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

The red galleys slowed as they reached the main body of enemy ships, picking their targets, flame snorting first from one then from another. First to die were the bold ones who steered to engage, the feeble missiles that flew from them ignored like midges harassing so many great red bulls. Then the unprepared ships who remained still. Then, as the red galleys accelerated once more to ramming stroke, the cowards who had turned to flee. In one pass the Greek flotilla left behind them more than a hundred blazing shapes. In their wake the fishing boats from the Christian villages, packed with men with injuries to avenge, and stiffened by Agilulf’s detachments, closed in on those who had dodged the flame, eager to board, slaughter and take plunder.

“Very well done,” remarked Georgios to the captain of his own flagship.

“That’s them off the board. Now, let’s see about the stone-throwers. Half-speed now, and watered wine to the rowers.”

As the red galleys pulled round in a wide circle, Shef abandoned the attempt to make way under sail. Five minutes to furl the sails, prevent them from obstructing his catapult-crews. Then the giant sweeps over the side, only a dozen for each ship, each one pulled by four men, all that could be spared from the catapults. The men began to heave, drag their heavy, round-bellied ships through the water.

“If they don’t want to fight they don’t have to,” said Hagbarth tensely. “They have five times our speed. Maybe ten.”

Shef made no reply. He was watching for the range. Maybe the other side did not know what mule-stones could do. If they came on a little more—vital not to let them get close enough to use their fire-weapon. Its range a hundred yards at most. A mule-stone would fly true for half a mile. He might reach them now. Let them come on a little more—a little more yet. Better to get off a concerted volley. If all the ships shot at once they could sink half the fire-galleys in one shoot.

“Mule won’t bear,” shouted Cwicca from the forward catapult. An instant later Osmod echoed him from the rear. “Mule won’t bear.”

Shocked, Shef suddenly saw the trap. His ships were spread out in a long line ahead. None of them could shoot over the bow or the stern. A galley coming straight towards him could cover the distance from extreme mule-stone range to effective distance for their fire-weapon in—he did not know, maybe fifty strokes. And they were coming now. Or one of them was, picking up speed and leaving the others behind, oars threshing in perfect unison.

“Sweeps,” he shouted, “starboard sweeps, start pulling, port sweeps back water.”

Seconds of delay while the men at the sweeps worked out what was demanded, moved their cumbrous log-like oars into position. Then, slowly, the head of the Fafnisbane began to heave round, Cwicca, mule-captain on the bow catapult glaring tensely over its metal-plated shield, braced to lift his hand to show his sights were on.

As the bow of the Fafnisbane came round, so the galley heading towards them heeled over in the same direction. If that went on she would present her long fragile side to the waiting mule, no more than a quarter-mile off now, a certain hit and a certain sinking. But with beautiful speed and maneuverability she was keeping constantly in the Fafnisbane’s blind spot. They knew exactly what they were doing.

Maybe one of the other ships could get in a shot? Shef looked behind him, realized that the furious roaring he had tuned out in his tension was coming from the captain of the Sigemund close behind. The Fafnisbane had steered right across him, was blocking his complete broadside. And the Greek galley had completed her turn, was sweeping back to safety, her first plunge beaten off.

But even while he was watching the whole situation had changed yet again. The other Greek galleys had not lain on their oars while their consort darted in. They had split, swung in two wide arcs just neatly out of mule-stone distance—someone had been observing them very closely as they took their practice shots—and were forming a ring round the Northern ships. Already one was swinging round to try to get behind the stern of the Hagena, last ship in the line, and the captain of the Hagena did not seem to have noticed. It would only take one fire-galley to get within range, and she could then cruise up the long straggling line of the English two-masters, setting each one alight and using it as cover from the stones of the one next in line.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry