King and Emperor by Harry Harrison. Chapter 8, 9, 10

“English,” Svandis hissed. “How many Englishwomen do you think there are in Cordova? In the harems?”

Shef let go of Brand, walked back to look at her more carefully. Svandis realized that his face had once more turned grim. When he spoke, it seemed to be to himself, though he addressed the words to Hund.

“We might have known, eh? I saw them in Hedeby market, Vikings selling Wendish girls to Arabs. The guard told me the price of girls had gone up since the English trade stopped producing. But they must have been selling girls down here for fifty years. Everywhere we go, Hund, we find them. In backwoods Norway, in turf huts on Shetland, here in Spain. There doesn’t seem to be a place in the world without its slave from Norfolk or Lincoln. Or Yorkshire,” he added, remembering the berserk Cuthred. “One day we must have a chat with an experienced slaver, I bet we have a few lying quiet in the ranks. Find out how they used to divide them up, price them for the market. Worn-out ones for the Swedish sacrifice, strong workers for the hill-farms. And the pretty ones down here, for gold not silver.”

Shef’s hands seemed to grope for a weapon, but as usual he was not carrying one, not even a sword at his belt.

“All right, Svandis, tell me about it sometime. I don’t blame you for what your father did, and he’s paid his price. Now, as you can see, we’re moving. Get some breakfast, get your things together. Hund, see if we have any sick.”

He moved off purposefully towards the oars, shouting for Skaldfinn to see if any could be ransomed from their new owners. Svandis glared uncertainly at his back. Brand too moved away, muttering into his beard. Hund looked up at his apprentice.

“Have you been talking to them about your beliefs?” he said quietly.

“The infidels are playing with their kites again,” remarked the master of the Cordovan flagship to the captain of marines.

The captain, a Cordovan, spat neatly into the sea to show disgust and contempt. “They are trying to catch up with the learned man, bin-Firnas, Allah be merciful to him. As if the sons of dogs from the far end of Barbary could match the deeds of a true philosopher! See, their kite sinks already, and it has no man or boy in it. It is going down like an old sheik’s penis. A far cry from bin-Firnas, I saw his kite fly like a bird with a stout boy in its beak. I wish the infidels may perish in torment, for their pride and their folly.”

The master looked sideways at the captain, wondering if such fury was wise. “The curse of Allah on them,” he said placatingly. “And on all deniers of the Prophet. But may it not fall on these ones till we have seen them use their stone-machines.”

“Stone machines!” snarled the captain. “Better to meet the worshipers of Yeshua saber in hand, as we have always done before, and always defeated them.”

So that’s it, reflected the master. He sees his trade taken away from him. “As you say,” he agreed again. “And if Allah wills we shall do so. But one thing, Osman, you will grant me. Let us keep these majus, these bookless pagans from the North, on our side at least until we have met the Greeks. Their stone machines can do what the bravest sabers can not. And I have no desire to meet the fire of the Greeks at sea.”

He turned from the rail before the disgruntled soldier could frame a reply.

Half a mile away, across the clear blue water of the coastal Mediterranean, gazing through the far-seer the Arab philosopher had given him, Shef watched the kite slowly rocking down the sky. He felt no particular irritation. As soon as the combined fleet of the Way and the men of Andalusia had cleared for sea, after a racing passage down the Guadalquivir, he had begun to experiment, eagerly seconded by Cwicca, Osmod and the catapult crews of the Fafnisbane. Shef had made certain large quantities of the poles and cloth that bin-Firnas used for his devices had been taken with them. He and his men now set to construct kites after any fashion that seemed likely. “We don’t know what holds the things up,” Shef had told the eager attentive circle. “So we might as well try anything and see what works.”

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