Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (52 page)

BOOK: Iron Winter (Northland 3)

‘More symbols for us to gawp at,’ growled Himuili.

Hastayar gently chided him. ‘Now, General, we’re here on a mission of friendship, and we must be polite. But he’s right, of course,’ she said to Carthalo. ‘You
clearly intend to impress on us your capability to churn out these fire pots of yours. You drive home your dominance, like a booted heel driven into the back of a fallen soldier.’

Carthalo smiled. ‘A little crudely put, madam.’

‘But I am right.’

She was, but since the day of the battle Nelo had learned more of the truth. The eruptor that had fired its fatal shot at the Hatti ranks that day was only the fifth to be successfully
constructed by Pyxeas’ conspiracy of Northlander engineers here in Carthage – and only the third to have been fired without blowing itself up, turning its firing crew to an expanding
cloud of blood mist and bone shards in the process. Although Nelo supposed that in itself would have been a spectacular demonstration. Most of the eruptors that had been pushed to the crest of the
walls of Carthage had been harmless dummies. Some weren’t even cast iron.

Himuili grunted. ‘These big iron beasts are all very well, but I see no sign of their lethal breath. I mean this substance you call the fire drug.’

Pyxeas smiled. ‘That’s kept under lock and key elsewhere. I, Pyxeas, offer my apologies. It has been a state secret of the Northlanders for centuries, and now is a secret shared only
with Carthage.’

‘I do know it came from Cathay originally,’ Himuili said, probing.

‘That’s true,’ Pyxeas said. ‘In fact Cathay scholars discovered it entirely accidentally. They were seeking an elixir of life, a drug to banish death for ever. Well, what
they came up with is an elixir of death, I suppose. A quirky gift of their gods. And that is why it is known as a “drug” to this day.

‘General, I heard you talking of symbols to my great-nephew. Of course you’re right. Carthage seeks to impress you today. You are a military man. Think of the future, sir. Imagine a
more powerful eruptor, capable of smashing down a city wall with a single stone. Imagine an eruptor that can fly through the air like a bird.
Or imagine an eruptor small enough to hold in the
hand of a single warrior.
You think this is fanciful? Soon Carthage will have all this, as you never will.’

‘We know we are beaten, scholar,’ murmured the old priest. ‘Speak gently.’

Now, after the weapon manufactory, the party was led past another workshop where a much more positive symbol was under construction. In a lofty hall a dozen artisans worked on a tremendous
statue of Jesus Sharruma, the Hatti god. For now it was a rough marble form, but Nelo knew the plan was to decorate the god as richly as had been the holy image brought from Hattusa. Old Angulli
made the crossed-arms sign of the palm leaves, and bowed down, muttering a prayer.

Carthalo said smoothly, ‘You can see how we labour to heal the wound we inflicted. The new god will include the smashed fragments of the old.’

‘It’s true,’ Angulli said. ‘I supervised the collection myself, especially of the remains of the core wooden sculpture created by the hands of Him. The fragments are
splashed with the blood of our soldiers – but that only sanctifies them further.’

‘We have invited your best sculptors and artists to work with our own – we have given you every facility. And when it is done, you understand, we will offer you the statue of your
god – together with the bones of His Mother, which treasure has been saved from Northland and the ice.’

‘I have heard of this,’ Angulli said. ‘It is an extraordinary gesture. On behalf of my people, of my god, I thank you for this.’

‘When He is complete, Jesus Sharruma can lead you to your new home.’

Hastayar said restlessly, ‘It’s easy to say that. But where are we to go? We had no plans beyond the conquest of your city, I admit.’

Carthalo said, ‘We are not monsters. We will take your sick, your young, your old, all those who cannot walk, even though our own resources are strained.
The rest of you must

‘But, I say again, where? I don’t imagine you’d welcome it if we marched east into Egypt, your breadbasket.’

Carthalo glanced at Pyxeas, who stepped forward. ‘Not east,’ the scholar said. ‘
. Go west from here, along the coast—’

Himuili snapped, ‘Until we run out of land and find ourselves facing the ocean. Then what?’

‘Then go west again,’ Pyxeas said. ‘Take ships across the ocean.’

‘We will help you,’ Carthalo said.

Pyxeas smiled. ‘Though I’ve never made the journey myself, we Northlanders have been crossing the Western Ocean for millennia. We will guide you.’

Hastayar seemed baffled. ‘And when we have crossed the ocean – what then?’

‘There are new lands waiting for you,’ Carthalo said. ‘Whole continents, where you can build your next Hattusa.’

Himuili scowled. ‘Lands with people in them already, that’s what I’ve heard.’

‘But with room for more,’ Pyxeas insisted.

And Nelo, looking at him, wondered if that was the first time he had ever heard his great-uncle tell a flat lie.

At length the group walked on, heading for the great buildings at the summit of the Byrsa, and the formal sessions.

Nelo walked with Pyxeas. ‘You didn’t tell the truth,’ he said accusingly. ‘You told the Hatti that the western continents have room. No, they don’t. Especially now
the winters are taking their grip, for they must be suffering over there as we are over here.’

‘Well, true, that was a lie I told the Hatti. But I balanced it by telling the Carthaginians a lie too.’

‘What lie?’

‘That the Hatti will never have the secrets of the fire drug. As soon as their great fleet of ships is ready to sail, I intend that they should be given the secrets of the drug. With that
advantage none of the peoples of the western lands will be able to resist them.’

Nelo stared, shocked. ‘Why would you do such a thing?’

Pyxeas sighed. ‘It was a difficult decision to make. Of course it is difficult. The suffering that will follow from this act, the thousands that will die. I – we, for the other
Northlander elders in exile concurred – we are playing games on a continental scale. But we have to be rid of the Hatti, you know.
There isn’t room for them here
, especially not
if we are to build our own city, a New Etxelur. Sharing Africa with the Carthaginians will be bad enough. And then there is Mali, south of the desert, rich from its gold mines, which has been
relatively spared by the longwinter so far. Now the
is making what some regard as aggressive noises towards its northern neighbours. We have enough to handle here. Let the People of
the Jaguar deal with the Hatti.’

‘I can’t believe you will give away precious Northlander lore.’

‘But the Hatti would probably soon steal it anyway. And besides, the fire drug knowledge is nothing. A shiny bauble, a whiz-bang toy that distracts small minds, like those of princes and
generals. Once, you know, the great treasure of Northland was flint, a particularly fine lode that was mined from Etxelur. That was what men crossed the world for! Now nobody cares for flint at
all. But since the age of Ana our true treasure has been Northland’s deep and ancient collective memory, our profound understanding of the world and its cycles – even as those cycles
scatter us across the globe. Which is why I must return to Northland, by the way.’

‘What?’ Nelo stopped and stared at him. ‘Uncle, are you mad? The weather was bad enough last year when I travelled down with my mother. It may not even be possible to make the
return journey now. Your journey to Cathay nearly killed you!’

‘Ah, but I live on.’

‘Now you want to do it again?’

‘I must, Nephew. I brought back much lore from Cathay. I have since reached certain conclusions . . . I must consult any scholarship that survives at Etxelur, and I must reach the Wall
Archive before it is lost to the ice altogether. For we must build an Archive in New Etxelur, wherever it is founded, and we must stock it with the heritage of the past. To preserve the
of Northland, and our learning and scholarship.’

Snow swirled down, thicker, heavy flakes that beat like chill butterflies against their faces. They walked on, side by side.

‘I will come with you,’ Nelo said impulsively.

Pyxeas studied him. ‘Are you sure? I have Avatak.’

‘He is a good man. He will be better with me at his side. There is nothing for me here.’

Pyxeas, limping as he climbed, clapped Nelo on the shoulder. ‘Very well. But make sure you secure your drawings first. They must be preserved too. That mad Roman was right, that they are a
true first-hand record of the last war in history . . .’

Talking, arguing, they climbed the hill, cloaks clutched tight around their bodies. The snow fell thicker, settling on the rooftops of Carthage.










As soon as the epochal deal was done with the Hatti, the party that would take Pyxeas back to Northland prepared for their departure.

Rina tried to help. At least she could do that much, given that she had failed to get the old man to abandon this foolish idea and stay in the comparative safety of the city.

Avatak would go, of course, the old man’s constant companion. As a Coldlander he possessed the skills needed to survive in a world gripped by the longwinter, if anybody could. And,
Rina suspected, he was the only man Pyxeas really trusted. Himil wanted to go, which was a surprise. Once a servant to Jexami, he was now a capable young man with enterprises of his own in a
much-changed Carthage – and who seemed to feel some loyalty for Rina, because of Alxa. He still had to support his own family. ‘But,’ he said, ‘everybody says the world is
shutting down because of the longwinter. I want to see a bit of it while I still can. Something to tell my own kids.’ Rina saw he would certainly be useful in the early stages of the journey;
he knew Carthage and its dependencies and allies as none of the rest did.

And then there was Nelo, artist-soldier, who had had enough of Carthage, he said, and wanted to go home. Rina felt it was good for Pyxeas to have family with him on this jaunt – and Nelo,
in the course of his time in Carthage, had certainly toughened up.

But Nelo was Rina’s son, her only surviving child.

She could not dissuade him. And, thinking it over, she gave him a special commission – a small case to carry, containing the cremated remains of the Northlanders who had died here in the
months and years since the great flight from the north, all she could assemble. They could be interred with their ancestors in the Wall growstone, ready to continue the millennia-long fight against
the sea. Thus she discharged her debt to the dying Jexami.

The most basic question was how they were to travel, and by what route. It was clear that Pyxeas could not walk far. Himil the Carthaginian wanted to go by sea, probably sailing north along the
shore of the Western Ocean as far north as they could, putting in to surviving ports to reprovision. Avatak the Coldlander wanted to go overland, through the heart of the country, then across the
Northland ice all the way to the Wall. They would carry most of what they needed; they would hunt on the way. Nelo had no opinion.

Rina asked around Carthage for advice; this was a city of travellers and traders after all. In the end she talked to the innkeeper called Myrcan – not for the first time, for it was in his
dingy bar that she had had one of her last meetings with her daughter, and she had come back many times since, as if in search of the echo of Alxa.

‘People tell me the truth,’ he said. He poured her a cup of wine. ‘Make the most of this, by the way, the last really good vintage we got before the weather turned to shit.
Pardon my language.’

‘I’ve heard worse,’ Rina said drily.

‘The truth. Every traveller is expected to file a report with the suffetes. It’s not just scholars who need to know what’s becoming of the world. And when they’ve
reported to the suffetes most of them come here, and report to me – or rather, to the best listener in the world,’ and he rapped a fingernail against the neck of the wine flask.

‘Well, I want the truth, as best you have it,’ she said grimly.

‘Then tell your uncle he must travel overland. That Coldlander boy is right. The interiors of the countries are emptying out. This has been going on for years. By now the people have
either fled south or to the coast. So if you travel by sea you have these crowded coastal ports full of starving nestspills, and everybody’s out on the ocean fighting for the catch, and you
have pirates who’ve got bolder and bolder. Why, I’m told the market for slaves from the west, shipped over to what’s left of the countries in the east, is one of the healthiest
businesses in the world.

‘So your son and his party want to avoid all that mucking about. Go across country. That way they’ll only have to deal with a few starving farmers, and wild animals who are as
confused as we are. Tell them Myrcan said so. Now, do you want some more of this reasonably priced nectar or shall I stopper it for you to take home?’

From such recommendations, and partly because of all of them it was only the Coldlander boy who seemed to have any idea of how this journey might actually be achieved, the decision was made:
overland it would be, after a short sea crossing to the southern shore of Ibera.

The Carthaginian authorities were lavish in funding Pyxeas’ expedition, in a mood of nervous gratitude. Or perhaps the city just wanted rid of him, he joked. So the party gathered
equipment and supplies, heavy jackets, breeches, hats and boots made from the fur of seals and bear, meat and fish dried and salted, pickled vegetables in clay pots – and a carriage.

Pyxeas took a great deal of interest in helping Avatak design this carriage. In its initial incarnation it would be a heavy horse-drawn cart with stout iron-rimmed wheels. It would bear a small
canvas shelter at all times, so Pyxeas could stay in the warm and the dry while they travelled. Pyxeas even had a metal plate installed in the floor so they could build a fire in the back. But when
they had to travel across snow and ice the carriage’s wheels and axles could be detached, and long polished runners exposed so the cart became a sled. Pyxeas had a lot of fun with this,
devising little mechanisms whereby the axles could be detached by loosening a few bolts and pulling levers. Rina saw a side of him she had never known before. All her life he had essentially been
an old man. This was how he must once have been as a child, a bright boy tinkering with gadgets, just as the scholar would one day try to take apart the mechanisms of the world itself.

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