Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 23

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.”