The outcasts, p.5
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       The Outcasts, p.5

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  Hal watched as the other boy uncoiled the rope, tied it to a low tree stump close to the cliff edge, then dropped it over. With the pole slung over his back and the bucket looped over one arm, Stig seized the rope and began to walk himself backward down the cliff face.

  Hal waited several minutes, then moved to the cliff to peer over the edge. Stig was at the base of the cliff, standing on a rock shelf and leaning over the water as he reached for a yellow buoy a few meters out. The willow pole had a hook on the end and Stig tried several times to snag it through the ring on top of the buoy, without success. The pole was long and unwieldy and he had it at maximum reach. And the buoy was surging up and down as the waves passed under it so that he repeatedly missed his mark.

  The waves slapped against the rock shelf where Stig crouched, throwing spray high in the air and drenching him. Angrily, he dashed the cold salt water out of his eyes and reached once more for the buoy. The distance was just a little too far. Dorak had been robbed before and he had taken to setting his traps farther out from the shore—close enough to be in among the lobsters’ feeding ground, but just too far to be reached easily by a boy with a long, hooked pole.

  A wave slammed into the rock, then sucked back, revealing a shelf below the spot where Stig was standing. It was a meter or so closer to the buoy, but when the waves came in, it was fully submerged. Hal could see the green shine of weed covering it. It would be slippery, he knew.

  But now Stig lowered himself so that he was sitting on the edge of the rock, reaching down with his feet for the ledge below him. A wave came in, hitting the rock with a muffled whump! Then it receded, momentarily revealing the submerged ledge. Stig slid his backside off the rock, reaching down with his legs for the treacherous foothold.

  “Careful … ,” Hal muttered to himself. He could swim well. His mother, raised among the fenlands of Araluen, had taught him when he was young. But he knew that most Skandians never bothered to learn. It seemed like a paradox when so many of them spent their lives in ships. But, as Thorn had told him, most of them felt that, in the event of a shipwreck, the ability to swim would only prolong the agony. In addition, the year-round cold of the Stormwhite Sea made swimming an unattractive proposition.

  Stig’s left foot slipped on the weed-covered shelf as the water surged in again, coming up to his waist. He quickly reached behind him and gripped the rough surface of the rock as the water surged out, trying to drag him with it. It was touch and go for a moment, then he recovered his balance and his footing.

  Hal realized that he’d been holding his breath. He released it now in a long sigh.

  Stig, secure once more, stretched out with the willow pole. The buoy was now within easy reach, but it was still dancing up and down as the waves passed under it. The hook at the end of the pole caught the loop of rope on top of the buoy, but then the buoy sank with a wave and the hook came loose. Again Stig tried, and again he just failed. Another wave struck the shelf, sending spray high into the air, then receded. The next wave was already lifting the buoy higher, and for a moment, as it met the outgoing wave, the buoy was still.

  Stig released his grip on the rock behind him and leaned out, both hands now on the pole. He sighted carefully, then passed the hook through the loop of sodden rope. But he was unprepared for the sudden drag as the buoy sank and he teetered precariously for a second or two. Then the incoming wave whumped into the shelf again. Solid water ran over the rock, then cascaded back into the ocean. The force of the outgoing water caught Stig, already off balance, by surprise. With a startled cry, he slipped from the shelf.

  On the cliff overhead, Hal watched, horrified, as the other boy fell awkwardly into the surging water. He heard Stig’s yell of alarm, cut off abruptly as the water closed over his head. Then Stig reappeared, several meters offshore, as the undertow dragged him away from safety. He thrashed the water, went under, then resurfaced.

  Hal realized that the air trapped in Stig’s sheepskin vest would keep him afloat for the time being. But it would soon become waterlogged and begin to drag the boy under. There was no time to lose. He leapt to his feet and raced along the cliff edge to the rope. He stripped down to his underwear, retaining his knife belt. Then, as an afterthought, he wrapped his discarded shirt around his hands, seized onto the rope and, facing back toward the cliff, dropped over the edge, fending off with his feet as he fell.

  The rope sizzled through his shirt, which began to smoke from the friction. But it protected his hands from being seared as he dropped through the air. In seconds, it seemed, he hit the rocks at the base of the cliff. His knees buckled and he fell awkwardly, bruising his hip. But he was up instantly, running to the spot where Stig had gone in.

  He saw Stig’s wooden bucket and grabbed it up. The lid was fastened securely, hinged at one side and held with a metal hasp at the other. He looped the rope handle over one arm, ran to the edge and paused. Stig was seven or eight meters away from the rocks, floundering helplessly. Already, the vest was becoming sodden and the trapped air was escaping from it. Hal saw the boy’s mouth open wide as he tried to scream, then choked helplessly as a wave slapped

  him in the face, filling his mouth with seawater. He could see that Stig was close to giving up. He had only seconds to act.

  He paused, waiting as a wave ran in, rising before him, about to slam into the rock face. Then he tossed the bucket into the water and went in after it, leaping as far as he could over the incoming wave.

  The shock of the icy water closing over his head hit him like the kick of a mule. It was all he could do not to gasp helplessly and swallow water while he was under. But he resisted the urge and fought his way back to the surface. He roared aloud then, with the shock and the cold. The bucket was floating close by and he grabbed the rope handle, turning on his back and holding it to his chest, and kicking out with his legs.

  The bucket gave him buoyancy and he glanced over his shoulder to spot Stig. There he was! Five or six meters away. His struggles were becoming weaker. The heavy vest was now a death trap and the cold and the mouthfuls of seawater that he’d swallowed joined with it to take him under. His arms thrashed the water still in a desperate, clumsy parody of swimming. But his energy was all but gone.

  Hal swam up behind the exhausted boy. It was as well that Stig was so far gone, he thought. If he’d had more energy, he might well have dragged them both under. As it was, he was barely conscious. Hal thrust the bucket at him, pushing it against his chest.

  “Hold on to this!” he told him, burbling the words as water slopped into his mouth. “It’ll keep you afloat!”

  Instinctively, Stig grabbed at the bucket, wrapping both arms around it. He felt an instant surge of relief as the bucket took his weight and he realized he was no longer sinking. He heard a voice close by his ear.

  “Relax! Don’t struggle! The bucket will keep you afloat! Just let yourself go limp. Trust me!”

  Stig did as he was told. He was aware of something tugging at the shoulders of his sheepskin vest as Hal slashed away at the tops of the armholes with his fishing knife. Then the heavy, sodden garment fell clear and drifted away, sinking slowly, and he felt even lighter in the water.

  He opened his mouth to thank his rescuer. A wave promptly slapped him in the face and he swallowed seawater again, panicking as it choked him. He tensed up and began to struggle.

  “Shut up! Shut up and relax!” Hal yelled at him, feeling his body tense. And Stig heard him and obeyed again, clasping the bucket firmly to his chest.

  Hal studied the rocks where he’d jumped in after Stig. The waves were rising and falling more than a meter, alternately leaving the rocks bare, then flooding up and over them, smashing against them with enormous force and sending spray fountaining high into the air. If he tried to get Stig ashore there, the odds were good that they’d both be slammed into the rock face. There was even a chance that the precious bucket might be shattered. Their best chance would be to swim round to Hal’s secret fishing spot, where an offshore h
edge of rocks broke the force of the incoming waves. It would mean a swim of more than a hundred meters in the rough sea, towing Stig. But there was no other choice. Hal felt a brief flicker of fear as he wondered if his own energy would hold out. One hundred meters wasn’t too far to swim in calm water. But the sea was rough and the water was brutally cold and energy sapping.

  “Putting it off won’t make it easier,” he said to himself. He seized hold of Stig’s collar and began towing him, swimming in a one-armed sidestroke, kicking with his legs and stroking with his free arm.

  The cold was eating into him as he cleared the point. He wanted above all to stop and rest for a while. They could just drift here, he thought. The empty bucket would support them both. Then he realized in a moment of clarity that, if he stopped, he would never start again. The cold was all pervasive. He couldn’t feel his fingers and toes. It was draining his energy away as his body tried to fight it. He shook his head determinedly and continued stroking, kicking more strongly in an effort to drive warming blood into his legs and feet.

  It would be so easy to stop and rest, he thought. So easy to doze off for a few seconds …

  “No!” he shouted. At least, he tried to shout. The word came out as a garbled grunting sound, cut off by another mouthful of cold seawater. He coughed, spluttered and kept swimming.

  Behind him, Stig was a deadweight. It seemed an eternity before they rounded the sheltering hedge of rocks and he could strike out for the flat rock in the cove behind them. With his last strength, he managed to shove Stig up onto the rock, assisted by the gentle surge of a small incoming wave. Then he clambered up after him, dragging himself painfully on his belly and knees over the rough, barnacle-crusted rock, and fell exhausted beside him.

  “Don’t tell anyone what I was doing,” Stig said anxiously.

  It was an hour later. They were squelching their way back to Hallasholm, having recovered their strength—as well as Hal’s outer clothes and Stig’s rope from the cliff top. Hal’s shirt, of course, remained at the base of the cliff and neither of them had the energy to retrieve it.

  Hal looked at him quizzically. “I wasn’t planning to,” he said. “But it’s not such a big thing. Everyone poaches lobsters from time to time. I’ve done it myself.”

  “Everyone doesn’t have a father who was a thief,” Stig replied heavily. “I know what they’ll say. Like father, like son. Anytime I do anything wrong, people can’t wait to point out that my father was a thief.”

  “But that doesn’t mean you are,” Hal said. “If that were true, people would say I’m a hero like my dad was. But they don’t.”

  Now it was Stig’s turn to study his companion for a few seconds.

  “They’ll change their tune when I tell them you rescued me,” he said, then added hurriedly, “We don’t have to say anything about the lobster trap, of course. We can just say I was fishing and fell in and you came in after me and …”

  He stopped. Hal was already shaking his head.

  “Let’s not talk about it at all,” he said. “If you tell people I saved you, it’ll just annoy Tursgud and he’ll come after me and make my life a misery. Besides, it was nothing special. Anyone would have done what I did.”

  “I wouldn’t,” Stig said emphatically. Then he added, with a grin, “I couldn’t have, anyway.”

  Eventually, they decided to say nothing at all. But it was noticeable that over the ensuing weeks, the two boys began to spend more time together, and a genuine bond grew between them.

  As a result, Stig’s wild, erratic behavior and bouts of temper grew less frequent. The fact that he had a friend and companion who didn’t prejudge him because of his father’s misdeeds seemed to mellow him. But his reputation was already established and that tended to stick, even if he did calm down considerably.

  Neither boy ever intended to speak about the events at the cliff that day. But of course their mothers eventually worked the truth out of them.

  Mothers always do.

  PART 2

  THE HERON

  chapter five

  Bearclaw Creek began as a mere trickle, forcing its way out between a jumble of rocks in the high country above the coast. It joined with a dozen similar rivulets as it wound down the mountains and eventually widened into a respectable body of water as it came closer to the sea.

  In the final stretch of its journey, the creek crossed a small meadow a few hundred meters outside the town limits of Hallasholm. At this point, there was evidence of a considerable amount of recent activity. Offcuts of wood and cordage littered the ground. There were work trestles and benches and a tarpaulin shelter had been rigged to provide protection during wet weather. The smell of sawdust and sawn timber permeated the air. A small, ramshackle jetty stood on the bank of the creek close by the work site.

  The Heron was moored alongside this jetty, her mooring lines creaking gently as they stretched then slackened with the movement of the water.

  She was a sleek craft, some fifteen meters long—or about half the length of a standard wolfship. She was pierced on each side for four oars, whereas the newer wolfships could carry ten oars a side. Even moored alongside the small jetty that led out from the bank, she gave the impression of speed.

  She was Hal’s boat, and the result of an enormous stroke of luck the previous summer.

  When he had turned thirteen, he applied for a job at Anders’ boatyard.

  Anders was an irascible, middle-aged man who was generally intolerant of teenage boys. He considered them to be flighty and unreliable. But he saw that Hal was different from the general run of boys in Hallasholm so, with some misgivings, he agreed to give the boy a trial. It didn’t take him long to see that Hal was a skilled and meticulous worker. His attention to detail and the precision of his work was impressive in one so young and Anders hired him immediately. Hal took to spending most of his spare time in the boatyard.

  Two years after Hal came to work for him, Anders took on a commission from Gunter Moonstalker, a retired sea wolf. Gunter, too old and arthritic now to serve on a wolfship, still yearned for the old days and wanted a boat for cruising. He stipulated a boat that would be similar in lines to a wolfship, but small enough that he and a few friends could handle it. Anders drew up a plan, aided by Hal, who was fascinated by the project. Over the winter months, they worked indoors in the boatyard workshop, carving the prow and stern pieces, splitting logs to form the planks, shaping the frames for the hull and selecting a section of timber for the keel. As the materials were made ready, they were stacked along one side of the boat shed in a steadily growing pile of finished components. Then, unexpectedly, Gunter Moonstalker died.

  Anders was faced with a problem. The boat had been specifically designed to Gunter’s requirements. It was too narrow in the beam for a fishing boat and too small to be a trader. It was not a boat that Anders would be able to sell easily, and in the meantime, the frames and planks and spars were taking up valuable room in his workshop.

  Hal solved the problem for him.

  “I’ll buy it,” he said. It had long been his ambition to have a boat of his own and he had saved virtually every kroner Anders had paid him against the prospect of buying one. This seemed like too good a chance to miss. They negotiated a fair price—Anders had already received half the agreed fee from Gunter, after all—and the boat was Hal’s. Anders added one stipulation.

  “You’ll have to move it out,” he said. “I can’t have it taking up room here.”

  Hal agreed readily, and he had enlisted Stig and Thorn to help him move the boat to the ramshackle jetty at Bearclaw Creek.

  Knowing that when the boat was complete he would need a crew, he had also approached three other boys to help.

  Ulf and Wulf were identical twins. Nobody could tell them apart, not even their mother, and that made other boys wary of them. In addition, they traded on the fact that nobody could identify them, often swapping identities at will to confuse people. Hal had always believed that twins had a specia
l bond between them, but Ulf and Wulf seemed to be exceptions to this rule. They fought all the time, like cat and dog—or rather, as Thorn once said, like cat and cat.

  Ingvar helped as well. He was a massively built boy whose muscles were greatly appreciated when it came to moving the heavier items, such as the bags of river stones that would be used for balance.

  Ingvar would have had the makings of a mighty warrior, except for one failing. His eyesight was so poor that he could barely see details past a meter away. The prospect of going into battle beside Ingvar was a daunting one. Once the battle began, there was no way he would be able to distinguish friend from foe. He would be just as likely to decimate his allies as his enemies. But he was a good-natured boy, philosophical about his disability and always willing to help. And when it came to carrying heavy weights over long distances, he had no peer.

  As the summer wore on, the boat had taken shape. The twins and Ingvar worked on the project from time to time, although they didn’t share the same dedication as Hal and Stig. In Ingvar’s case, it was often in response to a summons when there was heavy lifting to be done—when the keel needed to be placed in position on the trestles, for example, or when a plank had to be bent in against its will so that they could fasten it to the bow section.

  As the boat progressed, Stig had noticed a subtle change in his friend. Although Hal was usually reticent and avoided drawing attention to himself, when it came to building the boat, he became far more assertive. He knew what he was talking about and he knew what he wanted, and this knowledge gave him the confidence to take control and direct the others in their tasks. He gave clear and understandable directions and would not tolerate shoddy work from them, often insisting that a job be redone so that it was up to his standards. Now, in the final week of summer, it had become a race against time to get the little craft finished before brotherband training began.

 

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