The outcasts, p.18
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       The Outcasts, p.18

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “What I’ve done? I’ve done nothing. He’s doing things for me.” Hal pointed to the sword and the shield, leaning against a statue of a whiskery Teutlandt king. “I’ve done nothing.”

  But Erak was shaking his head. “You’ve done a lot more than you know. You’ve given him a focus for living. You mean a great deal to him.”

  “Well, we’re friends, I know that, but—”

  “It’s more than that, Hal,” Erak interrupted him. “He’s proud of you. He sees so much potential in you and he wants you to succeed. You’ve dragged him out of that well of self-pity and depression he dug for himself after he lost his hand. That was nearly the end of him, you know.”

  “I can imagine,” Hal said thoughtfully. “It must have been a terrible thing to face up to.”

  “Worse than you can imagine.” Erak paused once more and Hal sensed he was trying to decide whether to continue any further. Then he nodded slightly to himself as he came to a decision.

  “How much do you know about Thorn?” he asked.

  Hal thought, then shrugged. “Well, not a lot, really. He was a friend of my father. He was a member of your crew. But then he became a bit of a drunk after he lost his hand—”

  “That’s putting it mildly,” Erak interjected and Hal continued.

  “Yes. Then my mam gave him a bit of a talking-to and he straightened himself out …”

  “That she did,” Erak said, smiling. Hal looked up.

  “When my mam gives you a talking-to, you tend to listen,” he said, with heartfelt sincerity. He’d been on the receiving end of more than one in his life.

  “Since then, he’s helped around Mam’s eating house, doing odd jobs and chores. But …” He paused, trying to frame his thoughts into words. Lately, he’d been seeing hints of a different side to Thorn.

  “But what?” Erak prompted.

  Hal frowned. “He seems to know a lot about fighting, and weapons and so on.” He indicated the sword and shield beside him.

  “He should,” Erak told him. “He was the Maktig.”

  “Thorn?” Hal’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “Thorn was the Maktig?”

  The Maktig, or the Mighty One, was the highest pinnacle of achievement a Skandian could aim for—the champion warrior of all Skandia. To be the Maktig, a warrior had to possess superlative strength, agility, speed and endurance. He had to excel with all weapons—ax, sword, spear and saxe knife. And with no weapons. He had to beat all comers in a grueling annual challenge for the position. The Maktig was revered and respected throughout the country. The Maktig was a larger-than-life figure—a hero worthy of the great sagas.

  The Maktig was definitely not a tattered, shabby, tangle-bearded tramp sleeping in a grubby, evil-smelling lean-to.

  “Gorlog and Orlog!” Hal muttered. Orlog was Gorlog’s lesser-known brother, only invoked in moments of great stress or surprise. “Thorn was the Maktig?” He still couldn’t believe it.

  “Three years running,” Erak told him.

  “WHAT?” Hal’s voice cracked. As far as he knew, nobody had ever been Maktig for more than one year. It simply couldn’t be done.

  “Nobody else has ever achieved that,” Erak told him, confirming his thought, at least in part. “The second year, the man he beat was his best friend, Mikkel. Your father. Mikkel was good, but his ax skills weren’t quite up to scratch.” He nodded toward the sword. “He was a swordsman. But Thorn was immensely strong and skillful with all weapons. And he was fast. So very fast. Fast and powerful and deadly. I doubt there’ll ever be another to achieve what he did.”

  He let Hal absorb this amazing news for some seconds. Then he continued, with a sad note in his voice.

  “That’s why it hit him so hard when he lost that hand. When someone’s raised up so high, they have a long way to fall. In one stroke, Thorn lost his ability, his status, his sense of worth and his career. He went from being a man everyone looked up to, to a man everyone pitied. What made it even worse was that, when Mikkel was dying, he asked Thorn to protect you and your mother. Thorn couldn’t see how a one-armed man could do that. He felt he’d let down his friend. And you, and your mam.”

  “No wonder he started drinking,” Hal said, almost to himself. He looked around the treasure room, his gaze lighting on the trunk at the back that belonged to Thorn.

  “He was lucky you were a friend—and you kept him from squandering all his treasure,” he said.

  Erak pursed his lips uncomfortably. “I owed him that.”

  “Because you were his skirl?” Hal asked. In the few days he had spent as a brotherband skirl, he had begun to realize that in a crew, loyalty traveled both ways. A skirl had to be loyal to his crew, just as they had to be loyal to him.

  “Partly,” Erak agreed. “But mainly because I was the one who cut off his hand.”

  The terrible words were said almost casually, and for a moment or two, Hal didn’t realize their import. Then his jaw dropped.

  “You?” he gasped. “But … I thought he lost it in battle? I just assumed that …” He paused. He didn’t really know what he’d assumed.

  “It was the voyage when your father died. We were caught in an early storm off Cape Shelter on the way home. Just blew up out of nowhere. Before I knew it, we were taken aback and dismasted. There was a tangle of wreckage over the side, dragging us down. Thorn was the first one to get there and start cutting it loose. He reached over the side to clear a piece of mast and his right hand became tangled in the mess of ropes. Then we got it cut free before we realized he was caught up in it. The mast was going over the side and he was going with it. I only had seconds to act.”

  “You cut off his hand?” Hal said, horrified at the decision the Oberjarl had been faced with.

  Erak nodded. His expression was bleak.

  “I had to choose. Let him lose his hand or his life. Later, he told me he wished I’d let him go over the side with the mast.” He shook his head at the memory.

  “I don’t think I’d have the courage to do what you did,” Hal said. Erak shrugged.

  “It wasn’t so brave,” he said. “It wasn’t my hand. Anyway”—he gathered himself, shaking off the memory of that terrible day—“that’s why I’m so glad to see Thorn with an interest in life. He can see you have abilities far beyond his, and he wants to help you.”

  “My abilities? But he was the Maktig! What can I do?”

  “You’re a thinker. A planner. And you’re rapidly becoming a leader from what Sigurd tells me. Look, I can go out into the street and find at least a hundred men who are good axmen. But leaders? Thinkers? They don’t come along too often and Thorn knows it. He sees it in you.” He smiled. “We had a little bantam rooster of a fellow through here a few years back who helped us see off the Temujai. He was a leader and a planner.”

  “That was the Ranger, wasn’t it? From Araluen?”

  “That’s the one. I actually got to like him, in spite of myself. Thing is, we need people like him. And you,” he added.

  Hal shook his head thoughtfully. “I’d never thought of myself that way.”

  “Well, start doing so,” Erak told him. “On top of everything else, you’re a fine helmsman. Very few men could have brought that ship in the way you did the other day. That’s a skill that can’t be taught.”

  Hal grinned. “My knees were like jelly while I was doing it,” he said. “I was terrified I’d ram Wolfwind.”

  “And you should have been,” Erak agreed. “I didn’t say you were smart, just skillful.”

  Hal grinned. “Point taken,” he said. Then he became serious. “Thanks for telling me about Thorn, Erak.”

  “That’s all right. I felt it was time you knew. But don’t tell Thorn you know. He doesn’t like to be reminded of what he once was. It hurts too much to remember.”

  “How could people have forgotten that he was the Maktig?” Hal asked, but Erak merely pulled a face.

  “It was a long time ago, almost twenty years—before you were born. People
age and other people forget. And after all, Thorn hasn’t exactly behaved in a way that would make them want to remember, has he? People don’t like it when they think their idols have let them down.”

  “I guess that’s true,” Hal said. “Thank you again. I won’t let on to Thorn that you told me.” He paused, then said, “I suppose I’d better be going or I’ll miss the dinner call at camp.”

  Erak waved a hand toward the door. Hal collected the sword and shield and picked his way through the jumbled treasures.

  “How do you like my fountain?” Erak called after him.

  Hal looked again at the naked little boy posed on the edge of the marble bowl.

  “It’s very … artistic,” he said.

  Erak screwed up his face thoughtfully. “I can’t get it to work. Maybe you could look at it sometime? I hear you’re good with things like that.”

  “Maybe,” Hal said doubtfully, reaching for the door handle. Time he got out of here, he thought. But as he opened the door, Erak had one last thing to say.

  “Hal,” he called. “Thorn has big expectations of you. Don’t let him down.”

  Outside, he found Thorn waiting, kicking idly at the dust in the street. Several small children were standing at a safe distance, staring at him. They had never seen such a ragged, untidy figure in their lives. He looked up as Hal emerged from the Great Hall, glaring at him suspiciously.

  “So what was all the talking about?” he demanded.

  Hal shrugged. “Nothing much. He asked how the training was going.”

  Thorn’s suspicions were somewhat assuaged, but not completely. He thrust his face closer to Hal’s. “Did he say anything about me?”

  Hal assumed an innocent, blank look. As a teenager, used to being questioned by adults, it was something he could do almost without conscious effort.

  “You? No. He didn’t say anything about you.”

  Thorn looked hard at him for a few more seconds. Hal maintained the look of blank innocence. Finally, the old sea wolf turned away, satisfied.

  “Just as well,” he muttered.

  chapter twenty-two

  The next day, they were given their first major assessment task.

  They assembled after breakfast at the training ground, as they did every day. They went automatically to their separate areas, prepared for two hours of grueling physical training, followed by weapons drill. But today, the routine changed.

  The three brotherband instructors, and the head instructor, Sigurd, strode out of the mess tent in a group and made their way to the center of the training ground. Twenty-eight pairs of eyes followed them curiously, wondering what was about to come. They didn’t have long to wait.

  At a nod from Sigurd, Gort produced that much-hated whistle from his jerkin and blew a piercing blast on it. Not that there was any need to draw their attention. Everyone present was already watching.

  “Right!” Sigurd yelled, in a wind-quelling bellow. “Assemble here, everyone! In your bands.”

  As the boys started to straggle across the field from three different directions, he added, “AT THE DOUBLE!”

  That got them moving. By now, they knew that the last person to arrive after that command was liable to incur a penalty for his team. That unfortunate person was one of Rollond’s group. He slipped on a patch of wet grass and fell, twisting his ankle. Hal saw him fall and breathed a silent prayer of thanks. Until that happened, Ingvar had been the prime candidate to be last.

  Sigurd glared at the late-arriving Wolf as he limped in to join the group.

  “Fifteen demerits,” he snapped. A few of the Wolves muttered in annoyance, glaring at their straggling teammate, although it certainly wasn’t the poor boy’s fault.

  “Shut up!” Rollond barked, and earned an approving glance from Sigurd.

  “Just as well you spoke up, skirl. I was about to. And that would have meant more demerits.”

  The offending boys hung their heads, not wishing to meet Sigurd’s, or Rollond’s, eyes. Sigurd paused just long enough to make sure the message had registered with them, then went on briskly.

  “Today’s your first assessment.”

  There was a murmur of interest from the three bands, quickly silenced as he glanced up angrily at them.

  “It’s the mountain run,” he said, and that caused another buzz of interest, equally quickly silenced by another glare from Sigurd.

  He’s enjoying this, Hal thought. He loves getting us talking, then shutting us up.

  Sigurd held out his hand and Viggo thrust a handful of parchment sheets into them. Sigurd held them up for the assembled boys to see.

  “You’ll be racing on Boarshead Mountain. There are three routes up the mountain. At the end of each one is a tent. In the tents are three figures. A wolf, a shark and a …”—he hesitated, then his lip curled in disdain—“… a birdie.”

  The Herons shifted uncomfortably. The other teams laughed quietly. This time, Sigurd made no effort to silence them.

  “The contest is simple,” he continued as he handed the maps of each route to the three team skirls. “Each route is the same length and difficulty as the others. You run up and fetch the figure, then run back. We time you.” He indicated three water clocks on a table outside the mess tent. “Fastest time wins the points. One hundred of them. Second gets twenty. Last … gets nothing.” He paused, and looked directly at Hal and his group.

  “Any questions? No? Then get back to your normal training areas, study the maps and think about who’s going to be doing the running. I’ll be round to ask you in a few minutes.”

  Tursgud laughed. “No question. I’ll run for the Sharks.”

  Sigurd regarded him keenly. “Is that so? Well, once you decide, there’s no changing. So be sure you choose correctly. Now get going!”

  As they double-timed to their training area, Hal felt a flood of panic rising in his chest. He had no idea who would be the best choice to run for them. Ulf and Wulf were both fast. And Jesper had shown a good turn of pace in their daily sprint and long-distance training sessions. But speed wasn’t all this would take. Boarshead Mountain was steep and rough. Whoever ran it would need strength and endurance as well as speed. He realized that Stig had moved up to jog alongside him.

  “I’ll run it,” his friend said as if he was reading Hal’s thoughts. Hal glanced at him. Stig could well be the best choice for this. He was certainly the closest they had to Tursgud and Rollond.

  They reached their training area and the boys gathered in a loose half circle around him. He felt their eyes on him, waiting for him to make his decision. He cursed himself. This was his crew, his team. He should have taken the trouble to learn their abilities better. Stig was probably the best choice, he thought. But he wasn’t sure. Then he shook his head. You’re the leader. Make a decision and stick to it, he told himself.

  “Stig,” he began, “I think maybe you—”

  But he got no further. Edvin interrupted him.

  “Hal, we all have to run. This is a team event,” he said. All eyes turned to him and he continued. “Remember when we went through the assessments, we noticed that the individual tests were listed that way: ‘Wrestling, individual. Footrace, individual. Navigation, individual.’ But for the mountain race, it just said, ‘Mountain race.’ That means it’s a team event.”

  Hal frowned as he tried to recall the list. “I think you’re right,” he said slowly. “And if you are, that’s why they’ve put this one first. If we’d already done a few others, we’d be more familiar with the wording. We’d be more likely to realize that it’s not just a test of speed and endurance …”

  “It’s a test of our intelligence—our ability to read and interpret instructions,” Edvin said. He and Hal looked at each other and nodded agreement. “Remember what he said to Tursgud just now?” Edvin continued. “Be sure you choose correctly. Not be sure you choose the best person.”

  Hal chewed his lip thoughtfully. He was convinced that Edvin was right. But what if he was mi
staken? They would come last in the assessment—and they’d make a laughingstock of themselves.

  The other boys had looked on in silence as Hal and Edvin discussed the wording of the assessment. Now Ulf chimed in.

  “Better hurry up and decide. Here comes Sigurd,” he said.

  They all turned and saw the burly figure of the instructor striding toward them, flanked by his three assistants. Hal came to a decision.

  “We’ll all run,” he said. He saw the doubtful looks on most of the faces around him. Only Edvin and Stig seemed to believe he had made the right choice. Ingvar seemed oblivious to the whole thing. But then, he usually did. Ingvar seemed to live in his own private world—possibly a result of his extremely poor sight.

  There was no time for further discussion. Sigurd was upon them now, and the other three instructors were close behind him.

  “Form up,” Hal ordered and the boys quickly moved into a ragged line, facing Sigurd. For a second, Hal considered ordering them to straighten the line, then discarded the notion. Skandians weren’t big on close-order drill, he thought.

  Hal stepped to the front of the line, positioning himself in the middle as Sigurd stopped before them.

  “Very well, skirl,” Sigurd said. “Who’s running for your team—for the birdies?”

  Hal set his mouth in a straight line, refusing to show any reaction to the jibe. He took a deep breath, then committed himself—and his team.

  “We’re all running, sir. We’ll do it as a team.”

  Sigurd’s gaze snapped up, surprised. He said nothing for a few moments, then he asked carefully, “Are you sure? I’ll give you a chance to reconsider.”

  That tipped the scales for Hal. Sigurd was not the type to give him a chance to reconsider. It simply wasn’t consistent that he should suddenly give them a second chance at anything. He’s trying to trick me, Hal thought.

  “No, sir. Put us all down as the runners.”

  Sigurd shook his head as he made a notation on the sheet he was carrying.

  “Your funeral,” he muttered. “Right, get yourselves over to the starting point.”

  Hal formed the Herons into two files and they double-timed across to the starting point by the mess tent. The other bands were already assembled there. Rollond and Tursgud stood a little apart from their crews, stretching in preparation for the run.

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