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

The men were pouring down slope now, even the stretcher bearers moving at a jolting run over the uneven ground. It was the thought of water, Shef realized, more than any new obedience. Steffi’s men had shot off their missiles, stood uncertainly by their catapults.

“Take them apart and carry them?” Steffi pleaded. “Just two of them?”

Shef shoved him on his way. “Leave the catapults. Carry your fire-gear if you can. Move.”

The twist-shooters were still keeping up good practice, as the flames lit up a wider and wider area. The easy targets had gone, fallen to the crossbows, but there were still men moving. Did they think they were out of range? They were trying to help their own wounded, Shef realized, running to them to drag them out of the path of the spreading fires. Shef stepped to a machine, pointed to a man trying to crawl out of a tangle of scrub already alight. Sure enough, two men ran in to help him, he could see white faces turning towards him. They were not losing many men down there, Shef thought, but they were being hit out of the dark by men they could not see. A slight movement of the trail, another thick twang, one of the rescuers was hurled aside as if by a giant’s finger, the other stumbled grotesquely and turned sideways for an instant. The watchers could see the giant dart driven clean through both thighs. The would-be rescuer fell back into the blaze just as it reached the man he had been trying to rescue.

Shef felt a fierce joy. He slapped Cwicca on the back, jerked a thumb to say “Move.” No time to harness up the mules, but the wheeled twist-shooters were easier to handle than Steffi’s machines. Without orders Cwicca’s gangs seized them by the trails, ran them jolting and bouncing down the hill. With them ran the last squad of crossbows and halberdiers assigned as rearguard. All of them running at full pelt down the slope, Shef in their midst, weapons ready for someone to try to spring the ambush. The ambush that had already been sprung.

A clash of blows in the dark as a few Lanzenbrüder closed with their enemies instead of falling back behind the flame. They were coming out of the light into the dark, never saw the bolts or blades that cut them down. And then there was the aqueduct, a long line of stone four feet high, with behind it the blessed smell of water. Shef’s men poured over the wall, their chief among them, and ignored pursuit as they buried their faces in the cold and gently-running stream.

As he pulled his face up at long last, Shef saw Brand looming over him. “Which way?” he said curtly.

Shef looked for the first time at the aqueduct. The stream itself, built to supply the rich merchants’ villas along the Ostia road with purer water than the polluted Tiber, was no more than six feet broad, much of it roofed over with slabs of stone to cut evaporation in the heat. Not all of it, though. He could not take the wheeled machines along it. There was a walkway either side, but barely wide enough for two men, no room again for carts or machines. What Shef wanted above all was to get back to his ships, abandon this failed attack.

Something told him that would not work, the same fighting instinct that had made him keep them shooting down wounded men. This fight would be to a finish now. If he fell back they would pursue him and destroy him. One end of the aqueduct led to Rome, about the other he had no idea. The god had told him—what was it? He would find his peace in Rome. Peace in death, maybe. So be it.

“That way,” he said, pointing left. “Get them moving fast. Cwicca, ditch those machines.”

Cwicca had nursed his machines over a thousand miles of travel. The machines were what had raised him from slavery. He began automatically to argue with his master, as he had done, to the astonishment of King Alfred, so many times before. This time Shef was past the point of tolerance. As the gap-toothed man began to expostulate, Shef, afraid and overstrained, stepped forward and hit him squarely in the mouth.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry