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Authors: Stephen Baxter

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BOOK: Navigator
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‘And yet you prospered.’
‘Well, I formed a relationship with the vizier, Ibn Tufayl. I told him my goals; I showed him Aethelmaer’s designs. He sponsored my work. This is an age of war. I think he regards my work as a worthwhile investment: a relatively small outlay for a possibly handsome return.’
Orm frowned. ‘What sort of relationship?’ This seemed to him the central mystery of Sihtric’s life here.
But Sihtric would only say, ‘There are some things it’s better an innocent like you never learns, Orm.’
Orm, irritated and patronised, tried another approach. ‘Ibn Tufayl works for the emir in Seville. If he turns your arbalest on other Moors, that’s one thing. But what if he turns it on the armies of the Christian kings? Have you thought about that? You’re building these machines with Moorish money. But
who are they for?’
Sihtric glanced around, as if they might be overheard. ‘That particular truth is murky. I came here seeking power and influence for myself, that’s all, ignoble as it is. But while here I have discovered a higher purpose.’
Orm laughed. ‘You always did have ideas above your station, priest.’
‘Yes, well, I’ll have to show you, in good time, and then we’ll see what you have to say about it. And in the meantime, we have another murky truth to explore. Don’t we, Orm?’
‘You mean Eadgyth’s Testament.’ He felt uncomfortable, even though he had come all this way to discuss this.
Sihtric scoffed. ‘What do you think about that, Orm? That you, a Viking whose father worshipped trees, married a woman who was given a vision of God?’
Orm’s discomfort deepened. ‘Isn’t that possible?’
‘You know the truth already,
Orm. You have seen it. You know all about the Menologium, and indeed the Codex of Aethelmaer. You know they were authored by an agent, or agents, intent on deflecting destiny. And now you have felt the cold hands of another history-meddler on your shoulder. Yes,
another,
Orm, I’m convinced of that. For your Witness seems opposed to the intervention made by the author of my Codex, doesn’t she? We’re caught in a war of meddlers, it seems.’
Orm stared at him. ‘“Meddlers”? That’s a very human word.’
‘I use it intentionally. There’s nothing divine about the Weaver, Orm. He fiddles with history as a poor painter adds one brushstroke after another, never satisfied, for he has no true vision. And not only that, the Weaver fails to achieve his goals. William won at Hastings despite the Weaver’s tinkering. No, Orm. The Weaver may not be human; he may be more - or less - than that. But I am convinced he is not God - and nor is your Witness.’
Orm’s shock deepened. ‘But how can he send words through time, into the head of another, save through a miracle? I have seen it myself, in Eadgyth. When she spoke her prophecy,
they were not her words.’
‘Trickery!’ Sihtric said. ‘Machinery! Working on my machines with the Moors has shaped my thinking, Orm. Think of it. You can build a machine that can throw a bolt miles. Waterwheels and canals that can turn a desert green! If you can do all that—’
‘It’s one thing to throw a bolt,’ Orm protested. ‘Another to throw words across centuries.’
‘I can’t imagine how it’s done. But I also can’t imagine what our machines will be capable of in five hundred years, or a thousand. I can put no limits on them, any more than I put limits on God.’ His tone was edgy, uneasy.
‘Is that heresy, priest?’
‘Ah, that’s a good question, and I’m a long way from any bishop who might be able to answer it for me.’
Orm stared at him, trying to pick his way through this morass of theology and speculation. ‘You know, I used to talk about you with your sister, before Hastings. Even then we thought your ambition, that whole business of the Menologium, was destroying you. Turning you away from God. That was twenty years ago.’
‘Well, perhaps you were right.’ Sihtric laughed darkly. ‘Nothing changes, does it?’
They were disturbed by a horseman, who came galloping in a cloud of dust. He was hot, bedraggled. ‘Father! They said I would find you here.’
‘Robert? What’s wrong?’
‘There has been an accident. A boy, Ghalib—’
Sihtric frowned. ‘I know him - the son of a court favourite. Is he dead?’
‘Not yet. But he is so badly injured he soon will be, that’s for sure.’ Robert told them what had happened. ‘I got him out of the water - I tied off the damaged arm. I tried to save him, Father.’
Orm stood. ‘We must sort this out,’ he said to Sihtric.
‘Of course,’ Sihtric said. ‘But, Robert, nobody will blame you if you tried to save this boy. And besides, the doctors here are better than you can imagine. Don’t despair - leave that to me.’ He winked at Orm. ‘Let’s go!’
They ran to their horses, and the three of them galloped away, leaving the scholars to clear away the drinks, to wipe the horse-raised dust from their plans and models and tables, and to return to their patient work on the tremendous arbalest.
XV
Ibn Tufayl had ordered a hospital to be set up for his court in the ruined palace at Madinat az-Zahra. It was just a collection of tents, erected in the shelter of the walls of roofless rooms. Here Robert had to wait with Orm while Sihtric made inquiries about Ghalib.
After the hasty ride back from the arbalest, Robert was hot, dirty, his clothes still stinking of river-bottom mire and soaked through by Ghalib’s blood. He tried to think.
How would it be if Ghalib died? Of course it wasn’t his fault that Ghalib had fallen - it wasn’t his fault that Ghalib had been mucking about on the waterwheel in the first place, and he had risked his own neck by dragging Ghalib out of the water. But the fact was he had been flirting with Moraima, a Muslim girl, and the two boys wouldn’t have trailed around after them if not for that. Robert didn’t want the death of Ghalib on his conscience. And he didn’t want his burgeoning relationship with Moraima, such as it was, to be hauled into the light.
This was going to take some sorting out the next time he was in a confessional box.
Sihtric beckoned, and led them into one of the tents.
Robert was hugely relieved, if astonished, to find Ghalib sitting up in a chair. But his right arm terminated just below the elbow, a stump wrapped in clean white bandages. The boy looked pale, his gaze wandering; perhaps he was drugged. But he was alive, indeed he was conscious, and he didn’t seem to be in any pain. And when he saw Robert, Ghalib’s eyes filled with shame and anger.
Hisham stood beside Ghalib. Attendants fussed around, orchestrated by a portly man in pristine white robes. When he saw the visitors this man approached them. His face, round and sleek, looked as if it had been dipped in oil. He held his hands before him; small like a child’s, they were scrubbed pink-clean, and showed no signs of calluses or scars. He said to Sihtric, ‘Father. We have met before.’ His accent was strange. ‘My name is Abu Yusuf Yunus.’
‘Ah, yes. The Egyptian.’
‘My grandfather was Egyptian,’ Abu Yusuf Yunus said stiffly. ‘I am related by marriage to the Banu Zuhr family. I am a close friend of Abd al-Malik, while my father studied general medicine with his father, Muhammad Ibn Marwan Ibn Zuhr. Furthermore my grandfather studied with al-Zahrawi. We followed the prescripts of the
al-Tasrif
in treating this poor child ...’
Orm grunted, impatient, and he pulled Sihtric aside. ‘What’s he babbling about?’
‘Just establishing his credentials. Making sure I know who he is and where he stands. I told you, Orm, it’s all family with the Moors. They’re all Ibn this or Abu that, the son of him or the father of the other, their lineage carried like a flag. And these scholars are the same, all boasting about their academic lineage, who taught who what.’
Abu Yusuf Yunus, unable to make out their English words, walked towards the injured boy. In stilted Latin he said, ‘The arm was almost severed below the elbow by the waterwheel’s machinery - muscles, arteries and blood vessels all lacerated, the bone, too, all but cut through. To that extent the injury was like the result of a blow with a sword. But the lower arm was crushed, the flesh pulped and the bone ground up, as if the boy had been trampled, say.’ Ghalib looked up at him dimly, and submitted passively as the surgeon began briskly to unravel the bandages on his arm. ‘Your young Christian—’
‘Robert,’ Orm growled. ‘My son.’
‘Robert didn’t save the boy’s life merely by dragging him from the water, but by stemming the blood loss from the damaged arm. He tied it off with a bit of rope below the shoulder.’
‘I did that,’ Hisham said promptly. And he stared at Robert, as if daring him to contradict this naked lie.
‘Then you are a hero, as much as Robert - more so, perhaps, for you used your brain rather than your muscles. Well done. Well done indeed.’
Robert looked away. Orm put his hand on his shoulder.
The bandages removed, Abu Yusuf Yunus exposed the wounded arm. Flaps of crudely cut skin were folded over the stump and stitched with gut. The seams leaked blood and a yellowish pus. Abu Yusuf Yunus clapped his hands. Attendants came bustling up with bowls of water and oils, and began to mop the wound. Ghalib twisted, but the attendants held him down.
Abu Yusuf Yunus said, ‘I had to amputate the crushed lower arm, of course. Such was the damage, the main challenge was to leave flaps of skin intact enough for the later closure. It took some work, then, to find the severed blood vessels and arteries and stitch them closed. Those arteries have a way of drawing back from a cut, and you have to rummage around in there.’ Gruesomely, he wiggled his pink fingers. ‘With that done, it was a case of clean out, cauterise and stitch closed. The danger now is infection - that immersion in river water won’t have helped - but we do have treatments for gangrene, should it develop.’
‘You’ve done a remarkable job,’ Sihtric said effusively.
The surgeon nodded, his eyes half-closed, accepting his due.
Orm growled to Robert, ‘Doctors, they’re all the same. Never trusted them. Look at this oaf. Cares more about preening and posturing and taking the credit than about his patient.’
‘Is that what you think?’ The voice was low, silky, but faintly slurred. ‘Perhaps you really are a barbarian, Orm the Viking.’
They turned, and Robert found himself facing the vizier.
Ibn Tufayl’s eyes were bloodshot and staring. His face was deep red, his hair mussed, his black robe subtly disarrayed. He looked as if he had been woken in a hurry and dressed too quickly. And once again his breath stank of stale wine.
The surgeon and his attendants shrank away, bowing.
‘I have just heard of the accident to the eldest son of my friend Ibn Bajjah. How did this happen?’ He turned on the surgeon. ‘Whose fault was this?’
Abu Yusuf Yunus showed the vizier the repaired wound. ‘The boy is in no danger. I, Abu Yusuf Yunus, have saved him.’
The vizier grabbed the surgeon’s jaw with his cupped hand, gripping so hard that his fingers made white indentations in the surgeon’s flabby cheeks. ‘Of course you saved him, doctor,’ Ibn Tufayl said harshly. ‘That’s your job. If you had let him die, you would soon have followed him to paradise, believe me. I didn’t ask you how you did your job, Abu Yusuf Yunus. I asked you whose fault it was.’
The surgeon’s hands flapped like a bird’s wings. ‘Lord - I can’t say - I wasn’t there.’
‘It was him.’ Ghalib had spoken. In his chair, his face pale, his eyes glazed, he pointed straight at Robert. ‘He caused this. He is to blame.’
The vizier pushed the surgeon away, and Abu Yusuf Yunus stumbled back, shaking.
Robert, unable to imagine the consequences of this moment, prepared to defend himself.
Orm stepped between the vizier and his son, with his cloak thrown back so that the hilt of his sword was revealed. ‘This is a false accusation. My son saved this foolish boy. He did not harm him. Quite the opposite. Perhaps Ghalib is addled by the pain and the drugs.’
Ibn Tufayl said to Ghalib, ‘Tell me what happened. What are you accusing this boy of? Did he push you into the water - hurl you at the waterwheel - what?’
‘None of those things,’ Ghalib said, his own speech slurred. ‘But we would not have been at the river at all if not for him.’ Ghalib glared at Robert, and Robert recognised real hatred shining through the fug of the morphia. If he had despised Robert as a Christian and a foreigner before, now he was humiliated that he owed his life to him. Ghalib said, ‘We were trying to protect her, from this English animal. That’s why we were following him. For
her.’
‘It’s true,’ Hisham gabbled now. ‘I was there. He was trying to seduce her. Robert the Christian.’
The vizier was having trouble following this. ‘Who?
Who
was he trying to seduce?’
‘Moraima,’ Ghalib said bluntly.
The vizier howled, and lunged at Robert. Orm blocked his way. The vizier’s own attendants ran up, and tried to separate the men.
Amid this shouting and chaos, Ghalib cried out, and slumped forward in a faint.
XVI
‘I was lonely,’ Sihtric whispered. ‘In the end, it comes down to that, and my own weakness. And the result was a new life.’
‘Moraima,’ Robert said.
‘Yes.’ Sihtric smiled wistfully. ‘And now I will never be lonely again.’
‘I think,’ Orm said sternly, ‘that you had better tell us the whole truth, Sihtric. About you, Moraima, and the vizier.’
Robert, Sihtric and Orm had been escorted to a battered, fire-damaged room. Here the three of them sat, on worn floor coverings and baggy cushions. Bright daylight filtered through more of the charming archways that had so entranced Robert. But now massive soldiers stood in those arches, silhouetted.
Orm had growled at being put under armed guard. The nervous attendant who had brought them here assured them it wasn’t like that, they had been brought here for their own safety at a time of disturbance.
BOOK: Navigator
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