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

And now he was free, hanging in the sky on nothing but the wind. Slowly, with a caution belied by his normal behavior on the ground, Tolman began to test his controls. He was still rising. Could he level out? Alert to every shift of the frail frame, he tried the arm controls, to catch the wind and bring him down. Tolman had no theory about how anything worked. His decisions were based on trial and response. The lack of preconceptions of a twelve-year-old combined with quick responses to teach him basic aerodynamics.

Now he had the horizon level again. There was a moment to look down. Far ahead he could see the mountains, rising high out of the narrow coastal plain. Here and there his eye was even caught by movement, by flashes of light that must be metal. And far off to the north, in the distance, a smudge that must be burning. Where was the harbor?

With a slight catch at the heart Tolman realized that free flight had one major difference from dangling on a line. He was being blown steadily away from the Fafnisbane and from the recovery ships. Already the Viking boats were almost directly below him, a bare furlong from the land. He would be over the land himself in minutes, could see himself being carried miles away into the mountains.

He must turn back. But how? Could a kite turn into the wind? If a ship could… If he could make it point down, surely the speed of descent would counterbalance the tug of the wind. As long as he did not dive directly into the wind…

Gently, alert all the time for the first twinge of an unbalanced response, Tolman worked his foot controls, felt his craft heel away to the right, found himself automatically working the arm controls to lift the left side and lower the right.

A mile astern, Shef and Steffi and the rest of the watchers saw the seemingly runaway kite turn into a slow and gentle bank. Oars threshed as the recovery ships prepared to race after it, now that it was turning back towards the sea. Hagbarth prepared to shout orders, make sail, head in the same direction.

“Wait,” said Shef, head fixed upwards. “I think he knows what he’s doing. I think he’s going to try to turn and come back to us.”

“Well, one thing’s sure,” said Steffi with a defiant glare round for contradiction, made more defiant by his squint. “There ain’t no doubt we can fly. And not with no feathers neither.”

In the last moments of his flight, Tolman, like Steffi before him, seemed to lose control of his craft and come down hard and fast. He hit the water with a splash and a cracking of canes barely a hundred feet from the Fafnisbane itself, the recovery ships well astern of him. Shef, who had shed his gold circlet and bracelets minutes before, dived and swam over, knife trailing from his wrist, ready to cut the lad free if need be. In the warm water he and half-a-dozen other swimmers surged round the still-floating kite. But Tolman had wriggled loose already, was treading water like a frog, holding his craft protectively. “Did you see?” he shouted. “Did you see?”

“I saw,” Shef replied, kicking gleefully in the bright sunlight. The anxiety and depression that had grown on him with the years had vanished. Nothing so pleasurable as splashing in the warm Inner Sea, far from the freezing waters of England. And the problem of flight was solved, or at least well begun. And he was the lover of Svandis.

“I owe you a reward,” he said. “The promised reward for new knowledge. But you will have to share it with Cwicca and Steffi and the gang. Maybe the other boys too.”

“I should get most,” shrilled Tolman. “I took it up and flew it!”

On the shore, by one of the gates out of the fortress-city of the Jews, Anselm the perfectus eyed the little convoy of mules and donkeys.

“You have her?” he asked.

“Wrapped up in a carpet, slung over the black mule. You can’t see her because we’ve packed other bales round her. The gate-guards won’t notice.” Thierry the shepherd hesitated. “One bad thing, mi dons.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry