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

“Ready to throw again? Have you checked the line?”

A shout from the parapet, where Thorvin had gone to watch. ” ‘War-Wolf’ is ready! I can see the long arm raised!”

Shef looked at Osmod. There was no crash of metal here, no trumpets blaring and war-cries rising, but this was where the battle would be decided. All “War-Wolf” had to do was drop its range six feet. Unless they smashed it with this shot, the next act they would take would be to run for the harbor. To face the floating fort, the noon-day calm, and the Greek fire. In an hour they would all be burnt corpses floating in the sea.

Osmod shrugged like a farm-hand asked about the haymaking. “I checked her for line again. I can’t say nothing about what happened to the timbers. You heard them start to come apart.”

Shef took a deep breath, looked at the counterweight, the frame, the sling with its carefully-chipped boulder. It felt wrong. The figures said it was right.

“Stand by to shoot. Get back, everybody. All right, Osmod. Shoot!”

As he pulled back the bolt Shef was already in mid-leap for the steps and the parapet. Behind him he heard the scrape, the crash, and this time a chorus of yells of alarm as the hastily-wedged timber frame slowly, inexorably, sprang apart. The boulder was still in the air, still rising, as he reached his vantage-point. As he focused on his target he saw it, too, suddenly move. The great wooden counterweight-chamber dropped instantaneously behind the mantlets, he saw the long arm rise, the inconceivably powerful lash of the sling, like a giant’s arm coming round. And then there were two boulders in the sky. One falling, one rising. For an instant he thought they would strike each other. Then all he could see out on the plain was dust. And out of the dust, the enemy’s missile still climbing.

Erkenbert’s weak eyes had not let him see the flight of his first missile. He had a Lanzenbrüder standing beside him to act as his observer, but the man had said only, “Very close, just over the top, drop it just a cat’s hair, herra, and we are through!” Encouraging, but hard to count a cat’s hair.

Erkenbert did his best. One thing he knew was that his throw-weight would not change, not now that he had the system in place for hauling the counterweight up again by main force. As the men struggled with it, heaving at unyielding ropes, he reflected on his problem. It was three hundred yards from machine to gate, more or less. He needed to shoot just a trifle less. So use the next boulder up in his graduated pile. But would that then fall short? What was the difference? If a stone of some two hundred pounds were to be thrown three hundred yards by the weight he had, whatever that weight was, how heavy a stone would be needed to travel just two hundred and ninety-five? Erkenbert knew how to find the answer. He needed to multiply three hundred by two hundred, and divide the answer by two hundred and ninety-five.

But to Erkenbert, product of the great and famous school of Latin learning at York, the school that in its time had produced such men as Alcuin the deacon, the minister of Charlemagne, preserver of manuscripts, poet, editor and commentator on the Bible, the problem did not present itself like that. To him, three hundred was CCC, two hundred CC. III times II was VI, C by C—but there common sense would have to step in, not calculation, and give an answer as XM. Erkenbert had plenty of common sense, he could soon, if not immediately, deduce that CCC multiplied by CC must be VIXM. But VIXM—six-ten-thousand—was more like a word or a phrase than a number. What VIXM divided by CCXCV might be—that, hardly the wisest man could tell, and even he not on a battlefield.

Erkenbert considered, ordered forward the next size of boulder up from the one he had just hurled. According to the number painted on its side, it should be perhaps five, perhaps ten pounds heavier than the last one—more or less, like the three hundred yards Erkenbert had estimated for the range. Arithmeticus though he was, absolute precision in numbers was no part of his world-view, except perhaps for calculating rents, the symbolism of Bible numbers, and the date of Easter. And “War-Wolf” had never before faced a reply. The stone that had crashed into the ground forty yards away had angered Erkenbert with its proof of hostile and inventive minds resisting him, and his Emperor, and their Savior’s will. Its wild miss had cheered him as well: what better could one expect from illiterates imitating their betters, without so much as a copy of Vegetius to instruct them? Nor would they have had the ingenuity to match his roller and his ropes. Why were the laborers taking so long to haul the weight back into place? He waved forward the Lanzenbrüder to flog the idle levies on.

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