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Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (12 page)

BOOK: Iron Winter (Northland 3)
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Ontin showed up, carrying his own bag of instruments. A small, pot-bellied, balding man of about sixty, he looked taken aback when he saw the number of cases already here.

More volunteers started to arrive. Rina’s son Nelo came stumbling in, with that cocky young Carthaginian – what was his name? – Mago. Between them they were carrying an injured
woman, filthy and in rags, her leg obviously broken; she cried out with every step. But she held a baby against her chest, swathed in dirty cloth. The boys laid the woman down on a pallet, and the
well-dressed daughter of an Annid came hurrying over to help her.

Nelo and Mago approached Ywa. They were both panting, soaked from melted snow, their tunics stained with blood. Nelo asked, ‘What can we do to help, Annid?’

She smiled at them. ‘It looks to me as if you’ve been helping already.’ She pointed to Ontin. ‘Do whatever he tells you.’

Nelo nodded. But Mago looked up at the glass roof, uneasily, distracted.

Ontin had been thinking. ‘We need to set up a system. Sort the injured into categories, those who need urgent care, those who can wait, those who don’t need help at all and those we
can’t help. You boys can do something straight away for those who’ve been caught by the deep cold, like her.’ He pointed to one young girl, limp on a pallet, pale as the snow
itself. Her parents were hovering over her, gently shaking her, trying to get her to wake. ‘Get her parents to cuddle her – body warmth, that’s the thing, until we can get more
organised. Run around and do that wherever you see somebody in that condition.’

The young men hurried away. But Ywa heard the Carthaginian muttering, ‘Look up, my friend. That ceiling.’

‘A lot of snow.’


‘Never seen it like that before. Covered over. We don’t normally get much snow in Etxelur.’

‘Hmm. Have you ever had the feeling that you’ve lived the same experience twice?’

Ywa said to Ontin, ‘Whatever you need, tell me, and I’ll find it for you.’

‘Thank you. Do you think it’s getting cold in here?’ He walked over to a wall hot-water tap, opened the valve, let it run, and dipped his fingers into the flow. It was obvious
it was running cold.

It felt as if the steam caravan had been stuck here for hours. Since the crew had fixed the snowblades, the cabin had lurched forward for a while, and, under way once more,
Alxa had started to relax. Then the caravan stopped again, for no apparent reason, and she had nothing to do but sit in the gathering dark. And then off again, and another stop, and off again, and
a lurched halt that felt somehow final. Not knowing was the worst part, in a way, that and having no control over her own fate.

It had been a long time since the heating pipes had gone cold. In the end she had swallowed her pride and opened her luggage; she pulled on dirty clothes for extra layers to keep warm, piled a
spare coat over her legs, and jammed two hats on her head, a Frankish woollen cap under a big fur bonnet. But still her breath steamed in the air.

And now it was growing darker and darker, and a more intense cold was closing in. She felt as if she was being swallowed. She had a box of small candles in her luggage, and a flint. She set one
candle up in a bowl on the seat beside her. The little circle of light showed the heavy flakes that still fell beyond the window, and her own pale face reflected in the small panes of glass.
Perhaps the caravan would never move again, she thought. Perhaps the snow would simply bury the rail line, and the caravan, and her, and when the thaw came in the summer the engineers would find
her frozen corpse . . .

The tugging on the cabin door startled her. Perhaps she had nodded off.

The door seemed to have stuck in place and took some force to shift. It opened with a crack of splintering ice, letting in chill air and a swirl of snowflakes. A burly man carrying an oil
lantern clambered up a ladder to the doorway. Aged maybe forty, he wore the uniform of the Iron Way guild, a subdivision of the ancient House of Beavers, the Wall engineers. He held up his lantern.
‘Are you all right, madam?’

She forced a smile. ‘Not exactly. Cold. Bored. Hungry! But alive, as you can see, and keeping myself warm. What’s going on, officer?’

He rolled his eyes. ‘You name it. We’ve got drifting snow in some places. It fell too thick for the blade, and we had to change that for the midwinter design, and in places
we’ve had to send the lads out ahead with shovels to clear the line. Then there’s trouble with the boiler, external lines freezing up and splitting. Sorry for the delay.’

‘Don’t apologise. You’re stuck as well. As long as we get there in the end.’ She glanced through the window. ‘Where are we, by the way?’

‘On the Wall. But still well to the east of Etxelur. We’ll get there, miss, you’ll see.’

She frowned. The Wall was inhabited from end to end. ‘But it’s still snowing. What District is this? There must be places we can shelter for the night. Maybe we should disembark

‘We’ll get there,’ he said with some determination. ‘The engines of the Iron Way always get through. That’s what we live by, miss.’ He passed up a glass
bottle of water, and, apologetically, a wooden bucket. ‘The latrine system’s seized up,’ he said.

She took the bucket. ‘Keep safe, officer.’

He was already closing the door. Listening hard, she heard his heavy tread through the snow, and then his rap on the next cabin in the line. But if he got a response, she couldn’t hear
through the rushing of the wind. After that there was only the cold, and her candle.

She felt a draught. Since the officer had forced the door it wouldn’t fit back in its frame.

Up on the Wall parapet above Engine Seventy-Four, Thux was struggling.

It felt like he’d been out here for hours, and maybe he had been, for it was getting darker and darker. He had a lantern fixed into a prepared socket on the growstone surface, but all he
saw by its light was a bubble of snowflakes, flying horizontally. The wind was coming from the north, flat and hard and muscular, and it sucked every bit of warmth out of any exposed skin, out of
his cheeks, out of his hands when he flipped back the clever little lids on his mittens to expose his fingers for the finer work. And though the snow wasn’t settling up here, except in the
engine’s vents and chimneys, the wind was depositing ice on every surface, on the growstone under his feet, on the pipework and handholds and rungs he had to use to clamber about.

He’d been up here without a break since the engine had first started to struggle. But there was no choice. The vents were the problem, the vents that fed the great engine with the air it
needed to burn its fuel, and expelled its excess heat and steam and smoke. The swirling snow was forever clogging them up. Even on the hot chimneys the snow fell and froze in place faster than it
could be melted away. So Thux was following a dismal circuit, clambering around the growstone with his pack of tools at his waist, clearing snow and ice from the vents with hammer and chisel and,
sometimes, when he couldn’t find any other way, with his mittened hands. He was exhausted, cold to the bone, wet through from snow that had got under his hood and down his collar and melted
against his skin. And, when he thought about it, also hungry. He wondered how much longer he could keep this up. He was pretty sure there’d be no relief shift tonight. Every one of the
available would be at work somewhere in the Wall’s battered infrastructure. If he gave up and went down he knew that his mother would insist on coming up here to take his
place, and he couldn’t have that.

And Engine Seventy-Four couldn’t be allowed to fail, or any of the hundreds of engines implanted along the mighty length of the Wall. Not on a night like this. Up to now they had been
winning; he couldn’t hear the engine, such was the howl of the wind and the muffling of his ears by his big fur cap, but he could feel its steady vibration through the growstone, like a
beating heart buried within the Wall.

But now he heard an ominous groan from the Wall’s sea-facing surface. A sharp crack. A hiss of escaping steam. Something new, then.

He scrambled across the growstone, crouching in the wind. Facing north, he lay on his belly, holding his hood to protect his face from the blasting wind, and looked down by the light of his
lantern. The Wall face itself was caked with ice. And there was a broken pipe venting steam, just beneath the edge of the roof. The pipes here, stitching in and out of the growstone surface, were
part of the radiator system; the steam would pass through these exposed sections and lose a little heat in the open air before being drawn back into the closed cycles of the engine. Now, Thux could
see, even though the radiator pipes were usually blistering hot, the cold had won. The pipes had become coated with thick masses of ice, flowing forms that must have melted and refrozen as the heat
battled the snow, and the fluid in one section of the pipe must have frozen and, expanding, split the pipe wide open. The engine was bleeding steam pressure, and, worse, if the radiator
wasn’t working the engine would soon be overheating too.

It wasn’t an impossible job. The system, already centuries old, had evolved with time for ease of repair. Lying flat, he could reach down to the broken section. He checked that his rope
harness was fixed securely to a stout rung, and then dug out a wrench and a short length of brass sleeve that he would use to join the broken ends of pipe to make a temporary fix. The welders could
come up here and make the joint good when the weather relented. He flipped back his mittens’ lids to expose his fingers, taking care not to touch the still-hot pipes, and grabbed the broken
section with his right hand.

As his hand closed around the freezing metal he knew immediately he’d made a horrible mistake.

The agonising cold sank into his fingers and palm. When he tried to loosen his fingers he found the flesh was glued firmly to the metal surface. He tried harder, and he could feel the flesh
tear, and blood oozed out onto the metal where it froze immediately, a glistening crimson. He was stuck. Lying here face down on the growstone, his right arm outstretched down the Wall, he
couldn’t even reach the locked right hand with his left.
Be careful
, his mother had always said.
One mistake out there – that’s all it will take.
And she’d
been right. This had been that one mistake, for him.

He could feel the cold penetrating through his hand, up his arm. The wind picked up again and blew back his hood from his head, so his face and scalp were exposed to the driving snow. The flakes
were heavier now, harder, and they stung as they slapped at his skin. He could feel ice on his face, below his eyes. He couldn’t tell if he was crying or not. He was going to die out here, he
realised. It wasn’t just that he’d messed up the job. He would freeze to death, trapped like an idiot up on this Wall. He tried again to force open his fingers, but again he felt flesh
rip, and what felt like a web of muscles beneath the skin tearing. The pain was astounding. He slumped back, exhausted, defeated, agonised. He yelled into the wind: ‘How could I be so

‘Good question!’ It was his mother’s voice. Kia was lying face down by his right-hand side, bundled up in her own furs.

‘You shouldn’t be up here.’ His teeth were chattering.

‘No, I shouldn’t. And I shouldn’t have given birth to an idiot like you. But one thing follows the other, doesn’t it?’ She pulled his hood back over his head, and
kissed him on an exposed bit of forehead. ‘Now hold still or you’ll pull that hand to bits.’ She dug her own bare fingers into a pot of oil and reached down and began to massage
the fingers and palm of his locked hand.

‘What is that?’

‘Sperm-whale oil. Had it in the store for years. Old Coldlander trick, although they say seal oil is the best. It’ll take a little time but we’ll get you free. Leave it to

Thux rested his face on the fur of his hood, with the cold growstone beneath. He seemed to be falling asleep, his thoughts receding into the warmth of his own skull. It was almost comforting to
lie here, in the care of his mother as she worked at his damaged hand. He couldn’t even feel the cold any more.

But there was something missing.

He forced his head up. ‘Mother. Can you hear that?’


‘The engine.’

She lay there for a moment, silent and still as the wind howled around them.

The pumping heartbeat of the engine had stopped, and the growstone beneath them was as inert as a corpse.










It was Mago who spotted the first cracked pane in the roof.

By now it was the dead of night. Nelo had been working flat out, like everybody else, since he’d first come here to the Hall of Annids, and he had no precise idea of the time. Doctor Ontin
had got his emergency hospital running pretty quickly. Mago and Nelo had been used as spare muscle in Ontin’s scheme to sort out the continuing trickle of injured and ill as they kept
arriving through the night. Ontin himself, with other surgeons and nurses, was working hard on the more serious injuries, the broken limbs and crushing wounds, the frostbite, the cases of
exhaustion, even a couple of heart attacks.

Things had got steadily worse. The heating had been off for hours, and the running hot water. Then even the cold water supply had failed, then the gas supply that fed the lanterns. Ontin, bossy,
exasperated, had coped with all this as it had unfolded, barking out commands to anybody who would listen, including Ywa Annid of Annids, who made sure that what he wanted got done. Soon the Hall
was studded with candles, and open fires blazed in antique hearths unused for a century. Clogged chimneys trapped smoke and the ash, and there wasn’t much to burn save smashed-up furniture
– it was very expensive firewood – but the fires gave out enough heat to keep them all from freezing altogether.

But all through the night Nelo and Mago, remembering their adventure with the awning, had kept an eye on that roof, a great glass lid over them all, that had been covered with snow thick enough
to block out the daylight even before the sun had set. In the dark it was easy to forget about, you couldn’t even see it in the flickering light of the candles. Nelo had tried a couple of
times to warn Ywa about the problem, but she hadn’t really listened, and he understood; you couldn’t deal with everything at once. But the two of them had kept watching, and

BOOK: Iron Winter (Northland 3)
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