The outcasts, p.30
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       The Outcasts, p.30

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “Time!”

  Edvin’s call rang through Gort’s consciousness and he realized he’d dozed off, leaning against the bulwark in the sun. He smiled to himself. It was an old campaigner’s trick to be able to sleep standing up, he thought.

  Hal ordered the sail lowered and brought the ship up into the wind so that the way fell off her. She rocked smoothly on the swell. Gort looked around the horizon, sniffing the air. His seaman’s sense told him that the wind had strengthened. He wondered if Hal had noticed.

  Hal, Edvin and Stig were grouped together on the steering platform once more, puzzling over the sheet of instructions.

  “A fireplace without a fire. What the blazes do they mean?” Hal muttered, not noticing the unintentional pun. He noticed Gort looking at them and said accusingly, “Who wrote this nonsense?”

  Gort shrugged. “I think Sigurd did it. He rather fancies himself a bard, you know.”

  “I’m glad he does. Because I certainly don’t,” Hal said.

  Stig, who was methodically searching the horizon, shading his eyes with his right hand, stopped and touched Hal’s sleeve.

  “What does that look like to you?” he said. He pointed to a spot over their starboard quarter. “There,” he said. “That island.”

  The island was delineated sharp black against the glistening surface of the ocean. Hal hesitated, but Edvin answered almost immediately. “A house. A house with a tall chimney at one end,” he said. Then, realizing an alternative interpretation of his words, he added thoughtfully, “A fireplace without a fire, maybe?”

  “Exactly,” Stig answered. “A stone chimney. And where there’s a chimney, there must be a fireplace. And this one has no fire in it.”

  Hal rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe …” He looked around, searching desperately. But otherwise, the horizon was bare and he could see no other possible feature that might match the line of the poem.

  “If we’re wrong … ,” he began.

  But Stig interrupted impatiently. “We’re not! What else can it be? That’s it! The fireplace without a fire!”

  Hal came to a decision. Stig was right. There was no other possibility anywhere in sight.

  “All right!” he said. “That must be it!”

  He took out his sun compass again. This was an instrument similar to a sundial, which showed the direction of true north. Sun compasses needed constant recalibration, but he’d adjusted this one only two days before so it should be accurate still. He aligned it now, his back to the distant chimney-shaped island, then took a bearing two compass points north of his line of vision. With only the open sea ahead of them, and no fixed reference point to center on, he’d have to take constant bearings as they went.

  “Make sail!” he ordered. “Starboard side sail!”

  As the crew hauled the starboard yardarm up, the pressure of the wind against the loose sail began turning the ship slowly to starboard. Stig and the crew hauled in on the ropes and once more Hal felt the thrill of the ship coming alive beneath his feet, felt the tremor of power in the steering oar. He swung the bow until the ship was headed along the bearing he had taken. Heron heeled over under the freshening wind, water slopping over her leeside gunwale. Stig eased the sail and the ship came a little more upright. He set the twins to bailing out the water that had come on board.

  They were running north of northeast now, with the wind almost on their beam. Hal had noticed that the wind had strengthened. He looked to the northwest and saw a dark line of clouds. He frowned.

  “Hope we’re finished before that hits us,” he said, to nobody in particular. Then, raising his voice, he called to them all:

  “Listen, everyone! We’re looking for two trees that form a V shape. My guess is they’ll be on an island somewhere. Or maybe back on the mainland. I want everyone on the railings, keeping a lookout. Not you, Ingvar,” he added quickly as the big boy stumbled to his feet and lurched perilously toward the railing. Ingvar smiled his thanks and sat down again. Hal continued.

  “Stefan! Masthead again, please. And keep a lookout all round. We don’t know where these trees will be!”

  Stefan nodded and swarmed up into the lookout position once more. Stig and Edvin moved to opposite sides of the stern, searching long arcs to either side. Ulf and Wulf did the same in the bow.

  An hour passed. Hal checked his direction every fifteen minutes with the sun but there was no sign of any V-shaped trees. Another half hour went by and Hal was beginning to feel the despair of failure in the pit of his stomach. What if he’d made a mistake? What if his bearings were off-line? What if the island had been merely an island, and not the fireplace without a fire? But they were committed to this course now and had been for too long. There was nothing they could do now except plunge on like this, searching for the trees, hoping that they hadn’t made a terrible mistake somewhere.

  He glanced at Gort, hoping to see some sign in the instructor’s body language or expression that he was either right or wrong. But there was nothing to learn there. Gort was slumped against the railing, eyes closed again.

  “Island!”

  It was Stefan, pointing to something off the starboard bow. Shading his eyes, Hal looked in the direction he was pointing. Slowly, the dark mass of an island swam up over the horizon. As they drew closer, he felt Stig’s arm gripping his shoulder painfully.

  “Look!” his friend cried. “Look at the pines!”

  At the top of a bluff at one end of the island, two massive pines grew side by side. But at some time in the past, probably when it was a young sapling, the left-hand tree had been pushed away from the vertical by a storm. Now it leaned at an angle to its neighbor.

  “Two trees that form a V!” Hal yelled triumphantly. And the rest of the crew joined in, leaping, yelling, cheering and waving their hands like madmen. Even Ingvar was cavorting, once he was told that the trees that formed a V were in sight. Hal swung the bow downwind, signaling to Stig to adjust the sail to match their new heading.

  As they ran in closer, they could see two small flags fluttering at the foot of the trees. There was a shallow cove with a strip of sandy beach beneath the bluff where the trees stood and he steered for it. He dropped the sail thirty meters from the beach and ran the ship neatly onto the sand, feeling her grate to a halt. He grinned triumphantly at his crew.

  “All right. Let’s fetch that flag and get out of here.”

  “I’ll get it!” Stig yelled and vaulted over the rail to the beach. He began to sprint up the sand.

  Hal, his face one large grin of relief, slumped against the steering oar as he watched him go. Then Stefan’s cry drew his attention.

  “Hal!”

  Hal swung round to look in the direction Stefan was pointing. Heading into the small bay, oars thrashing the water to foam, was the Porpoise.

  chapter thirty-nine

  Hal looked back to the bluff. Stig was halfway up the slope now, slowing down as the ground became steeper. Hal cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled at the top of his voice.

  “Stig! Hurry!”

  Off to his right, he heard the grating sound of a ship’s prow sliding ashore. He glanced quickly to see Tursgud dropping from the bow to the sand, then heading at a run for the bluff. The Sharks’ leader paid no attention to the Heron and her crew, only a few meters away. The race was too close now for any time to be wasted on insults. He reached the foot of the bluff and started to climb. As luck would have it, he found an easier path than the one Stig had selected and he sped up the slope.

  Hal looked anxiously at Stig again. His friend hadn’t heard Hal’s frantic call and had slowed to a walk, out of breath after his initial burst of enthusiasm. He had his hands on his hips and his head down. Tursgud was still running, leaping recklessly from boulder to boulder, gaining ground with every stride. And Stig was oblivious to the fact.

  Hal called to the crew. “Everybody call him! All together. One … two … three …”

  “ST-I-I-IG!!!


  The sound of their combined voices echoed around the bay. This time, Stig heard them and he looked down. They saw his start of surprise as he made out the Porpoise alongside them on the beach, then a further jolt of alarm when he saw Tursgud, barely forty meters away and moving fast.

  Galvanized into action, Stig started running again. He reached their flag and tugged it free, then turned to race back down to the beach. Tursgud passed him, going the other way. But now there were only a few meters separating them.

  There was a spontaneous groan from the Heron’s crew as Stig slipped and fell, rolling several meters down the slope.

  “What happened?” said Ingvar instantly.

  Stefan turned to him. “Stig fell. But he’s up again now.”

  And he was. But the fall had cost him precious time and Tursgud was breathing down his neck as they plunged down the treacherous slope.

  “Careful … careful … ,” Hal muttered, in a frenzy of worry. If Stig fell again, it could prove to be a disaster. Even worse, if he fell and injured himself …

  But he didn’t. He kept his feet and emerged at the foot of the bluff, Tursgud close behind him.

  “Over the side!” Hal yelled. “Get ready to shove her off!”

  The other six boys tumbled over the rail to the beach. In Ingvar’s case, literally. He hit the beach awkwardly and fell heavily to the sand. But he was up in an instant and took his place at the bow.

  To their right, the crew of the Porpoise were preparing to launch as well.

  Stig, hampered by the soft sand, blundered up to the ship’s bow. He tossed the flag on board and, exhausted as he was, set his shoulder against the ship’s hull.

  “Heave!” yelled Jesper, who had the good sense to realize that Stig had no breath for yelling commands. They strained against the hull and she began to move, a few centimeters at a time.

  “Heave!” yelled Jesper again, and again they slid her a few centimeters. “Come on, Ingvar!” he yelled. The big boy set his feet, took a deep breath and shoved with all his might. And suddenly, the ship was floating free. Ulf, Wulf and Stefan all fell as she suddenly moved. But they were up again almost immediately, the two twins blaming each other for the accident.

  “Shut up and get aboard!” Hal yelled.

  The crew of the Porpoise hadn’t got their ship moving yet. Then Ingvar lost his grip as he came aboard and fell back to the sand again. Instantly, Wulf and Stefan went over after him, grabbed him and bundled him over the side of the ship.

  “Oars!” Hal yelled. The little bay blanketed the wind. They’d have to row her out before they could set the sail. The crew scrambled onto the benches and there was a prolonged rattle and clatter as they ran their oars out.

  “Back water! Heave!” Hal yelled. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Porpoise beginning to move, sliding free of the sand. Heron began to gather sternway under the force of the oars. Hal waited until he had room to turn her.

  “Starboard side back! Port side forward!” he yelled. With the oars working in different directions, the ship pivoted neatly. “Ahead together!” he yelled and, as the ship began to move ahead, he heaved on the steering oar, bringing her round until she was heading for the open sea.

  Jesper, knowing that Stig would still be short of breath, continued to fill in for him, calling the stroke for his shipmates. Hal saw that Porpoise was off the beach and had turned her bow to the open water. Her oars were beating like long, white wings.

  “Faster, Jesper!” he called and Jesper increased the rate. The seven Herons strained muscle and sinew at the oars. Wavelets chuckled against the hull as she accelerated.

  “All you’ve got, Ingvar!” Hal pleaded. Ingvar closed his eyes and complied, heaving with every ounce of strength he possessed. Hal compensated for the extra thrust on his side and the Heron moved faster still.

  But, fast as she was moving, she couldn’t keep Porpoise at bay. Behind him, Hal could hear Tursgud yelling instructions to his crew. Heard the lead oarsman calling an even faster rate to the other rowers. Then he glimpsed movement with his peripheral vision. Porpoise was overtaking them. Her bow was alongside Heron’s stern. Then it slid forward, creeping past them. He looked across and saw Tursgud’s mocking salute as Porpoise took the lead.

  She was thirty meters ahead when they finally emerged from the shelter of the bay and Hal could feel the strong northwest wind on his right cheek.

  “In oars!” he yelled. “Port-side sail up!”

  The clatter of oak on pine rang as the oars came in and the rowers threw them carelessly into the bottom of the boat. Then they were clambering over the benches to reach halyards and sheets and the port-side yard rose to the masthead, clunked home, and the wind filled the sail.

  Heron heeled sharply to port as they tightened the sail. The wind was much stronger now and the gray clouds Hal had seen were closer.

  “Ease the sail!” he called and Stig and his sail handlers obeyed. As the pressure on the sail was reduced, Heron straightened up and began to fly. The wind was almost directly on their beam—their best point of sailing.

  Hal didn’t need his compass to set a bearing. He could see the coast of Skandia to starboard and he could see the sun. Their heading was west and he settled her on it.

  She plunged into a trough. Spray flew, there was a momentary sensation of her speed checking, then she shook herself free and swooped up the face of the next wave, bursting through in a shower of spray, a third of her hull momentarily out of the water before she sliced back down and then repeated the process.

  To port, he could see that Porpoise had her sail set. She was a fast sailer with the wind on her beam too. But Heron was faster and she was losing less distance downwind. As the small ship crept past her larger rival, the Heron’s crew cheered and yelled insults across the water. But the space between them was widening as their courses slowly diverged, with the Porpoise going downwind faster.

  For the first time since he had sighted the Porpoise entering the bay, Hal breathed easily, leaning on the tiller with relief. Stig climbed up from the rowing benches and they slapped each other’s shoulders in congratulation. Stig glanced across the racing waves at the other ship, moving farther downwind by the minute.

  “She can’t beat us now,” he said delightedly. Hal raised a cautionary finger. It never did to boast too soon, he believed.

  “Touch wood,” he said, and rapped the tiller bar of the steering oar.

  Stig grinned. “Touch wood indeed,” he replied, and leaned over to rap his knuckles gently on Hal’s head.

  A gust of stronger wind hit them then, laying Heron over so that water sluiced in over the port gunwale. Stig filled his lungs to bellow an order, but already the twins were busy, bailing the water out. He glanced up at the clouds, which were rolling in upon them, racing in from the northwest.

  “Wind’s getting up,” he said.

  A slightly worried frown creased Hal’s forehead.

  “We should be all right,” he said. “It’s a straight run up the coast, then we’ll turn to make harbor. We’ll be in shelter by the time it really starts to blow.”

  “Touch wood,” Stig said and Hal nodded.

  “Touch wood.”

  The graceful, curving spar that held the sail suddenly creaked ominously. Two pairs of eyes shot to it.

  “Is that yardarm bending more than usual?” Stig asked.

  Hal shook his head. “It’s fine,” he said, without a lot of conviction. He sensed a movement from the direction of the lee rail and realized Gort had stepped closer. He too was staring up at the spar, watching how it curved under the pressure of the wind. Another strong gust and another groan.

  “You don’t think that yard is a little light, do you?” he said. “Seems to be bending a lot.”

  Hal pursed his lips. “It’s fine,” he said shortly.

  “Maybe you should reduce sail—take in a reef or two?” Gort suggested. Hal glanced quickly at him, then looked away.

  “I haven’t gotten
round to putting in the reef points yet,” he said.

  Gort raised his eyebrows. “You haven’t?”

  Hal felt Stig’s eyes on him as his first mate answered the question.

  “It was just a small detail that he overlooked,” he said. Hal glared at him.

  “Maybe we should let the sail out a little,” he suggested.

  Stig, still eyeing the yardarm apprehensively, yelled orders to the sail handlers to let out the ropes restraining the big sail. Hal felt the boat’s speed drop as they did so. He looked anxiously to port, searching for the Porpoise. Even with their speed reduced, they were still gaining distance on her. They soared onto a wave crest and the wind, which had been masked for a few minutes, hit them even harder than before.

  And, with a splintering crack, the port yardarm snapped in two.

  chapter forty

  There was instant confusion aboard the Heron as the crew amidships scrambled to get clear.

  The yard, snapped in the middle, hung drunkenly from the mast, held together only by the sail. The sail, only seconds ago a graceful, powerful curve, collapsed in untidy shambles. The ropes of the sheets and braces that controlled the sail and yard snaked down in tangles to the deck.

  With the sudden loss of power, Heron flew up, head to wind, rocking dangerously on the swell that surged under her.

  Everyone was yelling at once. Nobody was listening to anybody else. Ingvar, seated on his bench still, looked around myopically, repeatedly asking, “What happened?”

  Nobody seemed in a mood to answer him.

  “Quiet!” Hal yelled at the panicking crew. He tried again but his voice was drowned by their excited yelling. He looked to Stig and made a hopeless gesture with his hands: See if you can do any better.

 
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