Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (2 page)

Avatak watched the icebergs sail away. ‘Trouble for the fishermen,’ he said.

‘Well, yes,’ Pyxeas said testily. ‘But that’s hardly the big picture.’ He made swirling gestures with his mittened hands. ‘Like the ice cap, the ocean
and the air above are dynamic systems – huge bodies of air and water that swirl around the world, transporting heat and moisture. Now, what do you imagine is going to happen when all this
ice-cold fresh water is injected into the salty currents of the sea?’

Avatak had learned the student’s trick of turning the scholar’s questions back on him. ‘What do you think?’

‘Well, I’m not sure. Nobody is. But . . .’ Abruptly the energy seemed to go out of him, and the pleasure, and he sat down. He fished a scrap of parchment out of a pocket.
‘Make a note of the date, boy. Listen now. One. Two. Three. One. Two. One. Two. One. One. Five. Five.’

Avatak mumbled the numbers. ‘That is a date?’

‘In our oldest calendar, the Long Count, yes. We Northlanders have been counting the days,
each day
, since the year of the Second Great Sea, which is more than seven thousand years
ago. Ours is the oldest, and the most accurate, calendar in the world.’ He couldn’t resist a chance to lecture. ‘In the old system we counted in powers of five.
And
we had
no zero, so it’s all a little clumsy. We count in eleven cycles, with the last being a cycle of five days, and the first being a grand cycle of five multiplied by itself ten times.’

Avatak thought that over. ‘So we’re still in the first of those big cycles.’

‘Yes.’

‘What will happen in the future? When you run out of those big cycles?’

Pyxeas stared at him, and laughed. ‘That won’t happen for a hundred thousand years. But it’s a good question. I dare say we’ll agree on some extension to the system
before then. Just remember the date, boy. Remember this day.’

‘Why?’

The scholar looked out at the sea, the glacier, the jumbled ice. ‘Because today is the day I have
proved
, at least to my own satisfaction, that the longwinter is on us.’

That word was a new one for Avatak. ‘The longwinter, scholar? What does that mean?’

Pyxeas looked at him bleakly. ‘Why, that the world is changing. Death will cut across the continents.
Northland must die
, Avatak.’

He said this bleakly, simply, and while Avatak still did not understand, he saw that Pyxeas told the truth as he believed it. And now he saw where the sadness within the scholar came from. A
sadness for the whole world, which would suffer from a blight none other could yet see.

Avatak said, ‘Then what must we do?’

Pyxeas smiled. ‘Convince others of this. But that will take time. We have work to do, my boy – work, and lots of it! And in the summer we must take our conclusions to Northland, and
the councils of Etxelur itself.’

We
, he had said.
We
must go to Northland. Pyxeas had spoken like this before. He seemed to just assume that Avatak would leave his home, his responsibilities to his family –
Uuna, to whom he was betrothed – and follow him to an alien country to pursue this strange, lofty project.

Would Avatak go? Of course he would. How could he not? Thanks to Pyxeas, his head rattled with strange ideas and vivid dreams. But it would take some explaining to Uuna, and her mother who had
never much liked Avatak anyhow.

And, he thought, if Northland was to die, what would become of Coldland?

The glacier shuddered anew under their feet. Avatak took the scholar’s mittened hand and drew him away from the crumbling edge, and back to the security of the land.

 

 

 

 

3

 

 

 

 

The First Year of the Longwinter: Midsummer Solstice

‘The steam caravan is late.’ Thaxa watched the sun, which had already passed its highest point on this midsummer day. He squinted up at the elaborate mechanical
clock face built into the light tower over his head, and looked along the gleaming track of the Iron Way, bonded to the roof of the Wall on which he stood with his wife. ‘If the envoys from
Daidu don’t arrive, the afternoon is going to be awkward to say the least.
And
that wretched uncle of yours is late too. At this rate we won’t get the ceremonies done before they
fire the end-of-day eruptors.’

