The outcasts, p.15
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       The Outcasts, p.15

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  With a mental jolt, Hal remembered the list they had been given that morning. He had barely had time to do more than glance at it before cramming it under his folded bedding and double-timing to the training ground. Things were beginning to move fast, he realized. Then he noticed that Gort and the others were already striding across the field to the armorers’ tent.

  “You coming, or did you want me to fetch your sword for you?” the instructor called back to him.

  Slinging the crossbow over his shoulder again, Hal set off at a jog to catch up to them.

  That afternoon, after they had eaten lunch in the mess tent, the Herons sat around their campsite, examining the weapons they had been issued.

  They were plain, utilitarian items, without unnecessary embellishment. And they weren’t new. Most of them had notches or dents in their handles and the blades were speckled with light rust and needed an edge put on them. But the boys handled them with something approaching reverence. These were more than just weapons. These were symbols that they were on their way to becoming men. To becoming warriors. They were real weapons, not the play weapons that they had used as boys.

  Hal’s sword was plain steel. The blade was straight and double-edged, with the hilt wrapped in leather, and a brass crosspiece and pommel. The leather, he noted, was stained by a previous owner’s perspiration. The scabbard was leather, boiled so that it was hardened into the necessary shape, and reinforced at the base and top with brass.

  He held the sword up, testing the feel. It was heavy, and the weight dragged the blade down. Within thirty seconds, his wrist was beginning to feel the strain. But perhaps that was how a sword was supposed to feel. If you were swinging a sword at someone, you’d probably want some weight behind it, he thought.

  He laid the sword aside. He’d sharpen and oil the blade later but, for the moment, he wanted to go over the list of tests and assessments that would be set for them. He became conscious of someone standing in front of him and looked up to see Stig.

  “You were talking about thatching the roof with pine branches,” his friend reminded him. Hal screwed up his mouth thoughtfully, then shook his head.

  “The canvas seems to be doing the job for now,” he said. “Maybe you and Jesper could put some more roof frames under the canvas to stop the rain from pooling so much.”

  Stig nodded, studying the canvas. There were A-shaped frames at either end and in the middle of the ridgepole. But when it rained, the water did pool between them and the canvas sagged.

  “I’ll get onto it,” he said and walked away, calling for Jesper to join him.

  Hal glanced around and saw Ingvar studying the twins, a slight frown creasing his forehead. That might mean he was thinking. Or it could be that he was simply trying to focus his vision more clearly.

  “You all right, Ingvar?” he called out. “Something on your mind?”

  Ingvar looked at him and smiled benignly, shaking his head.

  “Just watching the twins, skirl,” he said. Then he turned his attention back to them. They, of course, were squabbling quietly. They had been issued with identical axes, but now Ulf wanted Wulf’s and Wulf wanted Ulf’s.

  Or vice versa—which amounted to the same thing, really. Hal smiled as he had the thought.

  “Something funny in the tests?” Edvin was sitting close by, watching him. Hal realized he had been staring unseeing at the list of assessments when he had smiled at the convoluted situation with Ulf and Wulf.

  “Not really,” he said. “Just woolgathering.”

  “Mind if I see?” Edvin said, holding out his hand. Hal shrugged and passed him the list. Edvin flicked through the sheets, reading aloud as he went.

  “Hmmm … navigation and seamanship exercise. Day. What do we use for a ship?”

  The normal practice was for each band to be assigned a ship—similar to a wolfship but somewhat smaller. Each one could accommodate up to six rowers a side.

  “I was thinking of asking permission for us to use the Heron—my ship,” Hal said.

  Edvin considered the idea and nodded agreement. “Not a bad idea. She’ll be lighter than the other ships, and we’ll only have seven rowers, while the Sharks and Wolves will have eight or nine each. Although I guess we’ll have to cut our number down to six, otherwise we’ll be unbalanced.”

  Hal shook his head. “Not when one of them is Ingvar,” he pointed out and Edvin gave a small grunt of appreciation.

  “Hadn’t thought of that.” He glanced at the list again. “Wrestling. Individual test.”

  “Stig,” they both said at the same time. They looked at each other and smiled.

  “Can he beat Rollond and Tursgud?” Edvin asked. They were the obvious choices for the other two teams.

  Hal shook his head doubtfully. “He might. If he can control his temper long enough. He tends to get wild and that’s his undoing.”

  “Strength test,” Edvin continued, looking back to the list. “What do you think that could be?”

  “Last year, it was a tug-of-war, I believe. Can’t see why they’d do it differently this year.”

  “Not terribly fair if we’re three men short,” Edvin commented.

  “Nothing we can do about that. Pity it’s not an individual event. We could nominate Ingvar.”

  Edvin studied the list. “No. The individual ones are listed as individual. Look: wrestling, individual. Footrace, individual.” He paused, turning to a new sheet. “Night attack,” he read. “That must be a team event. Wonder what that is?”

  “I guess we’ll find out,” Hal said. He sounded distracted and Edvin looked up at him to see he was watching Ingvar again.

  “Something on your mind?” Edvin said.

  Hal shrugged. “Have you noticed that for the past half hour, Ingvar hasn’t taken his eyes off the twins?”

  “I hadn’t. But I see what you mean. I wonder what he’s thinking?”

  “With Ingvar, who knows?” Hal replied. “What else is on the list?” He forced himself to look away from Ingvar but no more than a few seconds passed before he glanced back again.

  “Mountain race,” Edvin read. “No details of that. And obstacle course. That sounds like fun.” His voice left no doubt that he didn’t think it sounded like fun at all. “That’s about it.” He realized that Hal was distracted once more, watching the hulking silent form opposite.

  “You’ll get a crick in your neck if you keep watching him,” he said.

  Hal sighed in frustration. “He’s got something on his mind. I know it. I just wish I knew what it was.”

  That evening, they found out.

  chapter eighteen

  The Herons sat around in their tent, cleaning their new weapons. Hal inspected them as each boy finished. He knew their instructors would be examining them the next day. Most of the axes and swords passed muster, but he pointed to the blade of Jesper’s ax.

  “There’s still a notch there in the edge. You should grind that away. And there’s still some rust as well, where the head joins the handle.” Hal had already noticed that Jesper tended to slack off after a while when the work got too hard. Jesper looked more closely at the ax blade, frowning at the spots Hal had pointed out.

  “It’s fine,” he said. “It’s just a speck of rust. You can hardly see it.” Hal hesitated, then, keeping his voice friendly, he tried again.

  “Maybe you should look at it again. All right?”

  Jesper shrugged. “Yes. Yes. Anything for a peaceful life. I’ll get onto it later, all right?”

  Hal stood awkwardly for a few seconds. He wasn’t comfortable issuing orders but he supposed he’d have to get used to it. He just wished that Jesper would be a bit more cooperative. He made a mental note to check Jesper’s ax again before lights-out as he turned away.

  That was when Ingvar made his move. He stood up and lumbered across to where the twins were working on their axes. They looked up at him, surprised. Ingvar didn’t usually initiate conversations.

  “What is it?” Wulf as

  Ingvar rubbed his side. “My ribs still hurt,” he said. There was a strange note in his voice that made the other boys set aside whatever they were doing and pay attention.

  Ulf frowned at the massive boy. “Your ribs? What’s that got to do with us?”

  Ingvar peered at him, blinking rapidly. “One of you kept hitting me in the ribs this morning. Remember? And I said, ‘Who’s doing that?’ and whoever it was said, ‘It’s Ulf.’”

  Wulf suddenly grinned as understanding dawned. He’d elbowed Ingvar in the ribs when Gort was questioning him. And then he’d claimed to be his brother. Now, sensing that Ingvar was looking for retribution, he congratulated himself on his quick thinking.

  “That’s right!” he said brightly. “It was Ulf!”

  “What are you talking about?” Ulf asked. “I did not.”

  “Definitely Ulf,” Wulf insisted. “He’s the one you want.”

  Ingvar could see the two blurry shapes in front of him. He wasn’t sure which one was speaking at any time and he wasn’t sure who was who. But he knew there was one way of telling. His hand shot out and fastened on the arm of the twin nearest him, who happened to be Wulf. It took Wulf by surprise. As Gort had discovered that morning, Ingvar could move with surprising speed when the mood took him.

  He dragged Wulf upright, ignoring his indignant cries. Then he ran his other hand down his arm, finding the bare wrist. He smiled. It was not a pretty sight.

  “You’re Ulf,” he said.

  Wulf struggled to break his grip. “No!” he said. “No! I’m Wulf. That’s Ulf there! Not me! I’m Wulf!” Desperately, he pointed to his brother. But Ulf shrugged his shoulders and grinned evilly at his twin.

  “Me?” he said. “I’m certainly not Ulf. I’m Wulf!”

  “You liar!” Wulf shouted at him. He was beginning to panic now. Ingvar’s grip was becoming quite painful. “I tell you, I’m Wulf.”

  “No, you’re not,” Ingvar told him. “Remember what Hal said? Wulf has the wope on his wist.”

  Too late, Wulf realized his mistake.

  “We swapped!” he screeched. “I gave the rope to Ulf. We did it to trick Hal!”

  “Oh, did you now?” Hal said, beginning to smile.

  “No,” Ingvar insisted again. “Wulf has the wope on his wist. That’s what Hal said. And I don’t feel any wope on this wist.”

  “Tell him!” Wulf appealed to his brother. “Tell him before … Whuuuuummmmphhhh! Aaaah!”

  These final sounds were forced from him as Ingvar suddenly jerked him forward and wrapped him in a bear hug, lifting his feet off the ground and crushing the air from his lungs with his immensely powerful arms.

  Wulf could feel his ribs buckling under the dreadful pressure of Ingvar’s arms. He was being bent backward as the huge boy leaned his upper body forward, all the while maintaining the pressure of the bear hug, with his hands locked together in the small of Wulf’s back. Wulf’s vision swam and he thought hazily that a real bear could hardly be more powerful, or more painful.

  He tried to plead for mercy but there was no air in his lungs and he could only manage a small, gasping cry. “Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah!”

  Then Ingvar increased the pressure and Wulf couldn’t even make that noise. His feet kicked helplessly in the air.

  “That’s enough, Ingvar,” Hal said quietly.

  The others had risen and gathered in a circle around Ingvar and Wulf. Most of them were smiling broadly. Ulf, in particular. Ingvar lessened the pressure slightly and they all heard the droning wheeze as Wulf dragged air into his tortured lungs.

  “You think so, Hal?” Ingvar asked mildly.

  Hal nodded. “I think so. Put him down.”

  “All right,” Ingvar said suddenly, and released his grip. Wulf crumpled to the ground like an empty grain sack, folding up on himself as he collapsed. He gasped gratefully for air and wondered if his ribs were still intact.

  “He shouldn’t have elbowed me,” Ingvar said mildly, peering around at them.

  Hal couldn’t resist a grin. “Well, I’m certainly not going to argue with you about that,” he said. Then added: “Or anything else for that matter.” He stooped and knelt beside the gasping, groaning Wulf.

  “Did you really swap that rope with your brother?” he said. “Just to trick me?”

  Wulf nodded. He wasn’t in the mood or any condition to deny anything. “Yes … ,” he groaned. “It was a joke. Just a joke.”

  Hal prodded him in the ribs and Wulf doubled up under the touch.

  “Does that hurt?” Hal asked.

  Wulf nodded several times. “Yes. It does. It really hurts.”

  Hal smiled. “Good. It serves you right.” He stood up and looked at Ingvar.

  “Ingvar, from now on, you’re our master-at-arms. You’ll be responsible for discipline.”

  Ingvar beamed, then thought about what Hal had said. “What … do I have to do exactly?”

  “If anyone annoys me, you squash him,” Hal told him and Ingvar nodded happily.

  “Yes. I can do that.”

  Just then, the horn sounded from the training area, signaling two minutes to lights-out. There was a general scramble to undress and get into bed. As he extinguished the lantern and rolled into his blankets, Hal remembered that he hadn’t rechecked Jesper’s ax. He shrugged and yawned.

  I’ll do it in the morning, he thought.

  Their training began in earnest the following day.

  Breakfast was a hurried meal. They were given half an hour to eat, return to their quarters, make beds, fold blankets and clean up their area, then head back to the training ground with their weapons. It was now that they learned a little more about the scoring methods they would be subject to during their training.

  The assessment tasks carried the most points, of course. The team doing best in each task could receive a maximum of one hundred points—less if the instructors decided so. The team coming in second received twenty points. There were no points for the losers.

  As they had already learned, points would also be awarded for good performance in their day-to-day training. The Herons had already earned some points for the construction of their living quarters. But now they found out about demerits, or negative points. Points could be deducted for sloppy work, inattention to the instructors, arriving late for meals or a training session or, as the Herons found out to their chagrin, for poor presentation of their weapons.

  Sigurd called a snap inspection of weapons as soon as the teams arrived back at the training ground after stowing their kit. He walked quickly along the lines of boys as they held their weapons ready for his examination. He seemed to be barely glancing at the axes and swords as he passed. But as he reached Jesper, he paused for a second, and glared at the boy. Jesper’s reddening face told him all he needed to know. The boy was aware that his weapon wasn’t up to standard. Sigurd flicked a forefinger against the ax head.

  “Rust,” he said briefly. “And there’s still a nick in the edge.” He glanced round, caught Hal’s anxious eye. “Twenty demerit points to the Herons. That wipes out the points you won yesterday for your campsite,” he said. He moved on down the line, nodding brief approval at the other weapons as he inspected them, then walked briskly away to inspect the other teams.

  The moment he left, a chorus of bickering broke out among the other Herons as they gathered around Jesper.

  “Nice work, Jesper,” said Stig.

  “Yeah. Now you’ve dropped us all in it, right and proper,” Stefan told him.

  “Why should we all lose points because you’re too lazy to look after your kit?” Ulf put in.

  Jesper flushed angrily. “Don’t blame me! I didn’t know Sigurd was going to be so fussy. It’s only a speck of rust, after all.”

  “Well, if we don’t blame you, who do we blame?” Ingvar demanded. There was an ugly silence for a few seconds as they all glared at one another. Finally, Hal spoke.

  “Me,” he said. “I’m to blame.”

He was standing a little apart from them and they all turned in surprise to look at him.

  “You?” Stig said. “What are you talking about?”

  “You elected me as skirl. It’s my responsibility,” Hal said. His breath was coming quickly and he felt his heart beating more rapidly than normal. He realized he’d reached a defining point. All his life, he’d avoided drawing attention to himself, avoided the conflict that it would bring. Now, he decided, it was time for that to end.

  Stig made a dismissive gesture. “Well, yes, we elected you skirl, but that was just …” He paused, seeing Hal’s cold look.

  “That was just what?” Hal demanded. “A joke? A game? A bit of fun to annoy Tursgud?”

  “No. Of course not,” Stig said uncertainly. The others made corroborating noises.

  “You elected me as skirl. I’m taking that seriously, even if you aren’t,” Hal said. “In future, if I give an order, I want it carried out.” He turned to Jesper. “I told you to clean that ax and you didn’t do it. If you disobey an order again, I’ll punish you.”

  “You’ll what?” Jesper said incredulously.

  “I’ll punish you. I’ll put you on fatigues. You’ll do extra work. You can empty the slop buckets and dig out the drainage trenches—anything I tell you to, in fact.” He looked around the rest of the group, seeing their surprised faces. “Does anyone have a problem with that?” he demanded.

  No one would meet his eye. They looked at the ground and shuffled their feet.

  “This isn’t a game!” he told them. “This is brotherband training. It’s our future. If you want me as skirl, you have to agree to obey my orders—not just the ones you like or the ones you agree with, but all of them. Otherwise, pick someone else.”

  He paused, giving them a few seconds to let his words sink in.

  “Well?” he said. “What’s it to be?” He was surprised when Jesper was the first one to speak.

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