They had bows and axes, but they did not look formidable. Mere working and hunting tools, and the men who held them, some thirty or so, looking like shepherds or fowlers, not warriors. No signs of rank were visible, but Shef had learnt to watch men’s bearing. That one there, the greybeard with no weapon: he was the chief.
He walked towards him, tried to speak sardonically, to say, “You brought us by a weary road.” The words would not come out. He lifted the dipper, rinsed the dust from his mouth, felt it swirl across his throat. The urge to swallow, constricting, almost overpowering. He would show them who was master, of himself at least. He spat the water on the ground, spoke his piece.
No understanding. The eyes had widened when he spat out the water, but just a furrowed brow when he spoke. He was speaking the wrong language. Shef tried again in his simple Arabic.
“You took our woman.”
The greybeard nodded.
“Now you must give her up.”
“First you must tell me something. Do you not need water?”
Shef lifted the dipper, looked at the water in it, threw it on the ground. “I drink when I choose. Not when my body chooses.”
A slight ripple from the listening men. “Tell me then. What is that you wear on your breast?”
Shef looked down at the sign of his god, the pole-ladder of Rig. This was like the scene he had undergone long ago when first he met Thorvin. More was meant than was being said.
“In my language it is a ladder. In the language of my god and the Way I follow, it is a kraki. I met a man once who called it a graduale.”
They were listening now, very intently. Solomon was at his side, ready to translate. Shef waved him back. He must not lose the intimate contact, even if all the two could speak was mangled Arabic.
“Who called it that?”
“It was the emperor Bruno.”
“You were close to him? He was your friend?”
“I was as close to him as I am to you. But he was not my friend. I have had his sword at my throat. They tell me he is close to me again, now.”
“He knows about the graduale.” The greybeard seemed to be talking to himself. He looked up again. “Stranger, do you know of the Lance he carries?”
“I gave it to him. Or he took it from me.”
“Maybe, then, you would take something from him?”
The tension in the air seemed to drain. Shef turned and saw that his men were on their feet again, weapons raised, looking as if they might be able to resist attack, or even, as they reckoned the limited odds against them, begin one.
“We will return your woman. And feed you and your men. But before you return”—Shef’s flesh shrank at the thought of retracing their steps, downhill or up—”first you must pass a test. Or fail it. Either is the same to me. But to pass it might be good for you, and for the world. Tell me, your god, whose sign you bear: do you love him?”
Shef could not help the grin from spreading across his face. “Only an idiot would love the gods of my people. They are there, that is all I know. If I could escape them, I would.” His grin faded. “There are some gods I hate and fear.”
“Wise,” said the greybeard. “Wiser than your woman. Wiser than the Jew at your side.”
He called an order, men began to bring out bread, cheese, what looked like skins of wine. Slowly Shef’s men sheathed or uncocked their weapons, looked questioningly at their lord. But Shef had seen Svandis coming limpingly towards him, wearing only the slashed and blood-stained tatters of her white dress.
To the Jewish scholars and counselors of the city-state of Septimania, the departure of their colleague Solomon—off in the mountains somewhere, escorting the king of the barbarians on some pointless chase—came as a relief. Doubt was already strong as to whether Solomon had been wise in bringing the strangers to them. Yet it could be represented as a service to the Caliph, their nominal overlord, to revictual and resupply men who had once been his allies, and who were at any rate enemies of the Christians now pressing so close. Nevertheless one matter at least was outstanding, a worry to both prince and council.