King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 16, 17, 18

Surveying the scene from his humble mule, Erkenbert the deacon intervened. In the swarm of runaways now being beaten into a standstill he caught the whisk of a priest’s black robe. Some hedge-priest no doubt, called out with his parishioners. Erkenbert urged his mule towards him, extricated the man from the grip of one of Agilulf’s yelling sergeants.

“Presbyter es,” he began. “Nonne cognoscis linguam Latinam? Nobis fas est…” Slowly the priest’s fear died, he began to recognize Erkenbert’s strange English pronunciation, he recovered himself enough to take in the sense of the question and to reply. Yes, they had seen the lights in the sky, they had taken them for signs of coming doom and the resurrection of the dead, the souls rising to meet their Master in the sky. Then someone had seen the flash of angel wings and his whole troop had fled in terror, urged on by the forest fire they could see beginning. And yes, he had seen the burning shape which had come swooping down.

“And what did it look like?” Erkenbert asked tensely.

“Certainly it was an angel flung from the sky in flames, no doubt for disobedience. It is a terrible thing that the Fall of the Angels should come again…”

“And where did the angel fall?” asked Erkenbert, before the man could start his lamentations again.

The priest pointed into the scrub to the north. “There,” he said. “There, where a small flame has started.”

Erkenbert looked round. The major fire was coming towards them out of the south. It looked as if the Emperor’s men would be able to halt that along the line of the break they were cutting. They had hundreds of men at work already, and order was spreading out like oil on water. To the north, a small fire, blown on by the wind out of the south. It did not look dangerous, for it seemed to be on a barer patch of hillside. He nodded to the priest, turned his mule and rode it past the still-shouting Emperor, his sword now drawn.

“Follow me,” he called over his shoulder.

After a hundred paces the Emperor realized what Erkenbert was making for and forced his warhorse past the mule, charging into the scrub careless of thorns and tangles. Erkenbert followed the trampled path at a more sedate speed. When he came to the source of the fire, the Emperor was dismounted, standing with the reins over one arm, looking down at something on the ground.

It was the body of a child, lying crumpled amid the stones. There was no doubt the child was dead. His skull was cracked, and leg-bones stuck out through the flesh of his thighs. Slowly the Emperor reached down, picked the child up in one hand by the front of his tunic. The body dangled like a bag of chicken bones.

“He must have broken every bone in his body,” said Bruno.

Erkenbert spat in his palm and traced the sign of the cross on the split forehead in spittle. “It may have been a mercy,” he said. “See, the fire had caught him before he died. There are the marks of the burning.”

“But what set him on fire? And how did he fall? What did he fall from?” Bruno stared up into the sky as if to find an answer in the stars.

Erkenbert began to poke around amid the scraps and pieces lying on the ground, well lit by the fire now burning steadily away from them before the wind. Pieces of stick. Light stick, made from some kind of hollow plant, like an alder but tougher. And a few charred pieces of cloth. Erkenbert crumbled one in his hand. It was not wool, nor linen. The strange plant of the south, he thought. Cotton. Very fine-woven. Fine-woven to hold the wind, like a sail.

“It was some sort of machine,” he concluded. “A machine to hold a man in the air. But not a man. A boy. A small boy. There is nothing supernatural about this, nothing of the ars magica. It was not even a very good machine. But it was a new machine.

“I will tell you something else,” he went on, looking down again at the dead child, his fair hair, his eyes that might have been blue before the fire caught them. “That boy is one of my countrymen, I can tell from his face. Like a choirboy. It is an English face.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry