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

Finally, Shef himself. Shef had seen Straw looking at him with much the same expression that he used when he looked at Richier, and he knew why. Among the lightly-built people of the hills, Shef stood out like Styrr among ordinary folk. He was head and shoulders taller than any other man in the company, Richier included. He outweighed Richier by fifty pounds and every other man or boy by seventy at least. Could he keep up when it came to speed? Could he creep undetected below the cover? Straw obviously thought not. Shef himself was more confident. It was not so many years since he and Hund had stalked the wild pigs together in the marsh, or snaked on their bellies to take fish from some thane’s private pond. He had grown bigger and stronger since then, but little of the weight, he knew, was fat. If anyone could elude the scouts and sentries, he could.

He had no fear, indeed, of being seen and killed in the night. He had a good chance, and death, if it came, would come cleanly, not as it had come to Sumarrfugl.

What did set a weight in his bowels and a chill at his heart was the thought of capture. For capture meant facing the Emperor. Shef had seen him close, drunk with him, felt no fear even when he stood with Bruno’s sword-point at his throat. Something told him now, though, that if they met again the genial side of his old comrade would be gone, replaced by the fanatic. He would not spare a heathen and a rival a second time.

Shef looked round the small inner circle of seven. “Very well. We will start our ride as soon as I have finished speaking to the others. We work down into the plain behind our scouts, and at dusk we start to ride round in a wide circle. To come out on the other side of the rock, of Puigpunyent, to the north-west. Then we leave our horses and follow Straw here through the Emperor’s guard-ring.

“You know that is asking a lot. But I promise you this. The Emperor’s guards will all be looking at quite something else. If they are still there.”

A mutter of assent, if not belief.

“Stand aside then and be ready to go.”

Shef turned to the larger group standing further back, by their machines. Cwicca and his gang had brought light winches with them, mere cylinders of wood with a turning handle, and had spent a long hour slowly pegging them into the stony ground without noise of hammers. By each winch stood half a dozen of the ships’ catapulteers now turned kite-men, with by them the bulkier figures of the Vikings sent along to act as close-quarter guards.

In front of each of the three groups stood a kiteboy, Tolman in the middle, to either side Ubba and—Helmi, that was his name, a small pale boy little more than a child. A cousin of some crew-member’s, left orphaned and homeless by the wars. All three boys looked unusually serious and alert.

“You know what to do as well. Stay here, rest, light no fires. At midnight, Cwicca, you can read the stars, fly off the kites. There will be a wind coming down from the mountains behind, or so they tell us.

“Then you, boys. When you are at the end of your ropes and flying smoothly, bring out your fires. Light each of your baskets in turn and then drop them. Make sure the cloths are unfolded before you start lighting. Drop them one at a time, counting one hundred between each. Count slowly.

“Steffi, you count the baskets as they are lit. Once you have seen them all dropped, haul the boys in. Don’t stop to unpeg the winches, just leave everything and follow Messer Anselm wherever he says to go. In the morning we meet up and all head back to the ships. Any questions?”

There were none. Shef moved over once more and looked carefully at the gear they had spent the day assembling. The basic idea was to put together Steffi’s invention of the fall-delaying cloth with the thing that the heretics had shown him, the colored fires of the saltpeter and the Arab alchemy. Bundles of dry twigs, impregnated with saltpeter and sealed roughly with wax. A cloth tied by four corners to each one, each of them hanging from bent nails in the canework frames of the kites. Each cloth had a small hole in its center now: Steffi, experimenting continually, had discovered this prevented the trapped air from spilling sideways, gave a smoother and even a slower fall. The most difficult bit had been giving the boys fires to carry. There could be no striking tinder and steel in mid-air. In the end they had borrowed a sailor’s trick from the Vikings, who made long crossings in their undecked boats and could not always find dry tinder: tarred rope, lit and set to smolder inside a stiff canvas case.

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