The outcasts, p.8
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       The Outcasts, p.8

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “Why? What’s the point? I mean, it’s pretty, but why do you want a sail like a bird’s wing?”

  “She’ll point higher into the wind than a square sail,” Hal said.

  Erak looked doubtful. “So you say.”

  “She’ll point three times as high as a wolfship,” Stig interjected indignantly. “She’ll sail rings around a wolfship!”

  Erak turned slowly to regard him. There was a long silence and Stig’s face began to redden.

  “Who are you? His lawyer?” Erak asked.

  Stig cleared his throat nervously. The Oberjarl was not a man to annoy. But still, he had no right to denigrate Heron’s performance. He hadn’t seen what Stig and the others had seen.

  “I’m his first mate,” he said firmly. From the crowd below, they heard a cackle of laughter.

  “Good for you, boy! A first mate should always stick up for his skirl!”

  “Shut up, Svengal,” Erak said, without looking. Svengal had been his first mate for more years than they could remember. He was now the skirl of Wolfwind, except for those times when Erak decided he wanted to go to sea again. On those occasions, Svengal reverted cheerfully to his old position.

  The Oberjarl measured Stig carefully. He liked what he saw. The boy was tall, well built and ready to meet the Oberjarl’s eye, even if he was tending to go a little red in the face as he did so. Svengal was right, he thought. A good first mate should stand by his skirl. And if this boy was ready to stand by the half-Araluen boy, that fact spoke well of Hal. This pair would merit watching, he thought, making a mental note to make sure they were assigned to the same brotherband the following week.

  Still, there was one point he was not prepared to let pass. He gestured at the bundled sail once more.

  “You say she’ll sail rings around a wolfship?”

  Stig nodded determinedly. “That’s right.”

  “Do you include my wolfship in that assessment?” Erak asked.

  Stig hesitated. He glanced sidelong at Hal and saw the minuscule shake of his head, the warning look in his eye.

  “Ah … of course not, Oberjarl.”

  Erak nodded, satisfied. “Thought as much.” He nudged the yardarm with his toe again.

  “Looks flimsy,” he said, then turned and stepped easily down the boarding ramp, moving nimbly in spite of his bulk.

  When Erak was safely out of earshot, Stig turned to his friend. “Of course, she’ll sail rings around Wolfwind,” he said.

  “Then why didn’t you tell him that?” Hal asked, grinning.

  “I like my head where it is.”

  chapter nine

  Gradually, the crowd began to drift away, their curiosity over the new ship and her crew satisfied.

  Ingvar and the twins said their good-byes. Hal had decided to leave the ship beached overnight. They would return it to the creek the following day. He and Stig rigged anchors to hold Heron fast when the tide rose. A few people lingered, asking questions about the boat and its sail plan. Thorn sat on the upturned skiff watching them, some meters away. He had a satisfied smile on his face.

  The two boys went back aboard the ship and furled the sail properly, binding them neatly to the yardarms. They stacked the oars neatly fore and aft, either side of the mast, and tidied up the boat.

  “That was amazing,” Stig said.

  Hal grinned happily. “It was better than that,” he said. Then he frowned. “Although I wish Erak hadn’t said that—about it being flimsy.”

  Stig shook his head, discounting the comment.

  “He was just saving face,” he said. “He’s a traditionalist. When a new idea comes along, he’ll always look to find something wrong with it—even if it’s not true.”

  They climbed back down to the beach and stopped in surprise. There were two girls standing by the ramp, waiting for them. Hal’s breath came a little faster as he recognized Lotte Ilafsdotir.

  She was the same age as he, with a neat, slim figure and blond hair that had just a hint of red in it. There were a few freckles dusted on her face but they made her look even prettier in his eyes. Hal had admired Lotte for years—as had every red-blooded young male in Hallasholm. Several times, he had summoned up the courage to strike up a conversation with her. She had been polite, but distant, leaving him in no doubt that there was no chance she would ever be interested in him. Which, of course, only made him more desperately interested in her.

  She smiled at him now, her eyes appraising him and, apparently, finding him worthy of interest for the first time.

  “Hello, Hal,” she said.

  He took a deep breath. “Lotte. How are you?” he said, trying to make sure his voice didn’t crack. His throat felt dry all of a sudden.

  Lotte’s companion, taller than she and dark haired, smiled at Stig.

  “Hé, Stig,” she said, smiling. Nina was every bit as beautiful as her friend Lotte. But Lotte had that indefinable something extra. At least, that was true only as far as most boys were concerned. Stig, however, had always worshipped the ground Nina walked on. Now he flushed and went red to the roots of his hair.

  “Hé, Nina,” he said thickly. Then, turning to Hal, he blurted, “Well, I’d better be going. See you tomorrow.” He turned to leave but, to his surprise, Nina, after a quick conspiratorial glance at Lotte, fell in step with him.

  “I’ll come with you,” she said.

  “Oh … um … all right. Fine,” Stig said.

  He wished he could think of something to say. Something gallant or romantic. He recalled that Nina had suffered a bout of stomach flu a week earlier.

  “So, I guess you’re not chucking up anymore?”

  She smiled at him. “No. That’s all over.”

  Stig ground his teeth in frustration. Another romantic quip like that, he thought sarcastically, and she’d be putty in his hands.

  Hal and Lotte watched them go, smiling. Lotte laughed quietly.

  “He’s a silver-tongued devil, that one,” Hal said, and was rewarded by another gurgling laugh. Lotte had a delightful laugh, he thought. He liked hearing it. He tried to think of another amusing comment to make but, for the life of him, he couldn’t. He realized that he was staring at her, his mouth gaping slightly open. He closed it suddenly, making an audible clop! noise. Lotte seemed not to notice. She stepped closer to the Heron and ran a hand over the smooth planks of the bow.

  “Is this really your ship?” she said, eyes wide.

  Hal nodded. “Yes. The others helped me build it. But she’s mine all right.”

  “She’s beautiful,” Lotte said, turning to admire the sleek lines.

  I was just thinking the same thing, he thought, looking at Lotte. He wondered if he should say it aloud, then decided it was just too corny. Someone else might get away with it. Not him.

  “Would you take me out in her sometime?” Lotte asked, her head tilted prettily to one side.

  Hal licked his lips. They had suddenly gone dry again. Lotte was talking to him! She was actually asking him if she could go out on his ship one day! But before he could answer, he felt a violent shove on the back of his shoulder and went staggering, throwing up his hands just in time to save himself from crashing into Heron’s bow.

  “Who do you think you are, you Araluen weasel?” said a harsh, angry voice.

  Hal turned to find himself facing Tursgud. Big, muscular, handsome. And angry. His face was flushed and his eyes were dangerously narrowed. He was flanked by two of his regular companions, both big and athletic like himself.

  “Tursgud!” Lotte said, alarmed at the sudden assault. “What are you doing?”

  Tursgud glanced quickly at her, then ignored her. He advanced a pace on Hal, standing just too close, intentionally invading Hal’s personal space.

  “Think you can go sneaking behind my back and making eyes at my girl, do you?” he challenged.

  Lotte bridled angrily. “Your girl? I’m not your girl! I’m not anybody’s girl!”

  Again, Tursgud ignored her. Hal
faced him warily, tensed and ready for another attack.

  “I’m not aware she’s your girl, Tursgud,” he said.

  “I’m not!” Lotte put in. But Tursgud continued to ignore her, his eyes blazing at Hal.

  “Why don’t you just stay away from where you’re not wanted and play with your silly little boat with its silly little sail,” he said.

  He shoved Hal again, sending him back a pace or two.

  “Or go back to that greasy slop house where your mother tries to poison her customers.”

  That was too much. Hal’s temper boiled over at the insult to his mother and he reacted without thinking. He thrust forward and shoved both hands into Tursgud’s chest, sending the bigger boy stumbling and falling in the soft sand. One of his companions reached down to help him but he slapped the proffered hand away angrily as he leapt to his feet.

  “Right! That’s it, weasel!” he yelled. He grabbed Hal’s shirt front in his left hand and drew back his right, fist clenched.

  And found he was unable to move it forward again.

  He turned, startled, to see Thorn’s unshaven face a few inches from his. He hadn’t heard the old beggar approaching. He looked with surprise to where his right wrist was locked securely in Thorn’s left hand.

  “Let go of me!” he shouted. He tried to wrench his arm free, but Thorn’s grip was like iron.

  “Why don’t you shut up?” the shabby odd-job man suggested. He glanced at Lotte, who was watching in astonishment, her mouth sagging open. She’d never seen anyone confront Tursgud in this way. Even adults were often wary around him.

  “Miss, it might be a good idea if you left,” Thorn said gently. “Things could get ugly here.”

  Lotte glanced at Hal and he nodded. Without further word, she fled up the beach, looking back once when she reached the esplanade, then disappearing in the direction of her parents’ home. To tell the truth, she was frightened of Thorn. Most of her life, she had known him as a dirty, disheveled, bad-tempered drunk. When she was younger, she and the other children used to throw sticks at him and call him names, then flee in delighted terror when he roared and shambled after them, lurching drunkenly as they fled, light-footed as deer.

  “You’d better let me go, you old wreck,” Tursgud said. His voice was strained as he fought not to show how painful Thorn’s grip was becoming. “My father is the Maktig!”

  The Maktig was the Mighty One, the title Skandians bestowed each year on their champion of all warriors. Thorn smiled. His teeth were rimmed with green.

  “Just as well I’m not squeezing his wrist, isn’t it?” he said, and as Tursgud released his grip on Hal’s shirt front and drew back his left fist, he continued, with a grim note in his voice, “Throw that punch, boy, and I’ll break your wrist.”

  And, incredibly, he increased the pressure of that already devastating grip, squeezing and rolling his fingers so that the bones in Tursgud’s wrist were crushed painfully together. Tursgud caught his breath in a gasp of agony and felt his knees buckle slightly. His eyes were very close to Thorn’s and for a second he could see a light of suppressed violence there.

  Then the light died and Thorn smiled at him, releasing his wrist and shoving him away so that he fell to his knees in the sand.

  “Now get out of here,” Thorn said quietly.

  Tursgud scrambled to his feet, nursing his bruised wrist. He half ran up the beach, followed by his surprised comrades. They had never seen him bested like this—and to have it done by a one-armed former drunk made it all the more disconcerting. When he was a safe distance away, Tursgud turned and spat his hatred back at Thorn.

  “You dirty old cripple!” he screamed. “You’ll pay for this!”

  Then he turned and ran, followed by his comrades.

  “You’re going to have to watch out for that one,” Thorn said.

  Hal shook his head wearily. “Why is he always so horrible? Why does he always want to pick a fight? I’ve never done anything to him! Why does he hate me?”

  Thorn regarded him seriously for a few seconds.

  “Because he fears you,” he replied.

  chapter ten

  Hal spent the night pondering Thorn’s words to him.

  Why would Tursgud be afraid of him? It didn’t make sense. Tursgud was much bigger and stronger than Hal, and much more popular. He had a wide circle of friends who sought his company eagerly. Hal, on the other hand, was something of an outcast among the other young people in Hallasholm. With the exception of Stig, of course.

  So why should Tursgud fear him? Hal had tried to quiz Thorn about it as they walked back to the eating house for the evening meal service but the old sea wolf had brushed his questions aside.

  “You’ll figure it out,” he said enigmatically.

  Hal was still wondering about it the next morning as he weatherproofed Heron for the duration of his brotherband training. The other boys had joined him at first light to help bring the neat little ship back to the creek, mooring her securely to the jetty. Then Stig, the twins and Ingvar had made their farewells. They all had family commitments on this last day before their training was due to begin.

  He carried the sails, yardarms and other loose fittings ashore, unshipping the steering oar and storing them out of the weather under the canvas shelter that they’d rigged when they were building the ship. Then he cut a long sapling, trimmed it of smaller branches and ran it lengthwise down the ship, supported on either end by two X-shaped frames. He secured another tarpaulin over the sapling, tying it down tightly every few meters of its length so that it formed a tent-shaped cover over the hull. That should keep the worst of the rain out of her, he thought.

