King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

Another member of the gang was Steffi, the squinter. He too had belief—belief enough, as the others recognized, to throw himself off a cliff and expect to live. Hama and Trimma were the line-handlers, Godrich and Balla cut and stitched the precious kite-cloth given by bin-Firnas. All the half-dozen ships’ boys of the Fafnisbane, recruited originally by Ordlaf the skipper to man his yards, were eager contenders to be flown aloft, watched with bitter envy by their counterparts on the other six two-masters. All the kite-handlers were English, all except the boys were men rescued by the Way from slavery. The Vikings from Brand’s ships showed a certain curiosity, and were ready enough to man their oars and act as retrieval or rescue ships. Their own sense of dignity, though, seemed to hold them back from the manic jostling try-it-and-see activity of the experimenters.

Most important member of the elite was the king himself, too often forced to worry about other matters, always returning like a hungry bee to the nectar of flight. Hagbarth, priest of Njörth, while half-disapproving of the whole project as a threat to seamanship, nevertheless saw it as his duty to the Way to record the experiments. He often found it difficult to get close enough to the apparatus to see what changes the stitchers or the line-handlers were making.

“See,” said Cwicca finally as the preparations reached completion. “We think we got it rigged absolutely right now. And we had to make two changes that the Arab fellow in Cordova didn’t know about.”

“You took out all the hen-feathers,” suggested Shef, remembering the total failure of the dive from Stamford tower.

“No feathers at all. Like the old Arab said, you got to fly like a man, not like a bird. And the old Arab was right about another thing. You got to stop thinking ‘sail.’ You don’t want the wind to push you. You want it to hold you up. So you got to rig this kite here—” Cwicca struggled with the concept of “asymmetry,” settled in the end for, “different at both ends. Wider upwind, narrower downwind.

“Right, now the two things we’ve figured out are these. First, he launched with the boy in the sling facing upwind. Good idea, for staying up. Not so good if you ever decide to try to fly free.”

The twelve-year-old Tolman, most favored and practiced of the apprentice flyers, bounced on his feet with eagerness as Cwicca said the words, was immediately kidney-punched by a jealous rival. The king unwound the two boys with the ease of practice and held them apart at arm’s length.

“Go on,” he said.

“It’s kind of—” Cwicca again struggled with an idea, this time what a later age would call “counter-intuitive,” settled for “not the way you’d expect, but we’ve tried launching with the boy facing downwind. It means he doesn’t keep his eye on the ship…”

“I watch the sea and the sky,” shrieked Tolman. “I watch where they meet. As long as that’s straight, and beneath my chin, I stay up.”

“And the other thing we’ve found out,” continued Cwicca determinedly, “pretty much like the Arab said, is you need two sets of controls. One for up and down. Those are the wing-things, that the boy works with his arms. But it stands to reason, you have to have left and right as well. So we fitted, like, a tail-vane, like they have on weather-cocks. He works that between his feet.”

Hagbarth, watching, looked carefully at the double square of sail-cloth fitted now on the wider upwind mouth of the great kite. Hagbarth, skilled seaman as he was, had never seen a rudder. All Northern ships used the traditional steering-oar instead. Nevertheless, it was clear the idea could be adapted to water.

“And today’s the day we’re going to try free flight,” remarked Shef. “Are any of the boys prepared to risk it?”

As the kidney-punching broke out again, the men of the kite-crew secured a boy each and held them firmly.

“We better stick with Tolman,” said Cwicca. “He’s skinniest and he’s had most goes aloft.”

“And he’s worthless,” added Osmod, Tolman’s second cousin.

“Right. Now look, you men. Is there any risk in this? I don’t want to lose even Tolman, even if he is worthless.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry