The outcasts, p.10
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       The Outcasts, p.10

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  Arndak saw the pirate’s bow angle slightly away from his own as the ship came on. He wasn’t going to ram, then. He probably suspected that there was a cash chest somewhere on board the lead ship and he didn’t want to lose it. Instead, the pirate aimed to meet Spraydancer bow to bow, at an oblique angle.

  “Let him come,” Arndak said grimly.

  chapter twelve

  There was a grinding crash as the pirate ship ran alongside. Spraydancer lurched violently under the impact but the crew, long accustomed to sudden movement underfoot, kept their balance easily. Then, with a chorus of yells and screams, the pirates leapt over the port bow in a swarm.

  Several of them lost their footing as they hit the decks of the Skandian trader. But they recovered quickly and moved aft, their comrades pressing from behind.

  And found themselves facing a shield wall of seven grim-faced Skandian warriors.

  They hesitated then, shoving back against the mounting pressure from behind, eyeing the massive axes in their enemies’ hands. For a moment, the two forces eyed each other, then Arndak bellowed the time-honored Skandian battle command.

  “Let’s get ’em!”

  The seven Skandian warriors surged forward. As they went, they instinctively formed a wedge shape, with Arndak at the point and three men on either side. They smashed into the disorganized pirates, their heavy oaken shields used as weapons of offense, slamming into the pirates and hurling them to either side.

  Then the deadly Skandian axes went to work, rising and falling, smashing through thin armor, beating down their opponents’ weapons by sheer force, cutting, hacking, biting into flesh and bone.

  The first rank of the pirates fell before that massive onslaught. The deck ran red with their blood and the Skandians trod them underfoot as they surged forward, driving the rest of the boarding party back toward the bows.

  For a moment, it seemed that they might succeed in forcing the pirates back onto their own ship. But the numbers against them were too great. A spear slammed into the warrior on Arndak’s left and he fell back with a strangled cry. Then a pirate slid forward on hand and knees, under the massive oaken shields, and stabbed upward into the thigh of another Skandian. He fell with a cry of pain, and in a moment, the Skandian wedge was disrupted.

  Arndak fought on grimly, protected by his shield and the whistling arc carved by his massive war ax. Any who ventured inside it were cut down, tossed aside like rag dolls. But in spite of it all, he was wounded several times. In the heat of the moment, he felt no pain. He continued to hack and slash at the hated enemy. He saw another of his men go down, tripped by a spear shaft thrust between his feet, and a pack of pirates swarmed over him. Snarling with rage, he aimed an overhead blow at a pirate in front of him. The terrified man saw death descending on him and tried to parry the ax with his sword.

  He might as well have used a piece of straw. The ax smashed the blade in half, then cut deep into the man’s shoulder. Arndak heaved to free his weapon and finally jerked it loose. The sudden release caused him to stagger back several paces. At the same time, the attacking pirates stepped back as well, surrounding the bleeding, heavy-breathing figure, but unwilling to come within reach of that terrible ax.

  Arndak shook his head and looked around. His comrades were all down—either dead or dying. He was alone.

  But he wasn’t finished, and the dead and maimed pirates on the deck of his ship were testimony to the fact that he was still a dangerous enemy. He brandished the ax aloft and yelled an inarticulate challenge at the pirates. Vaguely, he sensed he was on the edge of madness—the berserker’s rage that sometimes overtook Skandian warriors at the height of a battle.

  The pirates took another involuntary step backward. Then their ranks parted and a slim, tall figure stepped forward.

  He was olive skinned, with long, black hair that hung in ringlets. The face was handsome, and he was smiling. But there was an unmistakable gleam of malice in his eyes. He had a round metal shield and a long, curved sword, held carelessly, point down. Studying him, Arndak sensed that both shield and sword could spring into action in the flicker of an eye. This was a warrior—and a very dangerous one.

  “Skandian,” the pirate said, “my name is Zavac, captain of the Raven.”

  He jerked his head toward the black ship alongside Spraydancer’s bow.

  “Leader of this band of murdering scum, more like it,” Arndak said, with the utmost contempt. Zavac seemed unmoved by the insult.

  “As you wish,” he said. “In any case …”

  “In any case, you’re going to be the next one to die here,” Arndak told him. “And I’ll be delighted to send you to the netherworld.”

  Zavac’s smile widened. “I’d expect no less of such a brave fighter,” he said. “But before you dispatch me, I suggest you look behind you.”

  Arndak gave a hollow laugh. “Do you think I’ll fall for an old trick like that?” he said scornfully. “I didn’t come down in the last shower of rain, you know—”

  His voice was cut off by a shrill cry of pain from behind him and his heart sank. He turned and saw his nephew, Ernak, held fast by a pirate. During the brief, bloody fight, the Sea Lion had come up astern of Spraydancer and several pirates had boarded. Now one of them held Ernak firmly in his grasp, a curved knife thrust against the skin of his throat. A small trickle of blood ran down from where the blade touched the boy’s skin. That must have caused Ernak’s unwitting cry of pain, Arndak thought dully.

  “Now drop your weapons,” Zavac said smoothly. For a moment, the Skandian debated whether he had time to strike down the pirate and rescue his nephew. But he realized it was hopeless.

  “The boy will die,” Zavac said softly, divining his thoughts. Arndak emitted a long groan and released his grip on the ax. It fell heavily to the deck.

  “And the shield,” prompted Zavac. He let the shield drop from his arm. It struck the deck and rolled into the rowing benches.

  “Now tie them both up,” Zavac said to his crew.

  Half a dozen of the pirates leapt upon Arndak, forcing his hands behind him, lashing them with leather cords, then dragging him to the stern. They kicked his feet from under him and secured him to one of the frames that formed the hull shape. His nephew was similarly restrained.

  Zavac watched, then pulled a small stool close to them and sat on it. He tossed an order over his shoulder to his men.

  “Search the ship. He’ll have a cash chest somewhere on board.”

  His men hurried away to do his bidding. Arndak, his eyes fixed on the pirate leader, heard the sound of axes smashing into wood as the pirates tore up the deck planking in search of the cash chest. After a few minutes, there was a cry of triumph.

  “Bring it here,” Zavac called, without looking.

  Two of his men lugged the heavy chest to him and let it fall to the deck. He threw back the lid and smiled at the pile of gold and silver inside.

  “Very nice,” he said. “A good day’s work.”

  “It was months of work for me and my men,” Arndak told him bitterly and Zavac turned that humorless smile on him once more.

  “Yes. But they’re all dead, aren’t they?”

  “And I soon will be,” Arndak told him. He said it without any sign of fear. He had accepted his fate. “But spare the boy, I beg you.” He had no hope that the pirate would agree, but he had to make the attempt, for his sister’s sake. Surprisingly, Zavac nodded his head thoughtfully.

  “You know, that might be possible. But I’d want something from you in return.”

  “Name it,” Arndak said.

  The pirate leaned forward on his stool, bringing his face closer to the skirl.

  “I’ve heard rumors of a fabulous treasure in your home port of Hallasholm,” he said softly and Arndak caught his breath.

  He could only be referring to one thing—the Andomal.

  The Andomal was Hallasholm’s most treasured, and valuable, artifact. Nobody was really sure how the Andomal had come to ex
ist. It had been hauled up in a fishing net several hundred years before. It appeared to be a giant piece of amber, some twenty-five centimeters in diameter. It had been worn into an almost perfect globe by the action of the ocean over many decades.

  Its sheer size alone made it valuable. But embedded deep inside it was a blackened, wizened claw of some kind of giant lizard—popular legend had it that it was a dragon’s foot. That was what made the Andomal priceless. It was unique and awe-inspiring. There was nothing else like it in the known world.

  The uncertainty about its origin led to its name. In the old tongue, andomal meant “thing.”

  Zavac, watching keenly, saw Arndak’s fleeting reaction.

  “I see you know what I’m talking about,” he said. But, as Arndak refused to say anything, the pirate looked at the boy beside him. “It’s a strange treasure that’s worth more than a boy’s life,” he said.

  Ernak glared at him, then turned to his uncle.

  “Don’t tell him, Uncle,” he said fiercely and Zavac’s smile widened.

  “Uncle?” he said. “This boy is your nephew? And you have it in your power to save him. Tell me about this treasure and I swear I’ll take him with us. And I’ll set him ashore safely somewhere on the Skandian coast.”

  Arndak’s thoughts were racing. The Andomal was a great treasure. The shrine that held it was set at the top of a steep hill above the town, and it was securely guarded day and night by a rotating honor guard of six warriors, men specially chosen for their courage and prowess in battle. Only the finest warriors could aspire to guard the Andomal.

  There was only one path leading up to the shrine and it was easily defensible. A large alarm bell was in place. If the shrine was under attack, its defenders could rouse the entire town in seconds. Arndak turned his scornful gaze on the pirates who had invaded his vessel. If he and his crew could hold them at bay as long as they had done, they would have little chance against six hand-picked warriors in a perfectly constructed defensive position. He took a deep breath.

  “It’s called the Andomal … ,” he began.

  He saw the light of greed in Zavac’s eyes when he finished telling him. Of course, he left out the details of how the Andomal was protected, although he knew the pirate would expect something of the kind. He merely said that it was guarded day and night.

  Zavac sat back. He had unconsciously leaned farther and farther forward as Arndak told him about the Andomal.

  “Yes,” he said slowly. “That sounds like a great treasure indeed. It must be priceless.”

  “The Skandian Oberjarl would pay anything to have it returned if it were stolen,” Arndak said. He had no qualms about encouraging Zavac to steal the treasure. You’ll never get near it, he thought. And with any luck, one of the guards will take your thieving head off.

  Zavac stood abruptly and called to his men.

  “Get this chest on board the Raven,” he ordered. “Then sink this ship. We’ll burn the others. No sense leaving any evidence behind.”

  Two of his men seized the chest and began to lug it forward. Others leapt down into the rowing benches and began to smash holes in the hull, below the waterline.

  Zavac looked quizzically at the skirl and his nephew.

  “It’s been nice talking to you,” he said. “Although I’m sure you didn’t tell me quite everything.”

  He turned on his heel and Arndak called out to stop him.

  “Wait! Take the boy with you! You gave me your word!”

  Zavac turned back to him. There was no sign of the smile now. “So I did. But we all know that the word of a pirate is worth nothing.”

  Then he turned and left the Spraydancer, leaping nimbly across to his own ship.

  “Be brave,” Arndak told his nephew as the ship began to settle. He was proud of the boy. He held his chin high and endured the fear as he waited to die, without complaint or whimpering.

  As the water closed over them, it occurred to Arndak that there was one night in the year when the Andomal was not so securely guarded.

  But it was too late to do anything about it.

  PART 3

  THE

  BROTHERBANDS

  chapter thirteen

  Twenty-eight boys assembled outside the town in a small field set aside as a training ground. They were the boys who were turning sixteen that year and it was an unusually large number. In an average year, there might be sixteen to twenty boys selected into their brotherbands.

  The brotherbands were a unique Skandian concept, born of the fact that Skandians were traditionally seafarers. Many years ago, they had created a training system in which boys were placed in small groups to practice and learn together. Each group was called a brotherband. Its members would bond as a team while they learned tactics, weapon skills, seamanship, ship handling and navigation.

  The brotherbands replicated the concept of a ship’s crew—shipmates had to work together and trust their companions, sometimes with their lives. Quite often, boys who trained in a brotherband together would be recruited into the same ship’s crew, and would serve and work and relax together for the rest of their lives. Brotherbands formed bonds and lifelong friendships.

  And they taught their members the value of combining their varying skills to best advantage.

  Since a successful ship’s crew required a captain, or skirl, to command it, the brotherband system also developed another vital skill: leadership. Natural leaders tended to come to the fore in the bands. They were the boys with that little extra, that indefinable quality that caused the others to look to them for ideas and direction. Sometimes, at the beginning of their training, a band would elect its most popular member as leader. But popularity wasn’t always the most important part of leadership, and quite often, before the training period was over, that leader would have been replaced by someone else—someone who had shown that he had the necessary confidence and ability to command.

  Hal and Stig arrived at the assembly ground together. They were early and there were only a half dozen or so other boys already there. Most of them greeted Stig, and some nodded vaguely to Hal. He looked around nervously. Tursgud, with his band of followers, hadn’t arrived yet. Knowing Tursgud, he’d swagger up at the last possible minute, Hal thought. He rubbed his knuckles absentmindedly. After dinner with his mam the previous night, he’d headed back to the shelter where he’d hung Thorn’s sack. He’d hammered away at it for several hours, working to perfect the sequence of punches that Thorn had shown him, doing them over and over again in sequence so that they became instinctive. Finally, shoulders aching and knuckles reddened by the rough canvas, he’d called it a night, trudged back up the hill to his mam’s house and fallen into bed, exhausted.

  “Hope we’re picked in the same band,” Stig said eagerly. Hal nodded, although he doubted that it would happen. With twenty-eight boys, he suspected there would be three bands formed today. He knew that each brotherband needed at least eight members in order to be able to row the ships they were being trained on.

  Stig was shifting eagerly from one foot to the other, looking around at the other boys as they gradually drifted into the assembly area, waving and responding to their greetings. He was filled with nervous energy and anticipation. Brotherband selection was a big day in any boy’s life and he was looking forward to it. He didn’t see that Hal would have any problem being picked. Hal was smart and intelligent and inventive, he thought—and a good friend. But then, Stig was an optimist.

  Hal, on the other hand, faced the day with a certain sense of resignation. Stig was big and athletic and, perhaps most important, a Skandian. Any brotherband would welcome him as a member despite his hot temper. Whereas Hal knew he would be one of the last to be chosen. It would be embarrassing to stand waiting, while other boys’ names were called and they moved to join their bands.

  And he knew that any band who did choose him would do so reluctantly, probably resenting that they had to. He wouldn’t be surprised, he thought gloomily, if his was the las
t name to be called. And then he could look forward to three months of being mocked, insulted, ordered around and given the most boring and menial tasks to carry out.

  “What’s Erak doing here?” Stig said, breaking through his gloomy thoughts.

  Hal looked up. This was a surprise. Normally, the Oberjarl took no part in the selection of the brotherbands. From time to time he might visit the training ground and check on progress. But the first day was usually something that didn’t concern him.

  Yet here he came, striding alongside Sigurd, the former ship’s skirl who had been given the overall responsibility for training the brotherbands. Sigurd had a reputation as a hard taskmaster and a strict disciplinarian. Boys coming under his control usually did so with a distinct sense of nervousness. He was short-tempered and had no patience for those who were lazy or foolish. Yet most agreed that he was fair and didn’t play favorites.

  Sigurd and Erak were deep in conversation as they made their way through the gaggle of expectant boys to the small platform set on one side of the training ground. The boys drifted along behind them, as if drawn by some invisible force, gradually forming a loose half circle in front of the two men, three ranks deep.

  And now, of course, Tursgud and three of his close companions swaggered in, thrusting their way through to the front row, regardless of the occasional angry glances they drew. Hal, in the back row, noticed that Erak looked up and nodded a greeting to Tursgud. The boy nodded back confidently, standing with his legs braced apart, hands thrust into his belt.

  Thursgud’s father was the Maktig, of course. As his son, Hal supposed Tursgud was afforded a certain familiarity with Erak. Tursgud made no bones about the fact that he intended to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the Maktig one day. And there was every likelihood that he would.

 
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