The outcasts, p.31
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       The Outcasts, p.31

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  Stig could. He leapt up onto the bulwark, steadying himself with one of the shrouds supporting the mast.

  “SHUT UP!” he roared and the crew fell silent immediately. They all looked at him. “Just settle down while we work out what to do,” he told them. He turned to Hal. “Your orders, skirl?”

  Hal gestured at the sagging yard and tangle of sail and ropes.

  “Get the yard down and stow the sail out of the way,” he said. He was grateful that the mast hadn’t been damaged, and that the snapped yardarm and collapsed sail hadn’t gone over the side. The Herons, with something definite to focus on, moved quickly to follow his orders. Once the snapped yard was lowered and the sail bundled untidily at the base of the mast, Stig looked to him for further orders.

  “Out oars?” he suggested. Hal hesitated. He looked to port. Porpoise was just visible. She was still behind them and farther out to sea. He came to a decision.

  “No. Hoist the starboard sail,” he said.

  Stig stared at him. “The starboard sail?” he echoed. “But the wind is from the starboard. The sail will simply blow back against the mast! It won’t fill properly!”

  Hal nodded. “I know. It will lose a lot of its shape and power. But the wind is strong and we should be able to keep moving, even with the sail half collapsed. It’ll be slow, but it’ll be better than nothing.”

  Stig shook his head. “If you say so,” he said and ran forward to supervise the crew as they raised the starboard sail.

  The wind took it instantly and Hal felt Heron’s bow swing away to port. He steadied the ship on course, and as Stig had predicted, the sail blew back against the mast, flapping and fluttering. He signaled to the crew to haul in as tight as possible. Slowly, awkwardly, as they brought the severely reduced sail under control, Heron began to move. Hal wrestled the steering oar to keep her on course. The inefficient sail shape made her difficult to handle. But after a few minutes, he had the hang of it.

  She limped along at a vastly reduced rate. Still, he thought, they’d make better time than if they had to row her. He continually looked astern at the Porpoise. She was downwind, but she was gradually making up the distance between them.

  “She’s gaining,” Stig said.

  “Not fast enough. We’ll have her when we come about for the harbor mouth.”

  “Maybe,” Stig said.

  Hal grinned tiredly. “Touch wood,” he said.

  Stig rolled his eyes. Last time Hal had said that, the yard had split.

  In spite of his assurance to Stig, Hal continued to watch the other ship anxiously as the Heron dragged herself along, parallel to the coast.

  At least we don’t have to worry about reefing this sail, he thought wryly. There wasn’t enough power in the deformed shape to put excessive pressure on the mast or yard.

  Gort had joined the two friends by the steering oar. Like them, he felt the anxiety that came from watching the Porpoise gradually creeping level with them. She was picking up distance laterally, but she was still a long way downwind. When the time came for Heron to go about, it would be a race to see if the Porpoise could make up that distance before Heron reached port.

  Off to starboard, they could see the houses of Hallasholm now. Smoke was rising from the chimneys, to be almost instantly whipped away by the steadily freshening wind.

  “Now?” Stig asked anxiously.

  But Hal shook his head. The wind was almost directly offshore.

  “We’ll be straight into the wind and we can’t tack from side to side. I want to go past so I have room to angle back in one run. Let’s just hope we can sail a lot faster than Tursgud’s crew can row into the wind.”

  They all knew that as soon as the Porpoise was directly off the harbor mouth, Tursgud would turn into the wind and row for the finish line—and they’d have the shorter distance to cover. Gort went to say something, then realized that he should keep quiet. It was going to be too close to call, he thought.

  “Porpoise is turning!”

  It was Wulf, who was standing on the port bulwark to get a better view. They all looked and saw the other ship coming up into the wind, her sail disappearing as her crew released the sheets and halyards and lowered the cross yard. Then those twin banks of oars appeared as they ran out from either side of the Porpoise’s hull. Ominously, they began their rhythmic rising and falling.

  “Now?” said Stig. He was hopping from one foot to the other with anxiety. He had no idea he was doing it.

  Hal narrowed his eyes, measuring angles. “Not yet. We need more room. But get ready.”

  Stig nodded and moved into the waist of the ship, speaking to the crew, exhorting them to move at lightning speed when Hal gave the word to come about. He looked up at Wulf, still on the bulwark.

  “Where are they?” he asked.

  Wulf shaded his eyes and frowned. “They’re coming in fast,” he said. The strain was evident in his voice.

  Stig looked pleadingly at Hal but his friend shook his head. They needed more room before they doubled back. He had to do it in one tack. If he miscalculated, they’d have no time to turn and crab back for another go. Tursgud would beat them.

  Slowly, he raised his left arm from the steering oar, frowning in concentration as he measured the angle back to the harbor, pictured Heron flying in with the wind on her beam. A little more.

  A little more. He was saying the words aloud. Like Stig with his dancing from one foot to another, he was unaware of the fact.

  “Now!” he shouted, and threw his weight on the steering oar, heaving the bow round to starboard.

  The reduced speed made her sluggish and for a moment he feared they would hang in the eye of the wind and be blown backward. Then he heard a whoomphing sound as the sail filled and the bow came round, moving faster and faster as the ship accelerated.

  “Haul in!” he yelled but there was no need. Stig and the sail handlers had the sail, now on the proper tack and blowing clear of the mast, hauled in as tight as it would bear. Heron slashed through the water, spray from the heavy cross swell bursting over her port bow as she shouldered her way through the rollers.

  The feel of the ship was totally different now, like a thoroughbred after a plow horse. The hull vibrated. The rigging hummed in the wind. Hal leaned out over the rail to see where Porpoise lay. She was close to the harbor, although still on their starboard bow. Her oars were thrashing white foam from the sea. He measured their relative courses with one eye shut.

  Neither ship was gaining on the other. They were heading for a collision at a point about one hundred meters away. Whichever ship was forced to turn away would lose the race—and the entire contest.

  He looked at the sail, hoping they might find a few more meters of speed by re-trimming. But he could tell there was nothing left.

  Fifty meters. Forty. Still on collision course. Hal swallowed. His throat was dry. Gort had edged closer to him, watching him carefully. Suddenly, he sensed that if a collision was inevitable, the instructor would grab the helm from him and turn the ship downwind, behind the Porpoise.

  Then it happened. The harbor mouth was barely eighty meters away when a rogue wave, bigger than its predecessors, came at them from the northwest. Heron, taking it at an angle, slid gracefully over it, swooping down its back.

  A few seconds later, the wave hit Porpoise head-on. The bigger ship staggered, checked momentarily by the impact.

  On board, one of the crew was hurled backward from his bench into the rower behind him. The ship crabbed awkwardly with the sudden loss of thrust from two oars. She swung sideways. The rowing crew scrambled desperately to recover and get the ship under way again. Tursgud, at the helm, dragged on the steering oar to bring the ship back on course, but the momentary interruption was all the Heron needed. She knifed past the bow of the other ship, angling for the entrance to the harbor.

  At the last moment, Hal laid the steering oar over and swung the ship’s bows to port, slipping gracefully into the calm waters inside. He could hear
the cheers starting from all around, then he looked up in horror and saw that Wolfwind was back in her normal position, alongside the wharf and right in his path.

  “Get that sail down!” he screamed. As the yard slid down, he hauled the ship’s bow farther to port, scraping by the moored wolfship with only meters to spare.

  He heaved a gigantic sigh of relief, and then the realization hit him.

  They had won. The Herons were the champion brotherband for the year.

  Celebrations. Congratulations. Felicitations. Commendations.

  The outcasts, eight boys, who nobody had wanted in their brotherband, had triumphed and Hallasholm was going to celebrate in style, with an enormous feast held on the Common Green. The day became a whirlwind of cheering, back slapping, and smiling faces. Hal was delighted when a certain blond-haired girl slipped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the lips. Even more pleasing was the thunderous sight of Tursgud’s face when Lotte did so.

  Among the thronging, happy crowd, Tursgud was the one standout who refused to congratulate them on their success—although all of his crew did so.

  The first to offer his congratulations was Gort. He slapped the lightly built skirl on the back and sent him staggering.

  “Well done, boys!” he bellowed. “I knew you had it in you!” Then he paused and added, more truthfully, “Actually, I didn’t. But I hoped you did! And you did!”

  Rollond, surprisingly, was the second. He shook hands with each of them.

  “You deserve it,” he said. “You are the champions.”

  But the most special moment came when Hal, shoving through the crowd of well-wishers in something of a daze, came face-to-face with his mother and, just behind her, Thorn.

  He hugged his mam as tears streamed down her cheeks. She told him over and over again how proud he had made her. Then she stepped back and made room for Thorn.

  For a long moment, Hal and the old seafarer looked at each other. Then Thorn gathered him into a crushing bear hug.

  “No words. No words,” Thorn managed to croak, around a large lump in his throat. But the pressure of his hug increased, and when Thorn finally released his young friend, Hal could see there were tears running down the man’s weathered cheeks.

  And that was worth more than anything words could say.

  Then Erak was upon them, shoving his way through the excited, shouting crowd. He grabbed Hal in a huge hug, crushing the breath out of him. Hal had a moment to wish the Skandians could find another way to express their affection.

  “Well done! Well done! You’d have made your father a proud man! You’re a true Skandian now, boy, and that’s a fact!”

  Hal beamed. His heart swelled with pride inside his chest until he thought it might burst with sheer pleasure. All his life, he’d felt like an outsider. Now here was the Oberjarl himself, publicly expressing his total acceptance.

  “Mind you,” Erak said, “I told you those spars were too light.”

  “You could be right,” Hal said. After the accident with the port yardarm, he was in no position to argue. But Erak’s statement reminded him of something that was on his mind.

  “Oberjarl … ,” he began and Erak slammed him on the back with a ham-size hand.

  “What is it, boy? Anything you need! You’re the toast of Hallasholm today!”

  The people surrounding them cheered and shouted their agreement. A few of them waved ale mugs to show their sincerity, and managed to slop ale over their neighbors.

  “The wind’s getting up still,” Hal said, “and I don’t like to leave my ship on the beach. It’s a little exposed to the northwest. I’d like to get her back round to her mooring in Bearclaw Creek.”

  “No problem there!” boomed Erak. He turned and yelled over his shoulder. “Svengal! Where are you?”

  His former first mate appeared at his elbow. “Here, chief,” he said.

  Erak put his massive arm around Hal’s shoulders. “Our champion skirl here is worried about his ship. Take a half a dozen men and row her round to Bearclaw Creek. He has a mooring there.”

  “Right away, chief,” Svengal replied. He turned away, calling the names of half a dozen of his crew to join him. Erak tilted his head questioningly at Hal.

  “Satisfied?” he said and when Hal nodded, he boomed at the top of his voice. “Then let’s get this party started!”

  chapter forty-one

  Before the party really got started, there were certain formalities to be observed.

  First, Sigurd declared that the members of all three brotherbands were deemed to have graduated from the training program. They were now eligible to serve as crew on a wolfship. To mark the fact, each of the twenty-eight newly declared warriors was presented with a horned helmet. They stood in a large group, examining their new headware with pride. A few tried them on, and hurriedly removed them when they felt how heavy they were. Hal looked at his doubtfully.

  “Not sure that my head is big enough for this,” he said to Thorn, and instantly regretted his choice of words.

  “A few more hours of everyone telling you how wonderful you are and it should be,” the old sea wolf replied innocently.

  Hal sighed. “I walked into that, didn’t I?” he said, and Thorn nodded happily.

  Then Sigurd read through the scores and declared that the Herons were the winners for that year. The margin, taking into account some demerits that had been applied in the last week, was a mere twenty points. He called upon the winning team to assemble on the podium with him. The eight boys moved forward, deafened by the cheers of the crowd, and stepped up to receive Sigurd’s congratulations. Then the chief instructor handed each of them a copper bracelet. These bracelets, engraved with a symbol of a heron, were tangible proof of their status as that year’s champion team.

  Hal looked at the copper band, his eyes clouding with tears of pride. Stig brandished his to the crowd and was greeted with cheers. Ulf and Wulf promptly began squabbling, each claiming that the other had received the bracelet meant for him, until Jesper told them sharply:

  “They’re exactly the same, you idiots. Just like you two!”

  Then Gort came forward, accompanied by two Skandian warriors carrying a table full of weapons. Each Heron member was presented with a new weapon—corresponding to the one he had trained with. Axes for most of them, and swords for Hal and Edvin. However, unlike the notched, battered weapons they had been issued for training, these were brand-new, well made and perfectly balanced—although, in Hal’s case, his father’s sword was far superior. Still, the presentation sword was a further indication that they were the champion team and he accepted it gratefully.

  Then it was Erak’s turn to speak. The Heron team was ushered into position on either side of him. Hal was on his right hand, Stig on his left.

  “What a brotherband!” he declared. “A thief, a touchy first mate, a shortsighted bear, a joker, two twins who can’t tell each other apart, a bookworm and a skirl who doesn’t know the right shape for a ship’s sail.” He beamed at all of them, then added, “I can’t think of better qualities in a wolfship’s crew.”

  The crowd bellowed their agreement. Mind you, with the number of ale barrels that had been broached already, they would probably have bellowed their agreement if Erak had declared that from now on, the sun would rise in the west and everybody must walk on their hands when it rained.

  He held up his hands for silence and the noise slowly died to a low hubbub. No crowd of Skandians would ever be completely silent.

  “As you know, each year we have a special honor for the winning brotherband—to show them our admiration and our trust in them as newly initiated warriors.”

  The crowd leaned forward and a mutter of anticipation ran through them.

  “This year’s winners, like all those before them, will be privileged to serve as the honor guard for the Andomal, for one night.”

  Hallasholm’s most treasured and valuable artifact was kept in a tabernacle inside a small shrine on the hill abo
ve the town. It was attended day and night by a rotating honor guard of six warriors, men specially chosen for their courage and prowess in battle. Only the finest warriors could aspire to guard the Andomal.

  Hal looked at his companions. Like him, they were overwhelmed by this honor. He shook his head. They had been the outcasts, the unwanted ones, and now they would be guarding Skandia’s most precious relic. They had come a long way.

  “Your term as the honor guard will begin at midnight,” Erak continued. “So I suggest that for the next few hours, you busy yourself with feasting.”

  At ten minutes to midnight, the Heron brotherband assembled and, to the cheers of the celebrating people of Hallasholm, marched away from the Common Green. Under the direction of Erak and Sigurd, they climbed the steep path to the shrine, bearing the new weapons that had been presented to them. From here, they looked down on the town of Hallasholm, and out to sea. Hal paused, looking around at the spectacular view. He sighed happily. He wondered if life could get any better than this.

  Then, he led the Herons to the foot of the earth platform where the shrine was built.

  “Who goes there?” a voice boomed out. A large, helmeted figure stepped forward to the edge of the platform. As form dictated, Hal replied.

  “The Heron brotherband, champions for this year. Here to relieve you as honor guard until dawn.”

  “Then step forward, champions, and take our place,” the sentry called. The Herons began to surge forward in an unruly mob, but Hal’s sharp command stopped them in their tracks.

  “Stop! We’ll do this properly, not like a rabble! Form in pairs. Stig, call the step!”

  Hastily, they arranged themselves in two files and marched up the stairs, Stig calling cadence for them. They halted, facing the six guards, now lined up to meet them.

  “Warriors, we relieve you,” Hal said. Erak had told him the formula to be exchanged. The guards grounded their axes and inclined their heads. More of a nod than a bow, Hal thought.

  “Heron brotherband,” their leader intoned, “we stand relieved. Keep safe the Andomal.”

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