The outcasts, p.24
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       The Outcasts, p.24

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  A hand dropped onto Hal’s shoulder and he turned, finding himself looking into Thorn’s bearded face. Thorn jerked his head to one side, signaling Hal to make room for him, then dropped on one knee in front of Stig.

  “Stig,” he said. “Stig. Look at me. Look at me now.”

  His voice was soft but there was an unmistakable air of command in it. Stig raised his eyes to meet Thorn’s steady gaze.

  “You can beat Tursgud,” Thorn said.

  Stig’s eyes showed his disbelief. His rapid defeat at Bjorn’s hands had shattered his confidence. The contest had barely begun before it was over.

  “How do you propose I do it?” he said sarcastically. Thorn said nothing for a few seconds, simply held eye contact with the boy. Stig flushed. Then Thorn continued.

  “Bjorn didn’t beat you. You beat yourself. You let him goad you into losing your temper—”

  “Don’t start that, Thorn! You sound like Hal! Don’t lose your temper. Stay calm,” he said, mimicking Hal’s attempts to calm him down.

  “Hal’s right,” Thorn said, still speaking softly, still showing no emotion. “D’you think Tursgud isn’t going to try to goad you the same way? And it’ll be easier for him because you hate him. You need to fight smart, Stig. Laugh at him. Make him mad instead. Don’t fall for his tricks. You can beat him if you do that, believe me.”

  But Stig’s temper got the better of him once more. Deep down, he knew Thorn was right. But his anger made him hear Thorn’s advice as criticism, not support. He lashed out—not physically, but verbally.

  “Believe you?” he said scathingly. “Tell me, Thorn, since you seem to know so much, why should I take advice from a one-armed old drunk?”

  Thorn recoiled as if Stig had struck him. The blood drained from his face and for a moment Hal thought he was going to hit Stig. Then, abruptly, Thorn stood and walked away, shoving through the shocked members of the Heron team. Outraged, Hal grabbed Stig by the shirt front and dragged him to his feet. The Skandian boy was a head taller than him, but Hal confronted him chest to chest, his eyes blazing with fury.

  “Gorlog blast you, Stig! How could you say that?” he demanded. “He’s trying to help us and you say a thing like that?”

  Stig looked around at the circle of faces that surrounded him. He saw nothing there but condemnation. He tried to bluster his way out of the situation. The second he had said the words to Thorn, he knew he was in the wrong, that he had caused deep hurt to a man who had only ever shown him friendship. But he couldn’t admit it.

  “Well, really, Hal! What does he know about fighting? I know he’s your friend, but why should I take advice from him? Really? You know what he’s like. He’s a broken-down old tramp.”

  Hal looked around at the team surrounding them.

  “Give us some privacy,” he ordered. “Now.”

  There was no mistaking the authority in his voice. The other Herons avoided his gaze and shuffled away. When he judged they were out of earshot, Hal released Stig’s shirt.

  “I’ll tell you what he knows about fighting,” he said in a quiet voice. “Who do you think taught me to punch so that I broke Tursgud’s nose? Thorn did. Who do you think told me to keep going forward and not to back off? Thorn did. And do you know how he knows this stuff? Because he was the Maktig—three years in a row.”

  Stig’s jaw dropped and he involuntarily looked around to see where Thorn might be.

  “Thorn?” he said. “Thorn was the Mak—”

  Hal silenced him before he could finish the sentence.

  “Shut up! He doesn’t want people to remember. I probably shouldn’t have told you, so for pity’s sake don’t let on to him that I did. But think of this, Stig, you’ve just been given advice by the greatest warrior Skandia has ever known. If you don’t follow it, you’re a fool. And you’re a traitor to our team.”

  Stig was shaking his head in anguish. “Hal, I’m sorry. I didn’t know … well, how could I know? It’s almost unbelievable. No, it is unbelievable. Thorn was the—”

  “I told you to shut up about it!” Hal cut him off and Stig nodded miserably.

  “I’ve got to find him and apologize,” he said, but Hal was already shaking his head before he could finish.

  “Time for that later. Let him cool off for a while. The best way you can show him you’re sorry is to beat Tursgud. Show Thorn you’ve listened to him. Keep your temper under control and fight smart, the way he said to.”

  “How do I do that?” Stig said miserably. “I can’t help it. I always lose my temper when people make fun of me.”

  Hal grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him violently. “Do as Thorn said. Make Tursgud mad! Laugh at him when he tries to provoke you.”

  “But … how?”

  Hal thought desperately for a few moments, then inspiration struck him. “When you start to get mad, take a deep breath, and picture Tursgud the way he looked when the Sharks lost the tug-of-war. Remember how furious he was?”

  Stig nodded, grinning faintly at the memory. “He certainly did look angry,” he admitted.

  Hal continued, warming to the theme. “Then use that picture. And remember how shocked he looked when I broke his nose that afternoon? That’s the look you want to put on his face again today,” he added. He could see that he was getting through to Stig.

  “One more thing,” he added carefully. “You know he’ll talk about your mother doing laundry.”

  Since Stig’s father had deserted them, his mother had supported herself and her son by taking in laundry. It was menial work, but there was nothing shameful about it. Yet for some reason, Stig was embarrassed by it. In past encounters, Tursgud had used the fact as a goad, making out that Stig’s mother was a drudge, and little better than a slave. Even now, Hal saw Stig’s face darken as he mentioned it. He shook Stig’s shoulders again.

  “Be ready for it! Think of something even more insulting to say back.”

  Stig spread his hands helplessly. He wasn’t too quick with his tongue and he knew it.

  “Like what?” he said. “His mother never took in laundry. What can I say?”

  Hal pursed his lips thoughtfully, then a light dawned in his eyes.

  “You know, I think I might have just the thing for you,” he said.

  chapter thirty

  Jarst was sounding the bell for the beginning of the next bout—Tursgud and Bjorn. Hurriedly, the Heron team made their way back to the circle to watch the contest.

  This bout took considerably longer than the one-sided fight between Bjorn and Stig. The two boys circled warily once more. But this time, Bjorn held his silence. There was no point trying to bait Tursgud and he knew he couldn’t afford to let his own attention be distracted. Tursgud was a dangerous opponent.

  They closed, each grappling for a hold on the other, grunting and straining as the contest became a test of strength and power. Each one countered the other’s attempts to throw him off balance, or to trip or sweep a leg.

  On one occasion, Bjorn grappled Tursgud around the waist and tried to lift him, preparatory to a hip throw. But Tursgud managed to break loose, throwing his body to the side and staggering away as he momentarily lost balance. He came perilously close to the chalk line, but managed to stay inside the circle. Next time Bjorn tried for a similar hold, Tursgud countered by suddenly raising his shoulder under the other boy’s chin. Bjorn’s head snapped back and he staggered away.

  Technically, it was an illegal maneuver. But it was difficult to prove that it had been intentional.

  Viggo darted forward and stepped between the two wrestlers before Tursgud had a chance to follow up on his advantage. The referee let Bjorn have time to recover, warned Tursgud about any repeat actions, then signaled for the bout to start again.

  The end, when it came, came suddenly. Tursgud feinted for a left foot kick to Bjorn’s solar plexus. When the Wolves’ wrestler countered with a sweeping right arm to knock the kick aside, Tursgud leapt forward, grabbed the arm and threw Bjorn in
a cross-body throw.

  However, instead of releasing Bjorn’s wrist as he went down, Tursgud held on and went with him. Bjorn landed flat on his back, with Tursgud kneeling, facing him on his right side. Before Bjorn could react, Tursgud dragged his opponent’s right arm over his leg so that his thigh was beneath Bjorn’s elbow, then locked the hand and wrist under his right ankle. On one side, Bjorn’s own weight was bearing down on it. On the other, his hand was locked under Tursgud’s leg. When Bjorn tried to roll toward Tursgud to release himself, Tursgud simply leaned away, raising his thigh under Bjorn’s trapped elbow, putting enormous strain on the joint. The pain was unbearable. Bjorn grunted, tried to rise again. Tursgud leaned away—farther this time.

  “I’ll break it,” he warned. Bjorn looked up at him, eyes slitted in pain. He could tell that Tursgud meant what he said. He would break the elbow if Bjorn didn’t submit. But Bjorn refused to do so. He shut his eyes, prepared for the sudden shattering pain, when Gort’s whistle blasted out.

  “That’s enough! You’ve won. Now release him.”

  Tursgud smiled down at Bjorn as the other boy opened his eyes in relief. Then he gave a final, sudden lurch to his left—not enough to break the elbow, but enough to send a lightning bolt of pain through his opponent’s arm. Then, and only then, did he release the hold.

  Standing in silence, Hal and Stig watched Tursgud swagger back to his cheering team, while Rollond and another member of the Wolves helped Bjorn to his feet. The defeated wrestler cradled his injured arm in his left hand. That last heave from Tursgud had strained tendons and muscles in Bjorn’s shoulder.

  “You’re going to have to watch that he doesn’t get that hold on you,” Hal said.

  Stig nodded thoughtfully. “Mind you,” he said, “if you can react quickly enough, there’s a way to break it, and that could put you in a good position.”

  “Or you could break your elbow,” Hal said.

  Stig considered the statement.

  “Yes. That’s another possibility,” he admitted.

  “Begin!” Sigurd shouted and Tursgud and Stig advanced warily toward each other. Stopping two meters apart, they began to circle, hands held out like claws, knees bent as they shuffled sideways, maintaining their balance. Each boy was intent on watching the other’s eyes. That was where they’d see the first sign of a sudden attack.

  Tursgud fanned his hand in front of his face, mimicking Bjorn’s successful tactic in his contest with Stig. He smiled.

  “Phew! Bjorn was right! Something does stink out here!”

  Several of the Sharks team laughed. But this time, Stig was expecting the taunt and was ready for it. He smiled back at Tursgud.

  “Surprised you can smell anything with your nose plastered all over your face,” he said in a friendly tone. Tursgud’s face flushed with sudden anger. On the sidelines, Bjorn laughed aloud.

  “Nice one, Stig!” he called and Tursgud glared quickly in his direction.

  “How did it happen again?” Stig asked as they continued to circle each other, occasionally feinting an attack, dancing back and forward as each countered the other’s feints. “I believe some scrawny Araluen boy rearranged it for you.”

  On the sidelines, Hal smiled. For once, he didn’t mind being referred to as an Araluen. He knew it would enrage Tursgud.

  Now the Herons and the Wolves both laughed and Tursgud charged forward in a rage, his hands grappling for Stig’s throat. At the last moment, Stig brought his right arm up so that his forearm jolted into Tursgud’s jaw, sending the Sharks’ leader backward. It was a legal move, but only just.

  “No more of that, Stig!” Viggo warned from the sidelines. Stig nodded.

  “Sorry,” he said. But he wasn’t. Not one bit.

  Tursgud shook his head to clear it and backed up a few paces. His eyes narrowed as he studied his opponent. This wasn’t like Stig, he thought. Stig could be relied on to lose his temper and go wild when he was ridiculed, not reply with interest. Then he smiled to himself. Of course, Bjorn had used the same taunt. The Herons must have known that Tursgud would repeat it, so Stig was ready. But there was a tried-and-true method to raise his anger and Tursgud fell back on it now.

  “Is your mam still doing other people’s dirty washing?” he asked. But to his surprise, Stig simply smiled again.

  “No. She said the sight of your dad’s underwear put her right off it. Said he must have worn it till it fell off all by itself.”

  The laughter really rang out now. Not just from the other brotherbands, but from the spectators gathered around the ring. Tursgud’s temper snapped and he charged, as Stig had hoped he would.

  The Sharks’ leader wasn’t the most original of thinkers. He’d tried the same old taunts and they’d failed, because Stig was expecting them. Now, as Stig also expected, he tried for the same hold that had defeated Bjorn. He grabbed Stig’s left arm and pivoted to throw him over his hip to the ground. It was a clumsy attempt and Stig could have prevented it, but instead, he went with it. But as they hit the ground, with Tursgud about to attempt to pin his arm over his knee, Stig quickly rolled to his right, ending on his side, so that his right arm slipped free before Tursgud could lock off the hold.

  This placed him behind Tursgud, as he had planned. Quickly, he locked his left arm across Tursgud’s throat, anchoring it to the inside elbow of his bent right arm. Then he locked his right hand behind his opponent’s head. Too late, Tursgud tried to draw his chin down to prevent the choke hold, but Stig’s left arm was solidly in position across his throat, and his right hand was forcing Tursgud’s head forward against it.

  Before Tursgud could prevent him, Stig wrapped his legs around the other boy’s body. No matter how Tursgud plunged and rolled and bucked, Stig clung to him, all the while increasing the pressure on his throat, cutting off the air to his lungs. Tursgud plucked helplessly at Stig’s arm. But Stig’s forearm was like a steel bar, choking him. He tried to call out but the only sound he could make was a strangled grunt. He was becoming weaker as he tried for oxygen and got none. His hands flailed helplessly and still Stig hung on grimly.

  “Enough!” Sigurd yelled and Gort reinforced the command with a piercing blast on his whistle.

  Stig released the pressure and rolled away, coming slowly to his feet, grinning at Hal. Tursgud lay for a few moments, gasping and choking as he drew air into his deprived lungs. Hal noted that it was some time before two of the Sharks stepped forward to help him to his feet.

  Interesting, he thought. As the other Heron members gathered round, chorusing their congratulations to Stig, Hal slapped his friend on the shoulder.

  “Good work,” he said. “See how much better you perform when you keep your temper?”

  Stig grinned and shook his head ruefully. “I’ve got you and Thorn to thank for that good advice. And thanks for the crack about Tursgud’s father and his underpants. That really did the trick.” He glanced around. “Speaking of Thorn, where is he? I’ve got some humble pie to eat.”

  But before Hal could answer, Sigurd stepped forward with a most welcome, and unexpected, announcement.

  “All right! Listen here, you lot!”

  The three groups all turned and moved to stand around him. He looked around the ring of young faces watching him, all of them wondering what surprise he was about to spring on them.

  “Today’s event was a draw. Each team had one win apiece, so there’s no need to award points. You’ve been working hard for the past weeks and you’ve all done well. It’s the end of the week and now you’ve got two days off. Go home, relax, spend the weekend with your families and tell your girlfriends lies about how terrific you are. Next week …”

  He stopped as the twenty-eight boys let out a cheer at the news. Then he held his hands up for silence.

  “Next week we’re getting into seamanship and shiphandling. It’s going to be tough, so make sure you’re rested.”

  With that he turned and walked away, flanked by the other three instructors. As he passed c
lose by, Hal heard him saying to Viggo: “Let them think it’s a holiday for them. It’s us who need the break.”

  Hal turned to say something to Stig but he wasn’t there. Hal looked around and saw him hurrying across the Green, to where a ragged figure was sitting under a small clump of trees. Hal had a sudden premonition and began to hurry after his friend. He called out but Stig was too far away to hear above the babble of conversation from the other boys and the spectators from the town. He started to run, shoving his way through the milling crowd.

  Thorn looked up as the muscular youth approached him. His expression was neutral. He was neither welcoming nor dismissive. Stig stopped in front of him, hands on hips, and shook his head awkwardly, trying to find the right words. Finally, he decided simplicity might be best.

  “Thorn, I’m so very sorry. I should never have said that to you. It was my stupid temper speaking, not me. I want to thank you for your advice and help. I was stupid and arrogant and a pig and I apologize to you most sincerely.”

  Thorn regarded him for a few seconds. There was a lot of good in Stig, he knew. His downfall had always been that short temper of his. But he could tell that the boy was sincere in his apology.

  Maybe he’ll learn a lesson from this, he thought. He rose, smiling, and held out his left hand to shake hands with the boy. Stig ducked his head gratefully and seized Thorn’s hand with his own.

  “I guess I did some stupid, arrogant things when I was sixteen,” Thorn said. He found it hard to resist an apology that came so obviously from the heart. Someone, a long time ago, had given him the advice: It takes a big man to apologize. Perhaps it had been his own father. He wasn’t sure. But it had been a belief he had taken with him through the years.

  “So we’re all right?” Stig said anxiously.

  Thorn nodded. “We’re fine, Stig.”

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