© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
CHAPTER TWENTY THREE
TRADING WITH THE ARABS (Circa 834 AD)
“The Raesir let the Rhine’s Sun shimmer
From the reddened Skull’s ship on the Sea-Fells.”
Ahmad Ibn-Yakut had called her a Slav princess, a slave, a captive that Hraegunar would not part with for any sum. And Hraerik could not help but wonder if the Arab had met his mother. Boddi had been a captive, brought back to Norway by his father, but was she the princess Ahmad had seen in Bulgar? Hraerik’s meeting with the Arab merchant had been brief, a few passing minutes spent together in a hallway of the House of Lanterns in Constantinople, moments spanning decades, crossing generations. Threads of fate spinning thoughts of grandeur. It was all probably coincidence. Still, when Hraerik told King Olmar of Ahmad’s sighting of a Slav princess captive, in Bulgar, in the time of his father, the old king could hardly keep himself from tears; but he refused to discuss the occurrence. Hraerik spoke of his suspicions with Gunwar, who said only that she would love him as much the child of a captive as the son of a princess. Hraerik seemed to dismiss the old Arab’s words, forget about them, and he got back to the business of building an empire for his king. But when the summer’s trade with Constantinople was successfully completed, and it came time for the Rhos to return home, Hraerik and his Centuriata found themselves hugging the southern coast of the Black Sea while King Frodi led the rest of the Varangians north.
It was while sailing for the Arab lands that the words of Ahmad came back to Hraerik, propelling him into the dangers of a southern expedition. They sailed along the Black Sea coast, past Sinop, to the mouth of the River Halys then began rowing up the tributary. Ahmad had left a map for Hraerik in the House of Lanterns in Constantinople, and Hraerik followed the little lampblack line on the parchment to its source, and they portaged Fair Faxi across to the Euphrates and began a downstream journey into the Caliphate of Baghdad. Two thirds of the way down that second lampblack line, Hraerik had his men row in to the eastern bank and they waited for night before Hraerik led a small party out on horseback to locate the Tigris River and Baghdad–if Hraerik had read Ahmad’s map correctly. The Arabs of that time were the world’s foremost geographers and mapmakers and the Vikings the foremost explorers, so it did not surprise Hraerik, in the least, that, after several hours riding, they saw a reflection of the moon floating on the still waters of the Tigris and, several miles downstream, the faint lights of the city of Baghdad. Hraerik sent a man back to inform the others to await his return and he and several men continued into the city.
By morning, after fording the Tigris, they arrived in the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, a new Arab dynasty replacing the long standing Ommayads. Much of the circular city was surrounded by a long low wall, but the commercial district for which they were bound stood beyond the protective enclosure, so they were not challenged nor was their progress impeded until they reached the house of Ahmad Ibn-Yakut. It was a huge sandstone house of two and a half stories on the outskirts of Baghdad, and a large eunuch guarding the front doors let them in without question or ceremony. The Varangians waited in the anteroom until a young man entered, introducing himself as Fadlan, the son of Ahmad, in an eloquent Greek that Hraerik’s months in Constantinople allowed him to comprehend.
“My father told us to expect Northmen,” Fadlan explained, “so, when our eunuch saw you, he knew right away who you were. Father is out right now, but we expect him back on the morrow. I shall have food and entertainment prepared. You are the guests of Ahmad Ibn-Yakut,” the young man offered, bowing graciously. There was pride of family in his voice as he talked on his father’s behalf.
Hraerik thanked Fadlan for his generosity, and the Norsemen were led into a sumptuously carpeted dining room. They were offered cushioned seats upon the floor and platters of food were brought in before them. Hraerik had not realized how hungry he had been until the tantalizing odours rose steaming from the plates, but the Varangians waited for their host to be seated and they watched his manner of dining then they copied it. The success of the Viking merchant was dependant on the care in which he blended into the civilizations he traded with, but Hraerik had never dealt with Moslems before and the lack of wine with the meal would have been a notable shortcoming had not Fadlan, realizing the dilemma, procured a bottle from a locked cabinet and offered it to the foreigners. Hraerik and his men added small quantities of the wine to their goblets of water, more to prevent illness than provide pleasure. The greatest enemy of the traveller was not the treachery of native citizens nor the danger of natural disaster, but rather the exposure to unfamiliar diseases. And the Norsemen were not the first to discover that alcohol cleansed and purified native waters of diseases against which they had little defence.
Following the meal, Fadlan called for the entertainment and several young female dancers entered the room and began a traditional dance, involving the slow removal of veils that the Norsemen found exciting. Several musicians that had entered with the dancers played upon unfamiliar stringed instruments and exotic flutes and Hraerik found the music had its own sensual quality quite apart from the dancing. Hraerik’s all night trek, combined with the music and the dancing, soon had the wine going to the head of the young Kagan Bek of the Rhos, and when he awoke the next morning, it was with few recollections of the night before, except that the young woman sleeping in the bed next to him was one of the beautiful young dancers he had been so entertained by the previous night.
A knock at the door was followed by the entrance of Fadlan, who was smiling sheepishly. “We expect the arrival of my father within the hour,” he apologized. “Your companions are just down the hall, if you wish to arouse them for a morning meal,” Fadlan said, then left.
Hraerik was up on one elbow, and he looked down at the young woman who returned his gaze and smiled dreamily. She stroked Hraerik’s whiskered cheek with her delicate hand and the value of an hour weighed heavily upon the mind of the Varangian.
Hraerik was just coming down from upstairs when Ahmad Ibn-Yakut arrived home, and they met once again in a hallway, this time in Baghdad, not Constantinople. “Welcome to my humble abode,” Ahmad said, greeting the Norseman he had met only once before, and for only a very few minutes, as if he were a long-lost friend. “I must apologize for my son’s mistake. He had told me that he offered you wine from my cabinet, which, I’m afraid, wasn’t wine at all, but distilled liquor I acquired in my travels. It is exceedingly potent. We Moslems are forbidden to drink and so my son has no knowledge of such matters. Again, I apologize for my son’s error.”
Fadlan was behind his father and repeated his sentiments. “I am sorry for my mistake,” he said. “I hope you were not harmed by it.”
“I hope no harm was done,” Hraerik told the Arabs. “as I can barely recollect last night’s events and there is a severe pounding in my head.”
“Only Fazima, your dancer, can tell us of that for certain,” Fadlan explained. “You carried her off to your room in the evening and that is the last we saw of you two.”
It was Hraerik’s turn to apologize and, ruddy cheeked, he did just that.
“It is of no consequence,” Ahmad declared. “She is but a slave, and I hear she did not protest at all.”
Unlike Christians, the Moslems of that time accepted and promoted the dark practice of slavery. It was in support of the slave system that Ahmad had wished to establish a trade agreement with Hraerik and the Rhos, for the one thing the Moslems and Pagans had in common, was their usage of slaves. After breakfast, Hraerik and Ahmad started working through a preliminary trade agreement, similar in scope to the Rhos-Roman arrangement, for presentation to the merchant council of Baghdad. In the previous two centuries of Arab expansionism there had been no shortage of slaves, captives from war and tribute from subjugated peoples, but, under the Abbasid Dynasty, the Arab jihad, or holy war, lost impetus and a period of peace and prosperity had set in. A result of this harmony was a severe shortage of slaves that, coupled with the rising affluence of the people, drove up the price of thralls. After an hour of discussions, Hraerik’s headache forced them to take a break. “I have just the thing,” Ahmad exclaimed. “We shall take a few hours rest in the courtyard. I have the latest technology arriving, and it only requires you to remain still and at rest.”
True to his word, an alchemist soon arrived with several assistants and two large box-shaped devices were set up in the courtyard. Ahmad had two tall chairs set up in front of the courtyard colonades and he and Hraerik posed for the pinhole cameras. The chemist spread a thin film of asphaltic paste over two silver plates and placed one in each box so that the beams of light entering through the pinholes in the boxes targeted the full plate diameters. Hraerik had gathered his weapons, Tyrfingr and Rae’s-Ship’s-Round and he sat back and relaxed as did his host and occasionally they would sip orange juice out of silver goblets. Then the alchemist would come out from between the boxes and quickly adjust their poses, then return and monitor the exposures. After two hours he put clay seals on the pinholes and covered the boxes with heavy black drapes.
It took Hraerik only two days to come to a trade agreement with the Arabs.
The night before Hraerik was to return to his ship, he and Ahmad Ibn-Yakut celebrated their success with a feast. Following the meal, Ahmad rose and went to a sideboard and retrieved two silver plates and presented Hraerik with one and Fadlan with the other. “They were delivered this afternoon,” Ahmad explained, and Hraerik could see they were identical pictures of he and Ahmad posing in the courtyard. The pictures were incredibly detailed in various shades from black to very light gray and the clothing details, though slightly blurred, were very fine. But the courtyard features were outstanding, the colonades were finely fluted and the architectural details were extremely clear. Static items seemed very clear while the subject faces and extremities were slightly blurred but very recognizable. “The alchemist who exposed the plates is our foremost optical scientist and an expert in light sensitive oils and chemicals. He hopes to soon have films that react faster to light and even some oils that can register colours. While these exposures have been treated to no longer react to light, it is still best to store them in darkness,” and Ahmad presented Hraerik with a polished wood chest with a black velvet lining in which the picture could be stored and special inks with which the picture could be touched up.
Ahmad then offered Hraerik an after-dinner liqueur by apologizing, once again, for his son’s administration of liquor, which, once said, served as an excuse for him to procure another bottle and demonstrate how it should have been drunk.
“I got this liquor from a merchant friend, during a trade mission in Spain, who got it from the Franks, who, in turn got it from the Irish in England. Have you heard of the Irish?” Ahmad asked, pouring Hraerik a drink.
“I have heard of an Irishman called Brendan who claims there is a vast land beyond the western sea,” Hraerik answered.
“Interesting,” Ahmad breathed, pouring himself a drink also. “I am allowed to drink this because it has been purified through distillation,” he explained. “At least that is what I say in my prayers,” he added, laughing. “It is a failing caused by my many travels.”
“Speaking of your travels,” Hraerik started in a very ponderous and deliberate Greek, “I wish to know more of your meeting with my father, Hraegunar. How did you come to meet him?”
Ahmad studied Hraerik a moment, sat back, relaxed and sipped his liquor. “During the Caliphate of al-Rashid, I was sent on an embassy to the Khazars and the Bulgars. It was a brief period of peace following many years of war and it was my mission to try to maintain that peace. If you wish to establish a peace,” Ahmad explained confidentially, glancing about himself, “send as your envoy a diplomat; to end a peace send a soldier; and to maintain a peace send a merchant. Further,” he added, “if you wish to know all about the situation in a country, don’t ask your present ambassador to that state……ask the former ambassador, for the previous diplomat often keeps better track of that country than the present one, and when they tell you what is happening there, they will also tell you the why of it.” The liquor was having its effect upon Ibn-Yakut. “My embassy to the Khazars was an utter failure. I was to have ensured a maintenance of peace with their empire in the event of my country’s going to war with Constantinople, but the Khazars remained loyal to their Roman allies and I was lucky to leave their land with my life intact. There is a secret connection,” Ahmad began to whisper, “between the Khazars and the Romans. I’ve never learned what it is, but it almost cost me dearly,” he said, drawing a fingernail across his throat. A white line was left on the dark skin of the Arab. “Never trust the word of the Romans when the Khazars are involved. There is something strange, something significant in their relations. I’ve never been able to place it, but I must emphasize that you must not trust the Greeks. I know already, from accounts of your Rhos in Constantinople, that you have no trust in the Khazars, and that is good, because they will have your head on a pike if they ever get a chance.”
Hraerik was beginning to show signs of impatience with Ahmad’s digressions.
“To get on with it,” Ahmad continued, “I left Khazaria, but I did not, as a wise man would, return to Baghdad. Instead, I carried on to the Kingdom of the Volga Bulgars, and it was there that I met your father. He was trading with the Bulgars: amber and weapons and slaves for silver Kufas and Roman gold. I, personally, bought several of his slaves.”
Hraerik was waiting eagerly upon Ahmad’s every word. “You told me in Constantinople that he had a captive, a princess?”
“Yes,” Ahmad said, wistfully. “She certainly looked a princess. I tried to buy her, but Hraegunar would not part with her for any sum. She was Slav, I believe. The slaves I bought from your father were Slavs, at any rate. Poljane, I believe–all of them captives. They’d been intercepted by thieves on their way to Khazaria and Hraegunar told me he’d intercepted the thieves.”
“Can you tell me more about the woman?” Hraerik said excitedly.
“Ahh…I thought you looked familiar in Constantinople,” Ahmad said, “but it wasn’t Hraegunar you reminded me of. It was the woman with Hraegunar. He was going to take her back across…what did he call it? His Northern Way? She is your mother, Hraerik?” Ahmad asked.
The thin white line, though faint, was still visible on the throat of the Arab. “I’m not sure,” Hraerik answered. “She died at my birth and Hraegunar, himself, is unsure who she was.”
“I’m sorry to hear she died,” Ahmad added, sympathetically.
“Tell me about her,” Hraerik asked.
“She was a distraught, frightened young woman when I saw her, but she was still exceptionally beautiful. Her eyes were dark and mysterious, matching her flowing black hair, much like yours. She had the fine bearing of a princess, but one sensed she could take care of herself. In fact, one of your father’s men had tried to take a golden cloak pin from her and she stabbed him in the hand with it. `None could take that bodkin from her,’ Hraegunar had told me with pride. It was a strange, trident shaped thing, more dagger than bodkin,” Ahmad said, “and I think she carried it more for protection than mending or pinning.” When Hraerik pulled his bodkin out from under his shirt, Ahmad said, “That is it. It looked just as that one.”
“This belonged to my mother,” Hraerik said, sadly. “It is all I have to remember her by.”
Ahmad Ibn-Yakut felt Hraerik’s immense sadness and offered him more liquor, then continued. “Our embassy to Bulgar was a failure also and we were expelled from their land; and, when we tried to skirt around Khazaria, we were stopped by Hunnish troops. They were searching for a Kievan caravan that was to have arrived in Atil weeks earlier, so they were caught between taking us back, letting us go, or Allah forbid, killing us outright. As it turned out, the slaves we bought from Hraegunar were from this caravan, and they spoke to the Huns in their Slav language, and they pleaded for our lives because we had treated them respectfully, so the soldiers decided to set us free. But the Huns took our slaves north with them in search of the rest of the caravan’s party. I never learned what precious treasure the caravan carried, but it had been destined for King Hunn, the Kagan Bek of the Khazars, and he was sparing no effort in getting it back.
“As you may guess,” Ahmad concluded, “we made it back to Baghdad with our lives, but not much else, I’m afraid. That is all that occurred on my embassy to Bulgar and may Allah deem that I never, nor any of my sons, for that matter, ever return to that god forsaken land.
“Tell me,” Ahmad started, leaning close to Hraerik, “we have but one God to whom we pray for all favours; with your pantheon of pagan gods, how is it you determine which god to pray to for a particular blessing?”
“In our Aesir religion,” Hraerik answered, “for favours in war we pray to Odin, in personal combat we pray to Thor, for justice we pray to Tyr and for harvest we pray to Frey. I must confess, though,” Hraerik admitted, “I pray to no gods.”
“You pray not?” Ahmad asked in disbelief.
“I do not believe in gods,” Hraerik answered.
“How is it you have come to not believe in gods?” Ahmad blurted, as though he had just seen a ghost.
Again, the liquor was having its toxic way with Hraerik. “I’ve had visions.”
“A man who has visions yet professes belief in no gods,” Ahmad said. “This is most curious. I must know more. But first a warning,” Ahmad explained, and he looked about the room to ensure it was empty. “If a believer in the true faith knows you worship pagan gods, he will try to convert you. If he knows you worship no gods, he will try to kill you. Tell no other Moslem about this,” Ahmad said. “Now tell me of these visions.”
