Authors: Stephen Baxter
Then the screaming started, from under the very centre of the awning. The woman with the baby, Mago remembered. She had gone right for the centre of the stall, where it had been warmest. He
began hauling harder at the awning. ‘Help me.’ He repeated, louder and in Northlander, ‘Help me!’
The others gathered around, Nelo, the vendors, the bewildered nestspills, pawing at the wrecked stall with their bare hands, trying to reach the woman and her child.
When Crimm had come back to Ywa’s house that morning, after he’d given up on the idea of taking the
out, they had considered making love. It was a kind
of unspoken negotiation. They knew each other too well to need words.
But it was
in Ywa’s house, this snowy morning, cold in the home of the Annid of Annids, and it was likely to get colder yet. The house was an old design, one of seven
roundhouses on its flood-defying mound, a structure of oak beams and thatch and wattle of the kind Ana herself might once have lived in eight or nine thousand years before. The house was an
honorarium for the Annid of Annids and a living memory of Northland’s heritage, but it was not
Meanwhile, Crimm might have had a day off, but Ywa had a lot of paperwork to get
through, after the latest meeting of the Water Council, which had seen yet more arguments about ration allowances and the guard draft. So they just draped blankets over their shoulders, and huddled
together over the central hearth where the smoke seeped up to the thatched roof, and drank bitter coffee, a gift of the Jaguar folk from across the ocean, and talked softly.
‘I should probably go back to the Wall,’ Ywa sighed. She glanced over the mounds of scrolls on the carpeted floor, the slates and books open on her desk. ‘It’s just that
I get so much more
if I squirrel away in here.’
Crimm grunted. ‘Maybe you ought to get back before that snow gets much deeper.’
‘Surely it will stop soon . . .’
The wind picked up, and the house creaked, a deep wooden groan.
‘When you go I’ll walk with you. Can’t have the Annid of Annids stuck in a snowdrift with her arse in the air.’
‘I’m sure I can feel a draught,’ she said, and pulled her blanket closer.
‘The snow will pass,’ he said, trying to reassure.
‘But a blizzard like this, so soon in the year. How will we cope?’
Crimm thought he knew how she felt. Ywa felt she bore the burden of all the Northlanders’ fates on her slim shoulders, just as he felt responsibility for his crew on the
the middle of storms, or when becalmed. Mind you, in his opinion her fellow Annids should have been doing more to help, his cousin Rina especially, Rina just back from a pointless jaunt to
Hantilios with old Pyxeas, Rina who seemed more concerned with politicking and feathering her own nest than the welfare of others. He shuffled up and put his arm around Ywa. ‘You’ll get
Briefly she relaxed, and let her head drop to his shoulder. ‘I’m lucky to have you.
– funny word. It took the loss of your wife and baby to bring us together. What
kind of luck is that?’
‘Lucky for me, in the end,’ he murmured. Lucky that he had found something drily comforting in the strength of this woman, a distant cousin older than him, widowed a decade ago, her
only son long grown and left. Even though they both felt it was best to keep the relationship as private as possible. He kissed the top of her head, the greying unbrushed hair. ‘We’ll
still be here in the spring—’
The house groaned again, and there was a snap, of wood splitting. They both sat up. From beyond the walls came a crackling crunch, like a tree trunk breaking, then a softer collapse. Cries of
anger and pain.
They looked at each other. ‘We need to get out of here,’ Crimm said.
It took only moments to pull on their cloaks, hoods, boots, mittens. Crimm kicked dirt over the hearth, damping down the fire. Ywa glanced once at her papers, but she didn’t need Crimm to
tell her there was no time to pack them up.
They pushed their way through the door flap and out into the open. The snow was nearly up to their knees, Crimm saw with shock. How could so much have fallen so quickly? And so
still it came down. When they stepped out of the lee of the house the snow, blasting on a wind straight from the north, came at them horizontally, thick and hard, heavy flakes stinging as they
slapped Crimm’s face. He staggered, and reached for Ywa’s mittened hand.
A few steps away from the house they looked around. Ywa pointed. ‘There. It was Canda’s house.’
The house, or the wreck of it, was barely visible. Crimm saw supporting beams, some broken, sticking out of the heaped snow like snapped bones. But already fresh snow was covering over the
‘We should help them.’
‘No.’ He pointed to figures plodding through the rush of snowflakes. ‘They’re already heading for the Wall. They must be all right.’
She hesitated, then nodded, and they set off.
There was a shortcut to the Wall, a diagonal path, but they were walking through a uniform whiteness. Wary of getting lost Crimm led Ywa to the Etxelur Way, the main road that ran south to north
directly to the heart of the Wall. The Way was cambered and lined with poles where banners flew on festival days; following the poles they couldn’t get lost. He put his arm around Ywa’s
waist, and they pulled their furs up over their mouths, and pushed their way through snow and wind.
When Kia wanted to be nice to Thux, she would tell him she had two sons, him and Engine Seventy-Four. But on a day like today, with her engine struggling, there was no hiding
the fact that there was only one true priority in her life. Still, in a corner of her heart she thanked the little mothers for giving her a son like Thux: smart, strong, flexible, and even handy
with a wrench. He was young yet, but already one of the true
, like herself; it must be in the blood.
Now the two of them stood in the engine room, watching the labouring of their steel beast with some anxiety.
This chamber, with its rough plastered-over growstone walls, was entirely embedded within the body of the Wall, not far below its parapet. Shelves were cluttered with the paraphernalia of their
profession: precision screws, gears, transmission chains, camshafts, pistons, valves. The engine itself was a massive cylinder that filled the room. Its big rocking arm converted the heat of
good Albian coal to motive force, the force that helped keep the ground by the face of the Wall pumped dry, and worked elevators within the Wall, and lifted cargo cranes on the sea-facing side. The
whole apparatus was surrounded by condenser pipes and feeds that kept the engine working to its best theoretical ability, and bled steam and hot water off into the body of the Wall to keep its
inhabitants in the warmth and comfort to which they had been accustomed for centuries, even in the hardest winter. Engine Seventy-Four was dumb, but it was big and strong and reliable – just
as Kia liked to say of her son, not inaccurately. But today it was in trouble. You didn’t need to read the liquid-level gauges showing pressure and temperature and steam output and all the
rest to know that; you could feel it, standing in this growstone pen before the labouring beast.
As Kia and Thux stood there bewildered, a few flakes of snow came drifting down the ventilation shafts from the outside world, quickly melting in the heat of the engine room.
‘It’s overheating,’ Kia said.
‘I don’t understand,’ Thux replied. ‘I know it’s snowing—’
‘I’ve never known it to snow so hard before, I have to say. Certainly not this early in the winter.’
‘But the loops should be too hot to be affected by the frost.’ Big radiator loops were embedded in the Wall’s outer surface, to enable the engines, buried in the body of the
Wall, to lose heat. ‘In fact,’ Thux said, ‘the colder it is outside the better the heat loss. Right? What then, Mother? Owl’ A mass of snow came tumbling down a shaft,
straight onto his head and shoulders. Splashing onto the floor it quickly melted, leaving a shallow puddle. As Kia tried not to laugh, Thux brushed the residue off his hair and shoulders.
happen? It’s impossible.’
Kia peered up the shaft. ‘Not if the snow’s falling fast enough. Maybe ice is forming on the protective grilles . . .’ She snapped her fingers. ‘That’s it. The
exhaust shafts must be blocked by ice and snow. Our baby’s choking. One of us will have to go up and clear it. I’ll go,’ she said immediately.
‘No,’ he snapped.
‘You’ve never seen conditions like this before.’
‘Well, nor have you. My job, Mother. I’m younger than you. And it wouldn’t cost as much to replace me.’ He went to a locker and began to pull out his kit.
‘All right. With weight like mine I’d probably break the ladders anyhow. But make sure you suit up properly. Scarf, peaked hat, mask, heavy gloves.’
‘I know.’ Struggling, he pulled a tight coverall lined with gull feathers over his regular work clothes.
Kia went back to her gauges. She wasn’t about to say it, in fact she didn’t really trust herself to say anything, but today, at forty-three years old, she felt unreasonably proud of
her only son. And of herself, she admitted, not to mention Engine Seventy-Four. People had always looked down on the House of the Beavers, Northland’s engineers, even though it was as old as
any of the nation’s ancient guilds – and their nickname of the
showed they had absorbed as much of the tradition of the learned Greeks who had once flocked to
Northland as any of the more academic Houses. After all, without the Beavers’ work on the Wall and the various other sea-defence measures in the very beginning, Northland would not even
exist, it would all have been lost under the sea before Ana was cold in her stony tomb in the Wall, probably. And these days the Beavers, equipped with new skills, worked harder than ever. The
sages, nodding in deference to their inspirational founder Pythagoras, might lecture the world about the principles of heat flow and mechanical advantage, but it took a Beaver, one of the humble
, crawling about in the dark and smoke and steam and sweat, to make it all work.
Except today it was only just working. All the Wall’s engines were labouring to cope with the flooding at the Wall’s base, caused by a brief warm spell. But that wasn’t the
only stress on her engine. On such a day as this people must be flocking into the Wall for shelter, those who lived in smaller properties out on the plain – even those with homes in the
chambered cloisters of Old Etxelur, which wasn’t as well equipped as the Wall. As they arrived, settling in the apartments and inns and taverns, they were all turning up the heat, and running
deep steaming baths to soak away the cold of the day. She could see it all reflected in the bubbling levels of the gauges, hear it in the deep mechanical groans of the engine.
And now the engine itself was being choked by the snow.
What if Engine Seventy-Four failed? Then Seventy-Three and Seventy-Five would be quick to pack up too, as they strove too hard in an effort to compensate, and the whole system could come
crashing down. Without heating – why, without even running cold water, for that had to be pumped up from the ground too, a fact not many citizens of the Wall were even aware of – what
would become of the Wall and the citizens snug inside, like bees in their honeycombed hive? Seventy-Four must not fail – that was all. And on this shift it was Kia’s job, and
Thux’s, to make sure of that.
Thux was ready. Swaddled in his protective suit and peaked hat he was barely recognisable. But his eyes creased when he smiled at her behind his mask.
She took his head and kissed the top of his hat. ‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘One mistake out there – that’s all it will take.’
‘I’ll be fine.’
‘Just make sure you are, or you’ll have me to answer to. Now go.’ She turned him around and pushed him towards the elevator to the roof.
When she made it to the Wall Ywa toured the ground-level doorways, and the main staircases and elevator shafts. There were injured folk pouring into the Wall’s Etxelur
District from all over the adjacent part of Northland, even from Old Etxelur. They came with broken bones from falls, crush injuries from collapsed houses, frostbite – or they came just
looking for shelter, the already ill, the very old and very young, nestspills weakened by hunger, and some in what the doctors described as a state of deep cold, the very cores of their bodies
losing essential heat.
It was soon obvious that the Wall’s hospitals couldn’t cope.
Ywa made some fast decisions. First she sent for Ontin, a distant cousin, not the most senior or learned medical professional in Northland but the family doctor she had always trusted herself.
Then she went to the Hall of Annids, the largest single chamber in the District. Maybe this place could be used to house the influx.
She found her way barred by a pompous official. To her astonishment she learned that a poetry competition was proceeding in the Hall, a handful of elderly men of the House of the Wolf declaiming
bad verse to each other in archaic tongues. Ywa pushed the doorman aside and strode in. The big room was colder than usual – and darker, too. When she glanced up she could see snow gathering
on the big glass panes of the roof. She broke up the competition, and co-opted the poets to help get the chamber set up as an emergency receiving hospital. To their credit, as soon as they realised
how urgent the situation was they ran to help. ‘Why,’ said one well-spoken gentleman, ‘I hadn’t even noticed it was snowing.’ Others came as word spread, with pallets,
chairs, boxes of medical supplies such as bandages, splints, medicines, surgical instruments.
And soon the wounded, ill and displaced began to trickle in.