And Rumours of War: The Hidden Faith, pt II

In the name of Allah, the Compassionate, the All-Merciful, I continue my tale. For there is no God but Allah, and Mohammad is His prophet.

To move to the cold north was hardly the dream of my youth; but on the other hand, for me – unlike my master – it was no great disaster. I had no strong family ties to hold me back – for though I was reconciled with my father, still I did not often have an opportunity to visit – and as factotum to the ambassador of a powerful country, I might expect many opportunities to enrich myself. Nor was I disappointed; there was a rich trade in furs and amber, timber and grain, metal ores and fish, and whenever a Georgian merchant got into a dispute with a Norseman, our services were called for, and I extracted a bribe for ensuring my master’s full attention to the case. Nor did I cheat my customers; as often as not, my master’s full attention consisted in asking me to represent his view in a Norwegian court, or sometimes even in a Ting, a folk-meeting, and then I would argue the case as best I could according to my understanding of Norse law. So I earned my gold, and became moderately wealthy.

At this time, I began to think of marriage; but here I had difficulty, for in the high North there are few marriageable Moslem maidens. I therefore formed the wish to take my gold and return to my homeland, as I now thought of Georgia; with my old contacts among the merchant community and my new wealth, I was sure to find an attractive prospect there. But to do this I would have to be released from my master’s service, so that I might gain a pardon for my old sentence of exile; and this, I knew, he would be reluctant to do, for he had fallen into a deep melancholy, and rarely roused himself from his bed to attend the business of the embassy, which therefore increasingly fell to me.

Now the curious customs of the Norse came to my aid. Although they keep no slaves, some of their advisors are wards of the state, and permitted neither property, free travel, or marriage; nonetheless they are influential in the court and the army. By a century-old treaty, the Georgian embassy has the right to the services of these advisors for a day of every week, and this we were careful to exercise, for it was the express wish of the Speakers that this right should be kept, and not forgotten by lack of usage. So each week we would summon Einar Magnusson, the elder of the two wards, to our embassy, and speak with him on matters of Norse custom and law. So I came to know him well; and after a while it occurred to me that he might give good advice on my problem. For I knew that many of the Norse court took their troubles to the Dovremen, to hear their counsel, which was often strange, but rarely bad.

Again Allah held His hand over His servant; for Einar had for some time been plotting to escape his bonds, in the service of some labyrinthine scheme which I did not strive too deeply to understand. His intent was to fake his own death, and for this he required two things: First, an excuse to leave the city, and second, an impeccable witness, one from outside the Norwegian court and factions, who would not be suspected of concealing any ulterior motive. I could supply both: At that time I needed to leave Bergen to represent a countryman’s case in the Ting at Nidaros, and nobody would think it suspicious if I requested Einar’s service for this, since he was learned in all the different laws of Norway. Indeed the court was glad to grant me his company for a fortnight, as an advance on three months of his usual service with us. As for the witnesses, the embassy’s servants would do perfectly well, and they could testify to my own death at the same time; I could then return to Georgia with all my wealth, free of the need for bribes, and a new name.

As for the scheme, it was nothing complicated: Einar had a small band of soldiers personally loyal to him. They ambushed our party on our way to Nidaros – the mountains of Norway are an excellent hiding place for outlaws and bandits – cut off Einar and myself from our companions, and appeared to kill us in the confusion. Later a pair of suitable corpses, gnawed as by wild animals, in our clothes but without our weapons or wealth, was found. I did not enquire too closely where these corpses came from; certainly they were not Moslems, and perhaps not even Christians. Einar travelled south with his men, since his scheme required his presence at the sacred mountain of Dovre; there I parted company with them, and travelled the long Gudbrandsdal south to Oslo, where I took ship for England and eventually home.

In this tale I have shown how Allah makes use of all things for the protection of His servants: For consider, had I not quarrelled with my father over the Quran; had I not been slow to betray my master, and shared his exile; had I not taken bribes for access to the embassy’s resources; and had I not conspired with Einar for both our escapes – why then, I would have married another, and my sons would not have been born. Nor would I enjoy my position as a pre-eminent scholar and merchant among the Moslems of Gora Dzhimara; and many poor people would be going to bed hungry, who today have benefited from my charity, as Allah commands us. Therefore, you can see that it is necessary to cleave strictly to Islam, to submission to the only God, and let all else fall where it may.

This tale was told to me by my father, Asim ibn Muhab, just as I have set it down here. And I believe it is, as he says, an edifying tale, demonstrating the hand of Allah in guiding His faithful to good harbours. But on his deathbed, my father called me to him, and gave me this coda to his story, which I set down here also, for I do not know what it means; yet I respected my father’s wisdom, and if he thought it important, then surely it is so. I hope that the scholars of a later age may, with Allah’s aid, make sense of it. – Salah ibn Asim, of the House of Asim in Gora Dzhimara.

All that I have said is true; but there are truths I have not said, for I do not know them. What was Einar’s scheme? What is the significance of Dovre? I do not know. But sometimes I feel that I have been brushed by a larger story, and that the tale of my life – surely an unusual one, and filled with interest and adventure – is but a bit part in some great play, still working towards its curtain. Does the King’s pawn know, as it advances to the center of the board, that it is only a gambit? Perhaps the central drama of our age is to be played out in the peripheries, far from the great cities of the Speakers. Or perhaps not; the ways of Allah are not to be understood by men. And yet – am I the hero of my own life? Or am I a means to someone else’s end, in another man’s drama? During the day I comfort myself with the faith that soon I shall know. But at night I dread the answer.

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