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

Silence greeted her sarcasm. Finally the Frankish girl spoke. “And we agree, then, if we escape, that whichever of us is in most favor among the conquerors will speak up for the others? If that is so, then I am with you. But one more thing I would counsel, and that is, delay. The spirit of the Caliph’s soldiery diminishes day by day. Let him show his madness more, and the rot will spread. Among the secret eaters of pork, the Christian converts, the mustaribs, then among those who favor the house of Tulun, among the readers of Greek and those who wish to reword the Koran. All those who know in their hearts what the Dane-woman told us.”

“That there is no God, not even Allah,” said Alfled fiercely.

“No one god,” contradicted the Circassian.

Chapter Twenty

Slowly the siege of Septimania tightened, becoming first inevitable, then evident, then acute. The prince of the city, Benjamin ha-Nasi, had refused to believe in it at first, confident that this quarrel forced upon him by mere strangers within his gates could be averted. If not averted, at least deflected, if necessary by the capture of the strangers and their surrender to the enraged Christian Emperor, or else by their forced expulsion, to take their chances with the Greeks and the Greek fire at sea.

He had been undeceived quickly. The Emperor, it became clear, in the grip of holy fury, would make no distinction between the Christian heretics who had hidden the Grail from him, the heathens who had helped them to steal it, and the Jews who had rejected Christ and crucified his Lord. The emissaries Benjamin sent were returned, their heads hurled over the wall one dawn. The rumor spread that they had been forcibly baptized before execution, to give the unbelieving dogs a last chance of salvation, or so the Emperor had said. A message shouted from a distance later that day announced the Emperor’s terms: the Grail, first and foremost, the robbers of it led by their one-eyed king, second, and third, the surrender of all the garrison and the officers of the city, barefoot and in their shirts, with ropes round their necks, in token of their absolute submission to the will of God and of his viceroy.

But they had no Grail. Without it, the mercy of the Emperor would be nothing. Sadly, remembering Vespasian and the siege of Masada in their history long before, the Jews of Septimania prepared for desperate resistance. Messengers dropped down ropes or crept out along the seashore, to try to get word to their nominal overlord the Caliph of this Christian insurrection upon the Dar al-Islam, the house of Islam. Too often, shrieks and wailing in the night told that they had been intercepted. The Caliph would come, that was sure, in response to this provocation. How long he would take, how concerned he would be for those of his subjects not of his faith, what tales of treachery he might have been told already: that was another story.

With a better heart, the men of the Northern fleet bent themselves to assisting the defense. As soon as the watch-fires of the enemy began to twinkle in the night on the hills around, Cwicca set his mates to commandeering every scrap of cordage and balk of timber that could be taken from the city’s stores or the scores of fishing-boats and larger vessels now lying blockaded in the harbor. With them, he set to making as many catapults as he could find material for or space for along the walls. The English and the Vikings now knew of three types.

First—though last to be used by them on the field of war—the mules, descendants of the Roman onagers, and reintroduced to the world by Erkenbert the deacon and his copy of Vegetius’s De re militari. They threw stones, hard and flat, ship-destroyers, wall-breachers. Heavy and cumbersome, hard to make. Of little use against men, like trying to swat flies with a sledgehammer, as Brand remarked.

Second, what they called the twist-shooters. Torsion weapons, like the mules, and with torsion weapons’ power, but shooting great darts or javelins, like giant crossbows. They would drive through almost any shield or mantlet, and had a terror effect out of proportion to the losses they caused. Hard to make also, and dangerous to use. No-one could tell for sure when such a weapon was likely to be overwound, and only those who had done it many times could even guess. Overwinding meant a snap, a sudden lash of broken rope and timber, a winder with no hand, no arm, or his ribs stove in. The English freed-slaves who had first been recruited to man them, years before, had learnt to put spring steel reinforcements on the wooden bow-arms, to save their own lives. There was no spring steel available in Septimania. But then, as Cwicca remarked under the cover of a language the inhabitants of Septimania could not follow, it ain’t us that’s going to wind them, is it? As long as they do more damage to the other bastards than they do to our lot, that’s all right.

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