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

“Where is Hund?” he called.

The little leech was already there. He took the boy from Shef’s arms, laid him down carefully on his side, cut quickly at the sling and the clothes inside.

He sat back on his heels, patted the boy’s face reassuringly. Shef had seen him do that before. It was a death sentence.

“No need to talk,” he murmured soothingly. But the boy’s face showed worry now, more than pain. He was trying to say something, face turned towards Shef. The king bent forward, trying to pick out the dying words. Something to do with the Emperor…

“What? What was that?” he said.

The boy’s head turned sideways and Hund let it fall, rolling down the eyelids with professional hand. He looked up at his lord and one-time friend with the disgust and hatred that had come upon him again and again on this voyage. Shef paid no attention.

“He saw something. He tried to tell me something. Something vital. Have we another kite? Someone else to go aloft?”

“They dragged your kite along, the big one,” said one voice.

“You could look for yourself,” said another.

“Unless you want to thend another bairn,” said a third. It was Cwicca, still lisping through his broken front teeth. Shef remembered suddenly that he had struck him in the night, threatened to send him back to slavery. But he could not remember why. All the faces turned towards him betrayed anger, even contempt. He had never seen that before, not from his own men, whom he had freed from their masters. No, he had seen such a look once. In the face of Godive. It was what had sent him on this expedition.

“Rig my kite then and put me in it,” he said, his voice sounding in his own ears as if it came from far away.

Moments later, it seemed, he was in his harness, held up by a dozen men, lines attached. His face was a bare foot from Cwicca’s just below.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

They launched him into the rising wind.

As had happened with Tolman, he dropped instantly below the wall. For seconds he could see nothing but the great squared stones flashing past in front of him, while he thought of the man who had jumped from the tower of the Wisdom House, jumped and gone straight down. Then there was the feeling of lift again, and he felt the wind take him. They were reeling him out as fast as they could, he was beginning to climb, already he could see over the wall. He could see Brand shouting and lashing out at the men who had launched him, could see crossbows lining the wall and starting to shoot down, to kill or distract the men who had shot Tolman. Time to look round and see what it was that Tolman had died for. There, yes, the troops of the enemy forming up for the attack. Not where Tolman had said the first time, but massing behind a villa from which two flights of steps led up to the city-wall where his remaining command was strung out. He leant forward as far as he could without tipping the whole flimsy contrivance into a downward swoop, shouted at the top of his voice, far stronger than Tolman’s pipe.

“There! There!” He struggled a hand free and pointed. Brand at least had caught his meaning, was off in the right direction. Steffi was on the wall too, doing something with his gear and an armful of earthenware pots.

“Burn the bastards alive,” said Steffi gleefully as he poured his deadly mixture into the pots he had taken from the nearest guardhouse kitchen.

“Let ’em get halfway up before you shoot,” bellowed Brand, arranging his defenses. “Don’t shoot to kill, shoot ’em in the belly. Frightens the rest of ’em.”

Hund stood up from his crouch beside the dead boy, thought of his patients lost in the night, thought of the burned and scalded men he had treated all through, thought of the death and chaos and the worship of Loki. He twitched the heavy sax-knife from Cwicca’s belt, stepped over and hacked through the mooring-line. The kite on the end of it jerked, began to rise and drift away. One of the men on the handling-lines tried to jerk it in, over-compensated, instantly let go before he pulled the kite into a dive. Hund slashed out at the other lines, men ducked, tried to avoid him. In moments only one line held, at one corner, it was tugging the kite over with no pressure from other lines to resist it. The man let go.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry