King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 3, 4

Farman looked out at the shape of a speeding coach on the road, trailed by a plume of dust and thirty galloping horses. “I cannot be sure,” he said. “I have seen nothing in my dreams of this. But from all I have heard, I would say that this man has unfinished business with the gods. Maybe it is his destiny to regain the Holy Lance, maybe to burn the gates of Rome, I do not know. But while he sits here he is rejecting it, turning his gaze away.”

“Fretting about women he left behind many years ago,” agreed Brand.

“It may be he needed the chance to draw breath, even to grow to be a man,” Farman went on. “But he will grow no more if he stays here playing muddy games with yokels.”

“We must get him on board a ship,” said Thorvin. “Maybe it will take him where the gods mean him to be, like the naked child floating on the shield in the story.”

“But this time he must not go alone,” said Farman. “You are his friends. You must go with him. As for me—I will wait for clearer guidance.”

From outside the notes of the bagpipe squealed their discordant warning.

Chapter Four

Ghaniya, half-brother to the Caliph of Cordova, well understood the importance of his mission to the North, to the savage, half-naked, fire-worshiping majus, the devil-people, as he thought of them. That did not prevent him from hating every moment of it. He was a man of certain and unquestioned loyalty. If he had not been, of course, he would not have survived his brother’s succession to the divan, the cushioned throne of Cordova. His brother might be called, in honor of his great ancestor, Abd er-Rahman, the Servant of the Compassionate One, but there was no compassion in his nature. When he succeeded to his father, the sword and the bowstring had been busy. The male children of his father’s harem had been considered carefully and attentively. The children of true Arabs, descendants of the Quraysh, had died soon: they might have been centers for future rebellion. The descendants of Christian slave-women had died also, if they seemed unusable: some of the best had been given posts in exile, under supervision, often on the frontier against the feeble Christian princedoms and dukedoms of the mountainous North of Spain. Ghaniya, however, had been the son of a Berber woman. His blood not pure enough to attract supporters, yet he was the child of no mustarib either, no would-be-Arab, as they contemptuously called the children of Christians who had converted to Islam for food, or advancement.

Ghaniya knew he was good enough to be used. Not good enough to be feared. It satisfied his ambition, at least for the time. He had no intention of risking once again the leather carpet that stood before the divan, with by it the giant slaves with their scimitars forever drawn.

It was a good sign also that he had been sent on this mission. He knew how seriously his half-brother took it, as he had taken the news from Mallorca and from Sicily. Not that a Caliph of Cordova could fear the activities of the Christians, whether Greek or Frank. The city of Cordova in the year 875 had fully half a million inhabitants: more than the villages of Rome and Byzantium and all the capitals of all the Franks put together. Every day three thousand minarets called the faithful to prayer. Every day a thousand carts rolled into the city with food for the citizens, drawn from the immensely fertile valley of the Guadalquivir, and all of Andalusia beyond it. The Christians could not reach Cordova if all the Faithful did was merely to stand before them to block their way.

And yet er-Rahman his brother had listened with great care to the account of Mu’atiyah, the pupil of bin-Firnas: as he had also to the reports of his merchants returning from Egypt and reporting on the panic and fear among the Tulunids there. He had condescended even to explain his thoughts to his half-brother.

“We need the islands,” he had said. “They guard our traders, they guard our shores. Also,” he went on, “a caliph must think of the future. For many years we have pressed back the unbelievers, from the day our ancestor landed on the shore at Jeb el-Tarik, and told his men the sea was behind them and the enemy in front, and there was nothing for them but victory or death. Now we come upon a check. Is it a check, or is it the moment when the balance tilts?” Er-Rahman, knowing only a tideless sea, had no idea of the image of the tide turning, but if he had he would have used it. “If our enemies even think the balance is tilting,” he concluded, “they will gain heart. We must thrust them back once more.

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Categories: Harrison, Harry