Hraerik talked at length on his visions, telling Ahmad of his nine days of dreams while under the influence of Kraka’s potions. And Ahmad listened intently well into the night. Before they parted in the hallway of the sleeping chambers, Ahmad said, “When you return next year, I have some people you must talk with.”
The next day, Ahmad’s men escorted Hraerik and his companions to Fair Faxi on the Euphrates and, after several hours of preparation, the Varangians began rowing up the river that had cradled so much of civilization’s early development. After several weeks of hard rowing, with very little support from the wind, they reached a bend in the river that told Hraerik they were now back in Roman territory and would soon have to disembark and portage across land to the Halys River. Once across the land bridge, the rowing was downstream, but Hraerik and his men did not relax. “The sooner they were out of Greek lands and out upon the open sea, the better,” Hraerik thought.
It was late fall when Hraerik returned to Kiev. He had been with Gunwar only two weeks in almost two years. As he walked up the banks of the Dniepr to meet her, a strange sense of great loss swept across his breast. She looked older, somehow, her youth slowly waning with the recurring moons, and he knew that he must look older, as well, but they were not growing old together. Princess Gunwar rushed down to meet him, and they embraced each other as if, together, they could stop up the flow of passing time.
Hraerik spent the whole winter in Kiev and, while others complained about the bitter cold, he took in the wondrous beauty of his wife, and he enjoyed the company of his king and queen, and he played with brave Prince Alf and Princess Eyfura. He and Gunwar made great sacrifices to the goddess Freya in prayer that Gunwar should become one with child, but, in the end, when Hraerik set out in the spring with the merchants of the Hraes’ Trading Company, it was without any sign of his wife being pregnant.
It had been decided that King Frodi would lead half the merchants to Constantinople and Hraerik would lead the others, the half that wished to trade in slaves and captives as well as furs and amber, to Baghdad. They met Chaleus in Cherson and, while no Greek merchants joined Hraerik’s expedition, several Goth merchants gathered up local slaves and decided to travel with Hraerik’s fleet.
In Baghdad, Hraerik met his friend, Ahmad Ibn-Yakut once more and stayed with him at his estate. Ever true to his word, Ahmad indeed had several ancient scholars he introduced to Hraerik. They were priests…Magi of the Zoroastrian religion and after their evening repast they had many questions for Hraerik. Their religion was ancient. It was old before acquiring its name from the prophet Zoroaster, almost a millennium before the birth of the Christians’ prophet, Jesus of Nazareth.
“Tell us of your visions,” the eldest Magus requested.
Hraerik and Ahmad sat alone with six of the Zoroastrians. Ahmad translated as Hraerik told them of the visions he had experienced while under the influence of Kraka’s potions. And the priests burned incense and aromatic oils as Hraerik talked of the creation of all things, of the universe as being a skull within a skull within a skull, so many layers of opposing matter that kept the elements apart, so they could exist. He went on to describe events of the past, present and future as though guided in his words by the three Norns of his even more ancient religion. And the oils the Magi were burning were influencing him, for he had never been able to recall his visions so clearly. He saw, once more, the timelessly infinite perfection of space and Hraerik could see, again, the many minute points pulsing variously within the enormous void, and he knew the pulses to be time, or a variant of time, and then he saw once more the minute point that he had first seen suddenly burst forth in two opposing directions, forming first a linear anomaly of pulsing waves of positive and negative energy and he explained to the Magi how they quickly cancelled each other out as they advanced outwards, linearly, in two opposing directions for as long as it took the cadence of the unique pulsing to count off an infinite number, then, again, the point panned out in a wave all around itself and a planar universe came into existence for as long as it took the pulsing to count off a second infinite number and then another brilliant flash burst forth in all directions, sweeping away the abyss. This perfect anomaly shot outwards, propagating itself in all six directions of the three-dimensional world, until the cadence of the universal pulsing had counted off an infinite number that coincided with his own time and the stars and the planets were formed. It was that particular infinite number that defined his own time and Hraerik explained that if he could lower that number he could go back in time and if that number was increased he would go forward in time, for the pulsing was a record of all that ever was and was yet to be. But, of course, he could not do that. He could only see that it could be done, that it would be done.
Hraerik went on to describe the birth of their own world as he had seen it, seething in front of him, and cooling as it revolved around its own mother star as continents formed and the world ocean pooled, and life was formed in it and evolved up onto the land.
Hraerik went on to describe the rise and fall of the dragon beasts and the mammal evolution to world dominance, culminating in man, who must stride out into the wave of the exploding universe. “The explosion continues on, even as I speak,” Hraerik explained. “All the stars that we can see now, the universe is but a small portion of the ever-expanding wave of matter that follows behind that on-going explosion of particles in all directions, and it shall move forever outwards. And man, in order to survive, must ride that wave for eternity.”
“And behind us?” the old man coaxed.
“Behind us is only evil,” Hraerik answered and he saw again the face of evil that had almost taken him when he was nine days under the potions of Kraka and he shook himself free of the trance-like state he had fallen into. “Pained is the life of the over wise,” he told the old magus, and he shivered involuntarily.
The ancient Zoroastrian sensed Hraerik’s fear and decided to talk about their prophet and their religion. “We have, since time immemorial, attended to the preaching of prophets both within our religion and without. While Zoroaster is the one true prophet, many of our faith attended to the Jewish prophet Moses, three of our Magi followed a star to Bethlehem in Judea to witness the birth of the Christian prophet, first of the star born, and we witnessed, as well, a lightening of the night sky that attended the birth of Mohammed, prophet of the Moslems. Tell me then, did any celestial occurrence attend to your birth?”
“My birth was attended only by the death of my mother,” Hraerik answered bitterly. “But at childhood’s end, I was sent a falling star and from a star stone I pulled a sword,” and he showed the Magus the hilts of Tyrfingr. “However, I do not claim to be a prophet. I only wish to understand the meaning of my visions.”
“By understanding the visions of the prophets, perhaps you may find the answers you seek,” the old Magus replied.
“There are no prophets,” Hraerik explained. “Only tricksters.”
“Are you familiar with the transmutation of metals?” the old man asked. “The turning of base metals into gold?”
“Many kings and generals have turned metals into gold. When it was found that tin could turn copper into bronze, kings wasted no time in turning this tin into gold, for the bronze weapons their smithies made turned their warriors into gods and the gold of other men became their gold.”
“And the same thing occurred again when iron displaced bronze,” the Magus replied, growing impatient. “Our true prophet, Zoroaster learned the secret of turning lead into gold. The true transmutation of metals.”
“And the prophets that follow him, these three generals you mentioned,” Hraerik began, “do they know the secret as well?”
“Do not call these prophets generals,” the Magi protested. “They are prophets of the one true god.”
“Did not this Moses destroy the army of an Egyptian Pharaoh without losing a man?” Hraerik asked. “And did not Mohammad lead an army out of Medina to destroy the warriors of Mecca?”
“And Jesus of Nazareth?” the old man asked.
“His pacifist Christian assault on Rome cost more lives than any Jewish revolt ever did, either before him or after. Had the Romans not killed him when they did, your Jesus of Nazareth would have had Rome on its knees in forty years. Without him, it took his disciples four hundred.”
“You have seen all this?” the old man asked.
“That and more,” Hraerik replied. “The three Magi you said attended the birth of Jesus were in Judea searching for the Arc of the Covenant…the last Arc, but they could not find it for it was no more.”
“They were attending to the birth of the Christian Prophet, Jesus; the last of the long line of the House of King David and the first of the star born.”
“And like David,” Hraerik concluded, “Jesus, too, slew a giant with a stone: his sling was a cross. his stone was his disciple, Peter, and his giant was called Rome.”
“You have seen all this?” the old man asked, bracing himself with the back of a chair. “You have seen the taking of Mecca? You have seen the fall of Rome? You have seen the parting of the Red Sea?”
“Any merchant knows that you part a sea with a ship,” Hraerik started, “and there are no better merchants than the Semites.” Hraerik looked across the room as though he were recalling a vision. “The early Egyptians believed their Nile Valley was the full extent of the world, because that is all they could see, but their natural philosophers, their scientists, deduced that the world was round and calculated its very size just by studying the shadows of their monuments. But it was for his temple, his monument, that their pharaoh, Ramses needed the science of the Jews…their philosopher’s stone and its technique of lights. Moses used their stone, their Arc, to light the Pharaoh’s pyramids and secretly used it to transmute, as you say, lead into gold. They stole the gold statuary of their captors and replaced them with gold plated lead figures and Moses gave the Phoenician fleet this stolen gold to part the Red Sea for his people, but the Phoenicians had other plans. They were tired of paying for Ramses’ monuments with tithes and taxes on their portages and caravans between the Mediterranean and Arabian seas, so they forewarned the Pharaoh of the flight of the Jews and he led his army after them. Now the Phoenicians brought two types of ships to the Egyptian shore of the Red Sea that day, their fine new cedar horse ships and their aging merchant galleys. They used their horse ships to ferry the Israelites to the Sinai side, leaving their old galleys behind. Ramses paid a fortune in gold, his personal gold and jewels and that of his princes, and the golden rings of his champions, for the Phoenicians to ferry his army across. And, as the old Phoenician fleet set off in pursuit of the Israelites in the new fleet, the Phoenicians struck a second bargain with Moses. If his people would set up and maintain Phoenician caravan routes across the Sinai for forty years, they would destroy the Pharaoh’s army. To this, Moses acquiesced, and the Phoenicians scuttled their old fleet. Their picked sailors swam to shore, but the Egyptian soldiers all perished, for none of them could swim. It was Moses’ transmuted gold that had parted the Red Sea, but it was the Pharaoh’s greed that had closed it. Such is the extent to which a merchant will go to escape a tithe.”
“These are the secrets that your visions unfold?” the old Magi asked weakly.
“That and more,” Hraerik continued. “In their rush to escape, the Israelites had to leave their philosophers’ stone in Egypt, but only the Jews knew how it worked. Many Egyptian philosophers died trying to learn its secret. Moses, meanwhile, built another Arc in the desert, or, rather, he built a War Arc for the plating of gold and a Covenant Arc to power it. ”
“You must tell me more of this philosophers’ stone,” the old mage started excitedly. “For its secret has been lost.”
“Ask your Zoroaster to tell you more,” Hraerik replied.
“I have,” the Magi started, “but there is now a problem with the secret of the stone. I converse with Zoroaster through this,” the old man said, withdrawing a book from his smock. It was a little red book, a hand long and a hand wide and about a hand thick. It was a book Hraerik had seen before and, as he reached out to touch it, the mage pulled it away, but Hraerik reassured him with a glance and he touched it with his fingertips. It was over two thousand years old Hraerik sensed, and just like the old book hidden in Hraegunar’s high seat hall.
“You have seen this book before?” the Magi asked.
“No,” Hraerik lied. “But I sense it is very old.”
The priests retired to their chambers discussing the prophecies they had just witnessed in their own Persian tongue. The Zoroastrian priests determined Hraerik to be, not a prophet, but an enlightened one, and the old Magi told his acolytes, “He has seen this book before.”
“The visions you have revisited have taken their toll on you,” Ibn-Yakut stated later, trying to calm Hraerik. “I have a strong Spanish liqueur you must sample,” he added, walking to his cabinet and coming back with two goblets.
When Hraerik’s entourage had concluded their trade with the Arabs and were about to portage between the Euphrates and Halys Rivers, they were met by a large force of Roman troops who demanded a ten percent tithe on all trade passing through their territory as stipulated in the contract that Hraerik had hammered out with the administrators of Emperor Michael. Hraerik had little choice but to pay the tax; he had been bested by the politics of the Greeks; but he became determined to avoid any future Roman taxes. To achieve this end, when the rest of the merchants returned to Cherson and Kiev, Hraerik and his Centuriata remained upon the Black Sea and searched for a fabled waterway between it and the Caspian Sea.