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

“Shoot when you’re ready,” called Shef.

“Nothing to shoot at now,” complained an anonymous voice. They began nonetheless to shoot at the mantlets, trying to aim for junction points. Something might get through. Some poor fool might be unnerved.

“What did you see?” asked Thorvin, the most interested of the Way-priests in mechanical contrivances.

“Theirs has two bracing timbers running out from the sides. Ours doesn’t.”

“What difference does that make?”

“We don’t know. We’ve never shot ours.”

The two men looked anxiously now at their machine, set up twenty paces behind the gate. It was nothing but a massively scaled-up version of their familiar old pull-thrower, the weapon that had won the Threefold Battle, as men now called it, the battle on two fronts against Mercians and against Ivar, Svandis’s father. It had not won a battle since. Would its giant descendant work as simply as its ancestor?

“Start loading,” said Shef. He too had seen the problem that Erkenbert had learnt from experience, could think with his more mechanical mind of two methods at least of solving it: had no time to make the necessary gears and ratchets, the great iron axle that would be needed for the better method. He too was thrown back on the simple way. Raise the bucket high and empty, then fill it while it was in the air. But his gang were not using stones. Each man had a stout sack full of sand, carefully and individually weighed. A hundred pounds a time. Thorvin counted the men off as they mounted the ladder, the burliest of Brand’s Vikings, sweat pouring from them into their hemp shirts. Fifteen loads dumped in and the long arm bending visibly as it strained against its greased retainer bolt.

“Load the sling,” Shef ordered. Another hard job. The sling itself lay along the ground like a gigantic empty scrotum. The boulder that went into it, Shef knew, weighed almost exactly a hundred and fifty pounds. A gang had dug it from the seashore, weighed it against sandbags over a steelyard, been told immediately to start chipping it round—and weigh the chips! Then they had been sent back to raise three more, carve them to a weight as near identical as care could make them. But now the first load had to be lifted into place. No great weight, for strong men, but round boulders are hard to lift from the ground. For a moment there was straining and cat-calls from the watchers, then as the two lifters turned angrily on their messmates, Brand and Styrr walked forward. They dug their fingers into the sand below the boulder, embraced it like two wrestlers, heaved it up and along into its double bullhide bag.

Now, when the weight dropped, the arm would rise. When the arm rose, the sling would whirl. When the sling whirled—the rock would come off and crash down on its own launcher and crew, unless the hook, the hook that was the free counterpart of the fixed ring on the sling’s rope, unless that hook lifted off at precisely the right point. Shef stepped forward to check the angle of the nail it rested on. It was right.

As he stepped back, drawing a deep breath and looking at his old comrade Osmod, who had demanded the honor of first launch, he heard a great “Oh!” rise from the men on the walls, a gasp or groan of surprise that cut through the snapping of crossbows and twanging of ropes. Shef looked up, saw the moon coming down on him. Just as he had a decade before at the siege of York, he cringed, head sinking into shoulders like a turtle. Gigantic, weightless, the boulder sailed silently down from a point that seemed higher than ever Tolman had flown. Erkenbert and the Empire had shot first.

The boulder was almost a perfect hit first time. It cleared the top of the city gate by no more than six feet, shot past faster than eye could follow, crashed into the dry sandy ground almost equidistant between the foot of the gate and the place where Shef stood by the side of his own trebuchet. The earth shook beneath his feet, sand rose in a cloud. As it settled, in an awestruck silence, men stared at the rock that had appeared there, looking as if it had lain there since the dawn of time.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry