The outcasts, p.11
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       The Outcasts, p.11

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  Still, as Stig had observed on more than one occasion, perhaps he could wait till he is the Maktig before he starts putting on airs.

  Erak said a few more quiet words to Sigurd, then stepped back, leaving the platform to the grizzled old seafarer. On an impulse, Hal turned round and studied the trees a hundred meters away. Brotherband selection was a more or less private event and spectators were discouraged. But some sixth sense told him they were being watched. Sure enough, standing under a clump of half-grown conifers, he could see the ragged figure of Thorn. He’d had a suspicion that the man might show up to watch.

  His attention was drawn back to the front as Sigurd cleared his throat noisily.

  “All right! All right! Settle down and pay attention!” he called.

  There was really no need for either instruction. The twenty-eight boys had been waiting since he arrived for proceedings to commence. He already had their attention and they were already settled down. But the half circle of boys unconsciously shuffled closer to the platform where Sigurd was standing.

  “Everybody here?” He looked up, casting his gaze around them. A few boys looked at those on either side of them, as if to make sure that they were, in fact, present.

  “Sing out if you’re not here,” he commanded and a nervous laugh ran through the group. They thought it might be a good idea to laugh at any joke Sigurd might crack. They were all in awe of him and nervous that for the next few months they would be subject to his discipline. People in authority, they knew, liked it when their jokes were appreciated, even if the jokes were a little feeble.

  “All right, let’s get under way,” Sigurd said crisply, after studying them for a few seconds.

  Hal was surprised. He had half expected that some kind of roll might be called, to determine if anyone was missing. He didn’t realize that Sigurd, in the past few seconds, had quickly done a head count and ascertained that the correct number of nervous boys was standing in front of him. Sigurd had been doing this job for years. He could do a head count like that in seconds.

  “Today,” Sigurd began, “you’re going to be selected into your brotherbands.” He paused, then added, “That’s in case any of you thought this was the Hallasholm Ladies’ Needlework Society. If so, you may leave now.”

  Again, a nervous ripple of laughter went through the assembled boys.

  “First thing we do is select brotherband leaders. Any nominations?”

  Predictably, one of Tursgud’s followers, standing on his right side, called out Tursgud’s name. Sigurd nodded. Like everyone else, he wasn’t surprised.

  “Tursgud. Seconder?” he demanded.

  “Second!” the person standing on the other side of Tursgud called out.

  Sigurd had a board with several sheets of parchment clipped to it in his left hand. He made a note on it and glanced up at Tursgud.

  “All right. Proposed and seconded. Congratulations, Tursgud.”

  Tursgud shrugged. The matter had never been in doubt, after all. Congratulations seemed unnecessary.

  “Anyone else?” Sigurd looked around the group.

  “Rollond!” called a voice. A few heads craned to see who had called out, but most of those present weren’t surprised at the nomination. Rollond was a popular figure among the age group. He was the son of a successful and well-known wolfship captain. He was an excellent athlete and had quite a reputation as a wrestler. Unlike Tursgud, however, he had no pretensions about his own importance. He’d make a good brotherband skirl, Hal thought. He found himself hoping that Rollond would select him for his band. He and Rollond were by no means friends, but at least there was no animosity between them.

  “Second!” he called, before Sigurd had time to ask for a seconder. A few people looked around, surprised that he had spoken. Rollond, who was at the end of the second rank, turned to see who had seconded his nomination. He hadn’t recognized the voice and he’d expected the call to come from one of his close friends. He frowned, then nodded acknowledgment as he realized it had been Hal.

  “All right. Rollond. Who else?” Sigurd looked around the group of boys but there was a reluctance among them now. Everyone knew that any further captain elected would be competing with Rollond and Tursgud—and their respective groups of friends. The brotherbands competed against one another through the training period and there was a lot of prestige involved in being part of the winning band. On the other hand, there was a lot of embarrassment about being the losers. It was a stigma that could cling to you for years to come. Most of the boys present would rather be a member of a winning band—with Tursgud or Rollond as the captain—than captain of their own losing one. Inevitably, the group’s failure would be attributed to its leader.

  Sigurd cast his glance over them impatiently. “Come on. With these numbers, we really need three teams. Anyone else?”

  But there was no reply. Then, impulsively, Stig put his hand up. “Hal!” he yelled.

  Beside him, Hal closed his eyes and cursed silently.

  chapter fourteen

  Sigurd turned to see who had spoken. Stig was obscured by the boys in front of him and he leaned to one side.

  “Hal!” he repeated. Some of the other boys sniggered. Stig’s face began to redden.

  “Shut up!” Hal whispered ferociously to his friend. He didn’t need this sort of embarrassment. He didn’t want any attention drawn to him, today of all days.

  “Hal who?” Sigurd asked, genuinely puzzled. The sniggering now swelled into laughter.

  Stig’s face grew redder. “Hal Mikkelson!” he shouted defiantly.

  From his position in the front rank, Tursgud turned to face him, shaking his head in disbelief and mock pity.

  “You can’t be serious,” he said. “You’re not seriously proposing ‘Hal Who’ as a team skirl, are you?”

  The laughter grew more widespread and Stig’s neck and face grew even redder as his anger approached boiling point. He glared at the boys around him.

  “What’s the big joke?” he demanded.

  “I’d say ‘Hal Who’ is the joke, wouldn’t you?” Tursgud said, in an intentionally audible aside to one of his friends.

  Hal, eyes down, unwilling to meet anyone’s gaze, jabbed his elbow into Stig’s ribs.

  “Shut up!” he pleaded. “Just let it go and shut up!”

  But Stig wouldn’t be silenced. He was incensed for his friend, and also enraged that people were laughing at him. His hands bunched into fists and he glared around the circle of grinning faces.

  “Go on!” he threatened. “Keep laughing and I’ll bash your heads in!”

  It was a mistake. Taken individually, most of those present would have been wary about raising Stig’s anger. He would make a formidable opponent. But he hadn’t challenged an individual. He’d challenged the group, and they reacted as a group.

  “Ooooooooh!” they all chorused mockingly. Stig swung from side to side, like a tormented bear. As his gaze lit on those boys near him, they quickly composed themselves and hid their grins. He lunged toward one who was a little slow wiping the grin from his face.

  “Right!” he yelled, drawing back his fist. “Laugh this off!”

  “THAT’S ENOUGH!”

  Sigurd’s voice, trained over the years to carry orders to his crew above the roar of a Stormwhite gale, brought Stig up short. He stopped, fist still poised, looking uncertainly at the furious instructor.

  “What the blue blithering blazes do you think this is? We’re not in barneskole here! We’re not a bunch of squabbling children! This is brotherband! This is where you’re supposed to learn to act like men! Like men! Understand?”

  Stig hung his head. His face was still red, but now it was with shame more than anger. Slowly, he lowered the raised fist.

  “Sorry, sir,” he muttered.

  Beside him, Hal hissed at him. “For pity’s sake, Stig!”

  “One more outburst like that,” Sigurd warned him, “and you’ll be kicked out on your ear! And I’ll be happy to do th
e kicking! Do you understand?”

  “Yes, sir,” Stig said in a low voice. He was totally mortified—and terrified at the prospect of being expelled from brotherband training.

  “I CAN’T HEAR YOU!” Sigurd bellowed, so loud that the boys nearest him involuntarily stepped back a pace.

  “Yes, sir! Sorry, sir!” Stig said in a louder tone, his eyes still cast down in shame.

  Sigurd regarded him for several seconds, then glanced down at his sheet of notes.

  “All right. We have a nomination for Hal Mikkelson as our third skirl. Anyone care to second?”

  “Are you kidding?” It was Tursgud who spoke, and he followed the question with a short laugh. Again, a few around him sniggered, cutting themselves off quickly as Sigurd’s angry gaze swept over them. Tursgud, however, remained defiant, smiling at the instructor.

  “You find it amusing, do you?” Sigurd challenged. Tursgud shrugged, unfazed by the question.

  “It just doesn’t make sense, sir,” he said. “He’s the son of a slave. He’s not even Skandian. He’s Araluen.”

  A few others, emboldened by his stance, muttered agreement.

  Sigurd glared at them. “Karina Mikkelswife is a free woman,” he told them in a cold voice. “And her late husband was a Skandian. He was also a good friend of mine. Bear that in mind when you talk about her. And her son.” He glanced back at his notes and a voice, clearly audible, came from the crowd.

  “The mongrel.”

  Sigurd’s eyes snapped back up, glaring in the direction from which the unidentified voice had come.

  “Who said that?” he demanded. But there was no reply and long seconds passed as he glared at the boys in front of him. Then, realizing he was getting nowhere, he said once more, “Hal Mikkelson has been nominated. Is there a second?”

  As if there will be after all that, Hal thought bitterly. He looked at his friend, tight lipped. He knew Stig had meant well. But Hal wished he’d kept his big mouth shut. He had no wish to be the leader of a brotherband. Aside from that one brief moment of glory when he brought the Heron into harbor, he spent most of his time avoiding drawing attention to himself.

  Sigurd’s question met with an ongoing silence. Finally, he accepted the inevitable. He struck a line through Hal’s name on his notes.

  “All right. Other nominations. Anyone?”

  Silence. Nobody was willing to draw attention to themselves. Sigurd tapped his foot impatiently as he looked from one face to another. Many of them, he noticed, wouldn’t meet his gaze. Tursgud did, of course, but he was an arrogant piece of work. And Rollond held his gaze too. Sigurd noted with interest that Hal was one of the few others who did.

  “Come on,” he prompted. “We need another skirl. You can nominate yourself if you want to.”

  But nobody was willing to risk it. He looked around and shrugged at Erak. The Oberjarl stepped forward.

  “All right,” he said to Sigurd, “we’ll start with the two skirls we’ve got and see how we’re doing by the time we’re down to the last nine or ten.”

  Sigurd nodded agreement. Anything to break this impasse. Not for the first time, he found himself wondering why he’d ever let himself be talked into doing this job.

  “We’ll do it that way then,” he said. “Tursgud. You’re over there.” He indicated a spot to his left. “Rollond, over here.”

  The two selected brotherband skirls moved forward and took up their positions. Sigurd produced a five-kroner coin.

  “We’ll toss for first pick, then take it turn and turn about. You call it, Rollond,” he said. He’d heard enough from Tursgud for a while, he thought as he spun the coin in the air, then caught it, slapping it down on the back of his left fist.

  “Axes or bones?” he asked Rollond. The tall boy shrugged slightly. There wasn’t any great advantage in going first. He would make his first choices from his immediate circle of friends, and he knew Tursgud would do the same.

  “Bones,” he said.

  Sigurd uncovered the coin and glanced briefly at it. “It’s axes,” he said. “Your first pick then, Tursgud.”

  Tursgud grinned, stepped forward a pace and nodded at one of his friends.

  “Knut,” he said. “Come and join the winning band.”

  “Just the names. Never mind the blather,” Sigurd said. His curt tone hinted at the fact that Tursgud had said enough for one day. Tursgud glanced at him, surprised. He wasn’t used to being corrected in public.

  “Dell,” Rollond said crisply and one of his friends grinned and stepped forward to join him.

  And so it began. At first, the selections were fast, as the two young skirls chose their own close circle of friends. But, as the line beside each of them grew, the choices became more considered. Tursgud had selected eight men and Rollond seven when Rollond looked around the diminishing group of boys in front of him. He went to call a name, then changed his mind.

  “Stig.”

  Stig, who had been looking down at his shoes, still embarrassed by the earlier confrontation with Sigurd, jerked his head up. He reddened and hesitated, looking at Tursgud. Instinctively, he knew that if Rollond chose him, Tursgud would choose Hal, just to split them up and get his revenge on them.

  Stig hesitated. Rollond frowned at him and gestured to him.

  “Come on,” he said impatiently.

  But still Stig stood his ground. “It’s just … I sort of want to be with Hal,” he said, indicating his friend beside him. “Are you going to choose him too?”

  Rollond shrugged. He wasn’t having someone else dictate his choices for him.

  “I don’t know. I might. Or I might not. But I have chosen you, so get up here.”

  Stig shifted his feet nervously. He was racked with uncertainty. But there was one avenue open to him.

  “I pass,” he said. The rules of brotherband selection allowed each boy one refusal. There was a low murmur among the group. People rarely passed, even if they did have the right to do so.

  “You idiot,” Hal muttered at him. Stig’s jaw was set in a stubborn line. He didn’t know how to solve the quandary of being separated from Hal but at least he’d postponed it. Rollond considered him for a few seconds. He was annoyed at Stig’s refusal. Stig was definitely the best choice out of those who were left. He made eye contact with Stig now and shook his head briefly. The message was clear: I won’t call on you again.

  “Still your pick,” Sigurd prompted Rollond. The boy looked briefly at the remaining choices.

  “Anton,” he said. Anton, who had been dreading being picked in Tursgud’s group, smiled with relief and hurried to join Rollond before he could change his mind.

  “Go ahead, Tursgud,” Sigurd ordered.

  Tursgud hesitated a second, then a broad grin crept over his face. Hal, watching him, knew what he was going to say.

  “I pick ‘Hal Who,’” he said. His close friends, grouped around him, grinned and nudged one another. They could see months ahead of them when they could torment and bully Hal.

  “No! That’s not happening!”

  Erak’s voice boomed across the field. He stepped forward to join Sigurd again and pointed a finger at the surprised Tursgud.

  “This is brotherband selection, not an excuse for you to indulge your petty disputes!” he said. “There’s bad blood between you and Hal. You’re not going to use your position as skirl to get revenge. That’s not what the brotherband system is about.”

  Tursgud threw his hands wide and looked around, feigning surprise.

  “That was never my intention!” he said indignantly. “And I resent you implying it!”

  Erak stepped closer to him. Tursgud was big and muscular. Yet Erak dwarfed him.

  “Don’t try playing patty-cake with me, sonny. I resent you thinking I’m too stupid to see what you have in mind.”

  Tursgud was furious. He was definitely not accustomed to being treated this way.

  “My father—” he began, but Erak cut him off.

  “Yes, yes
. We’re all aware that he’s the Maktig. Gorlog’s breath, you’ve told us often enough! Now shut up about it and get on and choose.”

  Their eyes locked for a few seconds. Then Tursgud’s eyes dropped.

  “All right,” he said bitterly, and Erak turned away to resume his former position. “I choose—”

  Erak turned back suddenly. “Not Stig either! Same reason.”

  Tursgud paused, mouth open. Erak had forestalled his plan. He had been about to call Stig’s name. Now Rollond stepped forward.

  “Then we have a problem, Oberjarl,” he said angrily. “Because I’m not choosing Stig again. He’s already turned me down and I don’t want him.”

  Erak took a deep breath. He was very obviously losing patience.

  “Your objection is noted,” he said, in very precise tones. “I said at the beginning, we’ll see how things stand when you both have ten men chosen. Now get on with it! You!” He jerked a thumb at Tursgud. “Choose!”

  So the selections went on as Rollond and Tursgud chose their remaining brotherband members. Hal looked around at the dwindling group of those who were not chosen. As he’d half expected, Ulf and Wulf were still unchosen, and their angry scowls made it a good bet that they would remain that way. Ingvar had spent the selection process smiling hopefully and looking myopically around as others were chosen ahead of him. With each choice, he remained hopeful.

  Stefan and Jesper had also not been chosen.

  Stefan was a clown. That could have made him popular, but he usually used his dagger-sharp wit to make fun of others. Although, now that Hal thought about it, he realized that Stefan never chose anybody weaker than himself as the butt of his jokes. He seemed to delight in puncturing the egos of those who had too high an opinion of themselves—Tursgud was a favorite target, as was the Oberjarl’s hilfmann, Borsa, another person who had a firm belief in his own importance in the world.

  In addition to his quick wit, Stefan was an expert mimic. He could impersonate anyone in Hallasholm, usually to their detriment. If you weren’t looking, you would never be sure whether it was Stefan or the actual person who was talking.

 

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