The outcasts, p.4
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       The Outcasts, p.4

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  As the water splashed into the half-filled cask, there was an ominous groaning sound.

  Thorn frowned. “What was that?” he said suspiciously.

  Hal handed him down the empty bucket and made a dismissive gesture.

  “Nothing. Just the cask staves settling into place under the weight.”

  “I know how they feel,” said Stig, entering the kitchen with two more buckets that he had filled from the well in the yard outside the kitchen. “How many more of these will you need?”

  Stig was Hal’s best friend. As a matter of fact, aside from Thorn, he was Hal’s only real friend. The other Skandian boys tended to ostracize Hal, taunting him because of his mixed parentage, and because his mother was a former slave. But they never did so in Stig’s hearing. Stig was big and well muscled and was known to have an unpredictable temper. As a result, the others trod warily around him.

  There was another ominous creaking sound from the cask.

  “You’re sure that’s the staves settling?” Thorn said.

  Hal cast an impatient look at him. “It was a dry, empty barrel,” he said. “They always do that. The wood expands, the staves creak against each other.”

  “I’ll take your word for it,” Thorn said. “My experience has been more with full barrels in the past.”

  “You did your share of emptying them, though,” Stig said. He grinned to make sure Thorn knew he was joking, not criticizing. Thorn took the comment philosophically.

  “That’s true,” he said, shaking his head in regret over some of the excesses of his past.

  The cask was Hal’s latest brain wave. He had decided to install a running-water system in his mam’s kitchen. A zigzag pipe ran down from the cask to the kitchen bench. A spigot at the base of the cask would allow water to run out through the pipe and down to the basin.

  “You’ll never need to fetch water from the well,” he had told his mother, not noticing her dubious expression. “Thorn can fill the cask for you each morning.”

  He had constructed all the components in his work shed and waited for a day when Karina had gone down the coast to a market some ten kilometers away. Then he’d summoned Thorn and Stig and began to install his new system for her.

  After mounting the cask on a bracket he had already set high on the kitchen wall, and attaching the piping, they had begun filling the cask with buckets of water pumped from the well.

  Now that the cask was a little over half full, impatience got the better of them.

  “Why don’t we try it?” Thorn suggested. He was eager to see the new system working.

  As if in response to being mentioned, the cask gave another of those ominous creaks that had been worrying Thorn. He glanced at Hal, who shook his head impatiently.

  “It’s the staves settling,” he said. “That’s all.”

  He stepped forward, placing a large basin under the end of the pipe. He pulled on a cord attached to one side of the spigot and turned it. The action was a little stiff and the wooden peg squeaked in protest. They heard the soft gurgle of water running out of the cask. It zigzagged down the piping until a silver stream of liquid splashed out of the lower end and began to fill the basin.

  Stig and Thorn applauded and Hal beamed.

  “It works!” he said triumphantly. Then, realizing that such a reaction might imply that he had feared it might not work, he nodded to himself and said, in a more matter-of-fact tone, “Yes. Excellent. Well done. Just as I thought.”

  The water was nearing the brim of the basin and he reached up casually to tug on a second string that would shut off the spigot.

  It stuck. The spigot refused to turn.

  Water began to spill over onto the surface of the table. He tugged the string again, harder this time. The spigot remained stuck. Water continued to flow. And now it was slopping off the edge of the table and onto the kitchen floor.

  He tugged harder.

  There was a creaking sound once more.

  Thorn frowned doubtfully. “Sounds like those staves are still settling.”

  In his haste to drill holes into the wall beams, Hal had gone slightly off line with one. As a result, the nail supporting one side of the bracket and the cask had missed the timber wall beam. It was supported only by the weak plaster covering. As the weight in the cask grew, the nail had lost its tenuous hold. The bracket was gradually tilting to the side, causing the groaning noise that they had all heard. It was now held in place by only the weak, crumbling plaster and Hal’s final attempt to switch off the spigot was enough to break it free.

  “Look out!” Thorn yelled. He grabbed Hal by the front of his shirt and heaved him bodily over the table, away from the path of the toppling cask. Stig, sitting to one side, let out a shrill yelp of terror and dived headlong under the sturdy table.

  With a resounding crash, the cask hit the edge of the table and disintegrated into its component pieces. Staves and iron hoops flew in all directions, and the thirty-odd bucketfuls of water inside the cask were released in one enormous torrent. Under the table, Stig was momentarily flattened by the weight of water falling on him. He let out a gurgling screech.

  The pipes and connecting sections followed the cask, crashing onto the table and the flooded kitchen floor, bouncing and clattering as they disassembled themselves.

  Hal, held erect by Thorn’s iron grip on his collar, watched in horror as his beautiful invention, lovingly built over several evenings, destroyed itself in a matter of seconds. The kitchen was a tangle of barrel staves, hoops, pipe sections, bracket timbers and flooding water. The wall in which the bracket had been fastened now displayed a gaping hole where the plaster had been torn loose, exposing the beams beneath it.

  One of the iron cask hoops had been set spinning by the fall. It continued to spin unevenly on the floor, going from rim to rim, the yang-yang-yang-yang sound it made the only noise in the ruined kitchen.

  Stig’s startled face appeared over the far side of the table. His blond hair was plastered down by water. His shirt was totally saturated.

  “I think those staves are well and truly settled now,” Thorn said.

  And that, of course, was the moment that Karina chose to return from the market.

  “You shouldn’t encourage him, Thorn,” Karina said as she kneaded dough for a loaf of bread.

  Thorn was on his knees, stacking a supply of cut firewood for the stove. He shook his head, smiling faintly.

  “I can’t help it,” he said. “He’s so enthusiastic about his ideas. He puts so much energy into them.”

  “Too much,” Karina said sternly. “He starts brotherband training next week. He can’t be distracting himself with this sort of nonsense.”

  She waved a floury hand around the kitchen. The only evidence of the previous day’s chaos was several fresh patches of plaster on the wall above the worktable.

  Hal had spent most of the previous afternoon mopping up the kitchen, sluicing water out the door with a flat wooden blade fastened to a broom handle, collecting and removing the shattered timber, staves, channels and barrel hoops and replastering the huge gouges torn in the wall by the bracket as it collapsed. When the new plaster was thoroughly dry, he would repaint it.

  “He won’t have the time or energy,” Thorn told her. “Brotherband training will keep him on the go all day.”

  “And a good thing,” Karina muttered, almost to herself.

  Thorn straightened up from his crouched position by the wood box. He pressed the back of his hand into the small of his back and groaned softly.

  “I’m getting too old for all this bending and stooping,” he said. Then, as Karina continued to pummel the lump of dough with her fists and the heel of her hand, he added, in an appeasing tone, “He was only doing it to make your life easier, you know. He wanted to surprise you.”

  “He certainly managed that,” Karina said, setting the thoroughly kneaded dough into a bowl, and covering it with a linen cloth. “I’m just wondering how destroying my kitchen could be se
en as making my life easier.”

  She poured more flour onto the table, shaping it into a mound and making a well in the center, preparatory to forming another loaf.

  “The idea was good,” Thorn objected mildly. “It was just a detail that went wrong.”

  Karina stopped working and regarded him. “He always says that when one of his ideas goes wrong.”

  “They don’t always go wrong,” Thorn said. “Some of them are surprisingly good. The heating system he designed for your dining room was quite ingenious.”

  Karina nodded reluctantly. “I suppose that’s true. I just tend to remember the disasters—particularly when they flood my kitchen.”

  She poured a mixture of water and milk into the well and pushed the side in, moving the mixture around with her hands to form a thick dough.

  “He’s a good boy,” Thorn told her. “He did a good job cleaning up the mess yesterday. And he worked all night in the eating hall for no payment to make it up to you. His heart’s in the right place and there’s no malice in him.”

  She sighed, beginning to knead. “I know, Thorn. I just worry about him. Where is he this morning, do you know?”

