King and Emperor. Chapter 11, 12, 13
The small Northern fleet, only eleven ships now, mustered next morning the moment the highest lookout saw the first streak of light in the sky. Many men had dreamt of fire in the night, none wished to be trapped against a hostile shore by the red galleys of the Greeks. Shef left the details of the withdrawal to be organized by Brand, who had rowed away from many a beachhead. The clumsier two-masters moved first, using their sweeps while they waited for the first puffs of the land breeze that blew from the cooled land towards the warmer sea every morning. The four remaining Viking longships lay on their oars close in, sterns just touching the beach. The party of sentries blocking the landward path ran down all together, their commander in the rear, shoved the boats out and scrambled aboard in the same moment, Brand counting carefully as they boarded. Ten strokes and the longships were out in the main channel, pulling easily past the Fafnisbane.
Two last groups to recover. On each of the headlands either side of the cove Shef had posted a dozen men, with their bundles of dried grass and pitch to illuminate any enemy trying to force the cove entrance. The Vikings had a routine for recovering such men too. On the hail, ropes appeared, men began to drop down like spiders on the end of their threads. The Vikings were lowering their more inexperienced English colleagues bodily, Shef realized. They touched ground, waded out into the water, seized outstretched oars, were hauled aboard.
Now the experts were doing it, at three times the speed, moving as if an enemy army were rushing up the other side of the hill. Ropes slung round firm-driven stakes, passed doubled round the waists, and the Vikings were walking swiftly backwards down the cliffs, bracing themselves against the pull. Into the water, the ropes jerked free.
And they’d left someone behind! As the last men scrambled for the waiting ships, Shef saw a head and a waving arm. He could even recognize the face, the squint. It was the innovator of the evening before, who had wanted to set kite-cloth to the flares. Shef knew his name now: Steffi, known familiarly as Cross-eye, said to be the worst shot with a crossbow in the whole fleet. He seemed unworried, was indeed grinning broadly. Shef caught the words floating down.
“I got a new way to come down! Watch this!”
Steffi moved to the highest point of the cliff, looked down into deep water, the boats moving gently across it a hundred feet below. He had something tied to him and trailing behind. Shef shut his eyes. Another one who thought he could fly. At least it was over water. If he didn’t hit a rock. If he could stay afloat long enough to be rescued.
Steffi took a few steps backward, ran awkwardly forward again, and then leapt straight out. As he leapt, something billowed out behind him. Kitecloth. A square of it, eight feet across, fixed by cords to some kind of belt. As the small figure shot downwards it seemed to catch the air, form a kind of bell above him. For a few instants the figure slowed, hung marvelously in the air, Steffi’s grin once again perfectly visible.
Then something seemed to go wrong, Steffi began to lurch from side to side in the air, his grin vanished, he hauled vainly on his cords, legs thrashing. A splash, barely twenty feet from the side. Two of Brand’s men were in the water, swimming like seals. They resurfaced with Steffi between them, blood streaming from his nose, towed him to the Fafnisbane, heaved him up to waiting hands before stroking back to their own Narwhal.
“It was going fine,” muttered Steffi. “Then the air started to spill, like. Like a mug that’s too full. I’ve still got the cloth,” he added, hauling on the lines attached to the belt now in his hands. “I didn’t lose nothing.”
Shef patted him on the back. “Tell us before you do it next time. Birdman.”
He turned, waved to Hagbarth. Slowly the fleet rowed and swept its way out to sea, every lookout scanning the horizon with far-seers for any trace of the galleys, any threatening scout of a lateen sail.