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

Shef grinned again. “One thing we know is that none of these people, Christian or Arab, know how to fight a sea-battle.”

Silence and looks exchanged. Finally Suleiman, looking round first to see if anyone else would take the bait, ventured the query. “Lord king? The fleets of Andalus have fought many battles. And so have the Greeks. Do you mean—they have not fought them correctly?”

“No. I mean they weren’t sea-battles. It’s obvious from the way old admiral what’s-his-name works”—Shef jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the awning-rigged galleys taking their siesta two miles off upon the glassy sea. “His main idea is to fight a land-battle in which his ships form one wing. Ever since we made contact back wherever it was—Alicante?—he’s just tried to keep pace with the land army marching up the coast. It’s true our ships hold him back, but we could make better speed if we sailed all night, which is all right by us. But he camps every night in touch with his land-colleague. They expect to clash on the coast, army to army and fleet to fleet. They never go far from their water—they can’t, with all those rowers on board in this heat—and they never go far from the army, horse and foot together.”

“What advantage does that give us?” asked Thorvin carefully. What his one-time protégée said sounded very much like lunatic over-confidence, but no-one dared say that of the victor at Hastings and at the Braethraborg.

“What I’d like to do is locate the enemy, then swing out to sea on the land breeze we get every morning, come in on their flank and rear from the open sea in the afternoon. Then we could get the catapults to work in daylight with them trapped between us and the coast.”

“You only have seven ships with—what do you call them?—mules,” observed Suleiman delicately. “Are seven enough to determine a great battle?”

“The admiral here has hundreds of ships,” Shef replied. “So, we’re told, did the admirals of both fleets the Greeks have destroyed already. But those fleets were helpless against the Greek fire. We hope the Christian fleets will be helpless against our mule-stones.”

“It will take a long time to sink hundreds of ships by shooting,” said Thorvin skeptically.

“That’s the point. I only want to hit the ships with the Greek fire. The red galleys, they say. Maybe twenty of them. In this battle, all that will count will be their twenty with the fire and our seven with the mules. The one of those that gets into action first will be the winner. All the other ships, once that’s decided, will be porkers for the slaughter. Lambs for the slaughter, I mean,” corrected Shef hastily, remembering the strange dietary customs of Muslim and Jew together.

“I see,” said Skaldfinn. “Now, the other question: what do they know that we don’t?”

“I don’t know,” said Shef quickly, before anyone else could make the obvious answer. All the Northerners laughed, while Suleiman watched them impassively, stroking his beard. They were like children, he thought, just as Abd er-Rahman had said. They would laugh at anything. Always mirth, always horseplay, the men hiding each other’s food, tying each other’s shoelaces together. The king himself would fly kites all day and never mind if they fell into the sea. They had no dignity. Or was it that they felt their dignity was so great that it could not be diminished by anything to which they consented? Mu’atiyah talked till he was hoarse about how stupid and untaught they were. Yet they learned with terrible speed, and Mu’atiyah would learn nothing that did not come to him on the authority of a great man or, better still, a great book. What, he wondered, did the one-eye really think?

“I’m hoping they don’t know we’re here,” said Shef finally. “No-one in the southern sea has seen a mule shoot from a ship. They may be expecting to meet another overconfident Muslim fleet, all numbers and bravery. In that case we’ve probably got them. But if they do know we’re here, I would expect them to try an attack at night. The exact opposite of what we want. We need light to shoot at a distance, and we want to spread out. They want to get up close and meet a packed enemy at close range, where light doesn’t matter. In any case they’ll make their own.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry