“Nor could I. Try counting the ships in the harbor, you’ll find that easier.”
Shef looked round, a chill growing near his heart. The two-masters, they were still there, moored line astern, all seven of them. The longships of the Vikings, he had begun with five of them, they had lost Sumarrfugl’s Marsvin, how many were there now? Three. He counted again. Three.
“When the galleys turned up later in the day they were towing that thing. I couldn’t make it out either, so I sent Skarthi out in his Sea-snake, with a double crew of rowers. He said he could outdistance any Greek, wind or no wind. I told him to be very careful of the fire, and he said he’d make a point of it. But it wasn’t the fire this time.”
Shef was staring once more at the raft, at the humps he could now see rising from it. There was something familiar about them. Very familiar.
“Skarthi got out there,” said Brand, “started rowing towards the raft. They let him get half way, and then—whack. Mule-stones all in the air at once. The Sea-snake fell apart in the water, the Greeks came rushing in in the galleys…”
“How many did we lose?” said Shef tensely.
“No-one. All Skarthi’s lot come from Gotland, swim like dolphins. And they swam hard, with the fire coming down on them! But Hagbarth was awake, he put a couple of rocks into the water ahead of the galleys, they sheered off.”
Yes, even in the haze he could make out the mule-shapes, Shef realized. At least four of them. Maybe more. On a flat raft with no masts to get in the way, no ribs to fall apart from the recoil, you could put as many catapults as you liked. And he was not the inventor of the catapult, not of the mule-version anyway. Before it had been a mule it had been an onager: the work of the Rome-folk, brought back to life by the Emperor’s deacon, Erkenbert. He had not forgotten them. And they had not forgotten him. And now Shef realized why he had not recognized them before, and why they were yet familiar.
They were armored. With steel plates like the ones he had put on the old Fearnought.
And there was something else familiar about what they were doing. Shef looked round the flat expanse of the mole, six feet above the water, should they just jump in the water and dignity be damned, was there a ladder to cling to…
A rushing noise in the air, a great crash of stone on stone, chips and splinters flying, Brand wiping blood from his forehead in amazement. A short, that had crashed into the far side of the stone wall. But aimed to kill, and aimed to kill them. And they had at least four in their battery.
Without ceremony Shef pushed Brand firmly off the mole and into the sheltered water of the harbor, jumped immediately after him. As they bobbed up and down in the warm sea, stones sighed over their heads, plumped among the scattered boats. Shouts from skippers, frantic attempts to man the sweeps, to come in closer under the protection of the wall.
“So we can’t force our way out,” said Shef. “We can shoot our way past the galleys, but the raft is like a Fearnought to us. It can’t move, but we can’t sink it. Now what are they doing that for? Brand, what’s going on?”
“Well,” said Brand. “I always thought you were supposed to be the clever one. But if you ask me, this looks uncommonly like what the Hel-spawn foreigners call a siege.”
In the camp of the Caliph, moving slowly but inexorably towards confrontation with the traitorous Jews and the polytheistic rabble of Northern pirates, three women talked quietly, their faces together. One was English: ash-blonde, with green eyes, a beauty in her own land, a curiosity among the tents of the faithful. She had been taken by the Danes years before and sold as a virgin for a hundred dirhams in gold. Another was a Frank, from the border country: the child of a serf, she had been sold in infancy by a master anxious to raise capital. The third was a Circassian, from the far eastern border of Islam, from a nation which survived by the export of its women, famous for their beauty and their sexual skills. The women were talking in the strange argot of their multilingual harem, Arabic studded with words from many tongues. The women had invented it to keep some matters private from the ever-watchful eunuch slaves who guarded them.