The outcasts, p.26
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       The Outcasts, p.26

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “Ease the sail a little!” he ordered. He saw Stig directing the others, letting the sail out so that the ship rode more upright. That allowed her hull to bite more firmly against the water beneath her and reduced her downwind drift. Hal heaved the steering oar to the left and brought her bow slightly upwind. She sliced into a stray wave and sheets of spray flew back over the steering platform.

  “Edvin!” he called. Edvin was detailed to watch the other ships and report any significant changes in their position.

  “They’ve both hoisted sails,” he replied. “Porpoise was first and she gained a little. But now Lynx is matching her.” He paused, leaning forward and peering under his hand to see more clearly. “They’re dropping downwind,” he reported.

  Hal nodded in satisfaction. The big square sails of the other two ships would drive them downwind faster than Heron’s more efficient triangular sail. That meant that the other ships would have to cover a greater distance to reach the first turning point. He flexed his hands on the steering oar, feeling a surge of pleasure at his ship’s superior performance. Too flimsy, Erak, he thought. I’ll show you flimsy!

  Hal glanced around to see where the other two ships lay. They were well downwind of him, although both of them were moving fast. He looked to the right side—the starboard side—and saw that the judges’ boat had moved up the course to observe them rounding the marker, making sure nobody fell short.

  The Heron would need to turn to the right to round the marker, and as they did so, the wind would shift from just off their stern, till it was coming over their starboard bow. The second marker would then be almost directly upwind. They couldn’t head straight for it. They’d have to sail upwind at an angle to the second marker, then judge the right moment to turn to a new course that would take them round it.

  The first marker buoy was plunging toward them now, almost upon them. Hal watched it fly past his shoulder, then yelled his orders.

  “Haul in! Haul in!” He leaned back against the steering oar, dragging the ship’s head around to the right in a turn that left a flurry of white water in their wake. Stig and the others hauled on the ropes controlling the sail and the yardarm. Heron was pointing far closer to the wind than either of the other ships could manage. Hal glanced over his shoulder to see what they were up to.

  He saw Porpoise’s big square sail come sliding down the mast, then caught a flicker of movement on either side of her hull.

  They’ve run out the oars, he thought, just as the sunlight gleamed off the oars swinging forward. Then they dipped and dragged backward into the sea. There was another flash of sunlight on white wood as they rose and swung forward again to take another bite at the ocean.

  “Porpoise is rowing!” Edvin reported. “She’s heading directly upwind!”

  Interesting, thought Hal. Tursgud could row directly into the teeth of the wind, covering a much shorter distance than Heron would on her dogleg course. Initially, with all her rowers fresh, Porpoise might well move faster than the Heron. But how long could they keep that up? The rowers would tire, while the wind driving Heron would remain constant.

  “What’s Lynx up to?” he demanded. He couldn’t keep looking the wrong way and besides, he had Edvin to keep him informed.

  “Still under sail,” Edvin told him. “But she’s falling way behind.”

  She would. She couldn’t match Heron’s performance sailing up into the wind.

  “Porpoise is gaining on us!” Edvin called. His voice cracked with excitement. Hal glared at him.

  “Calm down. They’re still fresh,” he said. But he glanced at the Sharks’ craft and measured angles and distances with his eye. She was definitely catching them, he thought. He heaved the tiller to the left, trying to head farther upwind. He heard Stig’s warning shout.

  “We’re luffing!”

  That meant the sail was fluttering, losing power as she came too close to the wind. Instantly, Hal let her fall off a little until the sail came taut again. They’d just have to hope that Tursgud’s men would tire before they reached the mark. This was the leg of the race where Heron should have an advantage. It was her best chance to gain distance on the other ships. But Tursgud’s tactic of going to the oars might well nullify that. For a moment, Hal felt a tingle of doubt up his spine. Then he set his jaw in a determined line. He’d just have to play it out and see what happened, he thought.

  Heron sliced into another wave and spray sheeted high on either side of the bow, drenching the sail handlers crouched by the bulwarks. Hal nodded to himself. The waves were getting steeper. That would slow the Porpoise down, he thought. The crew would tire more quickly as they hauled the heavy boat into the wind and the waves.

  “She’s dropping behind!” Edvin yelled triumphantly. He’d been measuring the Porpoise’s position relative to their own ship with one eye closed, and using the backstay rope as a reference point. After holding that viewpoint for some twenty seconds, he could see that the other boat was gradually losing ground.

  “Where’s Lynx?” Hal asked.

  Edvin pointed to port. “She’s dropped farther downwind. She’s traveling fast, but she’s making too much leeway.”

  The wind was blowing the Wolves’ ship farther and farther off course. They might be moving fast through the water, but they were heading away from the turning point.

  Hal narrowed his eyes in concentration as he watched the flag that marked the next turning point. It was some distance away and from time to time it was lost from sight as the buoy dipped into the trough of a wave. They wouldn’t turn at the buoy this time. He had to judge the moment when to bring the Heron onto a new course that would take her to the left of the flag.

  He hesitated, estimating angles, drift and distance. Any minute now, he thought.

  “Stand by to tack!” he yelled. Ingvar and Stig scuttled forward, the first mate holding Ingvar’s arm and leading him over the clutter of oars, ropes and sail. The other boys crouched by the ropes, ready to let go on his command.

  “Let go!” Hal yelled and, as the ropes were cast loose and the sail flapped wildly, “Down port. Up starboard!”

  Ingvar and Stig heaved on the port yard’s halyards until the spar came free from the stirrup holding it at the masthead. Then as the sail and yard slid down the mast, they hauled the starboard sail up to the masthead. At the same time, Hal swung the tiller to the left, dragging the boat’s bow to the right, into the wind, then across it as the boat cut round in a neat curve.

  The port side sail came down. The starboard sail slid up into place. For a moment, it flapped wildly as the wind took it. Then Stig and the others heaved on the controlling ropes, and the sail shaped itself into that beautiful swelling curve again and the ship accelerated through the water.

  “Haul in!” he heard Stig yelling and the sail handlers fastened the ropes, whipping rapid coils round the belaying pins set along the bulwarks.

  He glanced over his shoulder and laughed aloud as he saw they were cutting across Porpoise’s path—and leaving her behind. Her oars weren’t moving quite as evenly now as some of the rowers tired and lost their rhythm. By contrast, Heron was flying, gaining distance on her rival with every second.

  She cleared the turning point with twenty meters to spare. Hal heaved on the tiller, bringing the bow farther to starboard.

  Again, Stig and the crew hauled on the ropes to tighten the sail until they were flying down the third leg of the course. By the time the other ships reached the turning point, he’d be more than halfway along this leg. They’d made up the distance …

  “Lynx is in trouble!” Edvin called.

  Hal swung round in time to see the big square sail on the other ship crumple, then topple to starboard as the mast snapped.

  “What happened?” he asked Edvin. The boy was shaking his head in horror.

  “They tried to follow us through the tack,” he said. “Rollond must have wanted to make up time.”

  Hal stared back over his shoulder at the stricken ship. Tack
ing a square-sailed ship was a dangerous maneuver. Compared with Heron, the Lynx had farther to turn across the wind, and she presented that huge square sail area to the wind through the entire maneuver. Without enough momentum to carry her through the turn, she’d stalled halfway, so that the wind pressed fully back against her sail. The mast wasn’t designed to stand that sort of pressure from straight ahead and it had fractured.

  Worse, the mast, sail and cross yard, with all their attached, tangled cordage, had crashed over the starboard side, smashing the bulwark and dragging the ship over in a list. Water would be pouring in despite her crew’s desperate attempts to bail her out. Not that there were too many of the crew visible, Hal thought. Some of them must have been injured or trapped by the falling mast and sail.

  Porpoise was rounding the second mark now. Her oars came in and her sail was rising up the mast. She seemed oblivious to the other ship’s fate as she gathered speed down the third leg. Hal felt the deck planks vibrate beneath his feet as Stig joined him on the steering platform.

  “What’s happened?” his friend said.

  Hal gestured to the stricken ship behind them.

  “Lynx is sinking,” he said. “Stand by. We’re going back to help her.”

  chapter thirty-three

  They came about and headed for the stricken Lynx. The Porpoise, sail now set and drawing well, maintained her course. The two ships flew toward each other. Thirty meters separated them as they passed. At the helm of the Porpoise, Tursgud stared resolutely ahead, ignoring the shouts and gestures of the Heron’s crew.

  “He’s leaving her to sink!” Stig said incredulously.

  Hal shrugged. He’d expected no more of Tursgud.

  “He wants to win,” he said briefly. Once more, his eyes were slits as he measured speed and angles. As they came closer to Lynx, he could see more detail. The mast, cross yard and sail were dragging alongside, holding the ship over in a steep list. The tangled cordage held the shattered timbers firmly in place. He could see that the starboard side bulwark was smashed for a length of two meters, and water was pouring through the break. Four boys were bailing frantically while Rollond and another three of his crew hacked at the ropes holding the wreckage alongside. There was no sign of the other two crew members.

  The Heron shot past the stricken ship, and Hal swung her in a rapid one-hundred-and-eighty-degree turn.

  “Down sail!” he ordered and the sail and yard slid down into the boat. He judged the turn almost perfectly, washing off speed as they came back alongside the Lynx. Stig, ready in the bow, threw a grapnel at the other ship’s stern rail. The three-pronged iron hook caught, and he and Ingvar hauled the two ships together, bow to stern.

  Ingvar might be nearly blind, Hal thought, but he was a godsend when sheer strength and brute force was required. The other crew members didn’t need directions. They were poised in the bows behind Stig and Ingvar. As the two ships came together, they poured over the rail onto the Lynx, running to the aid of her crew. Ulf, Wulf and Jesper joined the men bailing. Stig, Edvin and Stefan drew their saxes and went to help Rollond cut loose the wreckage. Ingvar remained in Heron’s bow, holding the two ships together. With his poor eyesight, he’d be more hindrance than help on board a strange ship. Hal tied off the steering oar and ran forward.

  “Keep them close, Ingvar!” he said as he clambered over Heron’s bow onto the other ship. Ingvar nodded, saying nothing. His teeth were gritted as he held fast to the rope binding the two ships together. Hal didn’t want to tie the rope off. If the Lynx went down, he wanted Ingvar ready to cast it loose immediately.

  As Hal ran forward, the ship lurched and came a little upright. He could see that Rollond and the others had finally managed to get rid of the shattered yardarm. It drifted astern. Axes and saxe knives rose and fell around the rest of the wreckage. There was no room for Hal to join in so he looked around for something useful to do. An arm was protruding from under the untidy mass of the sail. He cleared the heavy oiled cloth away and revealed the unconscious form of one of the Wolves. He carefully dragged the boy clear of the tangled sail and rope, lying him on the stern deck, out of harm’s way—but close to Heron in case they needed to abandon the damaged ship. He went back and tossed folds of the sail aside to find the other missing crew member. It was Bjorn, the wrestler. He was conscious, but struggling and trapped in a tangle of rope. Quickly, Hal drew his saxe and cut him free. Bjorn nodded his thanks, went to rise and cried out in pain, reaching for his right shoulder. He grimaced as he met Hal’s concerned gaze.

  “I’ve wrenched it again,” he said, between his teeth. Hal helped him to his feet. Of course, he remembered, Bjorn’s arm had been injured in his bout with Tursgud. “Just got it back in shape,” the boy said, his teeth still gritted. “Now it’s gone out again.”

  Hal helped him move to the stern of the ship, then turned back to see how the others were progressing.

  With extra hands at work, the wreckage was almost completely cleared. As Hal watched, Stig heaved a huge, knotted tangle of rope over the side. Rollond, Stefan and Jesper managed to cut loose the shattered mast. The others joined in and shoved it clear, using oars to keep the heavy spar from smashing into the ship’s side as it drifted away. Lynx lurched back to an almost even keel. But water was still pouring through the break in her bulwarks. Hal looked around for something to plug the gap.

  “Use the sail!” he called.

  Rollond looked up at him as he gestured toward the hole in the ship’s side. Then understanding dawned in his eyes. Together, they bundled up a part of the heavy sail and shoved it into the gap, cutting off the excess with their razor-sharp saxe knives. Stig, seeing what they were doing, grabbed an oar and jammed it against the folds of sailcloth to hold it in position. The flood of water slowed to a trickle and they straightened up, grinning in relief. Several of the Lynx’s crew slumped wearily onto the rowing benches. It had been an exhausting ten minutes. Rollond looked around, however, searching for the two crew members who had been caught under the collapsing sail.

  “Where are …?”

  Hal put a reassuring hand on his arm. “They’re aft,” he said. “One’s unconscious, but he’s alive. Bjorn has hurt his shoulder again.”

  Rollond looked in the direction Hal was pointing and saw his two missing crew members. His shoulders sagged with relief.

  “I thought they might have gone overboard,” he said. “Thanks for your help. I don’t think we would have made it without you.”

  Hal shrugged. “Anyone would do the same thing.”

  Rollond smiled bitterly. “Some wouldn’t,” he said. Involuntarily, they both turned to gaze toward the finish line. They could see the Porpoise’s sail as she crossed.

  “I guess he wanted the points,” Hal said. Rollond snorted in disgust.

  “He’s welcome to them,” he said. “I don’t mind competing hard, but leaving your opponent to drown is another matter entirely. That’s not the way Skandians do things.”

  “Maybe he didn’t see how bad the damage was,” Hal suggested, although he wondered why he was trying to make excuses for Tursgud.

  Rollond shook his head. “He was closer than you,” he said. He glanced over Hal’s shoulder and grinned. “Speaking of which, look who’s arrived in the nick of time.”

  Hal turned. The small boat with the judges on board was laboring up toward them. The four instructors had manned the oars and it had been a hard pull against the wind and waves to reach them. As they approached, they rested gratefully, slumping over their oars. Sigurd stood and hailed them.

  “Do you need any help?” he yelled.

  Rollond crossed to the railing and cupped his hands around his mouth to reply.

  “Already got all we need!” he called back. “We’re fine. We’ve got two men slightly injured but we’ll make it back to harbor all right.”

  “We’ll escort them in to make sure,” Hal added.

  Sigurd looked at him for a few seconds before he replied.

bsp; “That was well done, Hal Mikkelson. And all the rest of you Herons,” he called. Then he and his companions set about the task of raising the small boat’s mast and sail. After a few minutes, they were heading away toward the harbor.

  “Is everything all right, Hal?” It was Ingvar, and Hal turned toward the big boy. He’d forgotten about him in all the excitement.

  “Everything’s fine now, Ingvar,” he said.

  “Then can I tie this rope off? I’m getting pretty tired here.”

  “Just hold on for a few minutes more, Ingvar,” Hal said. He looked at Rollond. “Can you manage now?”

  The Wolves’ skirl nodded. “We’ll be fine. We can row back in. Although if you could lend us a couple of men, it’d be easier. I’ve got two of my crew out of action.”

  Hal looked down the length of the damaged ship. Stig was the best oarsman, but if he was going to be shorthanded, he wanted him aboard Heron.

  “Ulf and Wulf!” he called. The twins looked up at him curiously. “Stay on board and help Rollond and his men row home. The rest of you, back aboard the Heron.”

  As Stig and the others filed aft and climbed back aboard their own ship, the twins moved toward the rowing benches. Ulf went to climb down onto one of the starboard side seats.

  “Where are you going?” Wulf demanded angrily.

  His brother looked at him, frowning. “I always row on this side.”

  Wulf nodded several times, still annoyed. “Did it occur to you that I might like to row that side for a change?” he asked.

  Ulf flushed angrily. “No. It didn’t. Because you always row on the other side,” he retorted.

  Hal raised his eyebrows at Rollond.

  “I’ll leave you to sort that out,” he said, grinning.

  Rollond watched the bickering twins with a puzzled frown.

  “Are they always like this?” he asked.

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