Midst Toil And Tribulation – Snippet 24

* * * * * * * * * *

Zhan Fyrmahn watched the force he’d sent ahead make its cautious way up the trail.

He didn’t much like Lieutenant Zhak Tailyr. The man had all of a typical Lowlander’s contempt for someone like Fyrmahn and his fellow clansmen, and his finicky Border States accent grated on a man’s nerves. Fyrmahn was a loyal son of Mother Church, and he hated the heretical bastards who’d sold themselves to Shan-wei even more than the next man, but whenever he heard that accent, it was hard to forget the generations of mutual antagonism between Siddarmark and the Border States.

Despite that, Fyrmahn had been glad to see him when he arrived. Not because of any fondness he felt for Tailyr himself, but because the lieutenant was part of the three hundred-man force of volunteers who’d struggled forward from Westmarch to join Father Failyx. It would have been nice if they’d brought more food with them instead of becoming yet more hungry mouths who had to be fed somehow, but they’d complained much less about their short rations than he would have expected of soft, citified Lowlanders, and Tailyr was an experienced officer of the Temple Guard. The sort of drill-field tactics the Guard trained for had little place in the fluid, small-scale warfare of these rugged, heavily forested mountains, but they’d been a visible sign of Mother Church’s support. And they’d offered him a core of disciplined, well-armed infantry.

He’d brought fifty of them along just in case he needed them to break the resistance he’d anticipated at Brahdwyn’s Folly. Now he’d found another use for them, and they moved steadily upward along the trail behind the advanced patrol of twenty more of his clansmen.

Ghadwyn had taken point again, fifty yards in front of his companions. That was close enough they could provide covering fire with their arbalests but far enough ahead to trip any traps before they could close on the entire patrol, and the rest of his men. He didn’t like sending them ahead that way, but his mountaineers were obviously better than Tailyr’s Lowlanders at this sort of thing. Someone had to do it, and even if he’d —


Samyl Ghadwyn never heard the sound that went racketing and echoing about the valley, startling birds and wyverns into the sky with cries of alarm. The big, soft-nosed .48 caliber bullet was a bit smaller than the standard Charisian rifle round, but it slammed into the back of his neck with sufficient energy to half-decapitate him. It struck like a mushrooming hammer, from behind and above, hurling his corpse forward to land with one arm dangling over the dizzy drop to the frozen river below.

Fyrmahn jerked at the sharp, ear-splitting blast of sound. He’d been watching Ghadwyn, seen the way his cousin went down, recognized instant death when he saw it, even from this far away, and his head whipped up, eyes wide as they darted about, seeking the shot’s origin. None of his own men were armed with matchlocks, and he’d never fired one of the lowland weapons himself, but he recognized the sound of a shot when he heard one. Yet how could anyone have gotten close enough to score a kill-shot like that?! Fyrmahn might never actually have fired one, but he knew the things were notoriously inaccurate. He’d never heard of anyone hitting a man-sized target with one of them at more than a hundred yards or so, especially with that sort of pinpoint accuracy, and no one could have gotten that close to the trail without being spotted, could they? It was ridic —


He swore savagely as the man who’d fired stood up, sky lining himself without a qualm as he began reloading his weapon. He was at least four hundred yards higher up the mountainside above Ghadwyn’s corpse, and he moved unhurriedly, with the arrogant contempt of someone who knew he was far beyond any range at which his enemies could have returned fire.

Fyrmahn was too far away to make out any details, but the other man’s musket seemed too slender — and too long — for any matchlock. Yet it couldn’t be anything else, could it? He’d heard rumors, tall tales, stories about the heretics’ new, long-ranged muskets — “rifles,” they called them — and Father Failyx and Tailyr had admitted there might be some truth to those rumors. But the Schuelerite had promised all of them the heretics couldn’t have many of the new weapons, and any they might possess must all be back in Siddar City! That apostate traitor Stohnar would never have sent any of them off to the backwoods of Glacierheart when he knew he’d need every weapon he could lay hands on come the spring. And even if he’d been willing to send them, surely they couldn’t have gotten here this quickly through the iron heart of winter!

Yet even as he told himself that, he heard another thunderous crack from the snow and boulder fields above the Trace. Smoke spurted from the hidden rifleman’s position, twenty or thirty yards from the first shooter, and the rearmost of Fyrmahn’s clansmen stumbled forward, dropping his arbalest, as the heavy bullet smashed into his shoulder blades. He went down, writhing in the suddenly bloody snow, and then more rifles opened fire. Dozens of them, the sound of their thunder like fists through the thin air, even at this distance. He watched helplessly, teeth grinding in rage, as his entire patrol was massacred. Four of his kinsmen lived long enough to run, but they were easy targets on that narrow, icy trail. One of them got as much as thirty yards back down the path before a bullet found him, as well. None of the others got more than twenty feet.

Fyrmahn swore savagely, his fists clenched at his sides, watching the merely wounded twist in anguish or turn and begin crawling brokenly towards safety. He couldn’t hear the screams from here, and he was glad, but he didn’t have to hear them. He could see their agony . . . and the bullets those unseen rifles continued to fire, seeking them out one by one until all of them lay as still as Ghadwyn himself.

Tailyr’s detachment had frozen when the rifles opened fire. It was clear they’d been as stunned as Fyrmahn, but they reacted quickly, and they were wise enough to know pikemen and arbalesteers had no business charging riflemen along a narrow, slippery ribbon of ice and snow. They turned, instead, moving swiftly back down the trail, and Fyrmahn drew a deep, bitter breath of relief as they turned a bend, putting a solid shoulder of earth and stone between themselves and those accursed rifles.

At least they weren’t going to lose any more of their men, and he made himself a burning, hate-filled promise to repay Makhom and his Shan-wei worshiping bastards with interest for this day’s bloody work. They couldn’t have enough damned rifles to stand off the forces of God for long, and when the time finally came, Zhan Fyrmahn would take the time to teach them the cost of apostasy properly. Until then, though —

The end of the world cut him off in mid-thought.

He stumbled backward, flinging himself to the ground in shocked terror, as the ear-shattering explosion roared. No, not the explosion — it was an entire series of explosions, a chain of them roaring high up on the mountainside above the Trace, and he heard the high, distant screams of Tailyr’s men as they looked up into the maw of destruction.

It was a trap, Fyrmahn thought numbly, watching the entire side of a mountain erupt in red-and-black flowers of flying rock and snow. A long, cacophonous line of them, fifteen hundred yards and more in length. None of the charges were all that large individually, but there were a great many of them and they’d been placed very, very carefully. The sharp, echoing explosions folded together into a single, rolling clap of thunder . . . and then even the thunder disappeared into a far more terrifying sound as uncountable tons of snow and rock hammered down like Langhorne’s own Rakurai.

The avalanche devoured over a mile of mountain trail . . . and forty-eight more of Zhan Fyrmahn’s clansmen. Neither they, nor Lieutenant Zhak Tailyr, nor the body of a single one of his volunteers was ever found.

* * * * * * * * * *

“Think they got the message, Sir?” Trahskhat asked, watching the long, dark pall of windblown snow, rock, and dirt rising like a curtain above the Trace.

“Oh, I think they may have, Sailys,” Byrk Raimahn said softly. “I think they may have.”