The outcasts, p.14
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       The Outcasts, p.14

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  chapter seventeen

  There were three assistant instructors working under

  Sigurd. Their names were Gort, Jarst and Viggo and each of them was responsible for one of the brotherbands. Gort was assigned to the Herons and he approached them now, eyeing them off as they stood in their two ranks, facing him.

  “Very pretty,” he said, with a note of sarcasm in his voice. “But there are no marks for being pretty, if that’s what you had in mind.” He glanced at Hal. “Was that what you had in mind?”

  “No, sir,” Hal answered, standing to attention. “We just thought it would be better if we all arrived together.”

  “Hmmmphh,” Gort muttered. In fact, he and the other instructors had been impressed with the Herons’ disciplined arrival. But he wasn’t going to let them know that. He glanced along the line of them now, looking at the motley collection of weapons they carried.

  “We’ll be assigning you weapons for training purposes, of course,” he told them. “But let’s see what you’ve got already.”

  He walked down the line, studying the weapons, and stopped when he saw Jesper’s bow. He held out a hand and Jesper passed it to him. Gort flexed the bow several times, then grunted.

  “All right for hunting small game,” he said. “Not much use in a battle. There’s no power there.”

  He passed the bow back and moved on, stopping again when he noticed the huge club that Ingvar had grounded beside him.

  “Good grief,” he exclaimed. “That’s nearly a tree! Let’s see what you can do with it.”

  Ingvar peered at him, blinking rapidly, not sure what was expected of him.

  “Sir?” he asked.

  Gort beckoned him impatiently. “Step forward and let’s see you swing that thing. If you can,” he added doubtfully.

  Ingvar nodded and blinked several times. He stepped forward, stumbling over his own feet and lurching awkwardly until Ulf caught his elbow and steadied him. He smiled apologetically at Gort, who raised his eyes to heaven. Thankfully, the expression was lost on Ingvar, who could see only a vague blur where the instructor was standing.

  “Well, come on then!” Gort snapped.

  Ingvar blinked in his direction. “Sir?”

  “Let’s have you! Take a swing!”

  Now in fairness to Ingvar, the command “Take a swing” could be interpreted as “Take a swing at me.” Ingvar wasn’t totally sure, so he hesitated still, peering at the blurred figure in front of him. He didn’t know if Gort was ready to defend himself.

  For Gort’s part, he simply meant to see if Ingvar could wield the club with any dexterity, although he doubted that was possible, given its sheer size and obvious weight. As the boy hesitated, he prompted him again.

  “Come on! We don’t have all—”

  He was going to say “all day,” but he suddenly realized that the tree trunk–size club was whistling through the air at blinding speed, and in the next half second would knock his head clean off his shoulders. With a startled yelp, he dropped flat on the still-wet ground, feeling the wind of the massive weapon as it passed over his skull, missing him by a few centimeters.

  “Lorgan’s dripping, bloodred fangs, boy!” he bellowed, invoking a highly unpleasant Skandian demigod. He scrambled to his feet, brushing mud and wet grass from his jacket. “Drop that club!” he roared as Ingvar swayed uncertainly, not sure whether to try another swing.

  Obediently, Ingvar let the huge piece of timber fall to the turf. The dull thud it made sent a shiver of fear up Gort’s spine. The fear translated to anger.

  “You idiot! Are you trying to kill me?”

  “No, sir,” Ingvar began. “But you said ‘take a swing.’”

  “Not at me! Why would I want you to take a swing at me?” Gort’s voice was shrill. He was well aware that the other Herons were struggling to keep the grins off their faces.

  Hal stepped forward apologetically. “I don’t think he meant to hit you, sir.”

  “Well, actually … Ow!” Ingvar was silenced by a painful jab of Wulf’s elbow in the ribs. Gort looked at him suspiciously and Hal hurried on, reclaiming the instructor’s attention.

  “He’s very shortsighted, sir. He can’t see much past a meter away. Everything gets blurry.”

  “That’s right, sir,” Stig joined in. “His depth perception is pretty terrible. He probably thought you were much farther away than you actually were.”

  “No, I … Oww!” Ingvar began and was again silenced by Wulf’s elbow.

  Stig turned to him and said, with heavy emphasis on his words, “That’s what you thought, Ingvar, wasn’t it? You thought he was farther away. Didn’t you?”

  “Oh … ahh … well, possibly I did. Yes. I’d say that’s just what I thought, now you mention it.”

  Then Hal chimed in again. “His eyesight really is dreadful, sir. Ask anyone!” He appealed to the other boys in the group and they all added their voices in a chorus of agreement.

  “Blind as a bat, sir!”

  “Can barely see beyond his nose!”

  “Can barely see his nose!”

  Gort was beginning to feel like a stag being attacked by dogs on several sides at once.

  Ingvar looked at his band brothers, an aggrieved expression on his face. “Oh, come on! I’m not that bad!” he said. But again, Wulf hit him in the ribs with his elbow. “Owwww!”

  “Yes, you are. Shut up!”

  Ingvar rubbed his now bruised ribs and frowned in the direction of his tormentor.

  “Cut it out! That hurts! Who is that, anyway?” He knew it was one of the twins, but he didn’t know which one.

  Wulf saw the annoyed light in Ingvar’s eyes and thought quickly. “It’s Ulf.”

  “I’ll settle with you later then,” Ingvar promised.

  By now, hearing the chorus of excuses, Gort had decided that Ingvar hadn’t intentionally tried to behead him. He waved a dismissive hand at the huge young man.

  “All right. Pick up your club and get back in line. And next time you decide to swing it, make sure I’m at least ten meters away.”

  “Yes, sir,” said Ingvar, vastly chastened by the event.

  Gort watched Ingvar warily as he retrieved his club, then resumed his place in the ranks. The instructor seemed to relax.

  “All right, what else have we got?” His eyes lit on the spears in the twins’ hands. “You any good with those stickers? Can you throw them? And I don’t mean at me!” he added hurriedly.

  “Actually,” Ulf said, “we’re pretty mediocre.”

  “He’s mediocre,” Wulf put in. “I’m sort of … ordinary.”

  “That’s the same thing!” Ulf retorted angrily.

  Wulf rounded on him. “It’s not! Mediocre is second-rate. Ordinary is … ordinary.”

  “Like there’s a difference!” Ulf began. But Hal stepped in quickly.

  “Shut it! Shut it now! Both of you!”

  The twins fell silent, mouthing silent insults at each other. Hal turned to Gort, his hands spread in apology.

  “Sorry, sir. They argue a lot.”

  “So they do,” Gort said. “Gorlog help you if they’re always like that.”

  Hal nodded morosely. “They usually are,” he admitted.

  Gort turned back to the twins. “All right, without further discussion, let’s see if you can hit those targets over there.”

  He indicated a pair of roughly man-shaped targets about thirty meters away. The twins looked in the direction he was pointing.

  “Which one?” asked Ulf.

  Gort shrugged. “I don’t really care. Just pick one each and take a throw.”

  “Then I’ll take the—” Wulf began.

  But Hal, seeing the potential for another mindless squabble, quickly intervened. “Wulf! You take the one on the right! Ulf, take the left one!”

  Even Gort was impressed with the sudden steel in his voice, and the unmistakable tone of command. The twins looked at him, then shrugged.

  “Okay,” they s
aid in unison. And, moving in perfect unison, they both drew back their arms, balanced, stepped forward and, in perfect unison, cast.

  And, in perfect unison, they missed.

  Gort studied them for several seconds. “You’ll need to work on that,” he said. They hurried off to retrieve the spears and Gort moved on to Stig. He examined his ax, felt its weight and heft and nodded appreciatively.

  “Pretty good,” he said. “Show me a few moves. And remember the rules. If you decapitate the instructor, the team loses points.”

  And the instructor loses his head, Hal thought. But Stig merely grinned at Gort.

  He took the ax, dropped into a crouch, then began miming strokes at an imaginary enemy, moving forward as he did so, swinging overhead and sidearm, singlehanded and doublehanded. He even mimed a few parries of imaginary counterstrokes. After a minute or two, Gort called a halt.

  “Not bad,” he said. “But your timing is a little off and you’re not getting your full weight into the strokes. You can’t let the ax do all the work.”

  Stig looked downcast at the criticism, but Gort clapped him cheerfully on the shoulder.

  “You can’t expect to know it all right away,” he said. “That’s why we’re here to train you. You’ve got the basic ability to be a good warrior. You just need to learn a bit of technique. Give me a couple of months and I’ll turn you into the most feared axman this side of the Constant Sea.”

  Stig cheered up at that. The idea of being a feared axman appealed to him—although he would have liked to be feared on the other side of the Constant Sea, too. Gort then turned his attention to the crossbow slung over Hal’s shoulder. The weapon interested him but he saw it more as a novelty. Aside from spears and the occasional javelin, the Skandians didn’t really go in for missile weapons.

  “Where did you get your hands on this?” he asked. Hal shrugged the weapon off his shoulder and held it out for the instructor’s inspection.

  “Thorn gave it to me,” he said and Gort nodded thoughtfully.

  “Aaah, yes. Thorn. The old drunk,” he said, more to himself than to Hal. But Hal bristled at the slur on his friend.

  “He hasn’t had a drink in years!” he said angrily. “He’s a friend of mine. Maybe he was a drunk once, but he’s over it.”

  Gort looked up at him. Their gazes locked and held. Gort’s unspoken message was clear. That was no way to speak to an instructor. Hal flushed and dropped his gaze.

  “Sorry, sir,” he mumbled.

  Gort nodded several times. The boy had learned his lesson, he thought. He continued, in a gentler tone. “Loyalty to a friend is a good thing, skirl. But if he is your friend, you should know this: A drunk is never completely ‘over it.’ The risk is always there that he’ll start drinking again when things get tough. You simply can never depend on him.”

  You don’t know him like I do, Hal thought angrily. He was about to voice the thought when he realized that he would never convince Gort. And chances were, if he argued with him, he would cost his team demerit points. He swallowed his anger.

  “Yes, sir,” he said. “I’ll try to remember that.”

  “Good,” said the instructor. “Now let’s take a look at this crossbow of yours.”

  Gort took the bow and turned it over, examining it. It was unlike any crossbow he’d ever seen. And even though Skandians didn’t use them, they had faced them often enough.

  “I thought you Araluens were born with a longbow in your hands?” he mused.

  Hal kept his temper in check. He disliked being forced into a mold: You’re Araluen. Therefore you must shoot a longbow.

  “I was born here,” he pointed out. “There aren’t a lot of longbows around these parts.”

  “Still, it’s your national weapon, isn’t it?” Gort continued.

  Hal refrained from saying, “I’m Skandian, not just Araluen.” He knew people would always see the side of him that was different, never the side that was the same.

  Gort noted his silence but had no idea what caused it. “Never felt the urge to try a longbow?”

  Hal shook his head. Since the attempted invasion by the Temujai, there had been a company of Araluen archers stationed in Hallasholm as part of the treaty negotiated between the two countries. Ever conscious that he was already regarded as an outsider, Hal had made it a point not to mix with them. But he had singled out one of the platoon commanders one day and asked him about the longbow. The answer had been depressing.

  “You need to train with it from a very early age,” he explained to Gort now. “Shooting a longbow is an instinctive thing. You have to attune yourself to the bow and more or less sense where your arrow’s going to go when you’re shooting. It takes years to develop any skill.”

  “And this is different?” Gort asked.

  Hal nodded. “It’s a lot easier to point and aim. There are certain shooting disciplines you have to practice, but it’s a lot simpler than the longbow. It’s slower to shoot, of course, because it takes time to load.”

  Gort was admiring the workmanship on the polished wooden stock. It was simple and unadorned, but beautifully crafted and finished.

  “Never seen one like this,” he mused. “Where did Thorn get it?”

  “He was on a raid in Gallica, I believe,” Hal told him.

  Gort frowned thoughtfully. “Doesn’t look Gallican,” he said. He knew that the Galls usually made their crossbows with a simple, straight-line butt. This one was altogether more impressive.

  “I made a few improvements,” Hal said and Gort looked at him, eyebrows raised.

  “Oh, you did, did you? The Galls have been making them for hundreds of years, but you thought you could improve on their design?”

  “That’s right,” Hal said. He was still a little riled by Gort’s earlier comments about him being Araluen. “And I did,” he added.

  The instructor sensed the boy’s hostility. He handed him the bow and gestured toward the targets nearby. “Well then, let’s see how successful you were,” he invited.

  Hal placed the crossbow on the ground and put his foot in the metal stirrup at the front. Using both hands, he hauled back on the heavy cord until he felt it click over the retaining claw. Then he took a quarrel from his quiver and placed it in the slot, against the cocked cord.

  The two targets were barely thirty meters away—an easy shot. He aimed, almost casually, drew in a breath and held it, then squeezed his hand around the trigger lever.

  The string released with a solid THUNK! The crossbow bucked in his grip and the quarrel, the short, heavy arrow, streaked across the thirty-meter distance, burying its head in the soft wood of the target.

  Gort pushed out his bottom lip, surprised and impressed. “That’s pretty good.”

  Hal shrugged. “It’s pretty short range,” he pointed out.

  Something in his voice told Gort that he hadn’t set a particularly difficult test. He looked around. There was an old shield propped up on the other side of the training field. It would be used later in the week for ax-and knife-throwing lessons.

  “Let’s see you hit that,” he said.

  Hal reloaded, then stared thoughtfully at the shield, his lips moving silently as he estimated the range. Somewhere between seventy and eighty meters, he guessed. He raised the crossbow and flipped up the graduated rear sight that he had added to it. This had been his final, and best, modification.

  “Hold on!” said Gort. “What’s that?”

  “It’s just an extra idea of mine,” Hal explained. “Lining up the bow is easy. You’re looking straight down the line of the shot, after all. Where it gets hard is estimating how much the quarrel will drop over a distance.” He touched the rear sight with his forefinger, indicating the etched lines he had placed there. “This gives me reference points for sixty, eighty and one hundred meters. I line up the correct one with the sight at the front”—he indicated the small pin set at the front of the crossbow—“and I know how far above the target to hold my aim. See?”

>   Gort saw that the crossbow was angled upward as Hal settled the foresight on a point between the sixty-and eighty-meter marks.

  Hal relaxed, lowering the bow, and looked sidelong at Gort.

  “A longbow shooter has to estimate that. It takes years of experience. I’ve premeasured these marks, so I know exactly how much elevation to give the quarrel for any given distance. As long as I hold steady when I shoot, the quarrel will be on target.”

  Gort gestured for him to continue. Hal raised the bow again. Breathed in, exhaled, then took a half breath. He lined up the sight, setting the pin just above the eighty-meter mark again, and released.

  Again, the crossbow gave out its ugly THUNK! as the quarrel streaked away.

  And slammed into the bottom half of the shield, a little off-line to the right. The shield spun sideways under the impact, torn loose from its supports. It rolled a few meters, then fell on its side, wobbling round and round for a few seconds until it finally settled. The watching Herons let out a low cheer.

  “Needed a bit more elevation,” said Hal, pursing his lips.

  Gort raised his eyebrows. “All the same. It’s impressive.” He gestured for the other Herons to gather round him and they moved into a loose half circle.

  “All right,” he said. “We’ll issue you with your other weapons today. Some of you will be better suited to the sword, I think.” He nodded at Hal and Edvin. They were the two with the lightest builds.

  “Stig, you keep your ax. It’s a good weight and balance for you. Jesper, Stefan and you twins, it’ll be axes for you too.” He looked at the twins. “Forget about the spears. You can use ’em as tent poles if you like. Lose the bow as well,” he said to Jesper. “Use it for hunting if you want, but that’s it. Hal, the crossbow is a good weapon. But you’ll have to practice that by yourself. There’s no one here who can teach you how to use it.”

  Hal nodded. “Understood,” he said. He felt a small sense of relief. He had half expected to be told not to waste his time with the crossbow.

  “All right,” Gort said, clapping his hands together. “The armorers have set up a tent. It’s over there, at the end of the training ground. Let’s get over there and get you some weapons. Then you have the rest of the day to make final improvements to your quarters, and go over the list of tests we have in store for you.”

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