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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.
Copyright © 2012 by David Weber