The Hammer and The Cross. Carl. Chapter 8, 9, 10
Four weeks later the itch in Shef’s fingers had been eased. Outside the makeshift camp where the Wayman army had halted for the winter, he stood on the catapult range. But the machine he stood behind was not one the Rome-folk would have recognized.
“Lower away,” he shouted to his eight-man team.
The long boom creaked down towards his waiting hands, the ten-pound rock in its leather sling dangling from two hooks, one fixed, one free.
“Take the strain.” The eight brawny Vikings on the other end of the catapult’s arm put their weight on the ropes and braced themselves for a pull. Shef felt the arm—it was the top sixteen feet of a longship’s mast, sawn off a little above deck level—flex between their weight and his, felt himself beginning to lift off the sodden ground.
“Pull!” The Vikings heaved as one, each man putting his full body-weight and back strength into it, as beautifully coordinated as if they had been heaving up a longship’s yard in an Atlantic swell. The short arm of the catapult jerked down. The long arm whipped up. The sling, whirling round with sudden, vicious force, reached the point where the free hook was pulled off its ring, and swung loose.
Up into the murky sky soared the boulder. For a long moment it seemed to pause at the top of its arc, then began the long descent to splash into the Fenland soil two hundred and fifty paces off. Already a half-score of ragged figures were racing forward at the other end of the practice range, jealously competing to seize the ball and run back with it.
“Lower away!” bellowed Shef at the top of his lungs. His crew, as always, took not the slightest notice. They whooped and cheered, beating each other on the back, watching for the fall of the shot.
“A furlong if it’s an inch!” shouted Steinulf, Brand’s helmsman.
“Lower away! This is a speed test!” bellowed Shef again. His team slowly remembered his existence. One of them, Ulf the cook, ambled round and patted Shef tenderly on the back.
“Speed test be buggered,” he said companionably. “If we ever have to shoot it fast, we will. Now—it’s time to get the food on.”
His mates nodded agreement, picked up their jackets from where they had draped them over the catapult’s gallowslike frame.
“Good fun, good shooting,” said Kolbein the Hebridean, newly sporting his Wayman pendant, the phallus of Frey. “We’ll come down again tomorrow. Time to eat.”
Shef watched them trail back toward the palisade, the cluster of tents and roughly roofed booths which were the winter camp of the Wayman army, wrath and frustration at his heart.
He had got the idea for this new-model catapult while watching Ordlaf’s fishermen hauling on their mast-ropes. The giant boulder-thrower of the monks at York, the machine that had destroyed the Ragnarssons’ ram three months before, had got its power from a counterweight. The counterweight itself was hauled into the air by men heaving at a windlass. All the counterweight really did was to store up the power the men had put into heaving on the windlass handles.
So why store the power? he had asked himself. Why not just have men attach ropes to the short arm and heave down on it directly? For small stones, like those they had roughly chipped into spheres, the new machine, the “pull-thrower” as the Vikings called it, was magnificent.
It threw in a perfectly straight line and could be aimed for direction within a couple of feet. The effect of the missile it hurled was literally pulverizing, turning rock to powder and smashing through shields like paper. As they learned how to shoot the weapon with maximum efficiency, its range steadily increased out to an eighth of a mile. And he was sure, if only they would do as they were told, that he could launch ten rocks while a man counted to a hundred.
But his team had no notion of the catapult as a weapon. To them, it was just a toy. Maybe useful one day against a stockade or a wall. Otherwise, a diversion during the tedium of a winter camp in the Fens, with even the traditional Viking amusements of raiding the surrounding countryside for girls and money severely forbidden.