Rina tried to hide her irritation at her husband’s fretting. It didn’t help that she was cold too. She tucked her hands into the cuffs of her long-sleeved robe; it was the peak of
summer yet there was a chill in the air, and there had been a ground frost when she rose this morning. ‘Try to be calm. You don’t want to alarm our guests.’ Who stood to either
side of Rina and Thaxa in a row on this parapet atop the Wall, representatives of nations from across much of the known world, more of them riding up to the roof in the steam elevators all the
time. Near Rina, for example, were three women of the Western Continents, strangers before they had travelled, Rina had learned, from different nations and dressed as differently as could be
imagined, standing together now like exotic birds of variegated plumages. This was a typical scene in Etxelur, on midsummer day, the world brought together in Northland hospitality. ‘As for
Uncle Pyxeas, I’m imagining Crimm is doing his best to bring him back across the ocean. But Pyxeas hardly matters.’

‘He’s to address the Water Council about the weather changes he thinks are coming.’

‘For the foreigners the issue at this Giving is dried fish, not maunderings about the weather. Oh, stop fussing and fidgeting, Thaxa! There’s nothing we can do about the Daidu
caravan, or my uncle. When there is nothing to do but wait, then you wait.’

‘I do my best to support you, you know,’ he said with only the mildest exasperation at her ill temper.

This was the reality of their relationship, as, at the age of fifty years and nearly thirty years of marriage, they both understood very well. Rina knew she could not have functioned nearly so
well as an Annid without her husband’s patient, fussy, competent assistance, and his tolerance of her bossiness. She allowed herself a smile. ‘I do know. How are the twins getting
on?’

Thaxa looked through the crowd atop the Wall. ‘Nelo is with the Hatti party, and he’s doing a good job of not laughing at their incessant praying to Jesus. Alxa is still with the
Carthaginians. Hmm. See the way that young princeling of theirs is looking at her? She’s only fifteen.’

Rina didn’t worry about the twins – or rather, she didn’t allow herself to. Rina and her husband were both from families of the House of the Owl, the Annids, the ancient guild
of rulers and diplomats, which had long practice in inducting its children into the subtle arts of compromise, negotiation and flattery. Besides, fifteen was seen as a pretty mature age in most
parts of the world; if she were Frankish or German Alxa would probably already be married off, already worn down by childbirth and never-ending work in the fields. The twins could look after
themselves – at least, Rina thought, they could in normal times. But at the back of her mind there was a niggling awareness that there was little normal about this particular solstice.

This was Northland’s midsummer Giving, the heart of the year at the heart of the world, and a ceremony of great age – older than the pyramids of Egypt, far older than the upstart
empires of Carthage and New Hattusa. In the great library of the Wall Archive, documentation existed to prove that antiquity. The world flocked here at midsummer as seabirds flocked to their
nesting cliffs in the spring; it always had and always would, for this was Great Etxelur, Navel of the World, and the central and oldest of the Wall’s many evenly spaced Districts.

And, in the midsummer light, the Wall itself swept from east to west, horizon to horizon, separating land from sea, order from chaos, as it had done for more centuries than anyone save the most
learned scholars could count. It was a thing of layers, built on an ancient core of rubble and mortar and ultimately, it was said, compacted seashells. In this age the landward face had been built
up into an elaborate vertical city, with walls of thin-cut stone and tremendous stained-glass windows, all supported by sturdy flying buttresses. Looking along the roof of the Wall now, Rina could
see how the character subtly changed from District to District: to the east the Springs with its taverns and inns, then the Market and the Manufactories, and to the west the more formal Holies and
Embassies and Archive, the whole carefully laid out according to harmonic principles set out by the great sage Pythagoras. The upper roof itself was marked by ancient, heavily eroded blocks that
were said to represent the visages of Annids and hero-gods of Northland’s past. Standing over these sculptures were modern light towers, ornately carved spires where lanterns burned to guide
approaching shipping to the ports cut into the seaward face. And along the spine of the roof ran a new miracle, the Iron Way, a ribbon of rail, coal dumps and way stations that united all the
Wall’s far-flung Districts. This great structure loomed over Old Etxelur and its hinterland to the south, while to the north the sea growled, grey and flat to the horizon, excluded by the
Wall as it had been since the day of Ana, the woman become little mother who had first built the Wall.

And today the Wall’s roof was crowded with foreign dignitaries, here to welcome the party from Cathay, empire of the east. Aside from the women from the Western Continents, here were
Hatti priest-warriors, their armour emblazoned with the crossed-palm-leaves motif of their god Jesus Sharruma whose bones were interred deep within the Wall. And Islamic princes, Egyptians perhaps,
laden with gold, legs bare despite the chill breeze of this cold northern midsummer. And Carthaginian merchants, a splash of purple in their long robes. The Albians from their forested land stood
apart from the rest, their heavy furs and carefully unwashed hair tokens of their adherence to the oldest gods of all. Everything about this moment was stage-managed – even the ranks in which
the guests stood, so that no one had mortal enemies on
both
sides at once. These powerful men and women were dwarfed by the sheer scale of the landscape in which they stood, their talk
diminished by the steady churning of the great pumps buried inside the Wall’s fabric. That, of course, was the whole point of bringing the dignitaries up here: to impress them with
Northland’s power.

But the mood was difficult this summer. After yet another year of drought and famine across the Continent, this Giving was no formality, however joyous, but a hard-nosed negotiation over vital
food supplies. The weather was odd too, for all Rina dismissed Uncle Pyxeas and his foolishness about worldwide weather changes. There was ground frost in the summer mornings, and a strange
drabness in the land: this spring and summer you rarely saw a flower in bloom, or a butterfly.

And now, on top of all that, the steam caravan was late. For months communications had been disrupted by drought, famine, and petty banditry. But this was yet another thread dangling loose, and
Rina did not like dangling threads, and as time wore on she could sense the dignitaries’ impatience slowly growing.

Now, at last, far to the east, Rina made out a white plume of steam, a caravan like a chain of glittering toys crawling along the track. But even before the caravan reached Etxelur, runners on
horseback delivered the message that the Iron Way had brought nobody from Cathay this year.

‘Then we must proceed with the Giving negotiations without them,’ Rina murmured to Thaxa. ‘The Mongol princes of Daidu were only a ceremonial presence anyhow.’

‘That’s not what Pyxeas says,’ Thaxa pointed out. ‘Your uncle claims that the Cathay scholars have information which—’

‘Information, information!’ she snapped. ‘What good is that? Can you eat it? Dried fish, however, you can eat, and that’s what matters. Let’s get these people back
inside the Wall before that breeze gets any sharper and they start complaining even more loudly.’ She pulled her tunic closer around her and made for the Carthaginian party, smiling fixedly
as she prepared her apology.

 

 

 

 

4

 

 

 

 

Alxa was faintly surprised to find that one of the Carthaginian merchant princes, called Mago – the man-boy who had been staring at her chest the whole afternoon –
knew one of the younger Hatti delegates, called Arnuwanda, a prince it seemed, or some relative of the current King in New Hattusa. And now, while her mother Rina led the other foreigners back into
the warmth of the Wall, these princes, restless, bored, wanted some sport. They wanted to wrestle. Apparently they had come up against each other at a royal wedding party in Greece, where such
sports were common among the guests, and fancied another crack.

Alxa spoke about this to her father, Thaxa.

‘Go with them,’ he said. ‘Take your brother too. You can keep them out of trouble. And having Nelo around might keep that Carthaginian brute from giving
you
any
trouble.’

‘I can handle the likes of him.’

‘I’m sure you can. But if you’re to be an Annid, child, you have to learn that the best way to deal with trouble is to avoid it in the first place . . .’

So Alxa and her brother took the princelings down the growstone staircases to one of the better gymnasiums, an airy room cut into the growstone with neatly plastered walls and a large
stained-glass window shedding splashes of colour across the wooden floor. Alxa and Nelo sat on a bench as the princes stripped off their finery, showered, and coated their skin with powder. The
Carthaginian, Mago, made absolutely sure Alxa could see everything there was to see about his nude body.

The princes stalked to the middle of the floor. They were both around twenty years old. They faced each other, bowed – and launched themselves at each other. The Hatti got the first break;
with his head down he got his shoulders under his foe’s belly and flipped him so he landed hard on his back. But in an instant Mago was up and at his opponent again.

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