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

“That’ll do.” Shef coughed again as the dust settled on his throat. Outside the slope leading down to the aqueduct was pitch dark, no moon as yet. Trees and walls and the shacks of the poor gave cover. He had no doubt the enemy were waiting there for their break out. Shef started to husk out his instructions.

As the wounded were assembled, walking or on stretchers, the sentries watching the other sides of the camp called back, Cwicca’s catapult teams set to work. No need for silence, but little wish to talk. The twist-shooters were set up in a rough arc facing downslope and angled right, towards the sea. Behind them Steffi had set up his pull-throwers. On the word his men began to lob the prepared fireballs down the hill, down the hill and to the right. On Shef’s instructions, only every third missile was a fireball, the other two rocks from the supply train or from the villa’s rock garden.

“We won’t hit anyone except by accident,” Steffi protested.

“They don’t know that.”

“We’ll have none left to throw later.”

“We’re leaving them behind in any case.”

Steffi protested no longer. His teams hurled the stones out into the blackness, to crash and clatter away down the hill. Amongst them the fireballs made no noise, emitting just the faint red streak of the glowing fuse as they flew away. As the barrage continued and nothing happened, no response from the dark, no cries or orders or counter-missiles, the watching crossbowmen began to mutter nervously.

Behind a wall Agilulf listened to the stones whistling down around him. None had so far come within twenty yards of where he stood. He did not understand what was happening. That, he knew now, was the dangerous time. What were those glints of light through the air? Fireflies? He could face steel, but not flame again. The Emperor should have remembered that.

Steffi nudged Shef and indicated a sudden crackle of fire a hundred yards off. The first fuse had reached the fireball-core. In the light of the flames a tree sprang out, looking as if it were leaning over to the blaze. A branch caught, fire beginning to run back from its twigs to the main trunk. There were more sparkles of fire here and there in the dark now, and they were springing up faster than they could be counted. Such wind as there was was blowing up the valley. Anyone between the fire and the Waymen would have to retreat in their direction.

Suddenly a black shape moved, the first time they had seen a sign of life out there. His Ritter helmet showed up clearly in silhouette. Then it was gone, and Shef shouted angrily at the twist-shooter teams for missing a target. But just as the flames had appeared out of nothing, so all at once the hillside was beginning to crawl with movement. Men forced out of their ambush places, men trying to duck through the gaps in the fire to reach the other side, even men, Shef saw, stepping forward to try to beat out the blazes before they got established. Beating them and scattering them, not putting them out.

To the crackle of flame and the noise of the crickets were added the sharp snap of crossbow releases, the heavier twang of the torsion dart-throwers shooting off their heavy missiles at what was for them point-blank range. Shef could see men falling now, or writhing, but some trick of the air kept him from hearing any human noise above the increasing roar of flame. The men dying and twisting were like a shadow play on the walls of a hut.

Shef tapped Brand sharply on the shoulder, jerked a thumb. Move now. Brand led his sixty men, two ships’ crews, sharply and directly down the hill. A squad of crossbows followed immediately, then another body of Vikings, all the contingents told off to follow in set order. It was tempting to angle left, away from the flames. Shef had ordered them not to do it. Head into the flames as near as you can. The ones who should stop you will have moved and been shot or fled. Get downhill as fast as you can before you too are silhouetted against the fire.

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