Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 22

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.