  Thorn opened the oven firebox and fed a few pieces of wood into it. Karina was going to need a good hot oven for the bread, he knew.

  “I think he said he and Stig were going down to Bearclaw Creek to work on the boat.”

  Karina sighed heavily. “That boat. That blessed boat. It takes up all his spare time lately. Do you think that’s an idea that’ll work?”

  “I can’t see why it shouldn’t. I’ve seen that sort of sail rig before, in the Constant Sea.” He grinned. “It’ll be fine—as long as he gets the details right.”

  “The problem with getting the details right on a boat,” said Karina, “is that if you don’t, you tend to drown.”

  She attacked the dough with renewed vigor. Thorn watched her dexterous movements for a few seconds, then looked thoughtfully at his single hand.

  “Can I try that?” he asked.

  Karina looked up at him. She knew he was constantly looking for tasks he could accomplish one-handed. She nodded and stepped aside, wiping her hands on her apron. Then she noticed his hand and a frown darkened her face.

  “Wash your hands first,” she ordered, then realized she had used the plural form.

  Thorn didn’t seem to notice. He poured water into the basin, sloshing his hand around, working his fingers open and shut and rubbing them with the stump of his right arm until she nodded. Then he began to pound and turn the dough, hitting it and stretching it with the heel of his hand, then folding it in on itself again with his strong fingers. He was clumsy at first, but he rapidly developed a good rhythm.

  Karina prepared another mound of flour, water and yeast and began to work on a third loaf. They continued in silence for several minutes, then Thorn rolled his loaf into a large ball and placed it in a basin. He regarded the end result and nodded in satisfaction at having discovered something else he could do.

  “He’ll be fine, Karina. You don’t have to worry about him,” he said.

  She looked up at him. A tendril of hair had fallen in her eyes. She glanced at her dough-covered hands, then blew upward to get rid of it.

  “I’m a mother, Thorn. It’s my job to worry. Still, it’s good that Stig’s with him,” she added. “At least he has one friend.”

  chapter four

  People in Hallasholm weren’t too surprised at the friendship that had developed between Hal and Stig. After all, the two boys seemed to have a lot in common. Each had lost his father at a relatively early age and entered his teenage years without the guidance of a male parent. So it seemed logical that they should seek each other out. But the beginning of their friendship had nothing to do with logic or common ground.

  There were major differences in the boys’ situations. Hal’s father had died an honorable death, facing enemies on the Iberian coast. Stig’s father, by contrast, was not dead. Olaf had simply disappeared some years back. He was an expert warrior, but an inveterate gambler, and he had got himself into serious debt. Faced with the disgrace of being unable to pay his debtors, he had skulked away from Hallasholm one dark night. The wolfship he crewed on had just returned from a raid and the spoils were yet to be divided. Olaf, assigned to be the night guard, absconded with the pick of the plunder—money and jewels for the most part—leaving behind him his furious former shipmates and his wife and son.

  And while Hal’s mother had been left well provided for after Mikkel died, and had been able to buy a small eating house—which had since become one of the most popular eating houses in Hallasholm thanks to Karina’s excellent cooking—Stig’s mother was forced to earn a living as a laundrywoman, taking in washing for other families in Hallasholm. It was menial work, and a considerable comedown from her former position as the wife of a warrior. But she was a strong-willed woman who believed there was no dishonor in hard work and she kept her head high. For Stig, however, the shame of his father’s crime, and the pain of his desertion, cut deeply.

  Soured by his father’s actions, he became moody and suspicious, always thinking that the other boys were talking about him, mocking him for his father’s weakness. His temper would flare at the slightest provocation, whether intended or accidental, and he was constantly getting into fights, often taking on more than one opponent at a time.

  He took a lot of beatings but he doled out a lot of punishment as well. As a result, the other boys in Hallasholm began to steer clear of him. One never knew when an innocent comment might be taken the wrong way.

  Of course, as boys will do, some of them tended to make comments that were not so innocent, taunting him from a safe distance and from the security of overwhelming numbers.

  In a warrior society like that of the Skandians’, boys tended to band together in cliques or groups. Tursgud was the leader of one of these. He was tall, well built, handsome and an excellent athlete. He was also supremely arrogant, and he delighted in taunting loners like Stig and Hal. In Stig’s case, he could usually be assured of an enraged response. Stig would charge at him, fists swinging wildly, whereupon Tursgud and his followers would administer a beating. Tursgud never taunted Stig in a one-on-one situation. He always did so when he had three or four of his cronies to back him up.

  Hal might have been tempted to seek Stig’s friendship had he not shared in the general wariness about the troubled boy. Besides, Stig diverted some of Tursgud’s attention from Hal and he knew that if he took the other boy’s side he would be drawing attention to himself. Bitter experience had taught him that this was not a wise thing to do.

  And so matters might have continued, until the day of the lobster trap incident.

  It was a crisp autumn day—one of the last when the inhabitants of Hallasholm might expect to enjoy a few hours of clear, bright sunshine. All too soon, the dark, rolling clouds of winter would be upon them, and they would endure months of bitter winds and deep snow.

  Hal had taken his fishing pole and set out to see if he could lure a few fat bream onto his hook. He passed through the village on the way to one of his favorite fishing spots.

  Several groups of boys were playing a ball game on the common green, kicking a round, inflated bladder toward goalposts. The rules seemed to be flexible. Occasionally, a boy would pick up the ball and run with it, a signal for others to tackle him and crash him to the ground. Often as not, his own team members would be the first to do so. Hal watched from a distance for a few minutes. He felt the usual twinge of regret that he wasn’t included in these games, and that he lacked the confidence to ask if he could join in. Then he heard Tursgud’s voice, shouting down the others as he loudly proclaimed his interpretation of the rules. Hal shrugged and continued on.

  His fishing spot was to the west of Hallasholm, where the cliffs rose steeply from the ocean and the waves crashed against their bases. It was a small inlet, where the force of the waves was broken by a ring of large rocks a little offs
hore. A precarious track led down the cliff face to the bottom, where a flat rock gave him a good spot to fish from. The track made it a tricky spot to reach, which was why it was a good fishing spot. Experience had taught him that fish avoided places that were easy to reach.

  As he approached along the cliff top, another figure emerged from the rocks some fifty meters ahead of him. After a few seconds, Hal recognized Stig and he frowned. The path down to his fishing spot was well concealed and he had no wish to reveal it to someone else. The location of a prime fishing spot like this was something to be protected and he decided he’d wait until he was sure that Stig had moved on.

  He followed, maintaining the distance between them, moving carefully among the rocks to avoid drawing Stig’s attention. There was no telling how Stig might react if he realized someone was following him. Hal felt a sense of relief as he saw the other boy go past the point where the track led away down the cliff face. He saw that Stig was heading for the next inlet around the rocky cliff top.

  Stig was carrying a long willow pole, around three meters in length, and a large wooden bucket with a tight-fitting lid. He had a coil of rope around his shoulder. He was going poaching, Hal realized.

  Hallasholm’s professional fishermen had their own special spots, where they set traps for lobsters and crabs. They paid a fee to the Oberjarl to reserve these spots for their exclusive use. No other fisherman would go near them, but it was not uncommon for the boys in the town to slip out and raise the traps, taking any of the succulent shellfish that were inside. Hal had done so himself on several occasions. It was a risky business. If the fishermen caught a boy poaching from their traps, he would be severely beaten. Perhaps it was that element of risk that made the practice popular among the boys.

  The inlet Stig was heading for was a spot where a canny old fisherman named Dorak set his traps. It was an exposed spot, but the deep water and jumble of submerged rocks at the base of the cliffs made it a prolific breeding and feeding ground for lobsters. Dorak had several traps set there, each marked by a colored buoy. He would wait for relatively calm weather, then access the cove by boat. Stig must be planning to climb down the cliff face and use the long pole to reach the closest traps, Hal thought. He’d store the lobsters in the sealed wooden bucket.

 

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