King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 27, 28, 29, 30

“Ready,” he said.

The eight tallest men in the ship stepped to their places, each of them crouched on a block, gripping a part of the frame in two hands. Now Cwicca took over, as launchmaster.

“Lift,” he shouted.

The eight men simultaneously straightened and thrust their arms high over their heads: no great weight, indeed two strong men might have done it, or Brand or Styrr on their own. But it was important to have even balance. Cwicca glanced at his linesmen standing by the windward rail, almost crowded overboard by the immense spread of canvas facing into the wind, but each maintaining tension and ready to pay out line. He waited with the skill of much practice till he could see the wind beginning to catch the canvas, belly it out from underneath.


The eight men swayed backwards like a catapult-arm bending, and then threw the kite forward and up, into the wind. Shef felt the shock, immediately felt the kite sweeping backwards as if from under him. The wind had caught him, but it was taking him down, down under the side of the Fafnisbane, to be trampled deep into the sea and drown there in a mess of broken cordage. He twirled a hand control at random, felt the kite dip alarmingly, faces on the leeward rail staring at him open-mouthed. Turn the other.

The side-vanes turned, the wind caught the great expanse of waxed cotton more fully, began to blow across the top. Struggling against the dead weight of its rider, the huge contrivance began to lift. The linesmen felt the tug, paid out line gently, carefully, each man striving to keep resistance without drag. They had had much practice.

Above, Shef tried to remember what Tolman had said, tried even more to put it into effect. The wind was below his eyes, turn that way. No, above, turn back. And all the time he was skidding sideways, work the tail-flap between his knees, no, no, other way.

For a brief instant all seemed to be in balance, and Shef could glance down. Below him the ships were strung out like children’s toys on a pond, all of them lined with faces staring up. He could make the faces out clearly, could recognize Brand there in one of the rescue boats out to windward. Could he wave, shout to him?

The moment’s loss of concentration was all that the wind needed. The kite began to turn up, the two linesmen controlling that began to try to edge the top frame down, at the same instant Shef worked his own correction.

The watchers saw the kite tip nose-down, bank suddenly to the right, seem to lose the wind and the lift altogether, and drop into the sea like a loose bundle of rags. The Fafnisbane slanted gently across, linesmen reeling in as she did so. Brand’s Narwhal was already in front of them, swimmers diving over the side and threshing towards the bobbing contraption.

Shef met them in the water. “I didn’t need to cut myself free,” he said. “Just slid out. Haul her out,” he shouted to Ordlaf in the approaching Fafnisbane, “and check her over for breaks.”

“Then what?” asked Cwicca, as the dripping king scrambled over the side.

“Then we’ll try again, of course. How long did it take Tolman to learn the trick of it?”

“If Tolman has learnt the trick of it,” protested Cwicca, “why do you need to? Is this just for fun?”

Shef looked down at him. “Oh no,” he said. “We have to do the very best we can to get better. Better at everything. Because there are people over there who are also doing their very best. And not to make life easy for us, either.”

The Emperor looked carefully at the paper which Erkenbert had produced for him. It meant nothing to him. Skilled in the instant evaluation of land, river-lines, armor, the good and bad points of a horse or its harness, Bruno had never learned to translate lines on paper into reality.

“What does it do?” he asked.

“It cuts the reloading time of our new catapults by more than half. You see,” Erkenbert tapped the paper, “the difficulty was always dragging down the short arm, the arm which holds the counterweight. If we had been quicker—” He did not complete the sentence. If he had been quicker outside the wall of Septimania, he might have shot three times and smashed the gate down before the enemy could reply. Then the greatest of their troubles would have been over.

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