Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (6 page)

 

 

 

 

10

 

 

 

 

Kassu was woken by a kick in the ribs, in the dark, in his house.

‘Henti?’ It was cold for an Anatolian autumn night. Under a heap of furs, with his wife beside him, he had been sleeping deeply, and it was taking him time to surface. Had he slept
late? Today was the day of the
nuntarriyashas
, New Hattusa’s equinox festival, and his wife wouldn’t want to be late for that . . .

A kick in the ribs, though? Henti was asleep; she hadn’t delivered that.

He rolled on his back. There was a mass in the dark, looming over him. ‘Palla?’ But through the thin partition walls he could hear the priest, Henti’s cousin, the house’s
only other inhabitant, snoring. Who, then?

A stranger in his house.
His heart lurched. The land swarmed with raiders, bandits, the starving. This farm was within the circuit of the city’s New Wall, but that was no safety at
all, not if you let your guard down. He kept a steel dagger under his pillow. He reached for it. It was gone.

And he felt cold metal on his bare chest. ‘Looking for this?’

‘Zida. You’re a dog’s arsehole.’ He said this softly to avoid waking his wife.

Zida cackled, and he pricked Kassu’s chest with the dagger’s tip before he set it down, just to make the point. ‘You’re getting slow, old man.’

‘I’m younger than you.’

‘Get your finger out of your wife’s honeypot and put your boots on. We’ve got a job. A bit of scouting. Assignment from General Himuili himself.’

Grumbling inwardly, longing for sleep, Kassu rolled out of bed and searched in the dark for the night-soil pot. Henti’s breath was even, undisturbed. She hadn’t noticed a thing. And
in the next room the priest snored on, oblivious.

When he emerged from the house a little light had seeped into the sky, which was a lid of cloud. He glanced around at his farm, silent and dark, the main house, the meaner shacks of the slaves
and itinerant workers, the pens that contained his few scrawny cattle. To the south he saw the great mass of the city within the ancient Old Wall, the central mound of the Pergamos on which the
tremendous dome of the Church of the Holy Wisdom was picked out by lantern light. The carpet of suburbs outside the Wall glowed with night fires. This was New Hattusa to kings and administrators,
but the city was still Troy to the bulk of its inhabitants, a thousand years after the Hatti kings had made it their new capital.

He could see Zida standing at the edge of one of Kassu’s potato fields, stirring dry muck with his toe. Kassu walked that way, pulling his woollen cloak around him. A few flakes of snow
swirled out of nowhere, heavy and moist, settling on his cloak and on the ground.

Zida looked him over. Kassu wore his scale armour over his tunic, greaves on his legs, helmet jammed on his head, and he carried his short stabbing spear, curved sword, dagger. Zida, similarly
equipped, grinned. ‘Expecting trouble, are we?’

‘I don’t imagine the Chief of the Chariot Warriors of the Left got me out of bed to dance for Judas.’

‘Oh, yes, it’s Judas Day, isn’t it? Well, we’ve some scouting to do before we join in the hunt for the Missing God.’

‘All right. Which way?’

‘North.’ Which was beyond the potato field, and away from the city. ‘I don’t want to trample your precious crop of Northlander apples with my big feet. Which way to walk
around?’

Kassu shrugged and set off across the field. ‘Doesn’t make much difference.’ More snowflakes fell on the churned ground, where the potato crop was a mess, with furry growths on
leaves that looked black in the low light. A couple of rows had been dug up from the dry earth to expose tubers that were nothing but a pulpy mush. ‘The blight got them,’ Kassu said
simply.

Zida grunted. ‘I once met a Northlander who said you should plant different sorts of potato, because then one kind of blight can’t get them all.’

‘Northlanders are full of shit.’

‘Well, they’re full of something, for you rarely see them starve.’

‘I thought we’d get away with it this year. It hits overnight, you know. The blight. One day you think you’re fine, the next your potatoes are rotting in the ground.’

Zida laughed, striding out. ‘Your choice, my friend. You decided to become a Man of the Weapons. I prefer my pay in silver, not in dusty land.’

‘But somebody has to work the land. If nobody grows any food, what will there be to buy with your silver?’

‘Whores,’ Zida cackled.

Kassu said no more, for he knew there was no more to say. Zida, a few years older than Kassu at thirty, was a solid man with a face left battered by years of warfare, of pitched battles against
the enemies of the Hatti King, and in more recent years smaller-scale actions against packs of hungry wanderers and bandits. Zida really did think no further ahead than the next pay purse, the next
whore. He was a soldier, he expected to die in battle sooner rather than later, so why worry about the future?

But Kassu had a wife, they had had a child who had died of an infant sickness despite all the ministrations of the surgeons and the priests, and they wanted to try again. And Kassu had come of
age in the years when the great drought had clamped down, and the farmers had abandoned their land. He had seen the reasoning when King Hattusili had set up his scheme to have soldiers made Men of
the Weapons, to be given farmland and tax breaks instead of a regular salary.
Somebody
had to work the land. It wasn’t just the shortage of food; when the farmlands were abandoned tax
revenues imploded.

But Kassu was a city boy He had not anticipated the impact of the drought, and now the cold that worsened year on year. In the spring the plants would not grow and the trees would not bud; in
warmer, moister intervals later in the year you might get a surge of growth, but then the early frost would ruin your crops, and anything that did grow the rabbits would take. They even chewed the
bark off your fruit trees. In the very worst months your soil would dry out and blow away, just dust.

And now snow: snow, on Judas Day! In New Hattusa! He had thought last winter was as bad as it could get. What was to come this year?

Zida watched the snow fall suspiciously. ‘Let’s hope it doesn’t lie. Don’t want to leave tracks. They say Old Hattusa is cut off already. Snow in the passes.’

Kassu shrugged. ‘It always snows on Old Hattusa, up on that plateau. No wonder the kings moved out.’

‘You’ll be warm enough with that plump wife of yours.’

‘Not if you keep dragging me out of bed in the middle of the night.’

Zida laughed. ‘Who’s Palla, by the way?’

‘How do you know about Palla?’

‘You asked me if I was Palla before I had your dagger at your throat.’

‘A priest. Cousin of Henti. Quite high up; he works in the Church of Our Lady Mary of Arinna. Knows Angulli, I think, the Father of the Churches.’

‘So why’s he sleeping in your hovel?’

‘He’s close to Henti. Has been since they were kids. He came out a while back to bless the potato fields, when we heard the blight was in the neighbourhood. He’s come out to
stay a few times since.’

Zida looked at Kassu. ‘That’s good of him,’ he said neutrally. ‘Can’t be much of a priest, though. Didn’t save your potatoes, did he?’

Kassu shrugged. As Zida seemed to be guessing in his own crudely insightful way, Palla had actually caused a lot of arguments between Kassu and his wife. Kassu resented the priest’s
frequent visits, resented having to feed the man. ‘The will of Teshub Yahweh is not ours to question.’

Zida laughed again. ‘That’s for sure.’ But he spoke softly, for they were heading into empty country now, away from the city. He put his right hand on the hilt of his
scabbarded sword, and Kassu found that he’d unconsciously done the same thing.

They moved without a light, but by now their eyes were fully open to the dark. The land, much of it disused farmland, was mostly empty. Once they saw an animal, like a big dog. It could have
been a wolf; animals like deer and wolves had been spotted much closer to the city than they used to come. The abandoned countryside was reverting to the wild, some said, even so close to New
Hattusa.

Kassu pictured the landscape. New Hattusa sat by the shore of a bay that opened up to the north; to the west a spit of land separated the bay from the Middle Sea. The city was protected by
layers of defences, some inherited from the deeper past, some planned by the Hatti kings when they first moved the capital of their empire here. There were rivers to north and south, and to the
east a tremendous New Wall, a mass of Northlander growstone and hard facing stone, that ran from the valley of the Scaramander in the south all the way to the Simoeis in the north. To the west,
along the coast, there were sea walls and heavily defended harbours. The bay itself, where dredgers worked constantly to clear away the silt of the rivers, could be closed by the raising of a great
chain across its mouth. And at the heart of all these defensive layers sat New Hattusa, Troy, within the ancient walls that had once famously failed to expel the Greeks, but had long since been
rebuilt and had not been breached for a thousand years. But there were always threats, especially in these times of hunger and rootlessness. And given the way they were heading, Kassu guessed that
this night the threat was approaching from the north, from the line of the Simoeis.

As they neared the river they sought out scraps of cover, staying away from the high ground, keeping to the shade of desiccated copses. Soon Kassu could smell the river itself, a stench of rot.
The water was no more than a dribble through a bed of sour mud.

Then Kassu smelled woodsmoke.

He and Zida found a lying-up point in the ruins of a farmhouse, which they entered cautiously. This must once have been a favoured location, a bit of high ground close to the river, even if
it was near the boundary of the city’s hinterland. Now the house was long looted, burned, looted again, and the interior was open to the sky. There was a huddle of bones lying in one corner,
which Kassu didn’t look at too closely. The snow, falling heavier now, was collecting on what had once been quite a fine floor of stone tiles.

Crouching behind a broken wall the two of them peered out at the river valley. On the far side they saw a line of sparks, along the bank. Kassu tried to count the fires, but gave up when he got
to thirty.

‘There they are,’ Zida muttered.

‘The river won’t be hard to cross. Not with the water as low as it is. You could just ford it.’

‘They might have started already, before it’s fully light. I would. Lucky for us a scout spotted them and came running back with the news. This is supposed to be part of the outer
defence, along with the New Wall. If I were Himuili I’d build up this border. Walls and ramparts. The river isn’t enough of a barrier any more, you said it yourself.’

Kassu shrugged. ‘But Himuili can only do what the King and the Hazannu and the rest tell him to do.’ The Hazannu was the city’s top administrator, its mayor, a tough ex-soldier
called Tiwatapara. ‘They haven’t got the manpower to do everything, not any more.’

‘So I’d buy some in. Rus. Scand even. Big hairy idiots the pack of them, but they can fight if you point them in the right direction.’

‘Who do you think
they
are? Turks? Franks, maybe?’

‘Hard to tell yet. Listen. You go back, take the bad news. I’ll wait until it’s lighter, identify them, count them, maybe spot when they cross if they haven’t started
already.’

Kassu nodded. Splitting up had its obvious dangers, but the sense of it was obvious too. ‘All right. Jesus protect you.’

Zida, no theologian, laughed at the childish prayer. ‘Oh, stop off at your farm and tell that priest the Turks are on the way. Watch how fast he runs back to his church so Jesus can
protect
him
.’

 

 

 

 

11

 

 

 

 

By the time Kassu had got to the city, and had talked his way into the Lower Town through the Sphinx Gate in the Old Wall, the day was well advanced and the
nuntarriyashas
festival was already under way The narrow alleyways and public places of the Lower Town were crowded with townsfolk, with farmers like himself who’d come in from the
country, with traders and merchants hoping to make a quick profit on this day of autumn celebration – and, no doubt, with hungry folk from far and wide who had used the excuse to get into the
city in the hope that King Hattusili would be generous in opening up the grain silos.

And, as he tried to get to General Himuili at his station at the King’s Gate, Kassu got stuck behind the Procession of the Searching Jesus.

The march was a cacophony of noise, colour, dance, working its way around the circuit of the walls in search of the penitent rogue Judas-Telipinu. At the head of the crowd rode Jesus Sharruma
Himself, mounted on an ornate chariot. The statue, larger than life, brought out of its church in the citadel for this special day, shone with gold plate and was adorned with precious stones.
Jesus wore a Hatti soldier’s tunic with golden mail, but also the soft felt cap of a scribe; He carried a sword in one hand and a shepherd’s crook in the other, and tremendous palm
leaves cast in gold crossed to make an arch over His head. And under all the grandeur, it was said, the statue’s core was a simple wooden figure carved by Jesus Himself, son of a carpenter,
in His old-age exile in Old Hattusa.

The chariot itself was a grand affair, driven by two soldiers along with burly guards to keep away any overeager celebrants. The holy chariots were one responsibility of Kassu’s own
general Himuili, whose formal rank was Chief of the Chariot Warriors of the Left, an archaic title with cavalry units having replaced the chariots centuries ago, but its ancient meaning lingered in
ceremonials like this. The great chariot bearing the god was followed by a crowd – men, women, children – dancing, chanting prayers and singing hymns, and crying out supplications
to Judas-Telipinu, the Missing God, to reveal himself. Jugglers, dancers and conjurers worked the fringes.

Other books

The Fix Up by Kendall Ryan
Wishing on Willows: A Novel by Ganshert, Katie
Body and Soul by Roberta Latow
Lowboy by John Wray
Secret Keeper by Mitali Perkins
Hostile Witness by William Lashner
A Christmas to Bear by Wilder, Carina
Taking Chances by Susan Lewis