This is not a man to fence with, thought the Caliph. Already he has shown he understands display. Now he is taking my own audience chamber away from me.
“Why have you come to Cordova?” he said.
Because you asked me, thought Shef, glancing slightly at Ghaniya standing between and to the side of both men. Aloud, he replied: “To fight your enemies. My enemies too. Ghaniya tells me the Franks have new weapons to fight on sea and on land. We men of the Way understand new weapons. We have brought new weapons and new ships to see if our enemies can stand against them.”
The Caliph looked silently at Ghaniya, who began an excited account of the ships and the catapults of the Wayman fleet. As they sailed south Shef had several times encouraged the skippers to make raft-targets, drop them over the side, and then destroy them at half a mile with hurled rocks. The crews were skilled and practiced, and the results had amazed the envoy. Indeed no ship known to him could take more than a blow or two from the onagers: he had not seen the armored but virtually unsailable Fearnought of the Braethraborg battle.
As Ghaniya came to an end, Abd er-Rahman looked thoughtfully once more at the God-defier. He is still not impressed, he thought, watching the grim impassive face. Nor his companions. He made a sign, and one of the huge executioners walked forward, bringing his scimitar from his shoulder. Another sign, and a slave-girl stepped out to join him. As she did so she peeled away the long filmy scarf that covered her upper body and stood, still veiled but with breasts bared before the men.
“I hear much of your new weapons,” he said. “We have weapons too.”
He flicked his hand. The girl tossed her scarf in the air. Slowly, gently, the thin silk floated down. The executioner turned his scimitar edge up and held it out beneath the drifting fabric. The scarf met the edge, divided, settled in two pieces to the ground.
Brand grunted, muttered something to the skippers at his side. Now, the Caliph thought, the king will tell that giant to split something with his great clumsy axe.
Shef turned, looked at Cwicca and Osmod. Neither of them the best shot in the world, he thought. Osmod is a bit more certain. He pointed silently at a marble vase holding bright purple flowers in a niche above the Caliph’s head. Osmod gulped visibly, looked sideways at Cwicca, unslung his crossbow. Cocked it with one heave on the goat’s-foot lever. Dropped in the short iron quarrel. Raised, aimed and pulled trigger.
Osmod had guessed right, aiming low to allow for the short-range rise. The armor-piercing bolt smashed into the stone, shattering it into pieces. Stone splinters hummed around the room, the bolt bounced back from the wall and clanged onto the floor. The flowers fell in a decorative trail. Earth from the shattered vase slowly pattered down.
The Caliph stroked his beard in the silence. I threatened him with my executioners, he thought. But that Iblis-bolt would have split my heart before I could move. Ghaniya did not warn me enough.
“You will fight our enemies,” he said finally, “and you say that is what you have come for. If our enemies are your enemies, that may be true. But no-one works only for another’s good. There must be something else that has brought you here. Tell me what it is, and by Allah I shall do my best to see you have it.”
For the third time the foreign king shocked him. In clear but simple Arabic he replied once more.
“We have come to see the flying man.”
Shef pushed his way impatiently through the growing crowd, the pole-ladder emblem of his god dangling over his chest. As the days of waiting had gone by, he and his men had slowly discarded layers of clothing. First the mail armor. It had become clear that while Shef’s two hundred men were indeed in the heart of a potentially hostile power, nevertheless they were so outnumbered as to make organized battle futile, while the streets of Cordova were guarded with such strictness that no man need fear private quarrel. Shef had put the Vikings’ mail and the Englishmen’s crossbows in a guardroom, less to keep them safe, he remarked, than to prevent them from selling their issued weapons for drink.