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

Shef hesitated, full of counter-arguments, but Svandis carried on. “I am the child of warriors, even if you are not. Better ready and slow than early and dead. My father could have told you that. Who won the battle where I first saw you? You, or he?”

Well, he did not, Shef thought to say. But it was no use arguing. Quicker to obey than to try to thrust her aside. He turned to the mail-shirt which hung ready from a hook, thrust his arms through the heavy sleeves. Svandis was behind him, pulling the iron round, fastening it behind with the heavy rawhide laces. It was true at any rate that she was the child of warriors. He turned and embraced her, pulling her breasts on to the hard iron rings.

“If we live, when we return home I will make you a queen,” he said.

She slapped his face sharply. “This is no time for love-whispers in the dark. Helmet. Shield. Take your Swedish sword and try to live up to it.”

Shef found himself thrust out into the courtyard, could hear her behind him rummaging for her own clothes. Wherever the fighting was, she would appear, he knew. He began to run, heavy under the weight of thirty pounds of wood and iron, towards the command post where he would find Brand. Across the water came a clangor of metal, war-cries and cries of pain. They had come by sea.

As Shef puffed up, he saw Brand towering in the midst of a squad of Vikings, his gigantic cousin Styrr standing next to him, almost his equal in size. Brand seemed in no great hurry or alarm, was busy counting his men.

“They landed on the jetty,” he remarked. “I never thought that would give them much trouble. They’ve got to get off it if they’re going to be a nuisance, and they’ll have to do it fast.”

Shef’s ears had picked out different noises from the immediate ones of battle, already dying away: smithy noises, metal on metal, axe on wood.

“What’s happening at the far end?”

“They’re trying to cut the boom. Now that we don’t want. We’ll have to clear them off. All right, boys, got your boots laced up? Let’s stroll along and shoo these Christians back into the water. You stay at the back,” he added to Shef. “Organize some crossbows, make sure the catapults shoot at the opposition, not us. This would be easier if we could see what was going on.”

In a solid mass the Vikings, perhaps forty of them, tramped round the harbor towards the point of contact, the hobnails on their boots crashing on the stone. A few lamps gleamed along the harbor-front, casting a dim light out over the water. In it, as his eyes adjusted, Shef could see the enemy massing for a second attack. There was something going on in the ships in the harbor too, he could hear rope creaking and catapult-captains shouting orders. If the Emperor’s men did not fight their way off the jetty in the next few minutes, they would be swept by mule-stones. But there was something ominous happening out there, Shef could hear harsh voices taking command, metal clashing and ringing, could see the faint lamp-light reflected back on metal points and rings. A fierce cheer and a wall of metal coming forward, spear points in a line.

“Fall your men back,” said Brand without haste to the city guard commander. “I think this is our trade now.”

The light-armed guardsmen slipped back through the ranks behind, and the Vikings moved forward, forming their customary blunt wedge. The flimsy barricade at the end of the jetty had been torn down in the first assault, now offered no shelter. The steady line of Lanzenbrüder, picked men, armored from head to foot, tramped down on the Viking wedge, as heavily armed, for once their equals in size and strength. Neither side knew anything of defeat, both stood confident in their ability to batter down anything and anyone that stood before them.

Standing at the rear of the Viking formation, ten men wide but no more than four deep, Shef heard the simultaneous crash as shield met shield, the clang and thud of spears and axes meeting wood or iron. A heartbeat later, to his surprise and horror, the man in front of him stepped back, pushed almost off his feet by a surge from his own retreating line. Shef heard Brand’s voice raised in a bull bellow as he called on his men to stand their ground. Vikings retreating? he thought. They are falling back like the English used to, like they did the day my stepfather and I fought my father and his men on the causeway in Norfolk. That day I ran. But then I was only a nobody, little better than a thrall. Now I am a king, with gold on my arms and a sword of Swedish steel, made by my own steelmaster.

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