The cowboys did not come again. The column breasted a slight slope, began to move down at a quicker pace: and there, in the middle distance, Shef saw the shining walls of the Eternal City, a cluster of hills seemingly covered with stone buildings, spires and domes catching the sun. As he gaped into the distance, his eye caught the sudden, familiar, rising and falling streak of an onager stone. No time to guess where it was going. Shef threw himself instantly sideways off the road, rolling painfully on stone, straightening up on bleeding knees to see where the stone had gone. A puff of dust still hanging in the air thirty yards ahead of him, stone chips flying where the rock had broken up on the stone surface of the road. But in front of it, a lane beaten through the marching crossbows, five deep, men lying to either side of it, one struggling to look down at a caved-in chest which would kill him in moments. As the survivors stared in shock at the men smashed down, Shef saw another lane open, and another, men going down like stalks before the sickle. And still they were staring around, some of them cocking crossbows uncertainly against an unseen foe. Shef ran towards them, shrieking at them to spread out, move off the road, lie down, get behind walls. As they did so another flying twenty-pound rock shattered the road surface, sending splinters flying. Twenty, thirty men down already and still no-one had seen the enemy. But there they were, Shef could see the battery set up half a mile off on the side of the hill, the men moving unconcernedly round their machines, winding ropes and training round. They would shoot again in a moment. Shef ducked as another boulder hummed by, pitched well up this time. Behind him the mule teams were scattering off the road, Vikings were crouched in undignified positions behind trees and walls.
There they were all right. Shef focused his far-seer, caught a clear image of the men round the machines. He could not see Erkenbert, as he had half-expected. But he must have trained many men by now to take his place. How to get to them? His only weapons with the range to reach them were the twist-shooters. They would do, better against men than against machines. Shef shouted back, saw the catapult-teams unharness the mules, run their weapons, round, start the slow business of winding and aiming. And while they were doing that… As stones hummed over his head, the onagers concentrating now on the dart-throwers, Shef ran forward to his shaken crossbows, shouting.
For long moments they would not move, obeying the instinctive fear of missiles flying from a distance. Get down, don’t move, crawl away. Shef shouted, kicked a man to his feet, appealed to their honor and their pride. The sight of one man on his feet without being instantly knocked down restored some sense, reminded them of the mules’ doubtful accuracy against single person targets. In a shambling run the crossbows began to move forward. Shef shouted at them not to keep running. Run ten steps, twenty, get down while another ran, when he took cover run forward again. Don’t run straight. Make it impossible for anyone to take a steady aim.
From the hillside to one side of the onagers, Erkenbert and his Emperor watched the hastily-organized attack. To them it looked as if the slope facing them was covered with swarming ants, no one of them moving steadily onward, but the whole mass continually edging closer. Meanwhile the missiles of the catapults flew backward and forward. One of Erkenbert’s crew was hurled backwards, spine shattered by the five-foot flying dart. A twist-thrower, hit square on by a mule-stone, flew to pieces, its overwound ropes lashing at arms and faces.
“I saw him there for a moment or two,” commented Bruno. “Pity he didn’t stand long enough for your men to get a shot at him. That would settle this immediately.”
“As would your death,” replied Erkenbert.
“He hasn’t even seen me yet.”
Crossbow bolts at extreme range were beginning to clatter among the rocks round the onager battery. The winders were flinching, looking behind them. No way to hitch up a ton-weight onager and drive it out of trouble, Shef thought, not in a hurry. If he pressed on he could capture the whole battery, maybe they had not expected instant attack.