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

Bruno took the axe-blow on his shield, but the shield was already slanted, knocking the blow away instead of letting it sink in. Before Styrr could recover Bruno’s own stroke was launched, parried with the iron shield-boss, the backhand recover already in motion. For ten heartbeats the axe and sword flashed back and forth, while the shields rang accompaniment. Already Styrr was bleeding from gashes on arm and shin, each time he had beaten the stroke off before it could sever bone, but in moments he would be overpowered. He stepped back to a groan from the Vikings behind him, Brand now almost at their head, the Emperor followed before he could take the breathing-space he needed…

Steffi, busy since dawn with his laboriously-hauled fire-gear and the clay pots and tankards he had rifled from the guard house, flung his first fire-ball at the Emperor’s head. Without thought the Emperor blocked it with his shield, it bounced off the leather facing, struck a corpse, rolled harmlessly down the stone steps. Steffi gaped disbelievingly. If he had merely dropped it on the ground it would have shattered, the lit fuse would have caught the contents… Now, when he needed it to shatter, it behaved as if made of iron.

Styrr threw his round shield in the Emperor’s face and followed it with a disemboweling stroke from below. His enemy stepped sideways like a dancer on the narrow stairs, let the axe-blow go wide, stabbed the overbalancing giant neatly in the mouth, through teeth and palate and brain, stepped back to steer the falling body past him down the stair with a twist of the wrist.

A moment’s silence while both sides took in what they saw, and then a roar as the Lance-knights came on, jostling each other in their eagerness. Beside himself with rage, Brand thrust his way through and swept up “Battle-troll” to avenge his kinsman.

Steffi, ignoring the combats and their unwritten laws of honor, tried again. This time he hurled the clay tankard, its top stuffed with cloth, not at the man but at the stone steps in front of him. The clay shattered, the glowing fuse fell into the mixture of sulphur, saltpeter and oil. A flash and a gout of flame beneath the Emperor’s feet. He sprang through it, aimed a blow at Brand, took a return stroke. Suddenly fell back, dropping his sword, leapt back again, beating with gauntleted hands at the flame running up his legs. Brand followed, axe raised and thoughts of drengskapr cast aside. Another tankard burst, this time at his feet, then another and another as Steffi’s gang, delighted with their success, showered down the clay firepots at every strip of stone they could see on both flights.

The Lance-knights had the Emperor among them now, were stifling his burning clothes with gloves and bare hands. On the other stair Agilulf, who had come forward like his Emperor to deal with Guthmund, had frankly turned his back and fled, hurling a dozen men in front of him down the stair, panicked by the flame that had already marked him to his grave. The Vikings surged forward, met the flame underfoot themselves, hesitated.

Both sides continued to draw back, the only sound now the roar of flame on stone, an eerie flame that poured black smoke and seemed to burn on nothing. A crossbowman who had spent the morning straightening and filing a damaged quarrel lifted his weapon and sent its last shot deep through shield and body of one of the Lanzenbrüder.

“Put me down,” gasped the Emperor to the men who were hustling him out of bowshot, “put me down, throw water on me, we must try again.”

“No luck this time, Kaiser,” said Tasso the Bavarian. “You got the big bastard but they were ready for us. That’s enough for now.”

There was a man pushing his way through the storming-party. One of the knights left to guard the Grail, he would not have left his post except in dire emergency. But he was smiling.

“Erkenbert, I mean His Holiness, says to come to him at once. He has something you want to see. Or someone.”

The numbness in his ankle had gone now, and pain was coming up from it in steady throbs, each beat of his heart seeming to jar the swollen joint. His bare foot was red and puffed. He had held it off the ground till his leg muscles were on the point of failing, but the thought of it touching anything filled him with nausea. He was still trying to stand up and look composed, as a drengr should when facing death, but his body was beginning to tremble with shock and pain and weariness. They would say it was fear. What was it Brand said? “A man should not limp while his legs are the same length.” He would try not to.

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