A Mighty Fortress – Snippet 37


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.