King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

Chapter Ten

The enemy fleet was hull-up before Shef’s lookout saw or recognized it. The Greek admiral had chosen his time perfectly: a little after noon, with the combined fleet of Arabs and Northerners split into its three habitual divisions. The advance guard and main body keeping pace with the cloud of dust which meant horse and foot advancing along the coastline, but already with oars shipped and prepared for siesta. The Northerners two long miles behind, awake but hopelessly becalmed, the sails acting only as awnings against the fierce heat. Another mile behind them, the admiral with his escort ships, dropped back to take their siesta, confident of their ability to catch up on the lumbering sailing ships later in the day.

In any case all attention was fixed on the land. Just dimly, from where they lay on the blue water, Shef could hear a faint sound of screaming trumpets, high and shrill in the Arab mode. Was that an answering bellow? The hoarse war-horns of Germans, or of Franks? Everyone on the ships was crowded on to the landward rails, listening intently, trying to make out what might or might not be happening there on the shore. A dust cloud? Pinpricks of light? Weapons catching the sun, that was for sure.

Turning from the rail, Shef blinked his one eye, weary from straining across the dazzling water. Looked out to sea, into the noon haze. Fishing boats, creeping towards them, their three-cornered sails picking up what breaths of air there might be. A lot of them, Shef reflected. Had they found a school of tunny? They were using their oars as well, moving fast for fishermen in the heat. Too fast.

“Lookout!” he bellowed. “Out to sea. What can you see?”

“Fishing boats, lord,” came the cry, a little puzzled. “A lot of them.”

“How many?”

“I can see—twenty, thirty. No, there’s more coming out of the haze, pulling hard.”

“Do they have the grind here?” asked Thorvin, veteran of the journey to the far North. He meant the Halogaland custom of driving schools of whales ashore with a fleet of boats, to slaughter them in the shallows.

“That’s no grind,” snapped Shef. “Nor no fishermen either. That’s the enemy fleet, and us all looking the wrong way. How long have those bastards been watching us, and us saying, ‘Oh, they’re only fishing boats’.”

His voice rose to a shout, as he tried to pierce the sunny lethargy, move the gaping faces turned towards him. “Cwicca, Osmod, man the mules! Everyone to the crossbows. Hagbarth, can you get any way on at all? Thorvin, blow the signal horn, alert the rest of the fleet. For Thor’s sake, move, all of you. They’re ready and we aren’t!”

An incoherent yell from the lookout, and a pointing finger. No need for either. Out of the heat-haze, hull-up already, moving at terrifying speed, Shef saw the red-painted galleys of the Greeks sweeping down in a broad wedge. Their banks of white-painted oars flashed and swept in the sun, each ship had a bone in her teeth, a white bow-wave cresting over the menace of the ram. Shef could see the black-lashed female eyes painted incongruously on the high fore-quarters, could see the armor of their marines flashing as they waved their weapons in defiance.

“How far off are they?” It was Hund asking, his eyes were weak.

“A mile maybe. But they’re not making for us. They’re making for the Arabs. Going to take them from flank and rear.”

The Andalusian advance-guard hardly stood a chance at any time. Deep in siesta, awnings rigged, it took precious moments to strike them and man the oars once more. The faster and more alert ships turned devotedly to try to ward off the attack sweeping towards them at twenty miles an hour. As they tried to engage Shef saw spears and arrows flashing across the water from both sides. As if in reply, a thin trail of smoke on the air, a far-off unearthly whistling.

And then the flame. The watchers on the Fafnisbane cried out as one man as the orange flame licked across, seemed suddenly to explode. Not like a fire catching in the hearth, not like a tree blazing in a forest fire: instead a sudden ball of flame that seemed to spread out, hang in the air, hold in its heart a ship already disintegrating. Shef thought he could see tiny black shapes struggling in it, plunging already alight into the sea. But then the rest were in action.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Categories: Harrison, Harry