The outcasts, p.16
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       The Outcasts, p.16

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “All right,” he said. “You’re the skirl.”

  There was a muttered chorus of agreement from the others.

  “Good,” Hal said. “Just remember, we’re a team. We’re all rewarded together and we’re all punished together.”

  Again, they mumbled their consent. He looked around the ring of faces, searching for any sign of rebellion or disagreement and seeing none. Finally, for the first time in several minutes, he relaxed, letting out a long sigh of air. He was surprised to find that his hands were shaking with tension and he hurriedly thrust them into his pockets to conceal the fact.

  “Now let’s get on with it,” he said.

  Out of the corner of his eye, he had seen Gort approaching. The instructor had the look of a man who was about to make them suffer.

  For the next hour, they were put through a grueling session of physical exercise.

  Jogging round the perimeter of the training area, then breaking into a sprint for fifty meters, then jogging some more. Then sprinting. Then jogging, with no letup until their breath came in heaving gasps and their sides were sore.

  Then, on a signal from Gort’s whistle (and how they grew to hate that whistle!), they would drop to the ground and perform twenty slow push-ups.

  Slow push-ups were the worst. By the twelfth, most of them were trembling in the arms as they raised their bodies from the ground, then slowly, slowly, lowered them down again.

  As the count hit twenty, there was no time to relax. They were on their feet again and running to the spot where a long, roughly trimmed young tree trunk was waiting for them.

  They would work with this. Lifting it high above their heads, then lowering it slowly onto the right shoulder. Then up again, slowly once more. Then down onto the left shoulder. They would repeat this pattern ten times, then raise the log high again and turn to face in the opposite direction, their hands clawing onto the rough bark surface, forced to change their grip as they turned, scrabbling to keep control of the heavy, unwieldy piece of timber.

  Stefan, seeing the other two groups already exercising with their logs, quickly positioned himself behind Ingvar in the line. As the bigger boy hoisted the log high above his head, Stefan could barely continue touching it with his fingertips. In effect, Ingvar was doing the work for both of them. Gort, however, had trained hundreds of boys in his time and was alert to this trick.

  “You!” he called, pointing to Ingvar. “Move to the end of the line. Don’t lift the log higher than the rest of them.”

  Ingvar complied, standing at the rear of the line and hoisting the log with his elbows bent.

  Gort smiled at Stefan. “Nice try,” he said. “Ten demerits.”

  There was a mumble of anger from the other boys. Except for Jesper, who was standing behind Stefan. He looked around, made sure Gort wasn’t looking and kicked Stefan in the seat of the pants. When Stefan turned angrily, Jesper grimaced at him.

  “That’s one from the team,” he said.

  They worked with the log until their arms ached and their knees were trembling with fatigue. They kept in time to a series of short, shrill blasts from Gort’s detested whistle. Finally, a long blast signaled that the exercise was over.

  “That’s it!” Gort said. “Put the log down.”

  Thankfully, they tossed the log to one side, sending it thudding onto the grass. A piercing shriek from the whistle startled them.

  “Put it down, I said. Not chuck it away! Now pick it up again!”

  Wearily they stooped and worked their fingers under the rough wood, trying to get purchase. Exhausted as they were, it was much harder to lift the log off the ground than it had been before. But they managed it, bringing it up to waist height.

  “Now, shoulder height!” Gort ordered and they raised the log to their right shoulders.

  “Left shoulder!” he ordered, emphasizing the command with a whistle blast. They complied, groaning as they lifted the log above their heads and brought it down on the other shoulder. Somehow, the effort seemed much harder since they had stopped, thinking the exercise session was over.

  “Right shoulder!” Peeeep! Again, they obeyed. “Waist height!” Peeeep!

  They lowered the log to waist height again, changing their grip as they did.

  “Now lower it slowly. Sloooowly!”

  Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!

  They obeyed the long, drawn-out whistle blast, slowly lowering the log until it hovered a few inches above the ground.

  “And down!” Peep!

  This time, they made sure they lowered the log the last few inches before releasing it. Inevitably, one or two of them caught their fingers underneath and swore quietly. Then they straightened, rubbing their sore backs, rolling their shoulders to ease aching muscles.

  “Right! Collect your weapons. Double-time to the weapons area.”

  And so the pattern of their days was set. Hard physical exercise, followed by equally hard work, training with their weapons.

  Hal would stand before a pine post wrapped with tattered, frayed old rope. In addition to his sword, he had been issued a heavy wooden shield. Sword drill consisted of a sequence of pretend attacking and defensive moves. He would swing the heavy sword overhand to thud against the frayed, tattered rope padding, then raise the heavy shield to protect himself from an imagined counterstroke. Then swing the sword again, this time in a sidestroke, to hit the rope-padded pole. Again, raise the shield. Then spin to hit the pole backhanded. Then raise the shield. Then strike overhand again and begin the entire sequence once more.

  It was dull and repetitive and hard work. The others around him performed similar actions with their axes and a few swords. The weapons area was filled with the dull thud of blades striking rope-padded pine. Occasionally, a richer note would ring out as an ax or sword blade struck bare wood, where the padding had finally been chopped away.

  And all the time, the tempo was set by the continuing, and infuriating, peep-peep-peep! of their instructors’ whistles.

  By the end of the session, Hal’s right wrist and arm would be aching from swinging the heavy, unbalanced sword and the continual impact with the training post. And his left shoulder and biceps would be on fire from the weight of the massive shield. Most of the others felt the same. Although some, notably Tursgud, Stig and Rollond, seemed to take the grueling weapon drills in their stride.

  Ingvar, of course, slammed his heavy club into the target pole over and over, without any visible effort, although his fellow students learned not to walk too close to him when he was doing it. His peripheral vision was as bad as his normal vision.

  They would break for twenty minutes for lunch, slumping gratefully on the benches with their bowls of rich stew and thick bread. The food was good and nourishing and there was plenty of it. Their instructors knew the importance of keeping the boys’ energy levels up. But the brief lunch break was just enough for their hardworking muscles to cool and stiffen, so that they would ache dully for the rest of the day and into the night.

  In the afternoons, they would study the theory of seamanship, ship handling and navigation. These were the sessions Hal enjoyed most, particularly the navigation.

  He looked forward to the third week, when they would switch from theory to practical work, on board ship. He had already spoken to Sigurd about using the Heron in their exercise. The instructor had relayed the request to Erak, who had agreed—albeit reluctantly. He still had misgivings about the little ship’s revolutionary new sail plan, but he accepted that with fewer rowers, the Herons would be disadvantaged in a larger ship.

  Sigurd was also interested to see Hal’s growing confidence as the leader of his brotherband—and the growing respect that his teammates showed him. Very little went unnoticed by the chief instructor and he sensed that, after the incident with the rusty ax, Hal had drawn a line in the sand with his companions.

  The day’s instruction ended in the late afternoon, at which point the boys were free to return to their quarters and rest, go over
notes they had taken during the various classes or practice techniques they had been shown that day. Hal, even though he was exhausted and his arms ached, made a point of returning to the shelter where the Heron was moored and working on the punching bag Thorn had given him. The others, particularly Stig, wondered what he was up to. But they were too tired to try to find out.

  After half an hour’s hard work, Hal would return to the campsite in time to clean up for the evening meal. Then the three groups would return to their respective quarters to wait for the lights-out signal. Most of them never heard it. They were usually fast asleep long before the horn sounded its mournful note through the forest.

  chapter ninteen

  Thorn sat with his back against a tree, watching the brotherbands at weapons drill.

  To be accurate, he wasn’t watching all of them. His attention was focused on Hal as he swung the heavy sword at the practice post. His movements were tired and clumsy, Thorn thought, and he frowned. Hal wasn’t built heavily, like Stig or Tursgud. But he was well-balanced and athletic and he normally had excellent hand-eye coordination. He should be performing better.

  Thorn grunted in displeasure as he watched the sword rebound awkwardly from a strike against the post, nearly falling from Hal’s grip. Then the shield came up in defense.

  “Too slow. Too slow,” Thorn muttered to himself.

  He looked around for the instructor, Gort. The man seemed unaware of Hal’s problems. He was pacing down the line of boys standing at their practice poles, blowing time with that annoying whistle of his. As long as they moved in time, he seemed content.

  Thorn realized that it was early days yet. It was only the third day of full training, after all, and part of the reason for the drills was to develop and harden the boys’ muscles. But still …

  “If he learns bad technique to begin with, he’ll never get over it.”

  He looked back to the boy again, noting his flat-footed stance and the clumsy stroking method.

  He’s teaching him to use it like an ax, Thorn thought. Then he shrugged. Most of the Skandians were axmen. Gort, with his build, would almost certainly be one. He had obviously never learned any of the subtler techniques that could be employed with a sword. His method was to simply batter, batter, batter at an enemy’s defense until it collapsed under his assault. These drills would increase strength, and as far as Gort was concerned, sheer strength was the key to victory.

  “You wouldn’t last five minutes on a real battlefield,” Thorn said in Hal’s direction. Hal was the sort of opponent other warriors sought out. He looked ill at ease and ill prepared. He’d be an easy victim for an experienced fighter. It was that thought that decided Thorn. He heaved himself to his feet and started across the field to where the boys were training.

  He knew better than to approach Hal directly. Gort was in charge of the Heron brotherband and he wouldn’t appreciate Thorn interrupting without so much as a by-your-leave. So the old seafarer stopped about twenty meters short of the group of boys, staying behind them, out of their line of vision, and waited to catch Gort’s eye.

  But his presence didn’t go unnoticed by other eyes. Across the field, training with the Sharks, Tursgud saw him. His pride still rankled when he thought of how Thorn had gripped his wrist that day by the harbor and forced him to back down.

  “What’s the dirty old drunk doing here?” he said.

  One of his companions glanced around. “Maybe he’s looking for a job as a target,” he sneered.

  Tursgud swung his ax viciously at the pole, aiming for a spot where the rope had frayed away. The blade sank into the exposed wood with a vicious thunk! and he had to wrench it free.

  “Send him over here,” he said. “I’ll get rid of his other hand for him!”

  The Sharks around him laughed unpleasantly. Jarst, their instructor, was at the far end of the line, correcting a boy’s technique. He glanced up angrily, frowned as he saw Thorn across the field, then snapped at the sniggering boys.

  “Shut up and get back to work!”

  Tursgud looked around at his cronies, miming fear. They stifled their laughter and went back to their drill.

  Thorn had been standing for some minutes when Gort finally decided to take notice of him. He had seen the bearded, unkempt figure almost as soon as he arrived. But he had ignored him, hoping he would become bored and go away. Friends and relatives were discouraged from watching brotherband training sessions. And they were certainly not welcome to interrupt. Finally, however, Gort decided that it was pointless and rather stupid to pretend he hadn’t seen Thorn. If the other man had waved, or called out or whistled, he would have felt justified in telling him to leave. But Thorn merely stood, patiently and quietly. Gort walked over to him.

  “What do you want?” he asked unpleasantly.

  Thorn gestured with his thumb to a spot some meters away.

  “Can we move over there?” he asked. “I don’t want to disturb your class.”

  “You already have,” Gort told him but Thorn shook his head.

  “No. I haven’t,” he said in a mild tone. “I’ve stood here quietly and not many have noticed me. But if you don’t lower your voice, they all will.”

  Gort was irritated to realize that Thorn was right. He impatiently led the way to a spot a little away from the practicing boys.

  “Come on then,” he said. And turning around, he was surprised to find that Thorn was right behind him. He hadn’t heard the other man moving.

  Thorn smiled apologetically at him. No sense in antagonizing the man, he thought.

  “So what do you want?” Gort repeated.

  Thorn intentionally kept his tone neutral and nonconfronta-tional, although Gort’s ill-tempered attitude was beginning to annoy him.

  “The boy Hal,” he said. “That sword is too heavy for him. And the shield is way too big.”

  Gort shrugged. “He gets what he’s issued,” he said shortly. “We don’t have a big selection of swords for him to choose from.”

  “Some of the other boys have good weapons,” Thorn pointed out.

  “Some of the other boys have parents who can afford to buy them decent equipment,” Gort replied.

  He looked the shabbily dressed, unshaven man up and down. “If you want to, you can buy him a decent sword,” he said sarcastically.

  “I don’t know about buying one. But I can certainly get one for him,” Thorn said. If he’d noted the sarcasm in Gort’s last remark, he didn’t show it.

  “Oh really, and where would you find a sword?” Gort moved closer, thumbs thrust into his belt. He expected Thorn to step back and was surprised when he didn’t.

  “Erak’s storeroom,” Thorn said. And Gort’s eyes opened a little wider.

  “The Oberjarl’s storeroom?” he asked incredulously.

  Thorn nodded. “There’s only one Erak I know and I believe he is the Oberjarl.”

  Gort was confused. He found it hard to believe that this ragged, rather dirty beggar would have access to Erak’s storeroom. But the man had spoken confidently enough. It might be wise to find out more about him before he refused outright.

  While he was thinking, Thorn continued. “Another thing. Why have you got him training with a sword?”

  “Obviously, because he’s not big enough to swing an ax properly.”

  Thorn nodded as if that was the answer he expected. “Then where’s the sense in giving him a shield that’s the size of a cartwheel?”

  Gort opened his mouth to reply, but realized that the man had a valid point. He hesitated. To be honest, he hadn’t given the matter of a shield any thought. Finally, feeling he was being put on the defensive and not enjoying it, he challenged Thorn.

  “I suppose you can get him a better one of those as well? From Erak’s storeroom?” But if he expected to win the point or for Thorn to back down, he was disappointed.

  “I think I could lay my hands on a better shield too,” Thorn said.

  Which put Gort in a quandary. If a friend
or family member could provide equipment for one of the trainees, he had no right to refuse them. But still, he didn’t like to appear to back down in front of this strangely disquieting one-armed man. He temporized.

  “I’ll have to clear it with Sigurd,” he said. “Come and see us at the end of the lunch break and I’ll tell you then.”

  “That’s fair enough,” Thorn said. “I’ll see you then.”

  And he turned and walked away, leaving the burly instructor staring after him, shaking his head uncertainly.

  Gort mentioned Thorn’s suggestion to the chief instructor while the boys were rushing through their lunch. He scoffed at the fact that Thorn claimed to have access to the Oberjarl’s storeroom and was surprised at Sigurd’s reaction.

  “Do you know who he is?” Sigurd asked.

  Gort shrugged. “He’s just an old drunk, isn’t he?”

  Sigurd nodded several times. “That’s what I thought until a few days ago,” he said. “I was talking to the Oberjarl about him. He’s got quite a story.”

  Gort was intrigued. Like most Skandians, he loved a saga. He made a gesture for Sigurd to keep talking.

  “So tell me,” he said. But Sigurd was already rising from his bench, seeing the first of the students getting ready to leave the meal tent.

  “No time now,” he said. “I’ve got a navigation class. Ask me another time. It’s an amazing tale.”

  Gort, his curiosity frustrated, knew there was no point in pressing Sigurd further at this point. Instead, he called out after his rapidly retreating back, “So what about this sword and shield? What do I tell him?”

  Sigurd glanced back at him as he left the tent. “Tell him to go ahead.”

  And Gort was left to wonder about the mystery behind the strange, one-armed old sea wolf.

  chapter twenty

  Lessons were finished for the day and Hal, as was his habit, made his way to the inlet where the Heron was moored. He was surprised to find Thorn waiting there for him.

  The older man had brought a small loaf of fresh bread and some sliced cold beef from Karina’s kitchen. He handed it to the boy and watched with a smile as he wolfed it down. There was a flask of cold buttermilk as well and Hal drained half of it then sat back with a sigh of satisfaction.

 

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