The outcasts, p.13
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       The Outcasts, p.13

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “Yours should be deeper,” said the other. Hal gave up trying to differentiate them. He’d taken his eyes off them as he studied the two trenches and he suspected they might have changed places.

  “Yours should be wider,” one brother insisted vehemently.

  “Deeper is better.”

  “Only if you’re a numbskull.”

  “Numbskull yourself! Want me to numb your skull with this shovel?”

  “Want to try it?”

  “You dare me to?”

  “You want me to?”

  “Go ahead.”

  “No. You go ahead!”

  “No. You go—”

  “Oh, for pity’s sake, will you SHUT UP!” Hal could stand it no longer. The two brothers stopped in surprise. He shoved his way between them, pointed at one and said, “You! Which is your trench?”

  “The good one,” the twin replied. Then, seeing a very dangerous light in Hal’s eye, he added, “The deep one.”

  “And why is a deep trench better?” Hal asked.

  The twin shrugged and smiled at such an easy question. “ ’Cause it’ll hold more water.”

  His tone implied that Hal should have known that. It was obvious, after all. His brother sniffed in contempt. Hal rounded on him.

  “What’s so good about a wider trench?” he demanded.

  The second twin mirrored his brother’s shrug. They even move the same way, Hal thought.

  “Because if it’s wider, it’ll hold more water,” the twin said.

  “So,” said Hal, forcing himself to be calm, “a deeper one holds more water …” He looked to Twin Number One for confirmation. Twin Number One nodded.

  “And a wider one will hold more water?” This time, he sought agreement from Number Two. Another nod. Finally, Hal abandoned the enforced calm.

  “You blasted, blithering idiots, one’s wider, one’s deeper—so they’ll both hold THE SAME AMOUNT!”

  The two brothers stood, quite taken aback. They frowned, their lips moving in silence as they considered what Hal had said.

  “That’s right,” said one. “I didn’t think of that.”

  “Neither did I,” said the other. Then he added quickly, “Although I’m sure I would have.”

  “I would have too!” his brother insisted immediately.

  “Oh, you say so now—”

  “STOP!” Hal yelled at them. “STOP! STOP! STOP!” Once more, they fell silent. He pointed at the nearest twin.

  “You! What’s your name?”

  “Why it’s Wulf, of course. Everyone knows that.”

  Hal glared at him balefully. He kept his eyes fixed on Wulf, in case he and his brother decided to switch places once more, and called to Stig.

  “Stig, fetch me a short piece of rope, would you?”

  “You going to tie him up?” Stig asked, grinning.

  “Why not hang him?” Ulf said.

  Hal, his eyes still fixed on Wulf, snapped his fingers at Stig. “Get me the rope. Light cord. Half a meter or less.”

  When Stig obliged, Hal stepped forward and knotted the rope around Wulf’s wrist, cutting off the excess with his knife.

  “There. Now we all know who’s who,” he said. “Wulf has a wope on his wist.”

  “That’s a little childish, isn’t it?” Edvin asked.

  Hal glared at him. “Can you think of a better way of remembering?”

  Stig’s grin was wider than ever now. “Don’t you mean ‘wemem-bering’?”

  “No. I don’t,” Hal said very deliberately, then he asked Edvin again. “Well, can you?”

  “Um … as a matter of fact, I can’t,” Edvin admitted.

  “Good. Then until you can, keep your criticism to yourself.”

  Edvin made a conciliatory gesture.

  “So now,” Hal continued, “I’m going to get out of the rain.” He shook his head at the twins once more. “It’s probably going to be a long night. At least it’ll be a dry one.”

  He went into the tent. The others followed until only the twins were left outside in the rain, which was still light, but was getting heavier with each passing minute. Slowly, trickles of water began to flow down the two trenches, meeting at the front where the twins had dug a release trench.

  Wulf looked after Hal and grinned at his brother.

  “He’s quite smart, isn’t he?” he said.

  Ulf nodded. “He is indeed. A real thinker. Not as smart as us, though.”

  “No,” said Wulf. He unknotted the cord around his wrist and tied it on his brother’s wrist instead.

  chapter sixteen

  The following morning, the Herons were roused from their blankets by Gort, who was banging a hardwood stick on an old barrel hoop, just inside the entrance of the tent. The clanging note of the iron hoop rang in their ears as they rolled out of their blankets, alarmed by the sudden cacophony.

  “Out of bed! Come on! On your feet! Ten minutes to wash and dress! Then get yourselves to the training ground!”

  The boys, still befuddled with sleep, searched blearily for shoes and breeches, reluctant to leave the warmth of their bedding. Gort glanced around the interior of their tent, impressed.

  “This is pretty good,” he said. “You slept a lot drier than the other teams.”

  “It leaked a bit,” Hal told him, pointing to a few places where the rain had forced its way through the canvas. “But we’ll sort that out this morning.”

  Gort was shaking his head. “No, you won’t. You’ve got other things to do this morning. Now get a move on if you don’t want to miss breakfast.”

  Edvin was frowning at the instructor as he balanced on one leg, pulling on his breeches.

  “But you said we had yesterday and today to build our quarters,” he protested.

  Gort smiled at him. “Did I? I must have been lying.” Then the smile disappeared. “NOW GET MOVING!”

  Startled, Edvin and the others hurried to the creek to wash, then finish dressing. Then, still under Gort’s command, they double-timed to the training ground where they had assembled for team selection the previous day. There was now a large open-sided tent set up as a dining area, with three trestle tables and benches—one for each of the three brotherbands. The Herons were the first to arrive and helped themselves to the fresh bread, hot bacon and fried eggs, tea and coffee.

  The hot food and drink revived their spirits considerably and they watched cheerfully as the other bands straggled in, damp and stiff from sleeping on the wet ground. The new arrivals glared balefully at the Herons, who smiled back at them and raised coffee mugs in a mock salute.

  Tursgud was one of the last to arrive. He looked to be in a bad temper, and was rubbing at a stiff spot in his back.

  “Hey there, Tursgud!” Stefan greeted him. “Look who’s here before you? Hal Who and Hal Who’s Herons, that’s who!”

  The other Herons laughed, and even one or two of the Wolf brotherband chuckled at Stefan’s play on words. Tursgud pointed a threatening finger at Stefan.

  “Keep it up, joker!” he said. “I’ll settle your bacon one of these days!”

  Which was an unfortunate expression to choose, because, as Tursgud reached the serving table, he found that the bacon was finished, the early arrivals having taken it all. He scowled around the tent, then ordered two of his team to share their bacon with him. Reluctantly, they complied.

  Watching this byplay, Hal frowned thoughtfully. That sort of bullying wouldn’t do a lot for the Sharks’ team spirit, he thought. Tursgud might have been better to wait. Surely one of his team would have offered to share with him. He was unpopular with the members of the Heron brotherband, because he’d spent years bullying them and making fun of them. But his own followers seemed to like him well enough.

  Or did they, Hal wondered.

  Stefan, meanwhile, was patting his stomach contentedly.

  “Mmmm, my bacon has settled quite nicely, I think,” he said to nobody in particular. The others laughed and Tursgud shot him a malevolent
glance from the next table.

  Hal leaned forward, seeing Stefan was casting around for another witticism at Tursgud’s expense.

  “Let it go, Stefan,” he said quietly.

  Stefan looked at him in surprise. Of all of them, Hal had the most reason to dislike Tursgud. In fact, Stefan was throwing these verbal barbs at the bigger boy on Hal’s behalf. He admired the half-Araluen boy. He had been impressed by the leadership and decisiveness Hal had shown the previous day—not to mention the way he had dealt with Ulf and Wulf. He felt the Herons had done well to have him for a leader.

  “We’ve got a long three months ahead of us,” Hal explained. “No sense in poking the shark unnecessarily.”

  “No,” Stig agreed, then smiled. “After all, we’ll find plenty of necessary ways to poke him.”

  Sigurd, seeing that the Herons were first to finish their breakfast and had cleared their plates and cutlery, dropping them into a copper cauldron filled with hot water, beckoned them to gather around him.

  “Hal, I believe you’ve been officially elected skirl. Is that right?”

  Hal nodded. Sigurd looked at the rest of the band.

  “Good choice,” he said, to Hal’s surprise. Hal had no idea that Erak and Sigurd had watched him supervising the building of their barracks tent the day before. But he didn’t have further time to reflect on it. Sigurd handed him a bundle of parchment sheets.

  “These are the tasks you’ll be ordered to undertake over the next two months. They’re not in order. You’ll only know on the day what task you have to perform, so you have to be constantly ready for any one of them. Teams must compete in every event. Any team that doesn’t is disqualified. Clear?”

  The boys nodded. There was no more joking now. Stig and Edvin, standing close to Hal, craned over his shoulder, trying to read the list of tests they would be set. Sigurd claimed their attention again.

  “You can read them later!” he snapped. “There’s no set schedule for these tests. We might ask you to do one tomorrow, or next week. Or the week after. We might ask you to do tasks two days running, then nothing for several weeks. In between, we’ll be assessing your skills and teaching you more of them. You might care to know, however, that you’ve already had your first test.”

  He paused and it was Hal who asked the obvious question, although he thought he knew the answer.

  “What was that, Sigurd?”

  “Getting your living quarters organized,” the instructor told them. “You’ve already got points on the board for that. You did the best job of the three bands.”

  The Herons murmured with pleasure.

  Stig glanced at his friend. “Good work, Hal.”

  Hal shrugged. “Long way to go yet, Stig.”

  Sigurd noted the exchange. Erak could be right about this boy, he thought. Erak was usually right. He cleared his throat and got their attention once more.

  “Head back and tidy your living quarters. Then get your kit together. We’ll be assessing your skills today so be back here with any weapons you already have in twenty minutes.”

  The band hurriedly filed out of the mess tent. As they left, Hal could hear Sigurd addressing the other groups, who were cramming the last of their breakfast into their mouths.

  “Hurry up. You’ve got two minutes left. Then come to me for your list of assessments. And by the way, do yourselves a favor and take a look at the quarters the Herons have built. You’d be wise to copy their design. They’ve already won assessment points for it.”

  That’ll put a smile on Tursgud’s face, Hal thought. He made a mental note to talk to Stefan and ask him to put a rein on his tongue. The boy’s constant needling of Tursgud could only make life more difficult.

  When their living quarters were spick-and-span, with bedding rolled and personal equipment and clothing neatly stacked in each sleeping space, Hal made a quick inspection. He found Ingvar’s bedding was unevenly rolled, so that it spilled out one end like a half-cooked sausage. His personal items were stacked any which way. He beckoned to Edvin.

  “Can you give Ingvar a hand? Show him how to roll the bedding evenly and get his kit into shape.” Edvin nodded and Hal called to Ingvar. “Ingvar! This won’t do! It looks like a dog’s breakfast. Pay attention to Edvin and get this tidied up.”

  “Yes, skirl,” Ingvar said sheepishly. He lumbered over and bent his head as Edvin showed him how to fold his bedding instead of bundling it into an unmanageable roll. Similarly, Edvin stacked his personal items, with the largest on the bottom, explaining to Ingvar that this was the most efficient way to do it. Hal watched as Ingvar listened, nodding his head from time to time. Like a lot of big people, he did tend to be clumsy, and his poor eyesight added to the problem. But Hal had noticed that Ingvar had a good heart. Another boy might have resented being told what to do by someone almost half his size. But Ingvar actually seemed to appreciate the fact that Edvin wasn’t criticizing him so much as helping him.

  Edvin let him study the job he’d done, then unrolled the bedding and gestured to it.

  “Now you try it again,” he said. “And don’t try to roll it so tightly.”

  This time, Ingvar made a better job of it. The result wasn’t as neat and symmetrical as Edvin’s, but it was a big improvement. Edvin caught Hal’s eye and raised his eyebrows in a question.

  Hal nodded briefly. “That’ll do.”

  Edvin slapped Ingvar on his massive shoulder. “Nice work,” he said. “I’ll check you again tomorrow, to make sure you’ve got the hang of it.”

  “Thanks, Edvin,” the young giant said. He was beaming with satisfaction. It occurred to Hal that nobody had ever praised Ingvar in the past. All he had ever received was criticism. Hal filed that thought away.

  “You heard Sigurd,” he called to the others. “If anyone has personal weapons, collect them and bring them along. Then form up here in two files.”

  Stefan hesitated. “Is that really necessary?” he asked.

  “Possibly not,” Hal said. “But we’re a brotherband. That means we’re a team. It’s time we started acting as a team. All right?”

  “All right,” Stefan replied.

  Hal watched him for a few seconds. He still wasn’t totally at ease giving orders. But Stefan seemed to accept his reasoning. With a faint sense of relief, Hal entered the tent and retrieved his crossbow from beside his folded bedroll.

  The crossbow had been a present from Thorn the previous year. The one-armed sailor, like all sea wolves, had a cache of money, jewels, weapons and assorted items that he had “liberated,” as the saying was, in his career as a raider. Mind you, his stash wasn’t as large as it used to be. In his lost years, Thorn had begun selling his plunder for ridiculously low prices in order to buy ale and brandy. Erak had eventually stepped in and confiscated what was left, ensuring that Thorn didn’t lose it all.

  Thorn had taken the crossbow during a raid in Gallica many years ago. He had given it to Hal for his fifteenth birthday. The boy had been delighted. His mother was less so, but no mother was ever enthusiastic when someone gave her son a weapon capable of shooting a missile over two hundred meters.

  At first delighted, Hal quickly saw a few faults in the crossbow’s basic design and went to work to correct them. The body of the weapon, for example, was a piece of timber in one straight line. That made it difficult to line up. The shooter’s eye line was always slightly above the line the bolt would take. He kept the trigger mechanism and discarded the stock, replacing it with one of his own design, shaped so that the shoulder piece sloped down from the body of the bow, bringing the aiming line up level with his eye. He carved the butt of the new stock in a curve so that it nestled firmly into his shoulder. Then he worked on the triggering mechanism as well. It was roughly formed and stiff. He filed it and oiled it so that the action was smooth and the release easy.

  Then, after trying the weapon out, he added one more important modification.

  At first, he had been nervous about showing the changes to Thorn.
He worried that the shabby odd-job man might be insulted by the fact that Hal wasn’t satisfied with the crossbow as it stood. But Thorn had been delighted, patting him on the shoulder.

  “Trust you to come up with a way to improve it!” he’d said. “I might have known.”

  The other boys were ready now. They had a variety of weapons they had brought. They all wore saxe knives, the long, heavy knives that could be used as a weapon as well as for everyday tasks. In addition, Jesper had a small hunting bow, although it was a low-powered, short-range weapon compared to the crossbow. The twins had throwing spears and Stig had an ax. It had belonged to his father as a boy. It wasn’t a full-size war ax—such a weapon would be too heavy, even for Stig’s muscles—but it was a substantial weapon nonetheless. Stefan and Edvin had no weapons of their own.

  Ingvar’s family didn’t have the money to buy him a weapon. Instead, he had fashioned a huge club from a branch of oak. It was a simple weapon but with Ingvar’s massive strength behind it, it would be devastating. Hal put out a hand to look at it.

  “May I see?” he said and Ingvar handed it over. Hal was deceived by the ease with which Ingvar handled the weapon and he nearly dropped it when he felt the enormous weight. But he recovered, and swung it with two hands. For such a simple weapon, it was surprisingly well balanced, he thought. He handed it back.

  “All right, form up in two ranks. Stig, call the step. Double-time to the training ground.”

  This time, nobody asked whether it was really necessary. Hal took the front left-hand rank, with Jesper by his side. The others formed up behind them, with Stig at the rear, calling the step. They jogged through the trees to the training ground.

  They had lost a little time when Edvin was showing Ingvar how to fold his kit and the other bands were already there. They looked up at the compact group of boys as they jogged in step onto the training ground, coming to a halt together as Stig called the order. It looked impressive. Tursgud sneered but Rollond was slightly annoyed that he hadn’t thought to bring his team here like that. They had simply ambled to the training field like a mob of cattle, in no fixed formation.

  “In future,” he told his second in command, “that’s how we do it too.”

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