King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 5, 6, 7

“Right. We don’t try to look rich. They’ll always beat us at that. We try to look strange. And frightening. I think we can do that. And it’s not just look, right? It’s sound…”

The quayside loungers drew back, muttering, as the Wayman fleet docked and began to unload its men. Shef’s orders had been thoroughly digested, and his crews were playing their parts. First the Vikings poured off their boats, every man glittering in freshly-polished and sanded mail. Not a man was under six feet tall, spears bristled from behind the bright-painted shields, long-handled axes rested on shoulders. They had changed their seamen’s goatskin shoes for heavy marching boots, studded with iron. They stamped heavily while Brand and his skippers roared orders in gale-force voices. Slowly they drew into a long line, four deep.

Another order, and the crossbowmen followed them: less impressive men physically, but more used to moving in unison. They ran to their places and also formed up, each one with his strange instrument sloped over his left shoulder. Shef saw them make their ranks, and then himself walked over the gangplank with careful ceremony. He too wore mail, a gold circlet on his head, as much gold as he could carry glinting from arm-rings and necklet. Brand followed him, with Thorvin and the two other Viking Way-priests who had joined the expedition, Skaldfinn the interpreter, priest of Heimdall, and Hagbarth the seaman, priest of Njörth. The four formed a rank at the head of the procession, immediately behind Shef himself, who walked alone. Behind them, and sheltered as much as possible by the bulk of Brand and Thorvin, walked Hund and his protégée Svandis. Under fierce orders from Shef, she had pulled a veil across her face, and was darting sharp looks from behind it.

Shef looked at the messenger who had been sent down to meet them, and gestured to him to lead on. As the man, puzzled and unsure at the odd behavior of the ferengis, began to walk away, continually glancing back, Shef gave a final wave. Cwicca, his most loyal companion and life-saver, stepped forward with three of his companions, crossbows slung across their backs. All four blew firmly into the bags of their bagpipes, reached full pressure, and began to march forward, blowing lustily in unison. The loungers fell back even further as the uncanny noise hit them.

The pipers marched forward behind the guide. Shef and his companions followed them, then the heavy-armed Vikings, their mail clashing, their boots stamping. Then came the crossbowmen, all stepping forward in time, a skill they had practiced on the new, level, hard stone roads of England. Every twenty paces the right-hand man of the front file raised his spear and the hundred Vikings behind him shouted together their approach-to-battle cry, which Shef had first heard rolling towards him from the army of Ivar the Boneless a decade before.

“Ver thik,” they shouted again and again, “her ek kom, guard yourself, here I come.” The Arabs will not understand it, Shef had pointed out, they will not think we are challenging them. Let’s shout something else anyway, suggested one skipper. Anything more complicated than that, Brand had replied, and your lot will forget the words.

The column moved on through the packed streets of the town with metal echoes clanging from the stone walls, preceded by wailing pipes and roaring voices. At the rear the crossbowmen had started to sing a song in praise of their own victories. As they moved on the excited crowds grew thicker so that the marching men began to mark time, stamping down on the spot with their hobnails. Out of the corner of his eye Shef saw a fascinated Arab watching Brand’s enormous feet crashing up and down. First he looked down, at the boots half a yard long. Then he gaped up, trying to measure the seven-foot distance between them and the metal crest of Brand’s helmet.

Good, Shef thought, stepping forward again as the crowd was thrust back by the Caliph’s escorts. Good, we’ve got them thinking first. They’re thinking, is he human? It’s not even a bad question.

The Caliph heard the uproar of the crowd even within his shaded and enclosed hall of audience. He raised an eyebrow, listened while the news was poured into his ears by an attendant. As the noise came closer he could indeed distinguish the screeching of the ferengis’ strange instruments, as lacking in beauty as the howling of so many cats. Could hear, too, the astonishing crash of metal on stone, the deep shouts of the barbarians. Are they trying to frighten me, he wondered, amazed. Or is that their custom at all times? I must speak to Ghaniya. If one does not understand the customs of the foreigner one cannot guess his thoughts.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry