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

Shef let them shoot on and on till his enemies were all but kindling wood, prows and sterns dangling from the mooring ropes but between them more smashed planking, with here and there a glint of copper. There was no resistance from the galleys. Shef saw men running from them—astonishingly few, he judged. Such opposition as there was came from Steffi, who seized his king’s arm again and again, begging for the stones to stop, for permission to take a party ashore and seize the siphons and fuel-tanks of the enemy. Shef shook him off absently each time like a heifer shrugging off a horsefly. It was beginning to look as if the enemy fleet had simply not been manned. But he would take no risks for Steffi’s curiosity.

He raised both hands finally in the “Cease shooting” order, turned to Ordlaf. “We’ll moor over there, by the wall, where it’s clear. Four ships abreast. Then we can start getting the men and the supplies off. Well, Steffi?”

Steffi’s eyes were genuinely full of tears, he was begging now, imploring. “Only twenty men, lord king, twenty men for the time it’ll take to moor and unload. That’s all I ask. They’re sunk now, but there may be something we can salvage, one tank of oil full and not split by those stones, that would do for me.”

A memory came back to Shef of himself on the walls of York, begging Brand in similar style for twenty men to retrieve a catapult, to see how it worked. Brand had refused him, ordered him to join in the sack of the city instead. There had been no sack, but now he was the incurious one, fixed on his own purposes.

“Twenty men,” he agreed. “But have them ready to march as soon as the others.”

Farman was by his side, eyes wide and unblinking as if he saw something far off. “Will you take every man with you?” he asked.

“I will leave a guard on the ships, naturally.”

“I will stay with them, then,” said the seer. “You have men of war enough.”

No time to argue or enquire. Shef nodded agreement, turned his attention to the problem of getting his army ashore and his fleet secured. There seemed to be almost no-one at Ostia, certainly no hint of resistance. The few Greeks that had been with the fleet had fled. Shef removed the gold bracelets from one arm, held them temptingly in his hand, called Cwicca and three crossbows up as bodyguards, and walked towards the nearest huddle of huts by the dockside. Surely greed would bring him news. Not that he needed to know much about his goal. This was Ostia, and fifteen miles off was Rome. Reach it, sack it, kill the English Pope. Even trying to do that would bring down on him the Emperor, and then their long dispute would be settled. The strange thing was that Shef could not bring his imagination to think of the charismatic Bruno losing. Perhaps he was already fey, as the English said, already gripped by the paralysis of approaching death. He walked towards the huts, waving the gold and a plucked-up weed in sign of peace.

The Emperor of the Romans received the news of his ally’s fleet’s destruction in a Rome bearing the marks of his own heavy hand. Smoke rose in a plume into the sky behind the Capitoline Hill, was blown away on the rising wind. Bodies lay unburied in the streets: the loafers and gutter-rats of Rome had been able to put up little resistance to his heavy-armed troopers. They had their bludgeons and cobblestones and cart-barricades, and they had tried, defending their Pope against an alien interloper, and they had paid the price. Neither the City nor the Church of Rome had gained anything so far from the Emperor of Rome sworn to their protection.

Just for the time being, thought Bruno. “Cheer up, man,” he added to the Greek admiral Georgios as he saw the latter’s stunned expression. “Time to rebuild your fleet this winter. Your Emperor will not lose by it, you have my word.”

Cheer up? thought Georgios. All my galleys sunk in one morning, destroyed like so many Arab fleets. My marines committed to street-fighting against guttersnipes for an alien Emperor. And the secret of the Greek fire—surely that is not lost. Yet it might be. The man is mad.

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