Thor, carrying Krohn inside his shirt, was overwhelmed by the noise as Reece opened the door to the alehouse. A huge group of waiting Legion members and soldiers, crammed inside, met them with a shout. It was packed and hot inside, and Thor was immediately sandwiched in between his brethren, shoulder to shoulder. It had been a long day of hunting, and they had all gathered here, at this alehouse deep in the woods, to celebrate. The Silver had led the way, and Thor, Reece and the others followed. Behind Thor, the twins, Conval and Conven, carried their prize possession, the boar, bigger than anyone else’s, on a long pole over their shoulders. They had to set it down outside the tavern doors before coming in. Thor took a last glance back; it looked so fierce, it was hard to conceive they had killed it. Thor felt a squirm inside his jacket and looked down to see his new companion, Krohn. He could hardly believe he was actually carrying a white leopard pup. It stared up at him with its crystal blue eyes and squeaked. Thor sensed he was hungry. Thor was jostled inside the alehouse, dozens more men streaming in behind him, and he proceeded deeper into the small, crowded place, which must have been twenty degrees warmer in here—not to mention more humid. He followed Erec and Kendrick, and in turn was followed by Reece, Elden, the twins, and O’Connor, whose arm was bandaged from the boar’s slice, but had finally stopped bleeding. O’Connor seemed more dazed than hurt. His good spirits had returned, and their whole group shuffled deep into the room. It was packed shoulder to shoulder, so tight that there was barely room to even turn. There were long benches, and some men stood, while others sat, singing drinking songs and banging their tankards into their friends’, or banging them on the table. It was a rowdy, festive environment, and Thor had never seen anything like it. “First time in an alehouse?” Elden asked, practically shouting to be heard. Thor nodded back, feeling like a rube once again. “I bet you’ve never even had a tankard of ale, have you?” asked Conven, clapping him on the shoulder with a laugh. “Of course I have,” Thor shot back defensively. He was blushing, though, and hoped no one could tell, because, in fact, he had never truly had ale, aside from the small sip at the wedding. His father had never allowed ale in the house. And even if he did, he was sure he couldn’t afford it. “Very good then!” cried out Conval. “Bartender, give us a round of your strongest. Thor here is an old pro!” One of the twins put down a gold coin. Thor was amazed at the money these boys carried; he wondered what family they hailed from. That coin could have lasted his family a month back in his village. A moment later a dozen tankards of foaming ale were slid across the bar, and the boys pushed their way through and grabbed them; a cask got shoved into Thor’s hand. The foam dripped over the side of his hand, and his stomach twisted in anticipation. He was nervous. “To our hunt!” Reece called out. “TO OUR HUNT!” the others echoed. Thor followed the others, trying to act natural as he raised the foaming liquid to his lips. He took a sip, and hated the taste, but saw the others gulping theirs down, not removing them from their lips until they finished. Thor felt obliged to do the same, or else look like a coward. He forced himself to drink it, gulping it down as fast he could, until finally, halfway through, he set it down, coughing. The others looked at him, and roared with laughter. Elden clapped him on the back. “It is your first time, isn’t it?” he asked. Thor reddened as he wiped foam from his lips. Luckily, before he could reply, there came a shout in the room, and they all turned to see several musicians shove their way in. They started playing on lutes and flutes, clanging cymbals, and the rowdy atmosphere heightened. “My brother!” came a voice. Thor turned to see a boy a few years older than him, with a small belly yet broad shoulders, unshaven, looking somewhat slovenly, step forward and embrace Reece in an awkward hug. He was joined by three companions, who seemed equally slovenly. “I never thought I’d find you here!” he added. “Well, once in a while I need to follow in my brother’s footsteps, don’t I?” Reece shouted back with a smile. “Thor, do you know my brother, Godfrey?” Godfrey turned and shook Thor’s hand, and Thor could not help but notice how smooth and plump it was. It was not a warrior’s hand.
Godfrey leaned back and roared with laughter, and his three companions joined him. One of them, a head taller than the others, with a huge belly, bright red cheeks, and flush with drink, leaned forward and clamped a hand on Thor’s shoulder. “Bravery is a fine trait. But it sends you to the battlefield, and keeps you cold. Being a drunk is a better trait: it keeps you safe and warm—and assures a warm lady by your side!” He roared with laughter, as did the others, and the bartender set down fresh tankards of ale for all of them. Thor hoped he wouldn’t be asked to drink; he could already feel the ale rushing to his head. “It was his first hunt today!” Reece yelled out to his brother. “Was it then?” Godfrey replied. “Well then that calls for a drink, doesn’t it?” “Or two!” his tall friend echoed. Thor looked down as another cup was shoved into his palm. “To firsts!” Godfrey called out. “TO FIRSTS!” the others echoed. “May your life be filled with firsts,” the tall one echoed, “except for the first time being sober!” They all roared with laughter as they drank. Thor sipped his, then tried to get away with lowering it—but Godfrey caught him. “That’s not the way you drink it, boy!” Godfrey yelled. He stepped forward, grabbed the tankard, put it to Thor’s lips, and the men all laughed as Thor gulped it down. He set it down, empty, and they cheered. Thor felt lightheaded. He was beginning to feel out of control, and it was harder to focus. He didn’t like the feeling. Thor felt another squirm in his shirt, as Krohn reared his head. “Well, what have we here!” Godfrey shouted in delight. “It’s a leopard cub,” Thor said. “We found it on the hunt,” Reece added. “He’s hungry,” Thor said. “I’m not sure what to feed him.” “Why, of course, ale!” the tall man yelled. “Really?” Thor asked. “Is that healthy for him?” “Of course!” Godfrey yelled. “It is just hops, boy!” Godfrey reached out, dipped his finger into the foam, and held it out; Krohn leaned forward and licked it up. He licked again and again. “See, he likes it!” Godfrey suddenly retracted his finger with a scream. He held it up and showed blood. “Sharp teeth on that one!” he yelled out—and the others all broke into laughter. Thor reached down, stroked Krohn’s head, and tilted the remnant of his drink into the leopard’s mouth. Krohn lapped it up, and Thor resolved to find him real food. He hoped Kolk would let him stay in the barracks and that none of the Legion would object. The musicians changed their song, and several more friends of Godfrey’s appeared. They came over, joined them in a fresh round of drinks, and led Godfrey away, back into the crowd. “I will see you later, young man,” Godfrey said to Reece, before leaving. Then he turned to Thor: “Hopefully you’ll spend more time in the alehouse!” “Hopefully you’ll spend more time on the battlefield,” Kendrick called back. “I very much doubt that!” Godfrey said and roared with laughter with the rest of his compatriots, as he disappeared into the crowd. “Do they always celebrate like this?” Thor asked Reece. “Godfrey? He’s been in the alehouse since he could walk. A disappointment to my father. But he’s happy with himself.” “No, I mean the King’s men. The Legion. Is there always a trip to the alehouse?” Reece shook his head. “Today is a special day. The first hunt, and the summer solstice. This doesn’t happen that often. Enjoy it while it does.” Thor was feeling increasingly disoriented as he looked around the room. This was not where he wanted to be. He wanted to be back in the barracks, training. And his thoughts drifted, once again, to Gwendolyn. “Did you get a good look at him?” Kendrick asked, as he came up to Thor. Thor looked at him, puzzled. “The man in the woods, who shot the arrow?” Kendrick added. The others crowded around close, trying to hear as the mood grew serious. Thor tried again to remember, but he could not. Everything was fuzzy.
“I wish I did,” he said. “It all happened so fast.” “Maybe it was just one of the King’s other men, shooting in our direction by accident,” O’Connor said. Thor shook his head. “He wasn’t dressed like the others. He wore all black, and a cloak and hood. And he only shot one arrow, aimed right for Kendrick, then disappeared. I’m sorry. I wish I saw more.” Kendrick shook his head, trying to think. “Who would want you dead?” Reece asked Kendrick. “Was it an assassin?” O’Connor asked. Kendrick shrugged. “I have no enemies that I know of.” “But Father has many,” Reece said. “Maybe someone wants to kill you to get to him.” “Or maybe someone wants you out of the way for the throne,” Elden postulated. “But that’s absurd! I’m illegitimate! I cannot inherit the throne!” While they all shook their heads, sipping their ale and trying to figure it out, there came another shout in the room, and all the men’s attention turned toward the staircase leading upstairs. Thor looked up and saw a string of women walk out of an upper hallway, stand by a banister, and look down at the room. They were all scantily dressed and wore too much makeup. Thor blushed. “Well, hello, men!” called the lady in front, with a large bosom and wearing a red lace outfit. The men cheered. “Who’s got money to spend tonight?” she asked. The men cheered again. Thor’s eyes opened wide in surprise. “Is this also a brothel?” he asked. The others turned and looked at him in stunned silence, then all broke into laughter. “My God, you are naïve, aren’t you!” Conval said. “Tell me you’ve never been to a brothel?” Conven said. “I bet he’s never been with a woman!” Elden said. Thor felt them all looking at him, and he felt his face turn red as a beet. He wanted to disappear. They were right: he had never been with a woman. But he would never tell them that. He wondered if it was obvious from his face. Before he could respond, one of the twins reached up, clasped a firm hand on his back, and threw a gold coin up to the woman on the stairs. “I believe you have your first customer!” he yelled. The room cheered, and Thor, despite his pushing and pulling and resisting, felt himself shoved forward by dozens of men, through the crowd and up the staircase. As he went, his mind filled with thoughts of Gwen. Of how much he loved her. Of how he didn’t want to be with anyone else. He wanted to turn and run. But there was literally no escape. Dozens of the biggest men he had ever seen shoved him forward, and did not allow retreat. Before he knew it, he was up the steps, on the landing, staring at a woman taller than he, who wore too much perfume and smiled down at him. Making matters worse, Thor was drunk. The room was positively spinning out of control, and he felt that in another moment he would collapse. The woman reached down, pulled Thor’s shirt, led him firmly into a room, and slammed the door behind them. Thor was determined not to be with her. He held in his mind thoughts of Gwen, forcing them to the front. This was not how he wanted his first experience to be. But his mind was not listening. He was so drunk, he could barely see now. And the last thing he remembered, before he blacked out, was being led across the room, toward a lady’s bed, and hoping he made it before he hit the floor.