Ishaq hesitated, unsure whether he dared press on. He himself, like so many of the learned of Cordova, sympathized heart and soul with those who offered free inquiry, a breaking of the chains of hadith, tradition. They had learned not to betray their sympathies. Yet he might venture to show the dilemma, as the wise thinkers of the Greeks, the falasifah, might put it.
“The Caliph will see that the Mu’tazilites provoke a hard choice,” he continued. “For if we agree with them, we agree that the law of the shari’a, the clear path, may be altered. And then where is our clear path? But if we do not agree with them, we must believe that the Koran was there even before it was declared to the Prophet himself. And if we believe that, we take honor from the Prophet for finding it out and declaring it.”
“What is your view, Ishaq? Speak freely. If I do not like what you say, I will not hear it nor ask you again.”
The librarian drew a deep breath, sympathizing with that famous vizier of the Caliph Haroun, who said that every time he left the presence, he felt his own head to see if it were still on his shoulders. “I think the Mu’tazilites may have had some kernel of wisdom. The Prophet was a man, who lived and died as one. Some part of what he said was human, some part sent by God. It may be that the parts declared by his own human wisdom are subject to change, as are all the works of man.”
“But we do not know which is which,” summed up the Caliph. “And so the seed of doubt is sown.”
Ishaq cast his eyes down, hearing the iron clang of finality, so often followed by the note of death. He had come to the end of toleration once again.
Outside the quiet courtyard there came a patter of feet, breaking the thin current of the slave-girl’s song. The Caliph lifted his eyes, aware that he would not be disturbed save for something he had already indicated. The messenger who stood at the edge of the colonnade came forward, breathing deeply to show his diligence and the speed with which he had raced to his master. He bowed deeply.
“The deputation sent to the land of the majus has returned,” he announced. “And not alone! They have come with the king of the majus and a fleet of strange ships.”
“They have reached the mouth of the Guadalquivir, and are rowing up it in some of their ships, the smallest ones. They row swiftly, almost as swiftly as our horses. They will be here in Cordova in two days’ time, in the morning.”
The Caliph nodded, flicked fingers to his vizier to have the messenger rewarded, murmured orders to have guest-quarters prepared.
“A king,” he said finally. “A king of the barbarians. It means nothing, but let us take particular care to impress him. Find out what his tastes are: girls, boys, horses, gold, mechanical toys. There is always something the children of the north desire.”
“I want a good display,” said Shef to his chief advisers. He was crouching awkwardly on the bottom boards of one of Brand’s five longships. The seven catapult-mounting two-masters had proved, to the surprise of the Arabs, too deep-keeled to pass far up the river, and had been left behind with full crews and guards. Shef had gone on up river with just the five boats and as many men as could be conveniently fitted into them: just under two hundred all told. He had mixed his crews as well. Twenty men in each ship were Norsemen from their regular crews. The rest had been transferred to the catapult-ships, and replaced by a similar number of crossbowmen, all of them English. The English were taking their turn at rowing, amid much amusement. Nevertheless both sides were well aware of the extra protection the others gave them.
“How do we do that?” asked Brand. Like the others, he had been secretly shocked by the wealth and luxury visible all around them, and even more by the enormous numbers of people. From what they had been told, the city of Cordova alone contained as many people as the whole of Norway. All the way along the river they could see the roofs of mansions, water-wheels turning, villages and towns stretching out across the plains one after the other as far as the eye could see. “We can dress up, but it’ll take more than a silk tunic to impress these people.”