King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

To the troops on the ground, local levies, bishops’ men, half-heretics and Lanzenbrüder alike, every man deeply superstitious and steeped from birth in a culture of demons and miracles, dragons and portents, the flares in the sky were even harder to take in. Men do not see what they see. They see the nearest fit between what they see and what they expect. All across the plain beneath the rock of Puigpunyent, cries rose up as men tried to fit a meaning to something that defied all experience.

“A comet! The tailed star! God’s judgment on those who overthrew the long-haired kings,” wailed a chaplain, starting an instant panic.

“Dragons in the sky,” shouted a Lanzenritter from the Drachenberg country, where belief in dragons was ingrained. “Shoot for its soft spot! Shoot before the damned things get on the ground!” A rain of arrows poured into the air from those who heard him, relieved at hearing an order of any kind. The arrows landed among the horses of a cavalry unit corralled two hundred yards off, starting a stampede.

“It is Judgment Day and the dead rising to meet their God in the sky,” lamented a bishop with much on his conscience which he had hoped to do timely penance for. His cry would have carried little conviction, since the lights were falling rather than rising, if falling more slowly than could possibly be natural. But as he called out some sharp-sighted man caught the vague shape of one of the gliding kites banking above the light it had just released, and shrieked hysterically, “Wings! I can see their wings! They are the angels of the Lord come to scourge sinners!”

Within moments a roar spread across the plain, of ten thousand men shouting their explanations. The cowboys of the Camargue, lightest of cavalry, reacted first, were in their saddles in moments and heading purposefully for safety. Panicked sentries abandoned their positions in the brush and began to draw together, hoping for comfort in numbers. As they saw the infection spreading, the disciplined Germans of the Lanzenorden, scattered here and there to officer and stiffen the more doubtful Frankish troops, began to seize the runners, knock men down with their lance-butts, try to drive them back to their posts.

Spying from the cover of the thorns, Shef watched intently for an opportunity. One thing he had forgotten. While the men down there, the inner ring of the Emperor’s guard, had certainly been distracted—they were clumped together now, abandoning their set watch-pattern, pointing into the sky—the flares themselves were making the whole landscape almost as bright as day. If he tried to move forward now, across the bare strip that the guards had made, they would certainly see him. If not as he moved forward, then in the seconds it would take to force a way through the barricade of cut-down trees. He needed cover to reach that point. Then the time to cut a way through, and to crawl a hundred yards through the masking scrub on the other side. Then they would be on the edge of one of the deep ravines that led up to the rock and the castle itself, the ravine that Richier said they must follow. In the deep dark of that they might be safe. But how to reach it?

There was something else in the sky now, not the steady light of the flares with their mixed colors. A flickering light, a red light. A red that was growing, beginning to put out the competing white and yellow and green. Not flares but fire. Shef realized that the flares had burnt all the way to the ground, landed in the dense, thick, tinder-dry scrub through which he had crawled. Set it instantly aflame. The shouts coming from all around now had an added edge of fear. All those who lived in this land knew the dangers of fire during the grande chaleur, the great heat of the southern summer. Their own villages lived protected by fire-breaks, carefully cleared and renewed every spring. Now they were out in the open, fire spreading all around them. To the noise of shouting was added the drumming of hooves, the patter of running feet.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry