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This is a work of fiction.

All of the characters, organizations, and


events portrayed in this novel are either products of the authors
imagination or are used fictitiously.
midst toil and tribulation
Copyright 2012 by David Weber
All rights reserved.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC
175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
www.tor -forge.com
Tor is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Weber, David, 1952
Midst toil and tribulation / David Weber. 1st ed.
p. cm.
A Tom Doherty Associates book.
ISBN 978- 0-7653-2155- 8 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4299-4468-7 (e-book)
I. Title.
PS3573.E217M53 2012
813'.54dc23
2012024401
First Edition: September 2012
Printed in the United States of America
0

8 7

4 3

.I.
Gr ay W a ll M o u n t a i n s ,
G la c ier h e a r t P r ovi n ce ,
R epublic of S idda rm a rk

now 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 fi rm 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-weis own
demons, and food was scarcer than Mahkhom could ever remember. Glacierhearts high, stony mountainsides and rocky fields had never yielded bountiful crops, yet thered 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 burnedfirst 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 timesmore times than he
liked to admitwhen Wahlys Mahkhom wondered if there would be anyone
left alive to plant the next years crops.
His teeth wanted to chatter like some lowland dancers 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 theyd brought with them, and
he bared those edge- of- chattering teeth in hard, vengeful satisfaction. The

14 /

DAVID WEBER

snowshoe trek to their positions had been exhausting, especially for men
whod 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 couldnt
answernot yet, at any rateand 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. Theyd waited patiently for
an entire day and a half, but if the target they anticipated failed to arrive
soon, theyd 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. Hed 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 didnt know exactly what the temperature was, although Safehold
had remarkably accurate thermometers, a gift of the archangels whod created Mahkhoms world. He didnt 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 fl icker of movement caught his eye. He watched,
scarcely daring to breathe, as the fl icker 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 whiteclad men, slogging along the trail on snowshoes like the ones buried beside
Mahkhoms hole in the snow. Half of them were bowed under heavy packs,
and no less than six sleds drawn by snow lizards accompanied them. Mahkhoms eyes glittered with satisfaction as he saw those sleds and realized their
information had been accurate after all.
He didnt 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 hunters and trappers skills theyd 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

MIDST TOIL AND TRIBULATION

15

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 mastercoal
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
hed 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 hed left huddling around fires in
the crudely built cabins and huts where theyd 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 days 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, Mahkhoms 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.

.II.
Te lle s b e r g P alac e ,
City of Tellesber g ,
Kingdom o f O ld Ch a ri s ,
Char is ia n E m pi re

erlin 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 hed been following Wahlys Mahkhoms group of guerrillas through
Owls 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 shouldve been more cautious, he thought grimly. Its not like both sides
havent had plenty of experience murdering each other by now.
But they hadnt 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 theyd 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 ambushthe men hidden in the evergreens where the valley floor widened, armed with swords and axes and
miners picksflung themselves upon the stunned and decimated convoy.
It didnt last long. That was the sole mercy. No one was taking prisoners
any longernot in Glacierheart, not on its frontier with Hildermoss. Caring
properly for ones own wounded was close enough to impossible under the
brutal, broken-backed circumstances; no one had the resources to waste on
the enemys wounded . . . even if anyone had been willing to spare an enemys life. But at least Mahkhoms band wasnt 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 be-

MIDST TOIL AND TRIBULATION

17

come 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 didnt 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 Clyntahns
Sword of Schueler had been launched at Siddarmarks 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 whod let
themselves be used as Clyntahns weaponwhod torched food supplies,
burned villages, massacred families on the mere suspicion they might harbor Reformist sympathieswas his fury at himself. Cayleb and Sharleyan
might regret all too many of the things theyd been called upon to do to
resist the Group of Fours tyranny, but they werent the ones whod touched
off the cataclysm of religious war on a planetary scale. No, that had been the
doing of Merlin Athrawes, who wasnt 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 whod known
exactly how ugly, how horrible, religious warfarethe most dreadful, allconsuming warfare could be. As he looked at those bodies, Merlin knew
he could never pretend he hadnt 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

18 /

DAVID WEBER

could imagine and congratulate themselves upon their saintliness even as


they did. And that when that happened, men like Wahlys Mahkhom, whod
come home from a mountain hunting expedition to fi nd his village burned
to the ground by Clyntahns 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 whod found his mother hacked to
death? Whod buried his three children, the eldest of them less than six years
old, and held his wifes 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 wouldnt 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.
Its feeding on itself, he thought, shutting away the image of those naked
bodies at last. Atrocity leads to counter-atrocity, and men who cant 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-fl ight 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 whats happening there, he thought with an edge of despair.
If I could only know what theyre doing, what theyre thinking . . . planning. None of
us saw this coming in time to warn Stohnarnot about anything he hadnt already
picked up on his own, at any rate. But we shouldve seen it coming. We ought tove
known what someone like Clyntahn would be thinking, and God knows weve had
proof enough of the lengths to which hes willing to go!
In many ways, his abilityhis and his alliesto 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 couldnt
let anyone else suspect how that information had come into their possession,
yet they couldnt peer into the one spot on the entire planet where they most
urgently needed to see.
But it wasnt visions of Zion Merlin Athrawes truly wanted, and he knew

MIDST TOIL AND TRIBULATION

19

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. Hed 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 Langhornes 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 lifeif life it truly waslike the biblical Samson,
bringing down his enemies in his own destruction?
Oh, stop it! he told himself harshly. You know it was only a matter of time
before that lunatic Clyntahn wouldve unleashed the Inquisition on Charis even without your intervention. And do you really think for a moment he would ever have
stopped again, once hed tasted that much blood? Of course he wouldnt have! You may
be partlyeven largelyto blame for where and when the bloodletting started, but
you arent responsible for what was already driving it. And without your interference,
Clyntahn would alreadyve won.
It was true, and in his saner momentsthe moments when he didnt sit
in a darkened room watching the carnage, tasting the hate behind ithe
knew it was true. Just as he knew the Church had to be destroyed if humanity was going to survive its inevitable second meeting with the genocidal
Gbaba. But truth . . . truth was cold and bitter bread, laced with arsenic and
poisoned with guilt, at times like this.
Thats enough, a voice which sounded remarkably like Sharleyan Ahrmahks said in the back of his electronic brain. Thats enough. Youve seen what
you told Owl to show you. Dont sit here and beat yourself to death over things you
cant change, anyway. Besides, Caylebs just likely to check with Owl and find out you
stayed up late . . . again.
Despite himself, his lips twitched and a spurt of gentle amusement flowed
through his rage, blunting the sharp edges of his self-hatred, as he pictured
Cayleb Ahrmahks reaction if he did discover Merlins infraction. It wasnt
as if Cayleb or Sharleyan thought for a moment that even an emperors wrath
could make any impression on Merlin Athrawes if he chose to ignore it, but
that wasnt the reason Cayleb had issued his edict, nor was it the reason he
would have pitched a truly imperial tantrum over its violation. No, he would
have berated Merlin with every . . . colorful phrase he could come up with

20 /

DAVID WEBER

because he knew how much Merlin needed that. How much the PICA seijin
warrior of myth and legend needed to be treated as if he truly were still a
human being.
And perhapswho knew?Merlin truly was still human on some elemental level that went beyond fleshly envelopes and heartbeats and blood.
Perhaps he wasnt, too. Perhaps in the end it didnt matter how much blood
guilt he took upon his soul because perhaps Maikel Staynair was wrong. Perhaps Nimue Alban truly was as dead as the Terran Federationperhaps Merlin Athrawes truly was no more than an electronic echo with no soul to lose.
There were times he hoped that wasnt so, and other timeswhen he
thought of blood and pain, of thin-faced, starving children shivering in
mountain snowwhen he prayed it was.
My, you are feeling morbid tonight, arent you? he asked himself tartly. Maybe
Caylebs even righter than you thought to insist you get that downtime of his. And
maybe you need to get up in the morning and drop by the imperial nursery to hug that
goddaughter of yours and remember what this is all really about.
He smiled more naturally, dreams of guilt and bloodshed softened by
the memory of that laughing, wiggling small body in his arms like Gods
own promise the future would, indeed, somehow be worth its cost in the
fullness of time.
And it will, he thought softly, prepping the commands which would switch
him to standby mode. When you look down at that little girl and realize why youre
doing all thisrealize how much you love heryou know it will.

.III.
T h e Tem ple,
City of Zio n ,
T h e Tem ple L a n d s

hope you still think this was worth it, Zhaspahr, Vicar Rhobair Duchairn said grimly, looking across the conference table at the jowly Grand
Inquisitor.
Zhaspahr Clyntahn looked back with a face of bland, expressionless
iron, and the Church of God Awaitings treasurer managed somehownot
to snarl. It wasnt easy, given the reports pouring in from Siddarmark, and
he knew as surely as he was sitting there that the reports they were receiving
understated the destruction and death.
I dont understand why you seem to think all this is somehow my fault,
Clyntahn said in a flat voice. Im not the one who decided when and where
it was going to happenyou can thank that bastard Stohnar for that!

MIDST TOIL AND TRIBULATION

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