Slaves of Socorro (Excerpt)

John Flanagan’s Slaves of Socorro is available July 15th from Philomel! In this fourth book in the Brotherband Chronicles, a new battle unfolds as old rivalries are renewed, peace treaties are put to the test, and the action builds to a pulse-pounding finale.

Hal and his fellow Herons have returned home to Skandia after defeating the pirate captain Zavac and reclaiming Skandia’s most prized artifact, the Andomal. With their honor restored, the Herons turn to a new mission: tracking down an old rival turned bitter enemy. Tursgud—leader of the Shark Brotherband and Hal’s constant opponent—has turned from a bullying youth into a pirate and slave trader. After Tursgud captures twelve Araluen villagers to sell as slaves, the Heron crew sails into action with the help of one of Araluen’s finest Rangers.



Chapter One

I think we should reset the mast about a meter farther aft,” Hal said.

He peered down into the stripped-out hull of the wolfship, rubbing his chin. Wolftail’s innards were bare to the world. Her oars, mast, yard, sails, shrouds, stays, halyards, rowing benches, floorboards and ballast stones had been removed, leaving just the bare hull. She rested on her keel, high and dry on the grass beside Anders’s shipyard, supported by timber props that kept her level.

A plank gantry ran along either side of the denuded hull, at the height of her gunwales. Hal knelt on the starboard-side gantry, accompanied by Anders, the shipwright, and Bjarni Bentfinger, Wolftail’s skirl and owner. Hal and Anders wore thoughtful, reflective expressions. Bjarni’s was more anxious. No ship’s captain likes to see the bones of his craft laid bare for the world to view. Bjarni was beginning to wonder whether this had been such a good idea. It wasn’t too late, he thought. He could always pay Anders for his work so far and ask him to return Wolftail to her former state.

Then he thought of the extra speed and maneuverability the new sail plan would give his ship. He shrugged and looked anxiously at Hal. The young skirl was so… young, he thought. And here Bjarni was, entrusting his precious Wolftail to Hal’s hands for a major refit. Of course, Anders was a highly experienced shipbuilder. He ought to know what he was doing. And Bjarni had seen proof of the effectiveness of the fore-and-aft-sail plan that Hal had designed for his own ship, the Heron.

Bjarni took a deep breath, closed his eyes and bit back the request that was trembling on his lips. Between them, these two knew what was best, he thought.

“The mast goes where the mast support is,” Anders said doubtfully. “How do you plan to move that?”

The mast support was a squared piece of timber, a meter long, that stood vertically at right angles to the keel. It was used to hold the mast firmly in place, and was an integral, immovable part of the keel itself. When the original shipbuilders had shaped a tree to form the keel for Wolftail, they had trimmed off all the projecting branches, save one. They left that one in place, shortening it and trimming it so that it formed a square section that projected up to support the mast. Its innate strength came from the fact that it hadn’t been fastened in place. It had grown there.

Hal shrugged. “It’s not a problem.” He climbed down into the hull and knelt beside the keel, indicating the existing support. “We leave this in place, so that the strength is retained, and we shape a meter-long piece to match it, and attach it behind the existing support.”

Anders chewed his lip. “Yes. I suppose that’d work.” “But why set the mast farther astern?” Bjarni asked.

“The new fore and aft yards will reach right to the bow,” Hal explained, “and that will put more downward pressure on the bow when you’re under sail. This way, we’ll compensate for that pressure.” He indicated with his hand, describing an angle behind the mast support. “We could even slope the edge of the new piece back a little toward the stern. That’d let us rake the mast back and give us even better purchase.”

“Hmmm,” said Anders.

The worried look was back on Bjarni’s face. He hadn’t understood the technical details Hal had spouted so confidently. But he understood “hmmm.” “Hmmm” meant Anders wasn’t convinced. “Never mind raking it back,” Bjarni said quickly. “I want my mast to stand square. Masts are supposed to stand square. That’s what masts do. They stand… square. Always have.”

After all, he thought, a raked mast would be a little too exotic. Hal grinned at him. He’d overseen the conversion of four square-rigged wolfships to the Heron sail plan in the past months.

He was used to the older skirls’ conservative views.

“Whatever you say,” he replied agreeably. He stood and clambered up the sloping inside of the hull toward the gantry. Anders reached down a hand to help him.

“Now, have you made up your mind about the fin keel?” Hal asked. He knew what the answer was going to be, even before Bjarni’s head began to shake from side to side.

“I don’t want you cutting any holes in the bottom of my ship,” he said. “She might sink.”

Hal smiled reassuringly at him. “I did the same to the Heron,” he pointed out. “And she hasn’t sunk so far.”

Bjarni continued his head-shaking. “That’s as may be,” he said. “But I don’t see any good coming from cutting a hole in the bottom of a ship. It goes against nature.” He noticed Hal’s tolerant smile and frowned. He didn’t enjoy being patronized by a boy, even if he suspected that the boy might be right.

“I don’t care that you did it in your ship,” he said. “It might just be luck that she hasn’t sunk…” He paused, and added in a meaningful tone, “So far.”

Hal shrugged. He hadn’t expected Bjarni to agree to a fin keel. None of the wolfship skirls had done so thus far.

“Suit yourself,” he said. He turned to Anders. “So, can you get your men started on an extension for the mast support? I can send you over a design sketch if you’d like.”

Anders nodded slowly. Anders did most things slowly. He was a deliberate man who didn’t leap to decisions without pondering them. That was one of the things that made him an excellent shipbuilder.

“No need for a sketch,” he said. “I can work out how to manage it.”

Hal nodded. Anders was right, of course. The design work involved would be a simple matter for an experienced craftsman. He had really only offered out of politeness.

“Well then… ,” he began. But he was interrupted by a booming voice.

“Hullo the ship!” They all turned to see Erak, the Oberjarl of Skandia, on the path that led from the town. Anders’s shipyard was set outside Hallasholm, so the constant noise of hammering and sawing—and the attendant curses as fingers were mashed by incautiously wielded mallets—wouldn’t disturb the townfolk.

“What’s he doing here?” Bjarni said idly.

Anders sniffed, and wiped his nose with the back of his hand. “He’s on his morning constitutional,” he said. Noticing Bjarni’s puzzled glance, he added, “His walk. He walks along here most days. Says the exercise keeps him slim.” A ghost of a smile touched the corners of his mouth as he said the last few words.

Hal raised an eyebrow. “How can it keep him something he’s never been?”

Erak was an immense bear of a man. Slim was not a word that sprang readily to mind when describing him. The Oberjarl was striding across the grass toward them now, flanked by Svengal, his constant companion and former first mate.

“What’s that he’s got?” Bjarni asked. Erak was wielding a long, polished wood staff in his right hand, using it to mark his strides. The staff was about a meter and a half tall, shod with a silver ferrule at the bottom and adorned with a small silver knob at the top. At every third or fourth pace, he would twirl it between his powerful fingers, setting the sunlight flashing off the silver fittings.

“It’s his new walking staff,” Anders explained. “There was a delegation in from Gallica two weeks ago and they presented it to him.”

“But what does it do?” Hal asked. In his eyes, everything should have a practical use.

Anders shrugged. “He says it makes him look sophisticated,” he replied.

Hal’s eyebrows went up in surprise. Like slimsophisticated was not a word that sprang readily to mind when thinking about the Oberjarl.

Erak and Svengal paused at the foot of the ladder leading to the gantry.

“All right if we come up?” he called.

Anders made a welcoming gesture with his right hand. “Be our guest,” he said.

They felt the timbers of the gantry vibrate gently as the two men climbed to join them. Erak was huge and Svengal was built on the lines of the normal Skandian wolfship crewman—he wasn’t as big as Erak, but he was tall and heavyset.

Perhaps, thought Hal, it had been wise of Erak to ask permission before mounting the ladder.

The two men approached down the gantry, peering with professional interest into the bared hull below them.

“Getting one of Hal’s newfangled sail plans, are you, Bjarni?” Erak boomed. “Old ways not good enough for you anymore?”

“We’ve done four other ships before this one,” Anders said. “Been no complaints so far.”

Erak studied the shipwright for a moment, then switched his gaze to the young man beside him. Secretly, he was proud of Hal, proud of his ingenuity and original thinking. On top of that, Hal had shown leadership and determination in pursuing the pirate Zavac halfway across the known world. Erak admired those qualities, although he considered himself to be too set in his own ways to adapt to the sort of change that Hal represented. Deep down, he knew that the sail plan the young man had designed was superior to the old square rig of traditional wolfships. He had seen it demonstrated on more than one occasion. But he loved his Wolfwind as she was and he couldn’t bring himself to change her.

“Time for a change, chief,” Bjarni said, as if reading that last thought.

Erak thought it was time to change the subject. “They’ve really ripped the guts out of her, haven’t they?” he commented cheerfully.

Bjarni looked as if he might argue the toss, but then he subsided. In fact, they had ripped the guts out of her. It was strange, he thought, how when craftsmen set about making improvements to anything—be it a ship, a house or an ox cart—their first step almost always involved practically destroying it.

Erak paced along the gantry, his walking staff clacking noisily on the timber walkway.

“There’s a plank or two could use replacing,” he said, peering keenly to where several of the planks were showing wear between the joins.

“We’ve noted those,” Anders replied. Still, he was impressed that Erak had spotted the problem from a distance.

Clack, clack, clack went Erak’s staff as he paced farther. Hal caught Svengal’s eye and winked.

“Decided it’s time for a walking cane, have you, Oberjarl?” the young man asked, his face a mask of innocence. Svengal turned away to hide a grin as Erak turned slowly to face Hal.

“It’s a staff of office, young man,” he said haughtily. “They’re all the rage in Gallica among the gentry.”

“The gentry, you say?” Hal asked. He knew the Oberjarl had a soft spot for him and he knew how far to push things. Or at least, he considered ruefully, he thought he knew. Sometimes he overstepped the mark—and then a hasty retreat was advisable. “Well, I can see why you’d have one—you being as gentrified as you are.”

Erak twirled the staff, the sunlight catching the silverwork again.

“It makes me look sophisticated,” he said. There was a note of challenge in his voice.

“I’ve definitely noticed that, chief,” Svengal put in cheerfully. “I was only telling the lads the other night, ‘Have you noticed how sophisticated the chief is looking these days?’”

“And what did they say?” Erak asked, with just a hint of suspicion.

“Well, they had to agree, didn’t they? All of them. Of course, then they spoiled it by asking what ‘sophisticated’ meant. But they did agree—wholeheartedly.”

Bjarni let out a short bark of laughter, and Anders’s shoulders appeared to be shaking. Hal had found something fascinating on the handrail of the gantry and was studying it closely.

Erak snorted. “People never appreciate sophistication,” he said. He clack-clacked his way along the gantry once more toward the ladder, his old friend following a few paces behind. At the head of the ladder, Erak turned back and called to Hal.

“Drop by and see me tomorrow morning, young Hal. Might have a project for you and that band of misfits of yours.”

Hal’s interest was aroused. Life had been a little on the slow side lately, with nothing but routine sea patrols to fill in the time. “What do you have in mind, Oberjarl?” he asked. But Erak only smiled sweetly and tapped the side of his nose.

“I never discuss business in public, Hal,” he said. “It’s so unsophisticated.”


Slaves of Socorro © John Flanagan, 2014


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