King and Emperor. Chapter 5, 6, 7
As the fleet completed its fast current-assisted run down the estuary of the Thames, and turned south for the longer haul down-Channel and across the Bay of Biscay, Shef wondered again at his own reviving good humor. The omens were bad. He did not trust his visions. His own friends, he sensed, were conspiring against him. Yet he had felt his heart lift with the first heel of the deck beneath his feet.
It might be, he considered, the continuous changes he became aware of every time he boarded a ship. It was as if the pace of change, obvious enough on land, or at least on his land, accelerated at sea. He could not help comparing this voyage with the one he had begun eight years before, when he had sailed far to the north, in the end to defeat the Ragnarssons and lose the Holy Lance to his rival Bruno. Then the ships he had taken with him had been experimental, capable of one thing only: mounting a catapult. Everything about them had been a struggle. The most expert crews in the world could not have prevented them sagging eternally to leeward. And his crews had been experimental too. Fishermen as captains and landsmen from the levies as crew. Too clumsy and uncertain even to allow fires to be lit, no matter what precautions everyone took, so that it was cold food and small beer day after day, and only the hope of finding an anchorage at night that made it worth carrying kindling.
A different story now. Shef’s was not a large fleet. After anxious calculation it had been decided to leave the bulk of the new two-master catapult-armed vessels to watch the ever-dangerous mouth of the Elbe. Everyone knew that the Empire had ships continually manned, in the hope of slipping out to break the blockade, maybe even make a beachhead on English soil and carry over the feared, drilled, irresistible soldier-monks of the Lanzenorden—a far cry, indeed, from the poorly-disciplined knights of Charles the Bald, defeated at Hastings nine years before. So thirty ships remained on their continual rotation between the Elbe station, their home base of Norwich, and their short-stay ports on the Danish peninsula. Shef had only six with him, besides his own flagship, the Fafnisbane.
Yet what ships they were. They made nothing of the southwest wind that would have blocked their prototypes, tacking steadily down-Channel without difficulty, the crews handling the double sails without fuss or confusion. There was nothing, too, of the alarming swarming motion which had so terrified Shef and his dead companion Karli when they had first ridden as passengers in a true Viking longboat. Instead of swooping up and gliding down every wave, the bigger, heavier ships seemed to crush through them, stabilized by their heavy cargoes and ballast, taking the weight of the ton-and-a-quarter catapults mounted high up without strain. They had even—Brand had shaken his head in a mixture of envy and sorrow when he had first seen it—the entirely new luxury of decking. No longship had anything above its hull except the rowers’ benches and the skin awnings they sometimes slung to keep off spray. Sleeping during a sea passage was a matter of rolling yourself in a blanket and lying in the bottom boards, between the thwarts if you were fortunate. Here the greater size and depth of the bronze-bolted hulls meant that permanent wooden decks could be built, with room beneath the shelter they gave to sling hammocks for the great ones, and above all for the king. Shef had grinned like a boy at the luxury of it when his skipper, Ordlaf, had shown him the new invention. And then, climbing out again, had remarked that it would improve the ships’ ability to keep the sea for longer periods: valuable for the blockade detachments.
“He never enjoys anything,” Ordlaf confided later to his mates. “Thinking ahead all the time. Good for no-one, if you ask me.”
But Ordlaf was wrong. Shef felt keen enjoyment at every detail as he stood, finally, on the after catapult-castle, watching the coast of England fade and hearing the terrible retching sounds of the Caliph’s ambassador and his men coming to terms once more with the Atlantic swell. His eye noted the skillful way his dozen ships—seven catapult-craft, and five more conventional Viking-manned longships in company as scouts—spread out into an extended V, five miles from arm to arm, so as to keep each other in plain sight and at the same time extend the horizon of their own lookouts. He nodded approvingly too at the new “crows’ nests” at every masthead. He would have liked to see in each of them a man armed with a far-seer like the one the Arab had shown him, but so far the secret of their manufacture had eluded him. Priests of the Way were busy at this moment in the Wisdom-House, blowing glass, making different shapes from it, trying to learn in the way they had learned to make better steel and better weapons: not by logic, but by deliberate random change. The man who succeeded could name his own reward.