King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

Shouts from below, and the mantleteers fell thankfully back and to the sides, still holding their clumsy guards over their heads. Behind the ram, but well back out of shot, Brand could see what looked like heavy-armored infantry assembling for assault. They did look like the German monk-bastards. Maybe the Emperor was taking this move seriously. Pity he couldn’t cut off a few of them and make them really pay for this one. But wisest not to take chances.

The ram, under its heavy protective frame, heaved on by a hundred men toiling at its ten massive cartwheels, edged into position. Its iron-shod head drew back, launched itself at the grill. A clang, a wrenching of iron. A hail of arrows suddenly sweeping inches over the top of the battlements, simultaneous double crash of onager stones from an unnoticed position further up the hillside. Brand grimaced, held his shield high, peered quickly and cautiously over. Arrows thudded into his shield, sprang back off the boss. One, hard-driven, broke through and gashed the back of his arm by the elbow-strap. Brand continued to wave his chain-men into position.

Another clang from below, Malachi staring worriedly at the twisting iron grid. Brand stepped back, raised a thumb. Four men in unison tossed the iron noose over. As they did so, the ram struck again. Through the noose.

Brand jerked the thin line, the rod fell away, the noose tightened with shrill iron screaming. Brand nodded once more to the men by the great mass of broken stone. They heaved in unison on the levers jammed into the base, the stone teetered on the edge of the drop into the river-bed below, they heaved again. Slowly at first, then all at once, the five-ton block swayed and disappeared over the edge in a cloud of stone-dust. The chain whirled after it, the noose tightened round the ram’s iron head. Cwicca’s twist-shooter gangs, poised underneath the bridge itself, only feet from the ram on the other side of the buckled iron grid, saw the ram jerked suddenly into the air by irresistible force, the whole protective structure going with it. Underneath, blinking like moles dragged into the light, or like snails whose shell had suddenly vanished, the haulers and ram-wielders gaped at their enemies, or at their machine now dangling from its iron chain feet above their heads.

“Shoot!” bellowed Brand. “Don’t just stand there watching!”

The catapult-captains trained round the inches necessary to shoot through the grid, released their twisted ropes. One of the great darts, to a further bellow of rage from Brand, missed every man cleanly at a range of six feet, flew far on down the valley, buried itself in the ground at the feet of the waiting storming-party. The other, by luck far more than good management, drove its way into a whole file of wheel-pushers, spitting three in a row like larks on a stick, and driving on even to kill the man behind.

The ram-crew, Frankish knights and peasants alike, broke instantly and ran for the rear. Brand, waving forward Jewish bowmen and English crossbows, urged them on to shoot from the battlements, cursed as the arrows missed and the men ran on, swore discontentedly as he counted the bodies left sprawling.

“We turn them back,” said Malachi to him in an attempt to conciliate the giant. “No good, kill men when no need.”

Brand continued swearing in Norse, turned for an interpreter. “Tell him there is need. I don’t want to drive them back, I want to sicken them. They have to know that every failure will be paid for in blood. Then they won’t be so keen to come on.”

He turned to organize the bringing up of buckets of pitch, to be lobbed out over the wreckage and set on fire with fire-arrows. Vital to leave no cover for a second assault, especially with the grid now buckled and damaged. The wet bull-hides would dry soon in the sun. Meanwhile the wooden frames and wheels were exposed, would burn to ashes once started.

When all was done Skaldfinn, interpreting, spoke to him again. “The captain and I have been talking. He says you know a lot about sieges, and feels more confident of resistance than he did a few days ago.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry