The outcasts, p.7
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       The Outcasts, p.7

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan

  The mate looked, frowned, looked harder.

  “Well, I’ll be … ,” he began, then stopped. The ship was coming about. The strange sail suddenly fluttered loose and was hauled down. As it slid down, another identical sail rose up the mast on the opposite side. It bellied out for a few seconds, then as the crew—he could see now there were only a few of them—hauled in the sheets, it formed into a perfect, hardened curve. The ship, which had slowed fractionally during the maneuver, now accelerated forward.

  “Well, I’ll be … ,” he began again, then realized that he had no idea what he would be. He leaned over the railing to where his crew were looking up at him. As tends to happen when a person looks upward, they had allowed their mouths to gape open.

  “Stop gawking at me like hungry seagulls and someone go fetch the Oberjarl,” he yelled. Obediently, most of the mouths closed and one of the sailors headed off at a run for the Oberjarl’s hall.

  “What is she, Klaud?” called one of the sailors.

  The mate shrugged. “Some strange kind of ship. She has a weird-looking pointy sail,” he added.

  That set them all talking. None of them had ever heard of such a sail. They weren’t even sure what he meant.

  “You want us to sound the alarm?” another called and he shook his head.

  “She’s only small. No more than half a dozen men on board. But keep your axes handy just in case.” He touched the hilt of his knife, reassuring himself that it was riding on his hip in its scabbard. No sense in facing strangers without a weapon of some sort.

  He turned his attention back to the ship. She was closer now. He pursed his lips in surprise as he realized how quickly she was closing the distance to the harbor. And she was arrowing for the narrow harbor entrance. His skilled eyes gauged angles, distances and leeway for a few seconds, projecting her path over the intervening distance. He realized that if she held her current course, she would slide straight through the middle of the narrow harbor mouth. He nodded his approval of the unknown helmsman.

  “Knows what he’s doing,” he remarked to the lookout, who glanced at him, uncomprehending. Klaud realized that the young man had no appreciation of the skill that was being displayed. He shook his head wearily.

  “Forget it,” he said.

  On board Heron, Hal had just made the same mental projection of course and angles. He smiled to himself, satisfied with his ship and his own judgment. Stig had rejoined him on the steering platform once the sail was reset on the new tack.

  “You’re not taking her back to the creek?” he asked, although it was obvious that Hal had no intention of doing so.

  “I think we’ve earned the right to show off a little, don’t you?” Hal said.

  Stig raised his eyebrows. “I don’t see the rest of us showing off too much. But then, you seem to be doing enough for everyone.” He leaned across Hal to look past the bow toward the harbor. “I guess we’d better get the oars ready.”

  But Hal shook his head. “No oars. I’m sailing her in.”

  That definitely caught Stig’s attention. He looked back at his friend.

  “Talk about showing off,” he said.

  “I think I’ve earned the right,” Hal told him and Stig shook his head.

  “Well, I’d better get the fenders rigged for when you sail headlong into the wharf. Try not to hit the Oberjarl’s ship. You do know she’s moored directly opposite the harbor mouth, don’t you? Or is that another of those ‘small details’ you sometimes overlook?”

  “Of course I know that,” Hal replied. In fact, he had overlooked that small but rather important fact. “Don’t worry. I won’t be hitting anything,” he muttered. Then, realizing that his friend might have a point, and that the harbor was a rather restricted space, he called to Ulf and Wulf.

  “Let the sail out a little, boys.”

  “I’ll do it,” Ulf said. Or perhaps it was Wulf.

  “Get out of the way. I’ll do it,” his brother, Wulf (or Ulf), snapped. They glared at each other.

  “JUST DO IT!” Hal yelled and they both jumped to the ropes, letting the sail out so that their speed reduced. As the wind pressure eased, Hal felt the bow of the ship come a little to the right. He adjusted the tiller to compensate.

  He wished he had the nerve to sail full speed into the harbor but Stig was right. If he misjudged, it could be very embarrassing. For a moment, he had a ghastly mental picture of Heron with her bow buried deep into the splintered flank of the Oberjarl’s wolfship and he shuddered at the thought. Wolfwind was Erak’s pride and joy. Once, when a visiting wolfship had accidentally scraped her paintwork coming alongside, Erak had chased her terrified skirl around the harbor with his battleax.

  A more sedate speed might be wiser, he thought.

  “Ease that sail a little more,” he ordered. He ignored Stig’s knowing snigger. He checked his course again, and nudged the steering oar until he was satisfied they would pass through the harbor mouth with room to spare.

  Not a lot of room, mind you. But room.

  On the wharf, Erak had made the same assessment of the strange ship’s course. Word had spread quickly around the waterfront about the approaching ship and a considerable crowd was gathered now to see it.

  “He looks as if he plans to sail straight through the harbor mouth,” he said, his voice deceptively calm. “And he’s heading right for my ship.”

  “That’s the way I see it,” Klaud agreed. Erak turned to the young lookout who had first sighted the strange ship.

  “You. What’s your name?”

  The young man was pleased to be singled out by the Oberjarl and half expected to be praised for being first to sight the unusual ship that was now heading for them. He stepped forward and bowed slightly, bobbing his head to the Oberjarl.

  “It’s Helligulf, Oberjarl,” he said.

  Erak looked at him in some surprise. “Helligulf?” he repeated. He was continually baffled by the trendy, exotic names parents were giving their sons these days. “What sort of name is that?”

  “My mam made it up, Oberjarl,” Helligulf explained, with some pride.

  Erak shook his head slightly. “Why?”

  Helligulf, sensing that the legendary warrior was less than impressed by his mam’s creativity, shrugged his shoulders uncertainly.

  “Ummm … I’m not sure, Oberjarl.”

  “Well, while you’re figuring it out, step aboard Wolfwind and fetch me my battleax.”

  As the younger man hurried to do his bidding, Erak said grimly to Klaud, “Never hurts to be ready.”

  Klaud hid a grin. He’d been present on the previous occasion when Erak had pursued the offending ship’s skirl with his ax. It had taken three men to restrain the furious Oberjarl.

  Erak shaded his eyes now and peered at the fast-approaching ship.

  “He’s got a helmsman’s eye,” he said, in reluctant admiration of the unknown skipper’s judgment of the line he needed to maintain. “Anyone know who it is?”

  “It’s young Hal,” a voice said behind him. Erak turned and saw a ragged, unkempt figure standing close by. Thorn, he recognized. Then he made the connection.

  “Mikkel’s son?” he said. “That Hal?”

  Thorn nodded. “The same. That’s his ship. He designed her and built her himself.”

  Which was stretching the truth slightly. After all, Anders had quite a hand in the hull design, even if the sail plan had been Hal’s doing. There was pride in Thorn’s eyes as he watched the trim little ship bearing down on the harbor mouth. The sail idea had obviously worked, he thought, which must be why Hal had brought her back to the harbor to show her off.

  He just hoped the boy had the skill to stop her in time when he made it through the harbor mouth.

  “He’s just short of his sixteenth birthday, chief,” Thorn told him. As a former member of Erak’s crew, he was privileged to call him “chief” rather than his formal title of Oberjarl. He thought it might be wise to mention Hal’s youth to Erak. It might ma
ke the Oberjarl more forgiving in case of any accidents. Helligulf chose that moment to return with Erak’s battleax. The Oberjarl took it and hefted it, feeling its familiar weight and balance.

  “He’ll be just short of his head if he takes even a splinter out of my ship,” he said grimly.

  Thorn shook his own head confidently. “There’s no risk of that, chief.”

  He hoped he was right.

  chapter eight

  The harbor entrance was flying toward them, drawing closer and closer. Hal stood by the steering oar, every muscle tensed, eyes slitted in concentration as he gauged the remaining distance. He noticed the sizable crowd on the harbor mole watching and his mouth went dry with nervousness.

  “When I order it,” he called to his crew, “drop that sail and get to your oars. Run them out ready as soon as we go through the entrance.”

  His tension communicated itself to the others as they moved to the halyards and sheets. Stig tried reasoning with his friend one more time.

  “Hal, wouldn’t it be wiser to lower the sail out here and row her in?” he suggested. Hal’s eyes were still riveted on the harbor entrance.

  “Probably,” he said. But his tone of voice told Stig that he had no intention of doing so. The bigger boy shrugged and turned to the others.

  “Be ready to move quickly.” He glanced at Ingvar. “Try not to fall over, Ingvar.”

  Ingvar smiled, taking no offense. “Do my best, Stig,” he promised.

  Hal crouched at the steering oar, his hands alternately gripping and releasing on the oak steering oar. While the palms of his hands were damp with nervous perspiration, his mouth was dry. As the entrance loomed closer, he judged the moment was right.

  “Let go the ropes! Down sail! Do it! Do it! Do it!”

  There was no real need for those final instructions. The other boys were every bit as tense as he was. But he couldn’t restrain himself.

  The sail flapped and thundered as Ingvar and Stig cast loose the sheets—the restraining ropes that controlled it—and the harnessed force of the wind was suddenly released. At the same moment, Ulf and Wulf began hauling down the yardarm. Ingvar and Stig scrambled to help them, roughly gathering in the flapping sail and stuffing it under the yardarm. Time to stow it neatly later, thought Stig.

  “Oars! Oars!” shouted Hal. Even without the sail, they still had plenty of momentum and the edge of the mole seemed to shoot by him. He heard the clatter of wood on wood as the crew ran out the oars. Ahead of him, Wolfwind loomed closer and closer. He thrust savagely on the steering oar and Heron’s bow began to swing. He had time to note that when the boat wasn’t heeled under the sail’s pressure, the rudder turned her more quickly. But he still wasn’t sure if it was turning fast enough.

  Onshore, a glitter of sunlight on bright metal caught his eye. He glanced quickly toward it and his heart leapt into his throat as he realized it was the battleax in the Oberjarl’s hand.

  “Row starboard oars!” he yelled. “Heave! Do it! Do it! Do it!”

  Wulf and Ingvar were on the starboard oars. They set their feet against the footrests and heaved mightily, straining every muscle of their arms and backs so that they rose off their seats with the effort.

  It was enough. Heron’s bow, under the extra turning thrust of the oars, swung clear of Wolfwind. Hal let go a huge breath, and realized he’d been holding it ever since he’d yelled those last orders to the rowers. As Heron curved around, she began to wash off speed in the turn, and as a result, the bow came round more rapidly.

  Finally, she rounded up into the wind, completing a vast circle and facing back the way she had come. She rocked gently on the wake of her own passage, riding the water like a resting seabird.

  Dimly, Hal could hear a smattering of applause from the wharf. He slumped against the tiller as Stig joined him.

  “Well,” his friend said, “that was exciting.”

  Hal glanced at the rapidly dissipating circle of white water Heron had left behind her.

  “Exciting? It was never in doubt,” he said, with a confidence he certainly hadn’t been feeling some minutes before.

  Stig gave a short laugh. “Never in doubt? Then what was all that shrieking you were doing? ‘Do it! Do it! Do it!’” he mimicked, in a pretty fair approximation. Hal thought it would be best not to comment.

  “Let’s take her in to the beach,” he said.

  Stig feigned surprise. “The beach? You don’t want to moor alongside Wolfwind?”

  Finally, Hal cast aside his air of nonchalance. “No, I most decidedly do not!” he said, with heartfelt sincerity.

  Stig grinned at him, then scrambled back to his oar. “Did you notice that Erak had his battleax?” he called.

  Hal nodded wearily in reply. “Why do you think I was doing all that shrieking?”

  In addition to the wharf, where three or four wolfships could moor to load supplies, the harbor mole protected a stretch of sand and pebble beach, where other ships were run ashore. Hal took Heron in under oars and ran her prow up onto the sand, feeling the slight grating sensation under his feet as he did so.

  She talks to me, he thought.

  In a way, it was true. He could sense the ship’s reactions to outside forces through the vibrations under the soles of his feet. He was attuned to her so that she was almost an extension of his body. He shook his head at the fanciful notion. She was a ship. She was an inanimate assemblage of planks and spars and cordage. She had no life of her own, he told himself.

  But deep inside, a tiny voice told him he was wrong.

  The crowd on the wharf had made their way to the beach to inspect this strange new craft and to see who had been sailing her. Many of them were seamen and they had all admired the skill shown by her helmsman and crew as she shot into the harbor, rounded to neatly and came to a stop. The more skilled among them had also noted how the ship had made her approach to the narrow harbor mouth with virtually no corrections in course. Her skipper had set course from half a kilometer out to sea and held to it, bringing the ship straight in on one tack through the narrow harbor entrance. That required either enormous luck or the sort of instinctive ability to judge angles and distances that could never be taught.

  None of them, of course, were aware of the heart-stopping terror that her helmsman had felt when he had seen the Oberjarl’s ship looming up across his bows.

  Now, as the crowd streamed along the beach to inspect the Heron at close quarters, Hal could hear the surprised exclamations as they identified the crew.

  “It’s Hal Mikkelson—the Araluen boy,” he heard someone say and he sighed quietly. He knew that in spite of his Skandian father, he would always be known as an Araluen. Perhaps, he thought, that was why he had decided to stage such a flamboyant display. He knew Skandians placed a high value on seamanship and ship handling and saw them as particularly Skandian abilities. Perhaps, without realizing it, he had wanted to be accepted as an equal.

  Other voices added their surprised comments.

  “There’s that Ingvar boy. My, but he’s a big one.”

  “But clumsy,” another added as Ingvar tried to vault lightly over the side, caught his foot on the rail and ended up sprawling on the wet sand at the water’s edge.

  “There are those awful twins, too. I wonder what they’re fighting about now.”

  Ulf and Wulf, true to their nature, were shoving and mouthing insults at each other as each tried to be first ashore.

  “And look, it’s Stig Olafson. They’re all just boys.”

  “So who was at the helm?”

  Hal secured the steering oar with a looped cord and went forward, dropping over the side onto the beach.

  He glanced eagerly around the gathering crowd and for a moment his heart sank as he could see no sign of Thorn. Then he grinned as he saw the tattered, untidy figure sitting on an upturned skiff, a little away from the general press. Thorn wasn’t fond of crowds, he knew. He’d spent too many years as an outcast, often finding himself the butt of cr
uel jokes, to make him feel comfortable among large numbers of people.

  Hal waved and Thorn responded with a discreet nod of his head.

  The crowd parted as the Oberjarl thrust his way through. Hal noted, with a sense of relief, that he no longer had his ax in his hand.

  Erak looked around the group of five boys, standing close together. Like some of the others, he had half expected to see an older person among them.

  “Who’s the skirl?” he asked, although after Thorn’s earlier comments, he already had a good idea. His eyes lit on Hal and the boy looked down, scuffing his feet in the sand. Suddenly, in spite of his fierce desire to be accepted, he felt reluctant to admit to it. It seemed excessively boastful.

  He felt a hand drop on his shoulder and looked up to see Stig beside him, grinning at Erak.

  “It was Hal, Oberjarl. He’s a master helmsman.”

  Stig had no qualms about claiming credit for Hal. Hal had earned their respect, and Stig was going to see he got it.

  Erak studied Hal closely. Over the years, he’d kept a watchful eye on the boy and his mother. Hal’s father had been a crewman on board Wolfwind, and a good skirl had an obligation to look after his crew and their families.

  “So it was you. It was very prettily done. Are you really as skillful as your friend says? Or are you lucky?”

  Hal met his gaze. He remembered the heart-stopping terror he’d felt when he’d seen the battleax in Erak’s hand.

  “A bit of both, I think, Oberjarl,” he said. And Erak nodded, recognizing the truth in the statement.

  “Nothing wrong with being lucky. What’s this crazy sail plan you’ve got there?”

  He was walking down to the ship now. Someone had placed a boarding ramp against the rail and he climbed up, studying the twin yardarms and the bundled-up sails. Hal and Stig joined him. Others clustered round the bow of the beached ship, straining to see.

  “It’s my design, Oberjarl. It’s based on a bird’s wing,” Hal said.

  Erak frowned. He shoved one of the yardarms with his toe.

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