King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 5, 6, 7

The noise ceased abruptly as Shef gave the signal to halt and the right-hand marker, by arrangement, waved his spear in a circle. Shef’s men, Vikings and English, stood rigid in their ranks in the outside courtyard.

“How many may enter for audience?” asked Shef. No more than ten besides yourself, came the answer. Shef nodded, pointed out those to come with him. Brand and Thorvin, Hagbarth and Skaldfinn. He hesitated over Hund. No-one in the North knew more of leech-craft, and Cordova was famous for it: he might be needed to judge or respond. Yet he would not be parted from the irritating, but still obediently veiled Svandis. Take them both, then. Finally he called forward two of the Viking skippers to flank Brand, both men who had fought their way to command in a score of single combats, nodded silently to his long-term companions Cwicca and Osmond, with their crossbows.

The Caliph, sitting high on his dais, observed the strangers enter, listening now to muttered commentary from Ghaniya, who had come forward while the majus assembled outside. The king was the one-eyed one. Strange for the ferengis, who respected strength and size so much. The king should be the giant beside him. Though the one-eye had indeed the bearing of command. Abd er-Rahman noted the way he strode forward confidently to stand directly in front of him, looked round for his translators.

He noted also the sweat by now pouring from under the hair and the gold circlet. What were these men wearing? Metal to hold the rays of the sun; leather underneath it to guard their skin; and beneath that, it seemed, sheep’s wool? In the Andalusian summer men dressed like that would die of heat-stroke before noon. And yet the king and his men showed no awareness of it, felt no shame at the evidence of their own bodies’ discomfort, did not even try to wipe their brows. My people think it dignified to withdraw from discomfort, the Caliph reflected. These think it dignified to ignore it, like a slave working in the sun.

The Caliph asked the first and vital question: “Ask, are any of these men Christians?”

He expected the question to go to Suleiman the Jew, who would speak in Latin, and be translated by some man of learning among the strangers. He was surprised to see, as Suleiman indeed began to translate, the king himself shake his head. He understood some Arabic, then. And the answer was already forthcoming. Skaldfinn had as his vocation the learning of languages and the understanding of peoples. He had spent the voyage learning from Suleiman, and teaching him Anglo-Norse in exchange. Shef too had sat listening much of the time. Skaldfinn spoke now in slow but passable Arabic, translating for his king.

“No. None of us are Christians. We allow Christians to follow their faith, but we follow a different Way, and a different book. We fight only against those who deny that right.”

“Has it been explained to you that there is only one God, who is Allah, and that Muhammad is his Prophet? Believe that, and you can expect rich reward from me.”

“It has been explained.”

“You do not believe in Allah? You choose to believe in your own gods, whoever they are?”

Tension and the note of the executioner in the Caliph’s voice. Brand shifted his grip slightly on the axe “Battle-troll,” and marked the two men standing behind the Caliph, scimitars bared. Big men, he thought. Burnt blacker by the sun than I have ever seen before. But naked above the waist, no shields. Two blows and the third for the Arab in the chair.

Realizing that he could follow the Arabic that the Caliph spoke, Shef replied for the first time without a translator. Pitching his voice high, and speaking the simplest Arabic that he could, he called out: “I have not seen Allah. I have seen my own gods. Maybe if I had two eyes I would see Allah too. One eye cannot see everything.”

A buzz of comment ran round the courtyard. The Arabs, used to metaphorical language and the art of indirect reproof, understood the last sentence. He means that those who believe in one thing alone are half-blind. Blasphemer, thought some. Wise for a ferengi, thought others.

Page: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19

Categories: Harrison, Harry