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

“With the proper safeguards, I consent,” he said.

The admiral sank back in his chair with relief. While he knew how much less than biddable his corps of siphonistoi were, he would not have relished explaining the fact to the Emperor of the Romans: a man who, he thought, should be given a skilled Byzantine doctor as soon as possible, to ensure that he ate something that disagreed with him.

“Have one ship ready at nightfall,” he said. “Take my own Carbonopsina.”

The Black-Eyed Beauty, thought Dimitrios. Pity that there were none such in this far land of strangers. Only thin Moorish women and the ugly descendants of Goths, with their pale skin and discolored eyes. Ugly as the revolting Germans, their allies, though these insisted that their barbarian enemies were even worse for pallor and bulk and the size of their feet. Certainly all should be swept from the sea, the Inner Sea, the Sea of the Middle of the World become once more a Greek and Christian lake. Dimitrios rose, bowed sketchily, withdrew to make his preparations.

The first sign of the sea-borne assault came only as the patrolling squad of city guardsmen marching along the longer jetty saw faint shapes crowding in out of the blackness. They stood, gaped for an instant to make sure, then began to blow the alarm on their ram’s horn trumpets. By then the sixty fishing boats which Bruno had commandeered were bare yards from the stone wall, men in them already swinging their grapnels to pull the boats alongside, others raising the short boarding-ladders which were all they would need for the six-foot climb. The guardsmen bent their bows, the short breast-bows which were all they carried, shot, shot again at the targets pouring towards them. Then, as the first grapnels clinked on stone, they realized they were alone on a long stone causeway, about to be cut off. They ceased shooting and ran for the harbor end of the jetty, cut down as they fled by javelins and arrows flying out of the blackness. Bruno’s first wave reached the jetty almost without resistance, divided immediately into two groups, one turning to their left and racing for the seaward end with hammers, saws and chisels, to try to cut the boom and open the entrance for the reinforcements and the fire-ship. The other turned right and poured in an armed mob for the landward end, seeking to reach and hold it till the rest came up and drove either for the open harbor, or—just as disastrously for the defense—to seize a stretch of the main wall and open it for escalade. The rams’ horns had done their work, though. While only a score of men at a time marched along the jetties, open as they were to the unpredictable shooting of the catapults on the offshore fort, many more stood to arms or slept by them at the vulnerable points where jetties met shore. The attackers charging along the stone strip, carried on with excitement at their easy landing, met a sudden rain of arrows at close range, with behind them a solid wall of spears and shields. Lightly-armed levies from the South, the men Bruno habitually sent in first as most dispensable, many of them went down even before the puny arrows of the breast-bows, shot at no more than ten yards’ range. Those who pressed on found themselves hacking at a disciplined line behind a barricade. Slowly those who survived realized that the pressure of comrades from behind was slackening, had gone. Unsure why, or if they too were to be taken from behind in the darkness, they drew back, at first step by step behind their shields, then as the arrows lashed at their unprotected legs and sides, turning and running back into the protective dark.

Shef had started from sleep at the first horn-blast. He slept naked in the heat, seized tunic and boots, struggled into them in seconds, started for the door. Svandis was there before him, naked also but barring his way. Even in the almost pitch-black of the shuttered room Shef could feel the scowl on her face, hear the lash in her voice.

“Don’t run out like a fool! Mail, helmet, weapons! What good will you be if the first stray slingstone cuts you down?”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry