Centuries have passed. The wall that Ana's people built has long outlasted her and history has been changed. The British Isles are still one with the European mainland and Doggerland has become a vibrant and rich land. So rich that it has drawn the attention of the Greeks. An invasion is mounted and soon Greek Biremes are grinding ashore on a coastline we never knew and the world will be changed for ever. Stephen Baxter's new series catapults forward from pre-history into the ancient world and charts a new and wonderful story for our world. This is a superb example of Baxter's belief that anything is possible for mankind - even making a new world.
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Stephen Baxter is the pre-eminent SF writer of his generation. Published around the world he has also won major awards in the UK, US, Germany, and Japan. Born in 1957 he has degrees from Cambridge and Southampton. He lives in Northumberland with his wife.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Once the ice had covered continents. The silence of the world had been profound.
Eventually, grudgingly, the ice retreated to its fastnesses in the mountains and at the poles. Humans spread northward, colonizing the recovering land. They lived sparsely, their lives brief. Soon the ice was remembered only in myth.
Yet the world around them continued to endure significant changes. The land rose and flexed as it was relieved of the burden of the weight of the ice, and meltwater flowed into the oceans and pooled in hollows on the land. Rising seas bit at the coastlines of Northland, the great neck of land that still connected the peninsula called Albia to the Continent. Perhaps that neck would have been severed altogether—if not for the defiance of Northland’s people, who, tentatively at first, with crude flood–resistant mounds, drainage ditches scratched in the ground, and heaped–up dykes of stone and earth, resisted the ocean’s slow assaults.
Meanwhile, far to the east, other new ideas were emerging. People had long tracked wild sheep and goats and encouraged the more nutritious cereal plants. Now, as people sought more reliable food supplies, that practice intensified. Herds were corralled, fields planted. Populations bloomed.
But the ice was not done with mankind. A remnant ice cap over the western continent collapsed, and chill waters poured down the river valleys to the ocean. Sea levels rose in a great pulse. Northland survived this too, its already ancient network of sea walls and dykes and soakaways resilient. But the drastic injection of chill meltwater caused ocean currents to fail, and the world suffered a cold snap that lasted centuries. The eastern farmers, driven out of their homes by climate collapse and over–exploitation, spread west along the river valleys and ocean coasts, taking their animals and seeds with them. In a slow wave that rolled across the Continent, forest was cleared, and threads of smoke rose from new farming communities.
After two thousand years the farmers’ culture reached the shore of the Western Ocean—but here the wave broke. If the Northlanders had not existed, perhaps the farmers and their culture would have colonized the shore lands and islands of the ocean fringe. But Northland, though still a culture living off the produce of the wild earth, was literate, technically advanced, strong, self–confident. The Northlanders traded and learned, but farming held no interest for them.
Again the climate shifted, with a spasm of drought heralding a new age of warm, dry conditions; again humanity’s fragile cultures flowed and changed in response. In the east the farming communities coalesced into a new phenomenon: towns and cities, major gatherings of population, centrally controlled, dedicated to the great task of maintaining complex nets of irrigation channels in increasingly dry landscapes. Empires bloomed like fungi on a log. Soon trading routes spanned the Continent, carrying amber from the north, silver from the south, timber from the west, tin and lapis lazuli from the east. Bronze was everywhere, in cups and ornaments and statuary, in the body armor and swords of the new warrior kings. The traders and warriors probed west and north, seeking profit and conquest. But again the old Northlander culture stood strong, and older ways were preserved.
And still the earth would not rest. Over an ocean on the far side of the world, elaborate cycles of heat and moisture collapsed, resumed—changed. The consequences rippled across the continents, in more waves of flood and drought, famine and disaster.
And under a mountain on an island in the Western Ocean, molten rock surged, seeking escape.
The Year of the Fire Mountain: Early Spring
Milaqa climbed the staircase cut into the face of the Wall. She took big deliberate strides, reluctant to think about her dead mother, whose rotting corpse lay out in the open on the roof.
The growstone surface by the staircase was covered in scratched graffiti, swirls of circles and arcs in flowing Etxelur script: “HARA LOVES MEK.” “GAGO OF THE HOUSE OF THE VOLE OWES ME A DEER HAUNCH. DO NOT TRUST HIM . . .” Here, she was intrigued to see, was a line scraped in the angular alphabet of the Greeks. She knew the language and picked out the words with ease: “I PALLAS CLIMBED THIS WALL AND DEFIED THE NORTHERN SEA, IN THE NINTH YEAR AFTER THE STORM.” A sightseeing trader or princeling, she supposed, and boastful like all of his kind.
Her steps were slowing, her attention too easily snagged by these scribbles. She forced herself on.
As she reached the roof, under a gray sky, her view of Old Etxelur opened up, the earthworks and flood mounds, the houses clustered over the lump of Flint Island. Beyond, the flat, misty expanse of Northland stretched to the southern horizon, the gray–green landscape cut into a neat patchwork by the tremendous straight lines of tracks, canals, dykes, holloways and gullies. A cloud of birds, redwings perhaps, descended on a distant swathe of grassland. When she looked to the north the Wall’s own sharp horizon hid the sea from her sight. The Wall, it was said, was as tall as thirty adults standing one on top of the other, and about half as thick. But she heard the growl of the sea, and felt cold spray on her brow.
The wind shifted, and there was a reek of rot, of decay, of death. She wrapped her cloak closer around her body. She longed to run back to the warmth and light of the galleries of the Scambles, the bright chatter of her friends. But she could not.
She walked along the spine of the Wall, following the sparse line of monuments that dominated this tremendous roof. The oldest were slim monoliths, slabs of granite and basalt, gifts from the austere sky–watching communities of Gaira. And then there were the more recent Annid heads, images of Etxelur’s leaders carved by sculptors from across the Western Ocean: blocky faces as tall as Milaqa defiantly facing the rage of the waters, just as the Wall itself had for hundreds of generations. Her own mother’s face would soon be joining that row of bleak, sightless watchers. A memory surfaced like an air bubble from a still pond: a summer’s day when Kuma had lifted her up, Milaqa had been only five or six, and whirled her in the summer sunlight. Milaqa was now sixteen years old. She pushed the memory away.
And she approached her mother’s lying–out platform. It was a simple wooden frame surrounded by busy, swooping gulls that scattered, cawing their irritation. Her mother’s corpse was just one of a row of prone bodies on the frame, many of them small, the crop of children taken by the recent winter, just as every year. The bodies lay under worn–out thatch nets that kept their bones from being scattered by the birds. Kuma, Milaqa’s mother, still wore her bronze breastplate, gleaming in the watery daylight, the ceremonial armor of the Annid of Annids yet to be removed, to be given to her successor. The breastplate was damaged, Milaqa noticed, with a neat slit punched in its front.
And a man stood beyond the lying–out frame. Bulky, wrapped in a featureless cloak, silhouetted against the northern sky, this was her uncle Teel—come to make her face her mother’s death, and, she supposed, other unwelcome realities.
Milaqa walked forward. The Northern Ocean was revealed to her now, big muscular waves flecked with foam. The gray water was only a few paces below the lip of the Wall; the level of the sea was higher than the dry land behind her. Sea birds rode the ocean swell, and further out she saw a litter of fishing boats.
“An eagle,” Teel said.
“I saw an eagle—a sea eagle, I think—wheeling away over there.” He pointed out to sea. Teel was not a tall man but he was bulky, given to fat, and he habitually shaved his head to the scalp. Milaqa knew he was around thirty years old, but he looked younger, his face oddly round, like a baby’s.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” she said. “The eagles nest in crevices in the Wall’s outer face. Lots of birds do. And on the inner face too.”
“Wearing away the Wall bit by bit, with each peck of a curious chick, each streak of guano on the growstone. Well. We can leave it to the Beavers to fret about that.” His blue eyes were running in the cold breeze. “Thank you for coming up.”
“Did I have a choice?”
“Well, I didn’t drag you here, so yes, you had a choice. I know how difficult this is for you. To lose your mother in your sixteenth year, the year of your House choice—you’ll have to face the whole family at the equinox gathering—”
“Don’t give me advice about my feelings, you ball–less old man.”
He laughed, unperturbed. “Ball–less, yes, I grant you. But not that old, surely.”
“Let’s get this over.” She walked deliberately to the sky burial platform. A couple of gulls had landed again; they fled into the air. Milaqa lifted her cloak so it covered her mouth. Teel had a linen scarf, grimy from use, that he pulled over his mouth and nose. And Milaqa looked closely at her mother’s body for the first time.
It had only been a month since Kuma had been brought home from the Albian forest where she had met her death. A fall from her horse had killed her, her companions had told the family, an aurochs chase that went wrong, the back of her skull smashed on a rock—an accident, it happened all the time, there would be no point hunting the great cattle in their tall forests if it wasn’t dangerous. Only a month. Yet Kuma’s head had already been emptied of its eyes, her gaping mouth cleansed of tongue and palate. Scraps of flesh and wisps of hair still clung, but enough bone had been exposed for Milaqa to be able to see the craterlike indentation in the back of the skull, the result of that fatal fall. This is my mother. Milaqa probed for feeling, deep in her heart. She had not cried when she had heard her mother was dead. Now all she seemed to feel was a deep and savage relief that it wasn’t her lying on this platform, her flesh rotting from her broken frame. Did everybody feel this way?
“It works so quickly,” Teel said, marveling. “The processes of death. Look, of the body’s soft parts there’s not much left save the big core muscles.” He pointed to masses of dull red meat beneath Kuma’s ribs. “The birds and the insects and the rats, all those little mouths pecking and chewing—”
“Is this some kind of test? I know what you’re like. I grew up with you setting me tricky challenges, uncle.”
“All for your own good. I wanted to show you something.” He pointed to the flaw in the bronze breastplate. “Look at that.”
The breastplate, supposedly a gift from the tin miners of Albia to some Annid many generations back, was finely worked, incised with the rings and cup marks of the old Etxelur script. The damage was obvious close to. She inspected the rough slit, the flanges of metal folded back to either side. “What of it? When the next Annid takes the plate, this will be easily fixed.”
“Perhaps so. But how do you imagine it got there?”
Milaqa shrugged. “During the accident. She fell from her horse, when it bucked before the charging aurochs.”
He nodded, and mimed a fall, tipping forward. “So she landed hard, and—what? A bit of rock punctured her breastplate?”
“It’s possible.” But she doubted it even as she spoke.
“But she fell backward. That’s what we were told—that’s how she got her skull stove in. You can see the wound, at the back of the head. So how, then, was the plate on her chest punctured?”
“Come on, uncle. You never ask a question if you don’t already know the answer.”
He lifted his cloak back over his shoulder, revealing a mittened hand holding a bronze knife, and he began sawing at the net strands over Kuma’s torso. “Actually I don’t know the answer—not for sure. But I have a theory.”
He quickly cut enough strands to be able to peel back the netting, itself sticky, from Kuma’s chest. Then he reached under the breastplate to cut into its leather ties. Carefully, respectfully, he lifted the plate off Kuma’s body. It came away with a sucking sound, to reveal a grimy linen tunic. He slit through the rotting cloth and peeled that back to reveal Kuma’s chest, scraps of flesh and fat and muscle over ribs that gleamed white. Flies buzzed into the air, and there was a fresh stench, sharp and rotten.
Teel pulled off his deerskin mittens and handed them to Milaqa. “Hold these for me. This is going to be messy.”
And he dug his fingers into Kuma’s chest, in the gap between the racks of her ribs. Bone cracked. He pushed and probed, spreading his fingers into the soft mass beneath. He was looking for something. His expression was grim; Milaqa knew he had his squeamish side. Then his hand closed. He looked at Milaqa. He withdrew his hand, and held out his fist; black fluid and bits of flesh clung to his skin. He opened his hand to reveal a small object, flat, three–sided, evidently heavy and sharp, coated in ichor. He rubbed it on his cloak, and held the object up to his eye.
“It’s an arrowhead,” Milaqa said slowly.
He nodded. “Somebody shot your mother—right in the heart. That’s how she died. The head injury surely happened as she fell from her horse, or was maybe faked later.”
“But it must have gone right through her armor, her breastplate.” Milaqa seemed to be thinking slowly, plodding from one conclusion to the next. “What arrowhead can pierce bronze?”
“One like this,” he said, holding out the point to her. “Iron.”
Far to the east, a generation–long drought gripped the land. People abandoned their failing farms and wandered in search of succor, or I turned to raiding the rich trade caravans and ships. But the collapse of trade only worsened the crisis, when there were no more caravans to rob.
Eventually whole populations were on the move, by land and sea. And ancient empires crumbled.
Qirum heard the approach of the column long before it arrived at the city walls. The neighing of horses, the rattling of wagon wheels, a distant crowd murmur—all these disturbed his sleep, as did the bear–like snoring of Praxo in the next room. But it was the blare of bronze war trumpets that finally penetrated his ale–sodden head. The Hatti, of course, the great power of Anatolia, it was the Hatti who would be coming with mobs of captives from the cities they sacked, the countries they emptied.
And when booty flowed through Troy, and booty people, there was opportunity for a man like Qirum.
Qirum guessed it was close to noon. The room was windowless, and stank of farts, stale wine, piss and sex, but the walls of packed mud were cracked, nobody had bothered to repair them since the great fire set by the Greeks, and they admitted slabs of bright daylight. He sat up, pushing the thin linen blanket off his torso. The whore lay sleeping beside him, or feigning sleep at least. He found a pouch of wine, and one of water; he took draughts from one and then the other, and poked at the whore’s backside with his foot. “Get up and get out.”
She stirred reluctantly and sat up, rubbing her eyes. “I need sleep.” She was dark, with tousled black hair and brown eyes. She was only about fourteen; though her body was full, her face was small, round, like a child’s, and her mouth, bruised around the lips, had an habitual pout.
He thought she was a Kaskan, from the north. He didn’t know her name, or care. “You’ve been asleep since dawn.” The last time he’d managed it. “Now it’s noon. Up and out with you. Praxo! Wake up, you fat slug.” He rummaged for his clothes on the floor, amid the stale, half–eaten loaves, a spille...
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