King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 11, 12, 13

No sign. Hagbarth coughed, asked the vital question. “Lord? Which direction now? South and back to base?”

Shef shook his head. “Take us straight out to sea, as far from land as we can get before noon. When the wind dies and we are helpless again I want us to be so far away that the furthest Christian scout cannot pick us up. They will be sweeping the shore in line abreast before long. We must be over the horizon by then.

“Conference at noon,” he added. “Tell Brand to come aboard then.” He turned to sling his hammock. A night on the sand with the sand-mites had left most men weary. Those not detailed to handle the sails or keep lookout followed his example.

Hours later, an awning shading them from the noonday sun, Shef and his council met on the high deck of the Fafnisbane’s forward catapult mounting. Shef himself sat on the frame of the mule. Round him, sitting or squatting on the deck, were the four Way-priests, Thorvin, Hagbarth, Skaldfinn and Hund, with Brand resting his great back against the dragon-prow. After thought, Shef had once more called Suleiman the Jew over to listen to them. A few feet away, permitted to listen but not intervene unless asked, squatted Cwicca and Osmod to relay word to the crewmen once a decision was reached. Between them, a sullen expression on his face, was the young Arab Mu’atiyah. He would understand little or nothing of what was discussed in the Anglo-Norse patois of the Way, none of which he had troubled to learn in his weeks with the fleet. Yet he might be needed to answer questions.

“All right,” said Shef without formality, “only one question, where do we go?”

“Back to Cordova,” said Hagbarth promptly. “Or back to the mouth of the Guadalquivir anyway. Tell the Caliph what happened. He’ll know before we get there, some stragglers must have got away, but at least we can tell him we didn’t run.”

“We’ll have to tell him we failed, though,” Shef replied. “These Mohammedans are not patient with failures. Especially as we’d told him we would succeed.”

“Nowhere else to go,” rumbled Brand. “Go north, they’ll find out about us, send word to the galleys. Go out to sea like we’re doing, well, they say there’s islands out here but all in Christian hands. They’d catch up with us. But I agree, no point in going back to the Caliph. Why don’t we just go home? Maybe pick up a little something on the way. Go back through the straits into the open ocean, sail home, see if we can’t find a few bits and pieces to make a profit on the trip. From the Christians on the Frankish coast,” he added, his eye on the listening figure of Suleiman. “If we decide we’re still in alliance with the Caliph, that is.”

Shef shook his head. “No. Even if we made a profit, we’d be going home without what we came for.

“Just in case you’ve all forgotten, we came for knowledge. At least I did. Knowledge of flight. And now, knowledge of fire. Don’t forget, if the Empire of the Christians has learnt that, the next time we meet it may be in the English Channel. Home isn’t safe any more.”

“Nowhere else to go,” insisted Brand doggedly. “Only safe thing to do is keep moving. There are no safe harbors left. Not here in the Inner Sea.”

A long pause, while the ship rocked gently on the halcyon water. The sun burned down above them, crewmen stretched out on the decks, luxuriating in idleness and warmth, new experiences for almost all of them. The ships’ holds were stuffed still with food and full water barrels. No need for care, or no immediate need. Yet the weight of decision pressed down. Home was many miles away for English and Vikings alike, and between it and them lay only hosts of enemies: enemies and uncertain friends.

Suleiman broke the silence. As he did so he began to unwind the turban that he had never been seen to shed before.

“It is possible that I can find you a safe harbor,” he said. “As you know, there are many of my people, the Jews, who live under the rule of the Caliph of Cordova. What I have not yet told you is that there are some—many—who live, well, not entirely under it.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry