The outcasts, p.33
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       The Outcasts, p.33

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “You’re all to blame for this,” Erak said. His voice was cold, his expression bleak. “You, more than any of the others, Hal, because you left your post. And because you were the responsible one.”

  “Yes, Oberjarl,” Hal said miserably. He wondered what their punishment was to be. He didn’t have long to find out.

  “Hand back those armbands,” Erak ordered. “Do it now!”

  The final three words snapped like a whip. Hal flinched, then looked down at the copper armband around his wrist—symbol of their victory, the symbol that marked them as the champion brotherband. Slowly, he worked his off his arm and stepped forward. Erak pointed to a table beside the dais where he stood. Hal dropped the armband onto it with a dull clang. The other seven followed suit.

  “From now on,” Erak said, “there is no Heron brotherband. Sigurd and Gort, remove all references to them from your records. The winning team will be declared to be the Sharks.”

  “But … ,” Hal began. Then he stopped. It was right, he thought. It was just. And it was fair. Erak glared at him, waiting to see if he had more to say.

  “Yes?” he prompted.

  Hal dropped his head again and muttered, “Nothing, Oberjarl.”

  “Nothing indeed. Where are the weapons you were presented with? And the helmets?”

  “They’re at the shrine, Oberjarl,” Hal told him. Once they had realized the Andomal was gone, they had run immediately to the Great Hall. None of them had thought to pick up their weapons.

  “Have them here by ten o’clock,” Erak said. “Hand them in. They’re the weapons of honorable Skandians and you have no right to them. Your helmets too.”

  Several of the boys groaned aloud. The helmets were the sign that they had passed brotherband training. Now they were to return them.

  “Everything,” Erak said coldly. “They’re all forfeit. All your property is forfeit.” He paused, then added meaningfully, “Including your ship.”

  “My ship?” Hal’s head jerked up. “The Heron?”

  “Do you have another one?” Erak asked sarcastically. “Yes, the Heron. I’m taking it.”

  Hal’s voice choked in his throat. Not his ship! Not the beautiful, graceful Heron? Erak couldn’t do that! He heard a low groan from the side and turned toward it. Thorn was slowly shaking his head, his eyes fixed on his young friend. Then, as Hal watched, he turned away and walked out of the Great Hall, his boots ringing in the silence.

  “Please, Oberjarl … ,” Hal began in a small voice.

  But Erak ignored him. He turned to Sigurd and Gort. “Adjust your records. The winning team was the Sharks. The Herons don’t exist. As far as I’m concerned, they never did.”

  The two instructors nodded grimly. Hal, looking around for some sign of hope, saw agreement written on the faces of all the jarls present.

  “Now get out of here,” Erak said, his voice full of scorn. “I don’t want to look at you for a second longer. Not any of you. Go!”

  Silently, the dejected Herons filed out of the Great Hall. Not a word was spoken as they followed Hal and Stig out of the town to the path leading up to the shrine. Hal was grateful that the early hour—it was just after dawn—and the wild weather had combined to keep the residents of Hallasholm indoors. He couldn’t have faced the accusing looks of the townspeople as the news of their criminal negligence ran round the town.

  Then he had a terrible moment of foresight as he realized that he would be facing those accusing looks for the rest of his life. He would be known forever as the person who abandoned his post and lost the Andomal. If he had been an outcast before this, things would be ten times worse in the future.

  The taste of abject despair was bitter in his mouth as he led the silent procession up the steps to the shrine, to reclaim their weapons.

  chapter forty-three

  Thorn walked blindly away from the Great Hall, oblivious to the massive wind that buffeted him and pierced through his threadbare coat, chilling him to the bone.

  His heart was a lump of lead in his chest. Like Hal, he could foresee the future that lay before the members of the now-defunct Herons. They would be shunned, hated, reviled—Hal more than any of the others, because he was their leader, and an outsider.

  Thorn loved the boy. Loved his enthusiasm and ingenuity and energy. And he could see how those qualities would be crushed out of him by an unending atmosphere of hatred and bitterness. The wind and rain whipped at his face and there were tears mixed in with the rain running down his cheeks. He couldn’t bear to see that happen to the boy. He knew he wouldn’t be able to stand idly by, unable to help, while he watched that vibrant young person ground into the dirt and destroyed.

  For the first time in many years, Thorn wanted a drink. Not just a drink. A succession of drinks. He wanted to drink himself into oblivion so that he didn’t have to think anymore about the boy he loved and the fate that was in store for him.

  Without consciously planning to, he had stumbled along the path to Karina’s eating house, bent double at times by the wind. His dark little lean-to shuddered in the gusts, the heavy leather curtain that served as a door billowing inward. He lurched inside and reached under his cot for a haversack.

  Inside the canvas sack was a bottle of strong brandy. He had kept it here for years, ever since he had stopped drinking. At first, he hadn’t been completely sure that he could stop, and so he had kept it because the thought of not having a drink readily available was terrifying for him. Then he had almost forgotten it was there. But this morning, he remembered. He took the dark bottle from the sack and unstoppered it. His senses reeled with the pungent smell of the alcohol and he raised it to his lips.

  And stopped.

  When Karina heard the news, she would come looking for him. He couldn’t bear the thought that she would see him drunk once again. She would have enough sadness in her life when she heard what had happened to Hal. Carefully, he recorked the bottle, placed it in his haversack again and plunged out into the wind and rain. He’d go to a quiet spot, free of prying eyes. He knew just the place. There would be nobody there today. He clambered up a steep path through the trees, then down the other side until he eventually found a secluded place, sheltered by a stand of pines.

  He settled down on the ground and pulled his jacket closer around his shoulders. The wind moaned through the pine branches above him, sounding a counterpoint to his misery. Once again, he

  took the cork from the bottle and raised it. He hesitated, the powerful smell of it filling his nostrils.

  Then, before he could change his mind, he hurled it away from him, through the trees. He heard it thump on the soft ground, then shatter as it struck against a rock. Brandy wasn’t the answer, he realized. If he drank himself insensible, he would eventually wake up. And the situation would not have changed. There was only one solution he could see. He would leave Hallasholm. He could strike out over the mountains and find one of the passes through to Gallica or Teutlandt. Chances were good he’d die in the snow on the mountains, but he didn’t really care too much. If he managed to make it, he’d make a living somehow. He had money—a lot of it. It was stored in his chest in Erak’s treasure room. There was enough there to buy a small farm in Gallica. Or a fishing boat, perhaps. With the new hand Hal had made for him, he’d be able to handle a tiller.

  Hal. The name struck a sword into his heart.

  “A fine job I did keeping an eye on him,” he said. He looked up. Through the gaps in the pines, he could see the wind-driven clouds, racing across the sky, gray and melancholy.

  “I’m sorry, Mikkel,” he said softly. “I did my best. But I guess it wasn’t good enough.”

  As if in answer, he heard voices. Young voices. He frowned. They were coming from behind him, at the top of the hill he had just climbed. But they were too far away for him to make out the words. Staying low to remain concealed, he crept up the slope to get closer.

  It was a sad and silent group that began collecting the weapons where they had le
ft them by their sleeping places. Out of habit, the Herons rolled their blankets and stacked them neatly. Hal glanced up at the shrine. The door was still open and he walked up the steps and closed it. The tabernacle door was broken and there was nothing he could do about that. But the open swinging door of the shrine, banging in the wind, was a constant accusation to him.

  He came back down the stairs to find the other seven boys standing in a loose half circle, waiting for him. He realized, with a sense of surprise, that they were still looking to him to tell them what to do next. He gestured to the weapons at their feet.

  “I suppose we’d better hand these in,” he said quietly.

  Edvin raised the sword he had received the night before and looked at it sadly.

  “I was getting used to this,” he said. “It’s so much better than the drill sword they issued me.”

  There was a murmur of agreement from the others. The new, well-crafted weapons and the helmets were the final remainders of their life as the Heron brotherband. Once they handed them in, that phase of their life—that wonderful, triumphant phase of their life—would be over forever. It would be as if it never happened.

  Ulf looked round at his companions and said, shame-faced, “I’m sorry, fellows. This is all my fault.”

  For once, his twin didn’t seize on an opportunity to upbraid him. The others shifted their feet, not making eye contact. Finally, Hal broke the awkward silence. The temptation was to scream abuse at Ulf for bringing them to this pass. But in his heart, he knew that would serve no purpose. From now on, the only friends this group had would be each other. They couldn’t afford to alienate one of their number. And deep down he knew that he, ultimately, was the one to blame. That was the burden of leadership.

  “Forget it, Ulf. Thorn was right. If you’d been awake, Zavac’s men would have killed you.”

  There was a mumble of agreement from the others. Maybe it wasn’t wholehearted, but it was there, nonetheless.

  “I guess it’s really all over,” said Stefan miserably. “What are we going to do?”

  “We’ll never get a place in a wolfship crew,” Stig said. “They’ll never forgive us.”

  “I liked being a Heron,” Ingvar put in sadly. “For the first time in my life, I felt people actually respected me.”

  Wulf looked at him and laughed bitterly. “Better get over that. From now on, being a Heron will make you a target. Everyone hates us. And they won’t stop hating us.”

  “We should stick together,” Jesper said. “After all, we’re all we’ve got.”

  “But what can we do? Nobody will hire us, at least, not for anything worthwhile.”

  “Maybe in time, they’ll forget,” Edvin said hopefully.

  But Stig shook his head. “Not in our lifetimes. This was the Andomal, remember? They won’t forget that we were the ones who lost it. Wulf is right. There will be nothing for us. No jobs. No respect. Nobody here will want anything to do with us.”

  “We don’t have to stay here. We could become traders,” Stefan suggested.

  Ulf looked at him scornfully. “Traders need a ship,” he said.

  “We’ve got the Heron … ,” Stefan began, then he remembered. “Oh … yes. They’re confiscating that, aren’t they?”

  Hal had listened to them without a word. The picture they painted was a bleak one. But it was accurate. There would be no future for any of them in Hallasholm. So that left them only one alternative.

  “I’m not going to let that happen,” he said quietly. They all turned to look at him.

  “You plan to fight them?” Stig asked. His tone said he thought that idea was crazy. But Hal shook his head.

  “Hardly. The way they feel about us, they’d be lining up to kill us. I plan to take the Heron and sail away—if enough of you will come with me to form a crew.”

  Now the idea was out in the open. It was a definite proposal and not just wild talk. They all fell silent, thinking about it.

  “But this is our home,” Edvin said uncertainly, breaking the silence.

  Hal nodded. “It is. But it’s not going to be much of a home for us from now on.”

  “I’ll go with you, Hal,” Ingvar declared suddenly. He ran his shortsighted gaze around the blurred group of figures. “Who else is with us?”

  Hal looked at the big boy in surprise. He had honestly expected that Stig might be the first to volunteer to go with him. He looked now at his best friend, a note of appeal in his voice.

  “Stig?” he said. “How about you?” He hated that he had to ask. But he knew that without Stig, he couldn’t do it.

  Stig shuffled his feet awkwardly. His face flushed.

  “I don’t know. I hate the idea of just running away. It’s kind of cowardly, I guess,” he said apologetically.

  Hal nodded. He should have known better. Stig’s first instinct always would be to face up to a problem and try to batter it down. Stig preferred positive action to simply slinking away. But he had misinterpreted Hal’s intention.

  “I’m not planning on just running away,” Hal said. “I plan to go after Zavac and get the Andomal back.”

  That got their attention. Now there was a glimmer of interest in their eyes.

  “Don’t you see?” He pressed his advantage. “This is the only way we can ever put things right! This is the only way we can ever live normal lives here. We won’t be remembered as the people who lost the Andomal. We’ll be the people who got it back!”

  Stig’s face was split by a huge grin. He moved toward Hal and gripped his hand, pumping it furiously.

  “Now you’re talking!” he said enthusiastically. “Count me in!”

  “Me too!” said Ulf and Wulf in a chorus. Then they turned on each other.

  “I said it first!” said Wulf.

  “The heck you did!” Ulf told him. “I was always going to—”

  “Stop!” Hal yelled at them. But in spite of the situation, he couldn’t help laughing. These two would never change. They looked up at him, confused, then they smiled.

  “Sorry, Hal,” they chorused.

  “I suppose you could use a good thief on your journey,” Jesper said. “I’ll come.”

  “Me too,” Stefan said, grinning. That left only Edvin. They all turned to look at him. He was frowning.

  “Catch Zavac and get the Andomal back?” he said thoughtfully. “It’s a big task. Do you really think we have the slightest chance?”

  Hal went to answer, but Ingvar forestalled him.

  “Put it this way, Edvin. We never had any chance of beating the Wolves and the Sharks. But we did. Because we’re the Heron brotherband. And we can do anything we set our minds to.”

  Slowly Edvin began to smile. “Thanks for reminding me of that, Ingvar,” he said.

  The big boy sniffed derisively. “I’ve told you before. I’m shortsighted, not stupid.”

  “All right,” Edvin said, addressing Hal. “I’m in too. But there are practical matters we should consider.”

  Stig groaned. “Do we have to?” he asked. “I hate practical matters.”

  “So I’ve noticed,” Edvin told him. But then he went on. “We’re going to need supplies and tools and money and stores for the ship.”

  “Stores and tools are fine. I’ve got plenty at the work site at Bearclaw Creek. Supplies I can get from my mother’s storehouse. I’m sure she’ll forgive me.” He added the last a little guiltily. He hated the idea of stealing from his mam, but he could see no other way.

  The others nodded. They were eager now to get moving.

  “We’ve got our weapons, and all the other kit we’ll need is at our barracks,” Hal said. Then he held up a warning hand. “One thing,” he said. “You can’t tell anybody. If word gets out, Erak will stop us. Leave notes for your families if you have to. But don’t tell them what we’re doing.”

  He glanced at the sun. “I figure we have about three hours before Erak expects us to hand in our weapons. We need that time to load the ship. If anyone get
s wind of what we’re up to, it’s all over.”

  “What about money?” Edvin asked. “Whatever supplies you can get won’t last forever. We’ll need to buy more.”

  Hal hesitated. “Maybe we can become traders, as Stefan suggested. Carry passengers or cargo. We’ll manage somehow.”

  “I’ve got money,” said a new voice. “I’ve got all we’ll need.” They turned, startled, as Thorn emerged from behind the shrine, where he had been listening.

  “Thorn!” said Hal, with a delighted grin. “Where did you spring from? And what do you mean, ‘all we’ll need’?”

  “I’ve been listening back there since you got here,” Thorn told them. “And I have to say, I think this is the only thing you can do. Unless you want to spend the rest of your lives as outcasts. And believe me, that’s no life. I know.”

  The Herons exchanged excited grins. Somehow, it bolstered their confidence to have an outsider confirm that they were doing the right thing.

  “As for ‘all we’ll need,’ I’m coming with you, if you’ll have me. I was planning on leaving anyway, and this will save me a long, cold walk over the mountains.”

  Impulsively, Hal darted forward and threw his arms around the old sea wolf’s neck.

  “You’re welcome on my ship anytime!” he declared, and the other boys chorused their agreement.

  When Hal released Thorn, Stig stepped forward and shook his hand firmly.

  “It’ll be great to have you along, Thorn,” he said and their eyes met for a few seconds. Thorn nodded meaningfully. Any problems they might have had in the past were behind them. He turned back to Hal.

  “One thing. You’re not going to rob your mother’s storeroom. Take what you need, but I’ll give you gold to pay for it.”

  “Yes, Thorn,” Hal replied. He felt a weight rise from his shoulders.

  But now Jesper had a question. “Hal, how are we going to get Heron to sea? I heard Svengal say it’d be two days before this storm blew out.”

  Hal nodded. “The harbor entrance faces southwest—right into the storm. Bearclaw Creek faces the same way, but in the last hundred meters, it takes a sharp turn to the left. So we’ll be coming out with the wind directly on our starboard beam. We’ll manage it easily.”

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