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Authors: Stephen Baxter

Tags: #Historic Fiction

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BOOK: Navigator
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Ibn Hafsun stood, and the others followed his lead. ‘Sihtric. The peace of Allah be on you. And your daughter.’
‘And God go with you too.’ The priest was a skinny man, Robert saw, but with a pot-belly that spoke of indulgence. He studied Orm, who towered over him. ‘Well, Viking. When did we last meet?’
‘William’s coronation. Nineteen years gone, or the best part of it.’
‘I wish I could say I was glad to see you. But life is more complicated than that, isn’t it? And this is your son.’ He turned to Robert, grinning. ‘The ardent pagan spawned a devout Christian. How amusing.’ He laughed out loud.
Robert was irritated to be spoken of in this dismissive way.
But then Sihtric’s daughter lifted her head and looked directly at Robert, and he forgot his irritation. Surely she was only a little older than he was. Her face was a perfect oval, the colour of honey, her lips full and red, her nose fine, and her eyes bright blue.
‘Her name,’ Sihtric said drily, ‘is Moraima.’
Robert barely heard him. He was already lost.
They stayed a single night in Santiago de Compostela, and then formed up into a party to ride south. They planned to travel all the way to Cordoba, no longer the capital of a western caliphate, but still the beating heart of Muslim civilisation in Spain.
And, Robert learned, ‘ride’ was the correct word.
They would all be on horseback, their goods carried on the backs of two imperious-looking camels. When they set off, Ibn Hafsun led the way. Robert was expected to bring up the rear, with his eye on these camels. He quickly found it was no joy to plod along immersed in camel farts and hot dust, with nobody to speak to.
What was worse was that the girl, Moraima, rode at the front alongside Ibn Hafsun, never closer than two or three horse-lengths from Robert.
‘For such an advanced civilisation,’ Sihtric observed, ‘the Moors are oddly reluctant to employ the wheel.’
Ibn Hafsun just grinned. ‘Who needs wheels when Allah gave us camels?’
‘So, a daughter,’ Orm said to Sihtric. ‘I wasn’t expecting that. She’s a beauty, priest.’
‘Ah, yes. There is beauty in my family, of a sturdy sort - as you know all too well, Viking, God rest my sister’s soul.’
‘And the mother is a Moor?’
‘Was. Moraima has grown up a Muslim.’
‘I thought the bishops discourage you priests from ploughing your parishioners.’
‘Well, she wasn’t my parishioner. And a man gets lonely, so far from home. You have to live with the people around you; you have to live like them. The Moors call me a Mozarab -
a nearly-Arab... The bishops are a rather long way from Cordoba, Orm.’
As the day wore away and the sun sailed over the dome of sky, the country changed gradually. They passed through the foothills of a sharp mountain range and crossed into drier land, dustier, where the grass was sparse or non-existent, and the hills were like lumps of rock sticking out of the dirt. The towns were tight little clusters of blocky houses the colour of the dust. In the land between the towns olive trees grew in swathes that washed to the horizon, and herds of bony sheep fled as they passed. The people here were different too, their skin darker, their teeth and eyes bright white. On the road they occasionally passed muleteers, hardy, wizened men driving little caravans of laden animals; the bells around the mules’ necks rang moumfully This was not like England, Robert thought.
As the afternoon darkened towards evening, they stopped at an inn. Ibn Hafsun handed over some coins, and they sat on upturned barrels in the shade of olive trees while a woman cooked for them over an open fire. She threw garlic, aubergines, peppers and flour-dipped anchovies into olive oil that spat in a hot pan. As the anchovies fried, a smell of the sea spread through the air.
Ibn Hafsun came to squat on a blanket beside Robert. He dipped bread into a bowl of something foul-smelling; it turned out to be sheep’s-milk cheese laced with crushed fruit. He offered some to Robert, but Robert refused.
Even here, Robert couldn’t get close to Moraima, who sat modestly with her father.
Not far from the road a party of boys worked through a grove of olive trees. They collected the fruit by throwing sticks up into the branches. They were skilful, each throw dislodging many fruit. It looked a good game, and Robert wished he were a couple of years younger so he could join in without embarrassment.
Sihtric and Orm began at last to speak of the business that had brought Orm here.
‘I told you of the Testimony,’ Orm said.
‘Your wife’s prophecy, before she was your wife. Who spoke my name to you, long before she could have known of my existence.’ Sihtric shivered. ‘It feels uncomfortable to be under such supernatural scrutiny But why did it take you fifteen years to get around to doing something about it?’
Orm shrugged. ‘I had a living to make. Funds to raise. A family.’ He glanced at Robert. ‘I considered forgetting about it, giving it up without ever coming here.’
‘So what changed?’
‘I met a traveller - a mercenary who had fought with King Alfonso in al-Andalus. And he told me a fragment of a Moorish legend. There was a line of Eadgyth’s prophecy I had never understood, amid much talk of doves and oceans.’
‘What line?’
‘“The tail of the peacock.” That was what she said. And that was what my traveller finally explained to me.’
Moraima smiled. ‘I understand. I have heard the story...’
According to an old Arab myth, she said, after the Flood the habitable lands of the world were shaped like a bird, with its head in the east and its arse in the west.
‘So much for what the Arabs think of western Europe,’ Orm remarked.
But as al-Andalus became magnificent under the Moors, the land was reimagined as a peacock’s tail.
Robert listened to Moraima’s voice, entranced. She’d hardly spoken since joining the party with her father - and hadn’t said a single word to
Orm said to Sihtric, ‘You see? I knew you were in Spain, but Eadgyth didn’t. She said your name without ever meeting you. And when I came across the business of the peacock’s tail - it all seemed to fit together and I felt I had to follow it up.’
Sihtric smiled. ‘Typical of the Weaver to be cryptic - if it is the Weaver. Let’s refer to the agent who put these words into your wife’s head as, let me see, a
He may be the same as the Weaver, or he may not.’
‘When I showed Eadgyth my transcript of the words she spoke - she had no memory of it - she always called, um, her visitor “she”.’
‘She it is,’ Sihtric said. ‘And what do you believe the Witness has mandated you to do?’
Orm looked at him. ‘Stop you.’
Sihtric gazed back. ‘Well, you’ll have to find out what I’m doing here first, won’t you?’
If Ibn Hafsun was curious about their talk, he didn’t show it. He worked his way through his sheep’s-milk cheese silently.
Somewhere a wailing voice cried. It was a muezzin, Ibn Hafsun told Robert, calling from his tower in the nearby town, summoning the faithful to prayer. Ibn Hafsun fetched his own blanket from his horse, and knelt and faced east.
In the dusty heat, with the alien song in his ears and the exotic scent of the Arab food in his nostrils, Robert had never felt so far from home. And when Moraima glanced at him, her pale blue eyes were the strangest thing of all in this strange new world, and the most enticing.
The next day Robert ignored his duty with the camels. He pushed his way up the column so he rode closer to Ibn Hafsun, and spoke to him.
The Spanish peninsula, he learned, was like a vast square, all but cut off from France by a chain of mountains, the Pyrenees. More chains of mountains crossed the interior, running roughly east to west, and in the lowlands between the mountains rivers snaked over the land. Four of the five greatest rivers drained west into the Ocean Sea.
The north-west corner, around Santiago de Compostela, was green and temperate, and many people made a living from the sea. In the south-east was more greenery, and there the Moors ran market gardens, rich with fruit trees. But here they were passing through the heart of the country, a vast extent of arid lowlands cut through by the mountains and rivers. The Christians in their degenerate descendant-tongue of Latin called it
The winters were long and bitterly cold, the summers dry and intense. There were no woods here, and little in the way of grass, only patchy scrub. No small birds sang, Robert noticed, for there was nowhere for them to nest; only buzzards wheeled, and eagles scouted the hills.
‘And the Christians and the Moors?’
Ibn Hafsun said, ‘You must think of Spain as sliced into three: the Moors in the south, Christian kingdoms in the north, and a kind of frontier land between. As the Christians have gradually grown stronger, the frontier has, with the centuries, been pushed southwards. Now that the Castilians have captured Toledo the frontier roughly cuts the peninsula in two, east to west: the north Christian, the south Moorish.’
Robert nodded, picturing it. ‘And one day that frontier will be pushed all the way south, and Spain will be free of Moors once more.’
‘Are you sure? Look around you. Look what the Moors made of this country.’
They happened to be following a river bank. Robert saw that irrigation systems striped the countryside, and along the river itself huge waterwheels turned patiently.
‘All this is Moorish,’ Ibn Hafsun said. ‘There was a high civilisation here, Robert son of Orm. The highest since the Romans. Higher than Christendom.’
‘Not so high,’ Robert said fiercely, ‘that Alfonso’s Christian armies could not drive the Moors out.’
Ibn Hafsun shrugged. ‘Well, that’s inarguable.’
‘Must it be so?’
The soft voice startled Robert. It was Moraima, who had come to ride alongside the two of them. She spoke English, her father’s language, but heavily accented.
Robert said to her, ‘Those are the first words you have spoken to me. And must they be about war?’
‘But it’s all you talk about. You and our fathers.’ Her voice, like her face, was delicate, and yet Robert thought he saw a strength beneath the fragile surface. It only made her more desirable.
‘We weren’t talking about war. Ibn Hafsun was telling me about the country.’
‘Ah,’ said Ibn Hafsun, ‘but you are a warrior of God - a warrior cub at any rate. Tell me that you aren’t dreaming of riding across this land in your mail coat, your sword in your hand, at the side of Rodrigo, El Cid, “The Boss”, the greatest Castilian warrior of all!’
Moraima laughed, a sound like bubbling water. ‘I ask you again, Robert: must it be so?’
Robert said reluctantly, ‘The Pope himself says that if you fight to reclaim Christian lands from infidels, you are fighting for Christ.’
‘Well, the Pope would say that,’ Sihtric called back from his own mount. ‘But the Pope has wider ambitions.’
Across Europe the conflict between Christianity and Islam was already four centuries old. Now the Seljuk Turks, ferociously warlike, had taken the Holy Land itself, all but extinguishing Christianity in the country that had given it birth. And they pressed on the East Roman Empire, long the bulwark between west and east, taking the rich province of Asia Minor. Alexius, emperor in Constantinople, had appealed to the west for help. But after centuries of invasions and war, the post-Roman states of west Europe were like armed camps, fractious and suspicious, bristling with petty armies any of which would have been dwarfed by the legionary forces of old. The Pope, spiritual leader of all these domains, longed to unify them in a great cause.
‘And what better ambition for a pope than a war against Islam?’ Ibn Hafsun murmured.
Moraima eyed Robert again. ‘I ask you once more: Must it be so?’
Robert said, ‘I hope not.’
‘You do?’
‘I would rather you and I were friends, than enemies.’
‘Then we will have to see how this little adventure of ours unfolds, won’t we?’ And she trotted back to her father’s side.
The older men exchanged bawdy glances, but Robert ignored them.
In the days that followed, as they pushed steadily south, the country became rougher. The olive groves and vineyards grew wild, the scrub encroached on the roads, and many of the towns looked abandoned. There were some inhabited communities, but all were heavily defended: fortified hilltops, towns with complicated systems of walls and towers. Ibn Hafsun and Orm kept their swords exposed.
Ibn Hafsun said, ‘This is the boundary, Robert. This is what you get when great civilisations rub against each other. The Arabs have a word. They call this the tugur. The front teeth.’
At last they party approached Toledo. The party drew to a halt, all of them subdued.
It was mid-afternoon, and the sun was in the south, so that, approaching from the north, Robert saw the city in silhouette. The heart of Toledo was a fortress that sat on a promontory, with a river glistening at its feet. And on the plain outside the town, across a stout stone bridge, an army had gathered, pennants glittering in a cloud of dust, tents fluttering in the soft breeze. It was a Christian army, gathered under the cross of Jesus.
Ibn Hafsun came to Robert. ‘What do you make of it, soldier?’
Robert glanced around. ‘A naturally defensible site, on that rock. The river guards it on three sides. The walls are Moorish?’
‘Roman, then Gothic, then Moorish.’
‘And yet the town fell to Alfonso.’
‘Only months ago. The wounds are raw. You have come to the very edge of Christendom, young soldier. We will stay here only one night. The city is a place of narrow streets, winding, many shadows. Watch your back, and your father’s. And tomorrow - al-Andalus! Or what is left of it. Now, come. Have you any coin? I have a feeling those soldiers of the King will extract a toll from us for crossing their bridge ...’
BOOK: Navigator
12.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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