The outcasts, p.6
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       The Outcasts, p.6

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  Once that happened, there would be no time for shipbuilding. Hal and Stig and the others would be fully occupied, training in the skills they would need to master if they were to be accepted into the ranks of Skandian warriors and sea wolves. They would work from dawn till dusk, studying and practicing weapons craft and battle tactics—although the latter were relatively simple in the Skandian world, usually consisting of a headlong charge in response to the command, “Let’s get ’em!”

  They would practice seamanship, ship handling and rowing. They would study the techniques of navigation, both by coastal landmarks and sailing instructions—which they would have to commit to memory—and by the stars. All in all, it would be a busy time.

  Which was why Hal and Stig were now working feverishly get the ship ready for its first sea trial. The last major project was the mast and sails.

  Hal had devised a new and revolutionary sail plan for his boat. The traditional wolfship had a tall mast. The cross yard, a wooden spar that supported the large square sail, was set at right angles. When the wind was directly astern of the ship, the square sail provided a great deal of power. Even with the wind from the side, it could still drive the ship along, although at a reduced pace.

  But the square sail’s weakness came when the ship was facing the wind. A wolfship could only tack, or sail into the wind, at a very shallow angle. Past that, the unsupported sides of the sails fluttered and lost shape and power.

  Hal had noticed how seabirds, particularly the graceful heron, could glide forward into the wind, and he designed a triangular sail shaped like a bird’s wing. Instead of a cross yard, he designed a long, flexible yardarm fastened at the bow of the ship. When this yardarm was hauled up, the front end remained fastened to the deck, so that the yard swiveled up at an angle to the ship’s hull. The wind would fill the triangular sail to form a powerful, smooth curve of canvas. A system of ropes could tauten or loosen the sail and the yardarm that supported it, moving them in or out depending on the strength and direction of the wind, so harnessing its power to drive the ship along.

  Because the front of the sail was kept rigid by the curving wooden yardarm, it could face much closer to the wind than a traditional square rig without collapsing and losing its shape.

  Hal had tested the design on models and estimated that his ship would be able to sail three times closer to the wind than any wolfship.

  What made the design even more revolutionary was that he fitted the boat with not one but two sails and yards, one on either side of the mast. If the wind blew from the right-hand side, he would raise the left-hand sail. If the wind was from the left, he would raise the right-hand sail. If the wind was from the stern—the rear of the boat—he could raise both sails at once and let them right out so that they formed a giant letter M.

  The two sails could also be connected by a pulley system, so that as one was lowered, it helped raise the other.

  In a tribute to the seabird that had inspired his radical sail design, Hal named his ship the Heron.

  “Do you think it’ll work?” Stig asked. He’d never seen a rig like this. In fact, he’d never seen any rig other than the standard wolfship’s square sail.

  “Of course it’ll work. I’ve already tried it on models and it works perfectly.”

  “There’s no small detail you’ve overlooked?” Stig asked.

  Hal eyed him balefully. He’d worked late the night before, cutting and shaping the left-hand sail, to be ready for today’s sea trial. “I don’t think so,” he said.

  “You don’t think you’ll need reef points on both sails?”

  Hal was ready with a crushing reply when he realized that Stig was right. In his haste to finish the left-hand sail, he’d forgotten to fit reef points—cords set about two-thirds of the way up the sail. In heavy weather, they could be tied around the yardarm, gathering the top third of the sail in against the yardarm so that the area exposed to the wind was reduced. He hesitated, looking at the sky.

  “I doubt we’ll need them today. Weather looks fine.”

  He tried to ignore Stig’s steady, cynical look. He was grateful when he heard a voice calling a greeting and was able to change the subject.

  “Here are the twins and Ingvar,” he said. “And just in time,” he added under his breath.

  For her first voyage, Hal planned to take the Heron down the coast a few kilometers under oars before he hoisted the sail. He had asked the other three boys to come to the meadow at noon to help with the rowing. The three of them and Stig would be sufficient to move the boat at a reasonable speed, while he took the steering oar.

  The boys had agreed readily. They were all eager to see the Heron’s first voyage under sail and there was an air of expectation about them as they boarded the boat. They looked with interest at the twin yards and sails laid out on either side of the mast, then took their places on the rowing benches and looked at Hal.

  Hal cast off the bow rope and, as the incoming tide began to swing the front of the boat clear of the jetty, he ran back and released the stern rope as well. The Heron was now free and drifting with the tide.

  “Oars,” he ordered. “All together.”

  The four rowers lowered their oars into the water and heaved.

  The Heron glided forward, gathering speed under the impetus of that first, powerful thrust. Hal felt a thrill of anticipation as the steering oar came alive in his hands. He pulled it and the ship obediently swung to starboard. The small waves chuckled under the bow and he could feel the boat responding, feel the faint vibrations through her fabric.

  “Heave,” Stig called softly, setting the stroke for the other three. He repeated this three times, until they were all in rhythm, then saved his breath for rowing. The boat carved a smooth path through the sheltered waters of the creek. After several minutes, Hal became aware that he was having to keep a gentle pressure on the steering oar, as the Heron tried to veer slightly to port. For a moment, he wondered if there was some fault in the boat. Was the keel not completely straight? Then he smiled as he defined the reason.

  “Ingvar,” he called, “back off a little.”

  Ingvar looked up at him apologetically. The young giant’s massive arms and shoulders were putting more power into his oar than the other rowers could manage. The added thrust on the right side was causing the faint swing to the left. He reduced his effort, then glanced at Hal, blinking his shortsighted eyes.

  “How’s that?” he asked.

  Hal let go of the steering oar for ten to twenty seconds. The boat was now traveling in a straight line.

  “That’s fine,” he said and took the steering oar again.

  “It was probably Wulf’s fault,” Ulf said, from his seat in front of Ingvar. “He never pulls hard enough.”

  “I’ll pull hard enough on your stuck-out ears, you bowlegged monkey,” Wulf snapped back. “How would you like that?”

  Hal and Stig exchanged a puzzled grin. It amused them that the twins, identical in every aspect, would constantly abuse each other’s physical appearance.

  “Try it, you ugly gnome, and I’ll wrap this oar around your thick skull,” Ulf replied willingly.

  Hal smiled and took a deep breath of the salt air. The sun was shining. The sea was calm. There was a steady wind and Ulf and Wulf were bickering.

  All in all, he couldn’t ask for much more.

  chapter six

  There was a small swell running and Heron lifted to the first of the waves as they emerged from the mouth of the creek. Hal rode the movement easily, his feet set apart for balance. To their right, he could see the town of Hallasholm—a tidy sprawl of pine-log buildings and thatched roofs. Smoke rose from chimneys and he could smell the fresh scent of pine smoke overlaid on the salt breeze.

  The mole, a protective rock wall that ran round the harbor, shielding the boats from heavy weather and winter storms, blocked the sight of the two or three dozen wolfships and smaller craft that were moored there. But Hal could see the small forest of bare
poles formed by their masts.

  Hal nudged the steering oar gently and swung onto a diagonal course away from the coast, heading to the left, away from the town. Heron rose and fell smoothly under his feet as the swell rolled under her keel. The other boys had settled into a smooth rowing rhythm—one they could maintain for hours if necessary—and he exulted in the feeling of being under way, at the helm of his own ship.

  Stig glanced up at him from his rowing bench.

  “How does she handle?” he asked.

  Hal grinned back at him. “Like a bird.”

  Gradually, the town dropped behind them, until it was little more than a blur on the horizon, appearing when the ship rose on the crest of a wave, then disappearing as she dipped into the trough. Far enough, Hal thought. He was eager to see how she handled under sail.

  “Stig, Ingvar,” he said quietly. “Stand by to raise the left-hand sail.”

  The boys had been awaiting the order for the past five minutes. They ran their oars inboard, stowed them along the centerline and moved forward to the short, heavy mast. Hal checked the telltale, the long pennant streaming from the high sternpost that told him the wind’s direction. It was coming from ahead, over their right-hand side at an angle of about sixty degrees.

  He hesitated. This was the moment when he would discover if his idea worked. For a second or two, he was filled with uncertainty. What if the sail simply shivered in the wind and the boat wallowed without any driving force? He knew his friends wouldn’t laugh at him if this were the case. But word would get out and others would.

  Then his lips formed a grim line. It would work, he told himself. The idea was sound.

  “Haul away,” he ordered.

  Stig and Ingvar heaved on the ropes that sent the slim yardarm rising smoothly up the mast, taking the sail with it. Instantly, the sail billowed out, flapping in the wind.

  “Ulf and Wulf, trim the sail.”

  The sail hardened into a smooth, swelling curve. As the wind pressed into the taut sail, Heron’s bow began to swing to the left, under the pressure. Now was the moment, Hal thought. He heaved on the steering oar, forcing the bow to the right, back toward the wind.

  Obediently, the boat responded, swinging back until they were heading across the wind, then up into it. Then farther upwind still. Hal felt a huge surge of relief. Vaguely, he could hear the other boys cheering.

  They had never seen a ship sail at such an angle to the wind before. Hal estimated that they were heading at about forty-five degrees into the wind. He shook his head in delight. A well-built wolfship couldn’t manage much more than fifteen degrees. He heaved the steering oar farther over and Heron responded, moving closer still to the wind.

  Eventually, as the angle became too steep, the big triangular sail began to flutter and lose shape. He eased the rudder and as the bow swung back, the wind hardened the sail and began to power the boat once more.

  “She’s flying!”

  He hadn’t noticed Stig’s approach. He looked now into his friend’s delighted face and a huge smile broke over his own.

  “No small details overlooked,” he said and Stig pounded his shoulder with delight.

  “None indeed! She’s fantastic! She’ll sail rings around the best wolfship!”

  Hal looked down at the other boys. They were staring up in wonder at the sail, realizing they were seeing something new. Something exciting. Something unique.

  They had known that Hal had designed a new sail, but they had never really queried the details, nor realized how much more efficient it would be.

  At forty degrees to the wind, Heron flew. The deck vibrated under Hal’s feet. It was one of the most exciting moments of his life. The wood felt alive. He eased the steering oar, letting the bow drop off once more so the wind was blowing more from their beam.

  “Haul in,” he said, and Stig and Ulf jumped to the ropes. As they hauled in on the sail, tightening it, the boat accelerated. She also began to lean under the pressure of the wind, so that water ran in over the downwind rail. No sense in swamping her, Hal thought.

  “Ease off,” he ordered. They loosened the ropes a little and the boat came more upright.

  He let go a long whoop of delight and the other boys, startled for a moment, joined in. He couldn’t wait to tell Thorn about this. Couldn’t wait to show it to him. His only regret was, with brotherband training about to start, he would have little time to experiment and practice with the new boat.

  He glanced ahead. Heron swooped down a wave and sliced into the trough, sending silver spray feathering back on either side of the bow, cascading over them. They barely noticed. He could see a long headland in the distance, jutting out from the coast and barring their path. They’d have to go about to clear it. He decided they might as well do it now, while they had plenty of time and sea room in hand.

  “Get ready to go about,” he said, pointing to his right—the starboard side.

  Stig looked at him, saw the determined set to his jaw. “You’re going to tack her?”

  Hal nodded. “Why not? We’ll drop the port sail when she comes up into the eye of the wind, then raise the starboard one as she comes round. It’ll be easy.”

