King and Emperor. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34
Tolman was signaling frantically from the end of his five-hundred-foot line. Closing warily on Ostia, the port of Rome, in double line abreast, the Wayman fleet had developed the habit of keeping a kite always aloft and floating out to leeward. The hundred yards of extra height that Tolman had at the end of his line increased his horizon by miles, gave them needed reassurance. No one had managed however to work out a way by which Tolman could pass on what he saw, other than by waving colored cloth—white for any sail, blue for land, red for danger. Specifically, for the red galleys and the Greek fire. It was red this time.
The winchmen were hauling him in already, with no need for the order. No need to bring him all the way in, he would go aloft again as soon as he had spoken. Barely fifty feet above the Fafnisbane, the kiteboy hung in the wind, a stiff one-reef breeze with a hint of oncoming chill about it.
“The galleys!” he shouted.
“In the harbor. In a long line, other side of the right-hand harbor-wall. Moored.”
“How many of them?”
“All of them.”
Shef waved a hand, the kitemen reeled out, sent Tolman slanting back to his position. Shef looked round, calculated the distance to the wall that marked the entrance to the harbor of Ostia. Two miles, he thought. They were making seven knots by Ordlaf’s log-line. Would that give the galleys time to man the oars, light their braziers, steer to meet him? If every man was ready in place already and they had seen him at the same time as Tolman saw them. He thought not. Shef looked at Hagbarth and Ordlaf waiting for orders in his own ship, looked across at Hardred in the Wada leading the parallel column fifty yards to windward, and pointed firmly to the harbor-mouth. The galleys had caught him by surprise once, in the open sea. Now he would reverse the roles.
As they raced in under sail, the ships shook into their attack formation. The mule-carriers in the lead, in a single file as close as seamanship could make it, the longships to the left of the line and to windward. If Shef had misjudged and the enemy met them with streams of fire, then the Vikings at least ought to be able to turn and escape. But the mules should have done the business before that was necessary.
“Wind Tolman in,” Shef ordered as the harbor-mouth opened up in front of them. Tolman was still pointing firmly to the right, relieving Shef of the fear of sudden attack from an unexpected quarter. Cwicca in the forward mule-emplacement was behind the sights, training his weapon round with every heave of the bows, keeping it fixed on the very lip of the harbor-wall. What was on the other side? A galley already heading for them? If there were, she would be sunk in moments. Her fire could be launched in less than moments. As the wall came up, close enough now to be reached by a stone-throw, Shef left his place by the steering-oar and walked forward to the mule-platform in the prow. If the fire was there, the king must face it first.
As the Fafnisbane’s bow nudged through the fifty-yard gap Shef saw Cwicca drop his hand. The release-man jerked the lanyard, the mule-arm smashed up, as always too fast to see, the sling on its end whirling round like a demented bowler. Shef heard a crash of timber, waited for agonizing moments as the Fafnisbane cruised on and brought the inner wall of the harbor into his vision. Then, relief like cold water. The nearest galley was thirty yards away, still moored bow and stern. There were men aboard her, and arrows flicked from her as he watched, zipping into planking, one into a shield hastily thrust in front of him. But no smoke, no roaring of bellows. They had been taken by surprise.
The first galley was already settling by the head, moored as she was, prow and keel broken by the first mule-stone. Shef ran back hastily to the stern platform, pointed out the second ship, ordered Osmod to hold his release till the widening angle gave him a clean shot. As ship after ship of the Wayman fleet poured through the harbor entrance, they swung into a long curving line, headed by Fafnisbane and Wada, and poured a rain of mule-stones on to the galleys lined up as if for target-practice against the wall, just beyond weak arrow-shot.