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Iron Winter

The Northland Trilogy

Stephen Baxter - Author

ePub eBook | $12.99 | add to cart | view cart
ISBN 9781101617687 | 496 pages | 05 Nov 2013 | Roc | 18 - AND UP
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Praised as “not only a gifted storyteller but also a master of speculative fiction” (Library Journal), bestselling author Stephen Baxter brings his epic Northland trilogy to a close as a once-thriving civilization faces winter without end....
 
Many generations ago, the Wall was built to hold back the sea. A simple dam, it grew into a vast linear city, home to scholars, builders, and merchants. Northland’s prosperity survived wars and unrest—and brought the whole of Europe together.
 
But now darkness is falling. Days grow shorter, temperatures colder, and in the wake of long winters come famine, destruction, and terror. As a mass exodus to warmer climes threatens to fracture Northland, one man believes he can outwit the cold, and even salvage some scraps of the great civilization—before interminable gloom settles over the land; before the fires of war lay waste to an empire; before the ice comes....
 


The First Year of the Longwinter:

Spring Equinox

Pyxeas thrust his head and shoulders through the sealskin door flap and into the house. In the dawn light the Northlander’s face was like a raw red moon, haloed by fur. “Avatak! Are you there? It’s moving again, the glacier! Can’t you hear it? Come on, come on.”

Avatak, seventeen years old, was lying in a heap of skins and furs with his relatives: parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and cousins. As the cold pushed into the greasy, fart-smelling air of the winter house, his little sister Nona mewled and cried, and uncle Suko grumbled, “Close the flap, man!”

But Pyxeas knew only a few words of the language of the People, and when he was excited even they fled from his mind like a frightened seal from its breathing hole. “Avatak! Where are you?”

Avatak knew he wasn’t going to give up. And now he could hear the glacier for himself, a distant rumble deeper even than his uncles’ snoring. So he fumbled under the heap of clothing until he had got his fur trousers on over his leggings, and his jacket with its heavy hood, and he crawled toward the door, pulling on his bearskin boots as he went.

Outside, the sky was a clear blue-black still dusted by stars, although the sun was already peeking above the flat white horizon. Avatak could feel the chill in his cheeks and nostrils, a dagger-cold that cut and probed, and he wished he’d had time to grease his face. He saw that there had been fresh snow during the night, just a hand’s depth, but enough to cover yesterday’s tracks and to lie on the fur of the huddled dogs. Not much snow—but any snowfall at all at this time of year was an unusual event in Avatak’s short life. Which was, it seemed, why Pyxeas had come here, to the island the Northlanders called Coldland, and for which the People had no name, for it was all the world they knew. He’d come to observe the unusual.

“At last, sleepyhead! Come, come—it’s on the move, and if we hurry we might witness tremendous events!” And Pyxeas was off, hurrying east toward the rising sun and the coast.

Avatak had no choice but to follow him. He would much rather have had a chance to check the man over, to see he had his boots on properly and his mittens and a slap of grease on his face, for the scholar had nearly lost a couple of fingers to the frost in his early days by making mistakes like that. But there was no time, no time.

As they hurried through a loose layer of fresh snow, again Avatak heard that tremendous groan coming from the coast, overlaid with cracks and bangs and grinds.

“Can you hear that? Can you feel it through the ground?”

Avatak thought he could. Pyxeas had taught him how the whole island was covered by an immense lid of ice, all one piece, of which the glaciers were mere extensions. And when the glaciers were on the move the ice cap itself shuddered, shaking the ground on which it rested.

“Have you brought your pad? Your stylus, eh? No matter, no matter. Watch. Listen. Remember my commentary as I, Pyxeas, interpret what we see. And write it down as soon as you’re home, and make more of those sketches of yours. As soon as you’re home!”

“Yes, scholar.”

Now they reached the glacier itself. It was a river of ice that poured down from the higher ground toward the sea, where open water lay dark beyond a tide-cracked fringe of pack ice. All this was dimly illuminated in grays and pinks by the dawn sunlight that smeared the eastern horizon. The scholar clambered up onto the glacier’s slick surface, slipped, and would have fallen immediately if Avatak had not grabbed his arm. The man just wouldn’t learn to walk on the ice the way the People did, one foot pressed down flat after the other, slow and steady and safe. After that they went ahead with more caution, pushing down the shallow slope of the glacier toward its termination at the sea. Soon they came to a place where a second glacier joined the first, a mighty tributary whose boundary could be seen in stripes of debris on the surface of the flowing ice.

The ice cap is a dynamic thing,” Pyxeas said, growing breathless as he scrambled. “Fresh snow falling on the center of the cap fails to melt, and compresses to ice, and thus the cap grows. And as it becomes heavier the ice must flow out and away from the center under its own weight—as a mass of mud will flow out in all directions from under the ass of a big fat man sitting on it. The ice reaches the sea via the glaciers it spawns. And when there is an unusual amount of snow, as there has been on your island the last few years, there is an unusual rate of glacial flow—”

“Scholar!” Avatak pulled him back.

They had come to a crevasse, a slice right through the surface of the ice. It was new, it hadn’t been here a few days ago, and the bulk of it was hidden by a thin crust of fresh snow. But Avatak had spotted its extension to either side, thin black cracks. Cautiously he kicked through the snow crust, and they both leaned over to peer into the crevasse. The gathering sunlight caught hard old ice that shone green and blue, as if lit from within, and Avatak could hear a foamy rush of running water from far below.

“The great weight of the glacier melts its own base,” Pyxeas breathed. “And thus, lubricated, the ice falls ever more readily to the sea. Come on, come on!” They stepped over the crevasse and hurried on, Pyxeas talking on, endlessly speculating.

It was this curiosity that had prompted Avatak to volunteer to help the scholar from Northland when he had come here three summers ago to make his “studies.” The People knew the world changed. They could hardly not know; they depended on these vagaries for their very existence. They knew of the fluttering cycles of day and night, the seasons that swung between bright summers and dark winters, and they knew, thanks to memories stored in folklore and anecdote, of the grander evolutions that spanned generations. But when change came, they just adapted. Went out on the pack ice a little earlier in the summer, or later. Fixed up the winter houses a little later, or earlier. If you got such judgments wrong you starved, and so did your children.

But what they didn’t do, what they had never done, was try to understand. What caused these changes in the world? And what would be the consequence if these changes, such as the increased snowfall in the interior, were to continue, year after year?

It wasn’t because they were in any way less intelligent than the scholar’s Northlander folk, Avatak had come to see. In most ways that counted, his own father, say, was much brighter than Pyxeas, certainly when it came to the brutal business of staying alive. And the people’s shared memory, stored in the epic songs they sang together through the winter, was detailed and accurate. No, it wasn’t a question of intelligence. It was a question of how you thought about the world—not as a plaything of the gods to be accepted without question, but as a puzzle to be solved. And Avatak was drawn to the way Pyxeas’ mind worked as he challenged this huge, baffling, complex, secretive puzzle, and to the sheer delight the man showed when some small piece of it was resolved, and the world made a little more sense.

So he had worked with the man. Pyxeas had taught Avatak to read and write the way the Northlanders did—how to think. And Avatak had shown Pyxeas how to keep from falling on his backside with every other step on the ice. They were a good team.

But Avatak had glimpsed something darker in Pyxeas. A kind of sadness, he thought. If Pyxeas had family, children, he never mentioned it, but sometimes he reminded Avatak of a grieving, bereft father. Pyxeas himself was a puzzle. And that was the reason Avatak had chosen to work with him.

At last they passed a pinnacle of frost-shattered rock, and their view of the ocean opened up fully. Here Pyxeas stopped, panting, and even he was awed to silence, if only briefly.

