King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 19, 20, 21, 22

Brand looked down below the jutting eyebrow-ridges he had inherited from his marbendill ancestor. “I have fought in the front for thirty years, Skaldfinn, you know that. I have seen a lot of battles, a lot of forts taken and defended. But you know, Skaldfinn, that up in the North there are few stone walls. I saw Hamburg taken and York, I was not there when Paris fought off old Hairy-Breeks. What I know are only the obvious things—ladders and rams. What do we do if they bring up a siege-tower? No good asking me. And they may have many better ideas than that. No, sieges need more brain than brawn. I expect there are brains over there better than mine.”

“He wants to know,” said Skaldfinn after passing the message on, “if all that is true, why we do not see your master here on the walls, the one-eyed king. Is he not the wonder of the world for machines and inventions? So what do I tell him now?”

Brand shrugged massive shoulders. “You know the answer as well as I do, Skaldfinn. So tell him the truth. Tell him our master, whom we need more than ever before, is busy with something else. And you know what that is.”

“I do,” said Skaldfinn with resignation. “He’s sitting down by the harbor with his girlfriend, reading a book.”

Trying to read a book would have been nearer the truth. Shef himself was only barely literate. In his childhood he had the alphabet beaten into him by Father Andreas the village priest, more because he could not be parted from the education of his stepsister and half-brother than for any other reason. He could in the end spell out English written in Roman script, with difficulty, a difficulty that had not diminished much by what he had learnt as a king.

The book he had taken from the heretic sect caused him no difficulty as regards script. If Shef had known more, or indeed anything, about such things, he would have recognized it as written in Carolingian majuscule, handsomest of medieval scripts, as easy to read as print—and in itself proof positive that the book he held was a recent copy, no more than fifty or sixty years old. As it was, all that Shef realized was that he could read the handwriting well enough. Unfortunately he could not understand a word of the language it was written in: Latin, as it happened. Not good Latin, as Solomon the Jew saw instantly when the book was passed to him. The Latin of an uneducated person, far worse than the Latin of the Bible translated by Saint Jerome, and indeed, from the odd words scattered through it, the Latin of a native inhabitant of these hills. It had not been written in Latin to begin with, Solomon felt sure. Nor yet Greek or Hebrew. Some language he did not know.

Nevertheless Solomon could understand it well enough. At first he had simply read the book to Shef and the listening Svandis. But as the fascination of the story grew upon him, Shef had halted him, and with his usual fierce energy had organized a translating team. They clustered now, seven of them including auditors, in a shady courtyard close by the harbor. Wine and water stood in earthenware pitchers, wrapped in damp cloth to cool them by evaporation. If Shef stood up he could see over the white plastered wall to where the ships of his fleet swung at anchor, controlling their movement with ropes to the shore so as always to present their broadsides to the harbor mouth and the jetties. The catapult crews lay by their machines in the sun, lookouts watching for any sign of movement by the Greek galleys paddling up and down out of range, or from the floating fort which occasionally, and seemingly for practice, sent a rock skimming over the stone moles to splash harmlessly into the harbor. But Shef rarely stood up. His mind was intent on his task. A task, some inner calculator within him said, more vital even than the siege. Or the siege at this stage.

Solomon stood in the courtyard, book in hand. Slowly he translated the Latin he read, phrase by phrase, into the trade-Arabic that most of his hearers could follow. There the message broke into three separate strands. Shef himself translated Solomon’s Arabic into the Anglo-Norse language of his fleet and court, to be written down by Thorvin in his own runic alphabet. A Christian priest whom Solomon had produced, and who had been defrocked by his bishop for some unknown crime, simultaneously translated the Arabic into the Latin-derived patois of the hills, which some called Catalan and some Occitan, or the language of Provence, and wrote it down in his own hand. With great difficulty, as he often complained, for whatever one called his native dialect it had never been written down before, and he had to decide continually how to spell each word. “The way to spell it is the way it’s said,” rumbled Thorvin, but was ignored by all. Finally, and with far more ease than the others, an apprentice of the learned Moishe translated the Arabic into Hebrew and wrote that down as well, in the complex vowel-less system of his native language. By the five men sat Svandis, listening intently and commenting on the story as it unfolded. In the shade, on a pallet, lay Tolman the kite-boy, still wrapped in bandages and staring out of swollen eyes. In the end one book would have become four, in four different languages, done with different levels of skill.

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