The outcasts, p.32
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       The Outcasts, p.32

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “It will be safe with us,” Hal replied and the other brotherband members added a growl of agreement. The guards’ leader stepped forward and shook hands with Hal. That was a departure from the usual ceremony, he knew.

  “Well done, Hal Mikkelson,” he said. Hal felt his chest swell with pride. Then the warrior gave an order and, with his five companions, strode down the stairs, leaving the Herons with Sigurd and Erak. Erak shook hands with all of them, then bade them good night.

  “You’ll be relieved at dawn,” he told them. “Enjoy the honor.”

  Sigurd echoed the thought, then they were left alone with the Andomal.

  “I’ll take the first watch,” Hal told his teammates. “The rest of you might as well get some sleep.”

  It had been a long, hard day and the other boys needed no second urging. They settled down on the packed earth in front of the shrine, wrapping themselves in their cloaks or sheepskin jackets. For some minutes, there was a desultory buzz of conversation; then, one by one, they grew silent as sleep claimed them. Hal patrolled the edge of the platform. He was wearing the sword he had been given earlier that night, although he didn’t expect to need it. The honor guard at the shrine was more ceremonial than practical. No Skandian would ever attempt to steal the Andomal.

  Around him, the wind sang through the branches of the pines, sounding like surf. From far below, the noise of the waves onshore seemed to mimic the sound.

  At the end of the first hour, he woke Stig to take over the watch and lay down to get some rest.

  Stefan was on watch when Hal awoke suddenly. That told him it must be more than three hours after midnight. The mimic’s dark silhouette paced slowly up and down at the front of the mound.

  Hal sat up, stretching stiff muscles. He wondered what had woken him.

  “Is everything all right?” he called softly to Stefan.

  Stefan looked at him and walked closer so he could answer in a quiet tone. “As far as I know. I was just about to wake Ulf to take over. Did you hear something?”

  “No. I don’t think so. But something woke me.”

  Then he knew what it was. The wind had died. Earlier in the night, it had sung through the branches all around him. Even as he slept, he had been aware of its constant sound. Then it had stopped, and he could hear the sound of the waves more clearly. There was no sound from the town. The citizens had long since taken to their beds.

  There was something about this sudden silence that he didn’t like. The wind didn’t usually just stop like that, he thought. He stood and strode back and forth, searching the darkness below them, his senses buzzing.

  Then the first gust from the southwest hit him.

  The wind had veered almost one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. It was now coming from the opposite direction and was much fiercer than before. The pine branches began their mournful song again, but louder now as the intensity of the wind grew. He looked up. Dark clouds were scudding in from the south, racing to blot out the stars.

  The Heron! The thought hit him all of a sudden. She was in the creek, at her mooring. But when Svengal had tied her up, the wind had been from the north and she’d been well sheltered. Now the wind was from the southwest and much stronger than it had been. And the little creek was more exposed to that direction. He wondered if Svengal had moored his ship securely. He should have. He was an old sailor, after all, and an expert seaman. But she was Hal’s ship and the worry ate away at him. Perhaps Svengal had already been at the ale, he thought. Or perhaps he’d used single moorings. In this wind, Hal would have doubled the mooring ropes. But the wind hadn’t been this strong seven hours ago. And maybe Svengal had been in a hurry to get back to the celebrations. And after all, it wasn’t his ship.

  Maybe…

  He paced back and forth in an agony of indecision. It would only take him ten minutes to get down to the creek. Another ten to check the moorings, strengthen them if necessary, then ten more to get back. He’d be back in half an hour.

  He knew, as leader of the honor guard, it would be a serious offense to leave his post. If Erak or Sigurd ever found out he had done so, it would go hard with him. But then, there were seven other boys here to keep watch. And besides, it was a ceremonial guard anyway. Nobody was actually going to steal the Andomal.

  “I’m going to wake Ulf and turn in,” Stefan said.

  “What? Oh … all right. Fine. I think I might go and check on the boat.”

  “Good idea. The wind has got up quite a bit.”

  Stefan’s immediate agreement helped Hal to decide. He nodded to the other boy, then plunged down the stairs to the bottom of the earth platform. There were two diverging tracks there. One led back to Hallasholm and the other ran in the direction of Bearclaw Creek. He hurried along it, breaking into a run as he reached level ground.

  Heron was plunging and jerking against her mooring ropes when he reached the jetty. He checked the ropes but there was no sign of fraying or wear. Nevertheless, he doubled them; then, satisfied that his boat was safe, he turned and retraced his steps toward the shrine.

  The tops of the pines were bending far over under the wind, and the branches were roaring like a heavy surf now. As he reached the uphill section of the track, a sense of urgency overcame him. The sky in the east was starting to lighten and Erak had said they would be relieved at dawn. He had better be back at his post by the time that happened. He started to run. Reaching the stairs to the mound, he took them two at a time.

  There was no challenge from Ulf as he came to the top stair and he frowned angrily. Even if Stefan had told him to expect Hal, he should have given the challenge.

  Then he saw Ulf’s figure, sprawled against a boulder, his arms pillowing his head.

  “Blast you, Ulf,” he muttered. “Sleeping on watch! What if I’d been Erak?” Then he realized he had no right to be angry. Asleep or not, Ulf at least had stayed at his post. Hal had deserted his.

  He crossed quickly to the sleeping figure and leaned down to shake him. Ulf stirred, waving an annoyed hand, trying to knock away the intrusive hand that was shaking him.

  “Get away!” he said, still half asleep. Then he raised his head and stared, bleary-eyed, at Hal. For a second, he didn’t know where he was. Then realization dawned and his eyes filled with guilt.

  “Hal! I just closed my eyes for a second! Honest!” he began.

  But Hal was staring past him, to the shrine, and his face was a mask of horror. The door to the shrine was ajar, swinging slightly in the wind. It had been locked when he left. He knew that it had.

  Forgetting Ulf for the moment, he pelted up the few stairs to the door, shoving it aside, his heart in his mouth.

  It took a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the dimness inside. When they did, he could see that the door to the polished timber tabernacle was gaping open, hanging drunkenly on a shattered hinge.

  And the Andomal was gone.

  chapter forty-two

  “I can’t believe you could let this happen! How could you do it?” Erak’s voice mixed scorn and fury in equal proportions as he faced the eight members of the Heron brotherband. The boys kept their eyes lowered and shifted their feet awkwardly. Erak let his glare travel along the line, but none of them was willing to meet his eyes.

  “The Andomal!” he shouted at them. “Are you aware that it’s Skandia’s most treasured relic?”

  Again, no eyes would meet his. No voice answered his question.

  “Do you have any idea how long it has stayed safe in that shrine? Any idea at all?”

  The repetition of the question seemed to indicate that this time he expected an answer. Hal glanced to either side, saw his friends were still standing, heads bowed in shame. It was up to him to answer, he guessed. He was the skirl.

  “Two hundred years?” he ventured.

  Erak’s blazing eyes trained on him. The other senior jarls present—members of his inner council—stayed silent. But waves of disapproval, and even hatred, emanated from them.

&nb
sp; “Two hundred years? I should have known you wouldn’t have bothered to study Skandian history. You’re a high and mighty Araluen, after all, aren’t you?”

  Hal flushed, feeling his cheeks flaming. His anger welled up and he opened his mouth to reply indignantly, then closed it. He had no right to object to the Oberjarl’s accusations. Anything Erak said, he deserved.

  “We’ve kept the Andomal safe for three hundred and twenty years. Three hundred and twenty years! And you pathetic lot couldn’t look after it for one night! I should have you flogged! All of you! And if I thought that would bring the Andomal back, I would do it—without a second’s hesitation.”

  The Great Hall, solid as it was, shook with a sudden gust of wind. The weather had worsened since the Herons had come running down to report the loss of the Andomal. There was now a full storm blowing from the southwest.

  “Did you see or hear anything? Do you have any idea who might have done this? Any clue at all?”

  The eight boys shook their heads. Erak took a deep breath and began to stride up and down in front of them. The main door opened, admitting the shrieking wind, which set the torches and candles in the room flaring. Gort and Sigurd, summoned the moment Hal had confessed the loss of the Andomal to Erak, entered. Another figure slipped in behind them. Hal half turned, recognized Thorn. The old warrior remained in the shadows at the rear of the hall. Gort and Sigurd hurried to the front, where Erak and the six members of the council faced the boys.

  “What’s happened?” Sigurd asked. He had already been told by the messenger sent to fetch him but he simply couldn’t believe it. Erak looked at him balefully, jerking a thumb at the line of boys.

  “Your precious champion brotherband has let someone walk off with the Andomal.”

  Gort turned away, a curse erupting from his lips. Sigurd, infuriated, took a pace toward the boys.

  “Who? Who did it?”

  Hal faced him. “We don’t know, sir,” he said. He had been through all of this with Erak. But Sigurd had a new question, one that Hal had been dreading.

  “Who was on watch? Were you all awake?”

  “No,” Hal said, fearing the questions that would follow. “I set a watch roster so that one man was on duty for an hour while the others slept.”

  “You SLEPT!” Sigurd shouted, his face only a few centimeters from Hal’s. “You slept while someone stole the Andomal? Who was on watch?”

  There was a long silence. Then Ulf stepped forward, his head still bent in shame.

  “I was on watch. I fell asleep,” he said wretchedly. There was an intake of breath from the members of the council and Sigurd rounded on Ulf in fury. But before he could say anything, Wulf spoke up.

  “It wasn’t him. It was me,” he said.

  Ulf’s head snapped up and he stared at his twin in shock. “No,” he said, “it was—”

  “Me. I was on watch,” Stig declared. Then Jesper, Ingvar, Stefan and Edvin all chorused the same.

  “I was on watch.”

  “Orlog curse the lot of you!” Sigurd snarled. “If you think this sort of clever nonsense is going to lessen your punishment, you’ve got another thing coming!” He glared in fury at Hal as he stepped forward, out of the line, with his hand raised to gain his instructor’s attention. “What is it?”

  “Sir,” Hal said, “it doesn’t matter who was supposed to be on watch. I was in command. The responsibility is mine.”

  “You can bet your life it is!” Sigurd shouted at him. “But that won’t let these other slackers off the hook! They should have—”

  He stopped as the door opened, emitting another huge gust of wind and a flurry of rain. Again, the torches and candles flared briefly.

  All eyes turned as Svengal shoved the door firmly closed behind him. He was rugged up against the wild weather, in a heavy sheepskin coat, with a thick woolen watch cap on his head. Water dripped from him onto the floor as he strode down the length of the Great Hall to report.

  “It was Zavac,” he said flatly. A murmur of anger ran round the council of jarls. Erak held up a hand for silence. Zavac had been the first person he had suspected, but until now, there had been nothing to support his suspicion.

  “How do you know?” he asked quietly. Svengal moved closer to the fire, loosening his sheepskin coat. Steam began to rise from it as the heat of the fire hit him.

  “We searched along the foreshore on either side of town, as you ordered,” Svengal said. “He must have turned back last night after we’d seen him on his way. We found the spot where he beached his ship. The mark was still in the sand.”

  “How do you know it was Zavac? It could have been any ship.” Borsa, Erak’s hilfmann, put the question, although two or three others had the same thought.

  Svengal regarded him and nodded. It was a fair question. But it was easily answered.

  “The ram on the bow,” he said. “It gouged a deep groove in the sand when they beached her. Much larger than the narrow mark that would be made by keel of a wolfship or a trader.”

  That was the signal for excited discussion among the jarls, everyone talking at once. But Svengal raised his voice to get their attention.

  “There was something else …”

  From the tone of his voice, Erak sensed he had something unpleasant to add. Erak, his eyes narrowed, nodded for him to continue. Somehow, he knew what his old second in command was going to say. Svengal waited till the others had stopped talking.

  “They killed two of the town watch,” he said quietly. “We found their bodies close by the spot where Zavac beached his ship. Their throats had been cut.”

  Another outburst of muttering greeted this news. Erak held up his hand for silence again.

  “Who were they?” he asked.

  “Keese Malletson and Pern Bighand,” Svengal replied.

  Erak shook his head sadly. He had known both men well. “They were good men.”

  Svengal nodded. There was nothing more to say.

  The sound of footsteps approaching from the rear of the hall distracted them all and they looked as Thorn emerged into the circle of light where the investigation was taking place.

  “Then it’s as well that the boys were all asleep,” he said.

  Erak regarded him suspiciously. “How do you figure that, Thorn?”

  Thorn shrugged. “If their sentry had been awake, Zavac and his men would have cut his throat as well. So at least we have that to be thankful for.”

  Borsa was frowning. “I can’t help but wonder why they didn’t kill them as they slept anyway,” he said.

  Thorn looked at him. The hilfmann had never seen action of any kind. He was an accounts keeper.

  “It wouldn’t be easy to kill eight people, sleeping or not, without making some noise and raising the alarm. There’d always be the chance that one or two would get away in all the confusion. Safer to let them sleep while the thieves got into the tabernacle and stole the Andomal. The wind would have covered any noise they might have made.”

  Erak regarded his old crew member thoughtfully. “You may be right, Thorn. And it’s a good thing that we don’t have more deaths on our hands. But even so, this doesn’t excuse the Heron brotherband for what was the worst possible negligence. The fact remains, the Andomal was stolen on their watch and they have to bear the responsibility for it.”

  Thorn sighed deeply and his head dropped. “I suppose so,” he conceded sadly.

  Erak looked at him for some time, then nodded, seeing that Thorn was not going to try to sway his opinion in the Herons’ favor. He turned to Svengal.

  “Get the crew of Wolfwind together. We’ll leave at first light and go after Zavac.”

  But Svengal was already shaking his head. “We’ll never make it out of the harbor mouth, chief,” he said. “The wind will be dead against us and there are two-meter waves coming through the entrance. I’ve already had to shift Wolfwind’s moorings to get her out of the way.”

  Erak smacked his fist into his palm in anger. “All r
ight,” he said. “But get the crew aboard anyway. If the weather eases, we’re going out at once.”

  “I’ll do it,” Svengal said. “But don’t hold your breath waiting for this storm to ease. It’s going to be with us for at least two days.”

  “Just do it,” Erak said, and his second in command turned and left the Great Hall. Erak watched him go, then turned back to the line of boys standing before him.

  “All right,” he said. “Let’s see what else we know. Do you have any idea what time Zavac and his men stole the Andomal?”

  The question was addressed to Hal. He considered for a few seconds, then replied.

  “Let’s see … Stefan was on watch when I left. I came back before the storm blew up and—”

  “Just a minute!” Erak stopped him, his eyes narrowing. “You came back? You came back from where?”

  Hal swallowed nervously. He had known this information was bound to come out sooner or later. There was no point in trying to avoid it. His eyes dropped and he said, in a low voice, “I went down to the creek to double Heron’s moorings.”

  “You what?” Erak demanded, his voice rising in pitch. Sigurd and Gort stared in disbelief at Hal. He heard Thorn utter a groan of despair.

  “I swear I was only gone for ten minutes,” he said. “Twenty minutes at the outside. I was back …”

  “You left your post?” Sigurd said incredulously.

  Hal made an apologetic gesture with his hands. “Just for a few minutes. Stefan was on watch. There was no need for me to be there.”

  Gort looked at him coldly. Earlier, there might have been a trace of compassion or understanding from their instructor. Now there was nothing but condemnation.

  “There was every need for you to be there,” he said.

  Hal looked around for some sign of understanding. The faces of Borsa and the other jarls were stiff and unyielding. Erak’s jaw was set in a grim line. Thorn wouldn’t meet his gaze.

  Hal sighed. His world was crumbling around him. He had enjoyed such high hopes the previous night, finally accepted as an equal by the Skandians. Now, he was a pariah—even more than before.

 
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