King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 23, 24, 25, 26

King and Emperor. Chapter 23, 24, 25, 26

Chapter Twenty-three

Shef looked down from the high seaward wall into the blue water below. The wreck of the Greek galley was there, he could see its outline maybe ten, maybe twenty feet below the surface, and no further out from the outer face of the jetty. He was sure that he himself could swim down, see what the fire and explosion had left, maybe attach ropes and drag what metal there was left into daylight. The floating fort was still there, still occasionally hurled a vindictive stone at any sign of movement, but he did not think they would hit a single man at that range.

No time, though. Not for mere curiosity. In any case he did not think that the wreckage would tell him very much more than he had worked out already. Most of the enemy storming party had got away in their boats before he could organize effective pursuit, but some had failed to find a place and remained in his hands: local levies for the most part, quite willing to talk out of fear or anger at being abandoned. They had confirmed much of what he had heard himself. Yes, the galley had had a fire amidships, a kind of brazier, fueled, one man had said very positively, by a kind of long match of burning flax. He himself had heard the bellows and others had seen it. So they had to burn, or maybe heat something before they could project it. Whatever it was, it was in the gleaming dome-shape which had exploded, and from its color that was almost certainly copper. Why copper, not iron or lead?

That was one clue. Another was the whistling noise. Shef had heard it himself, and so had many others. One of the Jewish levies closest to the Greek ship had also heard a voice counting, or so he had told Solomon. Counting in Greek numbers, for all the world, Shef reflected, like Cwicca’s catapulteers in the old days counting the turns on a torsion catapult, counting carefully for fear of an overwind and a backlash. And finally there was the evidence from Brand’s men. Two of his survivors had said with absolute certainty that at the very last moment they had seen a man point something at them, like a hose. The fire had come from that, come in a steady stream before the stone struck and everything blew up.

Brazier, match, bellows, dome, hose, whistle, and someone counting something. Shef felt sure that this would yet fall into place. Even the injured could tell him something. Or tell Hund something. Perhaps a dozen of the German Lanzenbrüder had survived the crossbows, Brand’s axes and the final flame turned on them by their own allies, though most of them were horribly wounded. The flame had reached into the ranks of Brand’s men as well, if only for an instant. Five of them had felt a lash of it, were lying now in the makeshift hospital with terrible burns. Hund could maybe tell him something about what had caused the burns.

If he was prepared to talk to him at all. Since the start of Shef’s dealings with Svandis, the little man had been quiet and sullen. When Shef had gone to visit the burned men, and had seen the one who had been blinded, flame across both eyes, he had tapped the hilt of his dagger and looked at Hund with a question. It was normal enough for the Vikings to kill their hopelessly wounded, and both Brand and Shef had done it before. But Hund had flown at him like a terrier, hurled him bodily out of the ward. A while later Thorvin had emerged and said apologetically, in the words of one of the sacred songs of the Way.

“He told me to remember life is sacred. As it is said:

“A halt man can back a horse,

The one-hand herd sheep.

The deaf one duels and wins.

Better be blind than burnt.

Now what good’s a corpse?”

“Better blind than burnt,” Shef had replied. “But blind and burnt?” But it was no good arguing with the little leech. He might have something to tell another day. More than would be gained from the surviving monk-bastards, as Brand called them. None had surrendered willingly, all been taken burnt, crippled, or unconscious. They refused to say anything at all for any fear or inducement. Brand would cut their throats as soon as the priests of the Way ceased to protect them.

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