The outcasts, p.19
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       The Outcasts, p.19

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “Very well,” Sigurd told them. “Here are the runners. For the Wolves, Rollond. For the Sharks, Tursgud.” He paused and all eyes turned on the remaining group, which was what he had intended. “And the Herons tell me they all intend to run the course.”

  There was a shout of laughter from the other boys.

  “Good idea,” Tursgud called out, grinning broadly. “That way at least one of them might finish.” There was more laughter, which Sigurd allowed to run its course before speaking again.

  “That won’t happen. Everyone who starts must finish.” He looked at Rollond. “You’re first to start, get to the start line.”

  Rollond took one more look at the map, then crammed it into his jacket. He nodded to Sigurd to show he was ready. Sigurd, in turn, nodded to Gort.

  The whistle shrilled and Rollond took off, running like a stag, light-footed and long striding, for the trees at the bottom of the mountain. His teammates cheered him on until he disappeared into the trees fringing the field. At the mess tent, Jarst removed the pin from the first of the water clocks. Water began dripping slowly down into the bottom receptacle.

  The scene was repeated for Tursgud. He jogged lightly from one foot to the other as he waited for the start signal, exuding confidence. Then he was away, with the Sharks’ cheers to urge him on.

  Then, finally, it was the Herons’ turn.

  “Very well, birdies. One last chance to reconsider?” Sigurd looked at Hal. But Hal set his jaw and shook his head. “No? Very well. No flying, birdies, that would be cheating and you know …”

  He must have signaled to Gort with his hand behind his back, because he was still in mid-sentence when the start whistle sounded. Caught off guard, Hal hesitated for a second. Then, cursing, he took off at a run.

  “Come on!” he shouted to the others and they streamed after him, the laughter of the other bands loud in their ears.

  The climb was brutal. The path they were set on was narrow and steep and winding. In places, it disappeared completely, leaving them to negotiate shale-laden collapses and steep rock walls. When the trail resumed, the trees and undergrowth had grown in to crowd it, so that whoever was leading had to force a way through. Hal organized a roster in which he, Stig, Jesper and Stefan alternated as the leader—who had the hardest job. Poor Ingvar fell several times in the first fifty meters of the climb. Eventually, Hal assigned the twins to him to keep him on his feet. They each took him by a hand and dragged him up the steep path.

  Even so, he fell repeatedly, often bringing the twins down with him. After a while, Hal and Edvin replaced them.

  Eventually, Hal noticed that the trees were thinning. He could see more and more of the sky around them and feel the wind more keenly. At ground level, it had been a gentle breeze. Here, it cut through their sweat-dampened clothing like a chill knife.

  “We made it!”

  It was Stig, whose turn it was to take the lead. The others straggled up beside him, Hal and Edvin arriving last of all, leading the lumbering Ingvar. A small two-man tent was pitched in the lee of some rocks. Stig indicated it to Hal.

  Hal realized, with a mild sense of surprise, that they had all waited for him to look inside the tent. He gestured to Stefan.

  “Get the bird,” he said, his breath coming raggedly. He simply didn’t have the energy to stoop and crawl into the tent. He thought that if he did, he might well just lie down inside and not come out.

  Stefan went down on hands and knees and crawled into the tent. A few seconds later, his grinning face emerged, and he held up a carved bird figure for them to see.

  “Got it!” he said, scrambling to his feet. He held it out to Hal, who took it and examined it. There was nothing extraordinary about it. It was a rough carving of a seabird.

  He looked around, took a deep breath and shoved the figurine inside his jacket.

  “All right,” he said wearily. “Let’s go back down. Ulf, Wulf, you take Ingvar for a while.”

  He had thought the downward route might be easier. But he was sadly mistaken. They plunged down, trying to keep their balance in the steeper parts, falling and sliding on the frequent patches of shale and loose scree. Going downhill worked a completely different set of muscles, and before long, their calves and ankles ached unbearably and they were cut and scratched in a dozen places where they had fallen. After several hundred meters, Hal learned it was best if Ingvar went first, with his two acolytes. That way, when the huge boy fell, he didn’t bring down those of his teammates who were ahead of him. And in any event, they had to keep to Ingvar’s speed, as they all had to arrive back together.

  Eventually, weary, bruised, scratched, with wrenched muscles and turned ankles, they blundered out onto level ground again, and saw the training area several hundred meters away. Although he had expected it, Hal’s heart sank as he made out the figures of Tursgud and Rollond by the finish line. He had hoped that they might have somehow beaten one of them.

  “Couldn’t one of them have fallen and broken a leg?” he muttered savagely as he led the Herons at a weary jog toward the finish line.

  “What?” said Stig, jogging beside him.

  Hal shook his head irritably. There was an ironic cheer from the other two groups, and a few catcalls as the Herons staggered wearily to the line. Hal glanced at the scoreboard where the times had been scrawled in charcoal.

  Rollond: 42 minutes.

  Tursgud: 47 minutes.

  Jarst, who was attending the water clocks, pushed in the stopper as the last of the Herons—Ingvar, naturally—crossed the line. Hal noticed angrily that the timekeeper had exhausted one water clock and had begun to use a second. Jarst studied the level expended on the second bowl and called out.

  “Herons, one hour twelve minutes.”

  The Wolves and the Sharks laughed—the Wolves loudest of all because they had the winning time.

  Sigurd, his face neutral, stepped forward to confirm the performances.

  “Fastest time was Rollond. Second was Tursgud. Slowest were the Heron team.”

  The Wolves began whooping and pounding one another on the back in celebration of their win. Two of them hoisted the grinning Rollond on their shoulders and began to parade him round the training area. The Sharks were more subdued. But still, Hal thought, he would have been glad of the twenty points for second place. He glanced at Edvin, who shrugged wearily and hung his head.

  “Sorry,” Edvin muttered. “My fault.”

  Hal was tempted to agree, but he knew that wouldn’t be fair. The decision had been his. Edvin had only done his best to advise him.

  He opened his mouth to say so when Sigurd’s bellow interrupted him.

  “SHUT UP! SHUT UP AND PUT THAT MAN DOWN!”

  He was pointing to the boys chairing Rollond on their shoulders. His face was red with anger. Gradually, the cheering and yelling died away. The boys he was pointing to, embarrassed and confused, set Rollond back down on the grass. He started toward Sigurd, a puzzled frown on his face.

  “I’m sorry, sir, is there something wrong?”

  “Yes, there’s something wrong,” Sigurd replied. He slapped the sheet of assessments with the back of his hand.

  “This assessment was a group exercise. Rollond and Tursgud are disqualified. The Herons win. One hundred points. There’s no second place getter since both other teams were disqualified.”

  He nodded to Hal and his team, turned on his heel and strode away. Hal heard a howl of triumph from his crew, felt an enormous impact on his shoulder as a massive hand sent him staggering several paces.

  “Thank you, Ingvar,” he said. He didn’t even have to look.

  chapter twenty-three

  From then on, the assessments came when the teams least expected them. Four days after the mountain run, they had only just begun their physical conditioning session when Sigurd strode onto the training ground, sounded a horn and summoned them.

  “Assessment! ” he announced. “Footrace! Ten minutes!”

  The racetra
ck had been laid out the night before, while they slept. It was marked by flags on slender willow poles and led from the training ground down the hill, through the town of Hallasholm, around the harbor and back uphill to the training ground.

  “Select your runners,” Sigurd ordered. He looked meaningfully at Rollond and Tursgud. “This one’s an individual test.”

  Tursgud scowled at the Herons.

  “I’ll run for my team,” he said briefly.

  Hal had known he would. He guessed that Tursgud’s ego wouldn’t allow him to nominate anyone else for any of the individual tests. He had to excel at everything. Hal looked at Rollond, saw the tall boy hesitate and knew he wanted to confront Tursgud directly. But he shook his head, as if dispelling the thought, and pointed to one of his team, a lean, long-legged boy who had shown a remarkable turn of speed during the daily training exercises.

  “Henjak,” he said. The boy grinned and started shaking his arms and legs to loosen up the muscles.

  “I’ll run,” said a voice close to Hal. It was Stig. But Hal held up his hand in a negative gesture. He had decided he wasn’t going to be caught unprepared again. He knew there was a footrace in the list of assessments and he’d been studying the relative speeds of his team members during the daily sprints and distance runs. Stig was fast. But Jesper was faster.

  Possibly it was his background as an incorrigible thief that had helped him develop such speed, Hal thought, with a wry smile.

  “I’m choosing Jesper,” he said to his friend, in a quiet tone. He didn’t want to embarrass Stig in front of the others. He saw his friend’s face flush with sudden anger.

  “I can beat Tursgud,” he said.

  “You might be able to. But the question is, can you beat Henjak?”

  As well as assessing his own team’s performance, Hal had tried, as far as possible, to keep tabs on the two opposing brotherbands to see who their fastest runners were. He knew little about Henjak, admittedly. But he’d seen how fast Rollond was. If he thought Henjak was the better choice to represent the Wolves, Henjak must be very fast indeed.

  For a few seconds, Stig glared at him. There’s that temper of his, Hal thought. Then his friend abruptly turned on his heel and walked away, throwing an angry, “Fine then,” over his shoulder.

  “Come on, skirl! We don’t have all day!” Sigurd was waiting impatiently for his decision.

  Hal looked up and said, “Jesper will run for the Herons.”

  He saw the look of surprise on Jesper’s face, instantly replaced by wariness. Jesper had seen Stig talking to Hal and had assumed that Stig would be the runner. Now the reason for the angry reaction was clear. Jesper hoped that his selection wouldn’t put him in Stig’s bad books. The big boy would be a dangerous enemy to make.

  Hal nodded reassuringly to him and Jesper shrugged his shoulders, then made his way to the start line. Tursgud and Henjak were already waiting for him. Henjak smiled and leaned over to shake hands. Tursgud ignored both his opponents. Henjak, still smiling, rolled his eyes at Jesper, jerking his head toward the Sharks’ leader.

  He looks confident, Jesper thought. He’s not scared of Tursgud. He thinks he’ll beat him easily. He’s the big threat.

  He squared his shoulders. Hal had shown faith in him, he thought. He determined to repay his leader by beating this gangly, friendly, confident boy. And beating him thoroughly.

  “All right, runners,” Sigurd said. “On the start line … GO!”

  There was no preparation. No countdown. Just the sudden, explosive order.

  Jesper was a thief. He was used to taking off on a fraction of a second’s notice and he shot away like a startled hare, gaining a five-meter advantage over the other two, who wasted time looking to Sigurd for confirmation that the race had actually started. Then they both bolted in pursuit of Jesper’s fast-disappearing form.

  The remaining boys all started yelling encouragement as the three runners, with Jesper still in the lead and Tursgud and Henjak in hot pursuit, left the training area and started on the downhill path to the town. The three brotherbands streamed across the field to keep the runners in sight.

  Hal went to move with the rest of the group but a hand on his shoulder stopped him. It was Stig, and he could tell his friend was still angry.

  “Some friend you are,” Stig said bitterly.

  Hal shook his head in frustration. “Stig, just because I didn’t select you doesn’t mean we’re not friends. I tried to choose the best person for the task.”

  “Jesper?” Stig said, disbelief evident in his voice.

  “Yes. Jesper.”

  “I beat him when we ran yesterday,” Stig said.

  Hal nodded acknowledgment of the fact. “Yes. I saw that. But I don’t believe he was running full out yesterday. And he’s beaten you every other time.”

  Stig paused uncertainly. He obviously hadn’t considered that fact.

  “Well, he’d better win this time,” he said.

  Hal spread his hands in a conciliatory gesture. “Stig, I didn’t do this to annoy you. I’m the team leader. I have to do what I think is best. I told you, you have to go along with all my orders, not just the ones you agree with.”

  He saw the anger slowly draining from Stig’s face as his friend thought about what he had said. Eventually, and a little grudgingly, he replied. “I guess so. Let’s hope you’re right.”

  “Come on,” Hal said, clapping him on the shoulder. “Let’s go watch them race.”

  They joined the others. The training area was a large meadow set on high ground, overlooking the town of Hallasholm. The racecourse curved down the hill, hidden in places by the trees, then entered the town itself. It followed a loop through the town, obscured from their view for the most part, then reappeared at a point where it wound back up the hill.

  The yelling and cheering that had followed the runners down the hill died away as the observers lost sight of them.

  “Where are they?” Hal asked the nearest person to him. Then, realizing it was Ingvar, who was looking in entirely the wrong direction, he muttered, “Never mind.” He jogged Edvin with his elbow instead and repeated the question.

  “Behind the trees,” Edvin told him, pointing to a large stand of trees just above the town. Almost as soon as he spoke, the yelling began again as the runners emerged into view. The three boys were bunched in a tight group. It was impossible to tell who was in the lead, if anyone was. They sprinted, as if joined together, into the outskirts of the town. Then they were lost to sight again. Faintly, the sound of cheering could be heard from the town. The people of Hallasholm must have been aware that the race would be run today, Hal thought. They had probably seen the course being marked out the previous day.

  Anxiously, the members of the three brotherbands scanned the town, looking for some sight of the racers. Occasionally, there would be a brief flash of movement between buildings, but they could never be sure who was winning. One thing they could see was that one of the runners had opened a gap between himself and the other two. Someone from the Sharks started to yell in triumph, then abruptly fell silent as he realized he wasn’t sure that it had been Tursgud he’d seen in the lead.

  Then Henjak emerged from the town, running hard toward the track that led uphill to the training area. The Wolves went wild with delight, screaming encouragement to their man. The Sharks and the Herons remained silent, anxiously straining to see the first sight of the next runner. Then Jesper and Tursgud emerged from the town, running neck and neck. First one would surge away a few paces, then the other would reel him in and go past. Then the first would make up the gap between them and they’d be neck and neck once more.

  “Come on, Jesper!” a voice bellowed close to Hal’s ear. He jumped in surprise, then realized it was Stig urging their runner on. He grinned at him. Typical Stig, he thought. A few moments of flaring bad temper, then everything was back to normal again.

  The other Herons followed his example, yelling encouragement to Jesper. The Wolves and S
harks were shouting as well, the Wolves loudest of all, as Henjak increased his lead over the other two, then went out of sight in a large dip in the ground that hid him from those watching above.

  “I think Henjak is gaining,” Stefan said.

  Stig glanced sidelong at him. “It’s not over yet,” he said. “Jesper can still catch him.”

  “Even second would be good,” Ulf said, earning himself a glare from Stig.

  “Blast second! He can still win! Come on, Jesper!”

  Ingvar plucked at Hal’s sleeve. “What’s happening, Hal? Are we winning?” he asked anxiously.

  Quickly, Hal brought him up to date on the progress of the race. Ingvar nodded as he took it in, then, without warning, roared, “COME ON, JESPER!”

  Hal jumped in fright at the sudden, deafening noise. That large frame and huge chest could produce a prodigious volume of noise.

  “Warn me if you’re going to do that again, will you?” he demanded.

  Ingvar shrugged apologetically. “Sorry, Hal.” Then he added, “I’m going to do it again now.”

  “Be my guest,” Hal said, just before Ingvar let rip with another thundering roar.

  “COME ON, JESPER! RUN! RUN!”

  Surreptitiously, Hal moved a pace or two away from him.

  Without warning, Henjak seemed to float into sight over the top of the rise just below them, a hundred and fifty meters from the finish line. The cheers from the Wolves grew even louder, while the other two bands fell silent. Jesper and Tursgud were now hidden from sight below the rise Henjak had just topped.

  “Well, so much for ‘he can still win,’” Wulf said. Stig scowled at him.

  “Second will be all right,” Stefan said.

  The tension was palpable. Henjak was coasting toward the finish line, spurred on by the shouts and cheers of his fellow Wolves. He was far ahead of the other two and the only question now was who would come in second—Tursgud or Jesper. The Sharks and the Herons waited in unbearable silence to see who would be leading when they came over the rise.

 

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