In the Bleak Midwinter

Do they celebrate Christmas in the ramshackle world of Mortal Engines?  Well, they do and they don't: there are enclaves and households where the Christian festival is still celebrated, but most of the towns and cities which roam the Hunting Ground have new gods and new religions.  Winters can be long and grim, however, especially in the north, and almost everybody sets aside a day in the depths of December when lamps are lit, songs sung, gifts exchanged, and far too much food eaten.  Aboard London this festival is known as Quirkemas: others call it Yule or Winterval.  For most, it is simply Midwinter, and here is a short story about it.  Many thanks to Sarah McIntyre for producing beautiful illustrations at astonishing speed.  Actually, I probably wouldn't have written it at all if it hadn't been for Sarah's encouragement, and the closing image is entirely hers, so in a way the whole thing is a Reeve/McIntyre collaboration - the first of many, I hope.

Shrike was dead: to begin with.  Dead as a doornail.  The girl had known that since she first saw his stark, white, armoured face staring down at her.  But thanks to the machineries and miracles the old-time folk had stuffed his carcass with, he could still move faster than her. She had to trot to keep up with him as he strode up the steep western face of the bluff.  Snow lay deep there, scrunching and squeaking under her boot-heels as she stumbled along in the old Stalker’s tracks.  As long as she kept setting her feet down in the deep prints he’d left she could manage; each time she strayed off his path she found herself floundering thigh-deep in drifts.

They’d been on a long trip, Shrike and the girl.  They’d been hunting a fugitive named Lardy Ampersand who’d robbed a bank aboard the traction town of Twyne.  Ampersand had fled into the Out Country, and the mayor of Twyne hadn’t bothered sending good men after him.  He just called in Shrike, the best and most feared of all the bounty killers, and Shrike had tracked the robber half way to the Westersea, with the girl following.  Now they were heading back to Twyne with Lardy’s head in a bag slung from Shrike’s belt.  For the first few miles of their hike the bag had seeped and dripped, leaving red splotches like a trail of poppies on the snow.  The blood had long since dried or frozen, though.  Twyne had moved on, and Shrike and the girl had been following its wheel-marks for a week.

The day was fading now.  A lavender twilight lay over the snowfields, and the air was sharp.  Above the hill’s curve a big planet shone, or maybe it was one of those left-over space-castles from the olden times.  The girl had stopped feeling her feet a long way back, but deep in her pockets her clenched hands burned cold.  Her face hurt too, but then her face hurt always. It was barely a face at all, riven in two by some dreadful blow - she did not remember the circumstances - which had left her with one eye, no nose to speak of, and a twisted mouth which was having to learn new ways to eat, and drink, and make words.

The girl’s name was Hester.  Shrike had found her that summer, washed up with the weed and driftwood on some Westersea beach.  Nobody knew why he had taken her in, least of all Shrike himself, a stone-cold killer with weirdy old-tech whirring and glowing where his heart should be.  Something about that ruined, thrown-away child had touched him.  He’d untangled her from the sea-wrack and kept her with him ever since.

He reached the top of the bluff and stopped there.  Hester caught up with him.  She stood at his side and looked east, and there was Twyne, rumbling away from them across the frozen marshes with long black bundles of exhaust smoke blowing sideways from its stacks like lumpy pennants.  It was moving slow, but not so slow that Hester could catch it without running.  She sagged at the thought of running, the weariness of her long walk coming down on her like a weight.

Shrike sensed it.  He turned, and the green beams from his headlamp eyes lit up her face.  He was not used to thinking about anyone but himself.  He forgot sometimes the girl had muscles in her legs instead of pistons.  He reached out his metal hands and lifted her, setting her on his wide iron shoulders.  Hester grabbed hold of the ducts and flexes on his armoured skull as he set off again, striding along at an improbable pace which made the frozen head of Ampersand go bomp, bomp, bomp against his hip.  The chimneyed smudge of Twyne started to resolve itself into houses and factories; two decks, with the big, clawed, barrel wheels turning beneath.  Soon Hester made out individual windows, and in each window was a warm glow and pinprick points of light a-twinkling.  The glow and the lights put her in mind of something.  She could not say what it was because most of her memories had spilled when her face was broken, but she stared at those lights and felt the memories brushing past her like big fish circling in the sea’s depths, just out of sight.

Shrike caught up with the town and strode into the din and dark between its rumbling wheels.  No lights down here, unless you counted the slivers of furnace-glow showing through chinks in the deck-plates.  But the old Stalker could see in the dark, and knew his way around the underside of towns.  He found an access ladder, and Hester held on tight while he scrambled up it, punched open a locked hatch, and emerged into the streets of Twyne. 

It was quiet up there.  Just a few passers by to stare at the Stalker and his shadow as they went up and aft towards the Town Hall.  Singing came from taverns and the temple of Peripatetia.  In every window candles burned, and tinsel stars hung.  In the snowy square in front of the Town Hall a whole tall pine tree stood, fresh cut, held roughly upright by four creaking guy-ropes, swaying with the town’s movements.  Little electric lamps burned among its branches, and strands of glittering stuff were wrapped around it.

“Winter festival,” said Hester.

Shrike looked down at her.  She didn’t often say much, and he didn’t often listen, but something had stirred his memories too.  He’d been making his way among the towns and cities of the world since before towns and cities learned to move, and it hadn’t escaped his notice that some decked themselves in lights and greenery every twelvemonth.  It had just never occurred to him before to wonder why.
Hester wiped frost from a window and peered in.  She saw holly branches; paper chains; candles burning on a shrine to household gods.  She said, “I remember when I was little...  Every year...  Roast chestnuts and stories by the fire.  Presents too.  The old Winterdad in his red coat, carryin’ his sack of presents for good children...”
And somehow Shrike remembered those things too.  Snatches of memories from long ago; candles and stories, the excitement of children.  
Now he stood in the snow in front of Twyne Town Hall, his old dark coat flapping around him, the stained bag weighty in his steel hand. 

A door opened with a sudden crash, as if kicked.  Lamplight lapped at Shrike’s toes.  In the doorway stood Twyne’s mayor.  Two other men stood with him, goggled and body-armoured, clutching shiny guns.
Shrike upended his sack.  The robber’s head fell into the snow like a dropped cabbage.  The mayor of Twyne looked down at it, and nodded.
“Nice job,” he said.  
“He needs payin‘ now,” said Hester.  She’d noticed that Shrike didn’t always stay around to collect the bounty once a job was done.  To be fair, he hadn’t much to spend the blood-money on; he didn’t care about clothes or a place to live, and she’d never seen him eat.  She hungered though; she needed clothes on her back and a roof over her.  So she always made sure he got paid.  “Ten gold ones,” she said, tugging her scarf up to hide her face. “That’s what you promised, for Ampersand’s head.”
“Ah...” said the mayor.  Pilbeam was his name, and he at least had the decency to look ashamed.  “Stuff’s changed, since I set you after Ampersand.  These gents...” (He indicated the men who stood on either side of him, the tree-lights starry in their goggles.) “They work for the Shkin Corporation; a big slaving company from down south.  Seems they provide fighters for the Nuevo Mayan circuses and they’re after new attractions.  They’d dearly love a Stalker, so they asked if they could have a word with you when you got back here, Mr Shrike, and I said...”
“I AM NOT AN ATTRACTION,” said Shrike, in a voice like a city changing its rusty gears.  His hands stayed at his sides, but his fingers all grew sharp, bright blades, like icicles. He said, “SHKIN’S MEN HAVE ASKED ME TO APPEAR IN THESE CIRCUSES BEFORE.  I TOLD THEM NO.”
“Well this time we ain’t asking,” said one of the slavers, and both together raised their silvery guns and pulled the triggers.
Lightning arced across the square and crackled against Shrike’s armour.  He stumbled backwards, tinselled with sparks, eyes flickering.  “Now!” shouted Mayor Pilbeam.  Hester looked up and saw that there were other men on the front of the town hall, perching like trainee gargoyles on ledges and gutterings.  A weighted net spread as it fell, settling over the Stalker where he struggled, wrapped in electricity.

Hester had grown so used to the idea of Shrike as unstoppable that it had never occurred to her that she might one day be called upon to help him.  She ran through the jerking blue light, the stuttering shadows.  She drew her knife and hacked through one of the lines which held the pine tree up.  The men ignored her, advancing towards Shrike, playing the blue fire of their strange guns over him.  She hacked another.  That was enough.  The tree teetered.  She pressed her small body against its outer branches and its scratchy clouds of needles; shoved.  

The falling tree swept a couple of men off the front of the Town Hall.  It came down hard on Mayor Pilbeam and the men with the electric guns: curses, a crackle of splintering branches, the great trunk smashing them flat.  One of the guns exploded with a shear of blue light.
Shrike was recovering.  He shook himself, like a wet dog shaking off water.  He tore his way out of the net.  One of his eyes was on the fritz, flickering and buzzing like faulty neon till he smacked himself hard on the side of the head and it righted itself.  He listened for a moment to the faint groans that came from underneath the tree.  He dragged out the remaining gun and crushed it.  He did not thank Hester, just went into the Town Hall with her following.  
The building was full of running footsteps, cries.  No one was sure what happened in the square, but they all knew that the Stalker had triumphed despite those fancy electric weapons, and nobody wanted to stay and face him.  As Shrike and Hester went from room to room they sometimes glimpsed people scrambling for the exits or squeezing out of windows.  They found a big, dim room where a fire was burning and plates heaped with food waited on a long table.  Hester tried some pie, a cake.  Shrike spiked a chestnut on each of his finger-blades and stood by the fire.  “ONCE UPON A TIME,” he said, “THERE WAS THIS...  IT WAS...  THERE WAS A GIRL WITH A DOG, AND THE DOG WAS CALLED NOODLE POODLE.  AND THERE WAS...  THERE WAS...  ONCE...”

He was trying to tell a midwinter story, Hester realised, but he wasn’t very good at it.  She crammed more pie awkwardly into her awkward mouth and said, “How about, ‘Once upon a time there was these two people, and it was a cold, hard world they lived in, so they went about together, for company.  And one midwinter they found a good snug place to stay, and stuff to eat, and they were warm enough for a bit.  And it was good.’”

Shrike looked at her, and the lamps of his eyes flickered ever so slightly, and from his outstretched hands there came wafting a smell of roasted chestnuts.  

...and a Merry Midwinter to us, one and all!

Illustrations © Sarah McIntyre