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

Hagbarth was preparing for the noon ceremony, at which he measured the height of the sun with his seaman’s staff, and considered the results against a set of tables he was compiling. It was of little practical value. The answer might tell you—if Shef understood the theory—how far north or south you were, but all that meant in practice was that Hagbarth could say which spot on the Atlantic shore they were now level with. What would be more interesting would be to combine these results, one day, with a good map. Such information, Shef recognized, would have saved him and his companions much trouble during their long walk across the Keel of Norway from Atlantic shore to Jarnberaland.

Shef unrolled the map he had been given by his Arab hosts, one, he conceded, far better than any he had seen in his life before. They had watered the night before at Denia, a good protected harbor with smooth beaches either side for the shallow-draft ships to draw up on. There the commander of the local garrison had reported that the Christian warships, and in particular the feared Red Fleet of the Greeks, had made landings less than a hundred miles to the north within the last two weeks. They could, then, be just over the horizon at this moment.

At the thought, Shef raised his head and called to the lookout.

“Anything to see?”

“Nothing, lord. The admiral’s spread his awnings and stopped rowing, dropping behind us now. A few fishing boats out to sea. All of them got those funny three-corner sails. The skyline’s bare as a whore’s—”

A yell from Hagbarth cut short the lookout’s simile. For some reason Hagbarth had decided that the purity of their one female passenger had to be guarded from contamination. All the Vikings, Shef had noted, much as they might dislike her, were unable entirely to resist the awe they felt for the Ragnarsson blood.

Hagbarth sat down cross-legged on the deck next to Shef and the map, followed by Hund and Thorvin, who settled himself more deliberately on a canvas folding stool. Shef looked round for a moment, wondering who else might be invited to join the impromptu council. Brand was not aboard, had insisted on returning to his own ship, the Narwhal, built to replace the much-lamented Walrus. His excuse was that he felt impatient aboard the stately Fafnisbane, preferred the maneuverability of his own smaller ship. Shef suspected that he simply could not bear the presence of Svandis, for her father’s sake or her own. Skaldfinn was standing in plain sight by the rail. Why did he not come over? Shef realized that Skaldfinn had with him Suleiman the Jew, did not want to abandon him, was not sure that Suleiman would be welcome at a conference which he could, by now, very well understand.

The Jew was a strange, dignified, withdrawn figure. For weeks Shef had been unable to imagine him as anything but a machine for translating, yet learning a language from someone gives many insights. Shef had begun to think that, for all his professed loyalty to Abd er-Rahman and his Muslim masters, Suleiman was—not quite to be trusted? Capable of being won over? One thing that had emerged was that in the Muslim world, Jews paid taxes, and Christians, while Muslims did not. That was bound to be a source of discontent, if not disaffection. Shef waved to Skaldfinn, indicated that Suleiman was welcome to join them too.

“Well,” said Hagbarth. “Tell us again, lord, what’s the plan? We launch kites into the air, steal Greek fire from the Christians, and rain it down from the sky.”

Shef grinned. “Don’t tell Mu’atiyah. He’ll say his master thought of it first. All right. We’re about here.” He tapped the map with a grubby, nail-bitten finger. “The Christians can’t be far away, and all we hear says they’re coming for us just as we’re going for them. We should expect a straight head-on clash. So that’s what we won’t get. They know something we don’t know, we know something they don’t know.”

“So do the easy part,” said Hagbarth, youngest and most careless of the Way-priests. “Tell us what we know.”

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Categories: Harrison, Harry