Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 15

Greyghor Stohnar was a strong man, but he’d sat in his pew in Siddar Cathedral with his face buried in his hands, shoulders heaving, as he listened to the joyously tolling bells and wept in gratitude when that first convoy sailed into Bedard Bay. The schooner sent ahead to tell him it was coming, delayed by The Anvil’s quixotic headwinds, had arrived less than twelve hours before the convoy itself, and the Charisian seamen aboard those galleons had labored until they collapsed, unloading sack after sack of Charisian and Emeraldian rice and yams and corn, Tarotisian potatoes, carrots, and apples. Swaying cask after cask of preserved fish, pork, beef, and dragon out of their ships’ holds and into the lighters alongside or the wagons waiting in endless lines along Siddar City’s wharves. Lightering ashore the milk cows sent to replace those which had been slaughtered in desperation as the fodder ran out and the people starved, and the fodder to keep at least some of the surviving farm animals alive.

Foods like rice and yams were virtually unknown in the Republic, but mothers with pinched, gaunt faces had stood for hours in biting wind and cold, soaking rain to take home a few pounds of the exotic Charisian foods which would make the difference between their children’s lives and deaths. And as any galleon was emptied, it turned, setting sail back towards Charis, more often than not with a cargo of orphans or the sick to be delivered to Charisian orphanages, hospitals, and monasteries.

It was the largest relief effort in Safehold’s history, tying up almost a quarter of the empire’s total merchant fleet. The repercussions of that on trade and military logistics scarcely bore thinking upon, yet it had sent enough food to feed over a million and a half people at least a thousand calories a day and keep almost a half million desperately needed farm animals alive for three months. Three months in which Charis, Tarot, and Emerald would double the land they had under cultivation and labor gangs throughout eastern Siddarmark would put seed into the ground anywhere it wasn’t too frozen to plow.

Too many had died anyway, and more would die still, but Siddar City wasn’t the only place Charisian convoys had landed their life-saving supplies. Trokhanos Province, Malitar, Windmoor, Rollings . . . Charisian ships had been everywhere, landing lifesaving supplies wherever they could find a few fathoms of seawater.

There were those who wondered how even monarchs as legendary for their foresight as Cayleb and Sharleyan Ahrmahk could have known to begin organizing that relief effort five-days before the first messenger from Siddarmark ever reached them. Most accepted Maikel Staynair’s explanation — totally honest, as far as it went — that Charisian agents had begun to suspect Clyntahn’s intentions well before the “Sword of Schueler” struck. For the diehard Temple Loyalists, there was a simpler more acceptable explanation, of course — one supplied and endorsed by the Inquisition. They’d long since decided that in addition to all the blasphemies and heresies the world knew about, Cayleb and Sharleyan had sold themselves to Shan-wei — Cayleb in return for his demon familiar Merlin Athrawes and the sorceress Sharleyan in return for the power to steal the hearts and minds of even the godliest men and seduce them into Shan-wei’s evil — so of course they could foresee the future, as well.

Frankly, there was more truth in that explanation (in Safeholdian terms, at least) than Merlin really cared for, but the vast majority of Siddarmarkians didn’t care how Cayleb and Sharleyan had known. No, what they cared about was that the House of Ahrmahk had begun assembling those convoys of food and medical supplies long before they’d been asked to, and that they’d sent them to the Republic with no strings attached. No demand for payment, for alliances. No political conditions or stipulations. The Empire and Church of Charis had simply sent everything it had the hulls to move, and that was why a strong man had sat in a cathedral and wept as his capital’s church bells rang out the news that even in a world gone mad, there was a realm and a church which simply sent what it had to those who needed it so desperately.

There was an edge of realpolitik to it, of course. No one in Charis could be blind to the gratitude and goodwill that relief effort had bought the Empire. Yet that truly hadn’t been the primary reason Cayleb and Sharleyan had mounted it. A highly desirable second wyvern to hit with the same stone, yes, but Merlin knew that food would have moved north across Safehold’s stormy seas even if they’d known no alliance, no treaties of mutual aid, would ever come of it.

Not that anyone was going to complain — assuming Staynair was right and Stohnar and the Republic survived the winter — over what had come of it.

“There’s no question in my mind that Stohnar’s going to agree to the draft treaty terms when they get to Dragoner,” he said now. “There’s not a thing in them that doesn’t track exactly with his own offer of alliance, and frankly, without us, he doesn’t have a chance of holding off the Group of Four.”

“Especially not with that army Rahnyld’s about to send over the border into the South March,” Cayleb said grimly. “Oh, and let’s not forget that ‘voluntary’ free passage for Desnairian troops Trynair’s about to extort out of Silkiah, either.”

“Agreed.” Merlin nodded, his eyes watching as a trio of war galleons made sail, standing slowly out of King’s Harbor into the broader, darker waters of Howell Bay for gunnery practice. “Clyntahn and Maigwair are at least smart enough to know they have to go for a quick knockout, before we can intervene effectively.”

“How long do you think?” Cayleb asked. “Another month?”

“Probably.” Merlin’s expression was thoughtful. “It might be a little longer — thank God Rahnyld’s army doesn’t have its own equivalent of Thirsk! They’re getting themselves organized faster than I could wish, though, even without that. Desnair’s going to be at least another four or five five-days behind that, unless they do go ahead and ferry a Desnairian invasion force across Salthar Bay to support the Dohlarans.”

“Not going to happen.” There was no doubt at all in Cayleb’s tone. “Rahnyld trusts Mahrys about as far as Clyntahn trusts me. Even if the Group of Four gives him a direct order to pass Mahrys through his kingdom, he’ll drag his heels harder than Sharley ever did when the ‘Knights of the Temple Lands’ ordered her to help Hektor burn Charis to the ground! He’ll argue — and with some justification, really — that he doesn’t have the bottoms to move that many men, or the logistic capability to support them all through Dohlar. And he’ll spin it out long enough that by the time he’s done, Mahrys will have his invasion route through Silkiah cleared, instead At which point, it’ll still take another month actually get any Desnarian troops into Siddarmark.”

It was possible Cayleb was being a bit overly optimistic, Merlin thought, but overall he agreed with the emperor’s analysis, and Sharleyan was nodding firmly.

“That’s good,” Staynair said. “Unfortunately, unless I’m mistaken, that still means Emperor Mahrys is likely to be invading the Republic before Duke Eastshare can get anywhere near enough of the Army into Siddarmark to stop him. And then there’s King Rahnyld, of course.”

“True,” Cayleb said in a harsher, darker tone. “That suggestion we send a message from Zhevons was a good one, Merlin. But even with Kynt to do the planning and prodding, the thought of marching an army through Raven’s Land to the Passage of Storms obviously doesn’t really appeal to Eastshare. And I’m not surprised it doesn’t, to be fair. Even if the Raven Lords decide to actively cooperate rather than harassing him every step of the way, any army he force-marches across those so-called roads is going to be more than a little ragged by the time it finally gets to Siddarmark. At which point, I might add, it’s going to be at the wrong end of the Republic to stop Dohlar or Desnair.”

“I know, but it would still get them there faster than we could move them the full distance by sea. This time at least. And every mile he marches them west is one less mile a transport will have to cross. Even if he only gets them as far as Marisahl before we can start getting transports to him, it’ll cut his arrival time a lot. And if he gets as far as, say, Malphyra Bay, we can cut the number of transports he needs in half because of the reduced turn around time for the round trip. Especially if he keeps on marching west with the second echelon of his army while the first one’s en route aboard ship. He can be in Marisahl forty days after he crosses The Fence, if he pushes hard, and in Malphyra in another twenty. And we wouldn’t have to send him across to Rollings Province once we got him aboard ship, you know. There’d be time to pick another destination if it seemed like a good idea.”