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

Lighting them was another matter yet, and Steffi had been forbidden to experiment with genuine flares for fear of enemy observers. When the attack came, Steffi was standing by one of the many traction catapults set up round the harbor and along the walls, waiting for a chance to shoot. In moments he had loaded the first of the saltpeter-impregnated bundles he had prepared, lit the short fuse he had devised, steadied the sling in his two hands, and given the order to throw. The missile had sailed out over the harbor, fuse glowing, and drifted, fuse still glowing, harmlessly into the sea. And the next. The third, its fuse cut ruthlessly back, had gone out.

“This is no good,” called one of his crew. “Let’s start throwing rocks down there at those boats. Even if we can’t see we might hit something.”

Steffi ignored him, mind racing in the panic of the failed inventor. “Get ready,” he ordered. He thrust another bundle into the sling, ignored the useless fuse, instead gripped the torch with one hand and thrust it into the flammable bundle, hauling down on the sling with the other.

As the flare of flame sprang up he shouted “Pull,” and let go himself as the team heaved with a will. The flare shot out like a comet, trailing sparks. The team gaped after it, wondering if the trailing kite-cloth would catch, if the flare would go out. At the top of its arc the flare seemed to steady, drop underneath its cloth support, began to drift gently down. From their vantage suddenly everything below them came clear: the fighting men on the jetty, the party clustered round the end of the boom, the boats grapnelled to the outer wall.

The great galley hanging on its oars a bare fifty yards from the harbor entrance, smoke rising from its center, a crackle of flame amidships with men moving purposefully round it.

The crew yelled and pointed at the galley, anxious to train round and shoot. Steffi shouted them down, prepared another flare. “We’ll keep throwing these,” he bawled, ” ‘cos we’re the only ones know how to do it. Let the others throw the rocks.”

He thrust another flare into its place, ignoring the pain from already blistered fingers.

As he saw the flare drifting down, and remembered his own casual words earlier that day to Steffi, Shef’s mind cleared from its near-panic. His voice dropped, he made himself breathe deeply and speak slowly, to spread calm and decision to those around him.

“Trimma,” he said, recognizing one of those crowding round him. “Take twenty men, put them in the dinghies there by the shore, row off till you’re level with the fighting there. Then shoot carefully at the rear ranks of the Germans. Not the ones at the front, understand? You’re too likely to hit our own lot. See Brand there, and Styrr with him? Make sure you don’t hit them. Once the Germans break, start clearing the causeway. Take your time, stay out of range of their bows. Right, off you go.

“The rest of you, stand fast. How many boats are there left? All right, load them up. Now row out to our ships in the harbor, all the two-masters, two of you to each one. Tell the mule-crews to clear those men off from round the boom. But leave the Fafnisbane to me!”

He looked round, suddenly alone. Foolish! He should have held one man back. All the boats were gone, and…

Svandis appeared suddenly from behind him. She was staring up at the light, then looking round, trying to make sense of what was happening. It had taken her longer than he expected to find her clothes. Or else everything had happened more quickly than he knew. She pointed to the fighting men on the causeway, a grim struggle that had turned now into conventional battle, the play of swords over the war-linden of which poets sang.

“There,” she shouted, “there, why are you hanging back, child of a whore and a churl, stand in the front like my father, like a sea-king…”

Shef turned his back on her. “Undo those laces.”

The snap in his voice seemed to work, he felt fingers pulling at the rawhide knots they had so recently done up, but continually a flow of insults poured out, coward, runaway, skulker in the darkness, user of better men. He paid no attention. As the mail dropped free he dropped his sword, tossed his helmet after it and ran out, plunging from the harbor wall in a racing dive.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry