forward, pulled at a peg between the slats, and nothing happened. He pulled harder and it budged, and he gently swung open the wooden gate.

The second he did, Warkfin neighed, leaned back and kicked the wood, just grazing the tip of Thor's finger. Thor yanked back his hand in pain.

Feithgold laugh.

"That's why I had you open it. Do it quicker next time, boy. Warkfin waits for no one. Especially you."

Thor was fuming; Feithgold was already getting on his nerves, and he hardly saw how he would be able to put up with him.

He quickly open the wooden gates, stepping out of the way this time of the horse's flailing legs.

"Shall I bring him out?" Thor asked with trepidation, not really wanting to grab his reigns as he stomped and swayed.

"Of course not," Feithgold said. "That is my role. Your role is to feed him – when I tell you to. And to shovel his waist."

Feithgold grabbed Warkfin's reigns and began to lead him down the stables. Thor swallowed, watching him. This was not the initiation he had in mind. He knew he had to start somewhere, but this was degrading. He had pictured war and glory and battle, training and competition among boys his own age. He never saw himself as a servant in waiting. He was starting to wonder if he had made the right decision.

They finally burst out of the dark stables and back into the bright light of day, back in the jousting lanes. Thor squinted at the bright light, and was momentarily overcome by the thousands of people cheering, the noise of opposing knights as they smashed into one other. He'd never heard such a clang of metal, and the earth tremored from the horses' gait.

All around him were dozens of knights and their squires, preparing. Squires polished their knight's armor, greased up weapons, checked saddles and straps and double-checked weapons as knights mounted their steeds, grabbed their weapons, and waited for their names to be called.

"Elmalkin!" an announcer called out.

A knight from a province Thor did not recognize, a broad fellow in red armor, galloped out the gate. Thor turned and jumped out of the way just in time. He charged down the narrow lane, and Thor watched as his lance brushed off the shield of a competitor. They clanged, and the other knight's lance struck, and Elmalkin went flying backwards, landing on his back. The crowd cheered.

The knight immediately gathered himself, though, jumping to his feet, spinning around, and reaching out a hand to his squire, who stood beside Thor.

"My mace!" the knight yelled out.

The squire beside Thor jumped into action, grabbing a mace off the weapons rack and sprinting out towards the center of the lane. He ran towards his knight, but the other knight had circled back, and was charging again. Just as the squire was reaching him, just as he was placing the mace into his hand, the other knight thundered down upon them. The squire did not reach the knight in time: the other knight brought his lance down – and as he did, his lance swiped the squire's head. The squire, reeling from the below, spun around quickly and went down to the dirt, face first.

He was not moving. Thor could see blood oozing from his head, even from here, staining the dirt.

Thor swallowed.

"It's not a pretty sight, is it?"

Thor turned to see Feithgold standing beside them, staring back.

"Steel yourself boy. This is battle. And we're right in the middle of it."

The crowd suddenly grew quiet, as the main jousting lane was opened. Thor could sense anticipation in the air, as all the other jousts stopped in anticipation of this one. On one side, out came Kendrik, walking out on his horse, lance in hand.

On the far side, facing him, out walked a knight in the distinctive armor of the McClouds.

"MacGils versus McClouds," Feithgold whispered to Thor. "We've been at war for a thousand years. And I very much doubt this match will settle it."

Each knight lowered his visor, a horn sounded, and with a shout, the two charged each other.

Thor was amazed at how much speed they picked up, and moments later they collided with such a clang, Thor nearly raised his hands to his ears. The crowd gasped as both fighters fell from their horses.

They each jumped to their feet and threw off their helmets, as their squires ran out to them, handing them short swords. The two knights sparred with all they had. Watching Kendrick swing and slash had Thor mesmerized: it was a thing of beauty. But the McCloud was a fine warrior, too. Back and forth they went, each exhausting the other, neither giving ground.

Finally their swords met in one momentous clash, and they each knocked each other's swords from their hands. Their squires ran out, maces in hand, but as Kendrick was reaching for his mace, the McCloud's squire ran up behind him and struck him in the back with a mace, the blow sending him to the ground, to the horrified gasp of the crowd.

The McCloud knight stepped forward and pointed his sword to Kendrick's throat, pinning him to the ground. Kendrick was left with no choice.

"I concede!" he yelled.

There was a victorious shout among the McClouds – but a shout of anger from the MacGils.

"He cheated!" yelled out the MacGils.

"He cheated! He cheated!" echoed a chorus of angry cries.

The mob was getting angrier and angrier, and soon there was such a chorus of protests that the mob began to disperse, and both sides – the MacGils and McClouds – began to approach each other on foot.

"This isn't good," Feithgold said to Thor, as they stood on the side, watching.

Moments later, the crowd erupted: blows were thrown, and it became an all-out brawl. It was chaos. Men were swinging wildly, grabbing each other in locks, driving each other to the ground. The crowd was swelling, and it was threatening to blow up into an all-out war.

A horn sounded, and guards from both sides marched in, and managed to split up the crowd. Another, louder, horn sounded, and silence fell as King MacGil stood from his throne.

"There will be no skirmishers today!" he boomed in his kingly voice. "Not on this day of celebration! And not in my court!"

Slowly, the crowd calmed.

"If it is a contest you wish for between our two great clans, it will be decided by one fighter, one champion, from each side."

MacGil looked to King McCloud, who sat on the far side, seated with his entourage.

"Agreed?" MacGil yelled out.

McCloud stood solemnly.

"Agreed!" he echoed.

The crowd cheered on both sides.

"Choose your best man!" MacGil yelled.

"I already have," McCloud said.

There emerged from the McCloud side a formidable knight, the biggest man Thor had ever seen, mounted on his horse. He looked like a boulder, all bulk, with a long beard, and a scowl that looked permanent.

Thor sensed movement beside him, and right next to him, Erec stepped up, mounted Warfkin and walked forward. Thor swallowed. He could hardly believe this was happening all around him. He swelled with pride for Erec.

Then he was overcome with anxiety, as he realized that he was on duty. After all, he was squire and this was his knight who was about to fight.

"What do we do?" Thor asked Feithgold in a rush.

"Just stand back and do as I tell you," he answered.

Erec strode forward into the jousting lane, and the two knights stayed there, facing each other, their horses stomping in a tense standoff. Thor felt his heart pounding in his chest as he waited and watched.

A horn sounded, and the two charged each other.

Thor could not believe the beauty and grace of Warfkin as he watched him move. It was like watching a fish jump from the sea. The other man was huge, but Erec was the most graceful and sleek fighter Thor had ever seen. He cut through the air, his head low, his silver armor rippling, more polished than any armor he had laid his eyes upon.

As the two men met, Erec held his lance with perfect aim, and leaned to the side. He managed to knock the knight in the center of shield and at the same time, to dodge his blow.

The huge mountain of a man tumbled backwards, onto the ground. It was like a boulder landing.

The MacGil crowd cheered as Erec rode past, turned and circled back. He held the tip of his lance to the man's throat.

"Yield!" Erec yelled down.

The knight spit.

"Never!"

The knight then reached into a hidden satchel on his waist, pulled out a handful of dirt, and before Erec could react, he threw it up into Erec's face.

Erec, stunned, reached up and grabbed for his eyes, dropping his lance, and fell from his horse.

The MacGil crowd booed and hissed and cried in outrage as Erec fell, clutching his eyes. The knight, wasting no time, hurried over and kneed him in the ribs.

Erec rolled over, and the knight grabbed a huge rock, picked it up high and prepared to bring it down on Erec's skull.

"NO!" Thor screamed, stepping forward, unable to control himself.

Thor watched in horror as the knight brought down the rock. At the last second, Erec somehow rolled out of the way. The stone lodged deep into the ground, right where his skull had been.

Thor was amazed at Erec's dexterity. He was already back on his feet, facing this dirty fighter.

"Short swords!" the Kings cried out.

Feithgold suddenly wheeled and stared at Thor, wide-eyed.

"Hand it to me!" he yelled.

