The outcasts, p.20
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       The Outcasts, p.20

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “There they are!”

  Nobody knew who shouted it. Suddenly, Tursgud and Jesper appeared over the crest of the grassy rise, their arms and legs pumping, feet pounding the turf, with not a centimeter between them.

  The yelling redoubled as they came on. One hundred meters to go and they were still neck and neck. Seventy meters. Fifty meters.

  And then, Tursgud, centimeter by centimeter, began to forge ahead of Jesper.

  Seemingly in the background, Hal registered that the Wolves’ cheering had redoubled in volume as Henjak crossed the line. They gathered round their triumphant runner, slapping him on the back and shouting congratulations. Henjak accepted the praise with a grin. He barely seemed to be breathing heavily. The Herons and the Sharks continued to urge their respective runners on.

  “Jesper!”

  “Tursgud!”

  “Jesper!”

  “Tursgud!”

  The shouts alternated, overlapped, alternated again as the runners came closer. Hal’s heart sank as he saw that Tursgud was now a meter ahead of the Herons’ runner. Tursgud might be arrogant, overbearing and unlikable, he thought. But he had to admit that the big Skandian boy was a true competitor. He had a real winner’s spirit, one that refused to lie down and give up.

  They crossed the finish line with Tursgud a meter and a half in the lead. At the last instant, Jesper tried to hurl himself over the line first, but to no avail. He fell forward in the attempt and rolled over, lying on his back, gasping for breath.

  Tursgud, once he was across the line, slowed, staggered and stopped with his hands on his knees, bent over, heaving in huge, ragged gasps of air. Henjak walked across to him and held out his hand. Tursgud shook it perfunctorily, then turned away, to be surrounded by his supporters and teammates.

  Hal started toward Jesper, who still lay prone on the ground, one arm over his eyes. But Stig beat him to it. He leaned down and helped Jesper to his feet, supporting him with one arm round his shoulders.

  “You did your best,” Stig told the dejected boy.

  Jesper shook his head. “It wasn’t good enough,” he said miserably. “You should have run.”

  Stig looked up and gave Hal a wan smile.

  “I wouldn’t have done any better,” he said.

  Hal nodded acknowledgment to his friend. He couldn’t tell if Stig really believed it or not, but he was glad Stig had said it.

  Sigurd was totaling the points on the score sheet that he kept. This time, there was no need to announce them. Everyone had seen the result. He finished what he was doing and looked up at the three brotherbands. They were standing in separate groups, either praising or consoling their respective runners.

  “Attention!” he shouted and they all turned instantly to face him. “Lunch will be an hour early today.”

  He waited while the mumble of appreciation died down. Boys, he thought. Tell them they could eat early and they’d forget all their troubles. Then he continued.

  “You runners had better get some rest. The team strength test will be held this afternoon.”

  chapter twenty-four

  While the boys hurried through their lunch—although with the prospect of another assessment, some of them found they had lost their appetite—Gort, Viggo and Jarst prepared the field for the strength test.

  It was a simple enough task. They painted a white line on the grass and laid out a thick rope, about fifteen meters long, across it, at right angles to the line.

  The three brotherbands emerged from the mess tent and made their way to the competition ground. Sigurd waited till they had assembled, then took a position in front of them.

  “The team strength test is simple enough,” he said. “It’s a tug-of-war. One team grabs one end of that rope there. Another team grabs the other. Then, on the word, each team tries to pull the other across that white line. If one person from either team is dragged across the line—even as much as a toenail—the test is over. Each team will face both other teams and the one with the winning score gets the hundred points. Next best gets twenty. If there’s a tie, then the two tied teams will re-compete for first and second. Clear?”

  The group nodded and a few voices mumbled that yes, it was clear, sir, very clear. Sigurd’s face suffused with anger.

  “I SAID, IS THAT CLEAR?” he roared. This time, all twenty-eight boys answered crisply.

  “Yes, sir! Clear, sir!”

  “Very well,” he growled, scowling around at them. “I’ll draw the names of the competing teams from this helmet.”

  He reached into the old, battered helmet that he had been holding by his side and drew two slips of parchment from it.

  “First matchup,” he announced, “Sharks and Wolves.”

  There was a mutter among the assembled boys. Hal felt a slight sense of relief. He was glad he’d be able to watch a contest before the Herons had to compete. Tursgud and Rollond had briefed their teams during lunch over the positions they would take. The two most important were the head of the line and the tail, or anchor. Each team chose its biggest, heaviest boy for the anchor position. And Tursgud and Rollond both took the first place in line.

  Jesper moved to stand next to Hal as they watched the preparations.

  “It’s not fair,” he said. “There are ten of them and only eight of us.”

  Hal nodded. “We’ve known that all along. But I’ll see what I can do.”

  He strode quickly to where Sigurd was watching the two brotherbands assemble along the rope. The instructor looked up, frowning. Hal was undaunted by that. Looking bad tempered was Sigurd’s natural state, he had discovered.

  “What do you want?” the instructor demanded.

  Hal pointed to his group, standing to one side. “I was wondering, sir, since there are only eight of us, would the other teams consent to matching us with their eight best men?”

  “It’s up to the other skirls,” Sigurd told him. Then he raised his voice and addressed them. “Wolves, Sharks, Hal has asked if your teams are willing to select only your eight best men when you compete with the Herons.”

  Hal knew what Tursgud’s reply would be. But he was watching Rollond. He could see that the Wolves’ leader considered this a fair request. But Rollond hesitated, waiting to see what Tursgud said.

  “Not a chance!” snapped the leader of the Sharks. “They knew they’d be shorthanded when we started training. It’s not my fault nobody wanted them.”

  He turned away, dismissing the Herons and their request. Hal made eye contact with Rollond. He sensed that the tall boy had been about to accede to the request. But now he knew the Sharks had refused, and so were almost certain of at least one win, he had to refuse as well. He couldn’t give Tursgud that much of an advantage. He shrugged an apology to Hal, then answered Sigurd.

  “No, sir. I’m sorry, but we’ll compete with all our men,” he said.

  Sigurd nodded. He had expected as much. He turned to Hal.

  “There’s your answer,” he said. But Hal wasn’t quite ready to give up.

  “So we’ll be disadvantaged in all the team events? Is that what you’re saying?”

  Sigurd looked around, making sure nobody was within earshot, then lowered his voice anyway.

  “I suppose so. Unless you can find some way to compensate for the difference.”

  “Compensate? How would we do that?”

  The instructor shrugged his heavy shoulders. “Use your ingenuity. I’m told you have plenty of it. See if you can’t find a way to even things up. Know what I mean?” He rubbed his forefinger alongside his nose in a meaningful gesture.

  Hal frowned. “Are you saying we should look for a way to cheat?”

  Sigurd shook his head. “No. I’m saying use your ingenuity. Look, we’re training you for battle here. Let’s say one day you find yourself outnumbered by an enemy. If you can find a way to make them think you have more men than you really have, is that cheating?”

  “I suppose not,” Hal said slowly, not sure where the ins
tructor was going with this. Sigurd nodded at him, and tapped his nose in that conspiratorial gesture once again.

  “Let me put it this way: It’s only cheating if you’re caught doing it. Otherwise, it’s good tactics.”

  “I understand,” Hal said. “At least, I think I do. Maybe I’d better get back to my team.”

  “Maybe you’d better.”

  Hal turned and walked back to where the Herons were gathered. Jesper cocked his head in a question.

  “What did he say?”

  “He said to use our ingenuity,” Hal told him.

  Stig frowned. “What’s that mean?”

  “I think it means cheat, but don’t get caught doing it,” Hal said. He heard a small snort of amusement from Jesper, but when he tried to make eye contact with him, Jesper moved away, looking anywhere but in Hal’s direction.

  Hal turned his attention back to the contest. The two anchors had wrapped the rope around their waists. The other boys in the teams were spread along the rope, testing their footing, kicking holes in the turf to make footholds for themselves. They all had their eyes glued on Sigurd. After the way he had started the footrace, they weren’t going to be caught napping.

  “I’ll give the start,” Sigurd said. “Viggo and Jarst will watch the two teams to make sure there’s no cheating …”

  He paused and Hal wondered idly how you would cheat in a tug-of-war. He shrugged the thought away as Sigurd continued.

  “Gort will watch the centerline. If as much as a toe crosses it, he’ll signal the end of the contest.”

  He gestured to Gort to demonstrate. The instructor produced that whistle from his pocket and blew a shrill blast on it. Several Herons groaned softly.

  “When you hear that whistle,” Sigurd told them, “that’s the end of the contest.”

  “When I hear that whistle,” Stefan said in a lowered voice, “it’s the end of my sanity.”

  The Herons laughed, earning themselves a glare from Sigurd. Quickly, they wiped all traces of amusement from their faces.

  “Very well …,” said Sigurd. He looked left and right, satisfied himself that both teams were ready, then shouted: “Go!”

  The two teams threw themselves back against the rope and it came up instantly bar-taut. The watching Heron band leaned forward, not sure whether to cheer or not. They all hoped Rollond’s team would win because they disliked Tursgud. But they weren’t sure how that would affect the final score.

  The Wolves’ team began to lose ground as the Sharks heaved mightily on the rope. The Wolves inched closer to that white line, leaning back, eyes shut with the strain, groaning in pain and effort as they tried to arrest their slow movement toward defeat.

  With one meter to go, they managed it. Rollond summoned all his strength and heaved suddenly and mightily on the rope. The Sharks’ slow backward movement was arrested. The two teams strained and heaved and neither moved an inch. But the Sharks had expended a lot of their energy in that first desperate lunge backward, to drag the other team so close to the centerline. Now they had nothing in reserve. The Wolves poured on the pressure and the Sharks moved forward a meter, then another, gaining momentum as they went.

  Tursgud screamed abuse and curses at his team as he struggled to stop himself being dragged over the white line.

  “He’s wasting breath,” Stig said quietly in Hal’s ear.

  Hal nodded. “He never learns, does he?”

  “NOW!” Rollond yelled. It was obviously something they had planned in advance. At his call, all the Wolves summoned one last desperate surge of strength against the rope, with their anchorman hurling himself backward until his back was almost touching the ground.

  And that did it.

  The one concerted, coordinated heave overcame the individual scrabbling and scrambling of the Sharks, and Tursgud was dragged bodily over the centerline.

  PEEEEEEEP!

  Gort’s whistle sounded the end of the test and all the contestants let go of the rope simultaneously, allowing themselves to sprawl on the grass. In the Wolves’ case, they were laughing and joking. The Sharks were sullen and ill-tempered.

  Sigurd strode forward.

  “Good work, Wolves,” he said briskly, then reached into the helmet again and withdrew a slip of paper. He only needed one because it was obvious that the Herons would be competing in the next bout. “Fifteen minutes to recover. Then it’s Wolves and Herons.”

  “Good luck to us,” Ulf said sarcastically. They had all seen how the Wolves had overcome the full-strength Sharks’ team. They knew that eight of them had little chance against the ten Wolves.

  And so it proved. The contest lasted barely fifteen seconds before Stig, who was in the lead for the Herons, was dragged over the centerline.

  The watching Sharks cheered ironically when they saw how easily the eight Herons were defeated. They might not win this assessment. But now they knew they were a certainty for second place.

  “Fifteen minutes!” Sigurd told the dejected Herons. “Then you face the Sharks.”

  “And good luck to us,” said Wulf this time.

  His brother looked at him angrily. “I said that first,” he snapped.

  Wulf thrust his chest out, facing him. “And I said it second! Want to do something about it?”

  “Do you?”

  “Oh, stop it, for pity’s sake!” Hal told them. They both looked at him in surprise and he realized that half the time, they had no idea that they were actually squabbling. It was just an automatic reflex.

  “This is no time for us to be fighting amongst ourselves,” Hal told them. “We’ve got to figure a way to beat Tursgud.”

  Stig laughed sarcastically. “Let me know what it is.”

  “What’s Jesper up to?” Edvin said suddenly. They followed his gaze and saw Jesper had approached Gort. He laid his hand on the instructor’s arm to get his attention and said something to him. Gort shook his hand off and gestured angrily back to where Jesper’s teammates were waiting. Jesper shrugged and sauntered back to join them.

  “What was that about?” Hal asked.

  “Oh, I was asking our esteemed instructor if he had any last-minute advice that might help us. But he told me to get the blazes back to my team.”

  “I’m not surprised,” Hal said. “What were you thinking?”

  Jesper looked round to make sure nobody was watching, then grinned evilly.

  “I was using my ingenuity. I thought we might find a use for this,” he said, and held up Gort’s silver whistle. “I picked his pocket when I put my other hand on his arm.”

  Quickly, the boys huddled around him to shield the whistle from view. Hal’s mind raced, then a smile spread over his face.

  “All right, here’s what we do. Jesper, keep the whistle concealed in your hand. Get behind me in the line. When we start to slide toward the center mark, wait till we get close, then blow the whistle. I’ll tell you when.” He looked around the circle of eager faces. “As soon as we hear that, we all stand up as if it’s over,” he continued. “Let go the rope, groan and moan as if we’ve lost. The Sharks will do the same thing. Except they’ll be patting themselves on the back. We all do that,” he repeated, then looked at Ingvar. “Except Ingvar. You’ll be our anchor, Ingvar. As soon as you hear the whistle, turn and run, pulling as if the three gods of the Vallas are after you.”

  Ingvar frowned, then smiled and nodded.

  Hal saw that a few of his team hadn’t quite understood the result he was aiming for.

  “Their anchor will be tied to the rope, so he can’t let go. But Ingvar is twice his size and much stronger. He’ll be able to heave him over the line and we’ll win.” He glanced back at Jesper. “As soon as we’re done, get rid of the whistle.”

  He paused, seeing the grins breaking out among the others.

  “Everyone clear?” he asked. They all nodded.

  “Clear!” they responded.

  “Ingvar?” he asked.

  Ingvar nodded ponderously. “Don’t w
orry, Hal. I’m shortsighted, not stupid. I’ve got it.”

  “Then let’s go,” Hal said, seeing Sigurd moving toward them to summon them to the final contest.

  They moved in a group to take up their positions on the rope. Stig was first in line, with Hal behind him. Then Jesper. Stefan and the twins were behind him, then Edvin and, finally, Ingvar was at the end. The massively built boy wrapped the rope around his waist.

  On the other side of the center mark, his counterpart did the same, and the nine other Sharks took hold of the rope, with Tursgud in the lead position, facing Stig.

  “Ready to lose, birdies?” he said sarcastically.

  Stig went to reply, but Hal, close behind him, said in a low, urgent voice, “Ignore it!”

  Stig nodded, pushing the sudden burst of anger down with a giant effort. Instead, he smiled at Tursgud. Strangely, he thought, that seemed to annoy the other boy more than a snappy reply. He filed that away for future reference.

  Sigurd stepped forward, looking left and right. Gort crouched, eyes riveted on the white mark, his hand hovering near his pocket.

  Don’t reach for the whistle yet, Hal pleaded silently. Gort’s hand played with the edge of his pocket and Hal held his breath. But before the instructor could reach farther, Sigurd’s command boomed out.

  “GO!”

  Again, the rope came up taut with a loud snap. Dust and dirt flew from it as the strands tightened suddenly. The two teams heaved, neither moving as they felt each other’s strength and power. Then inexorably, the Herons began to slide forward. No amount of bracing their heels into the turf, no amount of leaning back against the rope, no amount of snarling with the muscle-wrenching effort could stop their slow slide toward defeat.

  Stig’s feet teetered forward in tiny steps, getting closer and closer to the line. Out of the corner of his eye, Hal saw Gort leaning forward, his hand went into his pocket, and he frowned, searching.

  “Now!” Hal gasped.

  Jesper, leaning forward over the rope so that Viggo couldn’t see what he was doing, put the whistle to his lips.

 

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