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Beyond the Gap

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Beyond the Gap

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Author: Harry Turtledove
Publisher: Tor, 2007
Series: Opening of the World: Book 1

1. Beyond the Gap
2. The Breath of God
3. The Golden Shrine

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Count Hamnet Thyssen is a minor noble of the drowsy old Raumsdalian Empire. Its capital city, Nidaros, began as a mammoth hunters' camp at the edge of the great Glacier. But that was centuries ago, and as everyone knows, it's the nature of the great Glacier to withdraw a few feet every year. Now Nidaros is an old and many-spired city; and though they still feel the breath of the great Glacier in every winter's winds, the ice cap itself has retreated beyond the horizon.

Trasamund, a clan chief of the mammoth-herding Bizogots, the next tribe north, has come to town with strange news. A narrow gap has opened in what they'd always thought was an endless and impregnable wall of ice. The great Glacier does not go on forever--and on its other side are new lands, new animals, and possibly new people.

Ancient legend says that on the other side is the Golden Shrine, put there by the gods to guard the people of their world. Now, perhaps, the road to the legendary Golden Shrine is open. Who could resist the urge to go see?

For Count Hamnet and his several companions, the glacier has always been the boundary of the world. Now they'll be travelling beyond it into a world that's bigger than anyone knew. Adventures will surely be had...


Chapter One

When the wind blew down from the north, Nidaros felt as if the Glacier had never gone away. Two thousand years before, the spired city that ruled the Raumsdalian Empire was a mammoth-hunting camp at the southeastern corner of Hevring Lake, the great accumulation of meltwater at--or rather, just beyond--the southern edge of the Glacier.

Hevring Lake was centuries gone now. Whatever had dammed its outlet to the west finally let go, and the great basin emptied in a couple of dreadful days. The scoured badlands of the Western Marches were the scarred reminders of that flood.

The Glacier had fallen back, too. New meltwater lakes farther north marked its retreating border. These days, farmers raised oats and rye and even barley in what they called Hevring Basin. No wild mammoths had been seen anywhere near Nidaros for generations. They followed the ice north. Sometimes, though, mastodons would lumber out of the forest to raid the fields.

Back when Nidaros lived by mammoth ivory and mammoth hides and rendered mammoth fat and dried mammoth flesh, no one would have imagined forests by Hevring Lake. The Glacier was strong then, and its grip on the weather even stronger. That was tundra country in those days, frozen hard forever beneath a frosty sky. So it seemed all those years ago, anyhow.

Now, as Count Hamnet Thyssen rode up toward Nidaros, he thought about how the world changed while men weren't looking. He was a big, dark, heavyset man who rode a big, dark, heavyset horse. Over his mail he wore a jacket of dire-wolf hides, closed tight against that cold north wind. The head from a sabertooth skin topped his helm. The beast was posed so its fangs jutted forward instead of dropping down in front of his eyes.

His thoughts were as slow and ponderous as his body. Many other men would get where they were going faster than he did, whether the journey was by land or over the stormy seas of thought. But if the way got rough, or if it petered out altogether, many other men would turn back in dismay. Count Hamnet carried on... and on, and on. Sooner or later, he got where he was going.

And much good it's done me, he thought sourly. His left hand, mittened in bearskin against the wind, rose to scratch at the white streak in his thick black beard. But for that streak, the beard would have hidden the great scar seaming the left side of his jaw.

He muttered under his breath. Fog puffed from his mouth and his great prow of a nose. If he'd thought faster ten years ago, he would have realized sooner that his wife was betraying him. If he'd thought faster, he might even have found a way to make her not want to betray him. And if he'd moved faster in the world, her laughing lover never would have been able to lay his face open like that.

The other man was dead.

So was his love--or so he kept telling himself, anyhow. He would have taken Gudrid back. She didn't want to come. Where she'd left him secretly before, she left him openly then. And he'd never found anyone he cared about since.

He muttered again. Gudrid and Eyvind Torfinn lived in Nidaros--one more reason Hamnet stayed in his cold stone keep out on the eastern frontier as much as he could. But when the Emperor summoned, Count Hamnet came. Sigvat II was a man for whom disobedience and rebellion meant the same thing.

As Hamnet neared Nidaros' gray stone walls, he had to rein in to let a merchant caravan come out through the South Gate. Horses and mules and two-humped hairy camels were laden with the products of the north. Some carried mammoth tusks. Others bore horns cut from the carcasses of woolly rhinos. Many in the south--and not a few in the Raumsdalian Empire--believed rhinoceros horn helped a man's virility. What people believed often turned out to be true just because they believed it. Charlatans and mages were quick to take advantage of that. Which was which... Hamnet Thyssen shook his head. He doubted there was any firm dividing line.

Baled hides burdened other beasts. Still others bore baskets and bundles that hid their contents. A few horses hauled carts behind them. The ungreased axles squealed. The carts bumped up and down as their wheels jounced in the ruts.

Merchants rode with the animals. Some were plump and prosperous, with karakul hats and long coats of otter or marten over tunics and baggy breeches tucked into boots of buttery-soft leather or, more often, of felt. Others were accoutered more like Hamnet Thyssen--they were men ready to fight to keep what they owned.

And the caravan had a proper fighting tail of guards, too. Inside the Empire, they were probably--probably--so much swank, but beyond the borders bandit troops thrived. Some of the guards were Raumsdalians in chainmail like Hamnet's, armed with bows and slashing swords. Others were blond Bizogot mercenaries out of the north. The lancers looked as if they would rather be herding mammoths than riding horses. Even though they were many and he only one, they gave him hard stares as they rode past. Their cold blue eyes reminded him of the Glacier in whose shadow they dwelt.

He rode through the South Gate himself once the caravan came forth. A guard stepped out into the middle of the roadway to block his path. With upraised hand, the fellow said, "Who are you, and what is your business in the capital?" He sounded like what he was--an underofficer puffed up with his own petty authority. Most men coming into Nidaros would have had to bow and scrape before him. They might have had to grease his palm before he let them pass, too. No wonder he was puffed up, then.

The count looked down his long nose at the gate guard. "I am Hamnet Thyssen," he said quietly. "I have an appointment with his Majesty."

"Oh!" The gate guard stumbled back, all but tripping over his own feet. "P--P--Pass on, your Grace!" Petty authority punctured, he deflated like a pricked pig's bladder.

At another time--or, more likely, were he another man--that would have made Count Hamnet laugh. Here, now, he just felt sad. Without another word, he booted his horse forward and rode into smoky, smelly Nidaros.

He hadn't gone more than a few feet forward before a man sitting on horseback in front of a tavern rode out alongside him. "Good day, Count Hamnet," the rider said, his voice a light, musical tenor. "God grant you long years."

"I don't know you." Hamnet's eyes narrowed as he surveyed the foxy-faced newcomer. The crow's-feet at their corners deepened and darkened when he did. He shook his head. "No. Wait. Ulric Skakki, or I'm a Bizogot. Forgive me. It's been a few years." He pulled off his right mitten and held out his hand.

Ulric Skakki had an infectious grin. As he clasped hands with Count Hamnet, he said, "Don't worry about it, your Grace. I'm not offended. D'you think I'm a Bizogot?"

He might have been a lot of things. Though he spoke Raumsdalian perfectly, he might well not have been a native of the Empire. But a truculent mammoth-herder from the fringes of the Glacier? That, never.

Count Hamnet started forward. "Forgive me, but I have business in the city."

"I know," Ulric said. "I was waiting for you. I have the same business, you see."

"Do you?" Hamnet eyed him suspiciously. "With... ?" He didn't finish. His hand slipped toward the basket hilt of his sword. The basket was big enough to let him wield the blade even with a mitten. If Ulric Skakki didn't give him the right answer... Well, no matter what sort of trick the other man had in mind, he wouldn't profit from it.

But Ulric Skakki nodded. "Yes, with the Emperor."

Count Hamnet's hand retreated, not quite so smoothly as it had advanced. He hadn't known Sigvat had summoned anyone else. But, since he still didn't know why the Emperor had summoned him, he couldn't be surprised his Majesty had also called someone else. And Ulric was a man of parts, no doubt about it. Just what the parts added up to... Yes, that was a different question.

"Let's go, then," Hamnet said roughly, and rode on into Nidaros.

"Yes, let's." Ulric Skakki's voice was mild as milk, sweet as honey. He rode beside Hamnet as if he had not a care in the world. Maybe he didn't. Some men were born without a conscience, or perhaps had it sorcerously removed. Count Hamnet's still worked all too well, however much he wished it didn't.

Nidaros... Nidaros was worse than a maze, for a maze bespoke intelligent design. Nidaros was a jumble, surely the place where the the phrase You can't get there from here was born--and where it had flourished mightily ever since. Nidaros' streets and lanes and alleys twisted back on one another, worse than a mammoth's bowels in the cavern of its belly.

The imperial capital was an old town, an old, old town, which helped account for that. New cities farther south had their streets arranged in neat grids, some running northeast and southeast, others northwest and southwest. Strangers could find their way around in them with the greatest of ease. Hamnet Thyssen knew that was true; he'd done it. By the time a man learned to navigate all the quarters of Nidaros, he was commonly too old to get around with ease. You steered by smell as much as any other way. The Street of the Perfumers ran not far from the palace. The butchers' and dyers' districts gave the southern part of town, through which Hamnet and Ulric Skakki rode now, a different sort of pungency.

Because those districts were in the southern part of town, the wind from the Glacier blew their stinks away more often than not. The Glacier... The great shield over the north of the world... You couldn't see it from Nidaros any more, as you had been able to in ancient days, but its might, though somewhat lessened, still lingered. And the Glacier, and the wind from the Glacier, was the other reason Nidaros' streets behaved the way they did.

No one wanted to give the wind from the Glacier a running start. It was bad enough without one. Narrow, winding streets helped blunt its force. Nothing could stop it. Nothing could defeat it. The Bizogots, who lived and hunted out in the open far to the north of Nidaros, called it the Breath of God. Hamnet Thyssen had no love for most Bizogots, nor they for him, but he could not quarrel with them over the name.

No, you couldn't beat the wind. If you weren't a Bizogot, if you dwelt within the marches of the Raumsdalian Empire, you did what you could to blunt it. Streets twisted. Houses stood tall, and almost shoulder to shoulder. Their steep-pitched roofs helped shed snow. Windows were small and slitlike, to hold heat in. No house, no shop, in Nidaros had a north-facing doorway. Walls unlucky enough to face north were almost always blank. Where owners could afford it, they were double, to put a dead-air space between living and working quarters and the ravening wind.

Rich people on the street wore furs. The richer the man or woman, the richer--and the warmer--the fur. Poor folk made do with wool. Folk too poor to keep their capes and cloaks and greatcoats in good repair didn't last long, not in Nidaros.

"Why do you suppose the Emperor wants us?" Ulric Skakki asked after a long and not very companionable silence.

"Well, it's not for our looks," Count Hamnet answered. Ulric Skakki blinked, then laughed loud and merrily enough to make heads turn up and down the cobbled street.

Hamnet had tried to stay away from Nidaros since Gudrid started her wandering ways. He still knew how to get around the city, in a rough sort of way, but he wasn't as confident as he had been once upon a time. He found himself letting Ulric Skakki take the lead. The foxy-faced man didn't hesitate. He might be wrong, but he wasn't in doubt.

And he turned out not to be wrong, either. Hamnet Thyssen's nose told him as much even before he caught sight of the towers of the imperial palace above the rooftops. If you smelled musk and sandalwood from distant shores and rosewater in the air, you were close to the Street of Perfumers, and if you were close to the Street of Perfumers you were also close to the palace.

A deep ditch surrounded the palace's thick walls. It wasn't for storing snow, though it sometimes filled during the winter. It was, literally, the last ditch. If, God forbid, an enemy broke into Nidaros, the palace could serve as a citadel till rescuers arrived.

Or, chances are, till it falls, Count Hamnet thought morosely. Chances were that piercing the heart of the Raumsdalian Empire would kill it. Being as sensitive about omens as any less gloomy man, he held that thought to himself.

A drawbridge spanned the ditch. Guards at the outer end of the bridge lowered their spears to horizontal to bar the way. "Halt!" their sergeant called. "Who comes?"

Count Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki gave their names. "We are expected," Ulric added.

"We'll just see about that." The sentry produced a scrap of parchment and, lips moving, read through the list on it. He might have been cousin to the man Count Hamnet encountered at the South Gate--nothing was official till he said it was. In due course, he did. He nodded to his comrades, who raised their spears. "Pass on!" he said. Horses' hooves booming on the planks of the drawbridge, Hamnet and Ulric Skakki rode on.

On the far side of the bridge, unarmed attendants took charge of the newcomers' horses. Armed attendants relieved them of their weapons. Hamnet Thyssen surrendered his sword, his dagger, and a holdout knife in his right boot. Ulric Skakki wore his holdout knife in his left boot, which reminded Hamnet he was dangerous with either hand. He'd forgotten that about the other man.

After the guardsmen disarmed them, a mage came up with a knife carved of wood. He held it in his left hand and made passes with his right all the while, murmuring a spell. The language of the charm was older, far older, than Raumsdalian, itself not a young speech. The wizard used it by rote--only a vanishing handful of scholars spoke it with understanding.

Rote or not, the charm served its purpose. The wizard suddenly stopped and stiffened. He pointed to Ulric Skakki. "On his right arm!" he exclaimed.

Growling like dire wolves, the attendants seized Hamnet's companion. Sure enough, he carried a stiletto, slim but deadly, in a sheath strapped to his right forearm. "What do you have to say for yourself, wretch?" a guardsman growled, the tip of his sword at Ulric's throat.

"That among other things I am charged with ensuring that his Majesty's safety is everything it ought to be," Ulric Skakki answered. "Speak with the first minister. Use my name. If he does not confirm it, drink my blood." He sounded as calm as if haggling over buttered oatcakes.

One of the attendants hurried away. The others stayed ready to slay Ulric Skakki on the instant. Count Hamnet watched Ulric out of the corner of his eye. Even if the first minister vouched for the other man, that could mean one of two things. Maybe Ulric was telling the truth. Or maybe he and the first minister were plotting against the Emperor together.

In due course, the attendant returned. "It is as this fellow says," he said, an unhappy expression on his face. "He is one of Lord Dragnar's agents."

Hamnet wondered if he ought to speak up. Before he could, the chief guardsman said, "Oh, he is, is he? Well, let's strip him, then, and see what else he's carrying."

They didn't just peel Ulric Skakki's clothes off him. They examined him much more intimately than Hamnet Thyssen would have cared to be searched. And they found a couple of sharp-edged throwing disks that could double as armlets, as well as a long, sturdy pin--all objects that escaped the notice of the usual search spell.

By the scars that seamed Ulric Skakki's arms and legs and torso, he'd done more fighting than Count Hamnet would have guessed. By the nasty smile on his face, the guards hadn't found everything. To him, that seemed more important than standing there naked and shivering in the hallway.

That nasty smile goaded Sigvat II's attendants, as no doubt it was meant to do. At last, in a seam of Ulric Skakki's jacket, they found a nasty little saw-edged blade. "All right, now you've got all of it," Ulric Skakki said. "Can I have my clothes back? It's bloody cold."

"Get dressed," the chief guardsman said. "If it was up to me..." He didn't say exactly what would happen then. Whatever it was, Count Hamnet didn't think he would want it to happen to him.

Ulric Skakki dressed without another word. If he'd told the attendants and the wizard they should have done a better job of protecting the Emperor, they would have found ways to make him--and, incidentally, Count Hamnet Thyssen--sorry for it. As things were, he projected an air of silent reproach that also had to set their teeth on edge.

"Come with me," one of the attendants said when Ulric had his clothes on again.

On they went. The maze of corridors and passageways inside the palace was nearly as confusing as the maze of streets and lanes and alleys outside. Though Count Hamnet had not come here for years, he found his bump of direction still worked. "This isn't the way to the throne room," he said sharply.

"No, it's not, your Grace," the attendant agreed. "But it is the way to his Majesty's private chambers."

"Oh," Count Hamnet said, startled. In all the years he'd come to the palace, he'd been to the Emperor's private chambers only once or twice. "Can you tell me what this is about?" he asked. Whatever it was, it bore even more weight than he'd thought when the order calling him away from his castle arrived.

The attendant shook his head. "Whatever it is, his Majesty will tell you what you need to know."

Hamnet muttered as he tramped along. He had always been a man for whom the Emperor's word was the be-all and end-all in life. Now he found himself dissatisfied with having to wait for it. A slight smile pulled up the corners of Ulric Skakki's mouth, almost, it seemed, in spite of themselves. Hamnet scowled at him, thinking, So you know that about me, do you?

Ulric Skakki looked back blandly, the little smile still on his face, as if to say, Well, what if I do? Hamnet trudged ahead. He didn't like other people understanding him so well, being able to think along with him. Gudrid had taught him the hard way how dangerous that could be.

Not that he was in any great danger of falling in love with Ulric Skakki. The first thing you had to do around Ulric was keep your hands in your pockets, or else they'd get picked. And how could you love anyone you couldn't trust? Gudrid had taught him the folly of that, too. By comparison, Ulric's being of the wrong gender seemed a thing of little weight.

A palace servitor fed more charcoal into a brazier. Braziers and fireplaces scattered through the enormous building heated it... somewhat. Hamnet hadn't walked five paces past this brazier before a frigid breeze slithered down the back of his neck. Maybe that was just as well. In places sealed too tightly against the cold, men sometimes lay down by braziers and never got up again. Not even wizards knew why that happened, but no one doubted that it did.

"Wait here," the attendant told Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki. The man ducked through a doorway. Hamnet could hear him speaking to someone inside, but couldn't make out his words.

"Yes, yes. Send them in. I've been waiting for them, haven't I?" Count Hamnet had no trouble hearing that, nor in recognizing Sigvat II's voice. Emperors often had less cause to exercise discretion than ordinary mortals did.

Out came the attendant. He gestured to Hamnet and Ulric Skakki. They followed him into the chamber. Rather than on his throne, Sigvat II sat on an ordinary three-legged pine stool. Hamnet Thyssen, being of noble blood, dropped to one knee before his sovereign. Ulric Skakki fell to both knees--he was only a commoner.

A tall, blond Bizogot stood in the room, his back to the fireplace. His blue eyes blazed contempt; Bizogots bent the knee before God, but to no living man. This nomad from the northern steppe wore a cape made from the skin of a short-faced bear. That meant he'd killed the animal himself--Bizogot men would not use hides from beasts they had not slain. And anyone who'd killed a short-faced bear would not be likely to have much trouble with mere men.

The Emperor broke into Count Hamnet's thoughts, saying, "Rise, gentlemen." Hamnet's knee clicked as he got to his feet--one more reminder he wasn't as young as he used to be. Ulric Skakki rose as smoothly as if dipped in bear grease. Hamnet wished he hadn't had that thought; it made his eyes travel to the formidable-looking Bizogot again. The man scowled at him.

Instead of scowling back at the barbarian, Count Hamnet asked Sigvat, "How may we serve you, your Majesty?" However he and Ulric Skakki were to serve, it would involve the Bizogot in some way. The man wouldn't be here otherwise. Hamnet found the prospect less than delightful--quite a bit less, in fact--but knew he couldn't do anything about it.

"There is news from the north," the Emperor said, which was anything but a surprise. Though Hamnet Thyssen would never have said such a thing, he'd long thought Sigvat II had a gift for the obvious. Sigvat was unlikely to go down in history as one of the great Raumsdalian Emperors. No one five hundred years from now would speak of him in the same breath as Domaldi the Conqueror or Faxi Blood-Hand or even Smiling Solveig, who hadn't been much of a general--or, indeed, much of an Emperor--but who'd passed away in circumstances that proved his personal popularity.

"And what is the news from the north, your Majesty?" Ulric Skakki asked when the Emperor didn't go on right away.

Sigvat II looked a trifle miffed at being pushed, but he seldom looked more than a trifle miffed; he was a good-natured man. His face, round and bland, suggested as much. But Hamnet Thyssen saw something in Sigvat's eyes he'd never even imagined there before. Was it fear or awe or a bit of both? He couldn't be sure; it was too unfamiliar.

"I think," Sigvat said, "I had better let Trasamund here give it to you. He found it, and he is the man who brought it to Nidaros. Trasamund," he added, "is jarl of the Three Tusk clan of the Bizogots."

"Jarl?" Hamnet Thyssen said in surprise. "The clan chief came here himself?" He spoke to the Emperor, not to the Bizogot.

"I am the clan chief, and I came here myself," Trasamund said in excellent Raumsdalian. He looked from Count Hamnet to Ulric Skakki and back again. "Do the two of you know my clan?" He used the dual number, implying Hamnet and Ulric were a natural pair. That insulted Count Hamnet; by the pained look on Ulric Skakki's face, he liked it none too well, either.

Ulric Skakki's expression also said he knew something of the Three Tusk clan. Before he could parade his knowledge, Count Hamnet beat him to the punch. "I do," he said, stressing that I ever so slightly. "You dwell in the farthest north, up against the Glacier as close as any folk may go."

Trasamund grunted and nodded. Had the Raumsdalians not heard of the Three Tusk clan, that would have been a deadly insult--though few men this far south in the Raumsdalian Empire troubled to tell one barbarous band from another. Since Hamnet Thyssen and Ulric Skakki did know of his clan and its place in the fierce, frigid Bizogot scheme of things, the jarl accepted their knowledge as no less than his due.

"Knowing who we are and our position, then, you will know also that we travel up the Gap as far as we may," Trasamund rumbled.

"It only stands to reason," Hamnet Thyssen said, and Ulric Skakki nodded.

For long and long and long, the Glacier that capped the north of the world had been a single vast sheet. Scholars claimed it was three miles thick in spots. Count Hamnet had no idea how they knew, or how they thought they knew, but he wasn't prepared to call them liars. He'd seen the edge of the Glacier himself, on journeys among the Bizogots. Those shining cliffs seemed to climb forever.

When the edge stood not far north of Nidaros, in the days before the Raumsdalian Empire rose to greatness, the Glacier had still been a single sheet. But, as it drew back over the centuries that followed, it drew back not straight north, but to the northeast and the northwest. Thus what Raumsdalians called the Gap--a narrow stretch of bare ground between the two lobes of the Glacier. The Bizogots used a word with the same literal meaning but much earthier associations.

Copyright © 2007 by Harry Turtledove


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