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

“If they try it again, I will have a trick too,” replied Erkenbert. “But they are reeling him in. Lucky for him.”

“What did you see?” asked Shef.

The boy spoke from his harness, not bothering to climb out. “Inside the walls, there are men on foot, in armor, on that side there,” he pointed. “About two or three hundred. There were none in sight the other way.”

No more than that, Shef thought. There will be more out of sight, of course. But they have lost heavily.

“No horsemen anywhere?”

“No. I saw the Emperor. Behind me, near that ruined building with a bit of white dome left. I think it was him. There was a man in black standing next to him, and a banner by his side.”

“What emblem was on the banner?”

“It was yours, lord.” Tolman jerked his chin at the ladder-pendant dangling now outside Shef’s torn tunic.

If only we could shoot from the skies, Shef told himself. Or rain down fire from Steffi’s mixtures. Then the Emperor would be dead and the war over. All wars would be over.

The trouble with machine wars, something within him replied, is that both sides end up with machines. The same machines. That is the true meaning of the Song of the Giantesses, which Farman once sang for me.

“Go up again,” he said. “See if there is a door in these walls anywhere near the Emperor, a door we might reach. We could try a sally out.”

The small scared face nodded, the launchers moved back to their places. Two hundred yards away Erkenbert exclaimed with satisfaction as he saw the kite appear again on the parapet. From the shade of the ruined sacristy men came out, hammered a stout five-foot post into the ground, set on it a device like an upturned iron stirrup, and on that a crossbow. A giant crossbow, six feet from tip to tip.

“It is yew-wood,” said Erkenbert. “Vegetius does not explain the secret of the steel the heathen make their bows from. But nor does he explain this. I had it made when we saw the kites fly from the Jewish city. But this shall be its first trial, in defense of Saint Peter and Saint Peter’s city.”

Tolman had seen arrows curve up at him before, shot hopefully by the besiegers of Septimania. He knew that the range of an arrow shot straight up is far less than one shot along the ground. He had no fear of breast-bows, even of the heavy crossbow quarrels of his own side. When the first yard-long shaft zipped past his side and tore through a side-vane he did not understand what it was. Then, almost directly underneath him, he saw the bow bent again and his danger with it.

“He’s signaling to be hauled in,” Shef said, watching through the far-seer. The man at the mooring-line began to haul in, coiling the rope round his elbow for want of the winch.

“Something’s wrong.” The second arrow had driven through the body of the kite, all the archers could see to aim at. It had caught Tolman through the knee. His first start and twist of agony had almost turned the kite away from the wind. Then he had recovered himself, was trying to spill the wind enough to help the hauler, but keep it under the top of the box-shaped kite to keep him aloft. As they hauled him in, the elevation fell, the range for the heavy yew bow shortened. It was slower to reload than a goat’s foot crossbow, as the two men operating it heaved the cord back by main strength and fitted it over the releasing ratchet. They still had time enough for the third shot.

Tolman was barely ten feet from the wall and safety when the men reaching out to seize him heard the whistle of the arrow, saw the small face contort and the small body jerk to the blow. They still could not see what had hit him. As they hauled him over the battlement, hands reached to pull him from his sling. He could not move, seemed wedged. Then Shef, reaching inside to cut the obstruction free, saw the great arrow driven through sling and body and out the other side. With four ripping slashes he cut away the material and the cords, pulled the boy and the harness and the arrow together all free. It was impossible to lay him down, the arrow would have been driven further through. He stood clutching the boy as blood ran down over his tunic.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry