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

“The answer to that’s pretty obvious.”

“Right,” agreed Hagbarth. “We lie inshore, with a screen of other ships. If they set light to them, we’ll have light to shoot at them and time to wind the machines.”

“Maybe there’s something else we don’t know,” repeated Thorvin.

“I know. Could they have built a Fearnought, like we did?”

Hagbarth shook his head, still with a faint touch of sadness. The unwieldy, steel-plated, barely sailable Fearnought which had literally broken the back of the Ragnarsson fleet seven years before had once been his own Aurvendill, fastest sailer in the North, he had claimed, before her total rebuilding. But she too had had her back broken by catapult-stones, had never sailed again after the battle. Chopped up for firewood long since.

“They can’t do it,” he said flatly. “I’ve looked at these galleys of the Inner Sea, seen how they build them. They’ve been building them the same way for a thousand years, they say, and the Greek ships will be just the same. They lay the planks edge to edge, not clinker-fashion like we do. And they just fit plank to plank till it’s ready, no frame to build on. Weak keel, very weak ribs. Strengthened fore and aft to take the ram, but even that’s not much. Doesn’t take much to punch a hole in one of these. I’m not saying their shipwrights are stupid, mind. Just that they build for a shallow sea with no tides and no swell. I am saying that you couldn’t make a Fearnought out of any of these galleys. They haven’t the strength in the frame. I’m sure about that.”

A long considering pause, broken only by yells and splashings from close at hand. The Fafnisbane was now at a complete halt in the midday heat, sails hanging limply, providing only welcome shade. The crew had seized the chance to strip and hurl themselves into the welcome blue water. Shef noticed Svandis standing watching their nakedness by the rail, scratching absent-mindedly at her side under the long white wool dress. She looked as if she were about to strip and dive in too. That would cause some excitement at least, no matter what Brand might say about the wrath of the sea-hags and the marbendills of the deep. His authority on the subject had dwindled, paradoxically, once men knew that he was a quarter-marbendill himself.

“We’ll stick to our plan, then,” said Shef. “Hagbarth, you and Suleiman talk to the admiral tonight about night guard-ships. Tomorrow I will ask him to send light ships forward to find and fix the enemy, so we can outflank them. Our secret weapon, besides the mule-stones, is that we do not fear the open sea nor running out of water for thirsty rowers. That’s what we’ll rely on.

“And there’s one other good thing.”

“What’s that?” asked Hagbarth.

“Old yoke-shoulders Bruno isn’t there. The Emperor, I mean.”

“How do you know?”

Shef grinned yet again. “I’d have felt it if that bastard was nearby. Or had bad dreams about him.”

Much less than a day’s sail away, the two commanders of the joint Roman-Greek expeditionary force were also making their plan for battle. Only the two men sat in the rear cabin of the great Greek galley, in the hot cedar-smelling half-light. Neither believed in consulting subordinates. Like their masters before them, the emperors Bruno and Basil, they had discovered that they could communicate well enough in Latin, the language native to neither of them but understood, after a fashion, by both. Neither liked to talk it: Georgios the Greek had learnt the Italian form of it from Neapolitan sailors, whom he despised as effeminates and heretics. Agilulf the German had learnt the French form of it from his neighbors across the Rhine, whom he too hated as ancestral enemies and arrogant would-be cultural superiors. Yet both had learned to do what was necessary to co-operate. Each had begun even to have a certain wary respect for the skills of the other, brought into being by months of successful skirmishing and victory.

“They are a day to the south and coming on slowly?” inquired Agilulf. “How do you know?”

Georgios waved a hand at the scene outside the small portholes fitted into the galley’s sharp-ended stem. Among and around his own score of red-painted ships, each a hundred feet long, there lay a host of smaller craft of every size, the scourings of the Christian fishing villages of the northern Spanish coast and the islands, and of the borderlands between Spain and France.

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