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Authors: Stephen Baxter

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‘Tending . . . Yes. We serve a double purpose,’ Alxa said wearily. ‘We take in the afflicted. At the city walls they are simply cut down, you know. Here we allow families to
die together.’ She seemed to stagger slightly. ‘And we keep the city that bit safer. For it is a terrible illness, Mother. There are two manifestations. The first is a fever, and a
spitting of blood. That can kill in less than a day. The second is less vicious, but it kills just as certainly in a few days. If you catch this plague you die, either of the first manifestation or
the second. Your only hope of survival is not to catch it in the first place. If it got loose in the city—’

‘So here you are protecting Carthage. A city that wouldn’t give you a gutter to lie in.’

‘This is where I am, Mother. Perhaps that is part of the mothers’ plan.’

‘And is it part of their plan that you should sacrifice your own life so eagerly?’

‘I knew the risk. We hope to bring doctors here. Scholars. From Carthage, Egypt, even Hatti. Have them study the disease. Find what spreads it. Find how to cure it. Why not? For this thing
is surely the common enemy of all mankind, whatever our political differences, or religious . . .’ Again her voice tailed off.

A heavy dread pooled deep in Rina’s stomach. ‘Alxa – let me help you.’

‘Mother, stay back.’

‘I will not—’

‘It’s too late!’ Alxa pulled open her tunic, slipped it off her right shoulder, and raised her arm. There was some kind of swelling in the armpit, purple-black.

‘What is that?’

She whispered, ‘The second manifestation.’ She lowered her arm. ‘I’m sorry, Mother.’

‘Oh, my child—’ And though Alxa stumbled back again, Rina crossed the space between them in a few strides and took her daughter in her arms. ‘If only we could have stayed
at home – if only you had had a chance to grow into this woman I see before me in Northland – what might you have done, what an Annid you might have become! Oh, child, I’m the one
who’s sorry, so sorry . . .’

 

 

 

 

46

 

 

 

 

The Second Year of the Longwinter: Midwinter Solstice

This hour it was Thaxa’s turn to make the piss run.

He rose from the corner of the huge old cistern, where he’d been reading a scroll by the dim light that came down the air shaft at midday. It was the only light in the room save for the
increasingly rare intervals when they lit the lamps. He stood and pulled on his outer clothes, his heavy hooded coat and his waterproof leather trousers and his boots.

Then, carefully avoiding the prone bodies on the floor, he made for the door leading to the passages out to his house at the face of the Wall. It was the time of day when the small children were
laid down together to nap. ‘Time to sleep now,’ the mothers were whispering all across the chamber. ‘Time to sleep.’ Some of the adults slept too, if they could, in the
muggy air. Sleep was the best way, the only way really, to use up the empty, pointless hours in this growstone box. There was the usual stink of fish, their staple food, on their breath and in
their farts, though you would think he would have got used to that by now. In the dimness he recognised Crimm the fisherman, a few other faces.

The people here were not exactly friends; the jealousy over food and floor space was too strong for that. But they were his guests, that was how he thought of them. He had been astonished to
learn from Crimm and Ayto that this huge abandoned cistern buried deep within the Wall behind his own house was, in theory, his property. He hoped that if they survived this dreadful winter they
would remember his contribution, the last gesture of hospitality from a hospitable man.

At the door he picked up the latest slop buckets. Aranx, the young fisherman who had lost an arm to the frost, was on guard this hour. He offered Thaxa a weapon, a stabbing spear with a rope
sling, but Thaxa had never used a weapon in his life and he saw no point in pretending he could now. Aranx shrugged, opened the door, let him pass through, and closed it after him.

After the human fug of the cistern, the corridors and empty rooms he passed through were dark and bleakly cold. In the circle of light cast by his candle, Thaxa walked softly. Crimm and Ayto had
endlessly stressed to those who they had brought into this refuge that as the Wall burned itself up this winter their best hope was to stay concealed – not to be discovered at all, because
that way they wouldn’t have to fight again, for their food, their lives, as they had had to already.

Ayto himself was waiting for him at the exit from the growstone: another guard on duty, heavily armed with sword and spear and stabbing knife. ‘Go carefully,’ he whispered to Thaxa.
‘And look out for Xree.’

‘Xree? What about her?’

‘She didn’t come back from a piss tour yesterday.’

‘I didn’t notice.’ It was shameful but it was true.

‘Well, there’s nothing we can do for her. But if she’s been made to talk about where we are—’

Lurid rumours were always running through the little group about what might be going on in the world outside the sanctuary of their fortress. Ayto and some of the others had been out there,
dealing with whatever was going on in the rest of the Wall. Sometimes Ayto returned splashed with blood, and he would not say what he had seen, what he had done. There was nothing to do, Ayto
always said, but to sit here and try to survive, while what he called ‘the big sorting-out’ ran to its conclusion elsewhere. But if Xree, a gentle scholar and good Annid, had fallen
into the wrong hands . . .

‘Perhaps she got lost.’

Ayto raised his eyebrows. ‘Yes. Maybe she got lost. Just take care, all right?’ He opened the door to Thaxa’s old house, beyond the Wall.

Thaxa hurried through with his buckets.

Suddenly he was in his old courtyard, in dirty, knee-deep snow. The sky above was a slab of blue, and he breathed deep of the fresh air, but the cold felt like a blade in his lungs. The winter
had done its damage to his home, of course. The snow had smashed in the roof of the big hall, the very walls were cracked by the frost, the ice had got in through broken windows and coated every
surface in the parlours and reception rooms, on the abandoned furniture. But still, this was home, and it was odd to be back out here, after all that had happened. It was not long, he realised,
only a few months, since he had sat in these chambers with Ywa and others and discussed the darkness to come, as if it were all a game, a story.

He put these thoughts aside and hurried across the courtyard, where the snow never piled deeply even though no servant swept it any more: an odd effect of the shelter of the surrounding
buildings. When he returned he would have to kick the lying snow around to mask his traces; he knew the routine by now, rigorously imposed by Crimm and Ayto.

He came to his linen shop. The light was dim, silvery, for the accumulated snow was piled high against the panes of the shop’s glass front, higher than he was tall, leaving only a strip of
blue daylight visible at the very top. The shop was mostly untouched, though his guests in the warehouse had robbed some of his cloth swathes for clothing and bedding – and, he had
discovered, some of it had been nibbled by desperate rats or mice. The shop had a privy, with a drain beneath that you could reach by lifting a tile. Here he dumped the contents of the buckets. The
drain was surely blocked and frozen, but they hadn’t managed to fill it yet, and this was a better solution for disposing of their waste than any other they had found – at least it
couldn’t be detected by any others still surviving in the Wall.

As he worked, he thought of Rina. Wondered what she and the twins were doing right now. If he knew Rina she would have landed on her feet, she always did; she was probably running Carthage by
now. And he wondered what she would think if she could see her husband on his hands and knees, pouring the shit and piss of forty people down this old drain in the back of the shop.

The buckets emptied, he wiped them with a scrap of outrageously expensive Carthaginian cloth, and threw it aside into a gathering heap. He made for the front door and pulled it open slightly
– he always flinched when he did this, expecting to be buried by the infall – but the fallen snow had frozen to a hard wall that blocked the doorway almost from top to bottom, and he
was in no danger. A few flakes drifted down from the looser, fresher stuff at the top, though, and this was what he had come for. He reached up with his mittened hand and scooped handfuls of loose
snow into the buckets. This was the only way to get fresh water; the piped supply to the old cistern had, miraculously, worked for a while, but the water had soon turned foul, then failed
altogether.

‘Thaxa!’

The whispered voice came from above his head. He dropped the buckets and stumbled back, heart pounding. ‘What? Who?’

A face appeared above the snow, from outside the door, surrounded by a hood from which grey-blonde hair curled. ‘Thaxa! It’s me!’

‘Xree? What are you – we thought you were lost! What happened to you? Where did you go?’

She lay flat on the snow, grinning, pleased with herself. ‘There’s more than one way out, you know. I wanted to check on the Archive.’

‘The what?’

‘In its new store, deep in the Wall. To see if it’s safe. Dry. No mice or ice or other problems.’

‘That’s insane.’

She frowned, evidently surprised by his tone. ‘Not at all. It’s a duty. I found that apart from a little ice on the walls—’

‘Why didn’t you come back?’

‘Well, I did get lost then. Found myself wandering around empty corridors.’ Now she looked as if she had been badly frightened, despite the front she was putting up. ‘Nobody to
ask for help, of course.’

‘By the mothers, Xree, if you’d been found—’

‘So I thought, I know, I’ll go to the Wall front and find Thaxa’s shop, and get in that way. How clever! Wasn’t I?’

‘But were you followed? Oh, never mind, never mind – get in! Come on, climb through the snow, I’ll catch you.’

‘Yes. All right.’ She held out her arms.

But she was snatched back with a muffled cry, pulled out of his sight. He heard voices, a struggle, torn clothing.

‘Xree! Xree!’

He jumped up at the ice blocking the doorway. Of course he couldn’t climb its slick surface. He fetched a short ladder, used for accessing high shelves in the shop, propped it against the
ice, climbed, and thrust his head through the gap at the top of the doorway and into clean, fresh air.

Dark shapes, looming over him. Hands grabbed him immediately, his shoulders, arms, even, agonisingly, his hair, and he was dragged out through the gap. He should have gone to get Ayto, he
thought now, too late.

He was flipped on his back, in the cold snow. There were forms all around him – legs, hands reaching for him, a stink of blood and piss. They didn’t even seem human. It had happened
in a heartbeat, from the security of the shop, to this.

He saw Xree; they had her on her back and were pulling at her clothes, her coat. He tried to roll that way. He bowled into them, two, three, four, and they staggered, stumbling in the snow.
‘Xree! Get away!’

The first kick was to the mouth, knocking him onto his back again. He felt broken teeth, agonising. Yet he raised his arms, tried to fight. Make them come to him, and give Xree the best chance
she had to get away, to squirm into the shop, to get to Ayto. But he was weak, ineffectual, he always had been, and there was no force in his punches. His reward was more kicks, more blows.

Then they surrounded him. They got him pinned down, on his back, five of them, one on each limb, one sitting on his chest. He bucked and squirmed in the soft snow, but more punches and kicks
rained in; he felt something crack in his chest, more horrific pain in his mouth that might be a dislocated jaw. And the cold dug into him, aiding his enemies. What little energy he had drained
away, and he started to grow limp, blood filming over his eyes.

They pulled at his clothes, stripping him of his good coat, his waterproof leather trousers, his boots. Even his mittens went. These were Northlander citizens, he thought, as he was. Maybe he
knew them. They might have been customers. Friends. Even relatives. And what would come next, when they had divided up his clothes?
The taking of human flesh for the lack of alternatives is
actually a logical outcome of our situation.
He’d said that himself, in some polite forum in the Wall, or his shop. Drinking nettle tea.
Not me. Not me
.

When they had stripped him to his grimy underwear they pulled away. The cold of the snow against his bare skin was intense. He rolled, tried to stand in the deep snow, fell forward. Hands
grasped after him, but they were still squabbling over his clothes, and he got away. The snow was deep, and as he tried to run his legs sank into it. He lunged forward and fell into a deep drift,
the snow bright around him. Still he thought he heard their voices. He burrowed, bare hands working at the snow – by the mothers it was cold – he dug his way into the snow as a mole
would dig into the earth. On and on, the snow compacting around him, heavy and dark, until his strength was all gone.

He gave up and lay quietly, breathing raggedly, pain flaring, encased in the snow. He could see nothing. Hear nothing. He lay still. Even their voices were gone now. The snow, pressed up against
his bare, wet skin and packed all around him, seemed to suck away his heat. It occurred to him he must be only a few paces from the front door of his own shop.

The shivering began. He pulled his limbs to him, arms against chest, legs up, a child in this womb of ice, his whole body shuddering. He hadn’t been able to see if Xree had got away. Even
if she had got into the shop the others might have followed her. But Ayto would have stopped them. Ayto was strong, resourceful. She would be safe with him . . .

Perhaps he fainted, or slept.

The shivering had stopped. The pain in his chest and mouth was still there, but distant, somehow separate from himself. And his hands – he couldn’t feel his fingers, his toes. He
tried to move them; there was no response.

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