  Stig looked doubtful. Tacking meant turning the ship into the wind, until the sail came around and filled on the opposite side of the ship. It was a maneuver that wolfship captains avoided whenever possible. Tacking a square sail put immense pressure on the mast, yard and rigging, and ships had been driven astern and even dismasted in the maneuver.

  It made more sense to wear the ship—to sail it round through three-quarters of a circle, with the wind behind it, until it was facing the opposite tack. But Hal’s triangular fore-and-aft rig would come through the eye of the wind much more easily. And at no time would it present a huge square mass of sail, with all the potential risk that it entailed, to the headwind.

  “Come on,” Hal told Stig, nodding toward the still distant headland. “That lump of rock isn’t getting any farther away, you know.”

  As it turned out, the tack went smoothly and uneventfully. Hal let the ship gather speed for a few minutes, then swung her up into the wind. As the wind came dead ahead, the sail flapped and lost its shape. But the Heron’s momentum kept her turning. On Hal’s command, Stig and Ingvar began to haul down the left-hand sail. It was linked by a pulley arrangement to its partner, so as it came down, the right-hand sail slid smoothly up the mast. By the time Heron’s bow had crossed through the wind, the new sail had filled and the ship was powering along on its new course.

  Hal grinned as Stig rejoined him. The ship had swung through a ninety-degree angle to the right and was now surging along, slicing through successive waves. She would clear the headland easily, he saw. He realized that he’d been tensed up during the tacking maneuver and he forced himself to relax, loosening the iron grip he had kept on the steering oar. He twitched it experimentally, watching the ship respond. Behind them, the wake described a series of sudden curves.

  “She’s beautiful,” he breathed. And she was. Fast, agile and responsive, she was everything he had hoped she might be. His grin widened even further.

  “Now let’s see how fast we can take her back to Hallasholm.”

  chapter seven

  It was standard practice that a lookout was maintained at

  Hallasholm harbor, to keep an eye out for strange ships.

  A wooden tower stood at the landward end of the mole, currently manned by a junior sailor who had recently been assigned to his first wolfship. The job of lookout was a boring and often fruitless task and, as such, was usually assigned to junior crew members. As the older sailors said, there was very little for a lookout to do and most junior sailors were extremely capable of doing very little.

  There was a practical side to the arrangement, of course. Younger sailors had younger eyes and were likely to see a strange ship sooner than their older comrades.

  On this day, the lookout saw a very strange ship indeed.

  Her hull looke
d like a wolfship, only smaller—perhaps slightly more than half the size of a normal wolfship. And she was coming up fast, very fast. She seemed to be skimming the sea like a low-flying seabird. He could see the regular flashes of white spray at her bow as she cut through the low waves—catching up to each one, slicing her way through, then chasing down the next in line.

  But what really took his attention was the sail. He had never seen a sail like this one. It was a large, swelling triangle.

  “Ship!” he called to a small group of sailors below, who were loading stores into a wolfship moored alongside the mole. They looked up at him, then looked out to sea, following the direction of his pointing arm. But they were too low to see the newcomer.

  “What is she?” the first mate of the wolfship called up to him. Even from a distance, his annoyance with the lookout was obvious in his voice. Lookouts were supposed to report the type and number of ships approaching, not simply yell “Ship!” like a frightened maiden aunt finding a burglar in her parlor.

  “Is it one of Arndak’s trading fleet?” the firstmate added. Each year, around this time, a small flotilla of trading ships brought back goods from Sonderland and the south coast of the Stormwhite. The ships carried wool and fleeces and cooking oil and salted meats—goods that would help the people of Hallasholm get through the winter. They had been expected now for some days.

  “No. She’s not a trader. She’s a …” The lookout stopped and admitted, in a puzzled tone, “I’m not sure what she is.”

  Muttering dire insults about the mental deficiencies of young sailors, the mate crossed the mole and ran nimbly up the wooden ladder to the observation platform. The tower vibrated to his heavy tread and the lookout moved to one side to make room for him as he emerged onto the platform.

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