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Midst Toil and Tribulation
By David Weber
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2012 David Weber
All rights reserved.
Gray Wall Mountains, Glacierheart Province, Republic of Siddarmark
Snow veils hung in the clear, icy air, dancing on the knife-edged wind that swirled across the snowpack, and the highest peaks, towering as much as a mile higher than his present position, cast blue shadows across the snow.
It looked firm and inviting to the unwary eye, that snowpack, but Wahlys Mahkhom had been born and raised in the Gray Walls. He knew better, and his eyes were hard and full of hate behind his smoked-glass snow goggles as his belly snarled resentfully. Accustomed as he was to winter weather even here in the Gray Walls, and despite his fur-trimmed parka and heavy mittens, he felt the ice settling into his bones and muscles. It needed only a momentary carelessness for a man to freeze to death in these mountains in winter, even at the best of times, and these were far from the best of times. The Glacierheart winter burned energy like one of Shan-wei's own demons, and food was scarcer than Mahkhom could ever remember. Glacierheart's high, stony mountainsides and rocky fields had never yielded bountiful crops, yet there'd always been at least something in the storehouses to be eked out by hunters like Mahkhom. But not this year. This year the storehouses had been burned — first by one side, then by the other in retaliation — and the fields, such as they were, were buried beneath the deepest, bitterest snow anyone could remember. It was as if God Himself was determined to punish innocent and guilty alike, and there were times — more times than he liked to admit — when Wahlys Mahkhom wondered if there would be anyone left alive to plant the next year's crops.
His teeth wanted to chatter like some lowland dancer's castanets, and he dragged the thick scarf his mother had knitted years ago higher. He laid the extra layer of insulation across the snow mask covering his face, and the hatred in his eyes turned harder and far, far colder than the winter about him as he touched that scarf and with it the memory of why his mother would never knit another.
He raised his head cautiously, looking critically about himself once more. But his companions were as mountain-wise as he was. They were just as well hidden under the white canopies of the sheets they'd brought with them, and he bared those edge-of-chattering teeth in hard, vengeful satisfaction. The snowshoe trek to their positions had been exhausting, especially for men who'd cut themselves dangerously short on rations for the trip. They knew better than that, of course, but how did a man take the food he really needed with him when he looked into the eyes of the starving child who would have to go without if he did? That was a question Wahlys Mahkhom couldn't answer — not yet, at any rate — and he never wanted to be able to.
He settled back down, nestling into his hole in the snow, using the snow itself for insulation, watching the trail that crept through the mountains below him like a broken-backed serpent. They'd waited patiently for an entire day and a half, but if the target they anticipated failed to arrive soon, they'd be forced to abandon the mission. The thought woke a slow, savage furnace of fury within him to counterpoint the mountains' icy cold, yet he made himself face it. He'd seen hate-fired determination and obstinacy kill too many men this bitter winter, and he refused to die stupidly. Not when he had so many men still to kill.
He didn't know exactly what the temperature was, although Safehold had remarkably accurate thermometers, a gift of the archangels who'd created Mahkhom's world. He didn't have to know exactly. Nor did he have to know he was nine thousand feet above sea level on a planet with an axial inclination eleven degrees greater and an average temperature seven degrees lower than a world called Earth, of which he had never heard. All he had to know was that a few moments' carelessness would be enough to —
His thoughts froze as a flicker of movement caught his eye. He watched, scarcely daring to breathe, as the flicker repeated itself. It was far away, hard to make out in the dimness of the steep-walled pass, but all the fury and anger within him had distilled itself suddenly into a still, calm watchfulness, focused and far colder than the mountains about him.
The movement drew closer, resolving itself into a long line of white-clad men, slogging along the trail on snowshoes like the ones buried beside Mahkhom's hole in the snow. Half of them were bowed under heavy packs, and no less than six sleds drawn by snow lizards accompanied them. Mahkhom's eyes glittered with satisfaction as he saw those sleds and realized their information had been accurate after all.
He didn't bother to look around for the other men buried in the snow about him, or for the other men hidden in the dense stands of evergreens half a mile farther down that icy trail from his icy perch. He knew where they were, knew they were as ready and watchful as he himself. The careless ones, the rash ones, were already dead; those who remained had added hard-learned lessons to the hunter's and trapper's skills they'd already possessed. And like Mahkhom himself, his companions had too much killing to do to let themselves die foolishly.
No Glacierheart miner or trapper could afford one of the expensive Lowlander firearms. Even if they could have afforded the weapons themselves, powder and ball came dear. For that matter, even a steel- bowed arbalest was hideously expensive, over two full months' income for a master coal miner, but a properly maintained arbalest lasted for generations. Mahkhom had inherited his from his father, and his father from his father, and a man could always make the ammunition he needed. Now he rolled over onto his back under his concealing sheet. He removed his over-mittens and braced the steel bow stave against his feet while his gloved hands cranked the windlass. He took his time, for there was no rush. It would take those men and those snow lizards the better part of a quarter hour to reach the designated point, and the mountain air was crystal clear. Better to take the time to span the weapon this way, however awkward it might be, then to risk skylining himself and warning his enemies of their peril.
He finished cranking, made sure the string was securely latched over the pawl, and detached the windlass. Then he rolled back over, setting a square-headed quarrel on the string. He brought the arbalest into position, gazing through the ring sight, watching and waiting, his heart as cold as the wind, while those marching figures crept closer and closer.
For a moment, far below the surface of his thoughts, a bit of the man he'd been only three or four months earlier stared aghast at what was about to happen here on this high, icy mountain trail. That tiny fragment of the Wahlys Mahkhom who still had a family knew that many of those men had families, as well. It knew those families were as desperate for the food on those lizard-drawn sleds as the families he'd left huddling around fires in the crudely built cabins and huts where they'd taken shelter when their villages were burned about their ears. It knew about the starvation, and the sickness, and the death that would stalk other women and other children when this day's work was done. But none of the rest of him listened to that tiny, lost fragment, for it had work to do.
The center of that marching column of men reached the base of the single pine, standing alone and isolated as a perfect landmark, and under the ice- and frost-clotted snow mask protecting his face, Mahkhom's smile was the snarl of a hunting slash lizard. He waited a single heartbeat longer, and then his hands squeezed the trigger and his arbalest spat a sunlight-gilded sliver of death through that crystal mountain air.CHAPTER 2
Tellesberg Palace, City of Tellesberg, Kingdom of Old Charis, Charisian Empire
Merlin Athrawes sat silently in his darkened chamber, eyes closed as he contemplated images only he could see. He really ought to have been "asleep," taking the nightly downtime Emperor Cayleb had mandated, but he'd been following Wahlys Mahkhom's group of guerrillas through Owl's SNARCs for over a five-day, and the distant AI had been instructed to wake him when the moment came.
Now he watched bleakly as the arbalests sent their deadly quarrels hissing into the totally surprised supply convoy.
They should've been more cautious, he thought grimly. It's not like both sides haven't had plenty of experience murdering each other by now.
But they hadn't been, and now the men struggling to deliver the food their families needed to survive screamed as steel-headed shafts ripped into them. Steaming scarlet stained the snow, voices shouted frantic orders and useless warnings, the men trapped on the trail tried to find some shred of shelter, tried to muster some sort of defense, and another volley of bolts ripped into them from the other side of the narrow valley. They tried desperately to turn the sleds, tried to break back the way they'd come, but a trio of quarrels slammed into the rearmost snow lizard. It collapsed, screaming and snarling and snapping at its wounds, and the trail was too narrow. No one could get past the thrashing, wounded creature, and even as they discovered that, the other jaw of the ambush — the men hidden in the evergreens where the valley floor widened, armed with swords and axes and miner's picks — flung themselves upon the stunned and decimated convoy.
It didn't last long. That was the sole mercy. No one was taking prisoners any longer — not in Glacierheart, not on its frontier with Hildermoss. Caring properly for one's own wounded was close enough to impossible under the brutal, broken-backed circumstances; no one had the resources to waste on the enemy's wounded ... even if anyone had been willing to spare an enemy's life. But at least Mahkhom's band wasn't as far gone as some of the guerrillas stalking one another through the nightmare which had once been the Republic of Siddarmark. They spared no one, but the death they meted out was clean and quick, without the torture and mutilation which had become the norm for all too many on both sides of the bitter hatred which had ripped the Republic apart.
Only three of the attackers were wounded, just one of them seriously, and they stripped the dead with quick, callous efficiency. The wounded snow lizard was dispatched with a cut throat, and half a dozen raiders harnessed themselves to the heavy sled. Others shouldered packs taken from the dead men whose naked corpses littered the snow, and then they were gone, slogging off down the trail to the point at which they could break away towards their own heavily guarded mountain fastness.
The bodies behind them were already beginning to freeze in the bitter cold.
As he watched the attackers hurrying off, Merlin felt unclean as he realized he didn't feel the horror those freezing bodies ought to have evoked in him. He felt bitter, helpless regret as he thought about the women and children who would never see fathers or sons or brothers again, and who would succumb, quickly or slowly, to malnutrition and the icy cold of the winter mountains. And he felt a blazing anger at the man who was truly responsible for what had happened not just here in this single mountain valley but throughout the entire Republic in the months since Zhaspahr Clyntahn's Sword of Schueler had been launched at Siddarmark's throat. Yet as he gazed down through the SNARCs at the corpses stiffening in the snow, he could not forget, try as he might, that they were the corpses of Temple Loyalists. The bodies of men who had reaped the savage harvest of their own sowing.
And buried within the rage he felt at the religious fanatics who'd let themselves be used as Clyntahn's weapon — who'd torched food supplies, burned villages, massacred families on the mere suspicion they might harbor Reformist sympathies — was his fury at himself. Cayleb and Sharleyan might regret all too many of the things they'd been called upon to do to resist the Group of Four's tyranny, but they weren't the ones who'd touched off the cataclysm of religious war on a planetary scale. No, that had been the doing of Merlin Athrawes, who wasn't even human. Who was the cybernetic avatar of the memories of a young woman almost a thousand years dead. Someone without a single drop of real blood in his veins, immune to the starvation and the cold claiming so many lives in the Siddarmarkian mountains this terrible winter.
And worst of all, it had been the doing of someone who'd known exactly how ugly, how horrible, religious warfare — the most dreadful, all-consuming warfare — could be. As he looked at those bodies, Merlin knew he could never pretend he hadn't known this was exactly where any religious war must lead. That hating, intolerant men would find in religion and the name of God the excuse to commit the most brutal, barbaric acts they could imagine and congratulate themselves upon their saintliness even as they did. And that when that happened, men like Wahlys Mahkhom, who'd come home from a mountain hunting expedition to find his village burned to the ground by Clyntahn's followers and his entire family dead, would find the counter-hatred to be just as brutal, just as merciless, and call their vengeance justice. And perhaps the most hellish thing of all was that it was impossible to blame Mahkhom for reacting just that way. What else could any sane person expect from a man who'd found his mother hacked to death? Who'd buried his three children, the eldest of them less than six years old, and held his wife's raped and mutilated body in his arms while he sobbed out the wreckage of a heart which would never heal? Indeed, it was a miracle he and his followers had given their enemies clean deaths, and all too many other Reformists wouldn't have. They would have given their foes exactly what their foes had given them, and if along the way they caught some innocent who was simply trying to survive in the chaos and the cruelty and despair, that was just the way it was.
It's feeding on itself, he thought, shutting away the image of those naked bodies at last. Atrocity leads to counter-atrocity, and men who can't avenge themselves on the ones who murdered their loves avenge themselves on anyone they can catch. And that creates still more hatred, still more thirst for vengeance, and the cycle goes right on building.
Merlin Athrawes was a PICA, a creature of alloys and mollycircs, of fiber optics and electrons, not flesh and blood. He was no longer subject to the biochemistry of humanity, no longer captive to adrenaline and the other physiological manifestations of anger and fight-or-flight evolutionary programming. And none of that mattered one whit as he confronted the hatred burning inside him and his inability to penetrate the far-off temple in the city of Zion.
If I could only see what's happening there, he thought with an edge of despair. If I could only know what they're doing, what they're thinking ... planning. None of us saw this coming in time to warn Stohnar — not about anything he hadn't already picked up on his own, at any rate. But we should've seen it coming. We ought to've known what someone like Clyntahn would be thinking, and God knows we've had proof enough of the lengths to which he's willing to go!
In many ways, his ability — his and his allies'— to see so much only intensified and honed his frustration at being denied access to Zion. They had more information than they could possibly use, especially when they couldn't let anyone else suspect how that information had come into their possession, yet they couldn't peer into the one spot on the entire planet where they most urgently needed to see.
But it wasn't visions of Zion Merlin Athrawes truly wanted, and he knew it. What he wanted was to bring Zhaspahr Clyntahn and his fellows into his own reach for one, fleeting moment, and he wanted it with an intensity he knew had come to border all too nearly upon madness. He'd found himself thinking about Commodore Pei more and more frequently as the brutal winter of western Siddarmark grew steadily more and more savage. The Commodore had walked into Eric Langhorne's headquarters with a vest-pocket nuke; Merlin Athrawes could easily have carried a multimegaton city-burner into Zion and destroyed not simply the Group of Four but the entire Temple in a single cataclysmic blast. The death toll would have been hideous, but could it possibly be worse than what he was watching happen inch by agonizing inch in Siddarmark? Than the deaths this war had already cost Charis and its allies? Than the deaths it would cost in the months and years ahead?
And would it not be worth it to cleanse himself of the blood guilt for starting it by ending his life — if life it truly was — like the biblical Samson, bringing down his enemies in his own destruction?
Excerpted from Midst Toil and Tribulation by David Weber. Copyright © 2012 David Weber. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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