The outcasts, p.23
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       The Outcasts, p.23

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  Historically, Skandians had been raiders, landing ashore near towns or villages and attacking to steal any valuables they could find. They called it “liberating” the goods. More often than not, the inhabitants fled at the first sign of a raiding party. Sometimes they fought. And sometimes they won, driving the raiders off. But in Erak’s and Svengal’s eyes, that was a fair encounter. If the raiders won the fight, there were no reprisals against the defenders because they had the temerity to try to defend their property.

  Piracy was a different matter altogether. Pirates—and Erak was right, many Magyarans indulged in the practice—preyed on lone ships at sea. Ships that were smaller than their own and usually only lightly armed. When the ship was captured and her cargo taken, the normal practice was to sink the ship and kill the crew, so that no trace of the pirates’ activity would ever be found.

  “Keep an eye on him while he’s here,” Erak said. “Any sign of funny business, let me know.”

  “Consider it done,” Svengal said. A grin touched the corners of his mouth. “Do you want me to disguise myself while I’m doing it?”

  Erak frowned at him. “Disguise yourself? As who?”

  “I could do myself up as my old aunt Winfredia,” Svengal said. “They’d never suspect a thing.”

  Erak regarded him stonily. When he had been a simple ship’s skirl, he thought, Svengal had never showed him this sort of disrespect. Then he shook his head, remembering. Yes, he did, he thought.

  “Get out of here,” he said.

  “On my way, chief. And if you see an old woman hobbling around town, be nice to her. She’s probably me.”

  “Are you still here?” Erak asked. But this time, there was no answer.

  chapter twenty-eight

  Training was finished for the day and the boys were waiting to be dismissed so they could return to their quarters and rest. Sigurd, however, chose to spring a most unwelcome surprise on them.

  “Team assessment!” he thundered as he strode onto the training ground. The boys looked at one another with dismay. It had been a long day. They had been practicing rowing most of the afternoon. It was hard, grueling work and their muscles ached. The news became worse with Sigurd’s next words.

  “Obstacle course! Team assessment! Ten minutes! Get your kit together!”

  There were audible groans from all corners of the training field. The obstacle course was a seven-kilometer track laid out around the training area, through thick woods and up and down the lower slopes of the surrounding mountains. As well as being a muscle-wrenching run, it pitted the runners against a series of natural—and, in some cases, highly unnatural—obstacles. There was a steep rock slope to descend, two streams to ford and a pit full of thick, gluey mud to negotiate. This was accomplished by swinging on a rope across the disgusting barrier. There was also a wooden wall, more than two meters high, that each runner had to climb, scramble or jump over as best he could.

  At one point, a heavy rope net was staked out, with fifty centimeters clearance between it and the ground, and the runners had to crawl on their bellies beneath it for fifteen meters.

  To make things a little more interesting, in Sigurd’s words, all these feats had to be accomplished carrying weapons and shields.

  “That’s the way it’ll be if you’re in a battle,” he’d told them. “You might as well get used to it.”

  So the Herons swung, climbed, ran, crawled, slid and waded along the course. The event was another time trial and Hal was confident that they were making reasonable time. The more capable and athletic runners, like Stig, Jesper and the twins, helped those less able to negotiate the course. But the final obstacle was their undoing. It was a thick pole, six meters long, set three meters above another muddy pit. At least, the boys all hoped fervently that the substance in the pit was mud. There were dark mutterings that it was something even more unpleasant—and the rancid smell from the pit did little to dispel such rumors. Edvin muttered that he’d heard the town’s pigsties seemed to be remarkably clean in recent days.

  Seven of the eight Heron teammates managed to negotiate the log—with differing degrees of difficulty. Stig and Hal ran it easily. Jesper was equally light-footed. That was befitting of someone with Jesper’s light-fingered habits, Hal thought. The twins moved at a more sedate pace, all the while throwing insults at each other. Stefan edged along sideways, crouched nearly double, his tongue sticking out between his teeth as he went, mumbling encouragement to himself. Edvin, after a near disaster, when he only managed to save himself from the pit by a last-minute grab at the log and an undignified scramble back onto it, eventually sat and straddled the pole, inching his way along it to safety.

  But the log was Ingvar’s downfall—literally.

  He clambered onto its smooth, rounded surface like a great, clumsy bear. He crouched fearfully. He was barefoot and his toes were visibly curling in an instinctive action, as if his feet were trying to grip the log. He rose to full height, arms outstretched, wavering dangerously.

  “Come on, Ingvar!” the team yelled.

  He took one wobbling, uncertain step. His arms windmilled. He crouched again on hands and knees, peering hopelessly around him.

  “How far off the ground am I?” he called.

  Hal hesitated, then, knowing that Ingvar couldn’t see very well, he replied, “Barely twenty centimeters!” He figured that if Ingvar didn’t think there was a two-meter drop below him, he would manage the log more easily. But Ingvar wasn’t fooled. He remembered he had climbed a lot farther than twenty centimeters to get onto the log.

  “I know that’s a lie!” he shouted, clutching the log desperately. “I can’t manage this. I’m sorry.”

  “Do it the way Edvin did it!” Stig yelled.

  Ingvar frowned. Of course he hadn’t seen Edvin inching his way across the log.

  “How was that?” he called back, his voice quavering.

  “Straddle it and slide along on your behind!” Edvin yelled. Ingvar thought about that and nodded slowly.

  “That might work,” he said. He carefully sat down, dropped his legs to either side of the pole, gripped it in front of him with both hands and began to inch along. Instantly, he began to yell with pain.

  “Ow! Ow! Ow! Ow-ow-ow!” he bleated, stopping a third of the way across.

  “What’s up now?” Hal asked him, looking round toward the track that led to the finish line in frustration. Ingvar’s hesitation was costing them time, he knew. And that was something they didn’t have.

  “Splinters, Hal. Splinters. I can’t go any farther like this,” Ingvar called piteously and Hal’s shoulders drooped. He looked at Stig.

  “We’re going to have to guide him across,” he said. Stig took a pace back in horror, looking at the evil, glutinous mass in the pit.

  “Are you kidding? If he falls, he’ll take us with him.”

  “We’ve got to, Stig. It’s the only way. And every team member has to complete every obstacle.”

  As it turned out, Stig’s words were prophetic. Ingvar did fall, and he did take them with him. And he did so three times before they squelched, stinking and covered in muck, off the far side of the pole.

  As they reached the far side, it was noticeable that their teammates edged away to give them plenty of free space.

  “Thanks, fellows,” said Ingvar.

  Hal gestured wearily with a dripping, filth-covered hand. “You’d do the same for us,” he said.

  Ingvar looked down at himself, then at his two helpers. His sight wasn’t too good but there was nothing wrong with his sense of smell.

  “No,” he said deliberately. “No, I wouldn’t.”

  They squished their way to the finish line, where they were greeted by howls of laughter from the other teams. Even Tursgud’s sense of humor, which had been noticeably absent since his fight with Hal, seemed restored.

  “Looks like Hal Who fell in the poo,” he called, causing a fresh burst of hilarity. Hal, seething as he was, had to admit to himsel
f it was a pretty good sally. He squelched up to Sigurd, who backed away, grinning.

  “Herons reporting in, sir. How did we do?”

  Sigurd looked at him, his head to one side. “You’re kidding, of course,” he said.

  Hal shrugged. “I guess we came last then?”

  Sigurd made a note on one of his many sheets of parchment.

  “You came so last,” he said, “you’ll probably still be last in next year’s training program.”

  Two days later, Hal brought the Heron into the harbor. The three teams had just finished a trial navigation exercise and Heron had finished well ahead of the other two boats. She was faster in just about all conditions, except under oars and running with the wind dead astern. He was pleased with the way his crew were settling down. They were familiar now with the ship’s unusual rig and even Gort, who was skeptical at first, seemed to be impressed by Heron’s ability to sail closer to the wind than the two square-rigged ships. Although, at this stage, Hal hadn’t demonstrated her full capabilities in that regard. No sense in letting Rollond and Tursgud know what they were up against.

  As they ran the Heron onto the beach, Hal pointed to the long black ship beached farther down the strand. He’d noticed her earlier when they had left the harbor, but he’d been too busy to ask about her then.

  “Whose is that?” he asked Gort.

  The instructor grimaced distastefully. “She’s Magyaran. She was dismasted in a storm. Erak is letting her crew do repairs,” he said. His expression left no doubt what he thought of Magyarans and their ships. Hal opened his mouth to ask more but he was interrupted by Sigurd, who was striding along the walkway at the top of the beach.

  “Assessment!” he bellowed. “Wrestling! At the Common Green! Fifteen minutes!”

  There was a flurry of activity as the brotherbands hurried to stow yards, sails and masts and make their ships fast. Then they doubled to the Common Green, a large, grassy field in the center of Hallasholm, where the town’s inhabitants were each entitled to graze two animals.

  The wrestling ring had been marked out—a chalked circle four meters in diameter. Unlike most of their tests, this one was open to the public and had attracted a crowd of spectators. Skandians enjoyed physical contests and wrestling was a favorite. Hal was sure there would be bets being laid. He saw Thorn sitting off to one side and waved to him. The ragged figure rose and sauntered across.

  “Hear you had fun with the obstacle course,” Thorn said.

  Hal shook his head and forced a smile. The failure at the pit still rankled. But he guessed it was funny to an outsider.

  “We didn’t do so well,” he said.

  Thorn indicated the chalked circle. “Maybe you’ll do better today. Is Stig wrestling for you?”

  “Who else?” Hal replied. Stig was by far their best contestant in this sort of event.

  Thorn nodded. “Make sure he keeps his temper and he should do all right,” he said. “Good luck.”

  He shambled away and sat on an old tree stump. Hal noticed that the other spectators tended to stay clear of him. He smiled ruefully. He’d experienced that himself after the episode with the pit.

  Sigurd took a position beside the chalked ring. As he had done before, he drew the first two contestants from the battered old helmet.

  “Wolves and Herons!” he announced. “Five minutes!”

  The Herons moved in a group to the circle and crowded round Stig, who took a seat on a low stool, breathing deeply. He had stripped his shirt off and was dressed only in short breeches that reached to the knees. Stefan stood behind him, kneading the muscles of his shoulders and neck to loosen them.

  Hal glanced at Jesper.

  “Go see who’s fighting for the Wolves,” he said. The other boy nodded and darted away. Hal crouched on one knee before Stig, speaking in a low, urgent voice.

  “Remember, take your time,” he said. “Don’t let him rush you into a mistake. And above all—”

  “I know, I know,” Stig said irritably. “Don’t lose my temper, right?”

  Hal put the irritability down to nervous tension. He pretended not to notice it.

  “You’ll be fine,” he said soothingly. He looked up as Jesper returned, pushing through the circle of boys around Stig.

  “It’s Bjorn,” he said. One of the Herons groaned. Bjorn was big and powerful. And he was fast.

  “Come on,” said Hal, “we knew it would be him. He’s good. But I think you’re better, Stig. Just remember—”

  “I know! I heard you the first five times! Don’t lose my temper!” Stig’s face was red and Hal’s heart sank.

  You already have, he thought. But he said nothing.

  “Thirty seconds!” Sigurd called.

  Stig rose from the stool, shaking free of Stefan’s massage, and stalked to the edge of the circle. On the far side, Bjorn took his place. Hal assessed him carefully. In spite of his assurance to Stig, he knew it was going to be a close thing. Bjorn was a little heavier. But Stig might be faster. And he was better balanced. That was important in these matches. The rules were simple. If a contestant could throw or force his opponent out of the ring, he won. If a wrestler could pin his opponent helplessly for a period of five seconds, that was another win.

  Finally, there were certain holds that were dangerous or extremely painful. If a wrestler managed to catch his opponent in one of them, the judges would intervene if necessary and declare him the winner.

  There was no two out of three. It was a straightforward contest. If you won once, you won.

  “Ready, Wolves?” Sigurd asked.

  “Ready.” Bjorn was casual and confident.

  “Ready, Herons?”

  “Ready.” Stig’s voice was thick with tension. Hal frowned. Not the best way to start a match, he thought.

  “Judges?” That was Sigurd again and Hal had to smile as he saw Gort, who was the referee for the bout, reach into his pocket to make sure his whistle was there. As he did so, he glared quickly in the directions of the Herons.

  “Ready,” Gort called, and the other two instructors, who would be watching for foul play, repeated his call.

  “Then … BEGIN!”

  Sigurd’s command rang across the Common Green, echoing faintly from the houses facing the field, and the fight was on.

  chapter twenty-nine

  The two contestants moved forward and began circling each other. Each one was studying the other’s stance and fighting posture, looking for some possible weakness that could be exploited. Bjorn was relaxed and moved easily. Hal could tell that Stig was tense, moving a little stiffly, every muscle ready to respond to an attack.

  He feinted toward Bjorn and Bjorn stepped back smoothly, then feinted a move in his turn. Stig sprang back like a startled deer and Bjorn laughed.

  The skin on the back of Stig’s neck grew red.

  “Stay calm, Stig,” Hal muttered to himself. The other Herons crowded around him, intent on the contest. So far, there was no shouting or cheering from either side.

  Then Bjorn broke the silence. He straightened from his fighting crouch and waved a hand in front of his face, as if fanning a bad odor away.

  “Whew! Is there something dead around here?” he asked the circle of spectators. “Something smells terrible!”

  There was a ripple of amusement from the Sharks and Wolves, and from the score of townspeople assembled to watch the bout. Bjorn grinned at them, then appealed, with mock seriousness, to Sigurd.

  “Has this boy had a bath since the obstacle course, sir?” he asked.

  Stig’s face grew redder with anger. Above all else, he hated to be laughed at.

  Sigurd replied curtly, “Get on with it, Bjorn. Cut the chatter and save your breath.”

  But Bjorn was unrepentant. He continued to grin as he seemingly ignored his opponent and appealed to the chief instructor. “Hard to take a breath out here, sir. I really must complain. This is unfair tactics.”

  Hal could tell that his friend was about to sna
p. Stig’s temper was being held in control by a thread.

  “Stay calm, Stig!” he called warningly. Instantly, Bjorn’s grin switched to him.

  “Oh, is his name Stig? I thought it was Stink,” he said and more laughter erupted from the spectators.

  With a bellow of inarticulate rage, Stig charged.

  Which was what Bjorn had been hoping all along. In spite of the fact that he appeared to be talking to Sigurd and then Hal, he had been watching his opponent like a hawk and was ready to meet his wild, undisciplined charge. Hal groaned as Bjorn grabbed Stig’s wildly flailing arms and backed up a few steps, using Stig’s momentum against him.

  Then he raised his right foot and placed it in Stig’s belly. At the same time, he fell smoothly back onto the grass, then straightened the leg, adding his left leg to the thrust as he rolled backward onto the grass.

  It was a perfectly timed and executed stomach throw. Stig, held momentarily by the arms, sailed high in the air, describing a giant arc above Bjorn. Then, at exactly the right moment, Bjorn released his grip on Stig’s wrists. The Herons’ representative flew for several meters, landing heavily on his back with an ugly thud that drove the air from his lungs.

  Before he could recover, Bjorn was on his feet and had seized Stig’s right foot. With all his strength, he swung the prone body of his opponent through an arc, sliding him on the damp, slippery grass and propelling him toward the chalk line, two meters away.

  Stig tried to stop the movement but he was winded and helpless. He slid over the chalk line, out of the ring. Gort’s silver whistle blew a piercing blast and the bout was over.

  There was an arbitrary rest period of forty minutes before Bjorn was due to fight the Sharks’ representative—Tursgud, of course. Bjorn offered to forgo the rest, saying he wasn’t tired at all after his first bout. Sigurd dismissed the suggestion angrily. As they waited, the Heron team clustered round Stig, trying desperately to raise his spirits. He was sitting dejectedly on the ground, his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. Hal tried to talk to him but Stig merely shook his head, refusing to acknowledge his friend’s presence.

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