The outcasts, p.25
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       The Outcasts, p.25

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  Stig heaved a huge sigh of relief. “Well, praise Gorlog for that! Hal tore me off a terrible strip after you left. I’ve got to say, the two of you have taught me a real lesson.”

  “If you’ve learned from it, that’s a good thing,” Thorn told him. “Just don’t forget it.”

  Stig was grinning widely now. As Thorn had reflected, he was a good-hearted boy and he hated to be in conflict with anyone—except perhaps Tursgud. But now his sense of relief made his tongue run away with him.

  “I’ll remember,” he said heartily. “After all, it’s not everyone who gets advice from a former Maktig, is it?”

  Thorn’s head snapped up. The blood drained from his cheeks until he was white-faced with fury.

  “What?” he demanded, his voice cutting like a whip. “What did you say?”

  Stig stepped back a pace, confused and uncertain now. Hal chose that moment to come pounding up to them, in time to hear his next words.

  “Hal said you were the Maktig. Three times, he said.”

  “Stig! Shut up!” Hal yelled. But of course, it was too late. Thorn turned on him, his left hand extended, a finger pointing at Hal like a spear.

  “I might have known it was you!” he snarled. “Who invited you to poke around in my past life?” he shouted. “I suppose it was that big mouth, Erak. And now you’ve told Stig. Who else did you tell, curse it? Who else have you been blabbing to?”

  Hal moved his hands helplessly. “Just Stig. Nobody else. And I told him not to say anything about it,” he added, casting an anguished look at his friend.

  Thorn snorted in white-hot fury. “Well, that worked, didn’t it?” he spat at them. He looked from one to the other, seething. Hal made another ineffectual gesture, taking a half pace forward.

  “Thorn, I didn’t mean to—”

  “Shut up! Your blasted mouth has done enough damage for one day. Just shut up! Shut up and stay away from me!”

  And with that, Thorn turned on his heel and stalked away, fury written in every line of his body.

  chapter thirty-one

  “I don’t know why he got so angry, Mam,” Hal said morosely. “He should be proud of what he was.”

  It was late afternoon and Hal was helping his mother prepare butterflied chickens to grill over hot coals. This involved cutting the backbone out of the chicken, then flattening it out so that it would cook more quickly and evenly over the direct heat of the coals. His mother was using a heavy cleaver to chop through the ribs along the backbone. Hal was using his saxe. She glanced at it doubtfully.

  “You haven’t been doing anything unpleasant with that saxe, have you? Not cutting any tarry rope or anything?”

  He smiled as he continued chopping. “No, Mam. And I cleaned the oil off it with boiling water before I started.” To prevent rust, saxe knife blades were kept lightly oiled.

  She nodded, satisfied, then addressed his earlier statement.

  “It’s pride that makes him want people to forget it,” she said. She could see Hal frown as he tried to follow that reasoning and she continued. “You see, Hal, Thorn can live with people thinking of him as a tramp and a drunk. Although only just,” she added, remembering how close Thorn had come to slipping into a permanent sleep that winter night.

  “But what he can’t stand is the idea of people comparing him now to what he once was. That would hurt too much. If people were saying, ‘Look at him. He’s a useless cripple but he used to be the mightiest warrior in Skandia,’ it would be a constant reminder to him of what he’s lost. And a constant shame as he had to face how low he’s slipped—and how everybody knew about it.”

  “I suppose so,” Hal said reluctantly. “But another thing puzzles me. He’s incredibly fast still, and his left hand and arm are amazingly strong. He could still be a capable warrior, even with only one hand.”

  Karina smiled sadly. “I asked Erak about that once. He would have kept Thorn in his crew if he’d asked. But Thorn told him, ‘There’s a big difference between being good and being the best.’ That difference is just too painful for him to face.”

  “I think I see,” Hal said.

  They were silent for a while and Karina knew Hal’s falling-out with Thorn was still troubling him. She also knew that, in time, their friendship would survive it. Thorn thought too much of the boy to let his anger last indefinitely. But of course, Hal couldn’t see that. Young people, she sighed, everything was always so black and white for them. And everything must be put to rights immediately. She tried to get Hal’s mind off his troubles.

  “Anyway, what have you been up to for the past two days? I’ve barely seen you, except for meals. You’ve been locked away in that workshop of yours for hours.”

  Hal had the grace to look remorseful. “Sorry about that,” he said. “I’ve been working on something for Thorn—sort of a peace offering.”

  She smiled. “I’m sure he’ll love it. Now watch you’re not cutting away too much meat with that backbone. I need some left to serve my customers, you know.”

  “Yes, Mam,” he said obediently.

  After they had split and flattened eight chickens, Hal prepared a bed of charcoal to roast them over, while his mother rubbed oil and aromatic spices into their skins. Once the heat hit them, he knew, the skin would tighten and form a crisp, brown outer layer over the juicy meat beneath.

  “Dinner will be in an hour and a half,” his mother told him as she buried potatoes into the hot, red-glowing coals. They would bake there while the chickens roasted. The first of the chickens went onto the grill with a fragrant, spluttering explosion of juices hitting the fire. Hal’s mouth watered instantly at the delicious smell.

  “An hour and a half? Fine. I’ve just got something to do first,” he said.

  Karina smiled as her son hurried out of the kitchen. She was willing to bet that it had to do with Thorn and the peace offering Hal had been working on.

  He jogged to his workshop at the rear of the large plot of ground where the eating house stood. He slipped the door lock free and stepped inside. It was dim in the workshop. There was a small window high in one wall but the early evening light barely trickled through it. Still, there was no need to light a lamp. The objects he was after lay neatly on the workbench, wrapped in heavy, waxed linen sailcloth.

  He tucked them under his arm, let himself out and adjusted the lock again. Then he headed for Thorn’s lean-to on the eastern wall of the eating house.

  He could see a strip of yellow candlelight around the edges of the heavy leather curtain that served as a door closure. Thorn was inside then. Hal hesitated, unwilling to face that cold, unfriendly face he had seen at the Common Green, then gathered his resolve and went forward, knocking on the doorjamb.

  “Who is it?” Thorn’s voice was peremptory and unwelcoming. Hal swallowed. His mouth was dry all of a sudden. He swallowed again and managed to speak.

  “Thorn … it’s me. Hal. Can I come in?”

  There was no reply from inside the lean-to. Then the leather door was abruptly dragged aside. Thorn regarded him coldly for some seconds.

  “What do you want?”

  Hal could see he was still angry. He gestured to the inside of the lean-to.

  “Can I come in? I’ll only take a few seconds of your time.” He held up the two linen-wrapped parcels. “I have something for you.”

  Thorn stepped aside and gestured for him to enter. Truth be told, he was angry with Hal. But he had spent the last two days regretting his outburst at the Common Green. He felt he had been too hard on the boy, but he was too stubborn to come out and apologize. After all, Hal was in the wrong, he thought. He’d had no call to talk about Thorn’s past.

  On the other hand, he conceded, he hadn’t told the boy about how he had been the Maktig. Nor had he sworn him to secrecy. So he couldn’t really accuse him of breaking a confidence. It had been some time since Thorn had faced a moral dilemma like this, and inevitably, he acted as he always had done in the past few years. He shut himself away
from the problem.

  He gestured now to a three-legged stool that was one of the few pieces of furniture in the cramped, slant-ceilinged room—along with a table and Thorn’s rope-net bed. Most of the rest of the available space was cluttered with discarded items of clothing and odd pieces of bric-a-brac that had been washed up on the shore and had taken his fancy—bits of fishing net, cork floats and a cane basket with one side beginning to fray and unravel.

  Hal sat on the stool. Thorn sat facing him, on the edge of the bed. There was a long silence.

  “Thorn, I am so sorry,” Hal said at last.

  Thorn said nothing. But he felt a profound sense of relief that the way was now open for a reconciliation with this young boy he had grown to admire and care for. Perversely, he knew he could never have taken that first step, no matter how much he wanted to. He grunted and shifted uncomfortably on the bed.

  “ ’S all right,” he said gruffly. “Nothing to really worry about.”

  But Hal had his speech prepared and he went on, barely registering Thorn’s reaction.

  “I know saying it doesn’t mean too much,” he said. “Saying it is easy. So I made you this as an apology gift.” He held out one of the wrapped packages. “It’s for you,” he added unnecessarily, as Thorn stared at it without moving. Finally, the old sea wolf reached out and took the parcel, placing it in his lap and looking down at it.

  “You made this?” he said and Hal nodded.

  “I made it for you. Have a look at it.”

  Slowly, Thorn unwrapped the oiled linen and found himself looking at a strange contraption.

  At one end was a leather cup, about fifteen centimeters deep, reinforced with whalebone stiffening and fitted with two buckled straps passing around it. To this was anchored a piece of polished blackthorn wood, which extended from the closed end of the leather cup. It was a straight piece, but shaped in a half-circle curve at the end. Looking more closely, Thorn saw that it was actually two pieces, with the second piece fitting flush with the first and hinged just in front of the point where it joined the leather socket. He frowned, not quite understanding.

  “It fits over the end of your right arm,” Hal explained. He reached forward and took it from Thorn, then slipped the socket over the end of his shortened right arm. The cup fitted snugly, particularly once Hal had tightened and adjusted the two straps. The interior, Thorn could feel, was padded with sheepskin. He moved it experimentally, raising the blackthorn piece before his eyes.

  “It’s a hook,” he said, understanding.

  Hal nodded eagerly. “But it’s better than just a hook,” he said. “Look.”

  He loosened a leather thong on the side of the hook and the free end of the hinged section came away from the main body of the hook.

  “You can grip things with it,” he explained. He placed the separated ends on either side of a cup on the table, then pulled the cord tight so that the hinged pieces came together, like a set of jaws. The thong had a series of knots tied along it and Hal slipped one into a carved notch to hold the jaws solidly on the cup.

  Thorn picked up the cup and moved it around, his face lighting up with a huge smile.

  “This is amazing,” he said quietly.

  He turned his arm this way and that, admiring its new extension. Then he placed the cup down on the table again, unclipped the knot from its notch and released the jaws. Then he pulled the thong tight again and clipped it off so that the two halves formed a solid hook once more.

  “Quite amazing,” he repeated.

  Hal touched the curved wood at the end. “I’ve shaped this to fit over an oar handle,” he said. “You’ll be able to row again.”

  Thorn shook his head in delight. “Amazing,” he said again. No other word seemed adequate. He looked at Hal, saw the relief in the boy’s face that he loved the gift. “You really made this?” Hal nodded.

  “I actually started on it some time ago but I’d put it aside. I finished it yesterday and today,” he said. He paused, then reached for the other linen-wrapped parcel. He placed it in front of Thorn, who unwrapped it with his left hand, holding it steady with his new blackthorn hook.

  The second item had a similar leather and whalebone cuff. But instead of the wooden hook, it was fitted with a thick, straight blackthorn shaft that ended in a heavy wooden ball, reinforced with strips of iron and fitted with brass studs a centimeter long.

  “It’s a weapon,” Hal explained. “Put this on instead of the hook and you’ve got a war club built onto the end of your arm. What do you think?”

  Thorn turned the new item over several times, shaking his head in wordless delight. Finally, he found his voice.

  “What do I think?” he repeated. “I’ve got a new hand I can row with and grip things with. And if anyone annoys me, I’ve got a new club I can crack their skulls with.”

  He paused, shaking his head in wonder, and looked up at Hal, a beaming smile splitting his weatherworn face.

  “What more could I ask for?”

  chapter thirty-two

  Heron rode easily on a moderate swell, rising and falling as the waves passed under her keel. The sail was lowered and the ship was barely moving. Hal had kept two oars out on either side to prevent her drifting over the start line before the race started.

  This was their first major seagoing assessment. It was a test of their seamanship, shiphandling and ability to work as a crew. They would race the other two brotherbands around a four-sided, diamond-shaped course. Fifty meters away lay Porpoise, with Tursgud at the helm. Beyond her was Lynx, Rollond’s ship. Like Heron, they were stationary, with a few oars out to maintain their position short of the line.

  Unlike Heron, which carried a total of eight oars, the other ships were pierced for six oars a side. In addition, each was equipped with a big square sail. They were former fast coastal traders that had been co-opted as training ships for the brotherband program. There had been a third ship, intended for the Herons. But Hal had sought, and gained, permission to compete in the Heron. As a result, the third ship had been returned to its owners and was currently trading down the coast.

  “I don’t know,” Erak had said doubtfully as he studied the little ship. “She still looks a bit on the flimsy side to me.” But eventually, he gave way, adding cryptically, “It’s your bad luck if things go wrong.”

  Nothing’s going to go wrong, Hal thought as he studied the Porpoise. Her lines were similar to a wolfship’s, although she was much smaller and wider in the beam. But, like all Skandian ships, even though her primary purpose was trading, she was built so that, in an emergency, she could be used to augment the wolfship fleet as a fighting vessel. Lynx, farther away, was virtually identical to Porpoise. They would be quite fast, Hal judged, particularly with a stern wind. Although to his biased eye, they didn’t look as fast as the Heron.

  “Back water, oars,” he called softly. They had drifted too close to the start line for his liking. If they crossed it before the signal, they would have to turn round, sail back and cross it again—all of which would cost them time. The oarsmen gave one reverse thrust on their oars to check the ship’s movement.

  He glanced up at the wind telltale, a long pennant that streamed from the stern post, showing the wind’s direction. The wind would be coming from over their starboard quarter until they reached the first turning point.

  The judges were in a small fishing smack, bobbing up and down in the middle of the course. They were positioned so that they could see if any of the three racers crossed the line early.

  Hal glanced forward. The port side yardarm and sail were laid out, ready to hoist. He saw Jarst, in the fishing boat, raise a horn to his lips and heard the mournful tone booming across the water.

  “Thirty-second warning!” he called. “Start counting, Edvin.”

  “One jolly goblin. Two jolly goblins. Three jolly goblins …” Edvin counted off the seconds in a flat monotone, using his own formula to time the gaps.

  Hal’s eyes darted everywhe
re, taking in the ship’s position, the position of the other two ships, the start line and his own crew. Stig and Ingvar were forward, ready to haul the sail and its yard up the mast.

  “… sixteen jolly goblins … ,” Edvin intoned.

  Hal glanced quickly left and right. “Ulf and Wulf. Get ready to haul the sail tight. Jesper, Stefan, back water two strokes.”

  “… twenty jolly goblins. Twenty-one jolly goblins …”

  “In oars!”

  The two oars were drawn in and stowed with the usual clatter of wood on wood. Stefan and Jesper moved to stand ready to help the twins trim the sail once it was hoisted.

  “… twenty-six jolly goblins …”

  “Haul away!” Hal yelled and Ingvar and Stig bent to the halyards, sending the yardarm soaring up the stumpy mast, taking the sail with it. The wind caught the sail and set it flapping. Hal saw Ulf and Wulf reaching for the ropes controlling the sail.

  “Wait!” he called. If they hauled in too soon, the ship might gather way and cross the line early.

  “… thirty jolly goblins. Thirty-one jolly goblins …”

  The signal should have sounded by now, he thought. Edvin must have been counting too fast. Or perhaps the judges’ timer was faulty. Either way, they had drifted perilously close to the start line and still there had been no signal to start. In a few more seconds they would be across the line. For a moment, Hal considered ordering the crew back to the oars. But if he did that and the signal sounded while they were moving, the result would be utter confusion. Still …

  “Thirty-four jolly goblins”—Edvin’s voice was tight with the strain—“thirty-five … oh, thank Lorgan for that!”

  The last few words were torn from Edvin as the signal horn blared once more.

  “Heave in!” Hal yelled and the Herons heaved on the ropes, swinging the long curving yard to the most efficient position to catch the wind, then bringing the sail up taut to form that beautiful curve.

  Heron leapt ahead as the harnessed power of the wind hit her sail. She leaned with the wind, the water rushing past beneath her rail, the usual trail of bubbles forming at one of her planks, just below the waterline. She was leaning too far, Hal thought.

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