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Midst Toil and Tribulation: Chapter Ten
Last updated: Monday, July 2, 2012 20:03 EDT
Green Cove Trace,
Republic of Siddarmark
“Damn it’s cold!”
Sailys Trahskhat cupped his hands and breathed into them as if he actually thought he could warm them through his thick gloves. Byrk Raimahn looked at him quizzically across the fire, and Trahskhat grimaced.
“Sorry about that, Sir. Guess it was pretty obvious without my saying, wasn’t it?”
“I believe you could probably say that, yes,” Raimahn agreed.
They were three days into the month of April and, technically, the season had tipped over from winter into spring ten days ago, but “spring” was a purely notional concept in northern Siddarmark, and especially among the high peaks of the Gray Wall Mountains, at the best of times. This winter had been particularly harsh, and the locals assured them they still had at least three or four more five-days of cold and ice before the thaw set in. He believed them. It was hard not to, given that at the moment the “spring” temperature was well below zero on the Fahrenheit scale Eric Langhorne had reinstituted here on Safehold.
That would have been more than cold enough for a couple of Charisian boys, even without the cutting wind; with the wind, it was as close an approximation to hell as he ever hoped to see. He remembered how cold he’d thought Siddar City was in the winter, and found himself longing for that balmy climate as that Glacierheart wind sang hungrily about him. He shivered, despite his thick, putatively warm parka and lifted the battered tin teapot out of its nest of embers. He poured himself a cup, cradling it in his own gloved palms, holding it so the steam could provide at least a momentary illusion of warmth to his face and cheeks. Then he sipped, and tried not to grimace. Calling such an anemic brew “tea” was a gross libel, but at least it was hot, and that was something he told himself as it glowed its way down his throat into his hollow-feeling belly.
He wouldn’t feel so frozen if he didn’t also feel so constantly hungry. Unfortunately, even with the food Archbishop Zhasyn had brought with them, there was nowhere near enough to go around. Half of the relief expedition’s draft animals had already been slaughtered for the precious protein they represented, and it was unlikely the others were going to survive more than another couple of five-days.
If that long, he told himself grimly with another sip of the hot water masquerading as tea. Welcome to “spring,” Byrk. I wonder how many of the ones who’ve made it this far are going to starve before the snow melts?
He and Sailys were a long, long way from home, and he turned away from the fire to contemplate the Gray Walls’ frozen, merciless beauty. There were mountains in Charis as well, of course. Some of them even had snow on their summits year-round, despite the climate. But Charisian mountains also had green, furry flanks, with trees that tended to stay that way year round and snow that stayed decently on the highest peaks, where it belonged. These mountains were far less civilized, with steep, sheer sides carved out of vertical faces of stone and earth, thrusting raw, rocky heads above the tree line to look down on narrow valleys lashed by snow and wind. Beautiful, yes, and indomitable, but without the sense of warmth and life Charisian mountains radiated. Not in winter, at least. People had lived here in Glacierheart for centuries before anyone really tried to explore Charis’ mountains, yet these valleys, precipices, and peaks had a primal, un-subdued ferocity that laughed at the notion humanity might ever tame them. He felt . . . out of place among them, and he knew Sailys felt the same.
He gazed out over the long, narrow valley known as the Green Cove Trace and hoped none of his sentries were going to lose fingers or toes — or noses — to frostbite this time. Or, for that matter, that none of them had become as numbed in mind and alertness as they no doubt felt in body. None of them had the opportunity for a fire like this one, not where the smoke might be seen, and he tried not to feel guilty about that.
The Trace faded into the blueness of mountain morning shadows as it snaked its way north towards Hildermoss Province, and if their information was as accurate as usual, there were men headed down that valley at this very moment. Men who were just as grim of purpose — and just as filled with hate — as Byrk Raimahn’s men.
He lowered his gaze to the charred ruins of Brahdwyn’s Folly and understood that hatred entirely too well. The blackened timbers and cracked foundations of what had once been a prosperous, if not overly large, mountain town thrust up out of the snow drifts, like tombstones for all the people who’d died here. Died in the original attack and fire, or died of starvation and privation afterward. The actual graves were hidden beneath the snow, overflowing the modest, rocky cemetery surrounding the equally charred ruins of the town’s church. Brahdwyn’s Folly’s priest and a dozen members of his congregation had been locked inside that church before it was fired, and as he looked out across the wreckage, Raimahn wondered how that barbarity had become so routine that it seemed almost inevitable.
“You reckon they’re still coming, Sir?” Trahskhat asked after a moment, and Raimahn shrugged. He still wasn’t certain how he’d become the commander of a double-strength company of riflemen, but there wasn’t much question about how the solid, reliable Trahskhat had become his second in command.
Trakskhat’s loyalty to the Church of God Awaiting, his faith in the vicarate as the Archangels’ stewards on earth, had carried him into exile in a foreign land where he and his family were insulted and harassed on a daily basis by bigots who hated all Charisians, regardless of their faith. It also had reduced the star third baseman of the Tellesberg Krakens to the harsh labor, meager salary, and penury of a longshoreman on Siddar City’s waterfront, and he’d accepted that — accepted all of it — because the faith which had made him a Temple Loyalist had required it of him. Because he’d been unable to accept the schism splintering God’s Church, despite the tolerance and legal protection the Crown and Church of Charis had guaranteed to the Empire’s Temple Loyalists. His stubborn integrity and his belief in God had left him no other choice but to turn his back upon his native land and live in exile from all he and his family had ever known.
Until the “Sword of Scheuler.” Until he’d seen the rapes, the murders, the atrocities committed in Siddar City by mobs harangued, armed, and all too often led by men in the vestments of Mother Church’s Inquisition. His own family had been swept up in that carnage, his children threatened with murder, his wife with rape, as well. He’d fought back, then, and as the mob closed in on their fleeing families, he and Raimahn had resigned themselves to death in the frail hope that by standing to die in the streets of Siddarmark’s burning capital they might buy the people they loved the time to reach safety. And the two of them — and their families — had been saved from that mob only by the arrival of armed Charisians led by a Siddarmark-born Reformist.
A lot of attitudes had gotten . . . clarified that day, including those of Byrk Raimahn and his grandfather. That was why Claitahn and Sahmantha Raimahn had taken Sailys’ family under their protection in Siddar City and promised to get them safely back to Charis as soon as they could find room aboard ship for all of them. It was also why Sailys’ Trahskhat was no longer a Temple Loyalist, and for someone with his integrity, the outcome of that change had been inevitable.
“No reason to think they’re not coming, Sailys,” Raimahn replied after another sip of so-called tea, and shrugged. “The information we fed Fyrmahn should’ve been convincing, and he’s a determined son-of-a-bitch. Don’t forget the Trace is the only real way through the Gray Walls east of Hanymar. If they’re coming through from Hildermoss, this is where they have to do it. Then there’s Father Gharth’s report that he’s been reinforced. The Father’s sources could be wrong, but I don’t think they are, and if he has been reinforced, he has more mouths to feed.” The young man smiled bleakly. “I’m pretty sure that last raid of Wahlys’ will’ve pissed him off enough — and hurt him enough — to send him straight at a prize like this one. If he’s smart enough to see the hook he could still pass it up, but given his track record?” He shook his head. “I don’t see him doing that, Sailys. I really don’t.”
Trahskhat nodded, and glanced up the valley himself. His eyes were harder than Raimahn’s, and his expression was as bleak as the mountains around them.
“Can’t say that disappoints me, Sir,” he said, those stony eyes dropping to the ruins of Brahdwyn’s Folly. “Can’t say that disappoints me at all.”
Raimahn nodded, although he wasn’t really certain he shared the older man’s feelings about that. Or that he wanted to share them, at any rate.
He’d seen more than enough of Zhan Fyrmahn’s handiwork to know the man would have to be high on anyone’s list of people the world would be better off without. He wouldn’t be quite at the top — that spot was reserved for Zhaspahr Clyntahn — but he couldn’t have been more than a half-dozen names down. It had been Fyrmahn’s band, along with that of his cousin, Mharak Lohgyn, who’d burned Brahdwyn’s Folly and butchered its inhabitants. Ostensibly, because they’d all been Reformists, hateful in the eyes of God, and there’d actually been three or four families in town of whom that was probably true. But Zhan Fyrmahn had had reasons of his own, even before the Grand Inquisitor’s agents had stoked the Republic’s maelstrom, and there was a reason he’d taken such special care to exterminate Wahlys Mahkhom’s family.
Mountaineers tended to be as hard and self-reliant as the rocky slopes that bred them. From everything Raimahn had seen so far, Glacierheart’s coal miners took that tendency to extremes, but the trappers and hunters like Mahkhom and Fyrmahn were harder still. They had to be, given their solitary pursuits, the long hours they spent alone in the wilderness, with no one to look out for them or go for help if something went wrong. They asked nothing of anyone, they paid their own debts, and they met whatever came their way on their own two feet, unflinchingly. Raimahn had to respect that, yet that hardness had its darker side, as well, for it left them disinclined towards forgiving their enemies, whatever the Archangel Bédard or the Writ might say on the subject. Too many of them were feudists at heart, ready to pursue a quarrel to the bitter most end, however many generations it took and despite anything Mother Church might say about the virtues of compassion and forgiveness.
Raimahn had no idea what had actually started the bad blood between the Mahkhom and Fyrmahn clans. On balance, he was inclined to believe the survivors of Brahdwyn’s Folly, that the first casualty had been Wahlys’ grandfather and that the “accident” which had befallen him had been no accident at all. He was willing to admit he was prejudiced in Mahkom’s favor, however, and no doubt the Fyrmahns remembered it very differently. And whatever had started the savage hatred, there’d been enough incidents up and down the Green Cove Trace since to provide either side with plenty of pretexts for seeking “justice” in the other family’s blood.
That was Zhan Fyrmahn’s view, at any rate, and he’d seized on the exhortations of the inquisitors who’d organized the Sword of Schueler as a chance — a license — to settle the quarrel once and for all. If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else; there was always something haters could appeal to, something bigots could use. But when the hate and bigotry came from men who wore the vestments of the Inquisition, they carried the imprimatur of Mother Church herself. It wasn’t simply “all right” for someone like Fyrmahn to give himself up to the service of hate and anger, it was his duty, the thing God expected him to do. And if two or three hundred people in a remote village died along the way, why, that was God’s will, too, and it served the bastards right.
Especially if their last name happened to be Mahkhom.
I wonder how many times Fyrmahn’s reflected on the consequences of his own actions?
Raimahn had wondered that more than once, and not about Fyrmahn alone. Does he realize he turned every survivor of Brahdwyn’s Folly into a dyed-in-the-wool Reformist, whatever they were before? If he does, does he care? And does he even realize he and the men like him are the ones who started all of this? Or does he blame Wahlys for all of it?
He probably did blame Mahkhom, and his only regret was probably the fact that Wahlys hadn’t been home when he and his raiders massacred Brahdwyn’s Folly. It would have worked out so much better from Fyrmahn’s perspective, especially since it would have prevented Mahkhom from becoming the center of the Reformist resistance in this ice-girt chunk of frozen hell. Raimahn had no idea if Mahkhom had truly embraced the Reformist cause, or if, like Fyrmahn himself, it was simply what empowered and sanctified his own savagery and violence. He hoped it was more than simple hatred, because under that icy shell of hate and loss, he sensed a good and decent man, one who deserved better than to give his own soul to Shan-wei because of the atrocities he was willing to wreak under the pretext of doing God’s will. But whatever the depth of his belief, whatever truly drove Wahlys Mahkhom, by this time every Temple Loyalist within fifty miles must curse his name each night before lying down to sleep.
Archbishop Zhasyn’s right; we do lay up our own harvests the instant we put the seed into the ground. And I can’t blame Wahlys for the way he feels, even if I do see the hatred setting deeper and deeper into these mountains’ bones with every raid, every body. It doesn’t matter any more who shed the first blood, burned the first barn, and how in God’s name is even someone like Archbishop Zhasyn going to heal those wounds? For that matter, who’s going to be left alive to be healed?
Byrk Raimahn had no answers to those questions, and he wished he did, because deep inside, he knew he was more like Wahlys Mahkhom — and possibly even Zhan Fyrmahn — then he wanted to admit. That was why he was out here in this ice and snow, sipping this watery tea, waiting — hoping — for the men he wanted to kill to come to him. Men he could kill without qualm or hesitation because they deserved to die. Because in avenging what had happened to Brahdwyn’s Folly he could also avenge the arson and the rape and the torture and the murder he’d seen at Sailys Trahskhat’s side in Siddar City’s Charisian Quarter the day the Temple Loyalists drove the “Sword of Schueler” into the Republic’s back. Perhaps he couldn’t track down those Temple Loyalists, but he could track down their brothers in blood here in Glacierheart.
In the still, small hours of the night, when he faced his own soul with bleak honesty, he knew what he most feared in all the world: that if he’d stayed in Siddar City, he would have become the very thing he hated, a man so obsessed with the need for vengeance that he would have attacked any Temple Loyalist he encountered with his bare hands. Not because of anything that Temple Loyalist might actually have done, but simply because he was a Temple Loyalist. But here — here in the Gray Walls — the lines were clear, drawn in blood and the corpses of burned villages by men who branded themselves clearly by their own acts. Here he could identify his enemies by what they did, not simply by what they believed, and tell himself his own actions, the things he did, were more than mere vengeance, that what drove him was more than just an excuse to slake his own searing need for retribution. That he was preventing still more Brahdwyn’s Follies, stopping at least some of the rape and murder. He could loose his inner demons without fearing they would consume the innocent along with the guilty and perhaps — just perhaps — without the man his grandparents had raised destroying himself along with them.
“Well?” Zhan Fyrmahn growled.
“Looks right, at least,” Samyl Ghadwyn replied. The burly, thick-shouldered mountaineer shrugged. “Plenty of footprints. Counted the marks from at least a half-dozen sets of sleds, too, and nobody took a shot at me. This time, anyway.”
He shrugged again, and Fyrmahn scowled, rubbing his frost-burned cheeks while he stared along the Trace. The trail snaked along its western side, climbing steadily for the next mile or so, and the small Silver Rock River was a solid, gray-green line of merciless ice four hundred feet below his present perch. The river’s ice was no harder than his eyes, though, and no more merciless, as he considered the other man’s report.
Every member of his band was related to him, one way or another — that was the way it was with mountain clans — but Ghadwyn was only a fourth cousin, and there were times Fyrmahn suspected his heart wasn’t fully in God’s work. He didn’t have the fire, the zeal, Mother Church’s sons were supposed to have, and Fyrmahn didn’t care for his habitual, take-it-or-leave-it attitude.
Despite which, he was one of their best scouts, almost as good a tracker as Fyrmahn himself and more patient than most of the others.
"I don't like it, Zhan," Mharak Lohgyn muttered, his voice almost lost in the moan of the wind. "The bastards have to know we'll be coming for them."
"You've got that right." Fyrmahn's cracked and blistered lips drew up in a snarl, and the icy fire in his eyes mirrored the black murder in his heart.
Mahkhom and his heretic-loving cutthroats had stolen the food Fyrmahn's own family needed to survive the last bitter five-days of winter. Yes, and they'd massacred that food's entire escort in the process. Not one of the guards had survived, and it was obvious at least seven or eight of them had been taken alive by their enemies only to have their throats cut like animals. What else could anyone expect out of heretics? And what else could anyone expect out of Mahkhoms?
We should've killed the lot of them a generation ago! Cowards -- cowards and backstabbers, every one of them!
The glare in his eyes turned bleak with bitter satisfaction as he remembered the way Mahkhom's woman had begged his men to spare her children's lives even as they ripped away her clothing and dragged her into the barn. The bitch hadn't even known they were already dead. If only he could have been there to see Mahkhom's face when he came home to Fyrmahn's handiwork!
Nits may make lice, he thought coldly, but not when somebody burns them out first. Father Failyx's right about that!
"They may've decided we can't come after them," he said after a moment. "Schueler knows they killed enough of us when they stole the food in the first place! If they don't know about Father Failyx and his men, they may figure they hurt us too badly for us to do anything but crawl off into a hole and die for them."
Lohgyn's jaw tightened, and Fyrmahn cursed himself. Lohgyn's brother Styvyn had been one of the murdered guards, and Father Failyx had said the words over the pitiful, emaciated body of his youngest daughter just before they set out for this attack.
"Sorry, Mahrak," he said gruffly, reaching out to touch his cousin's shoulder. Lohgyn didn't respond in words, but Fyrmahn could almost hear the creak of the other man's jaw muscles. After two or three heartbeats, Lohgyn gave a curt, jerky nod.
"You may be right," he said, ignoring both the apology and the pain that evoked it. "But it makes me nervous. No offense, Samyl, but somebody should've spotted you."
Ghadwyn only shrugged again. There might have been a little spark down in his eyes at the implication that anyone could have seen him coming, but whatever his other faults, the man was a realist. There were bastards on the other side who were just as skilled at the tracker's trade as he was . . . and who knew the penalty for a moment's carelessness as well as he did, too.
"If they'd seen him, he wouldn't be standing here now," Fyrmahn pointed out. "He'd be lying out there somewhere with an arbalest bolt in his chest or a knife in his back." He bared his teeth in an ugly grimace. "You think any of those bastards would pass up the chance to do for one of us?"
Lohgyn frowned. Fyrmahn had a point, and Wahlys Mahkhom's men had proven how good they were when it came to killing any of the Faithful who entered their sights. They were no more likely to pass up the opportunity to kill one of Fyrmahn's men than Fyrmahn's men were to let one of them live. Yet even so . . . .
"I just can't help wondering if they're trying to be sneaky," he said finally. "What if they saw Samyl just fine? What if they just want us to think they've pulled back to Valley Mount?"
"Set a trap for us, you mean?"
"Something like that." Lohgyn nodded. "If they're sitting up there in the hills with those damned arbalests, waiting for us, they might just have chosen not to take a shot at Samyl until they could get more of us out in the open."
It was Fyrmahn's turn to nod, however grudgingly.
"Might be you've got a point. But unless you're suggesting we just turn tail and crawl back to camp empty-handed, we've got it to do if we're going to find out."
Lohgyn's eyes flickered again at the words "empty-handed." He seemed about to say something sharp, but then he drew a deep breath and shrugged instead.
Fyrmahn turned and glowered up the steeply climbing trail, thinking hard. There was another way to the ruins which had once been Brahdwyn's Folly without using the Trace, but Khankyln's Trail was long and roundabout. It would take them at least three days -- more probably four, given the weather conditions and the effect of so many five-days of bad food (and too little of it) upon their stamina -- to go that way. If the reports that Mahkhom was retreating to the protection of the larger town of Valley Mount, taking the stolen food with him, were accurate, he'd be three quarters of the way there, even allowing for the anchor of his surviving women and children, before Fyrmahn's band could hope to overtake them. Besides, Khanklyn's Trail was too narrow and tortuous for them to get sleds through. If they were fortunate enough to catch Mahkhom and recover the food, all they'd be able to take back with them would be what they could backpack out. And their lowland allies couldn't possibly get through it with them, either.
But if Lohgyn's fears were justified, if it was a trap . . . .
Well, Father Failyx is right about that, too, he told himself grimly. Sometimes serving God means taking a few chances, and at least any man who dies doing God's will can be sure of where his soul's spending eternity.
"All right," he said. "Mahrak, Lieutenant Tailyr's about a thousand yards back down the Trace. Send one of your boys down to get him."
Lohgyn waved to one of his men, who disappeared quickly around one of the twisty trail's bends, and Fyrmahn turned back to his two cousins.
"This is why Father Failyx sent Tailyr along in the first place," he said grimly, "so here's how we're going to do this."
"Seems you were right, Sir," Sailys Trahskhat said, peering through the Charisian manufactured folding spyglass as he lay in the snow at Raimahn's side. They'd climbed the knife-backed ridge from the burned out town's limited shelter when the first sentry reports came in. "That's Fyrmahn down there, sure as I'm lying here."
The younger man nodded. He'd never seen Zhan Fyrmahn before today, but the man had been described to him often enough. That tangled, bright red beard and the patch over his left eye could belong to no one else, and he felt a bright tingle of eagerness dance down his nerves.
Gently, Byrk. Remember what Grandfather always said.
"I think you're right," he said out loud, a bit surprised by how calm he sounded. "But my grandfather hunted a pirate or two in his day, you know. And he always told me the worst thing that could happen to somebody who'd set an ambush was to find out the other fellow had known it was an ambush all along."
"See your point," Trahskhat replied after a moment, lowering the glass and looking down with his unaided eyes at the black dots on the trail so far below them. "And they aren't pushing forward the way we'd like, are they?"
"Not as quickly as we'd like, anyway," Raimahn agreed. "That" -- he gestured with his chin at what had to be between sixty and seventy men inching their way up the trail -- "looks like an advanced guard. And one that's better organized than anything Wahlys and his lads've seen out of Fyrmahn before. It's showing better tactics, too, sending out a patrol to clear trail for the rest of it, and that other bunch back there isn't moving at all. I don't think it's going to, either -- not until Fyrmahn gets word back from the leaders that the coast is clear. In fact, I think those might be some of those reinforcements we've been hearing rumors about. They're acting a lot more disciplined, anyway. Almost as good as our own boys."
"Um." Trahskhat grimaced and rested his chin on his folded forearms. "Not so good, then, is it, Sir?"
"Could be worse." Raimahn shrugged. "They could've decided to send everybody around the long way, instead."
"There's that," Trahskhat acknowledged. "And at least it doesn't look like the powder's going to be a complete waste, anyway."
"No, it isn't. I wish we had Fyrmahn farther up the trail, but we never expected to get all of them. Besides, we need someone to take our message back to our good friend Father Failyx, don't we?"
"Aye, that we do, Sir." Trahskhat's voice was as grimly satisfied as his eyes. "That we do."
Zhan Fyrmahn watched the force he’d sent ahead make its cautious way up the trail.
He didn’t much like Lieutenant Zhak Tailyr. The man had all of a typical Lowlander’s contempt for someone like Fyrmahn and his fellow clansmen, and his finicky Border States accent grated on a man’s nerves. Fyrmahn was a loyal son of Mother Church, and he hated the heretical bastards who’d sold themselves to Shan-wei even more than the next man, but whenever he heard that accent, it was hard to forget the generations of mutual antagonism between Siddarmark and the Border States.
Despite that, Fyrmahn had been glad to see him when he arrived. Not because of any fondness he felt for Tailyr himself, but because the lieutenant was part of the three hundred-man force of volunteers who’d struggled forward from Westmarch to join Father Failyx. It would have been nice if they’d brought more food with them instead of becoming yet more hungry mouths who had to be fed somehow, but they’d complained much less about their short rations than he would have expected of soft, citified Lowlanders, and Tailyr was an experienced officer of the Temple Guard. The sort of drill-field tactics the Guard trained for had little place in the fluid, small-scale warfare of these rugged, heavily forested mountains, but they’d been a visible sign of Mother Church’s support. And they’d offered him a core of disciplined, well-armed infantry.
He’d brought fifty of them along just in case he needed them to break the resistance he’d anticipated at Brahdwyn’s Folly. Now he’d found another use for them, and they moved steadily upward along the trail behind the advanced patrol of twenty more of his clansmen.
Ghadwyn had taken point again, fifty yards in front of his companions. That was close enough they could provide covering fire with their arbalests but far enough ahead to trip any traps before they could close on the entire patrol, and the rest of his men. He didn’t like sending them ahead that way, but his mountaineers were obviously better than Tailyr’s Lowlanders at this sort of thing. Someone had to do it, and even if he’d –
Samyl Ghadwyn never heard the sound that went racketing and echoing about the valley, startling birds and wyverns into the sky with cries of alarm. The big, soft-nosed .48 caliber bullet was a bit smaller than the standard Charisian rifle round, but it slammed into the back of his neck with sufficient energy to half-decapitate him. It struck like a mushrooming hammer, from behind and above, hurling his corpse forward to land with one arm dangling over the dizzy drop to the frozen river below.
Fyrmahn jerked at the sharp, ear-splitting blast of sound. He’d been watching Ghadwyn, seen the way his cousin went down, recognized instant death when he saw it, even from this far away, and his head whipped up, eyes wide as they darted about, seeking the shot’s origin. None of his own men were armed with matchlocks, and he’d never fired one of the lowland weapons himself, but he recognized the sound of a shot when he heard one. Yet how could anyone have gotten close enough to score a kill-shot like that?! Fyrmahn might never actually have fired one, but he knew the things were notoriously inaccurate. He’d never heard of anyone hitting a man-sized target with one of them at more than a hundred yards or so, especially with that sort of pinpoint accuracy, and no one could have gotten that close to the trail without being spotted, could they? It was ridic –
He swore savagely as the man who’d fired stood up, sky lining himself without a qualm as he began reloading his weapon. He was at least four hundred yards higher up the mountainside above Ghadwyn’s corpse, and he moved unhurriedly, with the arrogant contempt of someone who knew he was far beyond any range at which his enemies could have returned fire.
Fyrmahn was too far away to make out any details, but the other man’s musket seemed too slender — and too long — for any matchlock. Yet it couldn’t be anything else, could it? He’d heard rumors, tall tales, stories about the heretics’ new, long-ranged muskets — “rifles,” they called them — and Father Failyx and Tailyr had admitted there might be some truth to those rumors. But the Schuelerite had promised all of them the heretics couldn’t have many of the new weapons, and any they might possess must all be back in Siddar City! That apostate traitor Stohnar would never have sent any of them off to the backwoods of Glacierheart when he knew he’d need every weapon he could lay hands on come the spring. And even if he’d been willing to send them, surely they couldn’t have gotten here this quickly through the iron heart of winter!
Yet even as he told himself that, he heard another thunderous crack from the snow and boulder fields above the Trace. Smoke spurted from the hidden rifleman’s position, twenty or thirty yards from the first shooter, and the rearmost of Fyrmahn’s clansmen stumbled forward, dropping his arbalest, as the heavy bullet smashed into his shoulder blades. He went down, writhing in the suddenly bloody snow, and then more rifles opened fire. Dozens of them, the sound of their thunder like fists through the thin air, even at this distance. He watched helplessly, teeth grinding in rage, as his entire patrol was massacred. Four of his kinsmen lived long enough to run, but they were easy targets on that narrow, icy trail. One of them got as much as thirty yards back down the path before a bullet found him, as well. None of the others got more than twenty feet.
Fyrmahn swore savagely, his fists clenched at his sides, watching the merely wounded twist in anguish or turn and begin crawling brokenly towards safety. He couldn’t hear the screams from here, and he was glad, but he didn’t have to hear them. He could see their agony . . . and the bullets those unseen rifles continued to fire, seeking them out one by one until all of them lay as still as Ghadwyn himself.
Tailyr’s detachment had frozen when the rifles opened fire. It was clear they’d been as stunned as Fyrmahn, but they reacted quickly, and they were wise enough to know pikemen and arbalesteers had no business charging riflemen along a narrow, slippery ribbon of ice and snow. They turned, instead, moving swiftly back down the trail, and Fyrmahn drew a deep, bitter breath of relief as they turned a bend, putting a solid shoulder of earth and stone between themselves and those accursed rifles.
At least they weren’t going to lose any more of their men, and he made himself a burning, hate-filled promise to repay Makhom and his Shan-wei worshiping bastards with interest for this day’s bloody work. They couldn’t have enough damned rifles to stand off the forces of God for long, and when the time finally came, Zhan Fyrmahn would take the time to teach them the cost of apostasy properly. Until then, though –
The end of the world cut him off in mid-thought.
He stumbled backward, flinging himself to the ground in shocked terror, as the ear-shattering explosion roared. No, not the explosion — it was an entire series of explosions, a chain of them roaring high up on the mountainside above the Trace, and he heard the high, distant screams of Tailyr’s men as they looked up into the maw of destruction.
It was a trap, Fyrmahn thought numbly, watching the entire side of a mountain erupt in red-and-black flowers of flying rock and snow. A long, cacophonous line of them, fifteen hundred yards and more in length. None of the charges were all that large individually, but there were a great many of them and they’d been placed very, very carefully. The sharp, echoing explosions folded together into a single, rolling clap of thunder . . . and then even the thunder disappeared into a far more terrifying sound as uncountable tons of snow and rock hammered down like Langhorne’s own Rakurai.
The avalanche devoured over a mile of mountain trail . . . and forty-eight more of Zhan Fyrmahn’s clansmen. Neither they, nor Lieutenant Zhak Tailyr, nor the body of a single one of his volunteers was ever found.
“Think they got the message, Sir?” Trahskhat asked, watching the long, dark pall of windblown snow, rock, and dirt rising like a curtain above the Trace.
“Oh, I think they may have, Sailys,” Byrk Raimahn said softly. “I think they may have.”
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