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

Trailing rope, the kite stood on its tail, banked clumsily, turned away from them, drifted off across the open country, losing height all the way as its unskilled operator tried to bring it under control.

With a blare of trumpets the Emperor’s stormers surged forward towards the stairways, the stairways held now by axe and sword alone.

Chapter Thirty-three

As the lines jerked and parted to the struggle below, Shef felt the kite lurch unpredictably this way and that, felt the instinctive bowel-loosening fear of falling, of empty space beneath him. Then the last line went, and the air was under his canvas again, holding him up like the warm sea under a swimmer. At the same time Shef realized that he was being blown backwards and upwards, the walls of Rome receding, already too far for him to see more than white dots of faces following him from the wall.

To fly free, he remembered, you had to turn away from the wind, not into it. Tolman could do it—Tolman had been able to do it. His nerve quailed at the idea of trying it. Better just to sag backwards, let the wind take him, perhaps bring him down far from the war and the everlasting pain.

It wouldn’t happen like that. The wind would change, dash him on stone or drop him into some ravine, to die with a broken back of thirst. He had to turn now. Tolman had said it was like a ship turning fast under oars. Raise one side-vane, lower the other, roll your body as the kite rolled and go round in a bank, just far enough to straighten up. Before his fear had a chance to stop him, Shef worked the controls, trying to do both smoothly and at once. The kite rolled immediately, his body automatically trying to tip the other way, to correct the sickening heave. Override it. Do what Tolman said. Shef tried to point with his back and belly-muscles in the way he wanted to go. He was diving now, still tipped over to one side. Correct it, work the side-vanes, swing the tail with his ankles. For a few moments he was swooping down like a hawk over the villa-dotted slope, his shadow running ahead of him away from the city and the rising sun. Flight! He was the flying man, the Völund escaped from his enemies, the smith who hung in the air while those who had tormented him lamented below. In a moment of ecstasy Shef shouted out the lines from the Völund Lay that Thorvin had often sung, the despairing lines of the evil king Nithhad unable to reach his crippled but escaping enemy:

“No man knows how to knock you from your horse,

Nor has wit so sharp as to shoot you down,

There where you hang high in the sky.

Sporting like a salmon in spawning-season.”

The ground was coming up fast, much too fast, his dive had given him speed, he knew no way to brake it. Tip the nose of the kite up like a skier in soft snow? He worked both vanes, felt the nose lift, cut off his view of the ground. Was he rising again? Or sliding along in the air, belly exposed to the rocks?

The kite’s tail kicked upwards as it hit the ground, Shef saw the rocky wall of a terraced field hurtling towards him, tried to…

The crash smashed the breath out of his body, he felt himself sliding over something in a tangle of cloth and broken frames, tried to jerk his hands free to protect his head. Something slammed him in the face. Then all movement stopped.

For several moments he lay perfectly still, not unconscious but dazed. He was down anyway. And alive. How badly hurt was he? Slowly Shef ran a tongue over his mouth, counting his teeth. Got his left hand free to feel if his nose was broken. All well so far. Both hands free now, and he groped for the razor-sharp belt-knife. Cut the cords, cut through the leather harness, at least he knew now which way was up, he was lying on his face behind a wall over which he must have somersaulted. Now try to crawl free.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry