Authors: Stephen Baxter
But Pyxeas wouldn’t say, and Avatak didn’t know what he meant, and the talk petered out.
The journey had been untroubled save for one mechanical failure, a half-day lost while a split boiler had been welded. But now a new problem arose, with the iron road itself.
The caravan was halted and scouts ran ahead.
Rails were missing; even some of the rows of wooden slats pressed into the ground to support the rails had been removed. The workers and engineers gossiped in a dozen tongues. Avatak learned
that the theft of rails was becoming more common. These were turbulent times, the country full of raiders and nestspills. Though a rail took some organisation to lift and carry away, its iron could
be sold on, or turned into weapons, or put to a hundred other uses. And as the weather turned colder the wood from the support beds was valued as fuel. Alternatively, sometimes bandits would lift a
rail or two in order to stop a caravan and raid it.
But the problem could be fixed. Avatak was astonished to discover that one of the caravan’s massive freight wagons was loaded with spare rails, and another with wooden slats for the base.
The engineers called for volunteers from the passengers to help with the reconstruction, and Avatak, feeling restless after his immobility in the yurt, stepped forward readily. The work, quickly
organised, was heavy but easy: lug the rails and supports from the carriages, push the supports into the soft ground, lay the rails down with careful levelling by the engineers with their plumb
lines and water gauges, and hammer home massive rivets. The guards kept up diligent patrols.
Soon the track was fixed, the caravan reloaded, and they were off again. They reached a broad, rich valley that they followed east. Pyxeas, earnestly sketching maps, told Avatak that this was
the north of a large peninsula called Greater Greece. They reached another sea coast, and at last they were a mere few hours from their destination, where they would spend much of the winter.
The name seemed to be on everybody’s lips, up and down the caravan, and people poked their heads out of the felt-laden carriages to look around and swap bits of gossip.
Even old Pyxeas stirred with interest, putting aside his obsessive note-taking. Avatak, who barely understood where he was, felt excitement build.
But Rina merely sighed. ‘Hantilios! I can smell it already.’ She retreated to the back of the yurt.
Hantilios was not like Northland, not like Parisa. It was something new again, to Avatak’s wide-open mind.
It was a city built on islands scattered over a lagoon, crowded, cramped, untidy and nowhere level. The only clear area in the whole city surrounded the palace of the Watchman, an ancient title
for the city’s ruler. The islands were joined by bridges of wood and stone, some more sound than others. Alleyways ran between the houses and shops, connecting marketplace to temple to
granary to dock, but only foot traffic and the occasional horse used the alleyways, for they were too narrow for anything else – and besides the true roads of Hantilios were the waterways,
the natural streams between the islands supplemented by the bold straight lines of artificial canals. Just as the alleys were crowded day and night with people and goods, so the waterways were
constantly packed with vessels, some no larger than the simple kayaks used by Avatak’s people, some elegant shallow-draught barges that were driven by poles pushed into the murky water, and a
few larger ships that looked as if they could brave the open ocean, so close to each other in the lanes that their hulls rubbed.
Rina warned Avatak not to fall into the water, or to drink it unboiled, for the common belief in Northland was that the Hantilians used their waterways not just as roads but as sewers too, and
the place was one big fetid swamp. Well, it wasn’t without its aromas, and the water didn’t look too clean, but it was not as bad as Rina seemed to believe, Avatak quickly learned.
Hantilios had once been a Hatti city, endowed as a trading centre by the Hatti King who had allowed the city to be named after himself – ‘Watchman’ was a relic of a Hatti title
for a local governor – and even now, though it was fiercely independent, the city had retained more than a trace of the Hatti’s famous obsession with cleanliness.
And in this age, clean or not, the city was busier than it had ever been. Hantilios was ‘the hub of the world’s trade’, as Pyxeas called it, connected to all points by good
routes on the water and overland. Now the long drought and the cold winters were stirring people up all across the Continent and beyond, and they all seemed to be flowing through Hantilios. There
were parties of Germans from the north seeking passage to Greater Greece or Africa, and Carthaginians from the west trying to secure grain imports from Islamic Egypt, and Hatti and Muslim traders
from the east looking for new western trading links as those to the east were increasingly disrupted, and so on. The city was a mosaic of skin tones and costume styles and languages, and in the
teeming markets Avatak glimpsed goods from all over the world: spices, drugs, fabrics, weapons, gems, minerals from iron to gold and silver, ivory and wool and ostrich feathers – and slaves,
many, many slaves, desolate-looking folk, some whole families together, brought from who knew where.
In this swarming city Pyxeas was looking for one man, a Northlander merchant called Xavu who was to be the guide for the next stage of the journey. They had no address for Xavu; all they could
do was put out contacts through traders and various officials and wait for the man to get in touch. As the waiting wore on, Rina grew increasingly impatient. The caravan back to Parisa wasn’t
going to wait for long, and when it left Rina intended to be on it, Xavu or no Xavu.
On the third day a messenger, a barefoot boy, brought them a note, inviting them to a meeting. It was not from Xavu. It was from a Hatti, a woman called Uzzia.
Both Pyxeas and Rina were frustrated. But they could see no alternative but to go and meet the stranger, and Avatak accompanied them.
Uzzia’s home, on the outskirts of the city, turned out to be not large but quite grand, a walled compound with a spacious house and garden within. ‘In the Hatti
style,’ Pyxeas mused, as a servant showed the three of them in. ‘Just like New Hattusa.’
‘Hmm,’ said Rina, but under her breath as their host entered. ‘And I suppose
is dressed in the Hatti style too, is she?’
‘Welcome!’ The word was in clipped Northlander. Uzzia was dressed like a man, Avatak thought at first, with a tunic belted at the waist, breeches, scuffed knee-high boots, hair tied
back in a queue like a Hatti warrior. But this was a woman, aged perhaps forty, with a sturdy frame and a pleasant, weathered face. There was a whiff of the road about her, of dust, of horses. She
glanced over her visitors. ‘You are the Northlanders. Welcome, Pyxeas, Rina, and . . .’
‘Avatak. The boy’s name is Avatak.’
‘You were not mentioned in the note to Xavu. What are you – a Coldlander?’
‘Well, you may be from a cold country but I hope you like hot mulled wine, for that’s what I’m drinking today. Please, please.’
She led them across a courtyard to the house, and into a lounge. The servant who had been at the door briskly brought them drinks, the mulled wine they had been promised, and water, fruit juice.
Avatak took a cup of water and sat cautiously on a couch he shared with Pyxeas. Rina took her own chair opposite Uzzia, who sat relaxed on a three-legged stool. Avatak glanced cautiously around.
This was a living room, it had a hearth, unlit today, and a rug of woven wool on the floor and a tapestry on the wall. But there was travelling gear heaped in one corner – a leather cloak,
bridle gear, a whip – and a desk piled with scrolls and parchments. A working room, then. A quilted coat hung on the back of the door, heavy-looking, practical.
Rina got down to business. ‘We were expecting our countryman Xavu, who was to arrange passage for my uncle and his companion to Cathay.’
‘Of course you were. And I intercepted your note to him. Well, he picks up my mail when I’m away Unfortunately Xavu is out of town, and has been gone for months. Too long.’
Pyxeas frowned. ‘Is he in trouble?’
‘Possibly. Or exploring some new opportunity. These are turbulent times, my friend; things change constantly, and communications are terrible. Either way, he’s not here. And besides
he couldn’t have helped you – not old Xavu.’
Rina snorted. ‘You’re sure of that, are you?’
Uzzia smiled at her. ‘You want to get all the way to Daidu, don’t you? The writ of the Khans isn’t as strong as it used to be, what with the drought and the bandits. It would
have been too much for dear old Xavu. But you’re in luck.’
Rina’s eyes narrowed. ‘In Xavu’s place – you? Is that what you’re offering?’
‘I’ve made many journeys east. I’ve even been as far as Daidu, once. Yes, I believe I could get you there, even in these troubled times.’
‘For a price!’
‘That goes without saying.’
‘You are a woman,’ Rina said coldly.
Pyxeas stiffened. ‘Many of our great Northlanders were women, niece. From the great Ana onwards.’
Uzzia smiled. ‘I’m stronger than some men, and smarter than most of them. The secret of my success. Trust me.’
And, looking at her, Avatak realised he did trust her, completely, after just this brief meeting. He really believed she could do what she claimed.
Pyxeas leaned forward. ‘But why, madam? Why would you do this? There must be easier ways to make a profit. Why would a Hatti wish to guide two Northlanders to Daidu?’
She seemed impressed by the fact that he’d asked the question. ‘You go beyond haggling over fees to ask me why. I hope you’ll do me the courtesy of letting me ask you the
He nodded curtly.
‘I do this because I sense opportunity here. In you. I want to achieve more with my life than scraping a bit of petty profit in a place like Hantilios. I am Hatti, yes, but more than that.
I am of the royal line.’
Rina snorted laughter. ‘Everybody in New Hattusa says they’re of the royal line.’
‘Perhaps they are,’ Uzzia said evenly. ‘Our dynasty, my family, is thousands of years old, the only dynasty ever to have ruled the Hatti empire. After so long, yes, perhaps
every Hatti save the slaves has royal blood. But in my case, the divergence from the root stock is only a few generations back. My grandmother was Tawananna, which is a word that means senior
queen. She was pushed aside by enemies at court. We remember, my family.’
‘And you would have your place back,’ Rina said, sneering.
Uzzia kept her gaze on Pyxeas. ‘You say you are a man of learning. I have read history, and I have learned the story of a previous Tawananna, called Kilushepa, who more than two thousand
years ago was pivotal in a stratagem that saved the Hatti, and indeed Northland.’
Rina frowned. ‘You speak of the Trojan Invasion. Yes, Northland was saved. Yes, otherwise my ancestors would have been enslaved, Northland ploughed up for crops. But we were saved through
a terrible act we call the Black Crime. It is a history that shames us.’
‘Then you should be glad your ancestors were stronger-minded than you are, madam, or you would not be here to indulge in that shame. As for the Hatti, we venerate Kilushepa. She is
remembered as a hero; she made the Hatti great again, where we might have been forgotten. Erased. And at her side was a warrior princess called Mi, said to have been a Northlander. Imagine
‘And you want to be a new Kilushepa – is that it?’
‘Not that. But the Hatti kings have little contact with Cathay. Who knows what might come of such a venture, especially at times like this? Ambition is easily mocked, but times of crisis
are also times of opportunity. What one must do is to seize that opportunity when it comes along. And I sense,’ she said, turning to Pyxeas, ‘that in you that opportunity might have
come knocking on my door.’
Pyxeas smiled. ‘On Xavu’s door, strictly speaking.’
‘Now your turn,’ she said bluntly. ‘You are an old man, yet you want to make a journey halfway around this hazardous world of ours. You must want to achieve something very
‘Tell me what that is.’
And he began to speak of the weather.
Avatak recognised Uzzia’s expression; she was like a student struggling to keep up in one of Pyxeas’ classes. ‘And why must you go to Daidu to pursue this?’
‘Because the scholars in Cathay – and they have managed to continue their work under the Mongol dynasty – have been making complementary studies to mine. Measurements of other
aspects of the world, the atmosphere – oh, it is too much to explain without my scrolls! Suffice it to say that I believe that putting together my studies with the science of Cathay,
specifically of a scholar called Bolghai with whom I have corresponded—’
Uzzia held up a hand. ‘Tell it more simply. Tell me why you want to go to Daidu. The real reason, the core of it.’
He thought for a moment, baffled by the question.
Avatak said, ‘He wants to save the world.’
They were all staring at him, Rina open-mouthed, Pyxeas oddly moist-eyed.
And Uzzia – Uzzia was excited. The Hatti woman leaned forward. ‘When can you leave?’
‘Mad,’ Rina said. ‘You’re all mad. Do you have any more of that mulled wine? The sooner I’m back home in Etxelur the better, though the mothers only know what the
weather must be like there . . .’
For Crimm, as for most people, the day of the Autumn Blizzard started normally, like any other day With no warning of what was to come.
That morning, when Crimm got to the dock on the Wall’s ocean face, Ayto, his navigator, was already waiting, with, Crimm counted, only two missing of the
their gear at their feet, a heap of provisions on the growstone ledge beside them. Not a bad turnout for a blustery, blowy autumn morning. At least there hadn’t been any frost, for once, and
up here the growstone footing was always sound.