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

They’re not frightened of us, Shef thought. That’s why this is going badly. We are terrified of the flame, have seen our mates go up in it, there are some of them still there dying in the burning water—how can water burn? But they’re just fencing with us. Those men out there on the wrecked ships. It’s just a swim for them, a little wait till they’re rescued. Got to make them worry. Make them afraid.

But first, make us safe. We must form a square. No, seven ships, four sides, there would always be a weak side, they might decide to come in on that, lose a ship or two to take all of us. Get into as near a circle as we can, that way any approach will face at least two broadsides. If there was just a breath of air, we could get some steerage way.

He seized Hagbarth by the shoulder, told him what he wanted, left him to shout over the side to the skipper of the Sigemund and the Grendelsbane beyond. Turned back to see what new disaster had come upon the scene.

This whole battle seemed to progress in a series of flashes, unlike any other he had been in. He had always known what was supposed to happen before. He had no idea, even, how long the shouted conversation with Hagbarth had lasted. Somehow, in the meantime, the Hagena had managed to get into action. Delayed for vital seconds by the Narwhal and the Marsvin, the Greek galley had been too slow in dipping oars again and keeping in the blind spot. The Hagena had veered round, come broadside on, and shot simultaneously with both catapults, each one sending a thirty-pound rock skimming over the water at a bare quarter-mile range. Viking longships, clinker-built and locked to the prow and the tail, simply fell to bits when struck square on. The galley, for all Hagbarth’s contempt for the strength of her construction, lasted a little better. Keel broken in two places, she was going down, but leaving a mass of wreckage like a raft, with rowers and marines clinging to it. Fishing boats were already closing in, maneuvering to keep in shelter of the wreck, to pick up survivors.

Shef’s eye was caught beyond the scene being played out a few hundred yards off by the now-familiar gouts of flame a mile beyond. With the fatalistic courage of his creed—and spurred on by thoughts of the impaling-post that waited for cowards—the Arab admiral had decided to venture forward to engage the Greeks. Half a score of galleys had turned to meet him, leaving the rest of their number to watch and circle the Northern ships like wolves round a bogged elk. Again and again the flames licked out like dragon-breath, a ship exploding at the end of each tongue. Yet the crowd of Arab ships seemed to be making some impact, steering through the embers of their comrades. Shef could just see—he pulled out the far-seer again to make sure—grappling irons flying as the rear ranks of the admiral’s squadron managed to close with some of their enemies. Too close now for the fire. Now it would be saber and scimitar against pike and shield.

Shef felt his heart slow its frantic pounding for the first time since they had seen the fishing boats and realized they were hostile. He lowered the far-seer. Became conscious of a deep hum of satisfaction rising from the decks of the Fafnisbane, a hum that broke into growls and fierce shouting.

Brand’s Narwhal was cruising gently past the wreck of the Greek galley, her crossbowmen pouring volley after volley into the defenseless men clinging to her planks. Some were crossing themselves, others holding out their hands in a plea for mercy. A few had even swum towards the Narwhal, were trying to catch hold of the sweeping oars. Shef saw Brand himself, easily recognizable even at a furlong’s distance, leaning over the side, slashing downwards with his axe “Battle-troll.” Where the water was not black with ash and embers it was turning red with blood. The Hagena was joining in too, its crew making uninterrupted target-practice with their heavy gunwale-mounted steel crossbows.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry