Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 11

Now his stomach growled as if to punctuate his thoughts, and his face tightened as he thought about all the other people — the thousands upon thousands in his own archbishopric — whose stomachs were far emptier than his. Even as he sat here sipping tea — as Clyntahn was undoubtedly gorging himself once more upon the finest delicacies and wines — somewhere in Glacierheart, a child was slipping away into the stillness of death because her parents simply couldn’t feed her. He closed his eyes, clasping the teacup in both hands, whispering a prayer for that child he would never meet, never know, and wondered how many others would join her before this bitter winter ended.

“You’re doing what you can, Your Eminence,” a voice said very quietly from behind him, and he opened his eyes and turned his head to meet Thomys’ gaze. The valet’s smile was lopsided, and he shook his own head. “We’ve been together a while now, Your Eminence. I can usually tell what you’re thinking.”

“I know you can. They say the shepherd and his dog grow alike, so why shouldn’t my keeper be able to read my mind?” Cahnyr smiled. “And I know we’re doing what we can. It isn’t making me feel any better about what we can’t do, though, Fraid.”

“‘Course ’tisn’t,” Thomys agreed. “Could hardly be any other way, now could it? It’s true enough, though. And you’d best be concentrating on what it is we can do, not brooding over what we can’t. There’s a mortal lot of folk in Tairys — aye, and in a lot of other places in Glacierheart — as are waiting for you, and they’ll be looking to you once we’re there, too. You’re not so very wrong calling yourself a shepherd, Your Eminence, and there’s sheep depending on you. So just you see to it you’ve the strength and the health to be there when they need you, because if you don’t, you’ll fail them. In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve not seen you do that a single time, and Father Gharth, and Mistress Sahmantha and I — we’re not about to let you do it this time, either.”

Cahnyr’s eyes burned, and he nodded silently, then turned back the fire. He heard Thomys puttering about behind him for a few more moments. Then —

“You bide by the fire, Your Eminence. I’ll fetch you when it’s suppertime.”

The door closed behind the valet, and Cahnyr gazed deep into the fire, watching the slow, steady spill of coals, feeling the heat, thinking about the journey which still lay before him. At the moment, he and his companions were near the town of Sevryn, crossing through the northernmost rim of Shiloh, one of the provinces where neither the Republic nor Clyntahn’s Temple Loyalists held clear-cut control. The Loyalists had seized its southwestern portions in a grip of iron, but the northern — and especially northeastern portions — were just as firmly under the Republic’s control. The middle was a wasteland, dotted with the ruins of what had once been towns and farms where hating, embittered men hunted one another with savage intent and a cruelty no slash lizard could have equaled. This particular portion of Shiloh had missed — so far, at least — the wave of bloodshed sweeping through so much of the rest of the province, but the destruction of foodstuffs (and the interruption in their delivery) had made itself felt even here. As many Shilohans as could, especially women and children, had fled down the Siddar to Old Province and New Province, where the Army still promised security and there was at least some hope food would somehow make it up the river to them from the coast. They’d fled by barge, by boat, by canoe and even raft before the river froze; now, with the river ice four inches thick, they pulled sleds loaded with pitiful handfuls of household goods and their silent, wide-eyed children down its broad, steel-gray ribbon, trudging with gaunt, starvation-thinned faces towards what they hoped — prayed — might be salvation.

Cahnyr was using that same icy road, but in the opposite direction, into the very heart of the savagery Zhasphar Clyntahn had loosed. The ice was thick enough already to support cavalry, even light wagons, far less dog sleds and snow lizard sleighs. They’d come as far west by barge as they could before the ice forced them to put ashore and shift to the sleds, with the loads carefully dispersed to spread the weight, and the river ice had allowed them to make far better time than they would have made by road, at least until they’d broken a runner. Unfortunately, they were still almost five hundred miles from Mountain Lake, and that assumed Glacierborn Lake had frozen over as well. It might well not have, but there would certainly be enough ice about to prevent them from crossing the lake by boat. That would increase the distance by a hundred and forty more miles by forcing them to circle around the lake’s north end, and it was another four hundred and thirty miles from Mountain Lake to Tairys. Nine hundred miles — possibly over a thousand — before he could reach his destination, and Langhorne only knew what he’d find when he finally got there.

He thought about what was on those sleds, about the food he’d begged, pleaded for, even stolen in some cases. It wasn’t that Lord Protector Greyghor hadn’t wanted to give him all he could have asked for; it was simply that there’d been so little to give, especially with so many refugees pouring into the capital. The lord protector hadn’t been able to provide him with an army escort, either, because every soldier remaining to the Republic was desperately needed elsewhere, like in the Sylmahn Gap, with its direct threat to Old Province’s frontiers. Yet Stohnar also recognized the vital importance of succoring the people of Glacierheart who’d risen against their own archbishop, the man the Group of Four had named to replace Cahnyr, and beaten back the “Sword of Schueler.” It wasn’t just a matter of the province’s critical strategic location, although that would have been more than enough reason to support its citizens, either. Any people who’d paid the price Glacierheart’s had, in defiance not simply of rebels but of the Grand Inquisitor himself, had earned the support they desperately needed. And so Stohnar had given Cahnyr everything he possibly could, and Aivah Pahrsahn had collected still more in voluntary contributions from the capital’s Charisian Quarter and refugees who themselves couldn’t be certain where their next five-day’s meals were coming from. Aivah had provided medicines, bandages, and healer’s supplies of every description, as well.

And, Cahnyr thought harshly, she’d provided the escort Stohnar couldn’t: two hundred trained riflemen, under the command of a grim, determined young man named Byrk Raimahn. There were another three hundred rifles distributed between the caravan’s sleds, and Stohnar — whose armories at the moment held more weapons than he had soldiers to wield — had offered a thousand pikes, as well. There were bullets and powder in plenty, and bullet molds, as well. Zhasyn Cahnyr was a man of peace, but men of peace were in scant demand just now, and those weapons might well — probably would — prove just as vital to Glacierheart’s survival as the food coming with them. But even more important was what they — and Cahnyr’s return — would represent to the men and women of his archbishopric.

They had kept the faith. Now it was up to him to keep faith with them. To join them, be with them — to be their unifying force and, if necessary, to die with them. He owed them that, and he would see to it that they had it.