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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.

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 - 16. Prisoner

Brathay reevaluates his position while locked in a cell.

Prisoner

When they reached the gatehouse, Zhorman stepped in front to engage a band of soldiers standing around talking together just inside the courtyard. Shouting a command, he pointed up to the beacon at the far end as he approached them. The ploy proved effective, diverting the soldiers' attention and allowing Khraxwall to move them unnoticed towards the northwestern tower.

On his first few days there, Brathay learned how the keep towers in the north were built into the rock promontory, with stairs only going down one level. They would need to cross to the southwestern tower to get to the lower floors.

Khraxwall led the way with Haycock in front of Brathay. Bhullard moved almost soundlessly behind. When he had last visited the lower floor to install the crystals, he had crossed the dark, unfathomable void with the aid of a single torch. Moonskulls fixed around the outer walls now provided a stark illumination to the whole dust-covered expanse, and ahead, around the granite wall which housed the snow-fire mechanism, the air warped and shimmered with heat. On top of that, a deep vibration pulsated through everything; the walls, the floors—even Brathay's bones.

"It is hotter than a Broxian whorehouse down here," muttered Haycock.

"Even though heat from the contraption is directed into flues in the building," said Khraxwall, veering to one side, "some of its fierceness escapes on this floor. The iron door in the granite encasing the device may appear dark but is furnace-hot. You will see I have placed a warning sign on a stool as near as I could outside. I recommend we stay close to the outer wall as we pass."

Within seconds, beads of perspiration from the sweltering humidity had begun to form on Brathay's head. Absently, he passed a hand across his brow, his fingertips coming away damp. When they filed past opposite the contraption door, Brathay felt an odd coldness and shimmering sensation on his upper thigh, indistinct but there nonetheless, like the touch of an icy hand. Involuntarily, he shivered. When he looked down at his leg, he noticed nothing unusual, and as they passed by, the sensation faded. Nobody else appeared to have detected or sensed anything, everyone following the dazzling white line of light from the moonskulls filling the cavernous space.

Khraxwall halted them at the far end, by the stairwell to the southwestern tower, as he pulled one of the torches from a wall socket. Even after descending a few steps, toxic odours—faint at first—began to rise from the depths. Before they reached the third level, Khraxwall stopped and turned to them.

"If you have a scarf or kerchief or cloth with you, I recommend you cover your mouth and nose. Otherwise, use the crook of your arm."

Without another word, they descended the final steps and entered the darkened floor. Light from Khraxwall's lone torch illuminated small concrete cells on their left built against the west wall, over a dozen of them. Each had a solid iron door and a square portal at head height with iron bars.

"Ugh," came Haycock's muffled voice from in front. Brathay could see he had a scarf tied at the back of his head, probably to cover his lower face. "What brand of unholy smell is that? Has something died down here?"

"Or someone?" added Bhullard.

"Much of the odours have been here for centuries, but keep waste also circulates down to this level and empties out into the sea from ducts in the east wall."

Khraxwall had been right about the eye-watering stench, sour and pungent, of rancid food combined with excrement and something indeterminable but equally unpleasant. Moreover, Brathay had been unprepared for the frosty coldness, cosseted by the recent warmth of the snow-fire crystals.

"This one has a bunk attached to the wall," said Khraxwall, stopping at the fifth or sixth cell. He held the torch aloft to allow them to view inside. Heavy chains held a single board of thick wood in place. Dirt blackened wood chips and filthy straw covered the floor, with some kind of dark congealed substance rising from the corners of each wall. "As I mentioned, most of them have been removed by previous custodians to house livestock. This cell also has a key in the door."

"This will suffice," said Haycock, turning to Brathay. "In you go, apprentice."

"Wait," said Bhullard, moving to stand before Brathay. "Let me check to see if he carries any weapon. I would hate to be the one telling Leonmarkh that he took his own life while in our custody."

Bhullard patted Brathay's clothes and froze briefly when her hand touched the notebook. After looking up at him, she grinned before kneeling down and patting down each of his legs.

"Nothing. He is unarmed," she said, stepping away.

Brathay stood his ground for a moment, peering into the tiny room.

"I need to say again that I did not commit this crime. What do you think Lord Leonmarkh will say and do when he finds you have wrongly imprisoned me? I doubt he will be lenient."

"He will understand," said Haycock. "I wager he would even have done the same had he been here. Let me ask you, what would you do in Zhorman's place if circumstances were different? Let us say that Nokh Sturridge's belt was found on the ramparts, and Millflower's pin was found in his room? If you were in charge, would you be happy for the man to roam freely around the keep?"

"I would at least allow him the opportunity to defend himself—"

"And you will have that opportunity. Once Leonmarkh emerges. In the meantime, please enter so that we can go about our business. I promise you I will arrange for blankets to be brought to you."

Brathay looked past Haycock to Bhullard, and although he saw sympathy there, he knew she would not go against the orders of Zhorman. As soon as he moved into the cell, Khraxwall clanged the door closed behind him, the bolt sliding into place and the key turning instantly in the lock.

"Once the guard arrives," said Haycock. "We will head off but will leave one torch on the wall outside your cell. Give you and the guard on duty light—"

"Someone comes now," said Bhullard.

But the distinctive voice outside the cell, echoing loudly off the walls, did not belong to the guard.

"Are you all unhinged?" came the deep, angry voice of Ligger, of all people. "The lad has not a bad hair on his head. Since he got here, he has done only good. He is no more a murderer than you or I. And I, for one, will not stand by and let this—"

"Control yourself, big man. Zhorman has ordered him kept here temporarily," said Bhullard. "Until his lordship finishes his time of mourning."

"Who is the accuser?" bellowed Ligger. "Is it you, Khraxwall?"

"You did not see what we saw, Captain Ligger," said Khraxwall. "She was strangled with his belt and tossed over the ramparts like a bucket of keep waste—"

"As much as I hate to say this, Ligger, the evidence is substantial—" began Bhullard.

"I will not allow this, I tell you," shouted Ligger. "He is not a dog to be caged. And this place reeks of animal shit and rotted fish and death. Did none of you even discuss bringing Leonmarkh from his mourning—?"

"Captain Ligger, stand down," came Zhorman's voice from a little way off. He appeared to be arriving hurriedly on the scene and was accompanied by the metallic sound of swords being drawn. Brathay could feel the tension thick in the air.

"Ligger! Do not be a fool!" came Haycock's shout.

"Lower your weapon," said Bhullard, her voice quiet but deadly. "You know I alone can best you. And there are two other fine swordsmen here who will back me."

Even for Ligger, having the other captains opposing him would have been a fight impossible to win. Moreover, Brathay did not want anyone going to Leonmarkh's chamber and finding nobody there.

"Ligger, please," called Brathay, his face pressed against the cold metal bars of the door. "Do not get yourself hurt on my account. I will be fine. And I vow to willingly answer to Lord Leonmarkh, but not until he is free from his Rebirth isolation. Please do not interrupt him on my account. I am more than strong enough to survive this place for a few days."

After a long pause, Brathay heard the sound of swords being sheathed, and soon afterwards, the face of Ligger appeared on the other side of the portal. Beyond him, Brathay noticed another figure arrive carrying a torch.

"I have no doubt," said Ligger, still testy but his anger abating. He appeared distraught at the injustice, and Brathay felt a moment of gratitude at the man's unanticipated support. "But you should not need to."

"Then you can help me by promising to be present when my room is searched. And make sure Marietta from the village is also in attendance. Someone independent. Will you do that for me?"

"You have my word," said Ligger.

"When the time is right," called Zhorman, talking to Ligger's back, "he will be awarded a fair trial. Until then, the apprentice remains here. Now the guard has arrived, we need to get back to work. Much longer, and we will begin to raise suspicion."

"Guard," said Haycock to the man. "Here is the key to the door. Unless sanctioned by Captain Zhorman, you will not let anyone into the cell with the prisoner. And I include myself, Bhullard and Captain Ligger in that command. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir."

At the sound of their departing footfalls, Brathay moved over to the bench and lowered himself to sitting. After a moment, he bounced with his backside a couple of times to test the plank's stability. The rough wood did not budge even a fraction but, more importantly, did not collapse onto the floor with age. After a deep sigh, he laid out on his side along the surface, his knees tucked up into his chest and arms wrapped around them. Light from the torch outside cast an abstract pattern on one wall. Within moments, a suffocating silence filled the void. His sense of smell had already begun to adapt to the foul odours, but nothing could shake the coldness.

One night, he told himself. He only had to bear his ordeal for one night.

At least, he hoped so.

** ❄︎ **

Apart from the stiffness of the bunk's board, the thump of his heart and urgent questions buzzing around in his head refused to let him doze. After tossing and turning a couple of times and still finding no comfort, he stood and began pacing the cell.

His mind kept snagging on Khraxwall's mention of building a scaffold above the gatehouse. Was that be where he would end his days? For a crime he did not commit? He had seen three hangings in his short life, back in Thiradon, all for the act of murder, and each one had left a hollow sickness inside him.

No, he told himself, that would not be his fate. He had to be smart right now, use the mental training discipline he had excelled at in Aulderly and try to outthink whoever had put this insidious plan together.

Who had taken his belt? He had carefully stowed that in his luggage, so the person had to be Millflower or one of the chambermaids. Or maybe not. He never left his chamber locked during the daytime. Before the beaconwood fire, anybody could have entered his room when he was away. Had the same person left the brooch behind? And if someone other than a chambermaid had entered, was it possible somebody had witnessed them? During the day, with most soldiers on duty, Brathay rarely saw another soul on his floor, not until Zhorman decided to place a guard by the stairs.

Apart from Millflower, whose other voice had he heard in the stairwell? He should have descended further, should have identified the other person. But then, if he had been caught, he might have suffered the same fate as Millflower.

Something also nagged him about the sight of Millflower's body. Once the physician had pointed out the mark, Brathay could see as clearly as the rest that his belt had been used. Oddly though, the expression of her death mask appeared almost serene. During the examination at the beach, the physician had said something to Mjaj, seemed to have found something else that Mjaj had purposely not translated. What else had they discovered?

If only Fleming and Leonmarkh were still around. At the time, he had avoided thinking about them not succeeding. But now, he could not help wondering what would happen if the weather got worse and Leonmarkh became stranded. When Zhorman found Leonmarkh missing, would he go ahead with the trial? And if so, what hope did Brathay have of being treated equitably? By their expressions alone, he could tell that most of the captains considered him guilty. Only Ligger appeared to be on his side, but his influence alone would not sway the others. Bhullard would surely side with Haycock and Zhorman.

Instead of feeling better by raking things over and pacing, Brathay had only succeeded in speeding up the beat of his heart and feeling more desperate and gloomy. Until the reassuring voice of Brokerman sounded in his head, with words he had heard many times before from whenever Brathay experienced moments of heightened stress.

"Breathe, Apprentice. Still your mind by focusing your breathing. Four for the sea winds, in through the nose. Seven for the archers, hold and control. Eight for the great falls, out through the mouth. In to the count of four. Hold for seven. Release to the count of eight."

Brathay went back to his bunk and sat cross-legged on the board. Placing a hand on each knee, he followed his simple mantra ten times, paused, then carried on again, until eventually his heart rate slowed and his mind cleared. Even then, he continued, ignoring the cold, the smell, the darkness, his own fears, until all he could hear was the steady beating of his heart.

Hushed voices outside the cell brought him from his meditation, and he moved into a sitting position on the bench. One belonged to the guard, but the other was too quiet to recognise. He almost laughed at how they spoke in hushed tones when he was confident a person could scream down there, and nobody would hear anything. After a few moments, Marietta's comforting voice sounded through the bars. She wore a thick scarf encasing her whole head with only her face poking through and held up a lantern.

"Brathay? Are you awake?"

"Wide awake."

"I come bearing gifts. Blankets, food and, above all, company. Captain Zhorman told me what happened. He asked me to bring you these and said you would welcome a friendly face. Gorrikh here is going to open the door and let me in."

"Gonna have to lock you in, ma'am," said the guard, unlocking the door. "Captain's orders. Until you're ready to go."

"Naturally, Gorrikh, dear. You need to do your duty. Is that herb patch working yet?"

"M'am, thank you so much for this. Fits neatly between the layers of my face scarf. It's like breathing fresh mountain air now. Can't thank you enough."

"Good. Bhullard told me about the odours down here, so I made a little fragrant potion and infused a cloth for the guard." Marietta stepped into the cell with the lantern held aloft, and a large bundle clutched under her other arm. She smiled briefly at Brathay before placing the lamp on a wall ledge just inside the cell. Straight afterwards, she pulled the door closed behind her and remained there while the guard locked up. "Now go and take a seat, Gorrikh, dear, and eat your food while I have a nice chat with our Mr Stonearm. Chezikh told me he will come down and replace you once the evening meal is done. And I will call you when I am finished."

"Thank you, ma'am."

Marietta turned from the door and gave Brathay a sympathetic smile that threatened to undo his weak resolve. He stood when she came over, placed the bundle onto the bench, and gave him a hug.

"Did you not think to bring me one of those herb patches?"

Marietta perched down on the bench and pulled him next to her before placing a finger over her lips.

“Hush. I have something for you, too," she said aloud before dropping her voice to a whisper. "Besides, you do not want one of those. In five minutes, he will be fast asleep. For at least an hour. And Chezikh will not be here for another three. We have a lot to discuss, Brathay Stonearm. And I do not want us to be overheard. But before we get started, I want you to wrap these locally-woven coverings around you. And I have piping hot rice soup and soft rolls from Mrs Sturridge. She says she swears by the combination when her husband is unwell. I added a few touches of my own to help the flavour."

Despite the miserable coldness and his dull mood, Brathay chuckled. Marietta helped him with the blankets, wrapped them around his torso and legs, then served him a cup of soup. Steam rose from the cup as Brathay positioned his nose over the rim, inhaling the odour then blowing on the surface. That morning he had been intercepted before he had eaten a morsel and his stomach complained now as he waited for the thick broth to cool. When he finally took a sip, the flavour energised him, warming him from the inside out.

"Thank you, Marietta. You have no idea—"

"Yes, I think I do. You are not alone, Brathay. Everyone sends their best, although they believe you are locked in your room with a nasty winter ailment. Captain Zhorman told me everything—"

"I did not kill Millflower," he said urgently.

"Come on, Brathay. Nobody with an ounce of sanity could honestly believe you did. Even when the captain relayed the story, I saw flaws everywhere."

"I need someone to defend me if there is to be a trial. I thought maybe Fleming would agree to do so, someone who is not a native Braggadachi. What do you think?"

"First of all, I do not know when this weather will abate. And I doubt Leonmarkh would want to hold a trial while the villagers are still in residence. But I can certainly get word to Fleming if you wish. He would make a fine defence counsel. But would you not rather use someone who is here right now and who can do some investigating without anyone suspecting them? Someone who has also has experience in this kind of matter before and would relish the challenge?"

Brathay turned quizzically to her. "Who did you have in mind?"

"Men!" she said, rolling her eyes dramatically. "Are you all as obtuse as one another? Me, of course."

"Marietta, my apologies. Of course, I would be honoured to have you in my corner. But I do not want to get you into any trouble or danger."

“Save your sympathy. This old lady just drugged a guard. And I have found out some fascinating facts. Before I tell you anything, I need a detailed description of your movements from the evening dinner when Lord Leonmarkh talked about getting the rooms ready for the villagers, which seems to be the last time anyone heard Millflower’s voice—

"Not the last. Not for me, anyway.”

"I see," said Marietta, her eyes narrowing on him, her intrigue plain. "Well then, tell me everything you can, Brathay, up until your summoning to the seashore this morning. And then, tell me anything else you think might be relevant, such as the morning when you found the brooch in your room."

Being able to confide everything to Marietta felt almost as comforting as his dip in the hot springs. He replayed and retold every step he could remember, including the overheard conversation, to his hastily made-up room and the brooch found by Haycock on the morning he came there. Marietta took no notes but occasionally summarised what Brathay had said, especially when she picked up on points she wanted him to expand on, or if something was not entirely clear to her.

"The night of the beacon fire and the meal, anyone watching could tell she was not happy with the idea of the locals being housed here. I wonder if there was more to it than just the extra work. I am not sure if you remember, but Fleming and I stopped off on our way home to tend to Khraxwall's burns. I got the impression from him that she was not happy coming to Black Ice in the first place, but had done so out of loyalty to him. I imagine he feels terribly guilty about what has happened to her."

"Forgive me if I show no sympathy, but the man as good as offered to build a gallows for me today. At the moment, everything seems to be working against me."

"Well, here are a couple of things to lighten your mood. After Zhorman came to see me and told me what had happened, he insisted that I accompany him to your empty room where he intended to perform a search. All the captains were there when we arrived. I am not sure what happened with Captain Ligger, but he appeared uncharacteristically overjoyed to see me. Anyway, you will be happy to hear they found nothing. I also spoke to Mjaj and the physician this morning because I wanted to hear their account of what happened. You probably do not know this, but the physician is also the innkeeper of the village tavern who assists Fleming when he is busy. Mjaj said the poor person had a shock upon seeing Millflower's body. Apparently, the chamberlain is the person from the keep who had been trading stolen goods with them. So that is one mystery solved."

"Do you think there is a connection? Between her trading stolen goods and her murder?"

"We need more evidence, Brathay. But Nhomakh will feel vindicated with this knowledge. From what you have told me, I will speak to people and find out more. The most important thing for you right now is to know that I am entirely convinced you have been entrapped. I am just unsure why. Do you have any ideas, know of anyone who would want you gone?"

"When I first arrived, everyone wanted me gone, including Leonmarkh. But I like to think that if I have not entirely won their hearts, I have won their stomachs."

Marietta laughed lightly, nodding her head.

"Yes, you seem to be well-liked by everyone."

"I wonder if that will change when they know I am being accused of murder. I wish Leonmarkh were back among us."

"On that note, before they departed, Fleming came to seek my help in getting Leonmarkh back into the keep without causing a commotion. Tomorrow evening after five bells—the gatehouse guard changes at six—I will head out of the compound to search for and collect leaves from a hardy local plant that grows in all weathers and can aid against colds and other chest infections. I will take a villager of the same stature as Leonmarkh with me. We aim to head to a meeting point out of sight of the gatehouse beyond where the snow becomes thicker. There we will meet Leonmarkh on his route back. The villager with me will swap places with him. Leonmarkh will gift me with the leaves I am supposed to be gathering, while the villager will head to Fleming and update him on what has transpired here. Hopefully, when we return to the keep, the gatehouse guards will be none the wiser and Leonmarkh will be able to return to his chamber unnoticed. Do you want me to brief him on everything you have told me, Brathay?"

"Of course," said Brathay faltering. "Why would I not?"

"Everything? If there is a trial, he will undoubtedly be the main adjudicator. Are there things you would rather we kept to ourselves until you stand trial?"

"I trust Leonmarkh."

"Yes, that much I understand from what you have told me." Marietta paused and sighed, looking sympathetically at Brathay. "How can I put this delicately? Can you be entirely confident that he is not involved in any way?"

Until that particular moment, he had not considered the notion. The question felt almost insulting, as though in some way Marietta were casting doubt on Brathay's judgment.

"How could he be involved in my arrest? He was not here."

Marietta hummed and nodded but did not look Brathay in the eyes.

"What would you counsel?"

"I always advise caution, Brathay. In any situation. Fleming believes I am sometimes over-cautious, but I prefer things that way, would prefer to be proven wrong in some situations. I agree it is likely that Leonmarkh had no hand in your arrest, but ask yourself this. Was he here when the murder took place?"

Brathay's gaze swung to hers, his mind not quite grasping what she had said.

"Why would he want to kill Millflower?"

"I have no idea. Nor why anybody would have a motive to commit such a crime. Which is why I need to investigate further. I am only saying that nobody is above suspicion at the moment, not until there is proof to the contrary."

"Are you, Marietta? Are you above suspicion?"

"Of course not. And neither is Fleming. But fortunately for us, we have each other and Nhomakh to testify that we were secured in our cottage in the village on the last night Millflower was seen. And what I plan to do while you are confined here is to ask questions of others and gradually eliminate them from the list of potential murderers. No doubt, when Leonmarkh returns to us, he will want to speak to you. I just think that until you are absolutely certain of his innocence, you may want to think carefully about how much you actually tell him."

** ❄︎ **

After Marietta's visit, Brathay sat awake in the darkness, stewing over her words. Brokerman had once told him to be more hesitant when deciding to award someone his trust and said he tended to trust too easily. Is that what he had done with Leonmarkh? After all, he had no way of knowing whether the stories Leonmarkh told him were actually true. They conflicted with the version the duchess had recounted, and he had immediately sided with Leonmarkh. Had he trusted too quickly? The man could have purposely misguided and beguiled him, winning him to his side. But then he had seemed genuinely moved during the telling of his story, and Brathay believed he possessed good intuition and instincts when it came to a person's character.

Outside the cell, he could hear Chezikh snoring gently. Bunching up one of the blankets into a make-do pillow, Brathay laid back along the bench and tried to get comfortable. After a few moments, he closed his eyes and tried to slow his breathing. But sleep would not come. Turning onto his side, he felt something sharp digging into his hip and sat up to find the notebook still in his pocket.

Abandoning his attempt at sleep, he sat up and pulled the book out. By the pale light of the lamp Marietta had left on the ledge for him, he could only make the shadowy outline of the booklet. After he had fetched the lamp and placed the light on the bench next to him, he opened the cover page.

Something he had never noticed before—a golden smudge—glistened at the top of the page. When he rubbed his thumb across the mark, a gasp escaped him. A soft yellow illumination began to bleed around the previously nonsensical words. He snapped the book closed to staunch the light. Had the crystals triggered the book as he passed by? Perhaps that explained the sensation he had felt against his thigh as he passed by. After stilling for a moment and continuing to hear the soft grunt of Chezikh's snores, he opened the book again. Dark symbols on the first page had now morphed into words of light he could finally understand.

Watchman's Guide. Operation of Black Ice Keep.

He hiked in a breath and turned a page. Elements of black inked schematics remained the same as before. However, at the top right of each page—something he would surely have noticed before—there appeared a shimmering symbol like a thumbprint, which glowed a soft yellow. As he placed his forefinger onto the image, moving parts came to life on the page in flame orange, the ink glittering and glowing like liquid fire around words and drawings.

When he turned to a schematic he knew well—the rotary snow-fire device—and placed his finger on the symbol there, the mechanism spun in circles on the page while sketches of large snowflakes moved down into the depths, and fluffy clouds represented hot air being pushed out from beneath. At one point, with his finger still held in place, a block in the small wall around the mechanism pivoted to reveal three circular handles. When the first control turned, the grating closed, and the rotor began to slow. Once stopped, the three orange petal-shaped crystals rose out from the cradle. Activating the middle lever opened the grating and lowered the crystals back again, activating the rotor. But when the third handle turned, the broad scope of the faint orange beam emanating from within became a narrow shaft of light, more intense, refined and richer in colour. To what effect, Brathay had no idea. But the three sequences repeated themselves over and over.

He turned to another page. This one illustrated the water system of the keep, faint orange lines representing the flow of cold spring water, while a deeper orange showed the flow of hot from beneath the snow-fire device, circulating to rooms around the courtyard and the floor above.

On a double-page, one Brathay had glossed over before, he found a floor plan for the whole keep—each floor including the tower tops, the ramparts, the quarters, the courtyard with the Watchman's quarters, and the three floors below, including the one he currently inhabited. Each room had been clearly illustrated. With this page, he had to turn the book to the lamplight, a page that had no symbol and no orange light flowing, the black-inked diagram static.

Brathay immediately noted differences, minor changes made over the years. Guest chambers detailed in the past along the west wall he knew to be located in the south. A small prayer room was now a storage area. Hoists built into the south wall had been removed because Brathay had seen none. Other places had not been touched and looked familiar.

Each of the following pages outlined specific sections of the keep. One provided an enlarged plan of the courtyard, including the kitchens, stables and the Watchman's chamber. This time, when Brathay pressed his finger onto the marker, the light yellow illustrated the portcullis lowering, and further along, the millstone turning in the kitchen. Another room attached to the kitchen showed in deeper orange, a circular vat in the centre powered by the millstone, filled with deep orange and turned very slowly. Around the periphery of the same room, air flowed upwards from the floor below. If he was ever afforded the opportunity again, he would investigate this anomaly further.

He thought the sequence had ended and was about to lift his finger until his eyes were drawn to the Watchman's room, where an orange line appeared around a bookcase, which then revealed a stairway that drew itself onto the page as it led down to the floor below. Leonmarkh's room had a secret passageway? Did Watchmen use that as a means of escape? Or was it meant for more sinister purposes? More importantly, was Leonmarkh aware of this secret exit?

One final page illustrated a patch of land, a solid cliff dropping away into the sea. But this one also had the glowing symbol. When Brathay pressed his finger down, the keep structure began to appear piece by piece, orange lines detailing the foundations being constructed, deeper supports over the sea to the south and shallower to the north, then floors built one upon the other until the whole building materialised before his eyes.

He gasped quietly at the spectacle, a wondrous sight to his architect's brain. Somebody in a bygone era had not only designed and constructed this incredible structure but had found a way to store all of their designs into this secret little book. For the first time since arriving in his dungeon home, he felt a natural  excitement glowing from inside. One day, if Leonmarkh allowed, he would show this little treasure of a notebook to the counsellors of Aulderly.

Even though thaumaturgy was clearly at work, none of them would refuse to see what he had just witnessed, of that he felt absolutely convinced.

Reclining back along the bench, sleep finally came to him.

** ❄︎ **

Brathay lost all sense of time in the cell. When he awoke—his bones aching and his nose numb with cold—he could not even estimate how long he had slept, only that the candle in the lamp Marietta had left had burnt out. Flickers of light from a flame outside still danced on the cell wall. Was it night or day? He had no idea. As he stretched out, yawned, and grazed a knuckle against the cell wall, voices sounded from outside.

"His lordship’s emerged at last. Wishes to have the kid moved up to the his room. Captain says there's a chamber at the back of his quarters, lockable from the outside."

“Say what? His lordship has his own private prison cell? Sounds a bit knotted, if you ask me."

"That's cos your mind's as filthy as this floor, Gorrikh. Anyway, doubt that was its original intent. Imagine one of them Trepideaian Watchmen or Watchwomen had it built. We all know how protective they are of their honey bees. If they'd brought them along, they'd have wanted to keep them well out of temptation's way."

"Lucky for our prisoner, then. Bound to be warmer and cosier than this place."

"Stables would be better than this latrine of a place.”

"Are we still going to be expected to stand guard?"

"Inside his chamber? I doubt there would be a need. Captain Zhorman will let us know."

With Gorrikh in front and Chezikh behind, they led him back the way he had come the day before. When they reached the floor below the courtyard, the warmth hit Brathay like a welcome hug, but the brightness of the moonskulls hurt his eyes, and he bowed his head, using a hand to shield his eyes. As they reached the courtyard level, Brathay could see darkness had already fallen, and nobody witnessed them as they made their way to Leonmarkh's quarters.

Brathay felt a moment of nervous hesitation as they reached the open door. But Leon did not come to meet them. Instead, a dour-faced Captain Zhorman stood just inside and, without speaking a word, led Brathay and the guards across the familiar room to the antechamber he had mistaken for a two-door wardrobe. With them open, Brathay could see a single bunk with pillows and bedcovers, a bamboo chair and even a screened-off area in one corner probably for ablutions—luxury compared to his recent confinement. They had even afforded him a lamp. Without hesitating, he walked inside and, without speaking, Captain Zhorman slid the doors closed with a bang before bolting them and cutting off the bright light from the main room.

Once again, Brathay found himself alone in the gloom. Staring at the outline of the bunk, he removed the notebook from his pocket and tossed it onto the cover. Through the thin wall, he heard the door to the Watchman's chamber close. Perhaps he had been naive, but he had expected to be set free once Leonmarkh returned. Now he realised, with a sinking feeling, that he would still be held captive. The realisation hit him like a punch to the stomach, and he collapsed into the chair.

Brokerman had been right. He gave his trust too quickly and should have been more cautious. Even though Brathay had Marietta and Fleming on his side, Leonmarkh would need to do the right thing in front of his captains and staff.

Brathay had been a fool.

If fourth hall studies had taught him anything at all, it was not to rely on others to help you in times of crisis. And with a death sentence hanging over him, his need was as dire as it could get. He had to regroup, to sharpen his senses, and find his own way out of this mess.

He had no idea how much time had passed when the double doors to the anteroom slid open. Leon's unmistakable and impressive figure filled the doorway, silhouetted by the light beyond in his chamber. A hand rested on each of the doors, the arms outstretched heroically on either side as though holding them from collapsing inwards. Brathay could not make out his visage, could not read his expression. After observing Brathay for a moment, Leonmarkh dropped his arms and stepped into the room, raising the fingers of one hand towards Brathay's cheek.

"Do not touch me," said Brathay, turning his face away.

Thank you for reading. 

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

You are now caught up with all the chapters I have written to date, although the remainder are currently well under construction. Posts will therefore be slower, although I do hope to get some quiet writing time over the holiday 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.
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I suspect at least one of the captain's were in league with Ms. M and put her out of her misery and framed our hero, because they are working for Leon's uncle. I further suspect Ms. M was choked while being taken sexually.

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