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

They had to cover each other. Each ship had to have bow and stern approaches covered by the mules of another ship. What was the formation they needed for that? And while he thought, he had to signal the Hagena, still floating motionless, sweeps not even out, lookout and skipper still staring fixedly in the wrong directions. Shef began to shout to the skipper of the Sigemund, to see the danger and pass on the message.

Brand had caught on quicker. As the shouted messages passed down the line, Shef saw the Narwhal suddenly streak past his line of vision, oars beating faster even than those of the Greeks. Another of the Viking longships followed him. Shef realized that all five had closed in, clustered to seaward of the seven bigger sailing-ships for protection against the Greek fire. But Brand had realized that there was a weak spot for all of them. He was moving to buy time.

Heart in mouth, Shef ran to the stern, climbed nimbly up, stood on the barely-moving dragon-tail that rose six feet above the deck. Suddenly remembering, he pulled the far-seer from his belt—if they had had a dozen like it lookouts might have given better warning! No time for regrets. He pulled it open, tried to adjust the length of the sliding tube so he could see clearly.

Through the smoky and discoloring lens he saw the three ships, one Greek and two Viking, closing on each other at prodigious speed, far faster than any horse could run. The Greek was twice the size of either of the other craft, could ram and run them down without troubling to use her fire. But she had to be delayed. Shef saw what Brand and his consort were trying to do. They were aiming to steer their bows along the whole line of the Greek’s oars, snapping them and killing the rowers with the backlash. Then, maybe, board and see how the Greek marines would face Viking axes.

But the fire, the fire. For the first time Shef could see something of the strange device that burnt ships like tinder. A copper dome midships, men clustered round it, two sweating at handles which they worked up and down like a suction-pump in the East Anglian fields…

Suddenly the pumping men were whisked away as if by a broom, and those clustered round to shield them. Shef turned the far-seer frantically, trying to make out what was going on. There was Brand’s ship, and he could see Brand in the prow, waving an axe. And a dozen crossbows lining the side, all simultaneously dropping in the quarrels and heaving on their goat’s-foot cocking handles. The Greeks had not expected the heavy armor-piercing missiles at close range.

But their captain knew all about oar-snapping. As Brand’s Narwhal cruised past the far side of the galley Shef saw a wood of oars leap into sight. The rowers had heaved them up in well-rehearsed display. As they did so Shef, in the round field of the far-seer, saw men scrambling again to the handles of the Greek fire weapon. Caught a glimpse of a gleaming nozzle as it trained round to bear on the second Viking ship, fifty yards behind Brand’s and on the near side. A man standing by it pushing forward what looked like a lit cord…

Shef thrust the far-seer from him just too late to avoid seeing the flame leap out, the ball of fire at its tip. And, centered in the midst of it, the skipper of the Marsvin, Sumarrfugl, who had stormed the walls of York with Shef and Brand years before, hurling a spear and yelling defiance at the doom about to take him.

A great groan rose from the decks of the Fafnisbane as they saw the Marsvin go, fire rising higher than her mast, shapes again hurled into the water, some of them still thrashing on a burning sea. All men they had known and drunk with.

Shef looked round again, constricted with terror at the thought that everyone was looking in the same direction again, not watching for the death that might be coming up on them at racing speed from any direction. He realized that twice already he had heard the twang and crash of the mules, twang as the rope was released, crash as the throwing arm hit its padded bar, making the whole firm-braced ship shake. There in the sea, not so far off, wrecked timbers and men swimming. Not the great galleys though. Just fishing boats. The Greek commander was sending them in to draw attention and increase the number of targets. Like playing fox-and-hens with too many foxes for the hens to keep track of.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry