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Authors: Stephen Baxter

Tags: #Historic Fiction

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BOOK: Navigator
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But as he passed his father, Orm whispered, ‘Just be careful.’
XVIII
Outside the light of the low afternoon sun seemed dazzling bright. The guard stood just a pace away, his arms folded, glaring.
Robert faced the girl. ‘Moraima, I—’
‘Hush. Don’t talk. Not here.’
They walked across the palace compound. They soon reached ruins, for only a fraction of Madinat az-Zahra had been restored to habitability by the vizier’s workmen. But Moraima knew the way, and led Robert further. Following rubble-strewn paths they came to a complex of high walls and fallen roofs, where tiles and broken stucco littered a weed-cracked floor. ‘Once a harem,’ Moraima whispered. ‘Complicated place. Easy to get lost. Come on.’ She took his hand, and they ran, turning left then right and doubled back, hurrying between high walls and across empty, broken floors. Robert soon became lost himself, even though the afternoon sun hung as a constant beacon in the sky.
And before long the vizier’s guard had been completely left behind.
She brought him to a ruined patio. Weeds clogged ponds long since stagnant, wiry little bushes pushed through cracks in the paving stones, and palms had outgrown the gardeners’ neat configurations and gone wild. The walls of the rooms here were burned out and open to the sky. But some of the arches still stood, still serving as doorways to this secret garden.
For Robert, walking into this place with Moraima at his side was a fulfilment of the overheated, fragmentary fantasies he had had since he first arrived in Cordoba.
They found a stone bench and sat. A small bird fluttered away, disturbed. Somewhere a guitar played, and a thin voice sang a plaintive song.
‘I like it here,’ Moraima said. ‘Even though nobody has touched it for fifty years. I like the idea that a place can be beautiful even when the people have vanished, that things will go on when all our fussing and fighting is over. If this is all we leave behind when we’ve gone, a pretty place where the birds can nest, perhaps that’s enough.’
He took her hand. In fact it felt like a bird in his palm, the bones thin, fragile, the flesh warm. ‘That’s a melancholy thought.’
She smiled, enigmatic. ‘But you’ve seen how I live. They say they love me, the two of them.’
‘Sihtric and Ibn Tufayl.’
‘Father and grandfather. I sometimes think that all they do is use me to hurt each other. And sometimes, it’s awful, sometimes I think they don’t love me at all. That they blame me for killing my mother, who they both loved more than they love me.’
He wanted to comfort her, to reassure her that couldn’t be true. But the priest and the vizier were complicated, ugly creatures, locked together, feeding off each other’s weakness and pain. How could he say if they loved her well or not? No wonder she dreamed of a world without humans.
‘Moraima, I’ve heard what they want. But what do
you
want? What kind of life?’
‘I don’t know,’ she said honestly. ‘I can’t imagine it. Things are too complicated.
But ...’
‘Yes?’
‘It doesn’t feel complicated when I’m with you.’
His heart hammered. ‘If it wasn’t for the others - my father, yours, the vizier - if things were different—’
‘If Jesus and Muhammad had never existed? What’s the good of talking like that? Things are as they are; you can’t change the past.’
But her father, he thought, seemed to believe that the past
could
be changed. ‘But even so. If it was only a question of the two of us, could we make a life together?’
She said firmly, ‘We can never know. Because it isn’t going to happen, is it? All we have is this moment.’ Her face was before his, softened by nearness, her eyes huge, the colours of the wild garden reflected in her smooth skin. ‘That’s all anybody has.’
‘Then we should grasp it.’
Their lips closed together. Her breath was like the breeze off the desert. ‘I don’t even mind,’ she whispered into his mouth, ‘that you smell so bad.’
They kissed again, and he felt as if he was passing through another arched gateway into a still more wonderful place yet.
XIX
Orm and Sihtric sat on floor cushions inside the priest’s study, as he called it, in a corner of the palace complex. It was a nest of shelves heaped with books and parchments, and there was a lingering smell of lamp oil and candle soot. The room was in poor condition, the ceiling blackened by some ancient fire, the wall hangings musty and frayed; this part of the ruined palace was only poorly restored. But the room was far from the bustle of the vizier’s court, and Sihtric said he liked it this way.
‘For I have secrets in this room,’ said Sihtric. ‘Secrets I’ve shared with no one - certainly not the vizier. You want to know
why
I stay here, why I live among Moors who speak of Allah, and Christians who speak no Latin? Why I have let myself become locked into a damaging relationship with a snake like the vizier ...’ He glanced upwards to the darkened ceiling, as if challenging God. ‘You see, Orm, I’ve found a rent in the tapestry of time. Another one, a third or a fourth, to add to the ripping-open of the Menologium of Isolde, and the Codex, and your poor wife’s Testament. And through that rent I have glimpsed horror. But from that horror I have conceived an ambition as big as the world, Orm. It is nothing less than the final defeat of Islam, and the preservation of Christendom into the far future. What higher goal can there be than that? Is a man justified in giving up his very soul to achieve such an aim?’
A month had passed since the incident of Ghalib and the waterwheel. A month in which Orm had continued to learn uncomfortable details of Sihtric’s murky career in Cordoba. And now, he said, Sihtric was going to tell him the whole truth. Orm wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it. He shivered, obscurely frightened. ‘You always did talk in riddles, priest.’
‘Well, the whole business is a riddle, isn’t it? But then it always was.’
Sihtric got to his feet and crossed to the wall. He pulled away a crate stacked with books, then hauled aside a shabby hanging to expose tiles with geometric patterns, a kind of trefoil in black and white that, repeated, covered the wall area. Sihtric dug his fingers into the edge of a tile and with some effort picked it away from the wall. ‘I have a habit of biting my nails,’ he said. ‘Makes this tricky.’ A hatch, concealed by tiles, now hinged down to reveal an iron door. Sihtric extracted a key from his robe, unlocked the door, and it swung back to reveal a compartment inside the wall. Sihtric began to rummage in the dark space, which Orm saw was full of books, scrolls, heaps of parchment and vellum. There was a musty smell, of rot and age.
Sihtric drew a flat wooden box from the wall compartment. He placed this on a table, unpicked ties of copper wire, and opened up the box like the covers of a book. Leather hinges creaked slightly, and a smell like stale meat flooded the room.
Inside the box was a wooden frame over which was stretched a sheet of what looked like vellum. Orm peered closely. Words had been marked onto the vellum, pricked in some black ink. The small, closely spaced letters were lined up in neat rows, but had been distorted by the stretching of the vellum, and in places the skin was pocked and broken, crudely stitched. There was nothing else in the box.
With faint dread Orm reached out and touched the vellum. It was dry, rough. ‘What is this, calfskin?’
Sihtric would not say. ‘When I found this object it was rolled up inside a wooden cylinder, for it had been preserved as a holy relic. It is old, three centuries or more.’
‘So you stretched it on this frame.’
‘With infinite care, yes. But I couldn’t help a little distortion of the letters.’
Orm looked closely at the first few lines. ‘Is this Latin? “My name is al-Hafredi, as the scribes tell it, and Alfred, as my family knew me. That liveth, was dead, evermore ...” I don’t understand. A riddle? The name, though. Al-Hafredi is a Moorish name. But Alfred—’
‘English, of course. The name of our greatest king.’
‘Here is a man who lived under the Moors, then,’ Orm said. ‘His name, Alfred, was rendered in a Moorish way. Just as our guide Ibn Hafsun’s name was a corruption of the old family name of Alfonso.’
‘You should have been a scholar.’
‘Don’t mock me,’ Orm said mildly. ‘However my scholarship doesn’t extend to puzzling out the rest. “That liveth, was dead, evermore.” It’s not even a sentence. What does it mean?’
‘There lies the cunning. The manuscript isn’t in any kind of code. But it does contain fragments like this. They puzzled me too, until I saw that the intention of this man, a Christian living under the Moors, was to speak clearly to other Christians, in a way that his Moorish masters would not understand. So, pagan, what piece of literature do all Christians share?’
‘The Bible.’
‘Correct. And I realised that what we have in this line is a fragment of the Bible, a quotation, compressed and embedded.’
‘What quotation?’
‘From the Book of the Revelation of Saint John.’ He closed his eyes. ‘“I am he that liveth, and was dead; and behold, I am alive for evermore.” Liveth, dead, evermore. You see?’
‘If you say so.’
‘The quotations come from both the Old and New Testaments. With patience I riddled them all out. It would take a Christian to do so. The Muslims do study the Bible, you know; they call it the “Holy Book”. However no Muslim scholar will know the Bible as intimately as a Christian. Of course the quotations are allusive rather than literal. Puzzling out the story al-Hafredi wished to tell; that was the real challenge.’
‘But you did it.’
‘Oh, yes. Given time.’
‘Then tell me what you learned.’
‘Ironically it was an assignment by the vizier himself that set me on this course ...’
After the
fitnah
the
taifas,
coalescing and competing, had struggled to develop scholarship as a way of achieving dominance over each other; there had even been something of a renaissance as the monopolistic power of a corrupt caliphate collapsed. Seville was not to fall behind. Ibn Tufayl had the backing of his emir, and the funds to progress scholarly projects.
‘Among other things, Ibn Tufayl decided he wanted a new history of al-Andalus to be written, from the day three centuries past when Tariq led his armies of Arabs and Berbers across the strait, up to the present. It would be the first significant survey for more than a century, since the time of one Ahmad ar-Razi.’
‘And he commissioned you to do that.’
‘It was part of the condition of his funding my work on the Engines of God. I think it amused Ibn Tufayl to have a Christian working on a history of the greatest enemy of Christendom itself. But I was happy enough to take the job, as it was an excuse for me to burrow into the mountain of scholarship the Muslims accumulated over the centuries of the caliphate. Knowledge, Orm, knowledge, the greatest power of all. You never know where it might lead! And so the vizier and I came to a mutually satisfactory arrangement.
‘The work went smoothly enough. But I soon became aware of a great mystery.’
‘What mystery?’
‘Why it is that I was born a Christian and not a Muslim,’ Sihtric said. ‘Why I grew up, in England, speaking English.
Why Christianity survives at all.’
XX
The great expansion of Islam had begun within a generation of the death of Muhammad. It became necessary, for the first caliphs, like Roman generals, quickly came to depend on plunder to survive. ‘It was conquer or perish,’ Sihtric said. So the armies of Damascus exploded out of Arabia, swept west across North Africa, and stormed across the Pillars of Hercules and through the Gothic kingdom of Spain.
And, with al-Andalus under the control of governors appointed by the Damascus caliphate, the raiding armies went further north still. The Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees to attack Septimania, a Gothic domain within Gaul. They were Arabs and Berbers, men of the east and of Africa, now pouring into the green belly of Gaul.
Soon, under an able general called Abd al-Rahman, all the cities of the Mediterranean coast of Gaul were in Muslim hands. It was the eighth century. Less than a decade since the first crossing of the strait.
‘There were fault lines, on both the Moorish and Christian sides,’ Sihtric said. ‘Abd al-Rahman always had trouble with the Berbers. One Berber general called Munuza managed to carve out an independent kingdom for himself in northern Spain, bordering Gaul. And his neighbour in Gaul was the Duke Odo of Aquitaine, who had nominally pledged allegiance to the French kings, but like Munuza craved his own independence. Both pebbles in the shoes of their respective rulers, you see.
‘Well, Abd al-Rahman had a tidy mind. He shook out both these pebbles. He killed Munuza, and then crossed the mountains into Aquitaine. Odo’s forces were defeated, and Abd al-Rahman, leading his army in person, drove forward, thrusting deep into Gaul. Fifteen thousand men he had, to carry out the usual burning, looting, massacring, enslavement and so forth. And he advanced to within two hundred miles of Paris, to a place called Poitiers.’
‘I know it. Not far from the sanctuary of Saint Martin of Tours.’
‘And there, history turned,’ Sihtric said. ‘The Muslims were at the door to the “Great Land”, as they called it, of western Europe. Perhaps they could go further - perhaps they could advance all the way to Constantinople.
‘But there, on the Roman road north of Poitiers, al-Rahman faced the army of the Frankish king, the last significant obstacle between the Muslims and all Europe.’
Orm knew the story. ‘Charles Martel. The Hammer.’
‘Well, Charles became known as “the Hammer” only
after
his great victory, after he saved Europe for Christendom. A story told to every young Christian warrior since!
But it need not have been so.
This is where we come to the rent in time’s tapestry, Orm. This is what happened ...’
BOOK: Navigator
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