‘So,’ Grakk said, ‘why would you want to be a hero?’
The others stared at him through the warm tavern light, the fire in the yawning hearth casting flickering light and shifting shadows in equal measure across the busy room. The scarred and weather-toughened faces of the sailors and dockers who filled the rough benches were lit also by the occasional lantern, but the smaller lights were overwhelmed in most parts by the snapping and cracking flames of the main fire. Some faces laughed, some scowled, some chatted and argued and expounded while some were silent, watching or listening or dozing, but all of them did so with the same hard look from the same hard eyes.
Brann liked it here. There was no pretence, no second-guessing; all was on the surface. If a man here thought you were an arse, he told you you were an arse. If he liked you, he didn’t tell you you were an arse.
Konall swept his length of pale blond hair back from his astonished face. He looked at Hakon. ‘The tribesman seems to have taken leave of his senses. Would you explain the obvious?’
The big boy shrugged. ‘Everyone knows. A hero is guaranteed a place at the feast table of the gods. Who wouldn’t want that?’
Their heads turned to Gerens, and the darkness in his eyes looked back at them. The boy said, ‘Better to live your life longer than to invite an early departure on the say of a priest who makes promises while seeking your coin for a god he never sees.’
‘Maybe so,’ said Brann, ‘but a hero inspires. Without a hero, we can be overwhelmed by despair.’
Grakk shook his head with a smile at a pleasant girl who had stopped by their table to offer soup from a cauldron-shaped pot. ‘All good points, young friends. But what would you say is a hero?’
Any reply was cut short by a commotion. A burly docker at the end of a bench, a twisted scar pulling one corner of his mouth into a permanent and sardonic smile, was bending the wrist of a boy. The lad, no more than a dozen years of age, had served a platter of meat to their table and a spot of dripped grease was the perfect excuse for a spot of rough bullying. The boy was silently determined to show no weakness, but his pallor was fading fast.
Brann was already on his feet as Grakk reached to halt Gerens from following. A nod to Konall saw him do the same with Hakon. ‘One alone may avoid what too many may provoke.’
The one alone proved not to be Brann, however. The girl with the soup pot was at the table in two swift strides, her language base enough to register with the man’s awareness.
His laugh was contemptuous.
She set her pot on the table to strike his face hard, uncaring that both of her arms were less than half the girth of one of his.
His snarl was primal.
He rose, dropping the knife intended for the meat and grasping instead her neck. The boy’s wrist was twisted viciously to double him over and the fingers tightened on her throat. Each breath became more desperate than the last but with each gasp the defiance burned hotter in her eyes. She sank her teeth into his wrist but he seemed as aware of the pain as the floor was of the blood falling upon it.
Brann’s quickening movements became more of a drunken stagger as he passed those starting to become aware that something was amiss. He closed on the table and lurched against the back of a huge sailor to one side. Rebounding as the man turned, he fell against the table, his flailing arm knocking the pot of hot soup over the man’s legs. Brann pushed himself up from the table with a mumbled apology and made to stagger away. The soup should, Brann reasoned, see the struggling pair released as the man’s attention was dragged to his scalded lap.
It half worked. The girl was held fast but the boy was flung to the floor as the thick muscles of the docker’s shoulder swung the back of his calloused hand instead into the side of Brann’s head, knocking him from his feet. Three sailors and two dockers had seen enough to join the girl’s cause and were met by the bellowing oaf’s half-dozen companions as the bar-room weapons of fists, knees and foreheads crunched into bodies. The rage of the lout who had started it still sought release, and he grabbed a broad knife from his belt and made to thrust underhand at the girl’s belly.
The girl’s foot halted his movement, kicking with all her might up between his legs. He lurched forward, dropping her, gasping and retching, his hands slapping onto the tabletop, spilling the blade before him. He was between Brann and the dagger, but the knife from platter was closer and the boy grabbed it and drove it down through the back of his hand, pinning it to the table. In the moment before the scream could burst from the man, Brann grabbed the handle of the pot and swung it hard, dregs of soup spraying, into the side of his head. The thick metal hit with a dull ring, and the thick head thumped senseless on the table.
The other patrons, more eager for a full night of drinking than for the limited entertainment of a brawl, had separated the combatants. Two men levered free the knife and carried the unconscious oaf into the night, while the others joined erstwhile opponents in reflecting upon, with laughter and replenished flagons, the finer points of the mighty battle. Brann shook his head at the sight and, unnoticed, started back to their table as a young sailor with admiring words helped the girl ease the servant boy to his feet. She smiled, straightened her hair, and retreated to the kitchens.
‘Your question, Grakk?’ Hakon said, before Brann had returned. ‘I think you have your answer.’
Grakk smiled. ‘In your opinion, him or her?’
‘In my opinion, both.’
Konall turned a frosty gaze his way. ‘Right or wrong, whatever you may say to her, please do not ever tell him that.’
Grakk smiled. ‘He wouldn’t believe you anyway.’