The Hammer and The Cross. Carl. Chapter 11
Shef and Brand, standing close together, watched the battleline, two-hundred-men wide, tramping slowly to ward them across the level meadowland turf. Over the advancing line battle-standards waved, the personal flags of jarls and champions. Not the Raven Banner of the Ragnarssons, which flew only when all four brothers consented to it. But above the central reserve a gust puffed out one long ensign: the Coiling Worm of Ivar Ragnarsson himself. Even at this distance Shef thought he could catch the glint of the silver helmet, the scarlet cloak.
“Going to be a killing-ground today. We’re too evenly matched,” Brand muttered. “Even the side that wins is going to take very heavy losses. Takes guts to walk forward in the front rank, knowing that. Ivar’s not in the front, pity. I was hoping he would be; I could have a go at him myself. The only cheap way for us to win this will be to kill a leader and take the heart out of the rest.”
“Is there a cheap way for them?”
“I doubt it. Our lads have seen the money. They’ve only heard about it.”
“But you still think we’re going to lose?”
Brand patted Shef reassuringly. “Heroes never think things like that. But everybody loses some time. And we’re outnumbered.”
“You haven’t counted my thralls.”
“I’ve never known thralls to win battles.”
“Wait and see.”
Shef ran back a few paces from where he and Brand had been standing, beneath the Flag of the Hammer, at the rear center of their own—the Wayman line. It was drawn up in exactly the same style as Ivar’s force, but only five-deep, with fewer reserves. Shef had placed his wheeled torsion-catapults—the dart-shooters—in the line, screened only by a single rank of men and shields. Well back behind the line stood the traction-catapults—the stone-throwers—all of them except for the pair he had left with Sigvarth, their half-crews clutching the flapping ropes.
But it was the twist-shooters that would do the work now. Using his halberd, Shef vaulted onto the central cart of the nine he had left, still drawn up, oxen still hitched. He looked up and down the line of men, seeing the faces of his catapult-crews turned toward him.
“Clear your line!”
The Vikings masking the line of fire shuffled sideways. The ropes were wound tight; loader stood ready with bundles of javelins; they were aimed and ready. The slowly advancing line of men was a target impossible to miss. Over the turf came the hoarse chanting of the Ragnarsson army: “Ver thik,” they shouted again and again. “Ver thik, her ek kom.”—”Guard yourself, here I come.”
Shef dropped the head of his halberd forward as he shouted, “Shoot!”
Black streaks, rising at the launch, falling as they flashed through the air. Plunging into the lines of advancing men.
The lever-men were rewinding furiously, javelins dropped into place. Shef waited until the last one was reloaded, the last hand up to signal readiness.
Again the thrums, the streaks, the swirls. A hum of excitement rose from the Wayman army. And there was something happening with the Ragnarsson line as well. They had abandoned their steady walk, their chanting wavered and died. Now they were trotting forward, anxious to close before they were impaled like roast pigs—without a blow struck. Running half a mile in armor would tire them nicely. The shooters had done one job already.
But they could not shoot much longer. Shef calculated that he could shoot twice more before the attackers reached the line. Kill a few more men, unsettle the rest.
As the machines leapt back on their wheels for the last time he ordered them back.
The crews lifted the trails, ran their machines back out of the line toward the carts, calling out with triumph. “Shut up! Man the throwers.”
In seconds the ex-thralls were loading and aiming the machines. Vikings would never have done that, thought Shef. They would have needed time to tell each other what deed they had done. He raised his halberd up and ten boulders were hurled simultaneously into the air.
They reloaded as quickly as they could, inched the clumsy frames round as the captains lined them up. A rain of boulders whistled out of the sky, no longer in volleys, each machine shooting as fast as its crew could lower and load.