The outcasts, p.22
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       The Outcasts, p.22

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 
“I’m teaching this Araluen scum a long-delayed lesson!” Tursgud snarled.

  Rollond took a long moment to study Tursgud’s bleeding, broken nose before he answered. When he did, it was with a contemptuous bark of laughter.

  “And how are you doing that? By hammering his fist with your nose?”

  The Wolf brotherband members laughed. Some of the Herons joined in. But in the main, they were too incensed at Tursgud’s treatment of their leader. Two of the Wolves had untied Stig and he scrambled to his feet now, his face flushed with anger. He lunged toward Tursgud.

  “You coward! I’ll show you!” he began, but Rollond blocked his way.

  “Leave it, Stig,” Rollond said in a reasonable voice. “We’ve had enough fighting for one day.” He leaned close and added quietly, “And you should never fight when you’re angry.”

  “But …,” Stig began.

  “S’ig! I nee’ you,” Hal called. His voice was thick and he couldn’t form words clearly with his swollen and cut lips. Stig turned at his friend’s voice and hurried to support him, his face working as his fury at Tursgud competed with concern for his friend.

  “I’m sorry, Hal! They tricked me! I couldn’t do anything!” Tears were flowing down his cheeks as he studied his friend’s battered face. Hal put a hand on his shoulder.

  “Le’ i’ go,” he said. “Rollon’ ish ri’.”

  “But …” Stig turned again to where Tursgud half crouched, sizing up Rollond, realizing the fight was over.

  “Le’ i’ go,” Hal repeated.

  Stig’s shoulders sank as the tension went out of him. “All right. If you say.”

  Hal couldn’t say more. It was too painful to speak. He patted Stig’s shoulder, tried to smile and winced.

  “Now get out of here, you cowardly scum!” Rollond said to Tursgud and his band. “Try this again and you’ll have two brotherbands to contend with.”

  Now that the excitement of the fight had gone, some of the Sharks were beginning to look ashamed—of their leader and their own behavior. They turned and began to walk away, heads down. Tursgud, with one last glare in Hal’s direction, turned and followed them.

  Stig had lowered Hal to the grass and was supporting his shoulders so he could sit up. Hal looked owlishly around him. He was still dizzy and his eye was almost completely closed. Rollond came over and dropped to one knee beside him.

  “Sorry we took so long to get here. One of my boys saw Tursgud and his crew sneaking through the woods toward your camp. I thought he’d be up to no good. So I got the rest of the crew together and got here as fast as we could.”

  “Thanks. It wasn’t looking good,” said Stig. And Hal nodded and waved a hand to indicate that Stig was speaking for him. Rollond shook his head, looking at Hal with something like admiration.

  “You certainly made a mess of Tursgud’s looks,” he said. “His nose is bent way out of shape. That’s going to hurt when they fix it.”

  Hal nodded again; then, with an enormous, heartfelt effort, he said: “Good.”

  Rollond grinned. “I doubt he’ll try anything like that again,” he said. “But if he does, we’ll be watching for it.” He touched Hal’s swollen eye with a gentle forefinger. “Better get some cold water onto that.”

  Then he stood and beckoned to his team.

  “Come on, boys. Let’s go home.”

  chapter twenty-six

  The following day, Hal was sore and sorry for himself.

  His cut lip and torn ear throbbed painfully and the bruise under his left eye, in spite of Stig and Edvin’s ministrations with cloths soaked in icy cold water, had swollen to a huge purple bulge that forced the eye closed.

  His knuckles were scraped raw too. But somehow, they didn’t seem to hurt as much when he remembered the feel of their solid, crunching impact on Tursgud’s nose. There was a certain satisfaction in the memory.

  As they formed up for weapons practice after the morning’s physical jerks, Sigurd scowled at Hal’s battered face.

  “What happened to you?” he asked.

  “Walked into a tree, sir,” Hal replied. Sigurd rubbed his chin thoughtfully.

  “Looks like the same tree Tursgud walked into,” he said. “Those branches must have been thrashing around in the wind.”

  “Yes, sir,” Hal replied, looking straight ahead and making no eye contact with the chief instructor.

  “Don’t let it happen again,” Sigurd said.

  There was no mistaking the definite tone of command in his voice. Sigurd expected that there would be a few fights among each batch of trainees. Often they cleared the air. But he wouldn’t tolerate continuing violence or enmity among the boys. That sort of thing undermined the entire spirit of the brotherband concept. The bands should compete with one another, but not hate or fear the other teams. In the future, they would have to work with them and even fight alongside them.

  “Yes, sir,” Hal replied. Sigurd grunted, then walked on, nodding to Gort to commence weapon training.

  After several weeks of practicing against the drill posts, the boys had graduated to mock combat with wooden weapons, weighted and balanced to simulate their real weapons. Their muscles, after weeks of running, exercising and repeating the set drills against the rope-padded posts, were hardened and toned. The morning exercise sessions no longer left them groaning and panting for breath. They were fit and toughened, and it showed in the speed and power of the blows they struck against each other in the one-on-one practice duels.

  Hal had developed into an above-average swordsman by this stage. His highly developed spatial awareness—the ability to see and instantly assess angles and speeds that made him a natural helmsman—stood him in good stead here too. He could see a blow coming and instinctively know how much movement he would need to evade it.

  As a warrior, Stig was far and away the Herons’ best performer. His natural athleticism and strength made him an expert axman. Plus he had speed, and excellent hand-eye coordination, which a lot of bigger boys lacked. Wulf and Ulf were also quite proficient.

  The others were competent—although “competent” in a country that valued weapons skills as highly at the Skandians did would translate to “highly skilled and dangerous” in most other countries.

  Ingvar, of course, was merely dangerous to everyone around him, friend or foe.

  Hal was practicing strike and counterstrike with Ulf. They wore padded jackets, heavy leather gauntlets and thickly padded leather helmets as they struck, blocked, deflected and, in Hal’s case, thrust at each other.

  Each crunching impact of weapon on shield, whether given or received, set Hal’s injuries throbbing painfully. Plus, with one eye closed, he was having difficulty anticipating some of Ulf’s strokes and had only managed to block several at the very last moment. He held up a hand to signal a pause, took off his helmet and wiped the sweat from his forehead, wincing as he accidentally brushed against the swollen black eye. He glanced around, saw none of the instructors watching and moved closer to Ulf.

  “Can we hold back a little?” he asked. “My head is throbbing every time I hit your shield or you hit mine.”

  Ulf nodded apologetically. He had been feeling bad that he had been so effectively checkmated in the confrontation the day before. He felt that he and his twin could have done more to help Hal. Although exactly what they might have done, he had no real idea.

  “Of course, Hal. Sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

  “And take it easy from this side,” Hal said, pointing to his swollen left eye. “I can hardly see a thing.”

  Ulf signaled his understanding. Hal re-donned his helmet and they shaped up again.

  Ulf swung his ax in an overhand strike, pulling the blow at the last instant so that it landed on Hal’s slanted shield with a minimal impact. Hal replied in turn, sweeping his sword in a low sideways arc, then stopping the blow just before Ulf caught it on his shield. Ulf’s follow-up ax stroke was a backhand, so that Hal could see it more clearly. Once again, the force was re
duced. Hal prepared to thrust under Ulf’s shield when a huge voice bellowed behind them.

  “WHAT IN THE NAME OF THE GREAT BLUE WHALE ARE YOU LADIES UP TO?”

  They sprang apart, standing to attention. Sigurd had approached them unnoticed, attracted by the reduced noise of their weapons on their shields. Around them, they could hear the ringing cracks of wood on wood. Hal realized where they’d gone wrong.

  Sigurd stood with his nose inches from Ulf’s, bending over the thoroughly frightened boy.

  “Are you taking it easy because your poor friend has a big sore eye?” he demanded.

  Ulf glanced nervously toward Hal, then his eyes clicked back to the front as Sigurd thundered, “LOOK AT ME!”

  “Ummmm … ,” Ulf began uncertainly. Hal was conscious that the other pairs drilling close to them had stopped to watch. So was Sigurd. He swung round on them.

  “GET BACK TO IT OR I’LL DRILL WITH YOU MYSELF!” he threatened. Nobody wanted that. Sigurd was an expert with the ax and everyone knew that any opponent he practiced with would end up bruised and battered. Instantly, wooden axes began to crack against wooden shields again. Sigurd turned his gaze back to Ulf, who had managed to back away a pace while the instructor’s attention was distracted.

  “I DIDN’T HEAR YOUR ANSWER!” he thundered.

  Hal stepped forward. “Sir, I ordered him to back off,” he said. “My eye was throbbing.”

  Sigurd looked at him with some concern. “Throbbing, you say? How dreadful.”

  Somehow, Hal didn’t think his concern was genuine. He judged it might be best not to say anything further. Sigurd held out his hand to Ulf, flicking his fingers impatiently.

  “Ax,” he said. Ulf handed it to him. Sigurd tested its weight and balance for a few seconds, then looked at Hal once more.

  “Did it throb when he did this?” he asked, bringing the ax round in a sidelong, smashing arc into Hal’s shield. Hal winced at the force of the blow.

  “Yes, sir,” he said.

  “How about this!”

  This time it was an overhead strike, delivered with lightning speed and crushing force. The impact made Hal’s knees buckle.

  “Yes, sir,” he gasped.

  “How about THIS! And THIS! And THIS!”

  Three sledgehammer blows, delivered with blinding speed, from three different angles, slammed into the shield and made Hal stagger.

  “Yes, sir!” Hal said as Sigurd paused, looking at him with his head to one side, waiting for his answer. When he heard it, the instructor smiled evilly.

  “Well, that’s good to hear,” he said. He tossed the ax to Ulf, who caught it awkwardly. “Keep going,” he said. “If you slack off again like that, you’ll lose twenty points. Ten for slacking off and ten for taking me for a fool.”

  “Yes, sir!” both boys replied. They looked at each other, rolling their eyes in relief as Sigurd walked away.

  After a few strides, he turned back and they hastily rearranged their faces.

  “You might be interested to know,” he said, “that Tursgud just tried to pull the same trick. Didn’t do him any good, either.”

  As Sigurd turned away again, Hal was sure he was smiling.

  chapter twenty-seven

  The black ship limped into Hallasholm harbor in the middle of the afternoon.

  She was a warship and, under normal circumstances, she would not have been permitted into the harbor. But she was badly damaged, with her mast gone and replaced by a smaller, lighter spar—probably a spare cross yard. Consequently, she was traveling under a heavily shortened sail, showing barely half the normal sail area. As she passed the mole, her crew could be seen bailing, and bucketfuls of silver water showered over her sides into the harbor.

  Obviously, there was no chance of a lightning hit-and-run raid from this ship.

  She was the size of a large wolfship, mounting ten oars a side. But her prow, unlike the graceful upward curve of a wolfship’s bow, was a severe vertical line. As she rose sluggishly on the waves, the outline of a heavy ram—a protruding, iron-shod balk of timber—was visible at her bow, below the waterline.

  Her captain, after receiving permission from the harbormaster, ran her ashore on the shingle beach. Her exhausted crew slumped over their benches, finally able to rest from the ceaseless labor of bailing water out of her.

  The captain stepped ashore and was escorted by the commander of the harbor watch and two of his men to speak with the Oberjarl.

  Erak studied the stranger before him. He was a tall man, well built, but not as bulky as the average Skandian. His hair was long and black and hung in ringlets down either side of his face. He was clean shaven, with a swarthy complexion and high cheekbones. He had a long, straight nose and dark eyes. He was smiling, but there was a superior air to the smile, Erak thought.

  “My name is Zavac,” the stranger said. “I’m captain of the ship Raven.”

  Erak glanced sidelong at Borsa, his hilfmann. “Seems everyone’s naming their ships after birds these days,” he said dryly. He was pleased to see the smile fade from Zavac’s face, to be replaced by a slight frown of incomprehension. Erak waved a hand dismissively.

  “Never mind. It’s a private joke. What can we do for you? I hear your ship is damaged.”

  Zavac didn’t answer immediately. He looked around the Great Hall, taking in its unsophisticated decor and character. The Great Hall was a timber structure, lined with pine planks. It was warm and comfortable, but low ceilinged and simple. A log fire blazed at the head of the large room, behind Erak’s official chair. Even the chair was unadorned pine, worn smooth and polished to a honey gold by decades of use.

  “I assume I’m speaking to the jarl of this village?” Zavac said, the haughtiness back in his tone.

  Erak regarded him, unblinking, for several seconds. Then he yawned. Borsa stepped forward, his tone showing his annoyance.

  “You’re speaking to the Oberjarl of Skandia,” he said. “And if you don’t lose that superior tone, he’s liable to send you and your boat back to sea so you can both sink together.”

  Zavac bowed, sweeping his right hand across his body in a graceful gesture, then looked up again.

  “My apologies, Oberjarl,” he said smoothly. “I had no idea where we are. We were caught in a storm days ago and were blown miles off course until I lost all sense of direction. We were dismasted and the broken mast stove in several planks below the waterline before we could cut her free.”

  “Sounds nasty,” Erak said.

  Zavac nodded. “We were in a bad way. I couldn’t believe our luck when we saw the smoke from the fires in your town. I assume, since you’re the Oberjarl, that this is Hallasholm?”

  You’re lying, Erak thought. You know this is Hallasholm. Why are you lying?

  “Where are you from?” Erak asked.

  Zavac waved a vague hand toward the southeast. “From Magyara,” he said. “East of Teutlandt. Do you know it?”

  “I know where it is,” Erak said evenly. “Never visited.”

  “We’re traders from Magyara. We sailed from our home port three weeks ago, heading for Cape Shelter. We were hoping to trade with the settlements along the Sonderland Coast and—”

  “What’s your cargo?” Erak said suddenly and the captain hesitated. He wasn’t prepared for that question.

  “Oh … er … wine and … cheeses,” he said. “The Sonderlanders love our cheeses. We were planning to trade for onyx stones and mother-of-pearl shell.” His eyes flicked away from Erak’s momentarily, then returned to meet the Oberjarl’s unwavering gaze.

  “Of course, we had to throw our trade goods overboard when we realized we were in danger of sinking,” Zavac said.

  The statement had the feeling of an afterthought to it, as if Zavac suddenly realized that Erak might ask to see his “trade goods.”

  “Pity,” Erak said. “We could have used some wine here.”

  Zavac smiled apologetically and spread his hands in a deprecating gesture. Erak said noth
ing, allowing the silence to grow to an uncomfortable length. Finally, he shifted in his chair and spoke again.

  “So, I imagine you’ll want repair facilities for your ship, timber and cordage, and accommodation for your men?”

  Zavac nodded. “We’ll pay well for it,” he said. “You won’t lose by helping us.”

  Erak fingered his chin. He didn’t trust this Magyaran. But the ship was certainly unseaworthy and no Skandian could send it back to sea again in its current condition. There was an unwritten law of the sea about such things. Finally, he nodded.

  “Very well. Work out the details and port payments with Borsa,” he said, and waved a hand dismissively. As Zavac turned to go, Erak held up a hand to stop him.

  “One thing,” he said. “Tell your men to keep their noses clean while they’re in Hallasholm. I don’t want any trouble.”

  Zavac nodded and smiled. “I understand. This is a quiet town and you don’t want the peace disturbed.”

  Erak smiled back, but it was like a smile on the face of a shark. “No. This is a very violent town and if your men cause trouble, my people will break their heads for them. I don’t want to be paying any blood money for damage done to your crew. Understand?”

  Zavac’s smiled faded. He looked for some sign that the Oberjarl was joking, but saw none. He nodded again, slowly this time.

  “I understand,” he said, and followed Borsa out the Great Hall.

  Erak waited until the door closed behind them, then turned and called over his shoulder.

  “What do you think, Svengal?”

  Svengal, his longtime second in command aboard Wolfwind and now her skirl, emerged from behind a curtain, where he had been concealed.

  “If he’s a peaceful trader, I’m my old auntie Winfredia,” he said.

  Erak raised an eyebrow. “Do you have an old auntie Winfredia?”

  Svengal waved a hand. “Figure of speech, chief. Figure of speech. He’s a pirate, I’d stake my life on it.”

  “I agree,” Erak said, with a grimace of distaste. “Most Magyarans are pirates.”

  “I wouldn’t put it past them to have sabotaged their own ship so they could get into Hallasholm harbor,” Svengal added. “It’d be a typical Magyaran trick. Come into town, repair the ship, then rob us blind and run for it.”

 
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