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

“At night?” Brand asked, pulling his beard. He and Malachi fell into careful consultation, counting their numbers and trying to allocate the men and women they had as best they could.

The final problem was the sea. The harbor mouth, a hundred feet across from jetty to jetty, was guarded from ship-borne entry by a boom of tree-trunks connected by massive bronze chains and rings. A galley sweeping in would smash its bow, tear its bottom out. Nevertheless, what men had made, men could unmake. No obstacle, as any veteran would know, seriously impedes assault unless it is backed by men and weapons, men with an advantage over the attacker. Brand carefully positioned the seven two-masters of the Wayman fleet where they could not be reached by flying stones from the raft offshore, but where they could bring their mules to bear on the sea approaches. Any ship or boat which tried to bring men to the attack would be sunk immediately. In theory. If everything went well. If no-one got distracted. If the other side didn’t think of something clever too.

Brand had tried hard to think of something clever on his side, staring—from cover—at the raft offshore and the patrolling shapes of the fire-vessels usually further out. But nothing, came to mind. He had considered unshipping the metal plates carried as ballast in all the ships, armoring the Fafnisbane or the Hagena like a second Fearnought and sending her out to battle the armored raft. But even armor would not protect against the fire of the Greeks: Beowulf, for whom the Grendelsbane was named, took an iron shield to protect himself against the dragon but then, as Brand pointed out when the story was told him, Beowulf didn’t have a wooden hull. An armored catapult ship could of course sink a fire-galley from a distance, if the wind was right, but not do that and fight an equally armored and much less sinkable floating fort at the same time. We might have to try it one day, Brand concluded to himself, but only if the situation on land turns really nasty. A spear in the heart was one thing, being burnt alive like Sumarrfugl was another. The Greeks’ brief demonstrations against small trading craft trying their luck rubbed the point home.

“It’s all very tricky,” Brand concluded in a bass rumble to his cousin Styrr, his skippers, and the priests of the Way gathered in informal conclave. “But you never know how tricky it looks for the other side as well. What we’ve got to do is not make any mistakes until, maybe, they’ve had a sickener or two. After all, they have to think of something or go away. We just have to sit here.”

“Till something turns up,” said Hagbarth skeptically.


“Like what?”

“Maybe the Caliph will arrive with a hundred thousand men. Maybe someone will bring him the damned ladder, whatever it is. Maybe the gods will intervene on our side.”

Chill disapproval met the last remark. “I’ll tell you one thing,” Brand said in an effort to seem more cheerful.

“What’s that?”

“He’s making it easy for us right now.”

The first moves of the siege might indeed almost have been planned to give the besieged confidence without exposing them to overmuch strain. Some two days after the watch-fires of the advanced cavalry appeared, and the heads of the emissaries were hurled over the wall, the Emperor—if it was he who had ordered it—launched a simple attempted escalade, simultaneously against a stretch of the land wall and a stretch of the wall running down to the beach. At each point a thousand men rose from cover at dawn and ran forward with ladders and grapnels.

They had made too much noise preparing. The defenders were ready and alert. As the ladders reached the top, crutches pushed them away again. The grapnel-ropes were cut. Arrows and catapult stones whirled into the mass of men huddled at the foot of the walls. After a few moments, when it became clear that all was well in hand, Brand dragged an enthusiastic Jewish guardsman away from a ladder he was about to thrust off, kicked aside an English crossbowman anxious to shoot the man climbing it, and stepped back, hunkered down behind the stone battlement, shield raised against the arrows pelting over the wall.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry