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

The boy’s lip trembled, he blinked back tears. Dumbly, obediently, he nodded. Shef patted him carefully on his deep-grazed shoulder, led him away, shouting as he went for Cwicca, Osmod, and the most skillful of the kitemen and catapulteers.

As he had been during the long northern winter seven years before, Shef was amazed at the speed with which—sometimes—an idea could become reality. Before the day was out the materials for the new-style siege catapult had been assembled, including the massive beam that would be its throwing arm, stripped without complaint from the keel of a coasting vessel still on the stocks. It helped, of course, that there was no ordinary work to be done. The entire population of Septimania was idle, and when they thought of what a sack by Imperial troops would mean, anxious to assist in any way. Skilled carpenters and smiths abounded for every task: cost was not considered. It helped too that Shef had skilled taskmasters ready and willing to drive men beyond their normal habits—as he watched Cwicca swinging a rope’s end at a sweating gang working on the iron rim of one of the six huge cartwheels that would shift the monster when it was done. Shef observed that having been a slave perhaps gave some men a taste for authority.

Like himself? he wondered for an instant. No, he dismissed the thought. He did only what had to be done.

Besides, the critical thing, the thing that no other group in the world had in such abundance, was confidence. Confidence that to every problem, whether it was flying in the sky or launching huge boulders, there was a hard solution, if only one could work out all possible details. Cwicca and Osmod and even Steffi, like their now-missing comrade Udd, had seen kings collapse and armies break before them, all because of machines. They did nothing half-heartedly.

And that was all very well, but this time, this time they might be wrong! Shef plunged back into the problem that had preoccupied him ever since he had set the gangs working. He roved up and down the dock, muttering and counting, telling over the piles of white and black stones he had collected and stowed in every pocket he owned.

Cwicca, rope’s end laid aside, nudged one of his mates. “He’s getting in a rage,” he muttered. “Someone’ll cop it, you see.”

“Us and all,” his mate answered gloomily. “What’s biting him?”

“Don’t know. Something too clever for the likes of us.”

Solomon the Jew, his translating labors completed, also saw the growing fury on the face of the strange king: the strange king he had grown to like, in spite of the dire fate he had brought to Septimania, for his constant curiosity. A mind more active than that of any Talmudist, he reflected. But in so many fields the mind of a child.

Rather more politely than Cwicca’s mate, he moved to put the same question. “Something disturbs you, lord of the North?”

Shef glowered, caught his own fury and mastered it, made himself speak connectedly. Maybe, he thought, maybe saying the problem out loud would assist him. And after all, he had found out long ago, when you could not solve a problem, ask everybody. Someone always knew.

“It’s like this,” he said. “At some time or other I will need to know how far this thing will throw. Now, it ought to be easier with a machine of this sort than it is with the hand-pulled machines. For with them all you can say is ‘pull hard,’ or ‘not so hard,’ and ‘not so hard’ cannot be counted. But with this machine I can count everything! I have been thinking it out, what will happen when we try. Suppose I tell Cwicca to take ten hundred-pound bags and put them in the bucket, the bucket that drops the short arm. Now suppose I put a rock that weighs the same as three hundred-pound bags—if I could find one that would be so convenient, hah!—but suppose I did. Then suppose the ten hundred pounds threw the three hundred pounds one hundred paces. And I needed to make it throw one hundred and twenty paces. Then it is obvious, I would need more weight in the bucket. Or less weight to be thrown. And they have something to do with each other. But what?”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry