King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 14, 15

Even the stone was not as bad as the slope. None of the Northerners were fit for walking after weeks at sea, but even a Finn from the moors would have struggled to keep climbing after the thigh muscles had long since gone past pain, after everyone had given up the thought of walking ever again, concentrating only on hauling themselves up the hillside with arms and legs together.

But it was thirst that would kill them. Thirst and heatstroke. Dust rose off the ground, into nostrils often only a foot from it, coated the mouth and choked the throat. All had carried skins of water at the start. The first halt had come after less than a mile. They had become steadily more frequent as the climb went on. At the third halt Shef, already croaking, had told the Vikings peremptorily to strip off their mail and leather, make bundles and carry it on their backs. Now he was carrying one man’s for him. Styrr, he saw, Brand’s cousin, had gone steadily redder and redder until he was the shade of bilberry-juice. But new he was death-pale. The water was gone. And still the wretched boy kept vanishing, returning, whistling them in this direction or that. Shef turned to Cwicca, keeping up a trifle better than the others, also carrying other men’s gear besides his own.

“Next time that little bastard comes back,” Shef rasped. “If he takes off again, shoot him. Solomon”—the Jewish interpreter seemed less troubled at least by heat and thirst than the others, though he too was gasping and staggering with fatigue. “Tell him. Rest and water. Or he’s dead.”

Solomon seemed to say something in reply, but Shef ignored him. The little bastard was back. Shef reached painfully to grab his one garment, but he twisted aside, swept an arm impatiently, started to scuttle forward. Cwicca had him in wavering sights. And there, just above, there seemed to be a crest with the boy disappearing fast over it.

With his last strength Shef struggled over it. Saw in front of him a small, mean village of a dozen houses, of stone that looked as if it had grown from the rock all around. More important than the houses, the flat green in front of it. By the side of it, trickling from the rock, a spring running into a stone cistern. Suddenly and clearly through the relentless noise of the cicadas in the scrub, Shef could hear the tinkle of water running.

He turned back, saw his men straggled out for a hundred yards down the hillside. He tried to call out to them, “Water!” found the word stick in his throat. The nearest saw it in his eyes, came on with renewed energy. Far down the slope Styrr and Bersi, Thorgils and Ogmund crawled hopelessly on.

Shef slid down the hill, seized the nearest, muttered “Water,” in his ear, pointed him to the crest-line. Slid on to the next. Styrr had to be half-pulled the last fifty feet, and when he reached the top, even with Shef’s shoulder under his arm he staggered like a drunk on the level ground.

They were making a bad show, Shef realized, whoever was watching. They looked less like a king and his bodyguard than they did a troop of beggars with a dancing bear. He heaved Styrr more firmly upright and snarled at him to pull himself together, look like a drengr. Styrr simply tottered towards the water, was met by Bersi with a bucket. He threw half of it over the gasping giant, thrust the rest into his hand.

“He will die if he swills cold water in that state,” remarked Solomon, holding an empty dipper. Shef nodded, looked round. The rest had drunk, seemed able to think of something other than their thirst. He himself could smell the water, felt the urge to throw himself at it and into it as the others had clearly done.

They were being watched. If this had been a trap it would have worked. For long minutes there his men would have offered no resistance to sword or spear or arrow, unless it had been between them and the water. Shef stiffened himself pridefully, took the dipper full of water that Cwicca passed him, forced himself to hold it without apparent awareness. He walked towards the ring of watching men with his head up.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry