King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

Today they were trying the effect of an unbroken box of sailcloth, without air-gaps or panels. It appeared to be a total failure. Did that mean the panels were necessary, after all, and against what seemed to be common sense? Or was it the two control lines they were also trying today? The two catapulteers holding them were trying gently to work the kite back into the sky, with limited success.

It didn’t matter. For one thing it was keeping the men amused. Shef looked up at the masthead and saw, as he suspected, that the lookout was gaping steadily at the kite instead of attending to his duty. A shout, a wave, and the lookout turned guiltily to stare at the horizon once more.

For another, in Shef’s experience a great deal of any technological breakthrough came from random fiddling, while the men who had to work the machine got used to it, discovered its problems, worked out how to counter them. Nothing ever worked absolutely right first time. He was quite happy now to let the men amuse themselves, see if they could at least reach the standard bin-Firnas had demonstrated to them, learn the skills they would need when the time came to improve. One thing bin-Firnas had not realized, with the curious playful reluctance to push a theory to its limits which Shef had already noted as characteristic of this culture: experimenting with manned flight, or boyed flight, would be a good deal safer over a calm sea than a rocky ravine. Shef had already checked to find out how many of Ordlaf’s lightweights could swim.

The kite settled into the water, to a general groan of disappointment. One of the five Viking longships which they had taken up the Guadalquivir to Cordova cruised over towards it, oars sweeping in leisurely time, began to retrieve kite and rope and bring them back.

That was a weakness of the two-masters, one that no-one had ever noticed out in the Atlantic for which they had been designed. They were true sailing-craft, fast, sturdy, capable of mounting onagers and crossbows and carrying scores of tons of food and water. In British or Scandinavian waters, where the wind literally never ceased, and was more often too rough than too gentle, they had swept the seas against Frankish cogs or Viking longships, the first too slow, the second too fragile to contest with them.

But no-one had ever tried to row them for more than a few hundred yards working out of harbor, and that was done with massive four-man sweeps capable of reaching bare crawling pace. Here in the Inner Sea, as today, the wind often seemed to die away altogether. With both sails spread and what wind there was blowing directly from the sea, the Fafnisbane and her “Hero” class consorts—Grendelsbane, Sigemund, Wada, Theodric, Hagena and Hildebrand—were barely making steerage way. By contrast the five Viking boats were keeping pace under oars at a mere paddling stroke on the placid sea, their crews happy to work off some surplus energy by fetching and carrying the kites. The Cordovan galleys, meanwhile, after repeated angry outbursts from their admiral, had seemingly accepted the situation. The routine now was for their main body to row on ahead during the morning, take their long siesta at midday, and then row on again as the sun declined to find a place to camp and water overnight. The infidels made up lost distance during the siesta, and caught up finally in the evening. Meanwhile contact was maintained between the advance body and the laggards by a string of intermediary ships. Seemingly out of courtesy—or more likely because he did not trust them—the admiral himself hung back in his own green-painted galley, with a double score of his larger ships: enough to board and envelop Shef’s own fleet at need. There was no way of guarding against that other than making them keep their distance, to give time for the onagers to work. After thought, Shef had accepted the situation. If the Arabs had not overwhelmed him and his men in the streets of Cordova, they were unlikely to do so here and now, steering to meet a dangerous common enemy.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry