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The Breath of God
By Harry Turtledove
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2008 Harry Turtledove
All rights reserved.
The breath of God blew down hard from the north. Here in the Bizogot country near the Glacier, the wind off the great ice sheet blew hard all winter long. Hamnet Thyssen's own breath smoked as if he were puffing on a pipe. He wished he were, though Ulric Skakki liked tobacco better than he did. Unless Raumsdalian traders had brought a little up from the south, there was none for hundreds of miles.
Count Hamnet was a Raumsdalian himself. He was large and dark and dour, with a black beard that had a streak of white above a scar and some scatterings of gray elsewhere — and that looked whiter now than it really was, what with all the rime and snow caught in it. He wore Bizogot-style furs and leather, with the stout felt boots that were the best footgear ever made for fighting cold. In spite of hooded jacket and furred trousers, he felt the frigid weather like an icepick in his bones.
Ulric was up from the south, too, though Hamnet wasn't sure the foxy-faced adventurer had been born inside the borders of the Raumsdalian Empire. Whether he had or not, he spoke Raumsdalian perfectly these days. Pitching his voice to carry through the shrieking wind, he said, "Things could be worse."
"How?" Hamnet asked. "We could have frozen to death already?"
"Oh, you don't freeze to death up here, not if you're careful. You just wish you could," Ulric said, which was true. "That's not what I meant. A couple of thousand years ago, we could have enjoyed this lovely weather down near Nidaros."
Sigvat II, the Raumsdalian Emperor, ruled from Nidaros these days. Two thousand years earlier, the great city was no more than a hunting camp on the edge of Hevring Lake. The meltwater filling the lake came from the Glacier, which in those days lay just to the north. The glaciers had fallen back all this way in the years since. Nidaros was almost temperate these days; barley grew there most years, and wheat in the warmer ones. Hevring Lake was long gone. When the ice dam that corked it melted through, it poured out to the west in a great flood that carved out the badlands still scarring that terrain.
Despite the warming weather in the south — or rather, because of it — Hamnet Thyssen bared his teeth in a mirthless grin. "Better that, some ways, than this."
"What?" Ulric mocked without mercy. "I thought you always wanted to go beyond the Glacier."
"Not always. I didn't used to think there was anything beyond the Glacier," Hamnet answered. "And even after I found out there was, I didn't want what lived beyond the Glacier coming here, curse it."
"Life is full of surprises," Ulric Skakki said, which would have been funny if only it were funny.
For some time now, the Glacier had been melting back towards the northwest and northeast, leaving a corridor of open land — the Gap — between the two great frozen sheets. Now at last the Gap had melted through, allowing travelers from the south to discover what lay on the far side of the Glacier.
Up until that finally happened, Hamnet Thyssen had always thought the northern glaciers went on forever. So had most Raumsdalians — and most of the nomadic Bizogots who lived north of them. The Golden Shrine? As far as Count Hamnet was concerned, the Golden Shrine was only a myth.
He knew better now. Oh, not about the Golden Shrine, which might still be mythical for all he could prove. But he'd gone beyond the Glacier himself. He'd seen the striped cats called tigers, which preyed there in place of the lions and sabertooths he knew. He'd seen the great brown bears that scooped salmon from streams unfrozen in summer. He'd seen vast herds of deer with both stags and does bearing blunt-tined antlers.
And he'd seen the folk who rode those deer as men on this side of the Glacier rode horses. The Rulers, they called themselves. They not only herded woolly mammoths, as the Bizogots had for centuries uncounted, but rode them to war, with lancers and men with long, long lances on the beasts' shaggy backs.
The Rulers seemed convinced any folk not of their blood were animals, to be tamed like mammoths or hunted and killed like wolves and tigers. They were not warriors to be despised, and their sorcerers had strength neither Raumsdalian wizards nor Bizogot shamans could easily withstand.
Trasamund rode up to Hamnet and Ulric. He too looked north. "Anything?" he asked, doing his best not to sound worried. He was a big, burly man, bigger than Hamnet Thyssen, with piercing blue eyes and a thick, curly red-gold beard almost like a pelt.
"Hard to tell with this snow, Your Ferocity, but I don't think so." Hamnet gave the jarl of the Three Tusk clan his proper title of respect, even if the Rulers, pouring down through the Gap, had shattered the clan and left him a jarl with only a remnant of a folk to rule. Trasamund's pride remained grand as ever — grander, maybe, to help compensate for all he'd lost.
"A couple of men from the Red Dire Wolves are right behind me," Trasamund said. "You southerners can ride for the tents now. I know you're feeling the weather worse than a man born to it would."
"It gets this cold down in the Empire," Ulric Skakki said. "It just doesn't stay this cold from fall through the start of spring."
"Well, go in anyway. Warm yourselves. Get some food. You need more when it does stay like this." Trasamund was right about that; Count Hamnet had seen as much. He ate like a dire wolf to keep from freezing, and didn't gain an ounce. The Bizogot paused, an anxious look flitting across his face. "You can find your way back to the tents by yourselves in this weather?"
It wasn't an idle question. With snow and wind wiping out tracks almost as fast as they were made, with visibility short, someone who didn't know how to make his way across the frozen steppe could wander till he froze to death.
All the same, both Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki smiled. They weren't Bizogots, born to the northern plains, but they could manage. Smiling still, Ulric said, "Yes, Mother dear."
Trasamund's snort birthed a young fogbank. "Scoff all you please," he said. "Any Bizogot clan will tell you about Raumsdalian traders who ended up stiff clean through because they thought they knew more about this country than they really did."
"We'll get there," Hamnet Thyssen said. He wheeled his horse. The beast seemed glad to face away from the Breath of God. Hamnet and Ulric rode south, towards the encampment housing the remnants of the Three Tusk clan and the Red Dire Wolves, who guested them and who, reluctantly, joined them in the war against the Rulers.
One stretch of snowy, windswept ground really did look a lot like another. Count Hamnet was starting to wonder whether he and Ulric had bragged too soon when the Bizogots' mammoth-hide tents appeared in the distance. The mammoths' thick skins and the long, shaggy dark brown hair on them offered a barrier formidable even to the fiercest gales.
All the same, entrances invariably faced south. They did down in the Empire, too. Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki tethered their horses behind a snow-block wall that shielded the animals from the worst of the wind. They'd bought the horses in Nidaros, but the animals were of the small, shaggy Bizogot breed, better suited to the harsh northern weather than other horses.
Hamnet ducked into the tent belonging to Totila, the jarl of the Red Dire Wolves. He needed a moment to get used to the gloom inside. A couple of bone lamps burning butter made from the milk of musk oxen and mammoths gave only a dim, flickering light. A brazier that burned dried dung added a little heat, but not much.
The brazier and lamps did contribute to the pungency. Hamnet Thyssen knew his nose would soon get used to it, but it was fierce when he'd just come in from the fresh if frigid steppe. Chamber pots of leather and wickerwork had tight lids, and people emptied them often, but their reek hung in the air. So did that of unwashed bodies, Hamnet's own among them. Bathing in winter in the Bizogot country was asking for anything from chest fever to frostbite.
"Anything, Raumsdalian?" Totila asked. The Red Dire Wolves' jarl sounded worried, for which Count Hamnet could hardly blame him. Now his clan, along with what was left of Trasamund's, stood on the front line against the Rulers. Any blow that fell would probably fall on him.
He relaxed — a little — when Hamnet Thyssen shook his head and said, "No." Hamnet let his hood drop down off his head and undid the top toggle on his fur jacket. It was warmer inside the tent, though more from the body heat of the people it sheltered than from the brazier's feeble little fire.
"I sense nothing amiss — nothing close, anyhow." Liv was the shaman from the Three Tusk clan. She was close to thirty, with golden hair (short and greasy and dirty, as the Bizogots' hair commonly was), cheekbones as proud and sharp and angular as the Glacier, and eyes of the deepest blue Count Hamnet had ever seen.
He'd studied those eyes from very close range indeed. He and Liv were lovers. She was the only woman he'd met since Gudrid left him who made him ... oh, not forget his former wife, but remember she wasn't the only fish in the sea. And if that wasn't a miracle, Hamnet Thyssen had never met one.
Totila went right on worrying. "Would you?" he asked. "Or could their magic mask their moves so you wouldn't know till they got right on top of us?"
"It could," Liv said seriously, at which the jarl gnawed on his lower lip. Hamnet understood how he felt. He himself had fretted over the way things went in his county down in the southeastern part of the Empire. And his domain never faced danger close to that which hovered above the Red Dire Wolves like a teratorn soaring through the air in search of a fresh corpse to gnaw.
"What good are your precious senses, then?" Totila snapped.
Liv didn't rise to his anger and fear. "Maybe no good," she answered, "but I don't think so. Masking movement on that scale isn't easy for us or for the Rulers. And we have sentries out." She nodded towards Hamnet. "Even if my spells do fail, sharp eyes shouldn't."
"They'd better not," the jarl said. He too nodded towards Hamnet, though his expression was gruff, not fond. "Feed yourself. We have meat, and you need to stoke your fire."
"I know." The Raumsdalian took off his mittens.
The meat came from a mammoth liver. Hamnet Thyssen impaled a chunk on a long bone skewer and started toasting it over the dung-fueled brazier. Through most of the year, the Bizogots didn't have to worry about salting meat or smoking it to keep it edible. They had the biggest ice chest in the world right outside their tents.
They also had peculiar tastes — or so it seemed to a man from farther south. Listen to a Bizogot and he'd tell you meat cooked with wood lacked flavor. They were used to what dung fires did, and they liked it. Count Hamnet was getting used to it, too. He had to, or eat his meat raw, or starve. Whether he would ever like it was a different question.
Mammoth liver would have been strong-flavored stuff no matter what it was cooked over. Hamnet stolidly ate. He had to get used to being as carnivorous as a sabertooth, too. No grain up here — no bread, no porridge. No potatoes or turnips or even onions. In summer, the Bizogots varied their diet with the small, sweet berries that quickly ripened and then were gone. Those in the southern part of the frozen steppe gathered honey from the few hardy bees that buzzed about when the weather warmed and flowers blossomed frantically. They were fond of mushrooms. But for that, they ate meat, and occasionally fish.
"Nothing wrong to the north? You're sure?" Liv said.
He shook his head. "There's plenty wrong to the north, and we both know it. But I didn't see any sign that the Rulers were about to swoop down on the Red Dire Wolves."
"That's what I meant," Liv said. "But I don't think they'll wait much longer."
Hamnet Thyssen liked the flavor of that even less than he liked the flavor of dung-cooked mammoth liver. "Is that your feeling?" he asked. "Or is it what your magic tells you?"
"Not mine. Audun Gilli's," the shaman answered. "His seems better at piercing the wards the Rulers use than mine does." She didn't sound jealous, merely matter-of-fact.
"Where is Audun, anyway?" Hamnet asked. The Raumsdalian wizard usually stayed in the jarl's tent, too. He'd never learned much of the Bizogot tongue, and needed another Raumsdalian or Liv or Trasamund to translate for him.
"He's with Theudechild, in the tent where she stays," Liv said.
"Oh." Hamnet left it there. He wondered what the Bizogot woman saw in Audun Gilli, who was short and slight and unprepossessing and could hardly talk to her. Whatever it was, she doted on him. And Audun seemed to like her well enough. He'd lost his family some years earlier, and lived in a drunken stupor till Ulric Skakki plucked him from the gutter — literally — and made him dry out.
Getting drunk among the Bizogots took dedication. Except for beer and wine brought up from the south, their only tipple was smetyn — fermented musk-ox or mammoth milk. It was sour and not very strong. The mammoth-herders poured it down, though.
Something else occurred to Hamnet. "He's with Theudechild? The lamps are still lit."
"So what?" Liv said. "People look the other way. They pretend not to hear. When you live in crowded tents most of the year, you have to do things like that. I've seen your houses with all their rooms." She dropped in a couple of Raumsdalian words for things the Bizogots didn't have and didn't need to name. "You can get away from one another whenever you please. All we have are blankets — and the sense not to look when it's none of our business."
Not many Raumsdalians had that kind of sense. Maybe they didn't need it so much. On the other hand, maybe they would have got along better if they had more of it. Hamnet said, "Well, it's good to see Audun happy, too."
Was it good to see himself happy? He had to think about that. He wasn't used to thinking of himself as happy. After what Gudrid did to him — and after the way he spent years brooding and agonizing about what she did to him — he was much more used to thinking of himself as miserable. But he wasn't, not any more.
"So it is," Liv said. Did she know how happy she made him? If she didn't, it wasn't because he didn't try to show her. And was that a twinkle in her eye, or only a flicker from one of those odorous lamps? Whatever it was, she asked, "Are you Bizogot enough to think blankets and the sense not to look are enough?"
"I'm not a Bizogot at all, and I never will be." Count Hamnet paused, but not for long. "I don't suppose that means I can't act like one, though. I am here, after all...." Not much later, he did his very best to pretend he and Liv had all the privacy in the world. By the small sounds she made even when trying to keep discreetly silent, his best seemed good enough.
Musk oxen were made for the frozen plains the Bizogots roamed. Their shaggy outer coats and the thick, soft hair that grew closer to the hide warded them against the worst the Breath of God could do. They knew how to scrape snow away with their hooves to uncover plants frozen under the snow. When danger threatened, they formed protective circles, with the formidably horned bulls and larger cows on the outside and the smaller females and calves within. Dire wolves and lions took stragglers now and again, but they had to be desperately hungry to attack one of those circular formations.
The Bizogots hadn't fully domesticated the musk oxen they herded, but the beasts were used to having men around. The herders helped protect them from predators ... and preyed on the musk oxen themselves.
Despite the threat from the Rulers, the Red Dire Wolf Bizogots had to follow the herds. If they lost them, they would starve. And the survivors from the Three Tusk clan and the Raumsdalians up from the south took their turn tending the musk oxen, too. The Three Tusk Bizogots knew just what to do; all across the northern steppe, the Bizogots tended their animals in much the same way. Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki did their best, and seemed to pick up what they needed to know fast enough to suit the Red Dire Wolves. Audun Gilli also did his best. Not even the Bizogots said anything else. How good that best was ...
"Careful, Audun!" Count Hamnet pitched his voice to carry through the howling wind. "If you get too close, you'll spook them."
Excerpted from The Breath of God by Harry Turtledove. Copyright © 2008 Harry Turtledove. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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