The outcasts, p.3
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       The Outcasts, p.3

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “And just how old d’you think I am?” she asked.

  Hal made a deprecating gesture with his hands and smiled at her.

  “Oh, you’re nowhere near that old, Mam,” he said reassuringly. “You wouldn’t be more than sixty-something.”

  Karina was, in fact, thirty-eight. She was slight compared with the more full-figured Skandian women, but she had strikingly beautiful looks. More than that, she had a calmness and a confidence about her, even when she had first arrived in Hallasholm as a slave, captured on a raid in Araluen. And that’s when she had taken the eye of Mikkel Fastblade, one of Skandia’s foremost warriors. Once Mikkel had bought her from the man who had captured her, he immediately set her free. Seeing the determination in Mikkel’s eyes when he made an offer, Karina’s captor promptly added another thirty percent to the price. Mikkel had paid it without hesitation. Even now, Karina was still considered a beauty in Hallasholm and in the past year alone had refused four would-be suitors.

  She regarded her son coldly and he shifted uncomfortably from one foot to another. Something he’d said had offended her, he thought. But he couldn’t figure out what it might have been.

  Perhaps it was Hal’s total lack of tact that sealed Thorn’s fate, dispelling any sense of compassion that Karina might have felt for him. She jerked her thumb at the full bucket.

  “Let him have it,” she said.

  Hal hesitated, looking from Karina to Thorn to the bucket.

  “Let him have … what exactly?” he asked, wanting to be sure.

  Karina put her hands on her hips. Sixty-something indeed, she thought. “The water. Let him have it … in the face.” She leaned down and pulled the collar of Thorn’s ragged fur away from his face. As before, he tried to bat her hand away.

  “Mam … ,” Hal said uncertainly. Thorn might be old and dirty and ragged and disheveled. He might be a wreck who could be seen staggering around the village and his right arm might be missing below the elbow. But for all that, he was a big man, known to have a very bad temper. And perhaps it might not be wise for a small woman in her sixties and her ten-year-old son to throw water on such a person—at least not without an escape route planned.

  Karina’s foot began to tap rapidly on the snow-covered ground. This was never a good sign, Hal knew. She gestured to the bucket again.

  “Throw it.”

  Hal shrugged and picked up the full bucket.

  “Now,” she said.

  And he did.

  Thorn came awake with a roar as the first of the water hit him. He sounded rather like an angry bull walrus that Hal had heard the previous summer—although the walrus couldn’t match Thorn for volume. He tried to sit up, flailing his arms to gain balance.

  Karina noticed that the bucket was still a third full.

  “And the rest,” she ordered. Obediently, Hal threw the remaining water at the roaring, flailing figure. When a person roars like a wounded bull walrus, of course, it follows that the person’s mouth is wide open. Thorn’s certainly was as he received the remaining four liters of water.

  The roar changed to a gasping, choking splutter as the water went down his throat. He coughed and retched and lurched to one side, as if fearing a further soaking. But the bucket was empty now and after a few seconds he realized there was no more to come. His eyes opened, bleary and bloodshot. He squinted in the bright morning light that reflected off the snow around them, and made out the two small figures standing over him.

  Hal was still holding the empty bucket, although as Thorn’s bloodshot gaze fell upon him, he tried to hide it behind his body.

  “You threw that on me,” Thorn said accusingly. “Why did you do that?”

  “Because I told him to,” Karina said. There was a tone in her voice that didn’t encourage further argument. Instead, Thorn opted for misery, in a pathetic whine intended to melt a hardened heart.

  “I could have drowned! I’m soaked to the skin. I’ll probably catch my death of cold. How could you be so … cruel?” he protested.

  But Karina’s heart was beyond melting. She was angry—angry beyond belief at the way Thorn had let himself go, had let himself be reduced to this shadow of his former self.

  “Get up, Thorn!” she ordered crisply.

  He flailed around, trying to find purchase in the slippery snow.

  “Throw water on a poor, sick, freezing man,” he muttered. “What sort of woman would do that? How could anyone be so heartless? I’m sick. I can’t help myself. Now I’ll die of the galloping pleurisy, soaked to the skin out here in the snow. Will anyone care? No. Certainly not the witch who threw water all over me and drowned me …”

  “You’re making a lot of noise for a drowning man,” Karina said. Then she gestured to her son. “Get him on his feet, Hal.”

  Hal stepped forward carefully. He still wasn’t sure that Thorn was safe to be near. But he got hold of the man’s left arm and dragged it across his own shoulders, bending his knees to get power into his attempt to heave the stricken derelict to his feet. As he came close to Thorn and raised his arm, he caught a solid whiff of the man’s considerable body odor and turned his face away, trying not to breathe through his nose.

  “Whoa!” he exclaimed, fighting the instinct to gag. “He really reeks, Mam!”

  Thorn lurched to his feet, crouched over, swaying uncertainly, holding on to the boy to prevent himself falling again. This had the effect of dragging Hal deeper into the gagging fog that had built up over seven unwashed months. The boy tried to lurch away. Thorn clung to him desperately and the two of them swayed uncertainly back and forth, feet slipping in the snow.

  “Oh, by Gorlog’s claws and nostrils, Mam! He stinks! He really stinks! He’s worse than Skarlson’s old goat!” Hal complained.

  In spite of her anger, Karina couldn’t totally suppress a smile. As smells went, Skarlson’s old goat was as bad as they came. She went to step forward to help steady the two of them, then thought better of it and kept her distance.

  “Don’t curse,” she said absently. Gorlog was one of the second rank of Skandian gods, like Ullr the hunter or Loki the liar, although unlike them, Gorlog had no specialized skills. She wasn’t sure that invoking his claws and nostrils ranked as a curse but it wasn’t suitable language for a ten-year-old.

  “Get him into the kitchen.”

  Halled the bulky, one-armed man on a zigzag path to the back door of the eating house. Together, they staggered up the three steps to the door and went inside. Thorn raised his head gratefully as the warmth of the room wrapped around him. There was a fire blazing in the hearth and Hal led him to it, depositing him clumsily in a large, curved-back wooden chair, then backing away hastily.

  The warmth of the kitchen might be welcome to Thorn, wet and freezing as he was. But it also had the effect of accentuating the thick miasma that hovered around him.

  Karina, entering behind them, blanched and turned her face away for a moment. Then, gathering her resolve, she moved toward the pathetic figure, huddled in her favorite chair.

  “You can go, Hal,” she said and the boy scuttled gratefully away into their living quarters behind the dining room. She heard water splashing into a basin and guessed that he was trying to wash the stink away. She stepped closer to Thorn, standing over him, forcing herself to endure the renewed olfactory assault.

  “Thorn, you disgust me,” she said. Her voice was low, but it cut like a whip and the old sea wolf actually flinched. For perhaps a second, a brief glimmer of anger showed in his eyes. But almost immediately, it died away as he pulled his protective coat of self-pity back around himself.

  “I disgust everyone,” he said. “What’s special about you?”

  “I don’t care about everyone. I care about me. There was a time when people looked up to you. Now they laugh at you. Even the boys call you crazy old Thorn. It’s an affront to see what you’re doing to your life.”

  Now anger did flare in Thorn.

  “What I’m doing? What I’m doing?” He
held up the scarred stump of his right arm, pulling the ragged sleeve back from it to bare it. “Do you think I did this to myself? Do you think I chose to be a cripple?”

  “I think you’re choosing to destroy your mind and your body and your self-respect, along with your arm,” she told him. “You’re using your arm as an excuse to destroy the rest of you. To destroy your own life!”

  “It’s my life. I’ll destroy it if I want to,” he retorted. “What right do you have to criticize me?”

  “I have the right because you promised Mikkel that you’d stand by me and Hal. You swore you’d see that we were all right. You let us down. And you continue to let us down with every day that you try to destroy yourself!”

  Thorn’s eyes dropped away from hers.

  “You’re doing all right,” he muttered. But she laughed harshly at his words.

  “No thanks to you. And no thanks to the promise you made. A promise you broke, and continue to break every day!”

  “Not my fault,” he said, in a voice so low she could barely hear it. “Leave me alone, woman. There’s nothing I can do for you.”

  “You promised,” she said.

  He reared his shaggy head up at her, goaded now to full anger. “I promised when I still had my hand! It wasn’t my fault that I lost it!”

  “Maybe not. But it was your fault when you let everything else go with it! You’re killing yourself, Thorn! You’re destroying a good man, a worthwhile man. And to me, that’s a crime! I won’t stand by any longer and watch while you do it.”

  “Haven’t you noticed?” he said, sarcasm heavy in his voice. “I’m not a man anymore. I’m a cripple. A useless cripple who’s no good for anything, no good to anyone!”

  “I don’t recall it saying anywhere that a man is measured by how many hands and legs he has. A man is measured by the worth of his spirit, and the strength of his will. Most of all, he’s measured by his ability to overcome tragedy in his life.”

  “What would you know about tragedy?” he shot back at her. She held his gaze until, once more, his eyes dropped from hers.

  “You only lost a hand,” she said finally. “I lost an entire man. A wonderful man.”

  He kept his eyes down, nodding his head in apology.

  “I’m sorry,” he said. “If I could bring him back, I would.”

  “Well, you can’t. But there is something you can do for me.”

  Thorn laughed bitterly, shaking his head at the idea. “Me? What can I do for anyone?”

  And in that second, Karina had a flash of insight. She knew what Thorn needed to hear.

  “You can help me. I need you,” she said.

  He looked her directly in the eyes then, searching for any sign of dishonesty or falsehood.

  “Hal needs you,” she continued. “He needs a man’s influence and guidance. There are things you can tell him that I can’t—about being a warrior and about the bond that forms among shipmates.” She paused to let that thought sink in, and saw that it had reached him. “He’s growing up fast and it’s not easy for him. He’s different from the other boys. He’s half Araluen and half Skandian. And life is hard on people who are different. He needs someone to show him how to stand up for himself. I can’t do that.” She paused. “You could.”

  “Maybe … ,” Thorn began. She could see he was thinking about it, starting to accept the idea that he might have something useful to do with his life, instead of drinking it away.

  “Or you could just continue to feel sorry for yourself and waste your life,” she said.

  He didn’t respond to that immediately. But after several seconds, he asked, “How did you know about the promise?”

  “You told me,” she said. “One night when you were drunk.”

  He frowned, thinking. “When was that? I don’t remember it.”

  She smiled sadly and shook her head. “I can’t remember which one. There were so many, Thorn.”

  He nodded. “That’s true.”

  Karina could see he was wavering. “Look, I need help around the place here. The eating house is a good business and it’s growing. It’s getting to be more than I can handle on my own. I could use help with things like firewood and the heavy work around the place—cleaning and repairs and painting. They’re all things you can do with one hand. And you can keep an eye on Hal. Teach him the skills he’s going to need as he grows older. You can move in with us. You’d have a warm place to sleep.”

  Thorn was shaking his head. “No. I couldn’t live in the house with you. That wouldn’t be proper. People would talk. It’d be bad for your reputation.”

  She smiled. “I think I could bear it,” she said. “But if it bothers you, you could fix up the lean-to at the back of the house. That’d stop people gossiping.”

  He thought about it and nodded several times to himself.

  “Yes. That’d be all right.”

  “I’ll pay you, of course,” Karina added. Once again his gaze shot up to meet hers. She could see a sense of pride in his eyes—something that had been missing for years now.

  “I don’t want charity,” he said.

  She laughed at him. “And you won’t get it! I’ll make sure you earn every kroner I pay you.”

  “Well then … maybe this would work out.” Thorn pursed his lips. The idea of working for Karina was an attractive one. And the notion that he might be able to help the boy and guide his steps through early manhood was one that fascinated him. It was not the path he might have chosen for himself, but definitely something that could be worth doing. If he couldn’t use the skills he’d learned anymore, at least he could teach them to someone else, he thought. That would be a useful thing to do. And above all, Thorn wanted to be useful. He’d spent long enough feeling useless.

  “One thing,” Karina added. “You’ll have to stop drinking.”

  There was no compromise in her voice. Thorn hesitated.

  “Sometimes my arm hurts,” he said.

  But Karina was firm. “I’m sorry to hear that. But I’m sure there were times when you felt lots of pain before you lost the arm. And you dealt with it.”

  “That’s true,” he admitted.

  “Then you’ll just have to deal with the pain when it happens—without trying to drink it away.”

  He took a deep breath. “I think I can handle that,” he said, committing himself.

  She smiled at him. “I’m sure you can.”

  “So I might get busy looking at that lean-to today. Might as well get it shipshape and then move in. Then you can give me a list of things you need me to do.”

  “There is one thing that’s top priority,” Karina said, and when he looked at her with a question in his eyes, she continued, in a voice that brooked no argument.

  “Have a bath. A long one.”

  That had been six years ago—it was now twelve years since the raid that had cost Hal’s father his life, and Hal was almost sixteen. In that time, Thorn had become a familiar sight around Karina’s inn. He had moved into the lean-to at the back of the main building, although his idea of “making it shipshape” left much to be desired, in Karina’s eyes. He patched a few leaks in the roof and several of the larger gaps in the walls. But the lean-to remained a dark and forbidding cavern, strewn with his clothes and belongings. And while his personal hygiene had improved somewhat, it still left a good deal to be desired.

  “I’m twelve times cleaner than I used to be,” he announced proudly.

  When Karina pointed out that this meant his bathing schedule had gone from once a year to once a month, which was nothing to really boast about, he muttered darkly, “I don’t get all that dirty. Baths are for them as is dirty.”

  From time to time, he felt the lure of the brandy keg, particularly on those nights when the pain throbbed in his missing hand. But he fought it and overcame it. He knew that Karina had given him a second chance and he knew that would be a one-time thing only. And as he fell into the routine of working round the inn, he realized that he could no
t afford to risk going back to his old ways.

  The work itself was satisfying—particularly to someone who had come to believe that his days of being useful were over. He cut wood for the fire, wielding the heavy ax with his left hand as if it were no more than a small hatchet. He looked after the ongoing maintenance jobs around the inn and, at the end of each day, he felt the satisfaction of having done a worthwhile job. Of being of value to someone.

  Perhaps this kind of menial work wasn’t as fulfilling as being a warrior. But it was a long way better than being a drunken, morose wreck.

  Best of all, he became part of Hal’s life as the boy grew older. He delighted in Hal’s enthusiasm and energy. And in his imagination and inventiveness. The boy had an affinity for tools, and a natural ability to work with wood. Thorn had been a capable carpenter himself at one stage. Of course, with a missing hand he was no longer able to carry out the fine detailed work he used to do. But he found that Erak had saved his old kit of tools and he presented them to the boy, then patiently taught him how to use each one—adze, chisels, knives, spoon-drills, planes and small shaping axes. With good tools of his own, and under Thorn’s tutelage, Hal’s natural ability grew into real skill.

  As a result, the old sea wolf became a willing accomplice in Hal’s constructions. The boy had become more than a skilled craftsman—he had an inventive streak that, to Thorn, bordered on genius.

  “He sees something in his mind, a new way to do something,” Thorn had said on more than one occasion. “Then he just makes it!”

  chapter three

  “Pass me another bucket, Thorn.”

  Hal was perched on a ladder in his mother’s kitchen, twisting sideways so that he could tip buckets of water into a large cask. He grunted as he took another full pail from the shabby old former sea wolf and lifted it above his shoulder height. As he did so, he noted with one corner of his mind that Thorn was hoisting the buckets up to him without any sign of effort, even though he had only one hand to work with.

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