Previous Page Next Page

UTC:       Local:

Home Page Index Page

A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Twenty

       Last updated: Monday, April 5, 2010 07:09 EDT




Ice Ship Hornet,
Lake Pei,
The Temple Lands

    The Earl of Coris had never been colder in his entire life. Which, after the last few months of winter travel, was saying quite a lot. At the moment, however, he didn’t really care. In fact, at the moment, he wasn’t even worrying about the imminence of his arrival in the city of Zion or what was going to happen after he finally got there. He was too busy trying not to whoop in sheer exuberance as the iceboat Hornet went slicing across Lake Pei’s endless plain of ice like Langhorne’s own razor in a scatter of rainbow-struck ice chips.

    He’d never imagined anything like it. Even the descriptions Hahlys Tannyr had shared with him over meals or an occasional tankard of beer on the wearisome overland trip from Fairstock to Lakeview had been inadequate. Not for lack of trying, or because Father Hahlys had lacked either the enthusiasm or the descriptive gift for the task, but simply because Coris’ imagination had never been given anything to use for comparison. If anyone had asked him, he would have simply discounted out of hand the possibility that anyone could ever travel faster than, say, fifteen miles an hour. To be honest, even that would have seemed the next best thing to starkly impossible, except possibly in a sprint by specially bred horses. Slash lizards were faster than that when they charged — he’d heard estimates that put their speed in a dash as high as forty miles an hour — but no human being had ever ridden a slash lizard . . . except very briefly in certain fables whose entire purpose was to demonstrate the unwisdom of making the attempt.

    Now, as showers of ice flew like diamond dust from the ice boat’s screaming runners and the incredible vibration hammered into him through his feet and legs, Coris had finally experienced what Tannyr had tried to explain to him, and a corner of the earl’s mind went back over the past, wearisome five-days of travel which had brought him to this moment.



    The sheer, slow, slogging misery of their journey along the Rayworth Valley where it formed the open north-south “V” at the heart of the Wishbone Mountains, had only served to make Tannyr’s descriptions of his iceboat’s speed even less believable. The only redeeming aspect of the trip, perversely enough, had been the snowy conditions with which they’d been forced to cope. The outsized sleighs Tannyr had procured had made surprisingly good time — indeed, better time than carriages or even mounted men might have made over those winter-struck roads — behind the successive teams of six-limbed snow lizards the under-priest had arranged via the Church’s semaphore system.

    The snow lizards, unlike the sleighs’ passengers, hadn’t minded the icy temperatures and snow at all. Their multi-ply pelts provided near perfect insulation (not to mention, Coris had discovered at one of the posting houses in which they had overnighted, the most sinfully sensual rugs any man had ever walked barefoot across), and their huge feet, with the webs between their pads, carried them across even the deepest snow. They were considerably smaller than the mountain lizards used for draft purposes in more temperate climes, but they were close to twice the size of a good saddle horse. And while they would have found it difficult to match a horse in a sprint, they had all of lizardkind’s endurance, which meant they could maintain almost indefinitely a pace which would have quickly exhausted, or even killed, any horse.

    The snow lizards would have been perfectly happy padding along into the very teeth of a Wishbone Mountains blizzard. Assuming the wind had gotten too bad even for them, they would simply have curled up into enormous balls — two or three of them huddling together, whenever possible — and allowed the howling wind to cover them in a comfortable blanket of snow. Human beings, unfortunately, were somewhat more poorly insulated, and so, even with the snow lizards’ help, Coris and Tannyr had found themselves weather bound on three separate occasions — once for almost three days. Mostly, they’d used Church posting houses, since most of the inns (which seemed to be considerably larger than those to which Coris was accustomed) appeared to have closed their doors for the winter. Not surprisingly, he’d supposed, given how the weather had undoubtedly inspired all but the hardiest — or most lunatic — of travelers to stay home until spring. Even the posting houses had been both larger and rather more luxurious than he would have anticipated, but given the number of high-ranking churchmen who frequently traveled this route, he’d realized he shouldn’t have been particularly surprised by that discovery.

    The weather delays had been frustrating enough, despite the comfort of the posting houses, but the shortness of the winter days hadn’t helped, either, even though the snow lizards had been perfectly happy to keep going even in near total darkness. They’d stretched their travel time each day as far as they could, yet there’d been stretches — even in the sheltered and (relatively) low-lying Valley — where the roads had been far too sinuous, steep, and icy for anyone but an idiot to traverse them in darkness. Considering all that, the earl hadn’t been particularly surprised to find Tannyr’s original estimate of how long the trip would take had actually been a bit optimistic.

    Despite that, they’d finally reached Lakeview, once again (inevitably) in the middle of a dense snowfall. Night had already fallen by the time they arrived, and the ancient city’s buildings had seemed to huddle together, hunching shoulders and roofs against the weather. Many of the city’s windows had been shuttered against the cold, but the glow of lamplight streaming from others had turned the falling snowflakes into a dancing, swirling tapestry woven by invisible sprites. Their traveling sleighs had slowed dramatically once they reached Lakeview’s streets, yet the darkness and the weather had already urged most of the city’s inhabitants inside, and they’d quickly reached The Archangels’ Rest, the harborside inn where rooms had been reserved for them.

    It was a huge establishment, a full six stories tall, with palatial sleeping chambers and a full-fledged ground-floor restaurant. In fact, The Archangels’ Rest dwarfed anything Coris had ever seen in Corisande or even the largest of the out-sized inns they’d passed en route from Fairstock. For that matter, he was pretty sure it was larger than anything he’d ever seen anywhere, short of a cathedral in some capital city. It hardly seemed proper to describe it as a mere “inn,” and he supposed that was why someone had coined the word “hotel” to describe it, instead.

    At the moment, however, it was clearly operating with a much reduced staff. He’d mentioned that to Tannyr, and the under-priest had chuckled.

    “During the summer, the place is usually packed,” he’d explained. “In fact, they usually wish they had even more rooms to let. Didn’t you notice how much bigger the inns were along the highroad?” Coris had nodded, and Tannyr had shrugged. “Well, that because when everything’s not covered with ice and snow, there are usually thousands of pilgrims using the highroad to make their way to or from the Temple at any given time. All of them need someplace to spend the night, after all, and all the roads to Lake Pei from the south come together here, which makes Lakeview the lakeside terminus for anyone traveling to Zion or the Temple by road, just like Port Harbor is the major landfall for anyone traveling there by way of Hsing-wu’s Passage. Trust me, if you were here at midsummer, you’d swear every adult on Safehold was trying to get to the Temple . . . and that every one of them was trying to stay at the Rest. This time of year, the top three floors are completely closed down, though. For that matter, I’d be surprised if more than a third — or even a quarter — of the rooms which haven’t been closed for the winter are occupied at the moment.”

    “How in the world do they justify keeping it open at all, if they lose so much of their business during the winter?” Coris had asked.

    “Well, the quality of their restaurant helps a lot!” Tannyr had laughed. “Trust me, you’ll see that for yourself at supper. So they manage to keep their kitchen staff fully occupied, no matter what time of year it is. As for the rest” — he’d shrugged — “Mother Church has a partial ownership in the Rest, and the Temple Treasury helps subsidize expenses over the winter months. In fact, Mother Church has the same arrangement with quite a few of the larger inns and hotels here in Lakeview. And in Port Harbor, for that matter.”

    Coris had nodded in understanding. For that matter, he’d realized he should have thought of that possibility for himself. Obviously, the Church would have a powerful interest in providing housing for those performing the pilgrimage to the Temple enjoined upon all of the truly faithful by the Holy Writ.

    And, he’d thought just a bit more cynically, I’ll bet the profit the Treasury turns during the peak pilgrimage months is more than handsome enough to cover the costs of keeping the places open year-round.

    However that might have been, he’d been forced to admit The Archangels’ Rest had provided the most comfortable and luxurious travel accommodations he’d ever encountered, and the contrast between it and the conditions they’d endured all too frequently elsewhere during their rigorous journey had been profound. He was certain that few of the hotel’s other suites were quite as luxurious as the ones to which he and Tannyr had been escorted, and the restaurant had been just as excellent as Tannyr had promised. In fact, Coris had found himself wishing rather wistfully that they could have spent more than a single night as its guests.

    Unfortunately, he’d known they couldn’t, and he’d tried to project an air of cheerful acceptance as he followed Tannyr down to the docks the next morning. From the under-priest’s obvious amusement, it had been clear he’d failed to fool the other man, but despite Tannyr’s lively sense of humor (and the ridiculous), he’d managed somehow to refrain from teasing his charge.

    Coris had appreciated the under-priest’s forbearance and he suspected that his reaction when he finally set eyes on Hornet for the first time had constituted a sort of reward for Tannyr’s patience.

    He’d actually stopped dead, gazing at the iceboat in astonishment. Despite all the descriptions he’d heard, he hadn’t been prepared for the reality when he saw the rakish vessel sitting there on the gleaming steel feet of its huge, skate-like runners. The mere thought of how much each of those runners must have cost was enough to give a man pause, especially if the man in question had first-hand experience in things like foundry costs because he’d recently been involved in an effort to build a galleon-based, cannon-armed navy from scratch. Again, though, he’d realized, he was looking at an example of the Church’s enormous financial resources.

    Iceboats like Hornet weren’t just exorbitantly expensive. They were also highly specialized propositions, and their sole function was to cross Lake Pei after the enormous sheet of water had frozen solid. It was almost four hundred and fifty miles from Lakeview to Zion, and every year, when winter truly set in, the lake became only marginally navigable. Indeed, once it had fully iced over, it was completely closed to normal shipping, and iceboats became the only way in or out of Zion. They couldn’t begin to carry the amount of cargo conventional ships could, so a vast fleet would have been required to ship in any significant supply of foodstuffs or fuel, which meant neither Zion nor the Temple could count on importing large amounts of either from their usual southern sources after the lake had begun freezing in earnest. But at least some freight — mostly luxury goods — and quite a few passengers still needed to cross, regardless of the season. And Mother Church had a monopoly where iceboat ownership was concerned.

    Hornet herself looked a great deal like a Church courier galley on enormous skates. There were some differences, yet her courier ship ancestry had been clearly recognizable. And made some sense, Coris had supposed, given that there were occasions — especially early in the ice season — when, as Tannyr had suggested, it wasn’t unheard of for one of the iceboats to encounter a still-open lead of unfrozen lake water. Or, for that matter, to rather abruptly discover that a sheet of ice was thinner than it had appeared. The ability to float in an instance like that was undoubtedly a good thing to have.



    Coris had never heard of something a native of Old Terra would have called a “hydrofoil,” but in many respects, that would have been a reasonable analogue for what he was looking at. Hornet’s outriggers extended much further beyond the footprint of her hull, because unlike a hydrofoil, they had to plane across the surface of the ice, rather than relying on hydrodynamics for stability. Aside from that, however, the principle was very much the same, and as he’d looked at the iceboat’s lean, rakish grace, he’d realized Hahlys Tannyr was exactly the right sort of man to captain such a vessel. In his case, at least, the Church had slipped a round peg neatly into an equally round hole, and Coris had found himself wondering just how typical of the Lake Pei iceboat captains Tannyr truly was.

    The under-priest’s pride in his command had been readily apparent, and the earl’s obvious admiration — or awe, at least — had clearly gratified him. His crew’s cheerfulness at seeing him had also been apparent, and they’d gotten Coris, Seablanket, and their baggage moved aboard and settled quickly.

    “The wind looks good for a fast passage, My Lord,” Tannyr had told him as the two of them stood on Hornet’s deck, looking out across the frozen harbor. Despite the snow which had fallen overnight, wind had kept the ice scoured clear, and Coris had been able to see the scars of other iceboats’ passages leading across the wide, dark sheet of ice and out through the opening in the Lakeview breakwater. At the moment, there had seemed to be very little breeze stirring at dockside, however, and he’d quirked an eyebrow at the under-priest.

    “Oh, I know there’s not much wind right here,” Tannyr had replied with a grin. “Out beyond the breakwater, though, once we get out of Lakeview’s lee . . . Trust me, My Lord — there’s plenty of wind out there!”

    “I’m quite prepared to believe it,” Coris had replied. “But just how do we get from here to there?”

    “Courtesy of those, My Lord.” Tannyr had waved a hand, and when Coris turned in the indicated direction, he’d seen a team of at least thirty snow lizards headed for them. “They’ll tow us out far enough to catch the breeze,” Tannyr had said confidently. “It’ll seem like that takes forever, but once we do, I promise, you’ll think we’re flying.”



    Now, remembering the under-priest’s promise, Coris decided Tannyr had been right.

    The earl had declined Tannyr’s offer to go below to the shelter of Hornet’s day cabin. He’d thought he’d seen approval for his decision in the under-priest’s eyes, and Tannyr had entrusted him to the charge of a grizzled old seaman — or was that properly “iceman,” Coris had wondered? — with instructions to find the earl a safe spot from which to experience the journey.

    The “tow” away from the docks hadn’t been nearly as laborious-seeming an affair as Tannyr’s description might have suggested. That could have been because Coris had never before experienced it and so had no backlog of wonder-dulling familiarity to overcome. Unlike Tannyr and his crew, he’d been seeing it for the very first time, and he’d watched in fascination as the snow lizards were jockeyed into position. It had been obvious the lizards had done this many times before. They and their drovers had moved with a combination of smooth experience and patience, and heavy chains and locking pins had clanked musically behind the frothing surface of commands and encouragement as the heavy traces were attached to specialized towing brackets on Hornet’s prow. Given the complexity of the task, they’d accomplished it in a remarkably short time, and then — encouraged by much louder shouts — the snow lizards had leaned into their collars with the peculiar, hoarse, almost barking whistles of effort with which Coris had become familiar over the last month or so. For a moment, the iceboat had refused to move. Then the runners had broken free of the ice and she’d begun to slide gracefully after the straining snow lizards.

    Once they’d had her in motion, she’d moved easily enough, and as they’d eased steadily away from the docks, Coris had felt the first, icy fingers of the freshening breeze which Tannyr had promised waited for them out on the lake. It had taken them the better part of three-quarters of an hour to get far enough out to satisfy Tannyr, but then the snow lizards had been unhooked, the senior drover had waved cheerfully, and the tow team had headed back to Lakeview.

    Coris had watched them go, but only until crisp-voiced commands from the cramped quarterdeck had sent Hornet’s crew to their stations for making sail. The closer-to-hand fascination of those preparations had drawn his attention away from the departing snow lizards, and he’d watched as the iceboat’s lateen sail was loosed. In some ways, his familiarity with conventional ships had only made the process even more bizarre. Despite the fact that his brain knew there were probably hundreds of feet of water underneath them, he hadn’t been able to shake the sense of standing on dry land, and there’d been an oddly dreamlike quality to watching sailors scurrying about a ship’s deck when the gleaming ice had stretched out as far as the eye could see with rock-steady solidity.

    But if he’d felt that way, he’d obviously been the only one on Hornet’s deck who did. Or perhaps the others had simply been too busy to worry about such fanciful impressions. And they’d certainly known their business. That much had been clear as the sail was loosed. The canvas had complained, flapping heavily in the stiff breeze whistling across the decks, and Hornet had stirred underfoot, as if the iceboat were shivering with eagerness. Then the sail had been sheeted home, the yard had been trimmed, and she’d begun to move.

    Slowly, at first, with a peculiar grating and yet sibilant sound from her runners. The motion underfoot had been strange, vibrating through the deck planking with a strength and a . . . hardness Coris had never experienced aboard any waterborne vessel. That wasn’t exactly the right way to describe it, but Coris hadn’t been able to think of a better one, and he’d reached out, touching the rail, feeling that same vibration shivering throughout the vessel’s entire fabric and dancing gently in his own bones.

    The iceboat had gathered way slowly, in the beginning, but as she’d slid steadily farther out of Lakeview’s wind shadow, she’d begun to accelerate steadily. More quickly, in fact, than any galley or galleon, and Coris had felt his lips pursing in sudden understanding. He should have thought of it before, he’d realized, when Tannyr first described Hornet’s speed to him. On her runners, the iceboat avoided the enormous drag water resistance imposed on a normal ship’s submerged hull. Of course she accelerated more rapidly . . . and without that selfsame drag, she’d have to be much faster in any given set of wind conditions.

    Which was exactly what she’d proven to be.



    “Enjoying yourself, My Lord?”

    Hahlys Tannyr had to practically bellow in Coris’ ear for the question to be heard over the slithering roar of the runners. Coris hadn’t noticed him approaching — he’d been too busy staring ahead, clinging to the rail while his eyes sparkled with delight — and he turned quickly to meet Hornet’s captain’s gaze.

    “Oh, I certainly am, Father!” the earl shouted back. “I’m afraid I didn’t really believe you when you told me how fast she was! She must be doing — what? Forty miles an hour?”

    “Not in this wind, My Lord.” Tannyr shook his head. “She’s fast, but it would take at least a full gale to move her that quickly! We might be making thirty, though.”

    Coris had no choice but to take the under-priest’s word for it. And, he admitted, he himself had no experience at judging speeds this great.

    “I’m surprised it doesn’t feel even colder than it does!” he commented, and Tannyr had smiled.

    “We’re sailing with the wind, My Lord. That reduces the apparent wind speed across the deck a lot. Trust me, if we were beating up to windward, you’d feel it then!”

    “No doubt I would.” The earl shook his head. “And I’ll take your word for our speed. But I never imagined that anything could move this quickly — especially across a solid surface like this!”

    “It helps that the ice is as smooth as it is out here,” Tannyr replied.

    He waved one arm, indicating the ice around them, then pointed at yet another of the flagstaffs, all set upright in the lake’s frozen surface and supporting flags of one color or another, which Horent had been passing at regular intervals since leaving Lakeside.

    “See that?” he asked, and the earl nodded. This particular staff boasted a green flag, and Tannyr grinned. “Green indicates smooth ice ahead, My Lord,” he said. “Only a fool trusts the flags completely — that’s why we keep a good lookout.” He twitched his head at a distinctly frozen-looking man perched in Hornet’s crow’s-nest. “Still, the survey crews do a good job of keeping the flags updated. We should see yellow warning flags well before we come up on ridge-ice, and the ridges themselves will be red-flagged. And the flags also provide our piloting marks — like harbor buoys — for the crossing.”

    “How in Langhorne’s name do they get the flags planted in the first place?” Coris half-shouted the question through the exuberant roar of their passage, and Tannyr’s grin grew even broader.

    “Not too hard, really, once the ice sets up nice and hard, My Lord! They just chop a hole, stand the staff in it, then let it re-freeze!”

    “But how do they keep the staff from just keeping going right down into the water?”

    “It sits in a hollow bracket with crossbars,” Tannyr replied, waving his hands as if to illustrate what he was saying. “The brackets are iron, about three feet tall, with two pairs of crossbars, set at right angles about half way along their length. They bars are a lot longer than the width of the hole, and they sit on top of the ice, holding the bracket in position while the hole freezes back over. Then they just step the flagstaff in the bracket. When we get closer to spring, they’ll buoy each bracket to keep it from sinking when the ice melts, so they can recover them and use them again next winter.”

    Coris nodded in understanding, and the two of them stood side by side for several minutes, watching the ice blur past as Hornet slashed onward. Then Tannyr stirred.

    “Assuming my speed estimate’s accurate — and I modestly admit that I’m actually very good at estimating that sort of thing, My Lord — we’re still a good eleven or twelve hours out from Zion,” he said. “Normally, I’d be guessing even longer than that, but the weather’s clear, and we’ll have a full moon tonight, so we’re not going to have to reduce speed as much when we lose the daylight. But while I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself up here, you might want to think about going below and getting something hot to drink. To be honest, I’d really like to get you delivered unfrozen, and we’ll be coming up on lunch in another couple of hours, as well, for that matter.”

    “I’d prefer arriving unfrozen myself, I think,” Coris replied. “But I’d really hate to miss any of this!”

    He waved both arms, indicating the sunlight, the deck around them, the mast with its straining sail braced sharply, and the glittering ice chips showering away from the steadily grating runners as they tore through the bright (although undeniably icy) morning.

    “I know. And I’m not trying to order you below, My Lord!” Tannyr laughed out loud. “To be honest, I’d be a bit hypocritical if I did, given how much I enjoy it up here on deck! But you might want to be thinking ahead. And don’t forget, you’ve got a full day of this to look forward to. Believe me, if you think it’s exhilarating right now, wait till you see it by moonlight!”

Home Page Index Page




Previous Page Next Page

Page Counter Image