Thor's heart pounded in panic. He spun around, searching Erec's weapons rack, looking desperately for the sword. There was a dizzying array of weapons before him. He reached out, grabbed it, and thrust it into Feithgold's palm.

"Stupid boy! That is a medium sword!" Feithgold yelled.

Thor felt his throat go dry, felt the whole kingdom staring at him. His vision was blurry with anxiety, as he spiraled into panic, not knowing which sword to choose. He could barely focus.

Feithgold stepped forward, shoved Thor out of the way, and grabbed the short sword himself. He then raced out into the jousting lane.

Thor watched as he ran, feeling useless, horrible. He also tried to imagine if it were himself running out there, in front of all those people, and his knees grew weak.

The other knight's squire reached him first, and Erec had to jump out of the way, as the knight swung for him, unarmed, barely missing. Finally, Feithgold reached Erec and placed the short sword into his hand. As he did, the knight charged Erec. But Erec was too fast: he waited until the last moment, then jumped out of the way.

The knight kept charging, though, and ran right into Feithgold, standing, to his bad luck, in the place where Erec had just been. The knight, filled with rage at missing Erec, kept charging and grabbed Feithgold with both hands by his hair, and head butted him hard across the face.

There was a cracking of bone, as blood squirted from Feithgold's nose, and he collapsed to the ground, limp.

Thor stood there, mouth open in shock. He could not believe it. Neither could the crowd, which booed and hissed.

Erec swung around with his sword, just missing the knight, and the two faced each other again.

As Thor stood there, he suddenly realized: he was Erec's only squire now. He gulped. What was he supposed to be doing? He was not prepared for this. And the whole kingdom was watching.

The two knights attacked each other viciously, going blow for blow. Clearly the McCloud knight was much stronger than Erec – yet Erec was the better fighter, faster and more agile. They swung and slashed and parried, neither able to gain advantage.

Finally, MacGil stood.

"Long spears!" he yelled.

Thor's heart pounded. He knew this meant him: he was on duty.

He spun and looked at the rack, and grabbed the weapon that seemed most appropriate. As he grabbed its leather shaft, he prayed he chose correctly.

He burst onto the lane and could feel thousands of eyes on him. He ran and ran, for all he was worth, wanting to reach Erec, and finally placing it into his hand. He was proud to see he reached him first.

Erec took his spear and spun, prepared to face the other knight. Erec, being the honorable warrior that he was, waited until the other knight was armed before attacking. Thor hurried off to the side, out of the men's way, not wanting to repeat Feithgold's mistake. As he did, he grabbed Feithgold's limp body and dragged him back, out of harm's way.

As Thor watched, he sensed something was wrong. The knight took his spear, raised it straight up, then began to bring it down in a strange motion. As he did, suddenly, Thor felt his world go into focus in a way he never had. He intuited that something wrong. His eyes locked on the knight's spear tip, and as he looked closely, he realized it was loose. The knight was about to use the tip of his spear as a throwing knife.

As the knight brought down his spear, the tip became detached and went flying through the air. It tumbled through the air, end over end, and was heading right for Erec's heart. In moments, Erec would be dead – and there was no way he could react in time.

In that moment, Thor felt his whole body warming. He felt a tingling sensation – it was the same sensation he'd experienced back in Darkwood, before the Sybold. His whole world slowed. He was able to see the tip spinning in slow motion, was able to feel an energy, a heat, rising within him – one he didn't know he had.

He stepped forward and felt bigger than the spear. In his mind, he willed it to stop. He demanded it to stop. He did not want to see Erec hurt. Especially not this way.

"NO!"" Thor shrieked.

He took another step, and held out his palm, aimed at the spear tip.

As he did, suddenly, the tip stopped and hung there, in mid-air, right before reaching Erec's heart.

It then dropped harmlessly to the ground.

The two knights both turned and looked at Thor – as did the two kings, as did the thousands of spectators. He felt the whole world staring down at him, and realized they all just witnessed what he did. They all knew he was not normal, that he had some sort of power, that he had influenced the games, had saved Erec – and changed the fate of the kingdom.

Thor stood there, rooted in place, wondering what just happened.

He knew now that he wasn't the same as all these people. He was different.

But who was he?