Authors: Stephen Baxter
The setting was spectacular. The Hall of Annids, relocated and rebuilt extensively over the ages, was contained within the body of the Wall, just under the roof, and its great stained-glass
ceiling was one of the wonders of the Etxelur District. Though the sunlight gleamed through the glass it wasn’t a particularly warm day – there hadn’t been a
day all summer – but the steam-pipe heating was running, and Alxa knew she was going to get seriously hot in this rig.
‘And it’s going to be as dull as a Hatti funeral,’ she moaned to Nelo, as they filed into the Hall behind their parents and other Northland dignitaries.
Nelo just laughed.
The session was already coming to order, if slowly, and Alxa and her twin sat with their parents behind their distant aunt Ywa. Ywa was Annid of Annids and the speaker of the Water Council, the
semi-permanent body that governed Etxelur and Northland. Crimm was here, another uncle, the fisherman who had brought Uncle Pyxeas home from Coldland. Other members of the Council attended, along
with senior members of other Houses: the priest-scholars, the masons who maintained the Wall, the water engineers who managed the drainage of the countryside beyond. Dignitaries from the
Wall’s many Districts had gathered too, their gowns emblazoned with the numbers and symbols of their homes: Four East, Seventeen West. Only Great Etxelur itself had no east or west
designation, no number; Etxelur was the centre, the zero. Before the stage, below the Northlanders, sat the guests in their parties: Carthaginians and Hatti and Muslims and Germans and Franks, even
a few Albians, stern and silent. In all there were perhaps fifty people here in this great and ancient Hall. And as they waited for the session to begin, the foreigners, dignitaries in their own
countries, showed signs of restlessness.
They were all waiting for Pyxeas.
At last Alxa’s great-uncle came bustling into the Hall, with slates and scrolls of paper under his arm. He wasn’t in the stylised wolf-fur cloak he should have been wearing to
mark his membership of his own House of scholars and priests; instead he wore smelly-looking furs that seemed as if they were still crusted with seawater. And he was accompanied by a young man,
short, stocky, plump-looking, with a flat, sketchy face and short dark hair. He too was bundled up in a fur jacket and trousers, and he looked uncomfortably hot. He was a Coldlander, Alxa realised;
he must have travelled back across the ocean with Pyxeas. The scholar glanced around, squinting, short-sighted, comical with his ruddy face and shock of snow-white hair sticking up around a bald
pate. Alxa hadn’t seen him for three years; he seemed a lot older than she remembered.
Everybody was staring. One of the foreigners laughed behind her hand.
‘Oh,’ Pyxeas said at last. ‘Am I late? You should have started without me.’
Ywa stood, her black owl cloak rustling, and indicated empty seats on the stage close to her. ‘Please sit, Uncle. And your, umm, companion.’
‘Where’s the delegation from Cathay? My colleague Bolghai promised me his collated information on the changing mix of atmospheric gases which, which— Well, we won’t
achieve full understanding without
But if he’s not here, he’s not here.’ He looked up at Ywa. ‘Carry on, child, carry on!’
Alxa admired Ywa’s calm in the face of such provocation. She glanced around the room. ‘Welcome to the Distribution of the Giving Bounty. Who would like to approach the Council
The visiting parties each sent up a delegate to speak before the Annids, one after another.
A Frank, from northern Gaira, was the first to speak. He wore a woollen tunic over thick leather leggings, his greying blond hair was worn long, and he had a carefully shaped and combed
moustache. He was old for a farmer – more than forty, at least – and Alxa thought his face was oddly slack, like an empty sack, the face of a man once plump. ‘It began with the
years of rain,’ he said. ‘Five years back for us, it was – I know it’s been different for some of you, the detail of it anyhow. That first summer we got hailstones the size
of your fist that just smashed down our crops . . .’ As he spoke, translators from the House of the Jackdaws, the traders and negotiators, murmured into the ears of the Annids. ‘We
tried harvesting the grain but it was wet and soft. Even the hay was too wet to be cured. Animals stuck in the mud or drowned, cattle, sheep. Come the next summer our reserves were exhausted, and
it rained so hard we couldn’t get the planting done. That was the year the rest of the animals were slaughtered.’ He was a proud man, Alxa could see that. He hated to be standing here
begging for help. Yet here he was.
As the Frank spoke, Pyxeas made notes with pen and ink on his lush Cathay paper, muttering and murmuring. The Coldlander lad helped in small ways, handing him paper, fetching him water. Pyxeas
was nervous, intent, but he seemed on the edge of exhaustion. Alxa saw his head nod over his papers, the scribbling stylus slowing, until he drifted to sleep – and then he would wake with a
start, and an odd barked grunt, and he would turn his head like a short-sighted bird.
‘I’ll cut it short,’ said the Frank. ‘We had hopes for this year. But the winter was from the gates of hell – you know that. We had snow on the ground long after
the spring equinox, and even when that melted back the ground stayed hard frozen beneath and you couldn’t get a hoe in it. We ran out of wood to burn! We have pleaded with our gods. We have
sacrificed what we can – we have little left to give. My priests say it is only the little mothers of the Northland who listen. So I am here, Annid of Annids. In the past we have come to your
aid in your hours of need.’
‘I hear you in friendship,’ Ywa said. ‘Even now we have troops of Frankish warriors patrolling our eastern flanks against incursion of German bandits.’
Rina murmured to Alxa, ‘Just as in the south we have German soldiers kicking out Frankish nestspills, but don’t tell this fellow that.’
Before the man’s dignity, Alxa was faintly repelled by her mother’s cynicism.
Everybody seemed relieved when the old Gairan at last bowed and withdrew. But the next supplicants, more from Gaira, then from the German nations south of the great forest, had much the same
story to tell: of years of rain, failed harvests and famine, and now the cold. The dismal accounts began to have a cumulative effect on Alxa. Was nowhere spared?
Now there came a Carthaginian, a worthy of some kind called Barmocar. He was a man of about forty with hair that looked suspiciously deep black to Alxa, and he wore a robe of heavy cloth dyed
richly purple, a shade much envied in the fashion houses of the Wall but which remained a Carthaginian secret. Alxa had met Barmocar’s wife, an elegant if arrogant woman called Anterastilis.
She wondered what relation Mago was to Barmocar – a son perhaps, or a nephew. The Carthaginians were an empire of merchants who didn’t have kings and princes like other farmer-nations,
like the Hatti, say. But just as in Northland, in Carthage family ties were everything when it came to the distribution of power.
And Barmocar spoke, not of rain as in the northern lands, but of drought in the once-fertile plains of North Africa.
‘Years of it. I doubt you can imagine the consequences. The earth itself cracks and dries, and the soil blows away on the wind. The cattle lie in the heat, too listless to brush away the
flies swarming around them. And the children too, their bellies swollen, whole communities ravaged by diseases. Yet despite our own privations, we of Carthage ensure that our neighbours do not
suffer, if we can aid them . . .’
Rina whispered to Alxa, ‘I never liked Carthaginians. Arrogant, bullying and manipulative. I’ve been warned about the sophistry this one’s to come out with. He’ll
make a case that Carthage is a great nation, a
nation, all the while wheedling under his breath for fish and potatoes, so he has it both ways – oh, I can’t listen to
this.’ She stood and said loudly, ‘With your permission, Cousin Ywa. Good Prince Barmocar, I am confused.’ Her words were hastily translated into Barmocar’s own thick
tongue. ‘This tale of woe you recite – are you here to beg for bounty? Begging like these others, the Franks and Germans and the rest, these “poor rudimentary farmers”, as I
have heard you describe them? And a bounty from us, whom I have heard you describe as “a thin godless smear of ignorance and incompetence on an undeveloped landscape”?’
Barmocar glared, his face suffused with red.
Ywa sighed. ‘Sit down, Cousin. The man is an ambassador.’
Rina complied. But Alxa could see from the look on her face that she was satisfied with the work she had done.
Barmocar continued, ‘On the contrary, madam. If you had not interrupted me I would have explained that we are here solely to offer what succour we can to our neighbours and allies.’
He smiled, arms open in generosity, and spoke on about gifts and giving.
But Alxa, relatively innocent in this kind of duelling, saw that her mother had forestalled whatever subtle request for assistance he had intended. His humiliation was apparent, as was the
barely concealed gloating on the faces of the Hatti, long-time rivals of the Carthaginians. Alxa wondered how many children in Carthage would go hungry because of this nasty little exchange.
Nelo whispered, ‘Good old Mother, she always has had a tongue like a poison dart.’
Still the delegates came forward with their tales of agony, one after another. Pyxeas made endless scribbles, and his pile of notes grew to a heap of papers and slates under his seat.
Only the gruff Albians sat unmoving, massive men in furs of bear hide, neither pleading poverty nor boasting of riches. They were known across the Continent; their priest-warriors travelled the
northern lands, through great belts of land that had once been farmland and were now given back to the forest, preaching of the return of the old northern gods. Everybody knew
right. These bulky, powerful men were here only to remind the representatives of the starving farmer folk that any attempt to share the bounty of their rich, ancient forest would be met by
Alxa murmured to Nelo, ‘Remember what Giving days used to be like, when we were little? Races on the beach. Swimming. People coming from all over with exotic fruits and stuff, and all
those spicy meat treats we weren’t supposed to eat. Swordfighting and cavalry charges . . . Now this.’
But it was true. The world’s slow collapse into cold, flood and drought and famine, had coincided with Alxa’s own growing up, her own journey into the complicated years of
adolescence. Sometimes she wondered if she was just projecting her own mixed-up moods onto the world. But no, the world really had been getting worse, and it was just her bad luck to be growing up
in the middle of it.
When the submissions were finished Ywa turned to Pyxeas, and waited.
It seemed to take him some time to notice that the Hall had fallen silent. He looked up at last, stylus in hand. ‘What? Eh? Are we done?’
‘We are, Uncle. Have you not been paying attention?’
‘Well, of course I have, my girl, and you were just as impatient when you were a child,’ he said, rebuking the Annid of Annids, oblivious of raised eyebrows around the room. ‘I
take it you’re ready to decide on the allocation of the Giving Bounty this year.’
‘That is why we’re here,’ she said drily.
‘Well, I, Pyxeas, have something to say.’ He glanced around at the banks of foreigners. ‘But not in front of these fellows. What I have to say is for your ears first. You and
the other Annids – the Water Council. For the ears of Northlanders. Then you can decide what to say to your guests.’
Ywa considered this for a long moment. Then she stood and turned to the delegates. ‘Forgive me. We must withdraw for a private session. We will resume in the morning. I assure you we have
taken all you have said into our hearts. In the meantime please enjoy our hospitality. Thaxa, perhaps you could ensure that everything is organised?’
‘Of course.’ Alxa’s father got to his feet with a beaming, inclusive smile; this was what he was good at. ‘Please wait, you will be served refreshments, while I arrange
for escorts and guides for all of you . . .’ As he hurried from the room, the foreigners, scowling or shaking their heads, got up and began to mill around the Hall.
They gathered in an anteroom, much smaller than the formal Hall. Here the Annids and the House elders loosened their formal clothing and stripped off their stiff cloaks, sat
informally on benches and chairs, and sipped water and tea brought to them by the servants Ywa summoned.
Only Pyxeas stood, at the centre of the room, with his Coldlander companion at his side. Alxa remembered her great-uncle from the long-gone days of her childhood, a big, beaming, avuncular man
who would play clumsy magic tricks, and later he had tried to coax a little scholarship into her head. But looking at the expression on his face now, and having heard so much dismal news already
today, she feared what he had to say.
The scholar began speaking even before they were all seated. ‘You must understand how my conclusions remain contingent upon the information I was to have been supplied by the Cathay
scholars. Without that—’
Out of hearing of the foreigners, Ywa gave way to her irritation. ‘You went to Coldland with the financial support of the Water Council—’
‘And my travels aren’t done, by the way.’
‘You were given this support on the understanding that you would learn sufficient about the changing weather to enable us to understand what comes next, for us and the world.’
‘There can never be a definitive answer, that’s not in the nature of philosophy—’
‘Now you have interrupted the bounty ceremony and carted us all off in here, and the mothers only know what our guests will make of that!’
‘You’ll understand why when I tell you—’
‘Tell us, then, man! What have you learned?’