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

“The Greek fire has certain limitations,” he temporized. “It needs a large ship to carry it. I cannot put the devices into mere fishing boats. Nor can I take the risk of losing one to enemies who, as the Emperor says, are only too ready to learn new and strange devices. Yet at night, I might risk one galley close in.” With trusted men aboard to burn and destroy the evidence if it might fall into the wrong hands, he did not say.

“We’ll try it,” said Bruno decisively. “Night after next, there’ll be no more than a thin moon. Now, Erkenbert, where is the War-Wolf?”

“War-Wolf” was the name of the great engine that Erkenbert himself had designed, and that had battered down the gates of castle after castle in the Emperor’s triumphant progress to Puigpunyent. It was, in a way, no more than a giant version of the simple traction catapults that Shef had designed and that even now were hurling rocks at every besieger who came within range of the city of Septimania. Yet it did not rely on mere feeble human muscles to give it power. Power came from the giant counterweight, the counterweight that was both its strength and its weakness: enabling massive boulders to be thrown, taking an age to empty and refill, demanding great weight and strength in its supporting timbers—timbers still crawling along the coast road to the siege.

“Two days’ travel away still,” Erkenbert replied.

“And where do you mean to use it once it has arrived?”

“We have little choice. It is coming down the coast road from the north. We cannot move it through the hills above the town, and if we were to load it on board ship we would need cranes and a stone jetty out into deep water. So we will have to attack the north gate of the town. It is a strong and stout gate, but only wooden. One boulder from ‘War-Wolf’ will beat it down.”

“If it lands on the right place.”

“Trust me for that,” said Erkenbert definitely. “I am the arithmeticus.”

The Emperor nodded. He knew that no-one in the world was more skilled than the puny deacon in the mind-numbing task of translating weight to distance in the number-system his world had inherited from the Romans.

“Harbor attack the night after next, then,” he concluded. “If that fails, ‘War-Wolf’ breaks down the north gate the next morning.”

“And if that fails?” enquired Georgios, always ready to disconcert his temporary allies.

The Emperor looked at him forbiddingly. “If that fails, we try again. Till the Holy graduale on which our Savior was borne is in my hands, along with the Lance by which he died. But I don’t want to fail. Remember, all of you, we are dealing with clever heathens. Be alert for anything new. Expect the unexpected.”

In silence, his advisers speculated on how this paradox might be achieved.

The bastards are too quiet, thought Brand, strolling along the harbor front in search of his master. There he was, still in the courtyard, all of them still reading, gabbling, scritch-scratching away with never a care in the world. He waited till Solomon noticed his looming presence and broke off his reading.

“Sorry to disturb you,” he remarked ironically. “I thought I’d mention the siege.”

“It’s going well, isn’t it?” asked Shef.

“Well enough. But I think it’s time you did something.”


“What you’re best at. Thinking. It’s all gone quiet. But I’ve seen our friend Bruno through the far-seer. He won’t give up. So—they’re going to do something. I don’t know what. You are the best person in the world for imagining new things. Time for you to do it again.”

Slowly, bringing his mind back from the fascinating problems of the book, Shef realized the truth of what Brand had said. Realized too, with some subconscious calculation, that the breathing space he had counted on, and had been using on what he felt was the most vital if not the most urgent task, the task he alone could do—that that breathing space was over. Besides, he was getting bored with sitting. And the book was nearly done.

“Find Skaldfinn to take my place here,” he ordered. “He can translate from Solomon for Thorvin to write down. Tolman, you come along too.”

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