King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

“And see what we can learn about the Greek fire,” amplified Thorvin.

“And give Steffi there another chance to fly,” agreed Shef.

Round the listening circle heads nodded, there was a growl of agreement. Suleiman’s dark eyes took it in, showed a gleam of pleasure.

From the mast-head there came a hail. “To the north there! A sail. Three-cornered one. Looks like a fishing boat, maybe four miles off. Steering west, might not have seen us yet.”

Shef walked to the prow, clicked open his far-seer, tried to see if he could pick out the sail-tip nicking the horizon.

“Do you think Narwhal would catch her, Brand, oars against the lateen sail?”

“In this calm, easy.”

“Go over there then, sink the boat, kill everyone aboard.”

Brand hesitated. “I don’t mind killing people, you know,” he said. “But they could be just fishermen making a living.”

“And they could be spies for the Greeks. Or both at once. We can’t take any chances on that. Just go over and do it. Use the crossbows if you’re feeling squeamish.”

Shef turned and walked away, obviously heading for his hammock, the conference as far as he was concerned at an end. Brand stared after him, his face perplexed.

“That’s the one who was always telling me to go easy on the looting, always fretting about the slaves.”

“He still frets about slaves,” remarked Thorvin.

“But he’ll kill off innocent people for nothing, just because they might be a risk. Not even for amusement, like Ivar would have, or to make them talk, like old Hairy-Breeks.”

“Maybe Loki is loose,” said Thorvin. “Better go do what he says.” He clutched his hammer pendant protectively.

The same day, the same time, and no longer so many miles away, Bruno Emperor of the Franks, the Germans, the Italians and the Burgundians, slowly and reluctantly raised his shield, to protect his face not from the arrows that had flown at him all day, their snapped-off points studding the leather facing of his shield. No, only from the heat that surged and crackled from the blazing tower in front of him. He did not want to lose sight of the tower, hoping against hope that some last cry would rise from it, some turn of fortune would come to save the day. Yet, even for his ascetic frame, the heat was too much to be borne.

It had been a bad day all along, yet another bad day. He had been sure the fortress would fall this time, and fall it had. Yet he had hoped, expected, after the trials of the days before, that the defenders would see sense, take his offer, accept the mercy that they could hardly have expected. His system for razing these mountain fortresses had been worked out again and again against the Moslems of the coast, and his men understood it. The first thing was to get the great counterweight-catapult that Erkenbert had built close enough to throw its one titanic rock on to the top of the gate. Smash the gate, take the fortress. But the catapult had terrible limitations. Unlike the lighter onagers, or the dart-shooters or man-powered weapons, the counterweight-machine had to be set up on the flat. On the flat, and close to its target, no more than two hundred double paces.

Here, at Puigpunyent, there was no flat place anywhere near the gate, only a steep hillside. Grimly, the Brothers of the Order of the Holy Lance had driven back the defenders inside their walls, grimly they had hacked out a launch-platform from the living rock. The defenders had waited till all was done, then rolled boulder after boulder leaping down the hillside, hurled over the walls by the strength of twenty men at once. Grimly the brothers had driven deep piles into the rock, strengthened them with timbers, made a shelter for the precious catapult to cower behind. Hundreds of porters had struggled up the hill with the machine, with the rocks that were its counterweight. The great boulders it threw had been even more of a problem, carried up in the end on wooden platforms by relays of sweating, gasping men.

They had done it: set up the machine, hurled a first boulder skimming over the top of the gate so that Erkenbert the deacon could make his strange reckonings and say how much weight should be removed for the next boulder to land exactly on top of the wooden structure. And then, the work done and the threat displayed, Bruno had sent forward one of his best men, Bruder Hartnit of Bremen, to make the offer. Life for all, and liberty. The contents of the castle only to be surrendered. Bruno had been sure, almost sure that they would take the offer, knowing as they must that once a breach was made, all the laws of God and man said that there could then be no mercy for man, woman or child who had put the attackers to so much toil and risk. The other brothers, even of the Lanzenorden, had looked sideways at their master as he had sent Hartnit forward, knowing the offer meant the loss of their traditional privileges, hard-earned with the sweat of all and the life-blood of too many: killing and plunder, vengeance and rape. The brothers were sworn celibates, could never marry any more than monks. Celibacy did not apply to what happened in a sack, however. After all, all their partners would be dead before morning. The brothers needed the outlet custom gave them.

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