“And another thing. We have always known the Christians our inferiors in all the arts of civilization. Where have they such a man as bin-Firnas”—he stretched a hand to his listening pupil—”and yet now they come on our shores with weapons we cannot match. We must know more. Our enemies will not tell us. Yet our enemies have enemies too, or so we hear. The news came years ago of the defeat of a great host of the ferengis, the Franks, at the hands of those who were not Christians. Seek them out, my brother. Find what they know. Bring us help, or knowledge. Take with you the pupil of bin-Firnas, to report on whatever mechanic arts the savages have been able to learn.”
He had waved a hand. And by doing so he had sent Ghaniya with his guards and his companions, and his adviser the pupil of bin-Firnas, on this terrible expedition into the land of everlasting wind and cold.
It had begun ill, with the ship they had taken from the port of Malaga pronounced useless as soon as they were through the straits of Jeb el-Tarik themselves. The sea grew fiercer, the wind stronger, the rowers made no progress against the current sweeping in from the ocean to the central sea of the world, the Mediterranean. Ghaniya had transferred at Cadiz to a different vessel, a ship with sails, captained and crewed by men who showed the blood of the Christians in their faces and their actions. They had been willing enough to sail north, for gold, and their families remained as hostages for their loyalty. Yet Ghaniya had doubts about their respect from the start.
Even his pork-eating crewmen had fallen silent, though, as they pressed further into the cold seas of the North. As they approached what they had heard should be their goal, the port of Lon ed-Din, gray shores beginning to show on either hand, a strange craft had sheered up to them out of the everlasting squalls of rain. A ship twice the size of theirs, with two masts made from tree-trunks, and sails towering up to the sky. High castles stood on poop and bow, with great machines on them and fierce bearded faces glowering over iron plates. The ship had not closed up, merely pulled alongside, and with deliberate routine launched a great rock into the sea ten yards ahead of Ghaniya’s own bow. A long shouted exchange in some unknown language like the barking of dogs: then the ship had shifted its sails and swept leisurely away.
“They say go ahead,” the mustarib skipper translated. “They wanted to be sure only that we were not servants of the Franks, of the Empire with whom they are at eternal war.”
A good sign, Ghaniya had tried to think. The enemy of my enemy is my friend, and these are enemies of the Franks, true enough. Yet he had not liked the careless ease with which a ship of Cordova had been weighed and dismissed. Nor had he liked the strange sight of the ship. Even the supercilious Mu’atiyah, he noticed, had stood gaping after it for too long.
Shef’s shipwrights had had several years of peace in which to discard or perfect the desperate makeshifts of the 860s. Prodded on by their king, and by the expert advisers of the Way, Hagbarth priest of Njörth prominent among them, they had come up with new designs taking up the best features and solving the problems of the old. The idea of the catapult-mounting battleship had stayed, much improved by the ring mounting devised by steelmaster Udd. The problem of weight high up had been solved by broadening and ballasting the hull. The terrible sluggishness of Shef’s first “Shire” class of battleships had been solved in part by developing and extending the two-mast design. The doubled sail area had meant that the fisherman’s idea of the slanted and extended sail could be dropped. There were still problems, as Shef’s skippers reported, sailing before the wind, for the rear sail robbed the wind of the foresail. If they could, such ships would always sail with wind on the beam. Some skippers were experimenting with a small extra sail on a topmast above the foremast, keeping half a dozen lithe lightweight boys in their crew to shin up and reef the sail when needed. Yet meanwhile one problem remained, which Brand at least had thought insoluble: weakness in the keel, now larger than any single tree-trunk could furnish.