Thor walked with Reece out the arched gate of King’s Court and onto the country road that led to the Legion’s barracks. The guards stood at attention for them as they passed and Thor felt a great sense of belonging, like he wasn’t such an outsider. He thought back to just a few days before, when a guard had chased him out of here. How much had changed, so quickly. Thor heard a screeching and looked up to see, high overhead, Estopheles circling, looking down. She dove, and Thor, excited, held out his wrist, still wearing the metal gauntlet. But she rose again and flew off, higher and higher, though never completely out of sight. Thor wondered. She was a mystical animal, and he felt an intense connection to her that was hard to explain. Thor and Reece continued in silence, keeping a quick pace toward the barracks. Thor knew his brethren would be awaiting him and wondered what sort of reception he would receive. Would there be envy, jealousy? Would they be mad he got all this attention? Would they make fun of him for being carried back across the canyon? Or would they finally accept him? Thor hoped it was the latter. He was tired of struggling with the rest of the Legion and just wanted, more than anything, to belong. To be accepted as one of them. The barracks came into sight in the distance, and Thor’s mind began to be preoccupied with something else. Gwendolyn. Thor didn’t know how much he could talk to Reece about this, given that it was his sister.
But he could not get her out of his mind. He couldn’t stop thinking of his encounter with that menacing royal, Alton, and wondered how much of what he said was true. A part of him feared to discuss it with Reece, not wanting to risk upsetting him somehow and losing his new friend over his sister. But another part of him had to know what he thought. “Who is Alton?” Thor finally asked, hesitant. “Alton?” Reece repeated. “Why do you ask of him?” Thor shrugged, unsure how much to say. Luckily, Reece continued. “He’s but a menacing, lesser royal. Third cousin to the King. Why? Has he been after you about something?” Then Reece narrowed his eyes. “Gwen? Is that it? I should’ve warned you.” Thor turned and looked at Reece, eager to hear more. “What do you mean?” “He’s a lout. He’s been after my sister since he could walk. He’s certain the two of them will be wed. My mother seems to think so, too.” “Will they?” Thor asked, surprised by the urgency in his own voice. Reece looked at him and smiled. “My, my, you have fallen for her, haven’t you?” He chuckled. “That was fast.” Thor reddened, hoping it wasn’t so obvious. “Whether or not they do would depend on my sister’s feelings for him,” Reece finally answered. “Unless they forced her into marriage. But I doubt my father would do that.” “And how does she feel for him?” Thor pressed, afraid he was being too nosy, but needing to know. Reece shrugged. “You’d have to ask her, I guess. I never talk to her about it.” “But would your father force her into marriage?” Thor pressed. “Could he really do such a thing?” “My father can do anything he wants. But that’s between him and Gwen.” Reece turned and looked at Thor. “Why all these questions? What did you talk about?” Thor blushed, unsure what to say. “Nothing,” he said finally. “Nothing!” Reece laughed. “Sounds like a lot of nothing to me!” Reece laughed harder, and Thor was embarrassed, wondering if he was just imagining that Gwen liked him. Reece reached over and put a firm hand on his shoulder. “Listen, old mate,” Reece said, “the only thing you can know for sure about Gwen is that she knows what she wants. And she gets what she wants. That’s always been the case. She’s as strong-willed as my father. No one can force her to do anything—or like anyone—she doesn’t want. So don’t worry. If she chooses you, trust me, she’ll let you know. Okay?” Thor nodded, feeling better, as always, after he talked to Reece.
“Tell us about the Canyon. What’s it like on the other side?” one asked. “What was the creature like? The one that you killed?” another asked. “I didn’t kill him,” Thor protested. “Erec did.” “I heard you saved Elden’s life,” one said. “I heard you attacked the creature head-on. Without any real weapons.” “You’re one of us now!” one yelled out, and the other kids cheered, ushering him along, as if he were their long-lost brother. Thor could hardly believe it. The more he heard their words, the more he realized maybe they did have a point. Maybe he had been brave after all. He never really thought about it. For the first time in a long while, he was starting to feel good about himself. Most of all because now, finally, he felt like he belonged with these boys. He felt tension releasing from his shoulders. Thor was ushered out into the main training ground, and before him stood dozens more of the Legion, along with dozens of the Silver. They, too, let out a cheer at the sight of him. They all came forward and patted him on the back. Kolk stepped forward, and the others quieted. Thor braced himself, since Kolk never had anything but contempt for Thor. But now, to Thor’s surprise, he looked down at him with a different sort of expression. While he still couldn’t quite bring himself to smile, he wasn’t scowling, either. And Thor could have sworn he detected something like admiration in his eyes. Kolk stepped forward, held up a small pin of a black falcon, and pinned it on Thor’s chest. The pin of the Legion. Thor had been accepted. Finally, he was one of them. “Thorgrin of the Southern Province of the Western Kingdom,” Kolk said, gravely. “We welcome you to the Legion.” The boys let out a shout, then all rushed in, draping their arms around Thor and swaying him this way and that. Thor couldn’t even take it all in. He tried not to. He just wanted to enjoy this moment. Now, finally, there was somewhere he belonged. Kolk turned and faced the other boys. “Okay, boys, calm yourselves,” he commanded. “Today is a special day. No more pitchforks and polish and horse crap for you. Now it’s time to really train. It’s weapons day.” The boys returned an excited shout, and followed Kolk as he trotted across the training field toward a huge circular building made of oak, with shining bronze doors. Thor walked with the group as they approached, an excited buzz in the air. Reece was by his side, and O’Connor came and joined them. “Never thought I’d see you alive again,” O’Connor said, smiling and clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Next time, let me wake up first, will you?” Thor smiled back. “What is that building?” Thor asked Reece, as they got closer. There were immense iron rivets all over the door, and the place had an imposing presence. “The weapons house,” Reece answered. “It’s where they store all our arms. Every once in a while they let us get a peek, even train with some of them. Depends what lesson they want to impart.” Thor’s stomach tightened as he noticed Elden coming over to them. Thor braced himself, expecting a threat—but this time, to Thor’s amazement, Elden wore a look of appreciation. “I have to thank you,” he said, looking down, humbled. “For saving my life.” Thor was stumped; he had never expected this from him. “I was wrong about you,” Elden added. “Friends?” he asked. He held out a hand. Thor, not one to hold a grudge, gladly reached over and met his hand. “Friends,” Thor said. “I don’t take that word lightly,” Elden said. “I will always have your back. And I owe you one.”
With that, he turned and hurried off back into the crowd. Thor barely knew what to make of it. He was amazed at how quickly things had changed. “I guess he’s not a complete creep,” O’Connor said. “Maybe he’s okay after all.” They reached the weapons house. The immense doors swung open, and Thor entered in awe. He walked slowly, neck craned, surveying the place in a broad circle, taking it all in. There were hundreds of weapons, weapons he didn’t even recognize, hanging on the walls. The other boys hurried forward in an excited rush, running up to weapons, picking them up, handling them, examining them. Thor followed their example, feeling like a kid in a candy store. He hurried over to a large halberd, hoisted the wooden shaft with two hands, and felt its weight. It was massive, well oiled. The blade was worn and notched, and he wondered if it had killed any men in battle. He set it down and picked up a spiked flail, a studded metal ball attached to a short staff by a long chain. He held the studded wooden shaft, and felt the metal spike dangle on the end of the chain. Beside him, Reece handled a battle axe and O’Connor tested the weight of a long pike, jabbing into the air at an imaginary enemy. “Listen up!” Kolk yelled, and they all turned. “Today we will learn about fighting your enemy from a distance. Can anyone here tell me what weapons can be used? What can kill a man from thirty paces away?” “A bow and arrow,” somebody yelled. “Yes,” Kolk answered. “What else?” “A spear!” someone shouted. “What else? There are more than just these. Let’s hear them.” “A slingshot,” Thor added. “What else?” Thor racked his brain, but was running out of options. “Throwing knives,” Reece yelled. “What else?” The other boys hesitated. No one had any ideas left. “There are throwing hammers,” Kolk yelled, “and throwing axes. There is the crossbow. Pikes can be thrown. So can swords.” Kolk paced the room, looking over the faces of the boys, who stood rapt with attention. “That is not all. A simple rock from the ground can be your best friend. I’ve seen a man, big as a bull, a war hero, killed on the spot by a throw from a rock by a craftier soldier. Soldiers often don’t realize that armor can be used as a weapon, too. The gauntlet can be taken off and thrown in an enemy’s face. This can stun him, several feet away. In that moment, you can kill him. Your shield can be thrown, too.” Kolk took a breath. “It is crucial that when you learn to fight, you don’t just learn to fight in the distance between you and your opponent. You must expand your fight to a much greater distance. Most people fight with three paces. A good warrior fights with thirty. Understood?” “Yes sir!” came the chorus of shouts. “Good. Today, we will sharpen your throwing skills. Canvass the room and grab what throwing devices you see. Each grab one and be outside in thirty seconds. Now move!” The room erupted into a scramble, and Thor ran for the wall, searching for something to grab. He was bumped and pushed every which way by other excited boys, until he finally saw what he wanted and grabbed it. It was a small throwing axe. O’Connor grabbed a dagger, Reece a sword, and the three of them raced out with the other boys into the field. They followed Kolk to the far side of the field, where there were lined up a dozen shields on posts. All the boys, holding their weapons, gathered around Kolk expectantly. “You will stand here,” he boomed out, gesturing to a line in the dirt, “and aim for those shields when throwing your weapons. You will then run to the shields, retrieve a different weapon, and practice throwing that. Never choose the same weapon. Always aim for the shield. For those of you who miss a shield, you will be required to run one lap around the field. Begin!” The boys lined up, shoulder to shoulder, behind the dirt line, and began to throw their weapons at the shields, which must have been a good thirty yards away. Thor fell in line with them. The boy beside him reached back and threw his spear, missing by a hair. The boy turned and began to jog around the arena. As he did, a member of the King’s men ran up beside him,
and laid a heavy mantle of chainmail over his shoulders, weighing him down. “Run with that, boy!” he ordered. The boy, weighed down, already sweating, continued to run in the heat. Thor did not want to miss the target. He leaned back, concentrated, pulled his throwing axe back, and let it go. He closed his eyes and hoped it hit its mark, and was relieved to hear the sound of it embedding itself in the leather shield. He barely made it, hitting a lower corner, but at least he did. All around him, several boys missed and broke off into laps. The few that hit raced for the shields to grab a new weapon. Thor reached the shields and found a long, slim throwing dagger, which he extracted, then ran back to the throwing line. They continued to throw for hours, until Thor’s arm was killing him and he had run one too many laps himself. He was dripping in sweat, as were others around him. It was an interesting exercise, to throw all sorts of weapons, to get used to the feel and weight of all different shafts and blades. Thor felt himself getting better, more used to it, with each throw. But still, the heat was oppressive, and he was getting tired. There were only a dozen boys still standing before the shields, with most of them broken off into laps. It was just too hard to hit so many times, with so many different weapons, and the laps and the heat made accuracy more difficult. Thor was gasping, and didn’t know how much longer he could go on. Just when he felt he was about to collapse, suddenly, Kolk stepped forward. “Enough!” he yelled. The boys returned from their laps and collapsed on the grass. They lay there, panting, breathing hard, removing the heavy coats of chain mail that had been draped on them. Thor, too, sat down in the grass, arm exhausted, dripping with sweat. Some of the King’s men came around with buckets of water and dropped them on the grass. Reece reached out, grabbed one, drank from it, then handed it to O’Connor, who drank and handed it to Thor. Thor drank and drank, the water dripping down his chin and chest. The water felt amazing. He breathed hard as he handed it back to Reece. “How long can this go on?” he asked. Reece shook his head, gasping. “I don’t know.” “I swear they’re trying to kill us,” came a voice. Thor turned and saw Elden, who had come up and sat beside him. Thor was surprised to see him there, and it sank in that Elden truly wanted to be friends. It was odd to see such a change in his behavior. “Boys!” Kolk yelled, walking slowly between them. “More of you are missing your marks now, late in the day. As you can see, it is harder to be accurate when you’re tired. That’s the point. During battle, you will not be fresh. You will be exhausted. Some battles can go on for days. Especially if you are attacking a castle. And it is when you’re at your most tired that you must make your most accurate throw. Often you will be forced to throw whatever weapon is at your disposal. You must be an expert in every weapon, and in every state of exhaustion. Is that understood?” “YES SIR!” they shouted back. “Some of you can throw a knife, or a spear. But that same person is missing with a hammer or axe. Do you think you can survive by throwing one weapon?” “NO SIR!” “Do you think this is just a game?” “NO SIR!” Kolk grimaced as he paced, kicking boys in the back who he felt were not sitting up straight enough. “You’ve rested long enough,” he said. “Back on your feet!” Thor scrambled to his feet with the others, his legs weary, not sure how much more of this he could stand. “There are two sides to distance fighting,” Kolk continued. “You can throw—but so can your enemy. He may not be safe at thirty paces away—but you may not be, either. You must learn how to defend yourself at thirty paces. Is that understood?” “YES SIR!” “To defend yourself from a throwing object, you will need to not only be aware and quick on your feet, to duck, or roll, or dodge—but to also be adept at protecting yourself with a large shield.” Kolk gestured, and a soldier brought out a huge, heavy shield. Thor was amazed—it was nearly twice his size. “Do I have a volunteer?” Kolk asked. The group of boys was quiet, hesitant, and without thinking, Thor, swept up in the moment, raised his hand.
Kolk nodded, and Thor hurried forward. “Good,” Kolk said. “At least one of you is dumb enough to volunteer. I like your spirit, boy. A stupid decision. But good.” Thor was beginning to wonder if he really had made a stupid decision as Kolk handed him the huge metal shield. He fastened it to one arm, and could not believe how heavy it was. He was barely able to lift it. “Thor, your mission is to run from this end of the field to the other. Unscathed. See those fifty boys facing you?” Kolk said to Thor. “They are all going to throw weapons at you. Real weapons. Do you understand? If you do not use your shield to protect you, you may die before you make it to the other side.” Thor stared back in disbelief. The crowd of boys grew very quiet. “This is not a game,” Kolk continued. “This is very serious. Battle is serious. It is life-and-death. Are you sure you still want to volunteer?” Thor nodded, too frozen in terror to say anything else. He could hardly change his mind at this point, not in front of everyone. “Good.” Kolk gestured to an attendant, who stepped forward and blew a horn. “Run!” Kolk screamed. Thor hoisted the heavy shield with two hands, grasping it with all that he had. As he did, he felt a resounding thud, so severe it shook his skull. It must have been a metal hammer. It didn’t pierce the shield, but it sent an awful shock throughout his system. He nearly dropped the shield, but forced himself to grasp it and move on. Thor began to run, hobbling as fast as he could with the shield. As weapons and missiles flew past him, he forced himself to huddle within the shield as best he could. The shield was his lifeline. And as he ran, he learned how to stay within it. An arrow flew by him, missing him by a fraction of an inch, and he pulled his chin back tighter. Another heavy object slammed against the shield, hitting him so hard he stumbled back several feet and collapsed to the ground. But Thor got back on his feet and continued to run. With a supreme effort, gasping for air, finally he crossed the field. “Yield!” Kolk yelled. Thor dropped the shield, dripping in sweat. He was beyond grateful he had reached the other side; he didn’t know if he could’ve held that shield for another moment. Thor hurried back to the others, many of whom gave him looks of admiration. He wondered how he had survived. “Nice work,” Reece whispered to him. “Any other volunteers?” Kolk called out. There was dead silence among the boys. After watching Thor, no one else wanted to try. Thor felt proud of himself. He wasn’t sure if he would have volunteered knowing what it entailed, but now that it was over, he was glad that he did it. “Fine. Then I will volunteer for you,” Kolk yelled. “You! Saden!” he called out, pointing to someone. An older, thin boy stepped forward, looking terrified. “Me?” Saden said, his voice cracking. The other boys laughed at him. “Of course you. Who else?” Kolk said. “I’m sorry, sir, but I would rather not.” A horrified gasp arose among the Legion. Kolk approached him, grimacing. “You don’t do what you want,” Kolk growled. “You do what I tell you to do.” Saden stood frozen, looking scared to death. “He shouldn’t be here,” Reece whispered to Thor. Thor turned and looked at him. “What do you mean?” “He comes from a noble family, and they placed them here. But he doesn’t want to be here. He’s not a fighter. Kolk knows that. I think they’re trying to break him. I think they want him out.” “I’m sorry, sir, but I cannot,” Saden said, sounding terrified. “You can,” Kolk screamed, “and you will!” There was a frozen, tense standoff. Saden looked down to the ground, hanging his chin in shame. “I am sorry, sir. Give me some other task, and I will gladly do it.” Kolk turned red in the face, storming toward him until he was inches from his face. “I will give you another task, boy. I don’t care who your family is. From now on, you will run. You will run around this field until you collapse. And you will not come back
until you volunteer to take up this shield. Do you understand me?” Saden looked as if he were about to burst into tears, as he nodded back. A soldier came over, draped chainmail over Saden, and then another soldier draped a second set of chainmail on him. Thor could not understand how he could bear the weight of it. He could barely run with one of them. Kolk leaned back and kicked Saden hard in the rear, and he went stumbling forward and began his long, slow jog around the field. Thor felt bad for him. As he watched him hobble around, he couldn’t help but wonder if the boy would survive the Legion. Suddenly a horn was sounded, and Thor turned to see a company of the King’s men ride up on horseback, a dozen of the Silver with them, holding long spears and wearing feathered helmets. They stopped before the Legion. “In honor of the King’s daughter’s wedding day, and in honor of the summer solstice, the King has declared the rest of today a hunting day!” All the boys around Thor erupted into a huge cheer. As one, they broke off into a sprint, following the horses as they turned and charged across the field. “What’s happening?” Thor asked Reece, as he began to run with the others. Reece wore a huge smile on his face. “It’s a godsend!” he said. “We’re off for the day! We get to hunt!”