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

And still I am little more use than poor Karli. The line had steadied, was no longer falling back. From the front the clash of weapons was now continuous, both sides hacking and fencing rather than trying to force each off their feet. Shef sheathed his sword, turned abruptly and ran back along the harbor’s edge, looking for something that would turn the tide.

The German warrior-monks had marched into the Viking line to try the tactics which had destroyed every Arab army that had come against them. Shield in one hand, shortened spear in the other. Ignore the man in front of you, stab at the man to your right as he lifts his arm for the sword-stroke. Rely on the comrade to your left to strike the man who threatens you. Stab with the right, strike out with the shield in your left, step forward with feet stamping. If the man in front goes down, trample him under foot, rely on the man behind to ensure he does not strike up from below. For an instant or two, the tactic worked.

But the men they now faced were not dressed in mere cotton or linen. Some spearpoints went home under the armpit, more skidded away from metal, were shrugged off brawny shoulders. The clubbing blows with the shields failed to knock heavy men off their balance. Some stepped back, shortened axe or sword, chopped at arms or helmets. Others saw the blows coming from their right-hand side, parried or blocked with their own blades, struck back at the unshielded sides of their enemies. Brand, having taken a pace back, to his own astonished rage, drove his axe “Battle-Troll” through neck and shoulder, widened the gap with a thrust of his massive shield, and stepped into the German ranks, cutting to either side at the point of the wedge. His cousin Styrr swung an underhand blow that swept an enemy off his feet, broke the man’s windpipe with a deliberate stamp from hobnailed feet, jumped forward to his cousin’s side. Germans began to throw down their spears, draw swords, fill the air with steel as they hacked at heads and linden-shields.

Agilulf, watching from his position a few yards in the rear, pursed his lips as he recognized the giant figure of Brand. The big bastard from the Braethraborg, he thought to himself. Son of a sea-troll. Some rumor about him losing his nerve. He seems to have got it back again. Someone is going to have to take him out before he breaks our nerve, and I suppose it will have to be me. There don’t seem to be very many of them. He began to work his way through the ranks of men thrusting with their shields at the backs of their comrades, trying to regain impetus.

As he trotted through the darkness Shef saw familiar figures closing round him: small men, with the rimmed metal caps of his own standard issue. Englishmen, crossbows ready, running down from their various stations or from sleep. He stopped, looked back at the barely-visible scrimmage at the jetty end, a frieze of weapons lifting and flashing over swaying bodies.

“I want to start shooting them up,” he said.

“We can’t see who to shoot at,” came a voice in the darkness. “Nor we ain’t got a clear shot neither.”

As Shef hesitated, light suddenly spread over the whole harbor, bright white light like a summer noon. The fighting ceased for an instant, men screwed up their eyes to shield them, the working party struggling with the boom paused, caught like rabbits in torch-light. Shef looked up, saw the light drifting down from the sky, suspended under kite-cloth.

Steffi, dismissed by his master to work out the problem of flares on his own, had spent the afternoon with a gang, attempting to solve the problem of both throwing a flare in such a way that it would drift down, and then of lighting it. Two hours of experiments had solved the first problem: not an easy one, for anything put in the sling of a traction catapult was whirled violently round before launching. Some of the wooden bundles he had prepared tangled ignominiously in the sling, others had their cloths open as soon as they were released, crashing to the ground twenty yards off. In the end they discovered how to fold the cloths under the round bundle so that they flew straight, caught the air only at the top of their trajectory, drifted slowly down.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry