King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 31, 32, 33, 34

And he had them now. Every now and then the battlements beneath them shook as another boulder landed from the counterweight machines Erkenbert was using: he had improved them, Shef had seen through the one remaining unbroken far-seer. He had hardly needed to, for there was nothing to oppose them with. Shef’s council appeared sunk in apathy or despair. Even Brand had his heart set, it seemed, on making a noble end, no more.

Wrong, something said inside Shef’s heart. They knew what they were suffering. They did not know what the other side was suffering. They must have lost heavily in the night as well, from fire and shot, in the innumerable scrimmages in the dark. It was an axiom that heavy horsemen should not be used at close quarters and at night, where valuable and highly-trained men could be brought down by mere kitchen-boys. Yet that was what the Emperor had been doing. The Wayman army had lost its machines, that was all. It had once known how to fight without them. Nor had they lost everything.

Shef’s eye fell on the long bundles someone had stacked against the parapet. He had not known anyone had carried them, would have forbidden it if he had seen them. But now they were here… Yes, there was Tolman, lurking in the lee of a buttress, ducking his head incongruously every time the stonework shook to a new blow.

Shef got to his feet, setting his face into a mask of good cheer and encouragement. He walked over towards the frightened boy.

“Fancy a flight?” he remarked. “Safer up there than down here. Get aloft and let’s see what the other side is planning. Cwicca! Unpack the gear and assemble a kite. What happened to your tooth, did you bite someone tough?”

The freedmen eyed each other as they began to assemble canes and cloth. Their experience of slavery was longer than their years of freedom, the habits came back to them readily. “He’s forgotten he hit you already,” muttered one out of the corner of his mouth to Cwicca. “And the bairn’s terrified.”

“Shut up and fix that line,” Cwicca replied. Were all masters the same in the end, he wondered. He looked down at his wing-pendant, now the mark of the flier-caste. Master or no master, he had done things that no other man ever had.

Within minutes Tolman was in his familiar harness, held by six men just inside the wall. The wind was strengthening and they were a good forty feet up on the battered ramparts of Rome. It would take him out over the semi-circle of machines and men hemming them in from the outside, but Shef wanted him to use his eyes on what he could not see, the forces surely gathering for an assault within the walls.

“We’ll reel you out quickly, pull you in as soon as you wave,” he repeated. “Be as quick as you can.”

The scared face nodded, the launchers held him aloft to take the wind, waited an instant, threw him up and out all together. For a moment he seemed to drop, and Shef noted that the wind eddied round the walls. Then he was reeling away backwards, on the stout mooring line and the cluster of thinner control lines—control lines the boy hardly needed now, so expert had he grown at working the vanes. Shef admired his skill as he swept upwards and outwards. His own best flight had lasted bare minutes. One day, when the world was at peace, he would do better.

“They’re still up to their tricks,” said the Emperor Bruno to his new-appointed Pope, Peter-that-was-once-Erkenbert. The two stood in the cover of a sacristy outside the walls, wrecked years before by the Moors. The Holy Lance was still by Bruno’s left hand, in its holder beside the shield-grip. Behind him the four knights of the Grail stood round their relic and its banner. All had been held back from the fighting, not from personal fear but from the Emperor’s fear that the precious relics might fall into enemy hands. He could not hold back much longer, the Emperor thought. Rage at the enemy’s defiance was beginning to overcome him. They were defying not only him but their Savior, His Church and His relics on earth. The heathen had penetrated to Rome itself, were in catapult distance, almost, of the Leonine Wall and Saint Peter’s Basilica, heart of the Faith. It must be finished today.

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