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

The lights were still filling the sky. As he looked up from the plunging overarm stroke he could see two in the air at once, one almost down to the water, the other still high up. Fifty strokes through the milk-warm water and he was clutching at the Fafnisbane’s anchor-cable, hauling himself up it arm over arm. A face gaped at him, recognized him, dragged him summarily inboard.

“How many men aboard, Ordlaf? Enough to man the sweeps? No? Enough to make sail? Do it. Cut the cable. Steer for the harbor entrance.”

“But it’s boomed closed, lord.”

“Not now, it’s not.” Shef pointed out to sea. Just as the first mule-stones kicked up water round them or hummed ill-aimed overhead, the working parties round the far end of the jetty were scrambling back. They had battered their way through the stout iron rings holding chains and tree-trunks to the stone, or maybe sawed their way through the timber. But they had thrust the boom off, already its free end was floating inshore, opening the passage. And there was something out there, something beyond the harbor wall. A flicker of motion told Shef it was a line of oars, dropping from the upright, the rest position, to the row. A galley coming in. And with the galley, the fire.

The Fafnisbane was moving now, on the faint breeze of night, just beginning to slip through the water. Too slowly, and coming bows on to the unseen menace out there. Bows on, where the mule could not bear. In ten seconds, Shef knew, he could be a burnt but living corpse like Sumarrfugl. He remembered the crisp feeling of the burnt skin crumbling under his hand as he had sent the merciful dagger home. Only there would be no merciful dagger for him. Faintly, he registered the snap of crossbows somewhere to one side low down on the water, the thud of quarrels striking home through flesh and armor, noted another flare burst into life directly overhead. He paid no attention. Voice still quiet, he spoke to Ordlaf: “Steer more to starboard. Let the forward mule bear on the harbor entrance. We may only get one shot.”

Behind the clash of steel and the war-cries, Shef could make out another noise. A strange roaring, familiar but unexpected. For a moment he could not remember what it might be. Ordlaf had heard it too.

“What’s that?” he called. “What are the devils up to out there? Is it a beast they have tamed, or a magic gale out of Hel? Or is it the sound of a windmill turning?”

Shef smiled, the sound coming back to him. “No beast, nor gale, nor windmill turning,” he called back. “That is a great bellows blowing. But I hear no hammers with it.”

A hundred yards away, Dimitrios the siphonistos had seen the signal from the men sawing and chiseling at the boom. A white flag swung furiously from side to side, just visible in the blackness. He had nodded his consent to the Greek captain. The oars swung down, the galley began its eager plunge towards prey. And then suddenly, light in the sky and everything as bright as day. The rowers had checked, the captain turned back for further instructions, robbed of the cover of dark.

But Dimitrios had already nodded his assent to the bellows-crew. They were heaving with a will, and as they did so the burning flax beneath the copper tank had sprung into flame. Dimitrios’s first assistant had taken the first thrust down on the piston, the heavy one against resistance, was beginning to force it up and down with growing ease, counting to himself in an undertone as he did so: “…seven, eight…”

The count forced itself into Dimitrios’s mind, ever aware of the danger of his own weapon. If the pressure got too great, the tank would explode and he too would burn like a wretched condemned criminal. If they stopped once they had started he would lose his inner sense of the heat and the pressure. But if they rowed on against catapults warned and manned, in this devil-light… And the long slim galley was still sliding forward, oars poised for the next heave, almost within the harbor-mouth with the boom floating away almost touching their ram…

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Categories: Harrison, Harry