  “You’ll have to bail her out every so often,” said a voice behind him. He turned and saw Thorn watching him. He had no idea how long he had been there—probably long enough to avoid helping him carry the gear ashore, he thought. It continued to surprise him how Thorn could move so quietly when he chose. In times past, he had blundered and stumbled noisily about Hallasholm, careering into buildings and people, knocking things over.

  Hal was tempted to ask him once more about what he had said the previous day. But he decided against it. If Thorn hadn’t wanted to expand on the statement then, there was little chance that he’d do so now. Instead, Hal pointed to the long bundle Thorn was carrying under his right arm. It looked like a seaman’s kitbag—a cylindrical canvas sack about a meter and a half long. It was obviously packed full of something.

  “What have you got there?” he asked.

  Thorn glanced down at it. “It’s for you.”

  Then he set the bag down without further explanation. Hal found that vaguely annoying. “It’s for you” didn’t really answer his question. But he knew that Thorn wouldn’t be prompted to explain until he was good and ready.

  “Are you just about finished there?” Thorn asked.

  Hal studied him curiously. Thorn boasted about the fact that he bathed and shaved once a month. Even if I don’t need it, he’d say. Yet he always seemed to be in exactly the same grubby, unshaven condition from one day to the next. Surely, Hal thought, there must be some days when he looked clean and tidy and shaven?

  “Stared at me long enough?” Thorn said brusquely. “Think you’ll know me next time you see me?”

  “Oh, sorry! Yes,” Hal said. He shook his head to dismiss the thought.

  “Good. Now if you’ve finished fiddling with your boat, come over here. I’ve got something I want to run through with you.”

  Mystified, Hal followed him to a level patch of ground, clear of wood chips, timber offcuts and shavings. Thorn turned to face him, studying him for a few seconds, then nodded, seeming to be satisfied with what he saw.

  “All right, shape up to me,” he commanded.

  Hal frowned at him. “Shape up to you?”

  Thorn nodded impatiently. “Yes! Shape up as if you’re going to hit me!”

  “Why would I want to hit you?”

  “Why would you want to hi
t me?” Thorn repeated quietly, shaking his head and looking to the sky as if seeking an answer there. “Let me put it this way,” he continued, bringing his gaze back to Hal. “Do you want to learn to fight or not?”

  “Well, yes,” Hal said awkwardly. “But …”

  He stopped, realizing that he didn’t want to voice the thought that had sprung to his mind. Thorn moved closer, his head tilted to one side, and fixed a fierce glare on the boy.

  “But maybe you think a broken-down tramp like me can’t show you anything about fighting?” he asked, an ominous note in his voice.

  Hal backed away a little, spreading his hands in a placatory gesture.

  “No! No! Of course not!” he said. But the embarrassed tone was enough to tell Thorn that, yes, that was exactly what he had been thinking.

  Hal wanted to learn how to fight. But he wasn’t sure that Thorn was the person he would pick to show him. For a start, Thorn only had one hand. And secondly, for years he’d been a figure of pity. Hal was fond of Thorn, certainly. But that was more because Thorn had been an enthusiastic supporter of Hal’s ideas in recent years, and always willing to help with his schemes. As a result, he saw Thorn more as a somewhat down-on-his-luck admirer than as any kind of mentor.

  “Maybe you think that I was always a hopeless cripple? That I was always like this?” Thorn brandished the scarred stump of his right arm. Hal could see now that he had offended his friend and he felt genuinely sorry for it. But still …

  “Of course not,” he began. Thorn didn’t let him continue.

  “You do know that I served in Erak’s crew before this happened!” He held up the truncated right arm again, shaking it in front of Hal’s startled face. “You do know that, don’t you?”

  “Of course I do,” Hal protested. He couldn’t prevent the unworthy thought but that was a long time ago sliding into his mind. Thorn seemed to read the thought and his eyes narrowed.

  “All right. I can see I’ll have to show you.” He stepped back to give Hal room and raised his left fist and the foreshortened stump of his right arm in a defensive posture. “Take a swing at me.”

 

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