The outcasts, p.27
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       The Outcasts, p.27

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  Hal shrugged. “Pretty much.”

  Back in Hallasholm, there was an inquiry into the accident and its aftermath. Tursgud, of course, claimed that he had no idea how badly the Lynx had been damaged.

  “But you saw the Heron turn back to help us!” Rollond said, disbelief evident in his tone. Tursgud, however, merely shrugged.

  “I had no idea why they did that,” he said. “That was their choice. We were in a race. I chose to continue. If I made a mistake, I’m sorry.”

  Since nobody could prove anything to the contrary, no action was taken against him, although Hal sensed a distinct air of disapproval from their instructors—and several townspeople who happened to be standing nearby. Reluctantly, Sigurd awarded the points for the race to the Sharks, although it was noticeable that they showed a certain amount of restraint in their celebration of the win. Hal had the feeling that several of Tursgud’s own crew disapproved of his actions.

  By contrast, as he and his crew walked back to their quarters after stowing Heron’s yards and sails, he found that townspeople were approaching him, slapping him on the back and wishing him well. Word had quickly gone around the town about Lynx’s dismasting and the way the Heron brotherband had given up a winning lead to go back and help.

  They were halfway back to their camp when they passed a ragged figure sitting on a low wall. Thorn, proudly brandishing his new wooden hook, nodded approvingly at them. Hal left the group and walked over to speak to him.

  “Your father would be proud of you today,” Thorn said simply and Hal felt a prickle of tears behind his eyes.

  “We lost the race,” he pointed out. Thorn shook his head.

  “Maybe. But you won a lot of friends.” He slapped the boy on the shoulder. Thankfully, Hal thought, he used his left hand and not the hook. “You can always win points,” he said. “Winning people’s respect is a lot more important. Now get back to your camp.”

  chapter thirty-four

  Erak stood watching as the Raven slid her prow smoothly onto the shingle of the beach. As her crew set about stowing her gear and setting an anchor firmly into the sand, Zavac dropped over the bulwarks at the bow and strode to where the Oberjarl was waiting.

  “Good afternoon, Oberjarl,” he said smoothly. “Did you want to talk to me, or are you just taking the air?”

  “How are the repairs progressing?” Erak said bluntly. He had no use for small talk.

  Zavac pursed his lips and turned to study the black ship. Several of the crew were bailing water out of her, tossing the bucketfuls over the side.

  “She’s still taking in water,” the Magyaran said. “We’ve been out on a sea test for the past four hours and we’ve been bailing her out the whole time. I think there’s a seam close to the keel that’s leaking. We’ll have to haul her onto her side to find it. It may take a few more days.”

  “Then you’d better get on with it,” Erak told him. “Standing around talking isn’t going to get the job done.”

  Zavac allowed himself a smile as he tilted his head quizzically to one side.

  “Why, Oberjarl, anyone would think you want to be rid of us,” he said.

  Erak nodded briefly. “I do,” he said. “You’ve been here long enough. Get a move on.”

  With that, the burly Oberjarl turned on his heel and strode away up the beach. As Erak’s back turned, the smile disappeared from Zavac’s face. He was walking back to his ship when he heard the Oberjarl’s voice raised in anger and turned to see what the noise was about.

  “Do you spend your whole day lying around drinking?” Erak shouted. He was standing over a shabby, tattered figure who was slumped against a driftwood log. Zavac recalled seeing the man around the harbor several times in the past few days. A beggar, he thought. And obviously a drunk, judging by the Oberjarl’s question. Nobody important, he decided, and turned away again.

  Thorn grinned up at Erak from his supine position and brandished a stone bottle with his new hand. The bottle was empty. And it had been that way when he arrived at the beach around noon.

  “What do you think?” Erak said in a quieter voice, jerking his head toward the black ship.

  Thorn pursed his lips. “I think they’re foxing. I’ve been watching them for days now and there’s nothing wrong with their ship.”

  “He says it’s leaking. And they are bailing a lot of water out of her,” Erak pointed out.

  “Which they could just as easily have bailed into her while they were at sea,” Thorn replied. “I think they want an excuse to stay around Hallasholm a few more days.”

  “To do what?” Erak asked and Thorn shrugged.

  “Nothing honest, I’ll be bound.”

  Erak pursed his lips, then came to a decision. “I’ll give them another day or two. Keep an eye on them,” he said, and as Thorn nodded, Erak gestured at the polished wood device on his right arm. “What’s that?”

  “It’s my holding hook. See?” Thorn demonstrated, loosening the hook’s clamped hold around the bottle.

  Erak shook his head. “Don’t tell me. Hal made it.”

  “He’s really something, isn’t he? He did well yesterday.” The pride in Thorn’s voice was obvious and Erak nodded agreement.

  “He did. He behaved like a true Skandian.”

  “He is a Skandian,” Thorn said, bristling a little.

  Erak shrugged. “He’s half Araluen.”

  “It’s a good mix,” Thorn replied, refusing to give ground, and Erak nodded.

  “You could be right. Keep an eye on them.” He jerked his head toward the Magyaran ship, then trudged through the sand and shingle back to his Great Hall.

  There were no lessons that afternoon, but a rumor had gone round that Sigurd would be springing a surprise inspection of living quarters and weapons late in the day. The Herons’ tent had been a hive of activity as they cleaned and honed weapons, and folded and arranged their bedding and belongings in neat piles.

  Hal walked around the tent, looking for any irregularities, any faults in the way items were stacked and displayed. As usual, he had to realign some of Ingvar’s handiwork. The big boy had a tendency to just cram his bedding together with loose ends hanging out in all directions. He searched for signs of dirt on the floor or rust on the axes and swords. Finally, he shrugged.

  “I can’t find anything wrong,” he said.

  Stig rolled his eyes. “I’ll bet Sigurd will.”

  Hal shrugged resignedly. “He always does.” He chewed his lip thoughtfully. “You know, we’ve had so many drawn contests in the assessments, winning this thing could come down to the points lost and gained in these small items. So everyone check their gear again, then double-check it.” He glanced to where Edvin had been totaling the points of each of the three brotherbands.

  “How do we stand, Edvin?” he asked.

  Edvin looked up. “We’re still in the running. We’re not out of the race yet.”

  Stefan grinned at the news. “I’ll bet that’s surprised a few people.”

  Edvin glanced at him then continued. “After yesterday’s result, here’s how we stand: the Sharks are on two hundred and twenty points. The Wolves are on two hundred and five, and we’ve got one hundred and fifty.”

  “With two assessments left,” Stig said thoughtfully. “The night attack and the final navigation trial.”

  “So we need to win them both,” Hal said.

  Ingvar frowned. “What’s this night attack, Hal?”

  “It’s simple, Ingvar. There’s a small hut on top of a hill. Inside it is a locked box with a slot in the lid. One team is set to defend the cabin. The other has to get past them and place a token—probably a picture of the team symbol—in the box. We take it in turns to be the attackers and the defenders.”

  Jesper was frowning as Hal described the event. “That puts us at a big disadvantage,” he said. “We’re two men short compared with the other teams.”

  “Yes,” Hal replied unhappily. “And knowing Tursgud, he won’t be subtle. I
m betting his men will simply try to swamp us with numbers. If they take us one on one, they’ll still have two men left over to get into the hut and place their token.”

  “So you’ll just have to come up with some clever plan to help us win,” Stig said.

  “Well, thank you for that show of faith,” Hal said sarcastically. “Did it occur to you that you might come up with some clever plan?”

  “I don’t do clever,” Stig replied cheerfully. “I know my limitations.”

  “As do we all,” Ingvar put in.

  Hal smiled at him. “More of your wisdom, Ingvar?”

  The heavyset boy nodded, straight-faced. “I’m renowned for it. What about the other assessment? The navigation one?”

  “We have to find a flag planted on an offshore island or a beach. We’ll be given a set of cryptic clues on the day and we have to decipher them and follow the course they set us on. If we get it right, we end up where the flag has been planted. We retrieve it and beat the other teams back home.”

  “Oh, we’ll win that,” Stig said confidently. “Hal’s the best navigator in all the brotherbands.”

  “If that’s the case, what’s to stop the other teams simply following us?” Jesper asked.

  But Stig shook his head. “Each team is given a different set of clues, and a different course to the end point. So really, with Hal as our navigator, we can’t lose.”

  “Don’t be too sure,” Hal warned him. “Tursgud is a good navigator, and Rollond is better than him.”

  Stig waved a dismissive hand. “Maybe so. But I’m betting on you.”

  “Trouble is,” Hal said, “if we lose the night attack, and the Sharks win it, they’ll be so far ahead on points that we won’t be able to catch them, even if we win the navigation exercise.”

  “Well,” said Edvin philosophically, “the worst we can do is come in second.”

  There was a silence in the tent and he looked up, surprised at the suddenly hostile atmosphere.

  Stig corrected him. “No, Edvin, the worst we can do is lose. And we’re not prepared to do that.” He looked up at Hal. “You see? You’re just going to have to come up with a clever plan.”

  “You keep saying that,” Hal pointed out.

  Stig shrugged. “And I’ll keep on saying it until you do.”

  chapter thirty-five

  “Not much here,” said Stig, looking round the interior of the hut.

  He and Hal were inspecting the site for the night attack exercise, set for that evening. It was an old shepherd’s hut, built of pine logs with a timber shingle roof, and set on a small rise in the middle of open heathland. Clumps of trees and low bushes dotted the surrounding countryside, although an area thirty meters in diameter around the hut was relatively clear.

  There was a rickety old table in the center of the one-room hut, and a bed with a rope frame mattress stood along the wall opposite the doorway. Neither the bed frame nor the rotting mattress looked as if they’d support any weight. Some decaying blankets and pieces of sacking lay on the bed.

  The doorway was the only entrance. Hal screwed up his mouth as he looked at it.

  “I was hoping there might have been a small window at the back,” he said. “Something Jesper could sneak through.”

  Stig shook his head. “Makes it easier to defend. There’s only one place an attacker can get in.”

  Hal looked at him, an idea beginning to stir in his brain. “One place. That’s right. We can’t change that. But we might be able to change the time.”

  “The time? The time is tonight. How can we change that?” Stig said. Then he paused and a knowing grin began to spread over his face. “Don’t tell me. You’ve had that clever idea I’ve been expecting, haven’t you?”

  Hal was frowning thoughtfully and didn’t answer immediately. Then he glanced up as he heard someone shouting their names. “Hello. What’s got Stefan so excited?”

  Stefan was running up the slope toward them, shouting and waving to get their attention. As he drew level with them, he paused, bending over, hands on his knees to get his breath.

  “What’s all the fuss?” Stig asked.

  Stefan took a few more deep breaths, then spoke, a little breathlessly. “The Wolves … they’re out of … the competition,” he said.

  “WHAT?” Stig and Hal chorused incredulously. Stefan, still breathing heavily, nodded several times to assure them that they’d heard him correctly.

  “The Lynx is too badly damaged. They can’t get her seaworthy in time for the navigation test. And if a tean can’t compete in every event, they’re disqualified, remember? Sigurd says he won’t have them as spoilers in tonight’s contest, so they’re out.”

  Hal and Stig exchanged a long look. “So it’s down to us and Tursgud,” Hal said.

  “And if his team wins tonight, there’s no way we can catch them,” Stig said. “How’s that idea coming?” he added, a little anxiously. “You know I have faith in you, but time is getting short.”

  “It should be okay,” Hal said. “I’ve just got to make sure that Tursgud’s team are the attackers in the first round.”

  The last light of the sun was dying away. Sigurd stood between the two brotherbands. Hal and Tursgud were on either side of him. He handed each team leader a plaque with a figure drawn on it—a bird for the Herons and a shark for Tursgud’s team.

  “All right, you know the rules. Just before the start time, we’ll place a locked box in the hut. The attacking team has to place its plaque through the slot in the top. We’ll toss to see which team attacks first. Tursgud, your team is in the lead so you can call. Axes or bones.”

  Hal studied Tursgud carefully. From what he now knew of the big Skandian boy, if he won the toss, he would opt for the more active role. It wasn’t in Tursgud’s nature to choose to be a defender. And if Hal won, there’d be no problem. He would simply choose the defense role for his team. But there was always the slim chance that Tursgud might not choose to attack. Hal decided that if the other boy won the toss, he’d have to goad him into it.

  The coin spun.

  “Bones,” Tursgud said.

  Sigurd caught it, slapped it onto the back of his wrist, then revealed it.

  “Bones it is,” he said.

  Before Tursgud could speak, Hal said quickly, “All right. We’ll attack.”

  Tursgud reacted instantly—and angrily. “Just a moment! You lost, remember? It’s not your call. If it’s so important to you, we’ll be the attackers. You can defend.”

  Hal hid a triumphant smile, doing his best to look confused and embarrassed. “Oh … sorry. I thought—”

  “You thought you’d lose the toss and still decide how things were going to be? That’s typical. Bad luck. You get to defend first.”

  “Hey, don’t make such a big thing out of it, all right?” Hal said.

  Tursgud took a step toward him, but Sigurd interposed his bulky figure between them.

  “That’s enough! Get to your positions and deploy your men. You’ve got thirty minutes before the signal.”

  “Come on, boys,” Hal said, and led the Herons away. As they went, he heard Tursgud’s mocking voice behind him.

  “Find a good hiding place, Hal Who. I’ll be looking for you.”

  “Don’t look too hard for him, Broken Nose,” Stig replied. “You might not see me coming.”

  The Herons chuckled as Tursgud cursed angrily in reply.

  The Herons formed a defensive semicircle, some twenty meters out from the hut. Hal settled into concealment behind a log that had fallen across two large boulders. As he peered out into the growing darkness, a hand touched his shoulder. He jumped in alarm, and turned to see that Jesper had appeared beside him.

  “How do you do that?” he asked, his nerves still racing.

  Jesper grinned. “I’m a thief. It’s my job. Have you got the plaque?”

  Hal reached into his jacket and handed him the small plaque. Jesper put it in his own pocket, then turned away.

nbsp; “Give me twenty seconds,” he said, “then start the diversion.” He began crawling rapidly away on his belly toward the hut. After he’d gone five meters, Hal found it almost impossible to keep track of him. He shook his head, then turned back to face the front. Deciding that twenty seconds had elapsed, he let out a low whistle.

  Stig, five meters away behind a bush, rose to his knees and called out loudly. “Herons! Everyone in position?”

  From far out to the right of the line, Wulf’s answering cry was heard. “I’m here, Hal!”

  “Me too!” That was Ulf.

  “Ready, Hal!” Ingvar waved a hand from his position behind a bush. Hal had originally planned to place him in the doorway of the hut, as a last line of defense, but the rules prevented it.

  “Jesper’s here!” called Jesper’s voice. Curiously, it came from a position well away from where Hal had last seen him. A second or so later, Stefan’s voice came from the same direction.

  “Stefan! I’m in position.”

  Hal grinned. The mimic was living up to his reputation. He looked toward the hut and saw a shadow slip through the doorway. Jesper was in place, he thought.

  “Edvin! I’m here.” That was close by. Stig had already called so he didn’t call again.

  “And me,” muttered Hal. The roll call had probably given away all their positions. But he hoped it had served its true purpose—distracting the attention of the attacking Sharks from the direction of the hut while Jesper slipped inside. He shrugged. It really didn’t matter if the Sharks knew where they all were. They were bound to overwhelm the defenders anyway.

  Although that wouldn’t prevent the Herons from doing their best to stop them.

  The horn sounded the signal for the attack to begin. Hal knelt up behind the log, peering into the blackness for some sign of their attackers.

  After some minutes, he saw shadows moving out on his left and called Stig’s attention to them. By the time Stig looked, they had gone to ground.

  Something rustled the bushes directly in front. Hal peered in that direction, calling softly to Stig, “Can you see anyone?”

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