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

Not far, as the raven flies, from the track of the war-fleet down the French Atlantic coast, the new Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire prepared with relish for an afternoon’s sport.

Returned from his meeting at Salonae, the Emperor had embarked with his usual furious energy on the next task he had set himself, the counterpart of the naval actions that his general Agilulf and the Greek admiral of the Red Fleet were carrying out at sea. It was time, Bruno had declared, to deal finally with the Moslem strongholds established a generation before on the South Frankish coast, permanent menace to pilgrims and officials traveling to Rome, disgrace to Christendom and to the heir of Charlemagne. Easier said than done, some had muttered. But not many. Their Emperor did nothing without a plan.

Now Bruno stood, relaxed and genial, explaining what would happen to a group of wary, mistrustful, but deeply interested nobles: minor dukes and barons of the Pyrenean mountains, in their way the counterpart to the Moslem brigands about to be extirpated, their own strongholds hanging on the edge of Moslem Spain as the present one did on the coast of Christian France. From time to time a dart or arrow swept out of the sky, shot from the stronghold towering on its peak two hundred feet above them. The nobles noted the total lack of concern of the Emperor, who from time to time raised his shield to deflect or intercept a missile, without breaking the flow of his talk. This was no chair-warrior talking. He had been shot at more times than he had passed water.

“They build high up, as you can see,” he explained. “That was safe enough for a long time. Can’t get scaling ladders up easily, they have plenty of bowmen—good bowmen too,” he added, lifting his shield once more. “Build on stone, so it’s no good mining. Even our onagers can’t be raised high enough to beat their doors down.

“But the Mohammedan rogues did not have to deal with my good secretarius here!” The Emperor waved an arm at a figure the Spanish barons had till then ignored: a small, scrawny man in the undistinguished black robe of a deacon, standing by the side of the great machine drawn forward by two hundred men. Looking again, the barons noted that two men stood always by the deacon, fully armored, with shields of double size. The Emperor might take risks with his own life, but none with those of this deacon.

“That is Erkenbert the Englishman, Erkenbert arithmeticus.” The barons nodded reflectively. Even they had heard of this man. All of Christendom had heard by now the story of how the great Emperor had traveled into the pagan lands and returned with the Holy Lance of Longinus. A major part of the story was the tale of how Erkenbert arithmeticus had destroyed the Kingdom Oak of the Swedes, the idol-worshipers.

The little deacon was calling shrill orders, had now a firebrand in his fist. He looked across at the Emperor, saw his nod, bent over his machine, straightened, and shouted a last word. An instant later, the Spaniards broke into a collective groan of amazement. The great arm of the machine had swept down, slowly, ponderously, dragged down by the huge bucket on its shorter arm. At the same instant the long arm had shot up, as fast as the short one was slow, and launched a trail of smoke into the air. But what had brought out the groan was the size of the missile it lobbed: bigger than any rock men could lift, bigger than a mule or a two-year-old bullock, it flew as if by magic up into the sky. Over the wall of the Moslem stronghold, vanishing deep inside. From high above they could hear yells of alarm and rage. Already the machine tenders were furiously busy round the bucket-arm, some of them jumping into it and hurling rock after rock out on to the dry ground.

“It’s very slow,” said Bruno conversationally, “but it can throw the weight of three men, oh, a hundred and fifty yards quite easily. And it throws it up, you see. Not flat like the onagers. So what we do with the villains is, first we set fire to the wooden buildings inside the holds—four hundred pounds of tarred straw is not put out by pissing on it—and then, well, you’ll see. Once my secretarius has seen a shot or two, he will cut down the weight of the launcher—it is difficult, but he is the arithmeticus—and drop, not straw, but a boulder, right on top of the gateway there.” He waved up at the iron-studded oak doorway.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry