The outcasts, p.17
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       The Outcasts, p.17

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “Hungry then?” Thorn asked him, still smiling. Hal nodded emphatically. He’d gulped the food so quickly that for a moment he couldn’t speak. Thorn continued. “Don’t they feed you up there?”

  “Yes. The food isn’t bad at all,” Hal said, finally finding his voice. “But they work us hard too. And they don’t have fresh bread like my mam bakes.”

  “Actually, I made that loaf,” Thorn told him, with a certain amount of pride in his voice. “Although I’m surprised you could taste it, it went down so fast.”

  “You made it?” Hal said, surprised.

  “I have hidden depths. Been working on the punch bag?” He nodded toward the shelter, where Hal had hung the sack filled with wool and canvas scraps.

  “Every day,” Hal told him. He held up his hands and Thorn could see how the knuckles were reddened and chafed from his repeated onslaughts on the bag.

  “Good. Let’s see how you’re doing.” Thorn led the way to the shelter and watched as Hal took a stance in front of the bag. He pursed his lips with satisfaction as he saw how the boy stayed on his toes, moving lightly, keeping his balance. Then Hal’s fists shot out in a rapid salvo of blows.

  Smack! Smack! Smack! He drove his left straight at the bag, three rapid shots that set it swinging. Then he danced in and unleashed a ripping right hook that jerked the heavy bag off to the side. He repeated the sequence almost immediately.

  “Keep your shoulder behind it,” Thorn said quietly. After a few punches, he noted that Hal would occasionally use his arms only, instead of getting any body weight and shoulder behind the punch. “Remember, most fights are won with one or two punches. Make sure they count.

  “Better,” he said as the boy set his teeth and stepped into his punches, feeling the extra power that drove the bag back until it jerked fiercely against its retaining rope. Thorn let Hal throw a few more punches. He was doing well, he thought.

  “All right. That’s enough.” Hal straightened and stepped back, wiping beads of perspiration from his forehead. He looked at Thorn hopefully, and grinned as the one-armed man delivered his verdict. “That’s good. You’re doing well. Just keep that right hand up a little more when you’re throwing the left. And keep your chin tucked in, instead of hanging it out there as a target.”

  “I’ll remember that,” Hal said.

  Thorn knew he would. The boy took instruction well, he thought.

  “How’s the training going?” he asked.

  Hal grimaced. “It’s hard work,” he said. “I’m enjoying the navigation classes. We’re working on the theoretical stuff at the moment.”

  There were two sides to navigation. One was theoretical, or anecdotal. It required the voyager to memorize various sets of conditions, water depths, tidal flows, prevailing currents and the differing types of seabeds found in different areas. For example, if a skirl found his ship in ten fathoms of water on a sloping shale seabed at high tide, with a prevailing north wind and a current that set northwest, he would have a fair idea that he was off the southeastern coast of Sonderland. The records had been collected by Skandian seafarers for different parts of the world over several centuries. They were a jealously guarded secret, made known only to Skandian navigators.

  The other side was the practical side, by which the boys learned to tell their position by gauging the altitude of various stars and the sun, and by use of a sun compass, which they were also taught how to construct.

  Thorn shook his head. Only a select few could manage the intricacies of navigation. That’s why skilled navigators were so highly regarded by the Skandians.

  “Could never keep all that stuff in my mind,” he admitted. Hal grinned at him. “How about the weapons classes?”

  Hal sighed. “More hard work. I don’t feel I’m doing so well there. I feel like I’m clumsy and too slow.”

  “You are,” Thorn told him and the boy looked up, surprised.

  “You’ve been watching?” he asked.

  Thorn didn’t reply. It was obvious that he had been.

  “How do you find that sword they’ve given you?” he asked instead.

  Hal shrugged. “It’s kind of heavy. But I guess I’ll get used to it,” he said hopefully.

  Thorn regarded him carefully for a few seconds. “No reason why you should,” he said. “It looks as if it’s badly balanced. And the shield is way too heavy. It’s an axman’s shield.”

  “Nothing I can do about it,” Hal said resignedly.

  Thorn snorted in derision. “Maybe you can’t. But I can. Come on.”

  He turned abruptly and headed for the path that would take them into Hallasholm. Hal was caught by surprise and had to hurry to catch up.

  “Where are we going?” he asked. But instead of answering the question, Thorn branched off on another subject. It seemed to be a habit of his, Hal thought.

  “The trouble is,” Thorn said, “you’re being trained by axmen, and they’re training you to use a sword like an ax—just swinging hard and battering your enemy. That’s a part of fighting with a sword, of course. But there’s another part, and that’s using the point. You’ve got to be ready to take advantage of any momentary gap in your enemy’s defense and lunge through it. Eight centimeters of the point will drop an enemy just as quickly as half a meter of edge.”

  “Like the punches you’ve shown me?” Hal said and Thorn looked at him, pleased that he’d made the connection.

  “Exactly,” he said. “And, like the straight punch, a lunging sword blade is harder to avoid than a wild swipe. Axmen just batter away at each other, and in the end, the person who hits hardest will win.”

  “So the bigger man will always win in the end?” Hal asked.

  “Not necessarily,” Thorn told him. “There’s some technique involved, of course. A smaller man can sometimes develop more power by better timing and by getting more weight behind the stroke. Again, like your punching practice.”

  Hal nodded, frowning thoughtfully. Once again, he found himself wondering how Thorn knew so much about these things. But he’d learned not to ask. The reply was most likely to be a slightly bitter comment along the lines of, “I wasn’t always like this, you know,” with the right arm stump brandished as he said the words like this.

  They’d reached the outskirts of the town now. Hal tried another question.

  “Where did you say we were going?” he asked, hoping that phrasing it like that might elicit an answer. Thorn scowled at several children who he thought were staring at his stump.

  “I didn’t,” he said briefly. He snarled at the children, who scattered, giggling, then he strode out faster. Hal had to half run for a few paces to catch up. He shrugged philosophically. He’d find out where they were heading soon enough. One thing he knew, there was no point in asking Thorn over and over. If he didn’t want to say, he wouldn’t.

  So Hal was considerably surprised when they stopped outside the Oberjarl’s Great Hall. This was where Erak consulted with his council of jarls, staged official feasts, heard and judged disputes and issued official edicts. His private quarters were behind the huge public hall and Thorn led the way there now. A few sentries stood around the Great Hall, keeping an eye on the constant stream of people who filed in to deliver requests for the Oberjarl. Erak wasn’t present but the visitors left the written requests with his hilfmann, who was seated at a cluttered desk at the front of the hall. The sentries glanced at Thorn and Hal without too much curiosity. The hilfmann glanced up once, nodded to Thorn and then went back to work. Hal had the feeling that Thorn was a regular visitor here.

  They went through a side door at the far end of the hall, opposite the plain pinewood chair that served as the Oberjarl’s throne. Hal found himself hurrying along behind Thorn through a low-ceilinged, timber-lined gallery. There were locked doors on either side. These, he knew, led into the living quarters of some of the more senior jarls. Many of them chose to live here, rather than maintain their own households.

  The gallery came to an end and they
were facing a large double door, built of oak and reinforced with iron strips. Thorn gestured to it casually.

  “Erak’s quarters,” he said. Then he pointed to a smaller door on the right-hand side of the gallery.

  “This is the one we want. It’s his storeroom.” He produced a large iron key from inside his tattered jacket and inserted it in the lock.

  “Um … Thorn? Should we be doing this?” Hal asked anxiously. He realized this was where Erak kept all his treasures—the booty and plunder he had hoarded from his time as a sea wolf raider and the share from other raids that he was paid as Oberjarl. Thorn stopped and looked sidelong at him.

  “You scared of the Oberjarl, boy?” he asked.

  Hal considered the question for a few seconds, then replied, “Yes. I am, actually.”

  Thorn emitted a short bark of laughter. “Good! So you should be! He’s a terrible man when he’s angry!”

  Which didn’t do a lot to calm Hal’s nervousness about breaking into Erak’s treasure room. But Thorn had the door unlocked and was swinging it open, gesturing for Hal to go first. Hal hesitated, then stepped through.

  And stopped. It was a large, unfurnished room and it was packed to overflowing with treasure. Jewels, gold, silver, chests of coins. Armor. Weapons. Statues. Artworks. In the center of the room was an enormous chandelier, made from hundreds of pieces of faceted glass. It hung from the ceiling but the ceiling was so low that most of the chandelier was draped on the ground.

  Thorn saw Hal looking at it and sniggered.

  “Ridiculous, isn’t it? It was Ragnak’s, before Erak became Oberjarl and claimed it. He thinks it’s very artistic. Come on.”

  They threaded their way through the heaped treasures. Some of it, Hal saw, was nearly priceless. Other pieces, like the chandelier and several ridiculous statues of nymphs and small winged creatures that looked like babies with tiny wings, were simply gaudy and probably worthless.

  “I had no idea Erak was so rich,” he said quietly.

  Thorn looked over his shoulder at him. “Or had such bad taste.” Erak’s treasure room seemed to amuse him mightily. “Look at that,” he added.

  The object he was referring to was a marble statue of a little boy, standing naked on the edge of a wide marble basin, in a rather suggestive pose.

  “It’s a fountain,” he explained. “Erak stole it on a raid in Toscana. The boy’s supposed to pee into the bowl. But Erak’s never managed to get it to work. Bit of a sore point with him, as a matter of fact.”

  “It is pretty ghastly,” Hal agreed. Thorn was bending over a large chest against the back wall of the room, fumbling with the clasp. “Should you be doing that?” Hal asked.

  “This is my stuff,” Thorn told him, rummaging in the chest. “Erak took it to look after it for me when I was … you know … sick.”

  Hal nodded. He and his mother had an agreement that they would refer to the time when Thorn was a drunk as the time when he was sick. Thorn had picked up on it as well. He didn’t like to think about how low he had sunk in that period.

  “Aah! Here it is!” the scruffy old sea wolf said triumphantly, dragging a long object wrapped in oilskin from the chest. Several necklaces and a bag of silver coins spilled out at the same time but he ignored them. Quickly, he unwrapped it and handed it to Hal.

  “It’s your father’s sword,” he said.

  Hal took it in both hands, holding it out in front of him to study it. It was a plain, utilitarian weapon. The hilt was bound in fine wire and there was a brass pommel and crosspiece. The blade was hidden in a leather and brass scabbard attached to a wide leather belt. He tested the weight of the sword, lifting it up and down a few times.

  “It feels just as heavy as the other one,” he said.

  “A sword has to have some weight,” Thorn told him. “Otherwise you might as well hit your opponent with a feather. The secret is in how that weight’s balanced. Take it out of the scabbard.”

  Hal drew the sword with a faint scraping sound of metal on leather. Then, as he held it aloft by the hilt, his eyes opened in surprise.

  The weight of the sword seemed to drop away, somehow. It felt light and agile and easy to move back and forth. There was a faint sense of mass in the tip of the blade, but the sword didn’t weigh heavily on his wrist the way his other sword did, dragging it down and making him work to keep the point up. The weight was balanced beautifully between the hilt and the point. He felt as if he could wield this sword all day without tiring.

  “This was my father’s?” he said, turning the blade in his hands to look at it. The blued steel was unadorned except for the channels down the blade on either side. They served two purposes, he knew. They stiffened the blade, and also allowed blood to escape, so that the sword could be withdrawn from a wound more easily.

  “He knew a good sword when he saw one,” Thorn agreed. “That one will do you quite well.”

  “I should think so,” Hal said quietly. He couldn’t take his eyes off the weapon, picturing his father brandishing it as he charged ashore on a raid. Unthinkingly, he suddenly flourished it above his head, as he imagined his father might have done.

  Thorn stepped back hastily as the blade flashed past his nose. He stumbled on a pile of furs and only just stopped himself from falling.

  “Be careful with that!” he barked and Hal flushed, lowering the sword carefully, then replacing it in the scabbard.

  “Sorry,” he mumbled. Thorn glared at him as he recovered his equanimity.

  “So you should be. It’s a sword, not a fairy wand, you know.” He looked around the dimly lit storeroom. “Now where has Erak kept his …”

  He got no further. The door to the gallery opened to admit Erak. The Oberjarl peered round suspiciously, then his expression cleared as he recognized Thorn and his companion.

  “Oh, it’s you, Thorn. And the Master Mariner, I see. How are you, young Hal?”

  “Well enough, thank you, Oberjarl.”

  “Is that Mikkel’s sword?” Erak asked, squinting to see the sword in Hal’s hand more closely.

  “Yes. They gave the boy a great unbalanced lump of iron. Thought he might as well have this,” Thorn said. He was poking around the far wall, shifting items aside to see what was behind them.

  “Good choice,” Erak said. He looked at Hal. “It’s an excellent sword, that one.”

  Hal nodded. “It certainly feels better than the one they issued to me.”

  Erak grunted. “Anything would. Those issue weapons are pretty dreadful. And good swords are hard to come by. Thorn!” he said, distracted by the other man’s rifling through his belongings. “Are you looking for something in particular, or just planning on robbing me blind?”

  “You had three or four Gallican shields,” Thorn replied. “Thought you might contribute one to the boy. They’ve issued him the wheel off an oxcart.”

  “Behind that stuffed bear,” Erak told him, pointing.

  Thorn looked behind the huge stuffed bear, which had been in Erak’s storehouse for some years and looked rather the worse for wear—or, rather, moths. There was a clatter of metal as he dragged a shield into view, several others falling to the floor as he did so. He left them where they lay and handed the shield to Hal. It had a wood frame, covered with a curved metal sheet and painted deep blue, with a white diagonal stripe. The top edge was a straight line. The sides started out straight but halfway down they formed into a curve so that they joined in a point at the bottom. Hal slipped his arm through the leather loop and gripped the handhold, testing the feel.

  “That’s a lot lighter,” he said appreciatively.

  “The Galls make good shields,” Erak told him. “Mind you, it’s a bit light to block an ax stroke directly. Try to deflect the ax as much as you can.”

  “How do I do that?” Hal asked. Surprisingly, Erak looked to Thorn and it was he who answered.

  “Don’t present the shield straight on to the stroke. Slant it so the ax glances off. In a pinch you can block it. But do
n’t do it too often.” He frowned at Hal. “Didn’t hear you thank the Oberjarl for giving you the shield,” he said.

  “Oh! Yes, thank you, Oberjarl,” Hal said.

  Erak grinned. “I don’t recall I had much choice. Thorn ordered me to hand it over, didn’t he?”

  Thorn snorted and muttered disdainfully and Hal smiled in return.

  “Well, thanks anyway. And thanks to you, Thorn, for the sword.” Thorn shrugged the thanks aside and motioned toward the door.

  “It was yours by rights, anyway,” he said. “Now come on. Time you were getting back to the barracks.”

  Erak held up a hand. “If you don’t mind, Thorn, I’d like a word in private with Hal. Could you wait outside for a few minutes?”

  “What do you want to talk about?” Thorn asked, and Erak looked at Hal, his head inclined to one side.

  “Hal, do you understand the phrase ‘a word in private’?” he asked. Hal nodded and the Oberjarl continued. “Later on, can you explain it to Thorn?”

  “Oh, all right!” Thorn said, his curiosity frustrated. “I’m going. Don’t be too long.”

  chapter twenty-one

  Erak waited until the door closed behind Thorn. He looked around, saw a wooden chest with a padded top and sat down, motioning for Hal to find a seat for himself among all the clutter. When the boy was seated, on a small stool carved in the shape of an elephant, the Oberjarl regarded him for several long moments.

  Hal realized that Erak wasn’t quite sure how to begin. We could sit here in silence until this elephant comes to life, he thought.

  “So, Oberjarl?” he prompted.

  Erak started as he realized he’d been sitting staring at the boy.

  “I just wanted to say thank you,” he said and Hal frowned, puzzled by his words.

  “Thank me?” he said. “For what?”

  “For what you’ve done for Thorn,” the Oberjarl replied.

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