The outcasts, p.2
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       The Outcasts, p.2

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
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  Thorn was slightly shorter than his friend, but much wider in the shoulders and chest. He was one of the most skilled and dangerous warriors Erak had ever seen. Erak often thought that he would hate to come up against Thorn in battle. He’d never seen an opponent who had survived such an encounter. Belying his heavy build, Thorn could also move with blinding speed when he chose.

  Erak roused himself from his musing as the door fell in two shattered halves.

  “Get the gold,” he ordered and his men surged forward.

  It took them half an hour to load the gold and silver into sacks. They took only as much as they could carry and they left easily the same amount behind.

  Maybe another time, Erak thought, although he knew no subsequent raid would be as easy or as bloodless as this one. In retrospect, he wished he’d caught hold of the firewood seller’s donkey. The little animal could have carried more of the gold back to the ship for them.

  The town was awake now and nervous faces peered at them from behind windows and around street corners. But these were not warriors and none were willing to face the fierce-looking men from the north. Erak nodded, satisfied, as the last of his men, each laden with two small but heavy sacks, emerged from the repository. He breathed a small sigh of satisfaction. It had been easy, he thought. Easier than he had expected.

  Laden as they were, they couldn’t maintain their previous jog as they followed the path through the scrubby undergrowth back to the beach. At least a dozen of the townspeople followed them, as if unwilling to let their gold and jewels simply disappear from sight. But they kept their distance, watching in impotent fury as the sea wolves carried away their booty.

  “Thorn, Mikkel, bring up the rear. Let me know if there’s any change,” Erak said. It would be all too easy to become complacent about the men shadowing their footsteps, and so miss any new threat that might arise.

  The two men nodded and handed their sacks of loot to other crew members, then faded to the back of the column.

  They marched some twenty meters behind the main party, turning continually to keep the following townspeople in sight. Once, Thorn faked a charge at a couple who he felt had come too close, and they scampered hurriedly back to a safe distance.

  “Rabbits,” said Mikkel dismissively.

  Thorn grinned and was about to reply when he caught sight of movement behind the straggle of townspeople. His grin faded.

  “Looks like we’ve got some rabbits on horseback,” he said. The two raiders stopped to face the rear.

  Trotting toward them, following the rough track through the undergrowth, were five horsemen. The newly risen sun gleamed off their armor and the points of the spears they all carried. They were still some distance behind the raiders but they were coming up fast. The two companions could hear the faint jingle of their horses’ harness and their equipment.

  Thorn glanced back to the main party of raiders. They were about to enter a narrow defile that led down to the last stretch of open ground to the beach. He let out a piercing whistle and saw Erak stop and look back. The rest of the party continued to move as quickly as they could.

  Thorn pointed to the riders. Uncertain whether Erak could see the new enemy, he held up his right hand, with five fingers extended, then brought it down in a clenched fist close by his shoulder—the signal for “enemy.” He pointed again to the riders.

  He saw Erak wave acknowledgment, then point at the entrance to the defile, where the last of his men were just passing through. Thorn and Mikkel both grunted in understanding.

  “Good idea,” Mikkel said. “We’ll hold them off at the entrance.”

  The high rock walls and narrow space would encumber the horsemen. It would also prevent them from flanking and encircling the two sea wolves. They’d be forced into a frontal attack. Normally, that might be a daunting prospect, but these were two experienced and deadly fighters, each secure in his own skills and those of his companion.

  They both knew that Erak would not abandon them to this new danger. Once the gold was safely at the ship, he’d send men back to help them. Their job was only to buy time, not to sacrifice themselves so the others could escape. And both men felt confident that they could hold off a few country-bumpkin horsemen.

  They doubled their pace, covering the ground to the defile. Behind them, they heard a ragged cheer from the townspeople as they saw the raiders seemingly running for their lives ahead of the avenging horsemen, who urged their horses to a gallop, determined to catch these interlopers before they could escape into the narrow gully.

  The two warriors had no intention of escaping. Rather, as they reached the defile, Mikkel and Thorn turned and drew their weapons, swinging them experimentally as they faced the approaching riders.

  Like most Skandians, Thorn favored a heavy, single-bladed battleax as his principal weapon. Mikkel was armed with a long sword. Both of them wore horned helmets and carried large wooden shields, borne on the left arm, with a heavy center boss of metal and reinforcing metal strips around the edges. They presented these to the oncoming riders, so that only their heads and legs were visible—as well as the gleaming sword and ax, still moving in small preliminary arcs, catching and reflecting the sunlight as the two warriors stretched their muscles.

  It seemed to the horsemen that the shields and swords blocked the defile entrance completely. Expecting the Skandians to run in panic, they were somewhat taken aback now at this show of defiance—and at the confident manner of the two men facing them. They drew rein about thirty meters short of the two men and looked at each other uncertainly, each waiting for one of the others to take the lead.

  The two Skandians sensed their uncertainty, and noted the clumsy way they handled their spears and small round shields. There was none of the easy familiarity that could be seen in an experienced fighter.

  “I think these boys are still wet behind the ears,” Mikkel said, smiling grimly.

  Thorn nodded. “I doubt they’ve seen any real fighting.”

  They were right. The horsemen, who had come from the castle in response to a messenger who had run all the way from Santa Sebilla, were young and only half trained. They were all from well-to-do families. Their indolent parents had always supplied their every whim: new chain mail, a sword with a gold-chased hilt, a new battle horse. They viewed their training in the knightly arts as more of a social activity than a serious one. They had never before faced armed and determined warriors like these two, and it suddenly occurred to them that what had begun as a lighthearted expedition to send a few ill-bred raiders running in panic had quickly turned into a potentially deadly confrontation. Someone could die here today. So they hesitated, uncertain what they should do next.

  Then one, either braver or more foolhardy than his fellows, shouted a challenge and spurred his horse forward, awkwardly trying to level his spear at the two Skandians.

  “Mine, I think,” said Thorn, stepping forward a few paces to accept the charge. Mikkel was content to let him do so. Thorn’s long-handled ax was the more effective weapon against a horseman.

  Thorn summed up his opponent through slitted eyes. The youth was bouncing around in his saddle like a sack of potatoes, trying to steady his spear under his right arm and keep it pointed at his enemy. It would be ridiculously easy to kill him, Thorn thought. But that might simply rouse the anger of his companions. Better to humiliate him.

  Bracing himself, he caught the spearhead on his shield and flicked it easily to one side. Then he slammed the flat of his ax into the shoulder of the charging horse, throwing it off balance. As it stumbled, he drove forward with his shield, hitting the animal again and sending it reeling to one side. The horse struck the rough rock wall beside the defile and lost its footing, crashing onto its side with a terrified neighing. The rider barely had time to clear his feet from the stirrups and avoid being pinned under the fallen horse. He fell awkwardly to one side, his small shield underneath him. He scrabbled desperately at the hilt of his sword, trying to clear the long blade fr
om its scabbard. When it was half drawn, Thorn kicked his arm and hand, finishing the action and sending the bared sword spinning away out of his grasp.

  The young rider looked up at Thorn with terrified eyes. He flinched uncontrollably as he saw the terrible war ax arcing up and over. Then it slammed into the hard ground, a few inches from his face. The Skandian’s eyes, cold and merciless, held his. Then Thorn said one word.

  “Run.”

  The young Iberian scrambled clumsily to his feet and turned to escape. As he did, he felt a violent impact in his behind as Thorn helped him on his way with his boot. Stumbling and crying in panic, he blundered back to where his companions were waiting, their horses moving uneasily from one foot to the other, the riders’ fear communicating itself to the animals.

  Behind him, the boy heard the two Skandians laughing.

  Thorn’s instincts had been correct. The apparent ease with which he had dealt with the rider was far more disconcerting than if he had simply killed him. By letting him live, he had shown the utter contempt with which he and his companion regarded these neophyte warriors. Such disregard made the Iberians even more uncertain.

  “I think you’ve made them nervous.” Mikkel grinned at his friend.

  Thorn shrugged. “So they should be. They shouldn’t be allowed out with pointy sticks like that. They’re more danger to themselves than anyone else.”

  “Let’s see them off,” said Mikkel. “They’re starting to annoy me.”

  Without any warning, the two Skandians brandished their weapons and charged at the small group of horsemen, screaming battle cries as they went.

  The shock of it all was too much for the demoralized group of riders. They saw the terrifying warriors charging across open ground at them and each one was convinced that he was the target they were aiming for. One of them wheeled his horse and clapped spurs to its flanks, dropping his spear as his horse lurched suddenly beneath him. His action was infectious. Within seconds, all four horsemen were steaming across the plain in a ragged line, the riderless horse with them, and their dismounted companion stumbling awkwardly behind them, encumbered by his thigh-high riding boots, spurs and flapping, empty scabbard.

  Mikkel and Thorn stopped and rested on their weapons, roaring with laughter at the sight.

  “I do hope they get home all right,” Mikkel said and Thorn laughed all the louder.

  “Are you ladies ready to join us?” It was Svengal, sent back with five men to reinforce the rearguard. “It seems you don’t need any help.”

  Still laughing, Thorn and Mikkel sheathed their weapons and walked back to join Svengal and the others at the mouth of the defile.

  “You should have seen it, Svengal,” Mikkel began. “Thorn here simply frightened them away. The sight of his ugly face was too much for them. It even made a horse fall over.”

  Svengal let go a short bark of laughter. Hurrying up the defile at the head of the reinforcements, he had seen how Thorn dealt with the charging rider. He was impressed. He knew he could never have pulled that move off. In fact, he couldn’t think of anyone other than Thorn who might have managed it.

  “Well, you played your part too,” Thorn was saying in reply. “Although I must admit I was magnificent.”

  “I’m not sure that’s the word I’d—” Mikkel raised his arm to clap his friend on the shoulder when the spear hit him.

  It came out of nowhere. Later, thinking over the event, Thorn realized it must have been the spear dropped by the first of the fleeing horsemen. He surmised that one of the following townspeople, overcome with rage and frustration, had retrieved it and hurled it blindly at the Skandians, then run for his life into the scrub and rocks before he could see the result.

  The result could not have been worse. The heavy iron head penetrated underneath Mikkel’s raised arm, burying itself deep in his upper body. He let go a small cry and fell to his knees, then crumpled sideways. Horrified, Thorn dropped to the ground beside his friend, seeing the pallor of Mikkel’s face as the life drained from his body.

  “Sword … ,” Mikkel gasped. If a sea wolf died in battle without a weapon in his hand, his soul would wander in the netherworld for eternity. Svengal had already drawn his own sword and thrust it into Mikkel’s groping fingers. The stricken man looked up in thanks, then turned his gaze to his best friend.

  “Thorn,” he said, the effort of speaking that one word almost too great.

  Thorn bent his head close to Mikkel’s. “Hold on, Mikkel. We’ll get you to the ship.”

  Somehow, the ship meant safety and salvation, as if the simple act of being on board could negate the effects of the terrible, life-sapping wound in Mikkel’s side. But Mikkel knew better. He shook his head.

  “My wife … and the boy … look out for them, Thorn.”

  Thorn’s vision blurred with tears as he gripped his friend’s hand, making sure that Mikkel’s grip on the sword hilt didn’t weaken.

  “I will. You have my word.”

  Mikkel nodded and seemed to gather his strength for one last effort.

  “Won’t … be easy … for him. He’ll need …”

  The pain and the shock were too much. He couldn’t finish the sentence. But there was still a last remnant of light in his eyes. Thorn gripped his hand tighter, willing him to finish. He needed to know his friend’s last wish, needed to know what he wanted done.

  “He’ll need what, Mikkel? What will he need?”

  Mikkel’s lips moved wordlessly. He took in a great, shuddering breath that racked his body. With a final effort, he spoke one word.

  “You,” he said, and died.

  chapter two

  Six years later …

  Karina Mikkelswife found Thorn one winter morning.

  He was huddled in rags and a moth-eaten old fur, lying semi-comatose in the lee of her eating house.

  The light snow overnight had powdered his hair and the ratty fur, turning them white. But his face and hands were blue with the piercing cold and his nose ran incessantly.

  Thorn had become so drunk the previous night that he had lost his way while heading back to the boatshed where he lived. He had crawled into the shelter of the wall, out of the wind, and lain down, vaguely hoping to die.

  Which he probably would have done had Karina not intervened.

  She tried to rouse him, calling his name and shaking him by the shoulder. But he slapped her hand away and mumbled incoherently, turning away from her, his eyes still closed, his mind far away.

  She shook him again, harder this time, and he cursed her, knocking her hand aside angrily. A steely light gleamed in her eyes.

  “Hal!” she called to her ten-year-old son, who was working in the kitchen, cleaning the dishes from the previous night’s dinner.

  “Yes, Mam?”

  “Pump a bucket of water and bring it here. And be quick about it.”

  He arrived a few minutes later, holding the bucket out from his body with an extended arm so that the freezing contents wouldn’t spill on him. He gaped as he made out the figure slumped against the wall.

  “It’s crazy old Thorn,” he said as he set the bucket down. “What’s he doing here?”

  Karina’s eyes narrowed again as she heard the phrase. Obviously, this was how the local boys referred to the decrepit former sea wolf. It’s a crying shame, she thought, remembering what an amazing man Thorn had been before he had lost his hand.

  The raid when Karina’s husband, Mikkel, had lost his life had turned into a succession of disasters. On the return trip, Wolfwind had been dismasted in a storm. In the struggle to clear the wreckage and save the ship from sinking, Thorn’s right arm had become hopelessly trapped in a tangle of ropes and broken timber and he lost his hand.

  Thorn had been devastated by the loss. With only his left hand, he could no longer wield a sword or ax, nor pull an oar. He had no skill as a navigator, and although he’d been a competent helmsman in his time, a steering oar often required two hands in rough weather. Consequently, there
was no useful place he could fill on a wolfship and he had found himself on the beach, with no way of continuing the life he loved. In addition, he had lost his best friend. He had sunk into a deep depression, looking for comfort in an ale or brandy tankard. There was little comfort in either, but there was oblivion, and strong drink helped him forget his loss, albeit temporarily.

  It also soothed the pain that would hit him without warning, searing through the stump of his right arm and seeming to come from the missing hand itself. Thankfully, that was an infrequent occurrence and as time passed it became even more so. But it gave him a further excuse to continue drinking.

  His hair and beard grew long and matted and unkempt, and he seemed to go gray long before he should have. He washed infrequently and took no interest or care in his appearance. He degenerated into a staggering wreck of a man, mourning the loss of his right hand—which seemed to have taken his self-respect with it. None of his friends or former shipmates could rouse him from this downward spiral of self-destruction. Even Erak, who had been his skirl, or ship’s captain, before becoming Oberjarl of Skandia, couldn’t reach or reason with him.

  “He’s not that old,” Karina said tersely to her son.

  Hal raised his eyebrows, peering more closely at the unconscious Thorn.

  “Really? He looks about a hundred.”

  “Is that so?” she said. To a boy, she knew, anyone over twenty-five appeared positively ancient. She cocked her head to one side, giving in to curiosity—knowing she shouldn’t, but doing so anyway.

 
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