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

They could be sunk in a moment. Or boarded and taken intact. As he hesitated a thin whistle began to rise from the top of the copper dome by which his men were pumping, a whistle that grew stronger every moment. The niglaros signaling danger. Dimitrios’s nerve, stretched thin by the flares above and the menacing dark of the harbormouth, reached snapping-point.

“Turn to starboard,” he yelled frantically. “Starboard! Turn along the harbor wall! Don’t go inside!”

Shouts, a flailing of rope’s ends, even on the shoulders of the paid and pampered Greek rowers. A heave from the port oars, a thrust back from the starboard bank. The galley was gliding swiftly along the stone wall, on the outside of the harbor, port oars tossed high to avoid the crash. Dimitrios could see frightened faces staring at him from hardly ten feet away, survivors of the first storming party, looking as if they meant to jump. As he looked across at them a group were hurled aside, falling into the sea in a confusion of staved ribs and broken bones: one of the barbarian catapults striking home.

The low galley was safe behind stone. And there ahead, not fifty yards away now, Dimitrios could see a target. Fighting men, men in armor struggling for the end of the jetty. He could row to the end, bear away at the last moment as the water shoaled, and launch the fire. Just in time, before the pressure built up. He could hear the whistle rising to one continuous shriek, could see out of the tail of his eye the two pump-men standing away from their handles, the bellows’ crew looking fearfully up at him, all wondering when the dome would burst and the fire spring out at them.

But he, Dimitrios, was the master. He knew the strength of the pipes he had soldered with his own hands. He turned the gleaming brass nozzle, pushed forward the lit lamp to firing position. He would burn his own men as well as the enemy. But that was good tactics, and besides, they were Romans, Germans, heretics, schismatics. It would be a foretaste of the eternal fire they would all roast in. His lips drew back in a fierce grin.

Just behind him, the prow of the Fafnisbane nudged out beyond the harbor mouth. Shef had climbed out on to the very tip of the dragon-head, to see what was happening the instant his ship cleared the end of the jetty. He had seen the oars tossed up, had realized that the galley had turned away. His skin crawled for a moment as he wondered if the strange fire could be turned back upon him, then the thought vanished, dismissed by cold logic. Fire burnt everything, even Greek ships. They could not send it backwards over their own sterns. The zip of arrows plunging past him from the bowmen on the causeway meant nothing. His one eye strained for the target.

And there she was, stern on, gliding away, a lurid glow coming from somewhere amidships, by a strange red-gold dome, a high whistle trailing in her wake. They were going to shoot it, whatever it was. And Brand there was in their sights, he knew it. Would the mule never bear? Osmod was the catapult-captain, crouched behind his machine, swinging its trail round, round…

His hand flew up in the signal: sights on.

“Shoot!” Shef shouted.

The jerk of the lanyard, the vicious sweep and thwack of the arm, faster than a man could see, the even swifter lash of the sling, whirling round even before the ship could shudder from the smash of arm on padded crossbar. Shef’s eye, almost in line with the flying rock, saw the familiar streak, rising and then falling…

No, too close to fall. The mule-stone missed its aim, the galley’s curved stern, where it would have shattered stern-post and ribs and opened the entire ship like a gutted herring. Instead Shef’s eye, half-blinded, caught only an after-image of the dark line flying straight into the mysterious red-gold dome, just as the dome itself released an ejaculation, a stream of glowing fire like the breath of Fafnir himself.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry