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    lomax61
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

Although the genre of fantasy, and this sub-genre of political fantasy, is a new one for me here on GA, I have been developing the world of Mulia in which this story takes place (and other stories in this world) for the best part of 20 years, so we are like old friends.

A link to the world map is included here, although I provide many descriptions in the story.

https://www.brianlancasterauthor.com/general-8

Stranded: Heart of Black Ice Bay - 14. Refuge

The villagers arrive.

Brathay stared down at the flagstones in his room, trying to make sense of what had just happened. Haycock, he could handle, but the discovery of the dragonfly brooch irked him. How had the item come to be in his bed? Or did Haycock have the thing palmed in his hand all the time? No, Brathay had watched him pull back the bedcovers with both hands, and even a seasoned trickster could not have managed such a calculating sleight of hand at such close proximity. The obvious reason had to be that the brooch had come loose while Millflower had been cleaning his room. Except that Brathay had begun to mistrust the obvious in Black Ice Keep.

To distract himself, he went to the small table and fished out food from the basket. His appetite had been diminished by Haycock's visit, but he knew to try to eat, to keep his stomach full and his mind busy. Even as he stood there, he marvelled at the gentle warmth of the room, neither cloying nor over-heated. After finishing one of the eggs with bread and dried fruit, he poured more tea. He took a seat, moved the basket to one side and picked up his notebook.

To his surprise, the intricate knot he had tied remained intact. Maybe time did not permit Millflower to check the entries that morning. Perhaps her haste explained the lost brooch. No doubt, after what he had overheard the night before, she would find another time.

After untying the knot, he opened his book to a new page and paused a moment. Although yearning for the palliative act of recording essential incidents from the eventful trek into his journal, he needed to be circumspect to avoid giving an uninvited reader information they could use against him. The exercise turned out to be a good discipline, documenting the ordinary events from the journey to and from Bear Lake, but carefully omitting any mention of the extraordinary.

When he had finished, he read his entries back and smiled. Little phrases and specific words he had used would trigger a private memory of the miraculous events of the previous day in years to come. Satisfied, he retied the string and decided to return his basket to the kitchen.

Outside, the worst snow blizzard Brathay had ever witnessed filled the skies above the keep. If anything, the vortex created by the mechanism had grown more potent along with more substantial beams of amber light emanating from below. Walls of white bordered the keep now, little visible beyond the granite boundaries. And yet, even with the harsh weather, the courtyard remained free, not only from fallen snow but from any moisture. Even if the crystals only provided warmth and light, they gifted the keep residents with the most essential tools for winter survival in these dire conditions.

Walking the corridors around the courtyard became an entirely new experience. Lit by the moonskulls and the chill replaced by warm air rising through vents, a visitor could have been mistaken into thinking they were enjoying a spring morning. Even the granite of the keep assumed a new character, no longer damp and gloomy and unwelcoming.

When he reached the refectory, everything had been cleared away, so he moved to the doorway leading into the kitchen. But for the second time that morning, a voice caught him, the same voice as earlier.

"Brathay," said Mrs Sturridge, unusually red-cheeked and flustered, waddling down from the head table of the refectory. "Thank goodness I found you. Mr Khraxwall says the villagers will soon be on their way. Today. Five hundred of 'em, including children. Says his lordship wants me to lay on a welcome meal for everyone tonight. For every one of 'em!"

"Calm down, Mrs Sturridge. I thought Marietta, the elder's wife, had offered to help in the kitchens?"

"And she will, I'm sure. But how can she today? She'll be packing up her things. And I don't want us to look hopeless, but I also don't have anything special."

"Come and sit down—" said Brathay, sitting on the nearest bench seat and placing his basket on the table.

"Sit down? Sit down! I don't have time to—"

"Mrs Sturridge. Come and sit down if you want me to help you."

By the time he had explained the wild boar recipe, she had calmed significantly. Roasting any meat over the kitchen fires would be easy for her team, she told him, although she had never had much use for marinades. Without prompting, she suggested using the wild mushrooms Bhod had collected from the forest to make a sauce for the meat. She could also make oil baked potatoes in the fat from the boar meat, plentiful supplies in the storeroom, and a fine accompaniment to other root vegetables.

"Excellent. Let me head back now and put together the marinade. The meat will need at least three hours to absorb the spices before cooking. From what my recipe book says, the mixture is potently aromatic, so you are likely to get soldiers stopping by again and drooling at the kitchen door—"

"Don't you worry yourself about them. I can take care of those rogues. Now, how about something sweet to serve for afterwards?"

"I am sure they will be happy with dried fruit—"

"Bhod picked sour cherries growing wild," said Mrs Sturridge proudly. "In the forest. Buckets of 'em. They'd be out of season back home, but not here. Maybe I'll steep them in a little of that leftover mead. What do you think?"

"I think you had better keep your talents quiet, Mrs Sturridge, unless you want word to get to King Bruckbar and have the royal chefs knocking on your door."

When a pleased Mrs Sturridge shoved Brathay's shoulder, he almost fell off the bench.

"Go on with you."

Standing up, Brathay passed her his breakfast basket and readied to leave, but then had a second thought and plucked the unopened jam and a roll from the container.

"Let me keep these for later. And by the way, how did your meeting go? With his lordship? Is there anything I need to know?"

"Only what you already do, that we're going to have another five hundred mouths to feed."

"Do we have any idea when they will arrive?"

“Like I said, they're setting off very soon. Have you not seen the weather out there? A thick blanket of snow. Never seen anything like it, not in all my days."

"In which case, I had best get going, too. Give me an empty jar and half an hour, and I will bring you back the best marinade these soldiers have ever sampled."

With Fullroy's simple instructions, he quickly put the mixture together. Brathay even had time to check the section for cherries and noted a couple of recommended items—marsh mint and flurric powder—to enhance and complement the flavour.

On his way back across the courtyard, Brathay came across a single horse and cart standing alone outside the refectory, a thick layer of snow covering the wooden crates. Inside the mess hall, he smirked to see all three of Mrs Sturridge's kitchen hands busy scrubbing down tables. Before he had a chance to ask them about the wagon, Bhod looked up at him and smiled, pointing to the back door into the kitchen. When he stepped through, he spotted Marietta standing at one of the larger block tables, deep in conversation with Mrs Sturridge. Five wooden crates sat against a wall.

"Are they arriving already?" asked Brathay.

"Only me and two others," said Marietta. Snow still coated the front of her coat, her nose and cheeks a deep shade of red. Brathay noticed a thick furry hat on a chair pooling water, also caked in thick snow. "Advance party. We brought the first of the wagons of food and bedding. Although the poor horses barely made the steep slope up here. Thought I might make myself useful and help Mrs Sturridge or Miss Millflower before everyone else gets here. But I understand you have tonight's meal in hand already."

"Marietta suggested sousing the sour cherries in an almond liqueur," said Mrs Sturridge. "Something she brought from Cormaland—and topping them off with two Sjin-Shatir specialities. A rich, creamy mousse made from goat's milk, and a light, locally-baked sponge. His lordship wanted a feast, and that's what we're going to give him. What do you think?"

"You already know what I think, Mrs Sturridge," laughed Brathay. "At this rate, the locals will never want to return to the village."

"Honestly, Brathay," said Marietta, chuckling and putting her hands to her cheeks. "The warmth here alone will keep everyone from going home. I have never known such foul weather. Are you going to tell me how you managed this little lifesaver?"

"All in good time. Is Fleming with you?" asked Brathay.

"He will come with the rest," said Marietta.

"And then the fool's heading back," said Mrs Sturridge, rolling her eyes. "Says he can't bring all his medicines with him, so he's going to board up inside the cottage and brave the weather. Says many of the potions are too precious to chance losing them to foul weather. Typical man. I got one just like him. Look, let me take that marinade from you and then we can get started on the meat. Why don't the two of you catch up for a moment, maybe in the mill room, while I get my girls to help unload the rest of the crates."

Brathay led Marietta into the back room, where they perched on upturned barrels. The temperature felt bearable even in the mill room, neither hot nor cold. Marietta removed her thick coat and sat down.

"Fleming should have said something," said Brathay. "I would have gladly come down and helped—"

"That is not the true reason, Brathay," said Marietta, after looking furtively over his shoulder. "The truth is we have been harbouring the soldier, Nhomakh. The man who was flogged for allegedly stealing food. Clearly, we cannot bring him here, and Fleming does not want to chance leaving him alone to fend for himself over the winter. As you have seen for yourself, our home is tucked into the cliff edge and much easier to keep warm. It usually escapes the worst of the weather. I promised to check on them each day from a high point in the keep if the weather permits. As long as I can see smoke rising from the chimney, I know they are both surviving. Naturally, I will fear for him and would have stayed if I had not promised Mrs Sturridge that I would help here. And Fleming also insisted I come to lend my support to you in case it is needed."

"Actually, I am relieved to hear the soldier is alive. You and Fleming are good people."

Marietta breathed out a deep sigh.

"Brathay, there is much I need to tell you. Nhomakh is a simple man, an honest man, and fiercely loyal to Lord Leonmarkh. He told us what happened, about being accused of a crime he did not commit. Something is amiss in this place."

"Yes, I know. I am beginning to understand as much. I have much to tell, too, but please go ahead."

Marietta rested her coat across her knees and nervously smoothed a hand along the material.

"Nhomakh was taken unaware by what happened. From his understanding, Mr Khraxwall found out about the missing crates from one of his staff and immediately passed the information to Nhomakh's captain—"

"Haycock?"

"Yes, that is the name. Nhomakh had been on storeroom duty that whole month. Which meant looking into the storerooms three times a day to make sure nothing had been moved around or taken without being signed out. None of the guards took the job particularly seriously back then. But he swore to us that he stole nothing. Occasionally he would take an extra piece of fruit from the refectory at morning break but often ended up giving that to another. When Khraxwall showed him the empty boxes stacked beneath the full ones, he was as shocked as everyone. This Haycock told him that somebody needed to confess and, if he admitted to the crime, Haycock would ensure Lord Leonmarkh meted out a more lenient punishment."

"Twenty lashes?"

"The poor man had no idea. Publicly, too, according to Fleming. But I suspect he would have endured fifty in private if he could have retained the recognition and respect of Leonmarkh and the rest of the platoon. Fleming had to work hard to convince him to come and stay with us. I honestly think the man intended to wander off into the winter's night when he left here, to take his own life in the wild, after the humiliation he had suffered."

"But he did not."

"For more than one reason. He finally agreed to stay because he may still be of use to his lordship, may still be able to do something to exonerate himself in Lord Leonmarkh's eyes. Brathay, more worryingly, Fleming has learnt things from him that disturbs us both greatly. Even here in the keep, Leonmarkh's life may be in danger—"

To reassure her, Brathay placed a hand on her arm.

"He knows. And so do I. Which is why I am acting as another pair of eyes for him."

"Then you should know this. Since we last met, I finally agreed to help out part-time at the local tavern. Most of the time, I ignore the things I hear there as meaningless tattle. Yes, even the Sjin-Shatir are not immune to idle talk. But I know for a fact someone from the keep has been selling Braggadach wares to the tavern. Traded for empire coin. The innkeeper told me. How this person used to communicate by bird messages, then meet them halfway between here and the town. Usually supplying fresh stocks of the things the Braggadachi soldiers request when they frequent the tavern; fresh fruit, dried meats, savoury biscuits, small barrels of speciality Khloradich beer."

"You said used to communicate?"

"The innkeeper is as principled as the rest of the Sjin-Shatir. When they met Nhomakh and learned the goods were not only stolen but how Nhomakh had been wrongly accused of the offence, they shut down any further communication."

"Did they mention a name?"

"They did not."

"And I imagine they did not describe him?"

"No detailed description, Brathay. But they referred to this person as a woman."

"A woman?"

Brathay's mind raced. Less than ten of the Braggadachi soldiers were women, including Bhullard. Eight house staff made up the rest of the female residents. He could never imagine Mrs Sturridge doing anything illicit, but Millflower? This time, Marietta reached a hand across and squeezed Brathay's arm.

"Before you start wracking your brains, trying to think who this woman might be, you ought to know that the innkeeper regularly gets our genders and pronouns confused. They do not have gender words for man and woman in their language, so use our common tongue words when talking about us. And they often get them confused. Once or twice they have referred to me as a man."

"You think they were mistaken?"

"I cannot say for sure. But the fact that somebody from the keep used to trade goods with them is beyond doubt. And the person is not Nhomakh. They met him and know his story."

"Will the innkeeper come to the keep today?"

"As far as I know, they will. But I am not sure they will want to help for fear they might incriminate themselves."

"You will introduce me, though? When they arrive?"

"If you wish," said Marietta, her gaze drawn to something over Brathay's shoulder. When Brathay twisted around, he saw Emiline, one of the kitchen maids, standing in the doorway.

"Miss Marietta, Mr Stonearm. Mrs Sturridge said to tell you the villagers are starting to arrive. His lordship and the captains will greet them inside the keep. But he wondered if the two of you would mind welcoming them from outside the keep, as you will be familiar faces to many of them. And then helping them settle in."

** ❄︎ **

Even with a thinner fall of snow on the approach to the gatehouse, a fierce wind whipped around the promontory. Brathay stood with Marietta and some of the house staff just inside the entrance to the gatehouse. Around the immediate grounds, very little snow had settled, the grassland crisp with frost but otherwise clear.

Bent forward and coated in snowflakes, the Sjin-Shatir villagers materialised out of a wall of white on the slope, rising to the gatehouse. A seemingly never-ending trail of two or three persons, interspersed with horses and the occasional wagon, moved sluggishly up towards the keep. Clogged with ice and snow, eyes staring out from beneath thick hats and above tightly bound scarves appeared to relax as they approached the entrance. Few of them acknowledged any of the keep staff at first. Most of their gazes lifted upwards, marvelling at the swirling light in the sky that appeared to consume the fierce snowstorm.

As the frontrunners drew parallel with them, Marietta stepped forward and provided a short bow in the tradition of the Sjin-Shatir.

She murmured soft words of greeting in the local tongue, echoed back to her by the locals. Brathay took her lead and began doing the same. His memory of the Sjin-Shatir was of a people reserved and expressionless. Those passing into the keep appeared not only comforted but mesmerised, almost reverential, on witnessing the phenomenon rising from the centre of the courtyard.

Brathay did not recognise Fleming until he had almost reached them until he removed his snowy hat and unwrapped the scarf from around his face, his grey hair tied severely back and distinctive features immediately familiar. Before anything, he came to Marietta, who met him with a hug. While they spoke, Brathay continued issuing the greeting, pronouncing the words as good as possible.

"Well met, dear friend," said Fleming, pulling Brathay to him for a quick, snowy hug. "We have much to speak of, but not here in the open. Come and find me when you are finished here."

Once the last of the villagers had arrived, Brathay made his way back inside. The sight around the courtyard brought an instant smile to his face. Finally, the keep had come to life with the crowds of inhabitants the fort had been initially built to hold. Soldiers looked on bemused, witnessing the open affections of Sjin-Shatir couples standing with their arms around one another, who appeared to be—in the eyes of the warriors—of the same gender. Brathay spotted Dnan and their heavily pregnant partner conversing with Mjaj. Having removed their snow-clad coats, many of the children played with each other, touching each other's cheeks then bending to marvel at the warmth of the keep flagstones. Older Sjin-Shatir villagers lined the wall boundary to the snow-fire light, kneeling and performing a ceremony, bowing their heads and placing their hands above their heads.

Brathay stood fascinated, watching the ritual, and had not realised Fleming stood next to him until the familiar voice started speaking.

"Their actions may seem alien and a little out of character, but they consider themselves blessed. Mjaj told me that, in all of their parent's eighty-nine years, they have only ever heard about the keep illumination. Even the grandparents and great-grandparents had never seen the spectacle with their own eyes. Along with you and me, they would have seen the cave drawings in the hot springs. The Sjin-Shatir believe this light is produced within the life space created between Great Mudjadah and Njadullo, brother and sister, the bear and the sea serpent. Only then when a great need arises. What you have done here is truly wondrous."

"Leonmarkh and I only followed the instructions left by previous Watchmen."

"Maybe. But in doing so, you have provided light and warmth and hope in the dark heart of the cruellest of winters. Leonmarkh will be remembered by the Sjin-Shatir for this and his generosity for many generations to come. And now Marietta tells me you are working your magic with a welcome meal tonight. She has forbidden me from returning home until I have feasted with you all—and I know better than to object."

Brathay laughed while looking around the courtyard. His eyes landed upon Zhorman's back and Leonmarkh facing him, listening to his captain talking. Zhorman's attention was trained on the beacon tower while Leonmarkh had been gazing at Brathay. When their eyes met, Leonmarkh nodded briefly before following the direction of Zhorman's attention.

"Marietta says she told you about Nhomakh," murmured Fleming, oblivious to the exchange. "He is not the man he has been made out to be, Brathay. His only fault was being too trusting and loyal. His spirit has almost been broken. Almost. He has a family—a wife and four children—back in Khloradich that he fears he will never see again. How can he? He will not be allowed to return to his home in disgrace—"

Brathay noticed Leonmarkh moving towards them through the crowd with Zhorman beside him.

"Fleming," warned Brathay, nodding his head to indicate the two men. Leonmarkh had clearly noticed the exchange, looking between Brathay and Fleming.

"Mr Fleming," said Leonmarkh, standing before them. "Thank you for coming. This is my head captain, Zhorman."

The two men nodded to each other, Zhorman unsmiling, appearing to weigh up this new arrival. From his own experience, Brathay imagined Zhorman would be suspicious of all the new arrivals.

"I would like a word with you in my chambers, Mr Fleming. About arrangements and other logistics, so you can pass the communication on to the villager elders. What hour is it now?"

"The midday hour is about to be rung," said Zhorman, looking to the bell above the gatehouse exit.

"Perfect. I have other matters to attend to first. Can you come and see me at one?"

"Of course, your lordship," said Fleming, with a single nod of his head.

"Mr Stonearm. Show Mr Fleming to my quarters when the time comes."

Brathay nodded but said nothing.

"Will you need me to attend?" asked Zhorman, after smirking at Brathay.

"I think your time would be best spent getting started on the work we have just discussed, don't you? This is about logistics and house procedures and does not warrant your valuable time. And I can easily brief Mr Fleming on matters of keep security."

Zhorman nodded. "As you wish. Should I ask Khraxwall to join you?"

"Thank you. That would be beneficial. Ask him to join us halfway past the hour," said Leonmarkh, his attention back on Fleming. "Until then."

Without another word, Leonmarkh turned away and headed towards the stables. Brathay breathed deeply. He knew Leonmarkh would be distancing himself, but the open displays of cold indifference felt worse than the suspiciousness he had experienced when he had first arrived.

"What have you done to antagonise Lord Leonmarkh?"

Startled, Brathay turned to Fleming before expelling a nervous chuckle.

"You noticed that? Come on. We will go to my chamber for privacy. Much has transpired since we last met. And I am sure you have things you need to tell me."

On the usually quiet upper floor to Brathay's chamber, the voices of children playing echoed around the open corridors. Doors of recently empty quarters stood open as villagers busied themselves settling into their new lodgings. Brathay smiled at the sight, further evidence of new life in the traditionally austere setting.

Once they were settled, Fleming insisted Brathay bring him up to date with everything that had transpired since his visit to the town. Brathay talked about his notebook spy and the people of the keep, about winning over the respect of the soldiers and Leonmarkh with the help of the spice box, and finally, chronicled the entire journey to and from Bear Lake. He only left out the intimate moments between himself and Leonmarkh and the private information Leonmarkh had shared on their return. Fleming listened without question or comment, nodding thoughtfully at times, quietly intrigued at the turn of events.

"First a serpent, then a bear, you say? Sacred symbols of the Sjin-Shatir? Surely that cannot be a coincidence. Maybe the talisman you hold is triggered when your life is threatened."

"I thought that too, but when I was young, I was trapped on a boat in a thunderstorm for three hours, and nothing happened. I thought maybe the triggering had to do with being this far north, but right here in the keep, Ligger tried to remove my head with his sword during combat training. And nothing happened to save me—"

"Nothing?" said Fleming, raising an eyebrow. "But your head appears to be very much attached?"

Brathay snorted. "Bhullard jumped in at the last minute. Wrested the sword from him."

"Then maybe help was not required," said Fleming, rubbing his chin. "If I remember correctly from our time in the hot springs, you have markings on the pendant."

"I do. But I have no knowledge of their meaning."

"Would you allow me to write down those symbols, so I can send them to one or two of my former colleagues at Aulderly?"

Brathay obliged immediately, tearing a page from his notebook and providing a slim charcoal stick, knife sharpened at the tip. He had never removed the pendant before but felt comfortable doing so in Fleming's presence. For that reason, he had never analysed the symbols, but studying them now, he realised they bore no resemblance to the more sophisticated ancient Braggadashi pictograms in the keep notebook. While Fleming sketched the shapes, Brathay continued talking.

"Since we last met, I feel I have gained the trust of Lord Leonmarkh. He has asked me to be his ears and eyes. And at your meeting, I need you to tell him what Marietta told me about Nhomakh."

Fleming copied the symbols with careful precision. They followed a pleasing simplicity, four symbols roughly carved into the teardrop-shaped stone, each sitting in a different vector of diagonally crossed lines. At Brathay's words, Fleming stopped and looked up.

"Why? Are you not going to be there? At the meeting?"

"If you were paying attention, you would have noticed that I was not invited. Zhorman certainly did. Leonmarkh does not want to appear to be favouring me in front of his soldiers or his house staff."

"Then how do you communicate?" said Fleming, finishing off, then folding the paper and tucking it away into his robe.

"I am sure he will find a way. One thing I have learnt about Lord Leonmarkh is that he is very resourceful when he needs to be. Come. It is almost time. Let me take you to him."

Before they left, Brathay dug out the black book containing the keep diagrams to return to Leonmarkh. Closing the door behind them, he wove a path through the crowded courtyard until he reached Leonmarkh's chamber. Out of habit, he pushed a hand on the ornate panelling but found the door locked this time. After knocking and waiting, when nobody answered, he was about to try again when he heard a bolt unlatched. Leonmarkh appeared in the crack before opening the door wide to allow them into the room.

"Your lordship," said Brathay, bowing outside the door and readying to leave. "I have Mr Fleming for you, as requested. I will leave you both to speak,"

"Brathay," said Leonmarkh, his face softening into a smile. "I need you both. I want you to stay, too."

"Of course, your lordship," murmured Brathay, with a gentle shake of his head, confused by the change of mood.

"Go on through and take a seat at my desk, Mr Fleming," said Leonmarkh, closing and locking the door behind them. "I need a private word with Brathay."

"My apologies, Leon," said Brathay, as soon as Fleming had moved out of earshot into the room. "I am finding our new arrangement baffling."

"I should be the one to apologise. But the change seems to be having the desired effect. How are you faring otherwise?"

Brathay pulled the black notebook from his pocket and held it out to Leonmarkh.

"I am fine. The more important question is, how are you? I read the message you left tucked inside the book. Leon, I am so sorry. I can't even imagine how you are feeling. I never got to meet your brother, Jacomine, but I can tell from the way you spoke about him that you were close."

Leonmarkh stilled a moment, his head hung low, staring down at the book. Brathay's heart filled with compassion, and he reached out a hand to squeeze Leonmarkh's upper arm. The simple gesture brought the lord's gaze back up, Leonmarkh even managing a gentle smile.

"Brathay, I promise. Once we both have a chance to breathe, I promise we will have more private time together. And then I will tell you all about my late brother."

"That would be wonderful," said Brathay, feeling his cheeks burning. "I miss your company."

"And I, yours," said Leonmarkh fondly, this time with a full smile. "In the meantime, keep the book in your possession. I am trusting your instincts and intellect that you will be able to make more sense of the content than I. Come. Let us not keep our guest waiting."

"Before we go in, I need to tell you about Fleming. I trust him absolutely, Leon. He and Marietta have been invaluable to me during my stay here, and like me, they bear no allegiance to any country or house. I told him about our trip to Bear Lake and the unusual events that occurred—I know we agreed to tell nobody, but he is someone who may be able to make sense of them. I have said nothing about your story, about the things you told me. That is between us. But you could do a lot worse than placing your trust in the two of them. That decision I will leave with you."

"Thank you, Brathay. Let me consider. I must say, when this weather has abated, it might prove useful to have an ally outside the keep."

Fleming sat patiently at the desk, his head tilted to one side, his gaze taking in the shelves of files behind the desk, trying to read the words on the spines.

"Thank you for coming, Mr Fleming. Those are the journals left by previous Watchmen. Not particularly engrossing reading, I fear," said Leonmarkh, taking a seat behind the desk. "Has anyone shown you to your quarters yet?"

"I forgot to tell you. Mr Fleming will not be staying," said Brathay, taking a stool next to Fleming. "He will return to the village after evening meal."

Leonmarkh frowned, his gaze swinging incredulous between Brathay and Fleming, but before he could voice his concern, Brathay spoke.

"Fleming, I think you need to tell his lordship what Marietta told me."

Brathay's remark caught Fleming off guard, and he looked startled at Brathay.

"Are you sure that is wise?"

"Trust me, Fleming. Lord Leonmarkh will want to know."

Leonmarkh took the news of Nhomakh grimly, nodding, occasionally closing his eyes and puffing out an irritated breath. Eventually, he stilled and stared Fleming in the eye. Brathay had seen Leon do the same thing a few times, freezing in place as his brain worked.

"I still regret what happened. And to say my hand was forced is no justification. Thank you for taking him in, Fleming. Nhomakh is a good man, a good soldier, and I have failed him, snubbed his loyalty."

"Lord Leonmarkh," Fleming ended. "There are things Nhomakh would not disclose to me. But I have the strong impression he has seen behaviour and overheard whispers that have disturbed him greatly, and after the way he was treated by your seniors, I fear you are the only one he will confide in."

"I understand," said Leonmarkh eventually, shaking off whatever invisible burden had been holding him back. "And I think I know of a way for us to speak. I would like to return to your home with you tonight. But we will need to do so covertly. Would you have room for another guest for one or two nights?"

"Of course, your lordship."

"Wait, Leon," said Brathay, startled at the pronouncement, objections rising. "You have only just returned. And look what happens when you are not here for one day?"

"My mistake was in not having one of my captains remain behind and in charge during my absence. Besides, what I am proposing will lead people to believe I am still here. Just not available—"

"Surely the gatehouse guards will recognise you if you try to walk out—"

"Not if you dress in the style of a local, your lordship," said Fleming, his eyes brightening. "I can easily find local attire to fit you. And a hat and scarf wrapped around your head will provide disguise enough. I will tell the gatehouse guards that I am returning to my home with a villager friend. And if they try to ask you anything, I will tell them you do not speak the common tongue."

"What about the weather—? "said Brathay, exasperated.

"We will be fine, Brathay," said Fleming. "The stable boy, Myxel, showed me a shortcut down to my home. The narrow path is a little steep and rocky, but for the most part, sheltered from the worst of the weather. We should be fine."

"I do not like this, Leon. Could I not go in your stead? Would that not be wiser for everyone rather than risk yourself?"

"Brathay—"began Leonmarkh, looking pained at Brathay's distress.

"Nhomakh will only impart what he knows for Leonmarkh, Brathay," said Fleming.

"Nhomakh's knowledge may prove the key to my—to our—survival. But we need to keep this strictly between us. Do not fret, Brathay. At tonight's grand evening meal, I will impart some important news to every keep inhabitant. And once I do, I know my soldiers will fully support me. But I will say no more right now because I need to speak to my captains first. All will become clear later. Now can I ask you to leave Fleming and me to speak further before Khraxwall arrives?"

Brathay stood from his seat but faltered a moment. Leonmarkh caught his eye and smiled.

"Trust me as I trust you, Brathay. I need to do this. And I promise to call for you the moment I return."

Thank you for reading.

Any reactions, comments, observations, interpretations, or guesses at what you think is to come, gratefully received.

You are almost caught up with all the chapters I have written to date. Almost. And yes, I know I need to write faster, but I also want to do the story justice and give you a quality tale. So forgive me if the posts slow a little over the Christmas season.

And if you are feeling generous, go to the Black Ice Bay summary page and click on the Recommend button, so that others may be tempted to read the story.

Copyright © 2021 lomax61; All Rights Reserved.
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That you very much for reading.

Any reactions, comments or observations are very much appreciated.

Let me know what would you think will happen next, or what you like to see happen.

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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