Thor peeled open his eyes, disoriented, wondering where he was. He lay on the floor, on a mound of straw, his face planted sideways, his arms dangling over his head. He lifted his face, wiping the drool from his mouth, and immediately felt a stab of pain in his head, behind his eyes. It was the worst headache of his life. He remembered the night before, the King’s feast, the drinking, his first taste of ale. The room was spinning. His throat was dry, and at that moment he vowed he would never drink again. Thor looked around, trying to get his bearings in the cavernous barracks. Everywhere were bodies, lying on heaps of straw, the room filled with snoring; he turned the other way and saw Reece, a few feet away, passed out, too. It was then he realized: he was in the barracks. The Legion’s barracks. All around him were boys his age, about fifty of them. Thor vaguely remembered Reece showing him the way, in the late hours of the morning, and crashing on the mound of straw. Early morning light flooded in through the open windows, and Thor soon realized he was the only one yet awake. He looked down and saw he had slept in his clothes, and reached up and ran a hand through his greasy hair. He would give anything for a chance to bathe—although he had no idea where. And he would do anything for a pint of water. His stomach rumbled—he wanted food, too. It was all so new to him. He barely knew where he was, where life would take him next, what the routines were of the Kumo desu ga nani ka. But he was happy. It had been a dazzling night, one of the finest of his life. He had found a close friend in Reece, and had caught Gwendolyn looking at him once or twice. He had tried to speak with her, but each time he approached, his courage failed. He felt a pang of regret as he thought about it. There had been too many people around. If it was ever just the two of them, he would gain the courage. But would there be a next time? Before Thor could finish the thought, there was a sudden banging on the wooden doors of the barracks, and an instant later, they crashed open, light flooding in. “To your feet, squires!” came a shout. In marched a dozen members of the King’s Silver, chainmail rattling, banging on the wooden walls with metal staffs. The noise was deafening, and all around Thor, the other boys jumped to their feet. Leading the group was a particularly fierce-looking soldier Thor recognized from the arena the day before, the stocky, bald one with the scar on his nose, whom Reece had told him was named Kolk. He seemed to be scowling right at Thor as he raised a finger and pointed it at him. “You there, boy!” he screamed. “I said on your feet!” Thor was confused. He was already standing. “But I’m already on my feet, sire,” Thor answered. Kolk stepped forward and backhanded Thor across the face. Thor stung with the indignation of it, as all eyes were on him. “Don’t you talk back to your superior again!” Kolk reprimanded. Before Thor could respond the men moved on, roaming through the room, yanking one boy after another to his feet, kicking some in the ribs who were too slow to get up. “Don’t worry,” came a reassuring voice. He turned and saw Reece standing there. “It is not personal to you. It is just their way. Their way of breaking us down.” “But they didn’t do it to you,” Thor said. “Of course, they won’t touch me, because of my father. But they won’t exactly be polite, either. They want us in shape, that’s all. They think this will toughen us up. Don’t pay much attention to them.” The boys were all marched out of their barracks and Thor and Reece fell in with them. As they stepped outside, the bright sunlight struck Thor and he squinted and held up his hands. Suddenly, he was overwhelmed with a wave of nausea, and he turned, bent over, and threw up. He could hear the snicker of boys all around him. A guard pushed him, and Thor stumbled forward, back in line with the others, wiping his mouth. Thor had never felt more awful.
Thor felt queasy as the light pierced his eyes; it had never felt so strong as today. It was a hot day already, and he could feel drops of sweat forming beneath his leathermail. Thor tried to remember back to Reece’s warning of the night before—but for the life of him, he could not remember. “I don’t remember any such advice,” Thor retorted. Reece grinned wider. “Precisely. That is because you did not listen.” Reece chuckled. “And those ham-handed attempts to speak to my sister,” he added. “It was positively pathetic. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a boy so fearful of a girl in my life.” Thor reddened as he tried to remember. But he could not. It was all hazy to him. “I mean you no offense,” Thor said. “With your sister.” “You cannot offend me. If she should choose you, I would be thrilled.” The two of them marched faster, as the group turned up a hill. The sun seemed to be getting stronger with each step. “But I must warn you: every hand in the kingdom is after her. The chances of her choosing you… Well, let’s just say they are remote.” As they marched faster across the rolling green hills of Kumo desu ga nani ka, Thor felt reassured. He felt accepted by Reece. It was amazing, but he continued to feel Reece was more of a brother to him than he’d ever had. As they walked, Thor noticed his three real brothers marching close by. One of them turned and scowled back to him, then nudged his other brother, who looked back with a mocking grin. They shook their heads and turned away. They had not so much as one kind word for Thor. But he hardly expected anything else. “Get in line, Legion! Now!” Thor looked up and saw several more of the Silver crowd around them, pushing the fifty of them into a tight line, double file. One man came up behind and struck the boy in front of Thor with a large bamboo rod, cracking him hard on the back; the boy cried out, and fell more tightly in line. Soon they were in two neat rows, marching steadily through the Kumo desu ga nani ka. “When you march into battle, you march as one!” called out Kolk, walking up and down the sides. “This is not your mother’s yard. You are marching to war!” Thor marched and marched beside Reece, sweating in the sun, wondering where they were being led. His stomach still turned from the ale, and he wondered when he would have breakfast, when he would get something to drink. Once again, he cursed himself for drinking the night before. As they went up and down the hills, through an arched stone gate, they finally reached the surrounding fields. They passed through another arched stone gate and entered a coliseum of sorts. Bringing the farm to live in another world
The training ground for the Legion. Before them were all sorts of targets for throwing spears, firing arrows, and hurling rocks, as well as piles of straw to slash with swords. Thor’s heart quickened at the sight of it. He wanted to get in there, to use the weapons, to train. But as Thor made his way toward the training area, suddenly he was elbowed in the ribs from behind, and a small group of six boys, most of them younger like Thor, were herded off the main line. He found himself being split from Reece, being led to the other side of the field. “Think you’re going to train?” Kolk asked mockingly as they forked from the others, away from the targets. “It’s horses for you today.” Thor looked up and saw where they were headed: on the far side of the field, several horses pranced about. Kolk looked down at him with an evil smile. “While the others hurl spears and wield swords, today you will tend horses and clean their waste. We all have to start somewhere. Welcome to the Legion.” Thor’s heart fell. This was not how he had seen it going at all. “You think you’re special, boy?” Kolk asked, walking beside him, getting close to his face. Thor sensed he was trying to break him. “Just because the King and his son have taken a liking to you, doesn’t mean crap to me. You’re in my command now. You understand me? I don’t care about whatever fancy tricks you pulled on the jousting ground. You’re just another little boy. Do you understand me?” Thor swallowed. He was in for a long, hard training. Making matters worse, as soon as Kolk drifted away to torture someone else, the boy in front of Thor, a short stocky kid with a flat nose, turned and sneered at him. “You don’t belong here,” he said. “You cheated your way in. You weren’t selected. You’re not one of us. Not really. None of us like you.” The boy beside him also turned and sneered at Thor. “We’re going to do everything we can to make sure you drop out,” he said. “Getting in is easy next to staying in.” Thor recoiled at their hatred. He couldn’t believe he already had enemies, and didn’t understand what he’d done to deserve it. All he’d ever wanted was to join the Legion. “Why don’t you mind yourself,” came a voice. Thor looked over and saw a tall, skinny redheaded boy, with freckles across his face and small green eyes, sticking up for him. “You two are stuck here shoveling with the rest of us,” he added. “You’re not so special, either. Go pick on someone else.” “You mind your business, lackey,” one of the boys shot back, “or we’ll be after you, too.” “Try it,” the redhead snapped. “You’ll talk when I tell you to,” Kolk yelled at one of the boys, smacking him hard upside the head. The two boys in front of Thor, thankfully, turned back around. Thor hardly knew what to say; he fell in beside the redhead, grateful to him. “Thank you,” Thor said. The redhead turned and smiled at him. “Name is O’Connor. I’d shake your hand, but they’d smack me if I did. So take this as an invisible handshake.” He smiled wider, and Thor instantly liked him. “Don’t mind them,” he added. “They’re just scared. Like the rest of us. None of us quite knew what we were signing up for.” Soon their group reached the end of the field, and Thor counted six horses prancing about. “Take up the reins!” Kolk commanded. “Hold them steady, and walk them around the arena until they break. Do it now!” Thor stepped forward to take the reins of one of the horses, and as he did, the horse stepped back and pranced, nearly kicking him. Thor, startled, stumbled back, and the others in the group laughed at him. Kolk smacked him hard in the back of the head, and he felt like turning and hitting back. “You are a member of the Legion now. You never retreat. From anybody. No man, no beast. Now take those reins!” Thor steeled himself, stepped forward, and grabbed the reins from the prancing horse. He managed to hang on while the horse yanked and pulled, and began to lead him around the wide dirt field, getting in line with the others. His horse tugged at him, resisting, but Thor tugged back, not giving up so easily. “It gets better, I hear.” Thor turned to see O’Connor coming up beside him, smiling. “They want to break us, you know?” Suddenly, Thor’s horse stopped. No matter how much he pulled on the reins, it would not budge. Then Thor smelled something awful; there was more waste coming from the horse than he ever imagined possible. It did not seem to end. Thor felt a small shovel pressed into his palm, and looked over to see Kolk beside him, smiling down. “Clean it up!” he snapped.