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

“Bound to be a bit of a risk,” said Cwicca. “After all, he’s going up five hundred feet. No-one can fall that far and just walk away. But it’s over water. Warm sea. Recovery boats well downwind and watching. We’ve never had a kite just crash into the water. Worst they do is settle slowly.”

“All right,” said Shef. “Now show me the line release.”

Cwicca showed him the single thick mooring-line, led forward to a place by the flyer’s right hand. Showed him the dog-lead clip that held it, the neat contrivance that ensured a few inches slack even when the kite was tugged by the wind.

“When he hits the water he’ll have to get out of the sling. Make sure he has a sharp knife. In a sheath, round his neck on a lanyard. All right, Tolman, you’re going to be the first man from Norfolk to fly.”

Struck by a sudden thought, Shef looked round. “That Arab, Mu’atiyah, where’s he gone? I’d like him to see this, so he can tell his master.”

“Him.” Cwicca shrugged. “He used to hang around saying things. We never understood him, but we could guess. One of those ‘it’ll never work’ people, you get them everywhere. Anyway, we got fed up with him, and Suleiman, Solomon, whatever we’re supposed to call him, he took him on shore and locked him up. Said he didn’t want him running off to Cordova too soon with some story about treacherous Jews.”

Shef shrugged in his turn, went to stand by the rail while Hagbarth took command of the now-practiced routine of launch. The Fafnisbane tacking out against the on-shore breeze a good mile from the wall that guarded the outer harbor. Two of the fast and manageable Viking longships positioned close in, a mile downwind, ready to row for the point of splashdown. Two mule-armed consorts, the Hagena and the Grendelsbane a further half-mile out, spread wide north and south. Not to observe the launch. To watch and ward against red galleys sweeping out of the haze, sharp-eyed boys with far-seers at every masthead.

“They are playing their games again,” said ha-Nasi the prince disapprovingly to the silent Solomon.

“It will never work,” snarled Mu’atiyah to himself as he watched from a barred window overlooking the sea. “How can barbarians compete with my master, the glory of Cordova? They speak Arabic no better than monkeys even yet.”

“The woman is by the well,” reported Thierry the shepherd to Anselm, the grey-bearded perfectus. “She tries to talk to the women who come down to draw water, but in no language they know.”

The ships cruised out across calm water, only ruffled by the rising breeze.

As the moment of launch approached, everyone aboard the Fafnisbane went into a now-practiced routine. Tolman wriggled into his sling. Four of the strongest men aboard lifted the whole frame of the kite to the rear larboard rail. Hagbarth, at the steering-oar, judged the breeze. At the right moment, the Fafnisbane moving at her best pace with the wind abeam, he yelled one order. Instantly the hands at the ropes hauled up both sails. The two-masted ship, still under way, swung bow into the breeze. The kite filled with air, started to lift from its handlers.

Cwicca nudged Shef. “Say the word, lord. This is the big moment, like.”

“You say it. You know the right moment.”

Cwicca, judging breeze and ship’s movement, hesitated. Then called sharply, “Let her go!”

The kite lifted sharply away from the slowing ship. The handlers had begun by paying out line from a coil round palm and elbow. They knew now that that was too slow. Instead their lines ran almost freely from neat coils on the deck, slowed every now and then by horny palms closing. Just keeping enough tension to pull the kite back against the wind, gain another trifle of lift.

The box of cloth and cane soared gently into the sky, watched by a thousand eyes. “Line almost all out,” called the handlers.

“What’s the signal for him to release?”

“Two tugs.”

“Give them.”

High in the sky Tolman, son of a quern-slave by an eel-trapper, felt the two sudden checks on his rise. Felt for the dog-lead clip, jerked it free, dropped it carefully behind him. Another check while the metal clip struck the loop through which the line ran—they had carefully made that bigger so there would be no jam.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry