King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34

“Move,” he shouted. “Or I’ll have you back in a collar like you were before.” His old comrade spat blood, pulled loose another tooth, gaped at it incredulously. Turned to obey the order.

“All masters are the same in the end,” remarked one of his mates, hacking at the ropes to make the dart-thrower at least temporarily useless. Cwicca did not reply. In the darkness Tolman and the three boys with him hesitated over their bundles of cloth and canes and rope. Light enough for boys to carry, but a burden just the same. Cwicca seized two bundles from them, slung one over each shoulder.

“I’ll carry thothe,” he said, lisping badly. Tolman eyed the tears rolling down his face, said nothing.

Hours later the weary column struggled up the aqueduct to the walls of the Eternal City itself. They had run through the night like travelers chased by wolves. Their long thin column had been attacked again and again by men coming in from either side, men who had ridden ahead of them and then swerved in to a line which could not be missed. The crossbows had taken heavy toll of the attackers, but several times the column had been cut in two and there had been fierce work with blades in the dark before it could be reunited. Every time men had been left behind, lost or crippled or unconscious. Their comrades threw the dead into the running water, and as time went on threw in those they were not sure of as well. Few of the wounded were being carried now. In the hot night death by drowning seemed a delight to the sweating and exhausted men who were left. Shef was aware several times of Hund raging and struggling in the darkness as his charges were abandoned or given the warrior’s death. He had no time or strength to intervene.

The light was beginning to show in the east as Shef led the rearguard up the final gentle slope to the lodgement that the advance guard had made on the walls of Rome itself, on the very slopes of the Aventine Hill. Light, he thought. And shelter. A chance to see what was happening. To seize the initiative, control the battle instead of reacting to it. He yearned for time more than for food or rest or water. He needed it as an outmatched wrestler needs a foothold.

As he reached the wall, saw the remains of his command spread out along the inner, undefended battlements, he turned and looked out, stepped on to the parapet to feel the dawn wind on his sweat-soaked tunic.

Two hundred yards away Erkenbert said with vindictive relish to his catapult captain, “Launch.” The short arm dropped, the long arm shot up, the sling dragged along the ground and then whipped round in its vicious swing. Its load shot into the sky, not neatly but in a confusion of twisted limbs.

Shef, on the parapet, saw nothing except a momentary glimpse of movement coming towards him. He threw up an arm, felt a body-shaking thud, found himself sprawled on the ground, a weight on top of him. He tried to thrust it off, found his hands caught in something tough and sticky, clawed at it in desperation. It was off him and men were lifting him to his feet. He realized his hands were caught in human entrails, from a burst-open body at his feet. It was Trimma the cross-bowman, his dead face set in a rictus of torment.

“They’re shooting our own dead at us,” explained Brand. “They must have known where we were headed and brought the big catapults round to meet us. These are men who were killed in the night.”

Ahead of us again, thought Shef. Ahead of us again. I do not know what to do next.

“They’re all round us,” Brand added. “I doubt there’s more than half of us left.”

“The worship of Loki has brought us little good, then,” said Thorvin. His tone was bitter, his white clothing torn and blood-stained. He had fought with his hammer in the night. He had not been able to save Skaldfinn, cut down by the aqueduct. Solomon the Jew had vanished, no-one knew how. Of Shef’s immediate council only six remained: he and Thorvin, Brand and Hagbarth. Hund was there, his face cast down. Svandis too. He should have given her a thought at least during the night, Shef reflected, but he had not. The blood of Ragnar could usually look after itself. But she had within her now the blood of himself and of Rig. Why had he not stayed by her? He had had other duties.

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