The outcasts, p.29
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       The Outcasts, p.29

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  “What’s going on?” he asked, jerking a thumb toward the two ships.

  The sergeant grinned.

  “Erak’s given them their marching orders. Sailing orders, rather. He doesn’t want them hanging around Hallasholm any longer.”

  Hal, seeing Thorn nearby, had walked over to ask the same question and received similar information.

  “I’ve been watching them all week,” Thorn said. “They claimed they had a leaking seam but I never saw them doing anything to fix it.”

  “So why were they hanging around?” Stig asked.

  Thorn shrugged. “Knowing the Magyarans, they were probably looking for something to steal.” He grinned at the two boys, changing the subject. “That was good work last night, by the way. I’m guessing that your friend Jesper was in the hut all along?”

  Hal nodded, grinning in his turn. “Yes. But don’t go talking about it.”

  Thorn raised his wooden hook to his lips. “My lips are sealed.”

  Stig gestured at the hook. “That’s quite a clamp you’ve got on them.”

  Thorn brandished his new right “hand” proudly. “Yes. I’m rather pleased with this. I’d say it’s coming in handy, but that might be too much of a pun.”

  “I’m so glad you didn’t say that,” Hal said, straight-faced. But Thorn merely gestured to Sigurd a few paces away.

  “You’d better get moving. Looks like Sigurd’s handing out the navigation notes,” he said. “Good luck.” He shooed them away, using his hook. Then he looked at it and grinned happily.

  “I love being able to do that,” he said. Then he became serious. “Good luck, Hal. You too, Stig.”

  The two friends turned and walked down the beach to where Sigurd was surrounded by the members of the two brotherbands. He glanced up as they arrived.

  “How kind of you to join us,” he said. “I trust you are planning to take part in today’s exercise?”

  Hal and Stig exchanged a quick glance. For a second, Hal was tempted to reply in kind, but it wasn’t beyond Sigurd to hand out demerit points for sarcasm and, if he did, it could put the Sharks’ total score out of their reach.

  “Yes, Sigurd,” they mumbled together. He harrumphed at them and held out his hand to Jarst, who stood close by.

  “Let me have the sailing instructions,” he said. Jarst handed him two rolled scrolls of parchment, sealed with red wax. Sigurd checked the first, then held it out to Tursgud.

  “Here’s yours,” he said. Then, as Tursgud went to break the wax seal, he hurriedly added, “Not yet! You wait until you’re a kilometer offshore before you read them. Your team instructors will ride along with you to make sure you don’t cheat. Since there’s just the two teams now, there’ll be no points for the loser. It’s winner take all.”

  He turned to Hal and handed him the second scroll. Hal regarded it curiously, wondering what he would find inside. He had no idea what form the sailing instructions would take. He had only been told that they would be “cryptic.” He wondered what that meant, exactly.

  He stood uncertainly, waiting for Sigurd to say something further. Or to sound his horn. That was usually the way the contests began, he thought. He glanced at Tursgud and saw that he was hesitating as well, eyes intent on the chief instructor. Sigurd seemed to become aware of their scrutiny. He raised his eyebrows at them.

  “Was there something else?” he asked and they both shook their heads. “Well then,” he continued, “perhaps you might like to get under way. This is a race as well as a navigation test, you know.”

  For a second longer, they stood there. Then Hal was galvanized into action.

  “Come on!” he yelled. He shoved the rolled parchment inside his jacket and pelted down the beach to where the Heron was drawn up at the water’s edge. The rest of his team followed him at a run, then he heard Tursgud’s startled yell and, glancing back, saw that the Sharks were running as well.

  “Edvin! Get the beach anchor!” he yelled. Edvin was the lightest of the group and the best spared from the heavy work of launching the ship. The rest of them took up their positions and began to shove the Heron back into the water.

  This was where Ingvar was worth his weight in gold, Hal thought. As the rest of them strained to get the ship moving, the big boy spat on his hands, then put his shoulder against the ship’s prow, dug his feet into the sand and heaved.

  At once, she started to slide, the sand and pebbles grinding under her keel as she moved. And as more of her length was supported by the water, she slid more easily. Judging that he was no longer needed to keep her moving, Hal scrambled up over the bulwark and ran to the steering platform in the stern. He glanced across at the Porpoise. She too was afloat. His team came scrambling over the bulwarks and threw themselves onto the benches. Free now of the grip of the sand, Heron was swinging gently under the breeze, her stern drifting round to parallel the beach.

  “Oars!” Hal yelled, grabbing the tiller. The oars rattled and clattered into the oarlocks, sliding out to poise over the water’s surface, ready for the first stroke.

  “Hal!” Edvin shouted, pointing back to the beach.

  Hal turned and swore as he saw Gort, standing ankle deep, grinning at them. They had forgotten to let the instructor board. He looked across at Porpoise and saw Tursgud had made the same mistake. Jarst, their instructor, was on the beach as well.

  “Back port!” he yelled and the port-side rowers backed their oars, swinging the stern around so that it came back to the beach. Hal leaned over the stern bulwark and yelled at the grinning instructor.

  “If you’re coming, get aboard!”

  Hal’s command signaled a subtle change in their relationship. Gort might be their instructor, but once on board Heron, Hal was the skirl and he had the authority to give orders to anyone. In addition, Gort could hardly complain about Hal’s brusque manner. He was committing a cardinal sin in the Skandians’ unwritten rules—he was delaying a ship’s sailing.

  Grinning still, he splashed forward till he was thigh deep, then leapt up and seized the bulwark to clamber aboard in a shower of seawater. Hal didn’t spare him another glance.

  “Back port oars, forward starboard oars!” he yelled and the ship pivoted neatly, turning her bow toward the harbor entrance.

  “Thought you’d forgotten me,” Gort said mildly.

  Hal said nothing, simply glared at him. “All oars ahead together!” he ordered and the craft shot forward.

  But, fast as she was, Porpoise was faster still, with eight oars pulling to their six. And she was closer to the harbor entrance. For a few minutes, the two ran side by side. But Heron was slowly falling behind. Tursgud swung Porpoise’s bow to starboard, cutting across their path.

  “Oars!” Hal called angrily. It was that or risk running into the other ship as she turned across them.

  As the rowers paused, the smaller ship’s way was checked and the Sharks surged ahead of them toward the entrance. In the grand scheme of a race that would take six or seven hours to complete, it was a small enough thing. But it was a moral victory, and Hal and his teammates begrudged it bitterly.

  “Pull together!” he ordered once the other ship was clear. Again, Heron surged forward, arrowing down the white water of Porpoise’s wake.

  They shot out of the harbor entrance into the open sea. Instantly, he felt the deck surge to one of the big rollers sweeping in. He rode the movement easily, looking up to the telltale. The pennant was streaming dead astern. The wind was right in their teeth.

  He considered setting the sail. But with only a kilometer to cover, he judged they would reach the starting point faster by rowing in a straight line, rather than the zigzag course they would have to follow under sail. He looked at Porpoise, now lying slightly off their port bow. She had increased her lead and her oars kicked up white spray as they bit into the sea and heaved her forward. He begrudged the Sharks their two extra rowers, but he had a little extra oar power up his sleeve.

  “Edvin! Take an oar!” He glanced
to where Ingvar was seated in the second bench port side and added: “Starboard side!”

  As Edvin took his place, Hal waited till he was ready, then called out to Ingvar.

  “All right, Ingvar, pull as if Hulde herself was on your heels!”

  Hulde was the goddess of the dead, and definitely not someone you would ever want close behind you. Hal noticed that Gort surreptitiously touched a protective charm he wore round his neck at the mention of her name. Ingvar merely grinned, however, and heaved mightily on his oar. Despite the fact that there was an extra rower on the other side, Hal was startled to feel the Heron’s bow veer slightly to starboard under Ingvar’s powerful stroke.

  Gort raised his eyebrows, noting the slight swing and Hal’s compensating adjustment of the tiller.

  “What does that boy eat?” he asked.

  Hal glanced quickly in his direction. “Anything he wants to,” he said briefly.

  Even with Ingvar’s extra power, and Edvin lending his weight to the rowing, the Porpoise continued to gain on them. She was two hundred meters away when Hal saw the oars stop their constant beat and she gradually came to a halt, rising and falling on the swell.

  “She’s reached the one-kilometer mark,” he said.

  Gort nodded, then looked around, judging the angles to two prominent headlands behind them.

  “Keep going,” he said. “I’ll tell you when you’re there.”

  Hal drummed his fingers on the steering oar in a fever of impatience.

  “Don’t suppose you’d care to take an oar?” he suggested to Gort.

  The instructor looked at him, pityingly. “No. I don’t suppose I would,” he replied.

  “Would you care to steer while I row?” Hal said in his most persuasive tones.

  “I don’t think I’ll even answer that,” Gort told him.

  Hal shrugged. “Ah, well, it was worth a try.”

  But Gort remained unmoved. “No. It wasn’t.” Then, barely a few seconds later, he squinted astern, checking the relative positions of his reference points, and announced, “All right. We’re there.”

  “Oars!” Hal yelled immediately and the exhausted crew stopped rowing and slumped over the oak shafts. Normally, they could row for hours on end. But that would be at a steady, measured pace. Instead, they had been rowing at top speed for the time it took them to reach the one-kilometer mark.

  Gradually, the ship came to a halt. The chuckling sound of ripples along her waterline died away, and she rose and fell on the swell.

  Hal took the rolled scroll from under his jacket and looked inquiringly at Gort as he went to break the seal. The instructor nodded permission. As Hal broke the seal on the sailing instructions, Stig and Edvin joined him on the steering platform. Before he studied the parchment, Hal glanced across to where the Porpoise had been stopped. His heart sank as he saw that she was under way again, oars pulling rhythmically. Her stern was toward them, her hull visible only when she rose on the crest of a roller.

  “What does it say?” Stig urged.

  Hal forced himself to forget about Tursgud and his ship and unrolled the parchment.

  Stig and Edvin leaned in on either side of him, peering over his shoulders.

  “It’s a poem,” he said, his voice betraying his surprise. He frowned at Gort. “Is it always a poem?” he asked. But the instructor, infuriatingly, merely shrugged his shoulders and raised his eyebrows. No help from that quarter, Hal thought. Then he read the short six-line verse aloud: “If to win this contest you do wish, Nor’east to where the Liar finds a fish then east-southeast two leagues you are required to see a fireplace without a fire.

  Put it to your back, plus two points nor’

  Until a V of trees are seen onshore.”

  He looked at his companions. Edvin’s face was creased with concentration. Stig looked up at Hal, a look of total incomprehension on his face.

  “Well, I must say, that’s a big help,” he said.

  chapter thirty-eight

  Hal studied the poem again, looking for the meaning behind the words.

  “Where does a Liar find a fish?” he asked. Stig pursed his lips thoughtfully. “All fishermen are liars.”

  Hal glared at him. “I don’t think that gets us very far.”

  Stig looked offended. “I’m only trying to be helpful,” he said.

  “Well, you’re not succeeding,” Hal told him.

  Edvin shook his head, annoyed at his teammates. “If you’d stop squabbling, we might solve this,” he said, a little sourly. Hal and Stig both had the grace to look contrite.

  “All right,” Hal said, “who’s a liar?”

  “Not me,” Stig muttered, thinking Hal was criticizing him again.

  “Loki is a liar,” Edvin said. Loki was the Skandian god of deceit and trickery.

  Stig amended Edvin’s statement. “Loki is the liar.”

  Hal checked the sheet again, excitedly.

  “The word Liar begins with a capital!” he said. “That must be it. Now where does Loki catch a fish?”

  The answer hit them all simultaneously.

  “Loki’s Bank,” they chorused. It was a popular cod-fishing site off the coast, where the sea shallowed over a large bank of sand. Many a sailor had, in years past, been deceived by the sudden change in depth—hence the name.

  “It’s southwest of here!” Hal cried, picturing one of the many charts he had memorized during navigation classes. He glanced at the telltale. The wind was steady from the northwest, streaming the narrow pennant out in a straight line.

  “Hands to make sail!” he yelled to the crew. “Raise the port sail!”

  They were well practiced now and the yard slid quickly up the mast. Heron came alive in the water again, speeding southwest, with the wind from their starboard side, at right angles to their course. They’d be making leeway, with the wind forcing them to the left, Hal realized, and he adjusted the tiller, bringing her course more to the right.

  She plunged on, occasionally carving through a wave and sending sheets of spray cascading back over the crew. But they barely noticed it. The sensation of speed was exhilarating. It was possibly Heron’s best point of sailing and the entire hull vibrated under Hal’s feet, setting up a deep, almost inaudible hum. He grinned at Stig, who was standing beside him.

  “Can you hear her? She’s singing.”

  Stig grinned back, his long hair streaming in the wind.

  Stefan had the sharpest eyes in the crew. He scrambled up the starboard shrouds to the lookout position at the top of the mast. Forty minutes later, they heard his hail.

  “We’re coming up on the bank now!”

  From his vantage point, he could see where the sea changed from deep blue to a lighter green as the sand bottom of the bank rose up out of the depths. They flew past several fishing boats, trudging slowly along with their nets over the side. Then they were over the bank itself and the waves became shorter and choppier as the shallow water broke up the deep-sea motion of the rollers. Heron plunged like a nervous horse.

  “Ease the sail,” Hal ordered and Stig went forward to organize the rope handlers. As they eased the pressure on the sail, the ship slowed a little and her motion became easier. Hal checked the poem again.

  “… then east-southeast two leagues … ,” he quoted. He’d need a way to measure distance traveled, he realized. He turned to Edvin. “Get the reel ready to cast.”

  Their new course would mean turning more than ninety degrees to port. Hal gave the order to come about. Stig and the crew carried out the maneuver smoothly, sending the starboard sail up to replace the port-side one. Gort, who had been silent for some time, nodded approval.

  “You’ve got them well trained,” he said.

  Hal barely had time to acknowledge the compliment.

  “Thanks,” he said briefly, consulting his sun compass for the correct bearing. Then, as he settled the ship on her new course, with the wind now over their port rear quarter, he nodded to Edvin. “Let her go!”

  Edvin was standing behind him, at the very stern. As Hal gave the order, he tossed a wooden X overboard. A thin cord ran through the crosspiece of the X, connected to a large reel that Edvin now held clear of the sternpost. As the X dragged in the water behind them, the cord began to unreel and Edvin started counting.

  “One jolly goblin, two jolly goblins …”

  There were knots tied at measured intervals along the cord, every fifth one marked with a colored strip of cloth. As Edvin reached “thirty jolly goblins,” he stopped the cord and checked how many knots had run out.

  “A little over six, Hal,” he reported.

  Hal nodded as Edvin began to reel in the cord and the wooden X. He did a quick calculation. Unless the wind changed, it should take them just over an hour and a half to reach the spot designated in the instructions.

  “Settle down, everyone,” he said. “We’ve got almost two hours. So take it easy while you can.” He reached to the hourglass mounted on the bulwark and tipped it over to start the sand running. “Keep an eye on that,” he told Edvin.

  Heron swooped on across the sea, rising to the crest of each roller, then sliding down into the trough, where her bow would part the water like an ax, sending silver plumes of spray flying back on either side of the ship. Hal glanced astern from time to time, making sure that the white path of her wake remained straight.

  Gort watched approvingly. The boy was not only a good navigator, he was an expert helmsman. He noted the small, almost unconscious movements of the steering oar that Hal made to compensate for continuing variations in wind, wave action and current.

  Stig had rejoined his skirl on the steering platform. Edvin stood nearby, watching the hourglass, ready to turn it when the sand ran out. The rest of the crew relaxed on the rowing benches.

  “Time!” called Edvin as the last grains of sand trickled through from the top of the hourglass. Quickly, he turned it so that the sand began running back the other way. Hal glanced at him as he called out.

  “Let me know when it’s half gone,” he said and Edvin nodded.

  Gort leaned back against the lee rail, relaxing in the warm morning sunshine. After watching and instructing this crew of discards for the past few months, he had grown to admire their spirit and ingenuity. Although he was supposed to be impartial, he secretly hoped they would win the overall contest. That might shut up Tursgud’s father with his boasting. He might be the Maktig, the Mighty One, but at times he could be a mighty bore.

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