A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Eighteen)

Thor opened his eyes slowly, dizzy at first, trying to figure out where he was. He was laying on straw, and for a moment wondered if he was back in the barracks. He propped himself up on one elbow, on alert, looking for the others.

He realized he was somewhere else. From the looks of it, he was in a very elaborate stone room. It looked as if he were in a castle. A royal castle.

Before he could figure it all out, a large, oak door swung open and in strutted Reece. In the distance, Thor could hear the muted noise of a crowd.

"Finally, he lives," Reece announced with a smile, as he rushed forward and grabbed Thor's hand and yanked him to his feet.

Thor raised a hand to his head, trying to slow his terrible headache from rising too fast.

"Come on, let's go, everyone's waiting for you," he urged, yanking Thor.

"Wait a minute, please," Thor said, trying to collect himself. "Where am I? What happened?"

"We're back in King's Court – and you are about to be celebrated as the hero of the day!" Reece said merrily, as they headed for the door.

"Hero? What do you mean? And…how did I get here?" he asked, trying to remember.

"That beast knocked you out. You've been out for quite a while. We had to carry you back across the Canyon bridge. Quite dramatic. Not exactly how I expected you to return to the other side!" he said with a laugh.

They walked out into the corridors of the castle, and as they went, Thor could see all sorts of people – women, men, squires, guards, knights – staring at him, as if they had been waiting for him to wake. He also saw something new in their eyes, something like respect. It was the first time he had seen it. Up until now, he had seen something else in people's eyes: something like disdain. Now they looked at him as if he were one of them.

"What exactly happened?" Though racked his brain, trying to remember.

"Don't you remember any of it?" Reece asked.

Thor tried to think.

"I remember running into the wood. Fighting with that beast. And then…" He tried to think, but was drawing a blank.

"You saved Elden's life," Reece said. "You ran fearlessly into the wood, on your own. I don't know why you wasted energy on saving that prim's life. But you did. The King is very, very pleased with you. Not because he cares about Elden. But he cares very much about bravery. He loves to celebrate. It's important to him, to celebrate stories like this, to inspire the others. And it reflects well on the king, and on the Legion. He wants to celebrate. You're here because he's going to reward you."

"Reward me?" Thor asked, dumbfounded. "But I didn't do anything!"

"You saved Elden's life."

"I only reacted. I only did what came naturally."

"And that's exactly why the King wants to reward you."

Thor felt embarrassed. He didn't think that his actions deserved rewarding. After all, if it hadn't have been for Erec, Thor would be dead right now. Thor thought about it, and his heart filled with gratitude for Erec, once again. He hoped that one day he could repay him.

"But what about our patrol duty?" Thor asked. "We didn't finish it."

Reece put a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

"Friend, you saved a boy's life. A member of the Legion. That's more important than our patrol." Reece laughed. "So much for an uneventful first patrol!" he added.

They finished walking down yet another corridor, and two guards opened a door for them, and Thor blinked and found himself in the royal chamber. There must have been a hundred knights standing about the room, with its soaring cathedral ceilings, stained glass, its weapons and suits of armor hung everywhere on the walls, like trophies. The Hall of Arms. It was the place where all the greatest warriors met, all the men of the Silver. Thor's heart raced as he surveyed the walls, all the famous weaponry, the armor of heroic and legendary knights. Thor had heard rumors of this place, his entire life. It had been his dream to see it for himself one day. He could hardly believe he was here. He knew that normally no squires were allowed here – no one but the Silver.

Even more surprising, as he entered, real knights turned and looked at him – him – from all sides. And they wore looks of admiration. Thor had never seen so many knights in one room, and he had never felt so accepted. It was like walking into a dream. Especially since just moments before, he had been fast asleep.

Reece must have noticed Thor's dumbfounded face.

"The finest of the Silver have gathered here to honor you."

Thor felt himself well with pride and disbelief. "Honor me? But I've done nothing."

"Wrong," came a voice.

Thor turned and felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. It was Erec, grinning down.

"You have displayed bravery and honor and courage, beyond what was expected of you. You nearly gave up your life to save one of your brethren. That is what we look for in the Legion, and this is what we look for in the Silver."

"You saved my life," Thor said to Erec. "If it weren't for you, that beast would have killed me. I don't know how to thank you."

Erec grinned down.

"You already have," he answered. "Don't you remember the joust? I believe we are even."

Thor marched down the walkway towards MacGil's throne, at the far end of the hall, Reece on one side of him and Erec on the other. He felt hundreds of eyes on him, and it all felt like a dream.

Standing around the King were his dozens of counselors, along with his eldest son, Kendrick. As Thor approached, his heart swelled with pride. He could hardly believe the King was granting him an audience for the second time in as many days – and that so many important men were here to witness it.

They reached the king's throne, MacGil stood, and a muted hush overcame the room. MacGil's ponderous expression broke into a wide smile, as he took three steps forward and to Thor's surprise, gave him a hug.

A great cheer rose up in the room.

He pulled back, held Thor firmly by the shoulders, and grinned down.

"You served the Legion well," he said.

A servant handed the king a goblet, and the King raised it and looked all around. In a loud voice, he called out:

"TO COURAGE!"

"TO COURAGE!" shouted back the hundreds of men in the room. An excited murmur followed, then the room once again fell quiet.

"In honor of your exploits today," the King bellowed, "I grant you a great gift."

The King gestured, and an attendant stepped forward, wearing a long, black gauntlet, on which sat a magnificent falcon. It sat there, its claws resting on the gauntlet, and turned, and stared right Thor – as if he knew him.

It took Thor's breath away. He could hardly believe it. It was the exact falcon from his dream, with its silver body and the single black stripe running down its forehead.

"The falcon is the symbol of our kingdom, and of our Royal family," MacGil boomed. "It is a bird of prey, of pride and honor. Yet it is also a bird of skill, of cunning. It is loyal, and fierce, and it soars above all other animals. It is also a sacred creature. It is said that he who owns a falcon is also owned by one. It will guide you on all your ways. It will leave you, but it will always come back. And now, it is yours."

The falconer stepped forward, placed a heavy, chainmail gauntlet onto Thor's hand and wrist, then reached out, picked up the bird, and placed it on Thor's gauntlet. Thor felt electrified, having it on his arm. He could hardly move. He was shocked by its weight, a struggle just to keep it up as it fidgeted on his wrist. He felt its claws digging in, though luckily he only felt pressure, as he was protected by the gauntlet. The bird turned, stared right at him, and screeched. Thor felt it looking into his eyes, and he felt a mystical connection to the animal. He just knew that it would be with him all his days.

"And what shall you name her?" the King asked, in the thick silence of the room.

Thor racked his brain, too frozen to even work.

He tried to think quick. He summoned in his mind all the names of all the famed warriors of the kingdom. He turned and scanned the walls, and saw a series of plaques with all the names of battles, all the places of the kingdom. His eyes rested on one particular place. It was a place in the Ring which he had never been, but which he had always heard was a mystical, powerful place. It sounded right to him.

"I shall call her Estopheles," Thor called out.

"Estopheles!" the crowd echoed, sounding pleased.

The falcon screeched, as if in response.

Suddenly, Estopheles flapped her wings and flew up high, all the way to the peak of the cathedral ceiling, and out an open window. Thor watched her go.

"Don't worry," the falconer said, "she shall always return to you."

Thor turned and looked at the King. He had never been given a gift in his life, much less one of this stature. He hardly knew what to say, how to thank him. He was overwhelmed.

"My liege," he said, lowering his head. "I don't know how to thank you."

"You already have," MacGil said.

The crowd cheered, and the tension in the room was broken. A spirited conversation broke out among the men, and so many knights approached Thor, he hardly knew which way to turn.

"That is Algod, of the Eastern Province," Reece said, introducing him to one.

"And this is Kamera, of the Low Marshes…. And this, Basikold, of the Northern Forts…."

Soon, the names became a blur. Thor was overwhelmed. He could hardly believe that all these knights wanted to meet him. He had never felt so accepted or honored anytime in his life and he had a feeling that a day like this would never come again. It was the first time in his life he had a feeling of self-worth.

And he could not stop thinking of Estopheles.

As Thor turned every which way, greeting people whose names flowed by, names he could hardly grasp onto, a messenger hurried over, slipping between the Knights. He carried a small scroll, which he pressed into Thor's palm.

Thor rolled it open, and read the fine, delicate handwriting. He could hardly imagine who it was from. He had never been handed a message before in his life:

Meet me in the back courtyard. Behind the gate.

Thor could smell the delicate fragrance coming off the pink scroll, and was puzzled as he tried to figure out who it was from. It bore no signature.

Reece leaned over, read it over his shoulder, and laughed.

"It seems my sister has taken a fancy to you," he said, smiling. "I would go if I were you. She hates to be kept waiting."

Thor felt himself blush.

"The rear courtyard is through those gates. Hurry. She's known to change her mind quickly," Reece smiled as he looked at him. "And I'd love to have you in my family."