Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (48 page)

He had one pouch the pirates hadn’t found, sewn into his shirt, under an armpit. In here he kept one of Uzzia’s gems – just one. When both pirates were distracted, their backs
turned contemptuously to him, he dug his fingers into the pouch, pulled out the jewel and swallowed it. Then he called out, ‘Me. Not him. In me. He made
me
swallow it.’

Immediately the pirates were on him. One of them punched him again, as if in greeting. ‘Swallow what?’

‘His gem,’ Avatak gasped. ‘The family treasure. He made me swear—’

But he got no further. While one man held him down, the other forced the sack of liquid to his mouth, pinching his nose hard. He could taste Pyxeas’ vomit on the bag. Now the fluid was
coursing down his throat, thick and fibrous and rank-tasting. He was gagging almost before he’d swallowed.

They found the jewel easily, but they kept on until he was spewing and shitting as helplessly as the old man.

At last they decided he had no more to give. On the way out one of them kicked him in the head, almost casually.

He woke with a kind of tunnel of pain passing through his body from throat to arse, and a foul taste in his mouth, and a fouler stench in his nostrils. He was lying face down
with his cheek resting in some cooling liquid. His own vomit, probably. He rolled on his back, to more pain from his tortured gut. Pyxeas’ work was scattered around the cabin, soaked in blood
and vomit and shit. But the quilted coat still hung from the door, apparently undisturbed.

And he saw Pyxeas, on hands and knees, crawling towards him. His mouth was a ruin, his lower front teeth smashed out. But, unaccountably, he was smiling. His speech a slur, he whispered,
‘I have it, Avatak. The secret – the link – the mechanism of the world. I have it!’

At that moment Avatak knew that Pyxeas was mad, that his quest for learning had made him so. Though Avatak would always cherish the old man for that deep wound of grief in his heart, a grief
that encompassed the whole suffering world, he would have no more to do with the scholar’s numbers.

That was how it was for the remainder of the voyage, all the way to Carthage.

 

 

 

 

66

 

 

 

 

The Third Year of the Longwinter: Autumn Equinox

In his last days Jexami summoned Rina.

In the tiny servant’s room Rina read the note he had sent, over and over. It was a simple request for her to visit. The note was written out, evidently in his own hand, in an elegant but
wavering Etxelur script, though he had signed it in both Northland and Carthaginian styles. No pretence now, no more hiding his origins. And no subtlety about the pleas he made with the desperation
of a dying man.

The note filled her with contradictory emotions. She had not seen Jexami since he had first expelled her and her children. To know he was dying gave her a kind of vindication. Jexami had been
the man who had turned her away in her darkest hour, her and her children. Now the blood plague had come for him:
let him die.
Yet such pettiness seemed meaningless in the context of the
plague. It was said that in Carthage perhaps half had died – Jexami, walking with the dead, would soon have more company than among the living. What did past slights matter in such
circumstances? And he was family. Of course she had to respond.

She begged time away, from Barmocar himself. She rarely saw Anterastilis these days; there were rumours in the household that she was ill. Barmocar consented with a curt nod, not speaking to
her.

It was not far to walk to Jexami’s town house. He, like Barmocar, like the rest of Carthage’s privileged and wealthy, had abandoned his country property and flown to the safety of
the city at the approach of the Hatti horde. The house, smaller than she had expected, seemed shut up, empty. This was a plague house, of course. Rina pulled on gloves, and a mask that covered all
her face but the eyes, before she knocked on the door.

An elderly maid answered. There seemed to be nobody here but the maid, and her master.

In a small room, alone, Jexami lay on a thick pallet. The stench was terrible, and Rina went to push open a window. There was a water jug by his bed, empty. Rina summoned the maid to get it
refilled. She knelt by the bed and took Jexami’s hand. She would not have recognised the burly, confident Northlander. His eyes were closed. He looked as if he had been drained, leaving only
a sack of flesh. Only the swellings at his neck, thick and purple-black, looked healthy, ironically.

He stirred, his eyes fluttering open. When he tried to speak, his voice was a rustle like a moth’s wing. ‘Who is it?’ He spoke in Carthaginian.

‘It is me. Rina of Etxelur.’ She spoke in their own tongue, but she would not lift the mask to show her face. She squeezed his hand. ‘Your note reached me.’

‘Ah.’ His dry mouth opened with a pop. ‘Water—’

‘Coming.’

‘That villain Drubal did that for me, at least. My head of house. Brought me water. While robbing me of everything else. Now you have come, although I turned you out when you needed help.
I regret – regret—’

‘What’s done is done. And I might have done the same. I, too, was arrogant and complacent in the days I lived in Etxelur.’

‘Your children? Twins?’

‘Alxa is dead,’ she said bluntly. ‘The plague. Nelo is at the war. I’ve heard nothing of him for months.’ Strange to think, when she summed it up like that, that
she had come here in the first place to protect her children.

‘Alxa,’ he whispered. ‘I heard of her. The work she did to support the dying – remarkable. And you are untouched.’

‘Some are spared, for no reason that any can see.’

‘I thought that of myself . . . I had lasted so long. But then it came for me, it came. I heard Pyxeas is alive. That he is here, in Carthage.’

‘Yes. Though I have not been able to see him myself. He made it to Cathay and back! He got here just before the equinox, he and that Coldlander boy of his. He had to talk his way through
the Hatti siege to get into the city. How did you know?’

Jexami’s face twitched; perhaps he was trying to smile. ‘His was an epic journey, though I never saw the point of it myself. News of it travelled – something to admire, an
achievement to light up a time of blackness.’

The maid returned with the water. Rina wet a cloth, and sponged drops into Jexami’s mouth.

‘You wonder why I summoned you,’ he whispered.

Summoned.
Even now, that haughty term.

‘Listen to me.’ His hand closed on hers, the last of his strength. ‘I don’t want to die and finish up as these Carthaginians do. Oiled up and stuck in a hole in the
ground. And nor will I be thrown into a pit with the poor people . . .’

He wasn’t alone in obsessing how he would die; she had seen it a hundred times. And, she saw, he was to remain a snob even beyond his death. ‘What, then?’

‘I want to die a good Northlander, as I believe I’ve lived like one, for all I have been seduced at times by the ways of the city folk.
Take me home
, Rina. Don’t leave
me here. Take me home and bury me in the Wall, facing the sea, like all our ancestors back to the age of Ana and Prokyid. One day this weather will relent, or even if it does not there may be a way
. . . Say you will do this for me.’

‘Of course,’ she murmured. ‘Rest now. You will sleep for ever in the Wall, with your mother, your father, all your family, under the care of the little mothers . . .’

His eyes fluttered closed. Perhaps he slept.

She stayed with him until the daylight started to fade.

She emerged from the house into a soft, early evening light. For once the sky was clear, and the sunset was spectacular. The remarkable skies had, for the last year, been a small consolation for
the disruption the world had suffered, a bit of beauty amid the misery. But she suspected that Pyxeas would say that even this was merely a symptom of the world’s agony; she was looking at
the sun’s light reflecting off the dust that had once been all the farmland in North Africa, now dried out and blown high in the air.

The maid said that when the master died she would have the corpse cremated, send the ashes to Rina, shut up the house. Rina nodded, thanked the woman – wondering vaguely what would become
of
her
when Jexami was gone – and set off back across the city to Barmocar’s household.

Where Barmocar himself was waiting anxiously for her. For a second time that day she had been summoned.

 

 

 

 

67

 

 

 

 

Carthalo, one of the two suffetes, had asked to see her. They would meet at an expensive cemetery on the flank of the Byrsa.

‘I will accompany you,’ said Barmocar.

‘I am summoned by the suffetes,’ she said, unbelieving. ‘Me. A runaway servant. A middle-aged Northlander with whip burns on her back and my fingers worn out from working your
wife’s slit—’

‘My wife is dead,’ he said bluntly. ‘Two days ago.’

‘The plague?’

‘Of course the plague. And now she lies out in the cemetery. You will see. That is why we are going there.’

‘Anterastilis was a foolish, indulgent woman, who used me, and others, cruelly. But nobody in this world deserves to die, certainly not of the blood plague. Still – she is gone. Why
should I help you, who took advantage of my weakness and vulnerability?’

‘I brought you to Carthage,’ he snapped with a trace of his old anger. ‘I took you in when no other would. Times were already hard, or have you forgotten that?’ He made a
visible effort to regain control; he seemed to be under huge stress. ‘It is not me who asks for your help. You and your uncle, actually.’

‘Pyxeas?’

‘He is to attend too. It is important, Rina. Will you attend or not?’

The next morning Pyxeas himself came to the house, with Avatak, his Coldlander companion. Rina was overjoyed; it was the first time she had seen her uncle since his arrival at Carthage. But
Pyxeas was silent, withdrawn, and seemed much older than she remembered, drained by his journey. He had trouble talking too; there were bloody gaps in the teeth of his lower jaw. Yet he was
gathering his strength for whatever was to come today, she saw.

The four of them, Barmocar, Rina, Pyxeas and his boy, together with a servant, were loaded onto a carriage drawn by a single elderly horse, and they crossed the city.

Carthage, these days, woke slowly. On the landward walls the sentries’ fires were sparks against a sunrise that towered pink, and carts bearing the dead rolled in doleful caravans, heading
for the big, ever-burning pyres. Pyxeas stared at the slow carriages, and his lips moved slowly. He was counting, Rina realised, counting the carriages, perhaps hoping to estimate the number of the
night’s dead. And, as they began to climb the Byrsa itself, a series of upright crosses was thrown into relief against the sky, the dangling bodies silhouetted. Thieves, looters, murderers
and other criminals, punished in an ancient Carthaginian style. At least the crows didn’t go hungry any more, the Carthaginians bleakly joked.

At length they came upon the cemetery, a place of grand tombs, some of them evidently ancient. Here was an open grave, a wound in the ground. A pavilion of some weighty fabric had been set up
beside the tomb. Solemn folk had gathered here wearing heavy purple cloaks, while servants fluttered around bearing trays of drinks and bits of food. A ring of soldiers watched warily, in case any
hungry citizens took offence at this display of ostentation by their leaders.

Inside, the pavilion was opulent, with an Etruscan tapestry hanging from one wall, a Persian carpet covering the dusty cobbles. A table had been set up along the pavilion’s axis –
and the body of Anterastilis lay on the table, dressed in her finest clothes, washed, anointed with oil, her hair and cosmetics carefully made up. Beside her was an altar of stone laden with food,
drinks, and gifts: perfumes, herbs, expensive-looking bits of pottery, amulets. A priest murmured prayers, reading from a scroll. Rina couldn’t help but remember the last time she had seen
Anterastilis lying on her back like this. Well, she looked better now than she had back then, even at the peak of sexual ecstasy. They had even put her in a girdle, judging by the prominence of her
bosom.

Carthalo of the suffetes approached them. He was a tall, angular man with a high forehead but a full head of dark hair, and blank grey eyes, and an oddly sinister, soft smile. And, trailing him,
Rina was astonished to see Mago, Barmocar’s nephew, healthy, well fed – uniformed, but not at the war. He grinned, insolent, when he caught her eye.

Carthalo bowed formally. ‘Rina of Etxelur. Thank you for coming on this sad day. And you are Pyxeas the sage, sir?’ He spoke Greek; perhaps he had prepared for this visit
sufficiently to know that Pyxeas could follow Greek but not much Carthaginian.

‘I am he, I admit it.’ Pyxeas’ speech was slurred by his damaged teeth. He rather spoiled the moment by absently helping himself to a biscuit from a plate on the altar.

Rina had to slap his hand to make him put it back. ‘By the little mothers’ tears, Uncle, that’s for Anterastilis!’

‘Oh. Well, I don’t suppose she’d have missed it.’

Carthalo smiled. ‘I follow a little of what you say. I once visited Northland, you know, many years ago. When the world and I were both much younger. Fascinating place. But your customs
are quite different from ours. Your treatment of the dead, for example. You inter your dead in the fabric of your mighty Wall, so that your ancestors may add their strength to the unending war
against the sea. Inspirational.’

His tone sounded mocking. Rina’s reading of his Greek was too uncertain to be sure. She wondered if this man, used to manipulating those around him, was too clever for his own good.

‘We of Carthage do things quite differently,’ he said now, waving a hand. ‘As you can see. We believe that the afterlife is similar to the life we have lived on earth. Hatti
missionaries of Jesus argue that this is a childish notion. But really, which is the simpler assumption – that the afterlife is like the world we know, or like a world none of us has ever
experienced? We believe, however, that at death a person’s spirit splits in two. The spiritual embodiment of Anterastilis, the
rouah
, now resides in the world of the dead. But the
physical embodiment of her spirit, the
nepesh
, stays with the body – and as you can see she requires nourishment, just as a living person.’

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