Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (49 page)

‘Biscuits,’ Pyxeas said.

‘Biscuits.’

Rina faced Carthalo squarely. ‘You brought us here for a reason, I presume.’

Carthalo gave her that thin, intimidating smile. ‘It’s true that I thought it would be appropriate to have our discussion in the context of this solemn farewell to a woman who was
your employer and your friend.’

Barmocar looked away.

‘This, our most ancient rite, is central to our culture, we Carthaginians.’

‘This and crucifixion,’ said Pyxeas. ‘And child sacrifice—’

Rina hushed him.

‘We have retained the semblance of an orderly society, despite our terrible losses, losses nobody would have believed a few short years ago. This is still Carthage, we are still
Carthaginians. We asked you here today – indeed, at the command of Fabius himself – because I wanted you to see us at our best. For there is something I must ask of you. Something that
Carthage must ask of Northland.’

Rina flared. ‘More than you have already asked? The gods took my daughter’s life, but Carthage took my son, to fight in her wars. Speaking of which—’ she pointed at Mago
‘—why is
he
here?’

Mago grinned again. His face was scarred, she saw, the length of his right cheek. He blew her a kiss. ‘Glad to see me, Grandmother?’

‘Get him out,’ Carthalo murmured to Barmocar.

‘But I brought him here – the funeral—’

‘Out. Now.’

Barmocar turned and gestured to his nephew, who left the tent gracelessly.

‘I know why he’s here,’ said Rina. ‘And the sons of the rest of you, I dare say.
Because you are losing your war with the Hatti.
That’s the truth,
isn’t it? And you privileged ones are pulling your sons out of the killing fields.’

Barmocar seemed prepared to deny it, but Carthalo raised a hand. ‘It’s true enough,’ he said softly. ‘Not that this is news we want to shout out. We are
not
withdrawing our sons, not all of us. My own two boys, as well as a nephew already dead . . .’ He hesitated, apparently overcome with emotion, but it could have been a skilful act, Rina
reminded herself. ‘Rina, we fight valiantly – our sons do. But the plague is cutting through our young men like a scythe through wheat ripe for the harvest. It has even reached the
troops in the field, that and other diseases and blights.’

Pyxeas said, ‘The plague has afflicted the whole world. The losses must be affecting the Hatti too.’

‘Of course. But the Hatti’s sheer numbers overwhelm us.’

Rina’s eyes narrowed. ‘Are you asking us to help you fight this war?’

‘You, and Northland.’

‘We don’t speak for Northland,’ Rina said. ‘Besides, all the resources of Northland are locked up in the snow.’

‘Actually not all,’ Pyxeas said. He tapped his liver-spotted temple. ‘
This
is where our real resource is. Knowledge. And that’s what this Carthaginian wants to get
his hands on. Am I right?’

Carthalo nodded. ‘We need to win this war – or at least stop the Hatti. And to do that we need, frankly, a weapon they don’t have. That’s what I hope you can give us.
What Fabius hopes for.’

Rina shook her head. ‘Why should we help you? The Hatti have been our allies for . . .’

‘For two millennia,’ Carthalo said smoothly. ‘I know my history, you see. And do you know how that came about? In a different time of crisis, long ago, there was an exchange.
Etxelur gave Hattusa the potato to feed a starving population. And in return Hattusa gave Etxelur a plague. An invisible demon to wipe out an invading army. You see, this sort of arrangement has
been made before.’

‘But if the Hatti have been our allies for so long—’

‘Why betray them now? But what of the long-term interests of Northland? If Carthage were to be overrun, even destroyed, you would have a Hatti empire dominating the Middle Sea. When the
world recovers from this longwinter, would such an empire not have further ambitions? Why should it not look north? Would it not be in Northland’s best interests to keep a balance of the
continental powers?’

Pyxeas laughed. ‘That’s a good argument. Or would be, if not for the fact that the longwinter
never is going to end
– not in our lifetime anyhow. And that kind of petty
human calculation is going to be scrubbed out by the ice. You’ll have to do better than that, sir, if you’re to get what you want from us.’

Rina felt left behind. ‘But what is it they want, Uncle?’

Pyxeas tapped his temple again. ‘He wants me, Pyxeas, to tell him how to make the fire drug of Cathay. And eruptors, weapons to exploit it.’

‘Ah. And can you tell him?’

‘Oh, yes.’ He stepped closer to Carthalo, intense. ‘In fact, I can do better than that. I, Pyxeas, have long anticipated this moment. I have put in place a plan – I had
my students send letters to Northlanders in Carthage. To you too, Rina, though I don’t think you ever received it. But others did. House of Crow studies. And they have been working, in
secret, for months.’

Carthalo’s eyes narrowed. ‘What do you mean? What kind of work?’

‘We already have the weapons. We Northlanders. We have the fire drug. We have the eruptors.
In this city.
These could be in your hands in days – a month at most. I, Pyxeas,
have organised this.’

Carthalo was clearly stunned. But he was a good politician and remained in control. ‘If you were to grant us this—’

Rina touched Pyxeas’ arm. ‘We would be making a decision on behalf of all Northland.’

He turned to her with eyes huge and sad. ‘I’m afraid we must, my dear. For Northland, the old Northland, is already lost – save for us. What we must face now is the future. And
the building of that future begins here and now.’

Carthalo smiled. ‘Quite right. Name your price.’

Pyxeas glanced at Rina. ‘This is your moment.’

‘Bring him home,’ she snapped. ‘Bring him back from your wars.’

Carthalo nodded. ‘Your son. I understand. Consider it done.’

But even as he spoke Rina saw Barmocar sneer at her, a sly smile he didn’t trouble to hide. She saw his opinion of her there and then. She might have the power of life and death over him
and his kind, but to him she was small, a petty woman obsessed with family, and always would be so. She had been abused by this man’s wife. Humiliated for his amusement. She had sworn revenge
on them both. That little smile, she thought. That little smile was going to cost this man so much.

Pyxeas, meanwhile, had greater prices to exact. ‘You may have the fire drug. But you will use it to make
peace
with the Hatti, if you possibly can.’

‘What? They are barbarians,’ Barmocar said. ‘One may as well try to make peace with a rabid wolf—’

‘No. They follow Jesus. Warlike they may be, but peace is at the heart of the creed of their god. And they too have suffered with the plague. You may have the fire drug, to threaten them
with overwhelming destruction, but you will offer them the chance of peace at the same time. Stop the bloodshed. And to symbolise that—’ he glanced at Rina, ‘—you will give
them the bones of the Virgin Mother of Jesus, which Rina took illegally and gave to Barmocar in fair payment for her passage here.’

Carthalo raised his eyebrows at Barmocar. ‘I knew nothing of this.’

‘It was private business.’

‘Not any more. You will deliver the bones to the Temple of Melqart in the morning. Consider that done too, Pyxeas.’

‘Good. And there is more.’

‘I thought there might be.’

‘You will help us build a New Northland,’ Pyxeas said.

Carthalo smiled again, more cautiously. ‘And how are we to do that?’

‘Give us a city. Somewhere in your hinterland. By the little mothers’ tears, man, don’t baulk at that! You must have a dozen tomb-cities emptied out by the plague and ripe for
reoccupation. As for our people, they are scattered across the Continent, the cities of the Middle Sea . . . You will help us find them. Send agents throughout the known world, wherever the ice has
spared. Bring them home – bring them to their
new
home. That way, at least something of our culture, our values, our learning, may survive, until the longwinter passes, and we can go
home again, for we will not forget where we came from.’ He looked at Rina, and held her shoulder. ‘This has been done before. I, Pyxeas, have seen the mark of Northland, or of our
ancestors – the three rings, the bar, the form like the Mothers’ Door – on rock panels in Coldland, even in the Land of the Sky Wolf.
Put there before the last time the ice
came.
Northland has endured the ice before. Now it is the task of our generation to ensure it endures again.’

Carthalo said, ‘You realise you are asking me to nurture a rival close to my own hearth. For I have no doubt that you Northlanders will rise to greatness again.’

‘It’s either that or have the Hatti crush you,’ Pyxeas said with uncharacteristic bluntness.

‘Consider it done,’ Carthalo said softly. ‘I must prepare a presentation on this to the Council of Elders. In the meantime, the fire drug—’

‘One more thing,’ Rina said, and she faced Barmocar.

Barmocar looked fearful, as well he might, she thought. He glanced at Carthalo. ‘Our business is surely done—’

‘This woman is the niece of the man who is going to give us the fire drug,’ Carthalo said smoothly. ‘And a woman who has a grudge against you, Barmocar, my friend, and from
what I’ve heard I can’t say I blame her. I suggest you listen to what she has to say.’

She smiled. ‘The
molk
, Barmocar.’

‘What?’

‘A word you taught me when I first arrived in this country, having all but reneged on your deal to deliver my family to safety. Do you remember, Barmocar? “We call it
molk.
A
gift for the gods, in times of great stress. The greatest gift one can give.” Do you remember saying that to me? And then you made me send my son off to war.’

He glared back at her. ‘What is it you want?’

‘To see you perform the
molk.

Carthalo said smoothly, ‘The
molk
has long become a merely symbolic practice. Today we sacrifice lambs – sometimes a carving is burned – but children—’


I know it’s done
,’ Rina said. ‘When you’re desperate enough, you Carthaginians. You murder your children to please your antique gods, in secret, so I have
learned. After the year I’ve had, I suspect I know more about your city than you suffetes do yourselves. Now I want to see it done again. By you, Barmocar.’

‘Mago,’ Barmocar whispered. ‘You mean Mago. You want me to send him back to the war.’

Pyxeas touched her arm. ‘Niece, you don’t need to do this.’

She shook him off.

‘Please,’ Barmocar said. ‘I’ve lost my wife – we were childless, you know that – the son of my sister is like my own—’

‘And this is the end of it,’ Carthalo said sternly. ‘No more demands?’

‘No more,’ said Pyxeas with finality.

Carthalo turned to his countryman. ‘Barmocar?’

But the man, head dropped, could not speak.

 

 

 

 

68

 

 

 

 

The Third Year of the Longwinter: Midwinter Solstice

On the night that word came down that the Carthaginians were ready to give battle at last, Kassu and Zida hurried to their homes in the Hatti’s temporary city.

Zida was exuberant. ‘They say Carthage’s priests chose tomorrow for its auguries. A near-midwinter night, and the moon has just waned past its half, and for days to come the sky will
be dominated by the crescent moon, the sign of Baal Hammon – or some crud like that. Ha! They can have the moon; we have Jesus Sharruma who will crush their puny testicles in His holy
fist.’

Kassu grunted. ‘Don’t get your hopes up. Years of drought, months of siege, the plague . . . we’re all worn out.’

‘I’ll take my chances.’ They reached Zida’s shack, a kind of cone of turf heaped up on poles. ‘Anything’s better than this shit.’ He aimed a mighty kick
at the wall, and a chunk fell in with a dry rustle.

There was a high-pitched squawk, and out came the burly Libyan woman Zida had taken as his slave, mistress or third wife, depending on how drunk he was when he was telling you. She had bits of
straw in her crisp dark hair, and dried mud in the bowl she was holding. ‘Look what you did to supper, idiot!’

‘We’re fighting in the morning, Roofa, my love. Fighting those Carthaginian pustules at last! Won’t you Libyans be glad to see the back of them?’

‘Never mind Carthaginian pustules. Look what you did!’ Still holding the pot, she stalked around the house, and pulled at the wrecked wall. ‘Now what’s going to keep the
rats out?’

He laughed. ‘The rats are more at home in there than we are. Oh, I’m a fired-up warrior tonight and you’d better be ready for the passion that’s coming your way,
woman!’

‘And you be ready for the pots and pans I’m throwing at your empty head. Get in this house. Get in!’ And she shoved him with the flat of her hand towards the crude gash of the
door.

‘See you in an hour,’ Zida said to Kassu.

‘An hour.’

Roofa delivered one final mighty shove to the small of Zida’s back, and he fell into the house, weapons clattering, mail coat rustling.

Kassu walked on, grinning. But, as usual, he had lost his good humour by the time he had got home.

His own house was a marginally tidier, marginally better-built box of sod, in a rough street of similar properties. He stood before the house, looking at the old worn-out
blankets that hung over the door, the patch of ground where they had tried to grow peas and beans but the plants had been devoured by rats and rabbits before they had a chance. It was hard to
imagine a more depressing prospect, even if you hadn’t known what the atmosphere was like inside. Angrily he pushed indoors.

In the single room within, one lamp burned. Oil was expensive; all you could get was thick, gloopy stuff that was said to come from some animal of the sea. Henti was sitting cross-legged under
the lamp, stitching an expensive-looking officer’s cloak, dyed deep purple. The cloak wasn’t Kassu’s, but that wasn’t unusual. The whole Hatti nation had pitched up on the
plain before Carthage for this end-of-the-world war, and the whole nation was contributing to the effort. Kassu knew women who worked in the manufactories, even in the forges.

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