Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 21


Brahdwyn’s Folly,

Green Cove Trace,

Glacierheart Province,

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.”