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

“No hope for me, mates. It’s in my lungs. If there’s a mate there, give me the death. The warrior’s death. If this goes on much longer, I shall scream. Let me go quiet, like a drengr. A mate there? Is there a mate there? I can’t see.”

Slowly Shef stepped over. He had seen Brand do this. He put an arm round Sumarrfugl’s head, said firmly, “Shef here, fraendi. I’m your mate. Speak well of me in Valhalla.” He drew his short knife, set the point behind what had been Sumarrfugl’s ear, drove hard into the brain.

As the corpse fell to the floor he heard the woman behind him again. She must have got out from below-deck.

“Men! You men! The evil of the world is from men alone. Not gods. Men!”

Shef looked down at the charred skinless body at his feet, its genitals burned away. Over the side he could hear shouts and screaming as Brand’s crew hunted another survivor from bits of wreckage, harpooned him in the water as they would have a seal.

“Men?” he replied, staring at her and through her with his one eye, as if to pierce down through the earth to the underworld. “Men, you think? Can you not feel Loki stirring?”

As the afternoon breeze off the sea strengthened, the Northern fleet picked up speed, the four remaining Viking ships swarming over the waves with their usual supple motion, the two-masters plowing through them, spray leaping up over the tall prows. The Greek galleys had feinted to bar their passage, then fallen back before the threat of the mules. Very soon they had given up their ominous shark-like pursuit and turned away into the haze. Fortunate for them, Shef remarked to Thorvin and Hagbarth. If they had held on longer he would have turned and tried to catch them, sink the entire fleet. Galleys held the advantage in a calm, sailing ships in the wind. Catapults trumped Greek fire in the light, and at distance. The other way round close up, and in the dark.

Well before the sun set Shef had marked a cove with high cliffs to either side and a narrow inlet, taken the whole fleet well inside. By the time the dark came he had taken every precaution he could think of. Brand’s Vikings, experienced in the holding of beachheads, had set off immediately inland, reconnoitered the approaches, established a firm block on the one single footpath leading down. Four catapult ships were firmly moored broadside on to the cove entrance, so that any ship entering would face eight mules at a range well outside that of the fire projectors. Shef had sent two parties up to each of the cliffs on either side, with tar-soaked bundles of straw, and orders to light them and hurl them down at the first sign of any ship trying to enter. At the last moment one of the English crewmen detailed for the job had come over, asked uncertainly for some of the kite cloth. What for, Shef had demanded. Slowly the man, a stunted creature with a villainous squint, had fumbled out his idea. Attach some cloth, like a small sail, to each of the bundles. When they threw them over he thought the cloth would hold the air, like, like it did with the kites. Take longer for the bundles to fall. Shef stared, wondering if he had found another Udd. Clapped the man on the back, asked his name, told him to take the cloth and consider himself a kite-handler for the future.

It had all been done efficiently, under the driving force of the king’s tongue and every single man’s knowledge of what the Greek fire could do. Yet they had been slow, sluggish. Shef himself felt completely drained, exhausted, though he had not struck a blow or swung an oar. It was fear. The sense that he was for once facing a cleverer mind than his own, one that had made a plan and made him dance to it. Without Brand and Sumarrfugl’s intervention every single ship and man in the fleet might have been at the sea-bottom, or floating like a charred log on the water for the gulls to peck.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry