The outcasts, p.12
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       The Outcasts, p.12

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  Jesper was a thief. He never wanted to actually keep anything. He simply couldn’t resist the challenge of picking someone’s pocket or helping himself to a purse without the owner’s noticing. On one occasion, he had actually removed a silver bracelet from a blacksmith’s wrist while he had been talking to the man. Hal had seen him do it and couldn’t believe his eyes. Of course, the moment he had the bracelet, Jesper had held it up triumphantly to return it, a broad smile on his face. The blacksmith didn’t see the joke and Jesper had to use another of his natural skills—his ability to run like the wind—to escape a dreadful fate.

  That left Hal and Stig, and an eighth boy, Edvin. Hal didn’t know him too well. He was a quiet boy who kept to himself. He was one of those people who was average at just about everything. He had average skills and athletic ability. He wasn’t good at sports. Nor was he bad. He liked reading and he had been quick to pick up the basic mathematics they had all been taught as youngsters in barneskole. But he was the type of person who would always be overlooked on occasions like this. Hal, Stig and the others might be intentionally ignored. With Edvin it was different. People just forgot he was there.

  Rollond had just chosen his tenth recruit. Now he and Tursgud looked expectantly at Erak. They had assessed the remaining eight boys and there were none among them that they wanted in their bands.

  Erak considered the situation. He ran his eye over the small gaggle of boys who remained unchosen. He could have guessed who most of them would be before the selections began.

  “Very well,” he said. “You each have ten members. And there are eight left over. Those eight will become the third brotherband selected here today. We’ll say they were selected by default,” he added with a small smile.

  “They’ll be at a disadvantage. There aren’t as many of them,” Sigurd put in.

  Erak shrugged. “We’ll either have two nines and one ten or two tens and one eight,” he replied. “So someone will always be disadvantaged. And I can’t see anyone from the selected groups volunteering to change over to even up the numbers.”

  There was an instant murmur of agreement from the two bands. Nobody wished to be switched now into what was obviously the weakest brotherband of the three.

  “I suppose you’re right,” Sigurd agreed. Then he looked at the slightly bewildered group of leftovers. They remained where they had been originally standing. Aside from the twins and Stig and Hal, they were scattered, separated by the empty spaces where the twenty chosen boys had been standing.

  “All right, move together. You’re the third brotherband. Start acting like one.”

  “You can’t do that!” It was Tursgud, of course, his voice cracking with anger as he shouted at Erak. “They weren’t selected, so they can’t be a brotherband! Send them home! You can’t do this!”

  He looked around, seeking support from the others, but there was none forthcoming. Erak beckoned him forward. Tursgud approached the massive Oberjarl warily. Erak smiled at him. It wasn’t a friendly smile.

  “Actually, I can do it,” he said, “even though my daddy isn’t the Maktig. Because I’m the Oberjarl. Understand?”

  Tursgud dropped his eyes. “Yes,” he muttered.

  “Yes, what?” Erak said very softly. Tursgud looked up again and saw a very dangerous light in the Oberjarl’s eyes.

  “Yes, Oberjarl,” he amended.

  Erak nodded, satisfied. He made a gesture for Sigurd to take over once more.

  “Very well,” the instructor said. “Now that we have that settled, you can choose the symbols for your bands. Skirl Rollond, what do you choose to call yourselves?”

  “The Wolves,” Rollond replied instantly. Each brotherband assumed an animal totem as their symbol. They would have a banner emblazoned with their choice and it would fly outside their barracks, and they would be known by that name for the training period. Rollond and Tursgud had chosen well in advance, of course, knowing they would be team skirls.

  “Tursgud?” Sigurd asked.

  Tursgud seemed to have recovered his confidence. He looked up and announced in a firm voice, “Sharks.”

  “Very well.” Sigurd looked at the remaining boys, now standing together in a loose group. Without knowing why, he assumed Hal would be their spokesman.

  “Do you have a choice?” he asked, directing the question at him.

  Hal hesitated. He’d never thought this would be a possibility so he had no answer ready. He looked at Stig, and at the others, saw their faces were equally blank. Sigurd chewed impatiently on the ends of his mustache.

  “Well, I suppose you don’t have to decide right away. You can talk it over and tell me later this—”

  “Herons!” Ingvar interrupted him and everyone turned to look at him in surprise. There was a beaming smile on his face and he nodded at his new brothers. “Herons,” he repeated, then added, “like Hal’s boat.”

  The others exchanged glances. Stefan and Edvin seemed noncommittal. But the other five all began to smile and nod agreement.

  Sigurd hesitated. Usually, teams selected fierce, warlike names. “Are you sure?”

  Hal paused, then, seeing confirmation on the faces of his companions, he replied. “Why not? We’ll be the Herons.”

  Tursgud, predictably, snorted in derision. “Herons? Herons aren’t too dangerous. Unless you’re a fish!” His friends laughed. Surprisingly, it was Edvin who replied.

  “And of course, that’s just what a shark is. A big, dumb fish.”

  The other Herons erupted in laughter, watching Tursgud flush with anger. Even a few of Rollond’s Wolves joined in. And in that moment, Hal knew that they were, in fact, a brotherband.

  chapter fifteen

  First order of business was for the brotherbands to construct their living quarters. Three cleared areas had been selected for the purpose, and each band was taken to a different clearing, where a pile of building material was waiting for them.

  Gort, the assistant instructor who led the Herons to their living area, pointed to the pile of materials.

  “Everything you need is there,” he said. “You just have to work out how to put it together. You’ve got the rest of today and tomorrow to do it. If I were you, I’d get some kind of shelter in place before evening. It’s going to rain tonight and this is where you’ll be sleeping, ready or not.”

  He turned to go, then remembered something and turned back to them.

  “Oh, and Sigurd said you’d better formally select a skirl,” he said, then made his way off through the trees. The Herons looked around at one another.

  “Well … I suppose Hal was already nominated … ,” Stefan began. And Ulf (or was it Wulf?) backed him up.

  “That’s right. And he’s our best helmsman. So, since he’ll be in control during the sailing contests, it makes sense if he’s in charge the rest of the time.”

  There was a murmur of agreement. Even those who hadn’t sailed with Hal had heard about his entry into the harbor two days ago. Surprisingly, even Wulf, or Ulf, agreed with his twin. That in itself was a rarity.

  The only person who seemed to be against the idea was Hal himself.

  “You don’t want me as your leader,” he said. “Choose someone else.”

  Stig grinned at him. “Who?” he said. “Not me, that’s for sure. I’d keep losing my temper. Look around you. Can you see anyone else suited for the job? You’re smart. You’re a thinker. That’s what we’re going to need for a leader. Particularly since we’re a few men short.”

  Again, there was a murmur of agreement from the others. But Hal shook his head reluctantly.

  “Don’t rush into this,” Hal objected. “Tursgud hates me. You all know that. If you elect me as leader, he’ll hate you as well.”

  Jesper made a disparaging gesture. “So what? He hates us anyway.”

  “That’s true,” Ingvar put in, in his deliberate, almost ponderous way. “The only person Tursgud likes is Tursgud.”

  There was a small ripple of amusement.
br />   Hal couldn’t help smiling at his big companion. “That’s very wisely put, Ingvar.”

  Ingvar nodded seriously in reply. “People often don’t notice, but I’m a very wise person at times,” he said, then spoiled the effect by adding, “when I’m not falling over my own feet.”

  “All right,” Edvin said, “are we all agreed? Hal is our skirl?”

  There was a moment of hesitation, then seven heads nodded and seven voices gave assent. Hal shook his head. He couldn’t help feeling that he’d been manipulated into this position.

  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said.

  “What do we do with this lot?” Stig asked, prodding the pile of lumber, rope and canvas with one boot. The materials were piled higgledy-piggledy: long pieces, heavy pieces, short pieces and light pieces; logs and planks were mixed haphazardly, with canvas and rope tossed among them or under them. Nobody said anything. After a few moments, Hal became aware that the others were looking at him.

  “What?” he asked. “What are you looking at me for?”

  “You’re the skirl,” Edvin said. “Take charge.”

  Hal took a deep breath. He studied the building materials for a few seconds.

  “When we’re building a boat,” he said finally, “we sort out the materials. We put similar pieces together so we can see what we’ve got.”

  “I can see what we’ve got,” Stig said. “We’ve got a mess.”

  “So what do you want us to do, Hal?” Edvin prompted him. Hal hesitated, then took the plunge. If he didn’t take charge, they’d be finished before they even started.

  “Start sorting,” he said, jerking a thumb at the wood and canvas. “Put similar pieces together so we can see what we’ve got. Then we can work out the best way to use it.”

  They went to work and, within half an hour, they had the materials sorted into neat piles. Hal strode along the line of beams, fingering his chin thoughtfully. Now that he had a specific problem to deal with, he felt more confident about issuing orders.

  “All right,” he said, after pondering for some minutes. “These eight beams will be our basic floor plan. Four long and four shorter. We’ll lay them out in a rectangle. That’ll be the shape of our barracks.”

  “Don’t we just need four?” Stefan asked, indicating a rectangle on the ground.

  “Four on the ground, to form the floor,” Edvin told him. “And four above it to form the ceiling. You’ve got to think in three dimensions.”

  “Oh … yeah,” Stefan said, nodding.

  Hal looked appraisingly at Edvin. He caught on fast, he thought.

  “These four shorter poles will be the corner posts,” he continued. “And we’ll build roof frames from the lighter timber there.”

  “What are these planks?” Stig asked. “Are they for the roof?”

  Hal appraised the timber he was referring to. His work in the boatyard had given him the ability to quickly size up a stack of timber and assess the approximate area it would cover. He shook his head.

  “Not enough of them for that,” he said. “They’ll barely cover half the area we’re setting up.”

  He dismissed the problem for the moment.

  “We’ll worry about that later. Let’s get these top and bottom frames together. We’ll notch each beam so that it fits into the others. Ulf, Jesper and I will work on the bottom frame. Wulf, Stefan and Edvin, you do the top. Stig and Ingvar, get busy digging postholes for the corner posts.”

  They started work. Hal and his two companions selected a level spot where the barracks would be built and placed their four beams—roughly trimmed pine trunks—in position, forming a rectangle approximately four meters by five. They began notching the beams where they intersected, cutting halfway through each so that when one was placed at right angles on top of the other, the notches lined up and the logs slotted together. Then they hammered hardwood spikes into the joints to hold them tightly.

  Edvin, Stefan and Wulf mirrored their actions on the top frame. The little clearing echoed to the ringing crack of axes on wood and hammers on nails, counterpointed by the dull thudding of Stig and Ingvar’s crowbars as they drove them into the soft ground to form the postholes.

  Unnoticed among the trees, Erak and Sigurd watched the busy, efficient scene. They had already observed progress at the other two sites—or rather, the lack of it.

  “Look at that,” Erak said. “He’s got them organized. He’s started them building. The other two groups are still stumbling around, wondering which end of a hammer is which.”

  Sigurd shook his head. “Who’d have thought it?”

  Erak looked sidelong at him. “I did,” he said. Then he relented, because it hadn’t been his own thought entirely. “Or rather, Thorn did. He told me that boy had something special about him. He’s a thinker and a planner—and that’s what we need.”

  “Thorn?” Sigurd said, surprised. “The drunk?” He remembered seeing Thorn stumbling around Hallasholm going from one tavern to another. It occurred to him that he hadn’t seen him doing so for some time.

  “He’s off the drink,” Erak said.

  “People like him are never really off it,” Sigurd replied.

  Erak pursed his lips. “Maybe he is. I hope so. In any event, he was right about the Araluen boy.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Let’s get back and see how Tursgud’s bunch are managing.”

  It was late afternoon. The Heron team had the basic structure for their barracks completed. The four floor frames and their matching roof beams were in place, the latter supported at their four corners by poles sunk into the postholes Stig and Ingvar had dug. They stood back to inspect their work. Hal nodded, satisfied. As the structure grew, so did his confidence. He was actually beginning to enjoy the feeling of directing the other boys in their tasks, he realized.

  “We’ll build A-frames for the roof,” he said, “and stretch canvas over them. Then we can cover the canvas with pine branches. That should keep it pretty waterproof.”

  “What about the walls?” Jesper asked. “There doesn’t seem to be enough timber for them.”

  “More canvas. We’ve got plenty of that. In effect, we’re building a big, timber-framed tent.”

  Stig glanced toward the east, where a mass of cloud had gathered and was roiling toward them, its shape changing constantly as it was driven by the winds.

  “We’d better get a move on with the roof,” he said. “It’ll be raining in an hour.”

  Hal followed his line of sight and saw that he was correct, saw too that there would be no time to build the sort of structure he had in mind.

  “We’ll have to rig something temporary,” he said. He thought for a moment, then the image of the Heron sprang to mind, with the tarpaulin rigged along its hull to keep rain out. “We’ll set up a ridge pole and stretch canvas over it. The rain will pool in it, but most of it should run off. Just don’t anybody touch it where the canvas sags.”

  If that happened, he knew, the water would immediately run through the canvas, flooding the interior.

  “Stig, Ingvar, Edvin and I will take care of the roof,” he said. “Ulf and Wulf, dig a drainage trench around the outside to keep the groundwater running away.” He glanced around, wondering if he’d left anything out, and suddenly realized the purpose of the planks Stig had asked about earlier. He pointed to them now.

  “They’re floorboards,” he said. “Jesper and Stefan: start nailing them to a couple of beams so they’re off the ground.”

  “You said they won’t cover the entire area,” Stefan pointed out.

  Hal nodded. “I know. But they’ll make a raised sleeping platform big enough to keep us off the ground.”

  Stefan nodded. “Good thinking,” he said. “That must be why we made you the boss.”

  “I thought it was my good looks and sparkling personality,” Hal said.

  Ingvar, who had been listening, shook his head very deliberately. “No. That was definitely not the reason,” he said.

  Stefan and Stig grinned. Hal bowed slightly in Ingvar’s direction.

  “Thanks for pointing that out, Ingvar.” He noticed that Ulf and Wulf had selected two shovels. The tools were identical but that didn’t stop them quarreling over the selection. Ulf wanted the one Wulf had, and vice versa. Hal walked over to them and said, very quietly, “Why don’t you just swap?”

  That stopped the argument in its tracks. The two twins looked at him, startled, then at each other. Then, with very bad grace, Ulf snatched the shovel from Wulf’s hand and thrust the other shovel at him. Wulf took it, glared at it suspiciously, then nodded with very bad grace.

  “Start at the back,” Hal ordered them. “Dig the trench about a meter from the tent. And work in opposite directions so you meet up again at the front.” He glanced at Stig and said in a lower voice, “That should keep them apart for at least an hour.”

  Stig grinned. “And that’s the real reason we elected you leader. Nobody else can handle those two.”

  In fact, it was just over forty minutes when the work was finished. Jesper and Stefan had completed the sleeping platform and joined the others in stretching the canvas over the ridgepole and around the sides. There was only enough to cover three sides of the structure, so they left the front open. They could fill it in later with logs or pine branches, Hal thought.

  The rain was starting to fall as they finished their work. A few minutes later, Ulf and Wulf met at the front of the building and the bickering began once more. Sighing, Hal went to see what was the trouble this time. The others grinned and followed him.

  “What’s the problem?” he said. Ulf, or perhaps it was Wulf, pointed contemptuously at his brother’s trench.

  “Ulf’s trench is too shallow. Mine is much deeper. It’ll hold more water,” he said.

  Hal made a mental note that it was Wulf speaking, not Ulf. Or perhaps not. The two twins had been known to swap identities in the past, just to confuse people. They seemed to enjoy that almost as much as arguing with each other.

  “But mine is wider than his,” Ulf replied.

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