Read Iron Winter (Northland 3) Online

Authors: Stephen Baxter

Iron Winter (Northland 3) (56 page)

Crimm stared. ‘Ha! Well, I must try it myself. Look, Avatak – would you help with something else? We have sickness here.’

‘I saw your wife.’

‘We all suffer to some extent. But especially my wife’s little niece. Please.’

He led Avatak back up the beach to the cave, outside which Pyxeas sat, cradling an empty soup bowl, and Avatak was impressed that he had managed to finish a meal for once. Pyxeas had Muka help
him up, and with the others followed Crimm into the dimly lit rear of the cave.

But Pyxeas paused by the fire where there was a heap of paper, evidently used as kindling. He ruffled through this, appalled. ‘By the mothers’ mercy – did this come from the
Archive? I know this work – on the philosophy of the motion of the planets – centuries old! And it’s been used to light a fire for a bunch of—’

‘Not now, master,’ Avatak murmured firmly.

Pyxeas fell silent, visibly angry.

They walked deeper into the cave. At the back a little girl, not more than five years old, lay on a heap of skins. A woman, perhaps her mother, stood back as they approached, hope and fear
obvious in her face. Avatak became aware that they were all watching him, all the Northlanders, and he felt a stab of self-doubt.

‘Just do your best,’ murmured Pyxeas, leaning on Muka.

Tentatively Avatak bent over the little girl. Listless, lethargic, she did not resist. He saw she had spots on her skin, on her face and arms and, he saw when he lifted a blanket, on her legs.
She had evidently been suffering from nosebleeds, and when he gently opened her mouth he saw teeth missing from bleeding gums.

‘She’s been so down,’ said the mother. ‘So miserable for so long.’

‘Many of us have the same symptoms,’ Crimm said. ‘To one degree or another.’

‘And you know what she asks for, all the time? Cabbage! Who would have thought it? But you can’t grow cabbage in all this snow and ice.’

Pyxeas grunted. ‘I bet that’s the answer. You people seem to have plenty of fish and meat to eat, but not a scrap of green.’

Avatak felt faintly irritated, for Pyxeas was right. ‘We call it the bleeding fever. Yes, it comes about if you don’t eat all you need.’

‘I need cabbage,’ whispered the little girl, and her mother stroked her head.

Pyxeas said, ‘So what’s the answer, boy? Should we boil up some seaweed?’

‘No. Not that. We call it
mattak.
You can chop it into small pieces and eat it raw, or you can fry it and boil it to make it easier for the children. That will stop this
sickness.’

Crimm frowned. ‘
Mattak
? What is that?’

‘The skin of a whale.’

There was a long silence.

Crimm said, ‘And to get hold of
that
. . .’

‘First you have to catch a whale.’ Avatak grinned. ‘It’s not hard. I will show you.’

Crimm clapped him on the back. ‘You see? I knew you could help us! Why, with your help we’ll be able to prosper – to do more than survive – we can live in this place as
long as we want—’

‘No,’ Pyxeas said. Suddenly he groaned, and leaned more heavily on Muka. Avatak rushed to his side, and helped lower him to the ground.

Crimm said, ‘No? What do you mean, Uncle?’

Pyxeas looked up. ‘Oh, you have done well –
despite
your barbaric consumption of books to light your fires. Yes, you are prospering. Yes, Avatak, if you can, show them how to
catch whales, and all the other skills you have brought with you from the Coldland – skills you have used to keep me alive for so long.

‘But, Crimm, Muka, the rest of you – you cannot stay here.
For the ice will not let you.
And before you leave here you have a great assignment.’

Avatak said gently, ‘There is no scholarship here. You can see that.’

‘Yes. Yes, I see it. I was a fool to hope for more. Yet there is a duty to be fulfilled even so. Come, boy, help me back out into the light, may as well enjoy the daylight while we have it
. . .’

 

 

 

 

77

 

 

 

 

They sat on the growstone beach. Pyxeas was given a heap of blankets, and Avatak and Nelo sat with him, Nelo sketching intently. The folk of the little village, what was left
of Etxelur, gathered around them: Crimm and his wife, the other adults, and the children who stood and openly stared at the newcomers with their exotic looks, their strange clothes. It was
afternoon now, and the sun, hanging in a clear sky, cast a light of a strange quality, a rich golden yellow, on the face of the Wall behind them.

A small child, it might have been either a boy or girl in its bundle of furs, walked boldly forward, sat on Pyxeas’ lap, and started to pull at his wispy beard. It struck Avatak suddenly
that there were no old people in this village – none at all, save Pyxeas.

Crimm smiled at Pyxeas. ‘That’s your great-grand-nephew. He’s called Citeg. He’s evidently a philosopher, like his uncle.’

Pyxeas, cradling the child, seemed to gather what was left of his strength. ‘Indeed. What a tableau we must make – draw us, Nelo! Draw us for history. Myself the elder, who remembers
the world before the coming of the longwinter. You adults who are living through this age of transition. And now this little one on my lap, one of a new generation rising already, who knows nothing
of the days before the longwinter, and who will grow up thinking all this is normal – to live on a growstone beach, to trap seals to survive. Thus we humans forget the pain of the past. I
sometimes think this is the little mothers’ greatest gift, for otherwise each of us, even this little one, would carry inside his head the burden of ten thousand years.


But we must not forget.
We as a people. Ana, who founded the Wall itself, knew this long ago; we could not forget the great floods of the past, for if we had we would have been
doomed to suffer them again. And we did not forget. We wrote down our memories, and organised ourselves, and remembered.

‘Now we face the greatest calamity of all – this longwinter. A flood of cold that will last many thousands of years. Yet we understand why it has come about – I, Pyxeas, a
handful of scholars in Carthage, and now these brave boys who brought me home. Knowing why it happens is a long way from being able to turn it back, from warming the world! Only the mothers can do
that. But if we understand, if we anticipate, then we can
plan
. But we can only understand if we remember.

‘I came here hoping to find scholarship surviving. Even I, Pyxeas, I admit, underestimated the damage done by the long-winter in its first few seasons. But what I have found here is you,
Crimm, and your people, and your admirable determination to survive. And so I have modified my goals.

‘I have written down my conclusions. I have already sent copies to scholars around the world, from Cathay to Egypt to Carthage. There will be a New Etxelur, built on the Carthaginian
shore. That too has copies. But we know the world is in flux, and who knows what will survive of that?

‘But here we are, at the Wall, at Etxelur. And I want you to help me now. I have copies of my findings, stored in my trunk, my conclusions set out. I want more copies made, more sets
compiled – more trunks filled. I know you can write, Crimm, you others – you haven’t forgotten yet. And I want these copies distributed in safe places the length of the Wall, as
far as you can reach.’

Crimm nodded. Though he must have known what a burden this would be for a folk already on the edge of starvation, Avatak thought, he seemed enthused. ‘We will do this, Uncle. We are
Northlanders; this is Etxelur. This is what we are for. And then our children, and our children’s children, will stand guard on the Wall until the day the warmth returns to the
world.’

Pyxeas sighed. ‘Brave words, Crimm. But it’s impossible, I’m afraid. I told you – the ice will see to it.’

And he spoke to them of what was to come.

‘The snow will continue to fall, and none of it will melt. It will gather deeper and deeper, the lower layers compressing to hard ice. At last, around centres to the north of Albia, in
Scand, in Asia, in the Land of the Sky Wolf, huge sheets will accumulate. How do I know this? Because this is how it was before. I have seen the marks of it. And this ocean, this ancient land, even
the Wall itself,
will be entirely covered over
, with a great thickness of ice – as thick as a day’s walk! And so you must leave here. Go south, to the edge of the ice. Find a new
place to live. For this land is doomed.


But the Wall will survive
. The growstone core is tough enough for that. Riding out the years, resisting the ice as it has already resisted the ocean for millennia. And in its
growstone carcass, to be discovered anew by the children of a distant future, will be the secrets of the world. Those children will
begin
knowing as much as we know now. Who knows what they
will go on to learn? And you will leave them your drawings too, Nelo. Let them look upon the faces of their ancestors.’

This was met by silence, save from the gurgle of a baby somewhere.

Crimm waved a hand at the growstone village, the sea. ‘You speak of generations yet unborn.
We
have survived. We are proud of what we have built here. Must we lose it
all?’

‘It is already lost,’ Pyxeas said gently. ‘The land is only ever loaned from the ice; now the ice takes it back. But next time, next time . . .’

‘Crimm! Aranx!’

The call came from the west, along the growstone shore. People stood, peered into the sun, hands over their eyes. Crimm waved. ‘I’m here! Ayto, is that you?’

‘We found an animal,’ Ayto called, his cry distant, small. ‘A big one. A bear! White, or yellow.’

Crimm was baffled. ‘A
white bear
?’

Avatak was already on his feet. ‘
Nanok
. I knew he would come.’

Crimm grinned, took a spear from a pile, threw it to Avatak. ‘After you.’

A party of hunters quickly formed up. Wielding their spears, tightening their skin jackets around their bodies, they jogged across the growstone shore towards the west, where the bear padded
cautiously over a bit of sea ice, silhouetted by the lowering sun.

 

 

 

 

78

 

 

 

 

The Fourth Year of the Longwinter: Autumn Equinox

At last word came that ships had been seen, on the eastern horizon.

The three women stood in the shade of Xipuhl’s house, here at the heart of the city called the Altar of the Jaguar. Xipuhl took Sabela’s hand, and Walks In Mist’s, and the
three of them stood together as they had that night in the growstone bar in the Wall, three summers ago. Three women, two of them widows now, for Walks In Mist had lost her husband in the flood
that had driven her and her children out of the River City, and Xipuhl’s husband had succumbed to the plague last year – and Sabela might as well have been a widow, for Deraj had been
dead to her since his betrayal of her with the nestspill girl.

Sabela, a guest here, had already called the twins and packed her bags. And when Walks In Mist arrived she’d had only one question. ‘Are they Northlander ships?’

‘We don’t know yet,’ Xipuhl said gently. ‘They are too far away. And they are very late, if it’s them – midsummer has long gone—’

‘They have come,’ Sabela said firmly. ‘I knew they would, late or not. Come, let’s go to the shore.’

Walks In Mist glanced at Xipuhl, and they shrugged, and made ready.

Sabela would not be sorry to see the last of the Altar of the Jaguar, thankful though she had been for Xipuhl’s hospitality when she had fled north from Tiwanaku with the
twins.

The city was set on a high plateau, dominating a river basin. The heart of it was a raised platform on which sat temples, courtyards, the houses of the very rich – and monuments, gigantic
stone thrones and carved heads as tall as she was, their ancient faces eroded and pitted. The big faces made the twins cry. The city had its own deep history; it had been the capital of an empire
that, according to its own legend, had been the first civilisation west of the great ocean, and would also have been the first to have fallen long ago if not for links with Northland across the
sea. Well, in the years since, the Empire of the Jaguar had waxed and waned. This age had seen a fragmentation of states under the pressure of drought and heat, and there had been endless petty,
wearing wars. The Altar was much reduced from its eerie pomp. But you wouldn’t know it from the way the rulers and the rich paraded around the city in their finely woven skirts, and their
upper bodies adorned with bangles, necklaces, pendants, and big mirrors of polished stone. And they were
deformed
, their heads misshapen from their skulls being bound up when they were
infants, and grooves worn into their teeth. Xipuhl said this was part of a revival of ancient customs; facing an uncertain future, the people of the Altar were reaching back to a more secure
past.

Now, in any event, Sabela was seeing her last of it.

The three women, with their children and baggage, were loaded onto a couple of carts driven by Xipuhl’s servants. As they rolled out of the city towards the coast, they were not alone;
Sabela saw a steady trickle of vehicles, and foot traffic too, heading out to greet the first ships to be seen from across the ocean all year.

Xipuhl had sent servants ahead to rent a small property on the edge of the coastal town, and there they spent a restless night. Sabela’s twins had trouble sleeping this close to the sea;
they had been born into the clear, dry, thin air of the mountains, and sometimes they found the clinging humidity of the lowlands unbearable. In the early morning they gathered by the harbour,
watching the dawn gathering over the ocean, waiting for their first glimpse of the ships. The children quickly got bored. Walks In Mist had brought her Northland chess set, and Sabela’s twins
settled down to a game.

And then the ships emerged from a bank of mist, tall shadows on the horizon. There was a ripple of applause from the waiting people.

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