The outcasts, p.28
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       The Outcasts, p.28

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  Stig shook his head. “It’s a diversion,” he said. Then a similar rustling sound was heard from a position farther to their left—between the first movement and the figures he’d originally seen.

  “On the right!” Wulf shouted, and as Hal swung round to look, he saw dark figures on that side going to ground behind a patch of low undergrowth. His heart pounded. Tursgud’s team were doing their job well, keeping the defenders’ attention switching back and forth from one side of the line to another as they advanced ever closer. Once they got close enough, Hal knew, they’d break from cover and rush the defenders, knowing they had them outnumbered.

  He had a sudden flash of inspiration.

  “Look for Tursgud,” he called to Stig. “He’ll have the plaque.”

  It would be just like the Sharks’ leader to want the glory for himself. He’d taken the lead role for his team in all the contests so far. It didn’t matter how many of the other Sharks broke through the Herons’ line. If they could stop Tursgud, they’d win.

  More rustling in front. Then from the left again. They were edging closer now. Any minute and they’d …

  A loud whistle sounded across the dark field and suddenly, there were figures up and running at them from three different directions.

  Three were running at the right-hand side of the line and he saw Ulf and Wulf rise from cover and sprint out to meet them. The twins grappled two of the attackers to the ground but the third broke through. Stefan came up from behind a bush but the attacker caught him off balance, shoving him backward. Stefan rolled and came to his feet, setting out in pursuit.

  But now two more shadows were sprinting toward them in the middle of the line, choosing their moment as Edvin broke from cover to help Stefan. They came forward, then went to ground again. Two more rose on the left, running like deer through the shadows. One of them lost his footing on the rough ground and went over. But he rolled to his feet and kept coming.

  Stig rose to his feet.

  “Wait!” Hal yelled. “Wait till you see Tursgud!”

  The two runners on the left had dropped into cover once more. Hal glanced around. His defenders were fully engaged now, except for himself and Stig. And Ingvar, of course, standing now and groping at shadows like a shortsighted bear. This was how he’d thought it would go. But with Jesper in the hut, he was even more shorthanded than the enemy expected.

  Seven attackers had shown themselves. Three remained hidden. One of them had to be Tursgud.

  Hal rose and ran to where Stig was searching the shadows in front of them. Stig was their best chance to stop Tursgud, Hal knew.

  “I’m going after those two on the left,” he said. “Wait till you see Tursgud. He’s got to be in the middle somewhere. He’s got diversions on the left and right. Ignore everyone else and stop him. Understood?”

  Stig’s teeth flashed in a grin. “It’ll be my pleasure,” he said. Hal felt a moment of hope then. So far, he’d been hoping for a draw in this event. But if Tursgud ran true to form, they could even manage a win.

  He rose from his crouched position and sprinted to his left, angling toward the spot where the two runners had gone into cover again. By deserting his post in this way, he hoped to lure Tursgud from cover. Then Stig could deal with him.

  He hoped.

  The two concealed runners saw him coming. They rose and started to skirt wide to their right—his left. He changed direction to cut them off, then heard Stig’s triumphant shout behind him.

  “Tursgud!”

  Finally, Tursgud and two other runners had risen from concealment, only a few meters from where Stig was waiting. Hal saw his friend break cover and move toward the Sharks’ leader, then saw Tursgud angling back toward Stig and realized he’d miscalculated. Tursgud had out-thought him. He crashed into Stig and the two of them rolled on the ground, grappling with each other. And as they did so, Tursgud’s two companions raced for the hut and Hal heard his triumphant laugh.

  Hal turned and raced toward them to cut them off. He might have made it, but the front runner suddenly switched direction and charged at Hal, putting his shoulder into his ribs and sending him crashing to the ground, winded and retching for breath.

  Lying, groaning in the dust, Hal watched as the second runner, brandishing a white plaque over his head, plunged through the doorway of the hut.

  The braying sound of Sigurd’s horn signaled the end of the attack.

  chapter thirty-six

  Sigurd carried the box out of the hut and placed it on the ground in front of the two assembled brotherbands.

  Most of the boys were nursing bruises and scrapes and Sigurd shrugged fatalistically. Technically, they were not supposed to wrestle and punch each other. A simple tag should be enough. But he had never known one of these events where the boys didn’t start throwing punches.

  He unlocked the box and threw the lid open, revealing the single white plaque bearing the Shark insignia. Tursgud and his team cheered. The Herons shuffled their feet and looked surly.

  “Bad luck, Stig,” Tursgud said cheerfully. He had a bruised cheek from his struggle with Stig, but the triumph of their win meant he felt no pain. Stig glowered at him. Hal put a restraining hand on his arm.

  “Let it be,” he said quietly.

  Sigurd handed the plaque back to Tursgud and relocked the box, passing it to Viggo to replace it in the hut.

  “That’s a win for the Sharks,” he said. “Now change places. Herons are attacking. Sharks defending. Thirty minutes to get into position.”

  Hal led his team away into the shadows. About twenty-five meters from the hut, he stopped for a few moments by a pair of low bushes growing close together. He had noticed them earlier and marked them down.

  “Bunch up,” he told his team quietly and they grouped closely around him, as if listening to tactics. Instead, he looked at Stefan and pointed to the bushes.

  “In you go, Stefan. Wait till you hear me call, ‘Run, Ingvar, run!’ Then start your performance. Don’t make a sound until then. You’ll be right in the middle of them.”

  Concealed by his teammates, Stefan dropped to his hands and knees and crawled under the bushes.

  Once he was in position, the rest of the team moved away, dispersing as they went into a long skirmish line. Ingvar, walking close beside Hal, touched his sleeve.

  “Hal, I just want to make sure of something. You don’t want me to run, do you?”

  Hal smiled at him. “No, Ingvar. I wanted a signal that I normally would never call out.”

  Ingvar nodded ponderously. “That’s good thinking.”

  “Just stay by me,” Hal said. “I have other plans for you.”

  The Herons dispersed, finding places to conceal themselves. Hal didn’t go far. He settled behind a clump of small bushes with Ingvar, only five meters from the point where Stefan was concealed. Stig and the twins fanned out to their left. Edvin went right. Hal grimaced. It was a pretty thin line of attackers, he thought. Then he shrugged. Their real attacker was already inside the hut. All he and the others had to do was create as much confusion and disturbance as they could.

  “Start moving in, then pull back,” he’d told his team earlier in the night. “Don’t let them get close. Change positions as much as you can. We want them confused when it’s all over so they won’t know who was where.”

  Now he took off his jacket and draped it over Ingvar’s head and shoulders, so that his silhouette would be shapeless and unrecognizable. Then he pulled the other boy’s sleeves down to conceal his hands.

  “Ready, Ingvar?” he said.

  The other boy smiled at him. “This is going to be fun, Hal.”

  Hal nodded. “Let’s hope so. Remember, once you’ve done your act, I’m going to leave you here. Just sit down and stay quiet. If anyone stumbles over you, belt ’em.”

  “What if it’s you?” Ingvar sounded concerned.

  Hal laughed quietly. “I’ll make sure it’s not.”

  Then Sigurd’s horn blared out, si
gnaling the beginning of the attack, and Hal held his hand up for silence. They were close to the line of defenders and he could hear whispering voices and rustling movement through the bushes as Tursgud’s team moved into position.

  They sat, hardly daring to breathe, for several minutes. The other Herons did the same, remaining motionless and silent in their various hiding places. More minutes passed. Then, as Hal had known they would, the waiting defenders grew impatient.

  “Anyone see anything?” a voice hissed. It was surprisingly close. Another voice, a little to the left, answered.

  “Shut up! They’ll hear you!”

  He smiled to himself. He looked at the big form beside him, shapeless and indistinct with the jacket pulled up over his head. Any moment now, he thought. He counted to fifty, then reached out, putting his hand under Ingvar’s arm and helping him to rise.

  Ingvar stood and began to shake the bushes around him violently.

  Almost immediately, Hal heard one of the Sharks’ team call out as he saw the massive form rise out of the bushes.

  “There’s one of them! Come on!”

  He heard running feet crunching in the undergrowth and he yelled at the top of his voice:

  “Run, Ingvar! Run!”

  But Ingvar kept shaking the branches and swiping angrily at them. As he did, Stefan, concealed close by, let out a shattering roar—a perfect imitation of an angry black bear about to charge. The running feet stopped and there was a cry of alarm as two of the Sharks collided with each other in their haste to stop.

  Stefan roared again—sounding even angrier this time.

  “Orlog and Gorlog! It’s a bear!”

  “Let’s get out of here!”

  The running feet could be heard again, going away this time, as the pair blundered back from the line of defense, shouting in fear. Hal, choking with laughter, pulled Ingvar back down to a sitting position. The big boy beamed at him.

  “If I hadn’t known that was Stefan, I would have soiled myself,” he said. Then he frowned. “It was Stefan, wasn’t it?”

  Now Stefan warmed to his task. He shouted out, in a perfect imitation of Tursgud’s voice, “Watch out, everybody! There’s a bear on the loose! Pull back! Pull back!”

  “Who’s that?” the real Tursgud shouted, from off to the left.

  “Who’s that?” repeated Stefan, still in Tursgud’s voice. “Be careful, everybody. There’s a bear loose!”

  “There is no bear!” Tursgud screamed.

  In response, Stefan let out another shattering roar, then added, in Tursgud’s voice, “What do you think that was? An angry squirrel?”

  “Who is that?” Tursgud demanded in a fury.

  And that was when Stefan had a moment of brilliant inspiration.

  “That’s you, isn’t it, Stefan?” he bellowed. “You wait till I catch up with you, you lop-eared runt!”

  Hal applauded silently. Stefan’s ploy was sheer genius. Nobody would expect the real Stefan to mention his own name, and remind all those listening that he was an expert mimic. Now the Sharks were totally confused, not sure which Tursgud to obey. Stefan kept the pressure on.

  “They’re breaking through on the right!” he yelled. “Pedra! Knut! Ennit! Get over there now!”

  “Stay where you are!”

  “Shut up, Stefan!”

  “Shut up, Stefan, or I’ll kill you!”

  “I’ll kill you, you mean!”

  Hal patted Ingvar on the shoulder. “I’m off to cause more confusion. Stay here. I’ll come back for you when it’s over.”

  He slipped through the trees toward the spot where the real Tursgud’s voice was coming from. Stooping, he searched around and found several good-size rocks. By now, it was becoming difficult to keep track of who was saying what, as Tursgud and the fake Tursgud continued to abuse each other. But he had a good bearing on the real Tursgud’s voice. As he drew closer, he threw a rock in the general direction.

  A figure rose from the bushes a few meters to the left of his throw. He recognized Tursgud’s silhouette, pelted another two rocks at him and ran. Tursgud saw him, yelped with pain as the second rock hit his arm, then yelled.

  “It’s Hal! Karl, come over here and help me catch him!”

  “What do you mean, you fake? Ignore Stefan, Karl! I’ve already got Hal!” yelled Stefan.

  Then Hal’s hair stood on end as he heard a voice that sounded exactly like his cry out in pain.

  “Owwww! Cut it out, Tursgud! You’re breaking my arm!”

  Absolute confusion reigned. Then out on the left, Stig made a darting run toward the line and three of the defenders took off after him, yelling directions to one another. Stefan began yelling contradictory directions and Stig went to ground, crawling rapidly back into the bushes. Then the twins began to add their voices to the general confusion.

  “Hey! I’m over here!” Wulf yelled.

  “No! I’m over here!” replied Ulf, from fifty meters away. But their voices were identical.

  Judging that the time was right, Hal put his fingers in his mouth and emitted a piercing whistle. Instantly, the fake Tursgud yelled out.

  “Who’s that whistling? Shut up or I’ll bash you!”

  But the whistle was a prearranged signal for the Herons to fade back, move to their right and group together.

  They huddled behind the bushes—Stig, Ulf and Wulf, Edvin and Hal. Ingvar and Stefan, of course, remained where they were. Hal was silently counting, using Edvin’s method.

  “… ninety-nine jolly goblins, one hundred jolly goblins.”

  Hidden in his bushes, Stefan was doing the same. As he reached one hundred jolly goblins, he rolled out into the open, came to his feet and began running to his left—away from the side where his teammates were assembled.

  “They’re on our right!” he yelled. “Everybody this way! Sharks! Follow me!”

  Dark shapes rose and headed after him. But only one of them knew he was a fake. The real Tursgud had been waiting for a sight of the person who was mimicking him. In a fury, he took off after the shadowy running figure. He rapidly overtook Stefan and hurled himself on him, driving him to the ground. Stefan curled in a ball, elbows and knees up to protect himself from the wild punches Tursgud was throwing. Then Tursgud, as Hal had done earlier in the evening, realized he’d been tricked. He looked up in horror to his left. There was a group of shadowy figures sprinting toward the hut. Leaving Stefan groaning and bruised, he leapt to his feet and screamed at his team.

  “Get back! Get back! They’re almost at the hut! Stop them!”

  Three of his team heard him and followed at a run to intercept the Herons. The two groups came together a few meters from the hut and dissolved into a rolling, struggling, confused maul of bodies. From time to time, one of the Herons would break free and lunge for the doorway. But each time, he would be dragged down before he could make it inside. Gradually, the Shark team gained the upper hand as more of their numbers arrived to help. Finally, they had all the attackers pinned and restrained. Hal, breathing heavily, looked around his companions, counting heads. His heart leapt as he saw Jesper being held by two of the Sharks. The thief caught his eye and winked slowly. He’d been hiding in the hut the entire time. Once the brawl outside the door began, he had slipped out again and joined the melee without anyone noticing.

  Sigurd’s horn sounded—unnecessarily, Hal thought—and the contest was over. The four judges strode up to the knot of boys outside the hut. Sigurd gestured for the Herons to be released.

  “Let ’em go,” he said. “It’s all over. Looks as if the Sharks have won. None of the Heron team made it inside.”

  The Sharks let out a triumphant roar, grinning at one another. The win would put their score out of reach. They began to celebrate the fact that they had won the overall competition. Then Jesper stepped forward and spoke to Sigurd.

  “Actually, sir, I did,” he said.

  Silence fell as they all looked at him. Tursgud’s face worked in a fury of concentrat
ion as he tried to remember if he’d seen Jesper when the brawl had erupted outside the hut. But it had all been so confused—rolling, punching, struggling Sharks and Herons mixed together—and he simply couldn’t remember. The other Sharks were equally unsure, the smiles on their faces slowly dying as they realized their celebrations might have been premature.

  Sigurd gestured to Viggo. “One way to find out. Get the box.”

  No one spoke as the assistant instructor brought the box out and gave it to Sigurd to unlock. As the lid went back, Sigurd tipped the box up. A small white plaque fell out. There was a crude heron shape inscribed on it. The Herons leapt and screamed in victory. Hal and Jesper grinned at each other and Stig slapped a big hand on his best friend’s shoulder.

  “I told you you’d come up with a clever idea,” he said.

  “Shut up,” Hal cautioned him. But he couldn’t stop smiling.

  Tursgud, his face like a thundercloud, cursed silently as Sigurd declared the contest another draw.

  “So it’s all down to the navigation test. Day after tomorrow. Get back to your quarters now and get some rest.”

  The Herons, in a tight-knit bunch, walked back to their hut, collecting Ingvar and a limping Stefan on the way.

  “You all right?” Hal asked the mimic.

  Stefan smiled wearily. “He hit me a few good ones,” he said. “But it was worthwhile. As for you,” he said to Jesper, “I’ll bet you’re glad to be out from under that bed.”

  Jesper grinned. “It was a bit moldy under there,” he admitted. “But as you say, it was worthwhile.”

  PART 4

  THE OUTCASTS

  chapter thirty-seven

  The two brotherbands stood on the beach, watching curiously as the black-hulled Magyaran ship rowed slowly out of the harbor. As she cleared the entrance, Wolfwind cast off her moorings and swung out after her with Svengal at the tiller, shadowing the foreign ship as she moved farther away from land.

  The four brotherband instructors were equally curious. Sigurd turned to a sergeant of the harbor watch.

 
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