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

Shef became aware of hands clinging to his arm, looked down. It was Hund. “Stop them!” shouted the little leech. “Those men aren’t dangerous any more. They can’t fight. This is butchery!”

“Better be butchered than roasted,” snarled a voice behind him. It was one of the ship’s boys, Tolman, a small incongruous figure clutching an axe bigger than himself.

Shef looked over the side. The Fafnisbane had swung in a half-circle as Hagbarth formed the protective ring Shef had demanded. That, and some barely detectable set of the current along the coast, had swung the Fafnisbane into the patch of water where the Marsvin had been torched. Still floating in the water there were what looked like broiled sides of meat at an ox-roasting. Shef pointed. “Some of them may be still alive, Hund. Get the boat. Do what you can for them.”

He turned away, heading for the foremast where he could scan the horizon and for the first time since the action began collect his thoughts. There was someone in his path, someone shrieking and clutching at him. Svandis. Everyone seemed to be shouting and shrieking today. He pushed her firmly aside and walked to the mast. A rule, he thought. There must be a rule. Don’t speak to the man in charge until he speaks to you. Hagbarth, Skaldfinn and Thorvin were evidently of his mind. They had intercepted the still-shrieking woman, were hustling her away, waving others aside. To let him think.

Holding the mast as it swayed gently to the roll of the wavelets, he looked deliberately all round the further horizon. To the south: the Arab admiral’s ships, burning, sinking, boarded, in flight. None still fighting. To seaward: four Greek galleys rowing in a gentle arc well outside his range. To the north: two more, and a great cluster of smaller boats, some of the latter sneaking casually closer, tacking to and fro with their strange, handy three-cornered sails.

To landward: three more galleys completing the circle. But beyond them? Shef aimed the far-seer, scanned carefully along. A dust-cloud. Men moving. Moving south, and in a hurry. Impossible to say what kind of men were making the dust. But… a scan further, and there, cresting a small hill, caught by some trick in clear outline in the far-seer’s blurry lens, he could see them. Stiff ranks of men in metal. Helmets, chain-armor, metal flashing in the sun as their feet moved. Feet moved together. A slow, steady, disciplined line of armored men moving forward. The Lanzenorden had won its land battle without hindrance from the sea. That was the situation. It was clear what should be done.

Shef raised his voice in what had now become silence. “Hagbarth. How long till the wind gets up again? Half an hour? When we have enough wind to make steering speed, we will head south down the coast. We’ll go in a wedge, fifty yards apart. If the galleys try to take the last ships from behind, we all turn and sink them—it’ll be easy once we’re under sail again. We’ll make as much distance as we can before it’s dark and then anchor for the night in some cove we can block off—I don’t want fireships coming up on us in the dark.

“Cwicca. See those boats trying to sneak up on us? When there are four within range, see if you and Osmod can sink them all. They’re getting too cheerful out there.

“Thorvin. Call over Brand. When Cwicca and Osmod have sunk the fishing boats, he’s to take two of his ships over there and kill all the crews. No swimmers, no survivors. Make certain the Christians see him do it.”

Thorvin opened his mouth to protest, hesitated, held his tongue. Shef stared him full in the face. “They’re not frightened, Thorvin. That gives them the advantage. We have to take it away, see?”

He turned and walked over to the seaward rail. Hund and a few helpers were struggling to lift a man over the side. As his face came level with the gunwale, eyeless, hairless, burned down to the gleaming skull and cheekbones, Shef recognized him. Sumarrfugl, old comrade. He was whispering something, or husking it with what remained of his lungs.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry