The outcasts, p.21
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       The Outcasts, p.21

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  PEEEEEEEP!

  At the piercing sound, seventeen boys relaxed, releasing the rope. The Sharks cheered, convinced they had won. The Herons threw their arms up in despair. Several of them fell to the ground. Jesper, overcome with exhaustion, lurched away from the rope and cannoned awkwardly into Gort, who angrily shoved him aside.

  And the eighteenth boy, Ingvar, turned and ran like a charging bull, pulling on the rope with all his strength, thrusting with his powerful legs and heaving with the muscles of his massive arms and shoulders and chest.

  The Sharks’ anchorman, caught by surprise, was propelled past his cheering comrades at a run. As he tried to release the rope around his waist, he tripped and fell and was dragged, sliding on his back, over the line.

  Pandemonium.

  The Herons were cheering Ingvar, jeering at Tursgud and his team. Tursgud’s face was black with fury.

  Sigurd strode among them and bellowed for silence. Gradually, the hubbub died away.

  “Gort!” the chief instructor demanded. “Why did you blow the whistle?”

  Gort shook his head, puzzled. “I didn’t. I was reaching for it but I couldn’t find it.” He patted his pockets, searching for it, then frowned. “Wait … here it is. I must have put it in the wrong pocket.”

  Hal looked at Jesper, who lowered one eyelid in a slow, conspiratorial wink.

  “Well, who blew the whistle?” Gort demanded. He was rewarded with a circle of blank looks. “Viggo! What did you see?”

  Viggo shrugged, grinning. “I didn’t see anyone with a whistle, chief. I did see the Sharks’ last man being pulled across the line. I guess that means the Herons won.”

  “WHAT?” It was Tursgud, his voice cracking with anger and indignation. “They cheated!” He thrust an accusing finger at Hal and his team, who grinned back at him.

  Sigurd slapped his hand down. “And tell me exactly, how did they manage to do that?”

  “They—they—” Tursgud stammered, then his eyes bored in on Hal as he realized how they had done it. “They must have had a whistle of their own.”

  Instantly, Hal stepped forward, matching Tursgud’s indignation. He snapped an order to his team.

  “All right, Herons. Turn out your pockets. Now!”

  And a shower of small items hit the ground. Pieces of string. A comb. Several coins, a carved wooden figure, a piece of amber, and a smooth white river rock that Wulf was very fond of.

  But no whistle. Hal looked at Sigurd and spread his hands.

  “They’ve hidden it somewhere!” Tursgud insisted.

  But Sigurd shook his head. “It’s a silver bosun’s whistle, boy. They don’t grow on trees, you know. How do you think Hal’s team got their hands on one?”

  “I don’t know. But I … maybe they … well, I don’t know but they must have …”

  Edvin stepped forward, holding one hand in the air, forefinger raised, rather like a student in barneskole.

  “Instructor?” he said hesitantly.

  Sigurd turned to him. “What is it?” he demanded.

  Edvin was almost apologetic as he continued. “It’s just … I saw a couple of jackdaws a little while back. They’re always mimicking sounds, you know?”

  Sigurd nodded. That was true. “I know. What about it?”

  “Well …” Edvin hesitated, glancing nervously at Gort. “It’s just that Gort does blow his whistle an awful lot,” he said, then hurriedly added to Gort, “sorry, sir.”

  Gort harrumphed. It was true, and everyone knew it.

  Sigurd came to a decision. “Very well, that’s the only explanation that makes sense. It was a jackdaw. So the result is, a win to the Herons—”

  “No!” Tursgud began.

  But Sigurd rolled on over him. “That’s two wins to the Wolves, one to the Herons. Nil to the Sharks. That’s the way we’ll mark it.”

  “No! It’s not fair! I want a rematch! I protest!” Tursgud was almost screaming in fury. Little flecks of white showed at the corners of his mouth. Sigurd turned slowly and looked at him.

  “You protest?” he said, his voice ominously calm.

  Tursgud got himself under control and nodded. “Yes. I protest!”

  Tursgud was about to say more, but Sigurd stepped forward, standing with his face a few centimeters from the boy’s.

  “Well, get this straight. You don’t protest. You obey! Understood?”

  “But my father is the …,” Tursgud began then, seeing a very nasty light in Sigurd’s eyes, he backed away. “Yes, sir.”

  “The result stands,” Sigurd said, then he pushed through the crowd of boys. As he passed Hal, he said in a low tone, “Don’t know how you did it. Don’t want to know. But well done.”

  chapter twenty-five

  If Hal expected that to be the end of the matter, he was sadly mistaken.

  There was no more training after the strength test and the three teams were allowed to return to their living quarters to clean or mend their kit. The Herons set about their long-delayed task of thatching the barracks roof with pine branches. The canvas cover had been sufficient so far. But they knew that, as the weather grew colder, the rainstorms would become heavier, and eventually they would be facing snowstorms as well.

  In addition, Hal knew that the extra layer of branches would keep the barracks warmer during the cold nights to come.

  They cut a large supply of pine boughs, carrying them back to the campsite, then trimming them and passing them up to Edvin and Stefan. They were the lightest of the group, and so better suited to moving around on the roof. Ingvar had offered to help them. Hal had seen the others turning away to hide their smiles and he managed to keep a straight face as he thanked Ingvar, but suggested his strength might be better suited to carrying the large bundles of pine boughs in from the forest.

  He had a mental image of Ingvar blundering around on the flimsy canvas roof, eventually coming crashing through, bringing a hail of torn canvas and shattered frames with him.

  They had almost completed the job when Tursgud and his brotherband strode into the clearing.

  The Herons were ill prepared for a confrontation. Two of their number were poised on the top of the roof, where the support structure was flimsy, to say the least. Ulf and Wulf were halfway up ladders, laden with pine boughs that they were passing to Edvin and Stefan. Stig, Hal and Jesper were trimming the pine boughs so that they were evenly shaped, and Ingvar was in the forest, fetching a final load of pine boughs.

  The Sharks’ team, by contrast, were in one concerted group. And they outnumbered the Herons, ten to eight. They quickly surrounded Hal, Stig and Jesper, cutting Hal off from his other teammates.

  “I want a word with you,” Tursgud said angrily.

  Hal felt Stig bristling with anger beside him and he laid a hand on his forearm.

  “Steady,” he told Stig in a quiet voice. He held Tursgud’s gaze with his own. “Say what you have to say and leave.”

  Tursgud gave a short bark of angry laughter. “Yes. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? Well, we’re not leaving. You cheated us out of second place and you’re going to pay for it.”

  Ulf and Wulf scrambled down from their ladders, and found themselves confronted by two of Tursgud’s larger companions, who detached themselves from the group surrounding Hal, Stig and Jesper.

  Another of the Sharks darted forward and kicked the two ladders away from the wall, leaving Edvin and Stefan stranded on the roof.

  “You cheated us,” Tursgud said angrily.

  Again, Hal felt Stig ready to step forward and he increased the pressure of his grip on the other boy’s arm. There was nothing to be gained by Stig losing his temper here, he thought. They were badly outnumbered. Tursgud had planned this carefully. Hal had no doubt that the Sharks team had waited in the tree line, watching them at work. Then they had picked the moment when the Herons were spread out and vulnerable.

  “And exactly how did we do that, Tursgud?” Hal said.

  The big boy shook his head
angrily. “Don’t bandy words with me, Hal Who,” he said, contempt in his voice as he used the disparaging term. “You cheated us and we all know it.”

  “I prefer to say we out-thought you,” Hal said carefully.

  “And that wasn’t too hard,” Stefan put in, from his perch on the roof.

  Tursgud threw an angry glance his way and Hal wished his teammate would learn when to keep his mouth shut. Tursgud turned back to Hal.

  “However you put it,” Tursgud said, “you’ve earned yourself a beating. And I’m going to give it to you.”

  This time Stig, his anger thoroughly roused, broke free of Hal’s restraining grip and stepped forward to confront Tursgud.

  “Why don’t you try giving me a beating, you overblown bully!” he challenged.

  Tursgud eyed him contemptuously. “Fighting Hal’s battles for him, are you, Stig?” he said. Then he sneered at Hal. “And how about you? Happy to hide behind your friend, are you?”

  Hal felt his own anger stir then. He knew that he couldn’t let Stig take this fight for him. He had to confront Tursgud himself. He remembered Thorn’s words: He fears you. Sooner or later, it’ll come to a head between the two of you.

  “It’s all right, Stig,” he said. “This is my fight.”

  Stig looked quickly round at him. “You’re always saying that we’re a team, Hal. That we should pick the best man for the job. Well, I’m picking myself for this one. I’ve been waiting to settle Tursgud’s hash for him. I’ll fight you,” he said, addressing the last words to Tursgud.

  Tursgud smiled at him. “But I don’t want to fight you, Stig. You’re rather stupid and annoying, it’s true, but I can put up with that. Your Araluen friend, however, is a liar and a cheat. I hear most Araluens are like that. We don’t want his sort in Hallasholm.”

  “Too bad. Because if you plan to fight Hal, you’ll have to go through me first,” said Stig. His face was flaming with anger now and he stepped closer to Tursgud until he stood chest to chest with him. The Sharks’ skirl looked at him with bored amusement.

  “Oh well, if you insist,” he said, then snapped his fingers.

  It was obviously a prearranged signal, Hal thought. Anyone who knew Stig would have known he would choose to confront Tursgud and the Sharks hadn’t come here without making plans. Two of them leapt forward, one of them dropping a noose of rope over Stig’s shoulders and pulling tight, pinning his arms to his body. Stig yelled angrily but the two Sharks rapidly looped the rope around him several more times, in spite of his struggles. Then one of them kicked his feet from under him and sent him sprawling. Stig cursed at them as they held him down, but to no avail.

  Wulf started forward to help him. But the large boy facing him stepped to block him and shoved him back. Ulf shoved him in turn.

  “Leave my brother alone!” he shouted. Then the other Shark stepped to block Ulf as well.

  The situation was poised to boil over any second, Hal saw. The atmosphere was as taut as a fiddle string. Man for man, the Sharks were generally bigger and stronger than his team. They had been the first boys picked, after all. Now Stig was helpless, Edvin and Stefan were stranded on the roof, and Ulf and Wulf were both facing opponents much bigger than they were. That left him and Jesper.

  And Ingvar, of course. The massive boy had just emerged from the forest with a load of pine branches. He peered around like a confused bear. He could see shapes, and he realized there were more people in the campsite than when he’d left.

  “Hal?” he said. “What’s going on?”

  “Take it easy, Ingvar,” Hal said. If Ingvar started throwing punches, he was just as likely to decimate his own friends as the enemy. Once again, he realized how carefully Tursgud had planned this confrontation.

  He stepped forward, stopping a meter short of Tursgud, seeing the triumph in the bigger boy’s eyes as he realized he’d maneuvered Hal into accepting the fight.

  Most fights are won in the first one or two punches, Thorn had told him.

  “All right,” he said reluctantly, “I’ll fight you if that’s what you want.”

  And without further notice, he sent two lightning left jabs into Tursgud’s face, feeling the other boy’s nose crunch under the impact of the second, then stepped forward and hooked savagely with his right at the big boy’s jaw, hoping to end it there and then.

  Unfortunately, his first two punches were too successful, and Tursgud was reeling back in surprise and pain so that Hal’s vicious right hook barely grazed his jaw, instead of making the crushing contact he had hoped for.

  The watching boys, Herons and Sharks alike, howled like animals as the fight started and they hurried to form a circle round the two opponents. Several of the Sharks caught Tursgud as he staggered back and steadied him, then shoved him forward once more.

  He came at Hal like a raging bull, swinging left and right in huge, arcing blows. Hal ducked under one, blocked a second with his own left hand and jabbed now with his right, hitting Tursgud once more.

  He was conscious of the other boys screaming encouragement and hate. He followed up the jab and walked into a shattering right hand from Tursgud. At the last moment, he remembered Thorn’s advice to keep his chin tucked in. If the blow had caught him on the jaw, the fight would have ended there and then. As it was, it exploded against his cheekbone under the eye, feeling like a sledgehammer blow. He staggered back, felt hands stop him from falling and shove him forward again.

  Tursgud was waiting for him. He joined both hands together and swung them at Hal’s head. Hal, still dizzy from that last massive blow, saw it coming and swayed back. He felt the wind of Tursgud’s joined hands as they rushed past, millimeters from his face. Then he realized that Tursgud would be off balance in his follow-through and he leapt forward, sending that left hand darting out like a snake once more.

  Smack! Smack! Two good hits, one of them above Tursgud’s eye. Blood ran from a cut where Hal’s fist had caught the flesh against the bony ridge of Tursgud’s eyebrow. He hooked right again but Tursgud had learned that trick and blocked the blow with his own right.

  Tursgud snarled and lunged forward. The blow to the cheek had cause Hal’s eye to swell and close. Hal saw that big left fist begin to swing in a huge arc again. He ducked, but his depth perception was hazy and he couldn’t avoid the blow completely. It caught the top of his head and sent him reeling again. He crashed into two of the spectators. As before, he felt their hands on him as they held him up, preparing to shove him back into the fight. But this time Tursgud yelled at them.

  “Hold him!”

  Hal had fallen against two of the watching Sharks. Now he felt their arms lock on his, holding him helpless as Tursgud advanced, measuring the distance between them, his right hand drawing back.

  Hal jerked sideways, trying to avoid the blow, lowering his head. He was only partially successful and he grunted in pain as Tursgud’s fist hit him. He tried to crouch.

  “Hold him up!”

  It was Tursgud’s voice. But it seemed to come from a long way away. Hal’s ears were ringing and he realized that consciousness was slipping away from him. A hand grasped his hair and pulled his head up, sending tears flowing from his eyes with the pain. He opened his good eye and, through a blur of tears, saw Tursgud drawing back that right hand again, slowly and methodically, taking his time to make sure the blow connected.

  At the last moment, he lurched sideways again, feeling the fist scrape painfully along the side of his face, tearing at his ear, so that blood started to trickle down from a torn earlobe.

  “Hold him, blast you!”

  Now the grip on Hal’s arms tightened. Once more his head was dragged up by the hair and once more Tursgud, a blurred figure now, was measuring him for the final punch.

  This must be how Ingvar sees things, Hal thought. He could hear the spectators screaming still. The Herons were screaming abuse at Tursgud’s cowardly attack but, outnumbered as they were, there was nothing they could do. The Sharks were screaming in a
savage, animal hatred, urging their leader on.

  “Kill him! Kill him!”

  He could make out the individual voices. Stig was screaming in frustrated rage. Hal knew it was him but Stig was beyond words. Stefan was yelling abuse at Tursgud.

  “You coward! Fight fair!”

  “Kill him! Kill him!” That was one of the Sharks. He didn’t know who.

  “Hal? Are you all right?” That was Ingvar and Hal, in spite of the situation, or perhaps because of it, smiled groggily, his bruised, cut lips flaring with pain.

  No, I’m definitely not all right, Ingvar, he thought. He wondered groggily why people invariably asked that question when it was obvious that you were injured. I’m not all right and he’s going to hit me again. Any second now.

  And then a tall figure suddenly interposed itself between him and Tursgud, seeming to come from nowhere and ramming his shoulder heavily into the leader of the Sharks, sending him sprawling before he could throw that final punch.

  “That’s enough, you coward!”

  Rollond, Hal thought. What’s he doing here?

  “Get away from him!” Rollond said. Hal felt the boys holding him shoved away, their hands torn free, felt other hands coming to support him.

  “Hal? Are you okay?” It was Jesper.

  Hal turned and looked groggily at his teammate. “No. I’m definitely not. What the blazes is Rollond doing here?”

  He shook his head to clear his vision. Tursgud, his face streaming blood, his nose at an odd angle, lurched clumsily to his feet.

  “Stay out of this, Rollond. This isn’t your fight!”

  But there was a wariness in his tone as he realized that Rollond wasn’t alone. His nine brotherband members were with him and suddenly the numbers were very much against Tursgud.

  “It isn’t any sort of fight,” Rollond said, contempt in his voice. “It’s a cowardly attack. I should have expected you’d try something like this.”

  Tursgud jabbed a finger at the semiconscious Hal, now supported by Jesper and Ulf. Or was it Wulf, Hal thought groggily. He didn’t really care.

 

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