The two of them had come here only days ago, but everything about the panorama had changed. Then the glacier had terminated in a mass of dirty, blocky ice that had fanned out into the sea, merging at last with the salty pack ice that littered the ocean surface. Now that whole formation had gone, the grimy blocking mass had vanished, and the glacier as it reached the sea was much thicker, and was truncated by a veritable cliff of blue- green ice from which bergs splintered and sailed away into a chaotic, half-frozen ocean.

“I knew it,” Pyxeas breathed. “I knew it! The glacier here was blocked in by its own deposited ice, a natural dam. But such was the pressure of the glacier, thicker and faster-flowing than it has been for centuries, that the dam must, at last, give. And when it did, the glacier bounded forward like an animal loosed from a cage—and the result is as you see, tremendous masses of ice dumped into the ocean.” He was almost breathless with the sheer delight of being proven right. “Can you see what this means, boy? What are the implications?”

Avatak watched the icebergs sail away. “Trouble for the fishermen” he said.

“Well, yes,” Pyxeas said testily. “But that’s hardly the big picture.” He made swirling gestures with his mittened hands. “Like the ice cap, the ocean and the air above are dynamic systems—huge bodies of air and water that swirl around the world, transporting heat and moisture. Now, what do you imagine is going to happen when all this ice-cold fresh water is injected into the salty currents of the sea?”

Avatak had learned the student’s trick of turning the scholar’s questions back on him. “What do you think?”

“Well, I’m not sure. Nobody is. But . . .” Abruptly the energy seemed to go out of him, and the pleasure, and he sat down. He fished a scrap of parchment out of a pocket. “Make a note of the date, boy. Listen now. One. Two. Three. One. Two. One. Two. One. One. Five. Five.”

Avatak mumbled the numbers. “That is a date?”

“In our oldest calendar, the Long Count, yes. We Northlanders have been counting the days, each day, since the year of the Second Great Sea, which is more than seven thousand years ago. Ours is the oldest, and the most accurate, calendar in the world.” He couldn’t resist a chance to lecture. “In the old system we counted in powers of five. And we had no zero, so it’s all a little clumsy. We count in eleven cycles, with the last being a cycle of five days, and the first being a grand cycle of five multiplied by itself ten times.”

Avatak thought that over. “So we’re still in the first of those big cycles.”

“Yes.”

“What will happen in the future? When you run out of those big cycles?”

Pyxeas stared at him, and laughed. “That won’t happen for a hundred thousand years. But it’s a good question. I dare say we’ll agree on some extension to the system before then. Just remember the date, boy. Remember this day.”

“Why?”

The scholar looked out at the sea, the glacier, the jumbled ice. “Because today is the day I have proved, at least to my own satisfaction, that the longwinter is on us.”

That word was a new one for Avatak. “The longwinter, scholar? What does that mean?”

Pyxeas looked at him bleakly. “Why, that the world is changing. Death will cut across the continents. Northland must die, Avatak.”

He said this bleakly, simply, and while Avatak still did not understand, he saw that Pyxeas told the truth as he believed it. And now he saw where the sadness within the scholar came from. A sadness for the whole world, which would suffer from a blight none other could yet see.

Avatak said, Then what must we do?”

Pyxeas smiled. “Convince others of this. But that will take time. We have work to do, my boy—work, and lots of it! And in the summer we must take our conclusions to Northland, and the councils of Etxelur itself.”

We, he had said. We must go to Northland. Pyxeas had spoken like this before. He seemed to just assume that Avatak would leave his home, his responsibilities to his family—Uuna, to whom he was betrothed—and follow him to an alien country to pursue this strange, lofty project.

Would Avatak go? Of course he would. How could he not? Thanks to Pyxeas, his head rattled with strange ideas and vivid dreams. But it would take some explaining to Uuna, and her mother who had never much liked Avatak anyhow.

And, he thought, if Northland was to die, what would become of Coldland?

The glacier shuddered anew under their feet. Avatak took the scholar’s mittened hand and drew him away from the crumbling edge, and back to the security of the land.


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