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

Brand had spent the afternoon polishing his armor and considering his weapons. He was of the same mind as the Emperor. Most of his army, such of it as was left, was reduced to spectator status by wounds or loss of ammunition. Most of the opposing army, he reckoned, was much the same. He had seen the guard-posts outside the wall shrink all day, from desertion, from call-up of the reliable units to face the immediate danger inside the wall. It would turn, now, on a clash of a few men. Maybe, he thought, two men.

The question was, what to fight the bastard with. Brand did not think the Emperor was as quick as Ivar, or as strong as himself. But he was certainly quicker than Styrr, or Brand, and stronger than Ivar. Brand had decided to abandon his axe “Battle-troll.” Against a really good swordsman, rather than a fair or moderate one, it was a disadvantage. He had borrowed a sword from Guthmund, flexed it a few times, rejected it. In the end he had decided to rely on main strength, in which he was every man’s master. He had taken one of the English pygmies’ halberds, sawn off half the shaft, and constructed for himself an axe of massive proportions. No other man could wield something like this one-handed. That would be his advantage. The axe one side, the spike the other, the lance-head on top of the shaft. Three weapons in one, and all of them clumsy. He had abandoned his shield as well, taken instead a dead man’s and cut it down to half the diameter, strapped it immovably on his left forearm, leaving his left hand free. Round his waist and over his mail he had strapped another dead man’s leather jacket, doubled over on the left side to cover more of the area that a proper shield would have protected.

As the enemy trumpets rang out again, Brand slouched to the head of the stair. He was hot, he was thirsty—they had blocked the aqueduct earlier on. He had ceased to be afraid.

The Emperor was at the head of his usual troop of heavy-armed German foot. Mixed in with them were strange contrivances. “What are they?” he muttered to Steffi, standing by him holding one of his three remaining firepots.

“I can see the hoses,” said Steffi. “I think they’re for water. Some way of pumping water. To put out fires, maybe.” They were indeed the municipal fire-guardians of the City of Rome, dragged from their hiding by Bruno’s agents.

“No need for them,” called out Brand in Norse. He knew Bruno understood it from his long wanderings in quest of the Holy Lance. He turned Steffi round, shoved him gently away.

“Let me come up and fight, big man,” shouted Bruno.

“I’ll come down.”

“Will your men surrender if I win?”

“If you win, you can ask them. If I win I’ll ask yours.”

The mailed Germans fell back a little from the foot of the stair as Brand walked down it, to leave a space twenty feet across.

Not all eyes were fixed on the scene. On the parapet, high up, Cwicca and Osmod whispered together.

“What do you reckon happened to the boss?”

“He crashed. They’ll have picked him up.”

“Dead, do you reckon?”

“Up to us to see,” said Cwicca, still lisping through his broken teeth. “Whether it’s win or lose down there, I reckon as soon as it starts to get dark we throw the lines over the wall—I’ve made half a dozen strong ones from the kite stuff—and we all go down it. All us English, anyway. Then we can butht out and look for him.”

“They’ll cut us to bits on the flat. The crossbows are useless now.”

“They’re like us, a lot of ’em have had enough. Three hundred of us, whatever it is, with knives and bad tempers—we’ll go right through ’em. Head for where those damned machines were, till they gave up, and see who we can catch.”

“I heard you,” said Svandis, breaking in on the whispers. “I’m coming too.”

Behind them there came the sudden clash of metal.

The usual formal swordfight turned on cut and parry, use of sword and shield together, on speed of reaction and strength of wrist. Brand did not mean to fight like that. If he did, he would lose.

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