The outcasts, p.9
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       The Outcasts, p.9

         Part #1 of Brotherband Chronicles series by John Flanagan
 

  “Thorn, I don’t want to hit you,” Hal said awkwardly.

  Thorn gave a short bark of laughter. “Don’t worry. You’re not going to!”

  “Look, can’t we just forget this?” Hal pleaded.

  “No, we can’t. Now take a swing.”

  “You’re not going to be happy until I do, are you?” Hal said and Thorn nodded, saying nothing. “All right then …”

  Hal took a halfhearted swing at the shabby figure before him. Surprisingly, his fist whistled through empty air. He hadn’t really seen Thorn move. Perhaps he had swayed slightly to one side, but Hal couldn’t be sure.

  “Gorlog’s nostrils!” Thorn said, his voice full of scorn. “If that’s the best you can do it’s as well I stopped Tursgud killing you yesterday.”

  Hal felt the blood rising to his face. He didn’t want to hit the disabled old man. But the taunt about Tursgud aroused his anger.

  “Would you feel more at home if you tried to slap me?” Thorn sneered, and Hal’s anger burst free, like water cascading through a breach in a dam. He took a wild roundhouse swing at Thorn.

  And missed. Again, Thorn’s jaw simply didn’t seem to be in the same space as Hal’s fist. Yet again, he’d seen no violent movement. Maybe Thorn had leaned back slightly. Just inches, no more.

  He frowned and stared at his opponent.

  Thorn sneered at him. “You just don’t get any better, do you?”

  Hal’s last vestige of self-control snapped and he leapt at him, swinging with his left hand this time. That should catch him by surprise, he thought.

  His fist hit a brick wall, stopping dead in the air. He had a moment to realize that Thorn had caught it in his own left hand. In the same moment, there was a blur of movement in front of his face and he found himself looking at the scarred stump of Thorn’s right arm. It had seemed to come out of nowhere and stopped a few millimeters short of his face.

  Thorn released his hand and stepped back. The anger and sarcasm seemed to have gone now.

  “All right, let’s talk about this for a few minutes,” he said.

  Hal shook his head, mystified. This wasn’t the Thorn he had come to know. This Thorn was confident and capable, not the shabby odd-job man Hal was accustomed to.

  “The majority of people, when they want to hit you, will do as you just did: swing a big roundhouse punch,” Thorn said. “Punches like that have a lot of power behind them. But the problem is, they’re easy to see coming. So they’re easy to block and dodge. Even you could probably do it.”

  “Oh, thank you so much,” Hal said.

  Thorn raised his eyebrows. “No need to get snippy, boy. Not after the display you just put on. The point I’m trying to make is that a straight punch, like the one I just threw at you”—he indicated his right arm—“is a lot harder to dodge. It’s harder to see it coming and it gets to the target faster because it travels a shorter distance.”

  Hal frowned thoughtfully. Thorn was explaining this in a way he understood—appealing to his analytical nature.

  “I see,” he said slowly.

  Thorn glanced keenly at him and gave a satisfied nod.

  “On top of that, a straight punch can carry a lot of force behind it, as long as you put your shoulder and weight into it. Step into it as you punch. Try it. Hit my hand.”

  He held up his left hand, palm out, to Hal. The boy drew back his right fist and Thorn stopped him.

  “Use your left,” he said.

  Hal looked at him, puzzled. “But I’m right-handed,” he explained.

  “Most people are. So Tursgud will expect you to favor your right. Use your left and you’ll catch him by surprise—the way you just tried to do with me. Your instincts were good, but the execution was pretty dreadful. Don’t take a big swing, just jab him first with your left—a straight punch. Then use a hooking right hand. Now try it.”

  Hal threw a tentative straight jab at Thorn’s big, calloused palm.

  “Get your weight behind it!” Thorn barked. “Use your shoulder!”

  Hal tried again and felt a far more satisfying smack of contact as he hit Thorn’s hand.

  “Now step in!”

  This time he felt there was even more force behind the punch.

  “Again!”

  He hit again. Thorn’s commands came faster and faster as he ordered him to repeat the blow. Hal could feel the impact of each punch traveling up his arm, jolting against his shoulder. But he also noticed that, as he improved the technique, he had begun to drive Thorn’s hand back. On the fifth attempt, the old sea wolf actually staggered back a half pace. He grinned fiercely at Hal.

  “Imagine if that had been Tursgud’s jaw!” he said.

  Hal nodded, grinning at the idea. It created a very satisfying mental picture, he thought.

  “Now, I want you to try something else. Hit with the left, then follow through immediately with your right. Keep coming in. Hook it across and finish him off.”

  “Finish him off? With just two punches?” Hal said skeptically. But Thorn nodded.

  “Just try it. Right hand a little higher. You keep it up there in case he’s inconsiderate enough to take a swing at you. Then hit straight with the left and immediately hook right. Go!”

  Smack! Smack! The two punches hit Thorn’s palm within a few seconds of each other, rocking his left arm back. He smiled.

  “That’s the way! Straight left, then bring the right across. If you hit him in the nose with the left, his eyes will tear up and he won’t see the right coming.”

  Hal nodded. His hands were tingling from the repeated contact with Thorn’s work-hardened palm. Thorn pointed to the sack that he’d brought with him.

  “Now you just need to practice. That sack is stuffed full of old wool, bits of canvas and sailcloth. Hang it in your shelter there and practice hitting it whenever you get the chance. Get those two punches working for you.”

  “I still think I may need more than two punches to finish off Tursgud,” Hal said.

  Thorn pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Funny thing is, most fights are won in the first one or two punches. Most people don’t go round expecting to be attacked. So the aggressor has all the advantage. He hits first and, because he’s going forward, there’s maximum power behind his punches. Try something else. Hit my hand again, but step back as you do it.”

  He held up his hand and again Hal threw a punch. But as instructed, he stepped back. He could feel the weakened result.

  “If someone attacks us, our instinct is to back away. And once you start going backward, it’s hard to stop. Your attacker will just keep piling in, throwing punch after punch and driving you back. So go against your instinct and move forward if you’re attacked. Take it to him. Get in close and those straight punches will start working for you. And you’ll get some force behind your punches.”

  Hal thought about what the old man had said and he nodded to himself. It was a natural reaction, when someone started throwing punches, to back away. And he could see that if he did that, an attacker would have all the advantage on his side. It was good advice, he thought. Then he frowned, wondering.

  “Why did you bother to show me this today, Thorn?” Hal asked.

  The older man shrugged. “You’re starting brotherband training tomorrow and you’d better know how to stand up for yourself. I was watching Tursgud yesterday. He’ll try to dominate you, Hal, because he fears you.”

  “You said that before. Why would Tursgud be afraid of me?”

  Thorn shook his head. “I said he fears you. He’s not afraid of you personally. He fears what you are. He can sense that you’re a leader. And that’s a challenge to him. He wants to be the one that the others look to. Sooner or later, it’s going to come to a head between the two of you. And you’d better be ready for it.”

  Hal looked doubtful. He didn’t see himself as a leader and he still couldn’t see that Tursgud’s animosity was born from any kind of fear. But he didn’t doubt that sooner or later they would clash again. I
n the light of that fact, it was probably a good idea to practice the technique Thorn had just taught him. He picked up the sack and carried it into the work shelter where he’d stowed the fittings from Heron. He hung the sack from one of the beams and punched it thoughtfully. It was heavy and it resisted the punch.

  “Do you really think I’ll be able to beat him?” Hal asked.

  Thorn pursed his lips again and hesitated.

  “Maybe. Maybe not. But you’ll hurt him enough to convince him to leave you alone.”

  chapter eleven

  At sea: south of the Sonderland Coast

  A rose-colored glow was beginning to seep across the eastern horizon, like ink spreading in a pool of water, Arndak thought. He looked around in the strengthening dawn light. The other three small ships of his trading fleet were all in sight, although they had scattered somewhat during the dark hours. The sea was calm and the wind was moderate.

  He looked back to the east. The sun was beginning to show itself above the horizon now, a blindingly bright arc of light that was rapidly growing bigger. To the west, the sea was still in comparative darkness.

  Forward, toward the bow of the ship, he could see members of the crew stirring from their sleep. He decided they’d been resting long enough.

  “Lower the sail!” he ordered. “Shake out those reefs, then send it up again.”

  During the dark hours of the night, they had traveled with the big square sail reefed—with part of it bundled up and tied to the yardarm to reduce its area. Now, with daylight, they could take full advantage of the wind. He heard the creaking of ropes as the crew lowered the large yardarm and sail, and set to work untying the reefing cords. With the sail lowered, the ship gradually lost speed and wallowed in the small waves. He saw the others in the fleet were doing the same thing, then glanced forward and noticed his nephew, Ernak, standing with nothing to do.

  “Up the mast and take a look around, boy!” he called, and the twelve-year-old turned and began to shinny up the bare pole like a squirrel going up a tree. He reached the small crossbar that served as a lookout position and scanned the ocean on all sides.

  “All clear, Uncle!” his young voice piped. Then he hesitated and peered toward the west again—where the new light was just beginning to reach. “No … wait … there’s something …”

  Arndak’s heart rate quickened. He resisted the urge to question Ernak. He was a good boy and he’d give a full report when he was more certain of his facts. He’d seen something. Odds were that it was another ship. It could be totally harmless. On the other hand … he clasped and unclasped his grip on the steering oar.

  “Stay up there while we hoist the sail again,” he called. Then, turning to the sailors who had been loosening the reefs, he called, “Get a move on!”

  His first mate waved acknowledgment. He and three others began heaving on ropes and the yardarm, with the square sail attached, began climbing the mast again. The fabric bellied out in the wind, then steadied and firmed as the crew hauled in on the restraining ropes and brought it under control. The ship began to surge forward through the water once more.

  “It’s a ship, Uncle!” Ernak called. “A big one! She’s got her sail hoisted and she’s rowing as well.”

  So she’s in a hurry, Arndak thought. He could think of only one reason for that. He looked at the other ships in his fleet. They were all smaller and slower than Spraydancer, his ship.

  Reluctantly, he called an order to his mate.

  “Ease the sail a little. Let the others catch up.” He felt Spraydancer’s speed lessen and grimaced. With an unknown ship chasing them, he hated to reduce speed. But he wouldn’t abandon the other ships of his fleet. He took a battered brass horn from a rack beside the steering oar, raised it to his lips and blew three loud blasts on it—the signal for the other ships to close up.

  “She’s gaining on us, Uncle!”

  Of course she is, Arndak thought. He lashed the steering oar in place and leapt nimbly onto the bulwark beside the steering oar, steadying himself on one of the stays that secured the mast, and scanned the sea to the west.

  As Spraydancer rose on the crest of a wave, he caught a momentary glimpse of a dark rectangle showing above the distant horizon. On the next wave, the rectangle was larger, and he thought he could make out a dark shape below it. The stranger was coming up fast.

  We can’t outrun her, he thought. We’ll have to outfight her. He dropped nimbly back to the deck and reached for his shield and war ax, left handy by the steering oar.

  “Weapons, men,” he called. The crew hurried to retrieve their shields, which were stowed along the outer bulwarks of the ship, and their axes, swords and spears. The clatter of weaponry was reassuring. Arndak glanced at his other ships and saw that their crews were also arming themselves. He nodded in satisfaction. His ships were laden with valuable goods—oil, wool fleeces and brandy. Plus there was a supply of iron for weapon making. And finally, there was the cash chest on board Spraydancer, holding the money he had earned selling trade goods to the Sonderlanders.

  He wasn’t giving any of that up without a fight.

  “She’s a big ship, Uncle!” That was Ernak again, keeping him informed. He smiled grimly. The boy had learned well while he had sailed with his uncle.

  “Ten oars a side, maybe,” Ernak continued. “Could be more.”

  That was bad news. Ten oars a side meant twenty men. Plus there’d be a relief rowing crew, so they’d be facing thirty or forty. He had six men on Spraydancer, not counting Ernak. The other ships carried four or five men each. They were badly outnumbered.

  “She’s closing fast!”

  He looked astern. He could see the other ship from deck level now as Spraydancer rose on successive waves. Fast and heavily manned. In Arndak’s eyes, that meant only one thing. She was a pirate.

  He hesitated. Perhaps their best chance would be to abandon the other three ships and concentrate all his men aboard Spraydancer. But he was loath to give up their cargoes to the pirate. And his hesitation proved to be his undoing. Even as he reached for the horn to signal his ships again, the pirate ship came into full view and he could see she was bearing down on the farthest ship in his fleet, little Rainbow. The newcomer was a black-hulled ship, and he could see that Ernak’s estimate had been accurate. She had ten oars a side, beating regularly and driving her forward at high speed. As she lifted on a low swell, he saw something else that made his heart sink. At the base of the bow, she carried a ram—a protruding iron-shod beam that could smash into an enemy’s timbers and sink her in minutes.

  The pirate ship’s port-side oars came upright as she ran alongside Rainbow. The two ships crunched together. The pirate’s captain had chosen not to ram but a wave of men poured over the bulwarks, boarding the little trading ship and overwhelming her crew. He could hear the sounds of battle, axes and swords clashing against each other and hammering on oaken shields. He heard men shouting, heard the defiant war cries of the Rainbow’s crew. Then, in minutes, there was silence. The pirates cut the ropes holding Rainbow’s sail aloft and, as it crashed to the deck, they hurried to reboard their own ship, leaving the trader drifting helplessly, her crew murdered in a few brief seconds.

  Now the pirate ship swept purposefully toward Sea Lion, the next of the fleet in line.

  “He’ll pick us off one by one,” Arndak said softly to himself. “Down sail! Out oars!” he bellowed. He heaved on the steering oar, bringing the ship’s bow around. His only chance would be to join up with Golden Sun, the nearest ship to him. There were five men aboard her. If he combined their crews, they might have a chance …

  But as Spraydancer swung round into the wind and her crew began to heave on the oars, he saw that his decision had come too late. The black ship barely paused beside Sea Lion, sending a dozen men aboard to overwhelm her four crewmen. Once they were aboard, the pirate set course for Golden Sun, and after a few minutes, Arndak could see she was going to win the race. He realized his nephew was still perched
on the lookout spot and yelled at him to come down. The boy slid down to the deck, grabbed up a spear and ran back to join his uncle.

  “What will we do, Uncle?” he asked.

  “The only thing we can, boy. We’ll fight them. But you’d better stay back here.”

  “I’m not afraid of them,” Ernak said resolutely.

  Arndak smiled grimly at him. “I know you’re not. But stay clear of the fight. Your mother would never forgive me if you got knocked on the head.”

  He saw the rebellious look in the boy’s eyes and his brows came together in a scowl. No longer the uncle, he was now the ship’s skirl.

  “Do as I say,” he snapped.

  There was fighting on board Golden Sun now, and the pirates who had captured the Sea Lion had begun rowing to rejoin their own ship.

  “In oars,” Arndak ordered. No sense in having the crew wear themselves out. “Form up on me.”

  His crewmen gathered their weapons again and moved back to join him, forming a defensive line near the ship’s stern.

  His eyes narrowed as he followed the progress of the fight onboard Golden Sun. The clash of weapons had died away and there was a series of splashes alongside. He realized that the pirates were throwing the crew’s bodies overboard.

  “Scum,” he muttered. Those crewmen had been his companions and friends for years. He tested the weight of his ax. “I’ll see a few of you go down before I let you take this ship.” He looked along the line of grim faces beside him.

  “It’s been a pleasure sailing with you, men. There’s nothing left for it now but to make it hard on these swine. Let’s take as many of them with us as we can.”

  There was a roar of assent from his men and he smiled. They had seen that there would be no quarter given. There would be no surrender. Perhaps that was a mistake on the part of the pirate captain. With no hope of surrender, his men would fight even harder.

  And seven Skandians could be a truly formidable force.

  The pirates had scrambled back aboard their own ship now and it swung away from the smaller trading ship. The oars came out again and the black ship sliced through the water toward Spraydancer. The captured Sea Lion was a little way off, her oars thrashing the water to foam as the pirates on board raced to catch up.

 

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