Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (8 page)

So they got packed up, and there was a day of farewells. Alxa, Rina’s daughter, seemed particularly upset to see him go, as if she feared she wouldn’t see him again.

And then they were gone.

They headed south down the Etxelur Way, and the Wall slowly receded behind them. Then, by canal boat and on foot, they travelled the length of Northland, following tremendous
avenues and crossing bridges over wide canals, and Avatak tried to absorb the scale of this tremendous, orderly, sparsely populated country. It was a long, slow journey in itself, and occasionally
Rina muttered about alternative ways to cross Northland such as by steam caravan. But it seemed that the scholar wanted to see his country, to cross it on foot as his ancestors had for uncounted
generations, one more time before his so-called ‘longwinter’ closed in. After a few days, however, he did relent a little, and allowed Rina to hire for him a horse-drawn carriage,
though to use horses was thoroughly
not
the Northland way.

On the southern coast of Northland they came to a port on the estuary called the Cut, a great wound that ran between the southern shores of Northland and Albia and the northern beaches of Gaira,
giving ultimately to the open seas of the Western Ocean. Here they boarded a small boat, booked ahead by Rina, and as part of a small flotilla crossed the estuary and made their way eastward along
the Gairan coast to a wide river mouth. Waves broke on a nondescript beach, and marsh and wooded hills could be seen beyond. From here they would sail upriver towards the great city of Parisa.

Inland, the countryside was quite similar to southern Northland and Albia, rolling and green, though even this far south they still saw the odd white splash of remnant winter ice. Gaira was a
quilt of ancient nations, mostly Frankish, immigrants a thousand years before, but some older stock. The empires of the Middle Sea with their cities of stone had never come this far north, and so
the Gairans’ various cultures had been shaped by local influences, the Northlanders, the farmers to the south – even the other-worldly Albians of their great forest to the west. So
Avatak saw a mix of neat farms surrounded by stretches of woodland, and then a swathe of lowland worked and managed as the Northlanders did, and then a town of stone where the natives sold lumber
or minerals to merchants from the Middle Sea. But an older history survived; some of these communities were still centred on the circles of mighty stones bequeathed by distant ancestors.

At last they approached Parisa. A Frankish settlement, this was the westernmost city on the Continent, Pyxeas said, a trading conduit for Northland. Here they would board a steam caravan that
would take them onwards east in comparative comfort. They had a couple of days and nights before they were to leave. While Pyxeas locked himself away in a rented room with his books and scrolls and
calculations, and Rina organised the final details of their onward journey, Avatak wandered around Parisa.

He had never been to a city before, and he was overwhelmed by the size of it, the buildings of smartly cut stone or shabby wattle and daub crammed in side by side on both banks of a languid
river, and jammed in even more tightly on a central island. He walked through alleyways walled by shops and stalls and taverns, stepped over open drains running through the cobbles, and climbed
rickety bridges to the central island, which was dominated by sprawling temples dedicated to the gods of the peoples who traded here, from the ancient forest gods of the Albians to the enigmatic
Jesus Sharruma of the east. People rushed everywhere, or laboured in open-to-the-street manufactories, or noisily sold wares in the many marketplaces. Pyxeas said the name of this place came from
what the people who had founded it called themselves, in their own tribal tongue; they were ‘The People Who Worked’ or ‘The Busy People’, and looking around their city
Avatak could well believe it. The place was nothing like the orderly, rigidly laid out, sparsely populated communities of lower Northland, or indeed like the tiny fishing villages of Avatak’s
homeland. His only comparison was with the crowded communities of the Wall itself. It was as if a District had been cut from that great structure and emptied out, a heap of stone and wriggling
people. But the Wall, of course, would have utterly overwhelmed this cramped, smoky, shabby place.

And even here, far to the south of Northland, Avatak saw the mark of winter and the long drought: frosts every clear morning, the late potato crops struggling in the parched fields outside the
city.

But Parisa, for all its detail and curiosities and wonders, was only the start of their true journey. Pyxeas warned him not to be too impressed. ‘You’ll forget this ant-hill when you
see the mighty cities of Cathay.’

Rina, coldly disapproving of the whole enterprise, said nothing.

The day before their departure they walked down to the line terminus on the city’s eastern side, with hastily hired servants bringing their luggage after them.

Avatak had ridden steam caravans before. In Northland their gleaming iron trails criss-crossed the countryside, north to south, east to west. And then there was the famous Iron Way, the line
that ran along the crest of the Wall itself, uniting the far-flung Districts of the Wall and their peoples.

But the great caravan to Hantilios was a different beast. Of course it was like a Northland steam caravan in its fundamentals; much of it was built and maintained by Northland engineers. But it
was so much
bigger
than any caravan Avatak had ever seen. Not one but two engines would haul passenger carriages studded in a chain of rusty trucks full of Albian coal for fuel, and freight
carriages, and specialised coaches that looked like engineering shops on wheels. Pyxeas said that though the southern Continent was a crowded and civilised place (‘Somewhat civilised,’
Rina corrected him), and though the Parisa–Hantilios line was a marvel of Northlander engineering, the technical support in these southern lands was sparse, and on the road the engineers
would have to rely on their own resources.

The point of the caravan line was of course trade. The Parisa–Hantilios line, the longest in the world to date, had been laid at huge expense to connect two great trading centres: Parisa,
a hub for goods passing to and from Northland, Albia, Gaira, and even far Scand; and Hantilios, central to the Continent, which lay on trading routes connecting north and south, west and east. So
the bulk of the caravan was freight carriages laden with lumber and coal and tin and gold from Albia, furs and amber from Scand, and barrels of Kirike-fish from Northland itself, all bound for the
needy markets of the east.

It was the passenger carriages, though, that caught Avatak’s eye. In Northland such carriages were plain but functional boxes of steel and wood with sturdy windowpanes. They were even
heated in winter (and increasingly in the summer too) by pipes through which steam was bled from the engine. The carriages here in Parisa, though, were topped by what looked like dome-shaped tents,
covered for now by sooty leathers which boys were cleaning of grime as the passengers arrived. Avatak found the carriage they had been assigned, and clambered through a doorway, pushing aside a
heavy flap. The tent was a frame of bent wooden slats heaped with vividly coloured velvet. The floor was covered with a thick carpet, and there were couches to lie on, and trunks to store your
luggage and food and drink. The windows were holes in the wall covered with leather panels scraped so thin you could see through them.

Pyxeas smiled at the boy’s marvelling reaction. ‘We will be transported by Northlander ingenuity,’ he said, ‘but on the way we will live in a yurt that the Great Khan in
Daidu might not be ashamed of.’ For that, it seemed, was the basis of the design of the shelter, the portable houses of the nomadic tribesmen of the plains of Asia. ‘There was a scheme
to build a new caravan line east into the heart of Asia itself, perhaps all the way to Daidu. The representatives of the Khans travelled west to try out the technology.’

‘And so to snag their attention,’ Rina said cynically, ‘the engineers built these fake yurts on the back of caravan carriages, just to make the Khan’s people feel at
home. A blatant bit of salesmanship, Uncle.’

Pyxeas was grumpy. ‘One must take the world as it is,’ he snapped back. ‘And anyway it worked. The pan-Asia line would have been built by now if not for the weather, and you
and I, Avatak, would be travelling to Daidu in heated comfort all the way.’

Rina snorted.

Avatak, his imagination snagged by the idea of crossing an unknown country in a tent as if he was a Mongol warrior himself, could barely wait for the journey to begin.

It took a full day and night to load up the caravan. Pyxeas’ party spent the final night in their carriage, the three of them bundled up on their couches, separated by partitions of
embroidered cloth. The yurt was comfortable, though not yet heated as the engine was idle. They lit their lanterns, and they had a water tank topped up by servants, even a small stove and a food
store; it was a home from home, and Avatak enjoyed exploring more of its little gadgets. He slept badly that night, however, such was the racket of the loading.

Not long after dawn the caravan was ready to go. As the great engine built up its head of steam the protective leather shells were stripped off and the yurts were revealed as vividly coloured
pods, scarlet and green and purple, studded between the huge grey freight cars. The passengers stuck heads out of doors to see what was going on as servants loaded final bits of luggage into the
carts, and engineers checked the strapping of the cargo bundles and the coupling between the carriages, and priests of a dozen faiths blessed the great caravan and those who would ride in it.

The Parisans turned out too, men and women and many grubby-looking children, and vendors selling drink and food and little wooden toy caravans. The departure of such a great caravan was rare
enough that it was an event for the folk of the city. Pyxeas told Avatak that more people could travel on a single one of these huge continental caravans than lived in all of Coldland, and Avatak,
who didn’t believe everything the sage told him, believed that.

At last there was a mighty shriek of a steam whistle that made the children clap their hands to their ears, and a growl like some huge beast, and the engine clawed its way along the track, the
carriages bumping after it. Steam and smoke billowed from the engine stack, and Rina and Pyxeas retreated inside. But Avatak hung out of the yurt as the city receded, and he looked back at the
shining curve of the caravan as it followed a great arc of rail across flat, chalky countryside, and the smoke streamed back in the bright air.

Once in motion the yurt was even more comfortable, steam-warmed now they were under way. The first stop came at about midday, beside a small service building in the middle of dried-up farmland.
Servants hurried off the caravan and set up a kind of yurt much larger than the rest. This was a kitchen, an eating hall, and soon the passengers were served a healthy meal of fish from Parisa,
wine from Greater Greece and pickled eel from Northland. The country around the stop seemed empty enough, but there were guards, a troop of soldiers from Parisa, others from Hantilios. Their
officers set up a perimeter and kept careful watch until the caravan was loaded and on the move again.

The caravan moved at a brisk and steady speed. Before the first day was done the nature of the country was already changing, with the chalky densely farmed plain giving way to higher ground
grazed by cattle and sheep. Overnight they travelled south down a long river valley. By midday the next day they had reached another town, whose name Avatak never learned – another trading
centre, smaller than Parisa and subtly different in character. Here they offloaded some goods, loaded up more, took on coal and water, and pulled away again.

They reached a sea coast and followed the shore eastwards, passing through more cities and towns. Looking out to the south, to the caravan’s right-hand side, Avatak saw the ocean,
glistening blue rather than a cold grey like the northern seas, and without ice as far as he could see. Fishing boats sailed from neat harbours, a variety of designs strange to his eyes, with
billowing sails or rows of oars like insects’ legs. This was the Middle Sea, Pyxeas told Avatak, itself a great and ancient transport highway. And to the caravan’s left, when the route
cut north away from the coast, tremendous mountains loomed on the horizon, capped with white, their flanks streaked with tongues of ice. To Avatak this was a wistful and unexpected reminder of
home.

While the mountains were in view Pyxeas peered from the yurt, his rheumy eyes squinting in the chill of the breeze, sketching, making notes, muttering, frustrated at how little he could see.
‘The glaciers are growing,’ he told Avatak. ‘Harbingers of the coming of the longwinter. Any record of their growth is useful.’

‘It is like home,’ Avatak ventured. ‘We have such mountains. The ice, the white.’

‘Of course you do. I saw them. But here the cold mantles the mountain because of altitude rather than latitude. By which I mean . . .’

But Avatak wasn’t listening. He had been trying to express his mild homesickness, rather than ask for a lesson on the nature of ice and cold.

‘Oh, do shut that flap,’ Rina complained. ‘You’re letting all the heat out. I don’t know why in the mothers’ mercy you’re carting that Coldland boy
along with you. You’re going east, not north. You could hardly choose a less suitable companion. I mean,
listen
to him. That dreadful guttural language – those words as long as a
book! Everybody’s been staring since Parisa.’

‘None less suitable? On the contrary.’ Pyxeas pulled back into the yurt. ‘He is entirely suitable for the role. It’s precisely because this boy is so far from his home
environment that he fascinates me so – he demonstrates the suppleness of the human mind.
And
he is my reserve. Like the second walking stick I have packed in my luggage.’

‘Walking stick? What on earth are you talking about, Uncle?’

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