Authors: Stephen Baxter
Eventually a sterner, older man came to investigate. The captain, Avatak supposed. He glanced down at the scene in the boat, and looked out at Quinsai, and Avatak saw the burning city reflected
in his black eyes. Bearded, wearing a turban and a crisp white gown, he had the look of an Arab – this was an Arab-owned ship, though of Cathay manufacture. He snapped a quick order to Bayan,
and turned away.
Bayan shrugged. ‘Al-Quds is the captain and he wants to be gone. Get on with it, he says. Poor Bayan! Now then, master—’
Without ceremony he caught Pyxeas by the legs and lifted him over his shoulder. Pyxeas struggled feebly, but seemed too weak to protest. Thus laden, Bayan made his way up the rope ladder. Avatak
was impressed by his skill, pushing one-handed from one rung to the next so that with every step up he had to balance without a handhold, and managing Pyxeas’ not inconsiderable weight as if
he were no more than a sack of feathers.
Once on deck, Bayan set Pyxeas upright. The scholar seemed bewildered, disoriented. Bayan headed for their cabin, while a couple of the crew carried their trunk and baggage. Avatak led Pyxeas
gently by the hand across the rocking deck.
From up here, the ship looked even more substantial than from the ocean. Its four masts were laden with sails of matted bamboo, furled for now, and two more great masts lay like tree trunks,
lashed to the deck. There were structures on the deck like little wooden houses, and hatches were thrown open to show the interior below, great holds where goods were being stored, sacks and jars
and barrels. From some of the holds came the sounds of animals – lowing, bleating, clucking – and a stench of straw and dung. Despite the noise and the chaos Avatak could see the crew
were working methodically, moving goods around the holds to balance the weight on either side of the ship. He wondered how many crew there were – hundreds perhaps. There were many passengers
too, like themselves, Cathay, Mongols, Arabs, most of them presumably traders, hurrying across the deck and in and out of open doorways.
‘Watertight holds,’ Pyxeas murmured unexpectedly.
‘What was that, scholar?’
‘Watertight holds. A feature of these great vessels. See? Hole one of them and it will flood but the ship won’t sink. The shipwrights of the west have got a lot to learn.’ But
then his eyes clouded, a look of confusion returned to his gaunt face, and he retreated inside himself.
They had to clamber down a short stair, Pyxeas managed with difficulty, to the small cabin that had been allotted them. There were two narrow bunks, one table, a few shelves with rails to stop
their possessions falling off when the ship rolled, and a tiny glassless window through which a stiff breeze pushed, bearing a scent of smoke from the fires on land. Bayan and the other crew
crowded around, their hands held out. Avatak had a pouch of coins at his waist; he doled out one to each man. He had spread his wealth around a number of pouches and satchels and pockets, including
a few of Uzzia’s gems, most of which were still sewn into the quilted coat, which he wore. He hoped that these layers of deception would distract thieving fingers enough to enable them to
reach Carthage with some of their wealth intact.
Now the turbaned captain pushed into the cabin, carrying a slate. His nose was strong, his face masked by a grey-flecked beard, but his large, dark eyes were oddly gentle as he inspected Pyxeas.
‘You are the scholar? And his man.’ His Northlander was passable.
Pyxeas stood and drew himself to his full height. ‘I am he, Pyxeas,’ he said in rich Northlander, and repeated the words in Persian. ‘The boy is called Avatak.’
The captain made tick marks on his slate. ‘Good. You may call me al-Quds. It is not my name, which nobody in Cathay can pronounce, but it’s the name of the holy city where I was
born, and it’ll do.’
‘I will need quiet,’ Pyxeas said sternly. ‘I have work to do – vital work. I must not be disturbed. You cannot comprehend the importance.’
‘Can I not?’
Pyxeas glanced around at the cabin, the tiny table. ‘I suppose this must suffice.’ He sat uncertainly on one of the bunks.
The Arab raised his eyebrows at Avatak.
Avatak shrugged. ‘He’s a scholar.’
‘Well, for the next months, he’s to be a scholar and a sailor.’ He eyed Avatak. ‘What are you, a Mongol? Not a Northlander.’
‘Not a Mongol. From very far west.’
‘Do you know the world? Perhaps you can explain it to your scholar friend. We are making for Carthage. To do that we must sail south and west and across three oceans, of Cathay, of Indh,
of the Arabs. If we survive all that we will pass through the Gulf of Africa, and then through the Canal of Hasdrubal, if it is still open, if it hasn’t been clogged up by war or piracy, to
the Middle Sea. And on the way I’ll do my very best to keep the noise down,’ he said drily.
‘I will explain it to the scholar. He has family in Carthage; he is eager to return to them.’
‘And I have paymasters, and I’m eager to return to
You’re among the last to board. What of the city?’
‘The siege will be over soon, I think.’ Since the spring Quinsai had been assailed by rough armies of Mongol factions, Cathay dissidents and steppe nomads. ‘Every night it
burns. Quinsai has always burned. Now they are failing to douse the fires before they spread.’
‘Then it will all be up soon.’
Avatak felt motivated to try to explain, to this evidently thoughtful, competent man, the man who now held Avatak’s own life in his hands, and Pyxeas’. ‘It is the longwinter.
People fleeing the weather, on the move. My master says we must expect war this year. Across the whole world, wherever we go.’
‘That’s a cheerful thought. Let’s hope
have nothing but the sea to contend with.’ He nodded to Pyxeas and withdrew, closing the door.
Pyxeas was already picking at the clasps of his trunk. ‘Help me with this thing, would you? I must make a start, I must.’
The Third Year of the Longwinter: Midsummer Solstice
This time the Hatti raiding party tried to get into Carthage from the north-west, near the suburb of Megara. Gisco was given a corps of men and ordered to stop them.
The Hatti were probing at an acknowledged weak point in the ancient defences of the city, Gisco knew, where the land wall approached the shore and cut eastward to follow the line of the coast.
The shore itself was protected by barricades of tremendous growstone blocks on the land, and nasty hull-ripping traps underwater – but there was no assistance from the Carthaginian navy,
which had been bottled up since early in the siege, when the Hatti had blocked Carthage’s main harbour with their mole across its mouth. Even so it had cost the Hatti a lot of lives to land
on that lethal shore. But land they had, according to the Carthaginian scouts, and had immediately begun burrowing under the city wall.
Gisco had no way of driving the Hatti off from the seaward side of the wall, or of stopping them tunnelling. So instead he formed up his own men to dig counter-tunnels
workings, the idea being to come up from below and attack them. Gisco joined in the digs himself, it seemed only right.
They couldn’t be sure where the Hatti were digging, and had to proceed by guesswork and surveys. Every hour or so the officers would have the men stop work, and listen for the thud and
hammer of the Hatti. Gisco knew these intervals of silence would always be vivid in his memory, the gaunt, hungry men stripped to the waist in the light of the candles and oil lanterns, the muscles
of their arms like knotted rope, panting, filthy, hot, hearing the scurrying of the Hatti above, like huge mice in a loft.
In the end the climax came unexpectedly.
One moment the Carthaginians were digging calmly – the next the roof fell in with a roar, and earth, broken timbers and struggling soldiers and slaves tumbled down on them. The lamps were
extinguished immediately, and Gisco found himself in the pitch-dark, in a compressed mass of men, slipping on mounds of earth and rubble. And a huge, heavy man fell right on top of him, arms and
legs splayed, knocking him to the ground. Gisco could smell the horse stink of the man’s sweat, and the tang of some kind of bread on his breath. The man seemed briefly stunned, shocked. The
Hatti must have had no warning of the collapse.
So Gisco raised his steel dagger and slammed it into the man’s neck.
The blade scraped on bone. The man convulsed and spewed hot blood, and inadvertently butted Gisco, his forehead slamming into Gisco’s nose. Gisco’s face became a mask of blinding
pain, and he swore out loud. Enraged, he hauled out his knife and dragged the blade through soft tissues and cartilage, cutting the man’s throat. The man quivered and died, not having landed
a single conscious blow.
Gisco shoved him aside, and on he fought. At first, in the dark, he could only tell who was friend or foe by subtle signals, by muttered curses in an exotic language, or prayers to Teshub or
Jesus. He tried to bring his men together, calling out, ‘With me, Carthaginians! With Gisco! With me!’
Then the Hatti workings collapsed altogether, with another rush of earth. The pit was opened up to the night sky, where a half-moon hung, tinted orange by the dusty air of this dry summer. Even
by moonlight the men looked alike, all half-naked, none of them wearing uniforms or much in the way of armour. It didn’t help that such a variety of races fought on either side, the
Carthaginians with their Libyan levies and Iberans and Balearic herdsmen, and on the Hatti side Scand. They were men from across the known world dumped in a pit to struggle for their lives, like
playthings of some malevolent god.
But gradually, Gisco perceived, the Carthaginians were prevailing. They had had the marginal advantage of knowing what to expect; it must have been a great shock for the Hatti when the floor
fell out from under them.
Finally a Hatti officer cried out in his own tongue, and repeated the word in Carthaginian. ‘Yield! Yield!’ For a time the killing went on, of its own momentum, and Gisco thought he
heard the officer himself take a blade in the chest.
But at last it was done.
Gisco, panting hard, slippery with blood and sweat, tried to organise his surviving men to round up the captives and see to the wounded.
A man came up to him with a lantern. It was Suniatus, a grinning brute. Blood leaked from a long cut on his forehead into his eyes, but he didn’t seem to be aware of it. ‘Good scrap,
Gisco clapped the man on his bloody shoulder. ‘It was indeed, Suni. Carthage is saved, for now.’
Suniatus turned and whooped. ‘Hear that, boys? We’re heroes. The tarts in Megara are going to take some punishment today! Even from you, sir, despite the mess some bugger has made of
Gisco reached up to touch his imploded nose, and a wave of agony convulsed his face. ‘Yes, all right, Suni—’
There was a tremendous groaning crack from above ground, and the earth shuddered as if massive weights had tumbled down. The men started shouting. What now?
‘A ladder, Suniatus. Quickly, man!’
Gisco worked his way up the ladder to the level of the Hatti digs. He had time to be briefly impressed by how well constructed the Hatti tunnels were, the walls and roof of packed earth, the
tunnel wide and spacious. There was even timber to prop up the roof, although widely spaced, for timber was desperately scarce. But he reminded himself that his own more modest mole runs had done
their job in the end. He clambered on up above the Hatti works to ground level.
When he emerged into the air he was surprised to find how close he was to the city wall, still within its protection on the Carthaginian side, but he was no more than twenty paces from its
massive base; his surveyors had got that wrong, and not for the first time. But the Hatti digs, or maybe a combination of their work and the Carthaginians’ own counter-digging, had undermined
the wall. It slumped visibly, and the cracking he heard had been the beginning of a tremendous split that looked as if it cut right through the wall’s fabric. Massive facing stones, blocks
half his own height, had fallen away to slam into the ground, leaving a looser core of rubble that was shattering and spilling as he watched.
And he saw a helmeted head pop up over the widening breach: a Hatti scout. Gisco flung a dagger, and the head ducked back down.
In the runs below Gisco, Suniatus and another ladder-bearing friend stood looking up. Gisco kicked the second man on the shoulder. ‘You. Run to the next watchtower and tell them to get a
message to the commanders.’
‘What message, sir?’
‘What message?’ Gisco was maddened by the pain of his smashed face. ‘What message do you think? Oh, tell them Sergeant Gisco wishes the great General Fabius a restful night.
Tell them about the wall breach, man! Go, go.’ The man ran off. ‘As for you, Suniatus, the thighs of those whores in Megara are going to have to remain untroubled a little longer, for
until reinforcements arrive it’s going to be you and me and whoever’s left alive down there to hold off the Hatti that are soon going to be coming over that wall.’
‘Oh, slaughter them. Just get the men up here.’
A single arrow came arcing over the wall. Gisco ducked into the dirt. The arrow thudded harmlessly to the ground to his right. Dawn was breaking. This was midsummer day, he remembered. More
arrows hailed down.
‘Suniatus! Get your arse up here!’
Three days after midsummer day, three days after the Hatti’s latest attack on the walls of Carthage, Hastayar the Tawananna herself led the Hatti party that approached
the city’s great gate, in response to the Carthaginians’ latest offer of negotiation. Thus went this war, Kassu thought, a huge oscillation between bouts of bloody warfare and stiff,
usually futile attempts at reconciliation.
A pall of smoke, yellowish, hung over the city as the Hatti party approached, and Kassu, walking in the train with his wife Henti at his side, wondered what could be left in that hulk of a city
to burn. The day was bright and the sun high, though the air was no hotter than usual, and the Hatti queen walked under a canopy carried by four favoured servants – including Pimpira,
Kassu’s ‘nephew’. The awning itself was a spectacular tapestry, a minor masterpiece of Hatti art, and a great banner of Jesus Sharruma with crossed palm leaves went before
Hastayar. The invitation to serve had been an honour for the relative of a serving officer, but Kassu wondered what Hastayar would think if she knew the boy’s true origin. Pimpira limped
bravely, compensating for the deformity of his foot. The sight of him there made Kassu obscurely proud. He had failed at many things in his life, but at least he had saved this one boy.