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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 - 18. Trial

Finally, Brathay is tried for the murder of Millflower.

"What do you mean Mollik is not here?" asked Haycock, after proceedings had just begun and the name check of his witnesses had been met with a simple reply from the audience. "Where is he? The man is a key witness. Your lordship, he was stationed near the door of accused's chamber—one of the guards on beacon watch—on the night the chamberlain went missing and will confirm that the apprentice never returned to his quarters that night."

"I also need to question Mollik," said Marietta, as confused as Brathay by Haycock’s statement. "Although for my part, he is supposed tell us that he spoke to the accused and saw him enter his room and not emerge before his watch had ended at four bells."

"Where, by the Seven, is Mollik?" boomed Zhorman, silencing the crowd.

All those without duties to perform had finally settled in the hall, an audience of soldiers and house staff who could be made available, and a scattering of villagers. The audience should also have included all those who would be called upon to testify. Judged by Leon and two appointed arbiters—Mjaj and Zhorman—Marietta acted in Brathay's defence while Haycock provided the evidence to convict him.

Brathay knew that Leon had delayed the date because at any customary hearing, independent observers—most often from the Royal Palace in Mumberland—would be in attendance to ensure impartial and fair proceedings. Leon had been banking on a respite in the weather. Due to the remote location, and despite the lessening in the severity of the weather, that had been impossible to arrange. Eventually, he had conceded to the pressure from his captains and, frankly, Brathay was relieved to bring things to a head, even though today's courtroom setting bore no resemblance to the pomp and formality of the courts he had been allowed to visit in Thiradon.

Right now, the pronouncement about Mollik had thrown a vital factor of the trial into turmoil. After an awkward pause, another guard stood up next to the flustered and dumbstruck soldier who had initially delivered the news.

"Mollik did not report for duty yesterday afternoon, sire," he said, clearly nervous at having to step in and help relay this information. "We were on gate house watch in the morning and Mollik were supposed to take over at two bells. But he never showed. And now nobody knows where he is."

"Why was I not informed earlier?" asked Zhorman.

"Sire, on your orders, he and other soldiers were assisting with the villagers heading back to their homes, helping to clear ice and snow. We assumed he had been delayed. And with all the arrangements for the trial yesterday and this morning, we had little time to—"

"Has anybody else in the room seen Mollik?" boomed Leon.

At Leon's words, the new hum of chatter became stony silence. After pausing long enough to allow time for someone to respond, Leon redirected his attention to Haycock and Marietta.

"Do you wish to halt proceedings while we make a search for your witness?" he asked.

Haycock shrugged across at Marietta, who then looked down at her notes for a long moment. In Leon's chamber the day before, they had agreed that Haycock would lead the charges while Marietta would provide arguments to support Brathay's innocence. Eventually, she glanced sidelong at Brathay, rested a hand on his shoulder and smiled, before shaking her head at Leon.

"There is no need," she said. "We will continue."

Most things she had shared with Brathay. But some she had not, telling him mysteriously that she could not, that she needed to save some revelations for the day of the trial.

Brathay's heart sank. He wanted to object but, unless questioned, was not allowed an independent voice at the trial. Surely they needed Mollik to testify to his whereabouts at that critical time. His testimony was the crucial piece of information that would prove his innocence, would prove he had been confined to his quarters during the night Millflower died. They had not discussed this eventuality. How would she prove his innocence now?

"As you wish," said Leon.

The morning before, Leon had summoned Marietta and Haycock to assess whether they felt fully prepared for the trial and then agreed to hold the proceedings the day after most of the villagers had departed, time enough to have the chosen location made ready.

In all the months they had inhabited the keep, the Great Hall along the western wall had never been used for its original purpose. Brathay knew as much from his early explorations, and while he had been impressed at the elaborate wooden wall panelling, vaulted roof and huge unlit candle chandelier hanging from a central beam, his attention had been drawn to neglected bench seats and dusty upturned tables and chairs piled against one wall. According to Khraxwall, Watchmen past used the impressive space to receive high standing officials, to celebrate national festival days or perform royal ceremonies. Leon's soldiers had only ever used the area for storage.

As Brathay had entered that morning, he could see the room had been cleaned and polished and made ready even though the arcane scent of dust still lingered in the air. A grand raised dais at the front of the hall housed a heavy oak table. Behind, three grandiose wooden chairs, with high backs shaped like shields and wooden spires rising from either side, sat in judgment. Marietta and Brathay would be stationed on a table to the judges' left, with Haycock on the right. Benches had been provided for everyone else in attendance, those being called to witness and anyone who wished to observe the spectacle. Even Fleming had returned to the keep at the request of Captain Haycock. Unsurprisingly, after long weeks of isolation and monotony, a sizeable audience filled the seats.

"Captain Haycock. Please begin."

Haycock started by laying out the charges much as Brathay had expected. Systematically, he ran through the causes of Millflower's demise and offered up the finding of the belt and the brooch as evidence and of Millflower's very vocal dislike of the apprentice. When Haycock explained how Brathay had killed Millflower and then disposed of her body by throwing her over the sea-facing ramparts, he did so with an over-dramatic flair, struggling with a make-believe belt as though standing behind a person and throttling them to demonstrate the murder, then lifting the invisible body into the air above his head and, with both arms raised, dropping them and the corpse into the ocean. Although Brathay found the performance overdone and laughable, the audience appeared entranced.

After Haycock finished, Marietta was given a chance to respond and cast doubt upon Haycock's claims. As Brathay expected, her delivery tended more towards facts and calm reasoning, and he felt better just hearing her voice. She provided Brathay's account of the night Millflower went missing, including the overheard conversation in the stairwell between Millflower and an unknown party. Marietta made clear that she believed the second person's identity to be absolutely crucial to the resolution of the case. Haycock countered by suggesting the claim to be unprovable and, therefore, nothing more than a falsehood concocted by the accused to divert attention from his own crime.

When Brathay felt a twinge of nausea, his gaze floated over to Leon sitting in judgement, to the severe but solidly handsome face listening intently to each of the counsellors—and his worry evaporated. Something had happened during his captivity, something both of them felt intensely, a sense that their union had crystallised irreversibly.

And one strange event during his captivity in Leon's chamber still had Brathay baffled but enthralled.

Sometime during the night of the fourth week, Brathay had awoken breathless and startled, his skin burning hot and feverish. His whole body had vibrated with tension and urgency, and his penis had grown impossibly thick and erect, the girth swollen as though infected from an insect bite. Except he had not felt any sickness, quite the opposite. He had been intoxicated with a health and an urgency of desire he had never before experienced. Leon had lain on his side facing him, peacefully asleep. Consumed by need, Brathay had reached out tentative fingers and stroked his lover’s face. After a few seconds, Leon's eyes had fluttered open, his eyes coming into focus.

"Leon, please. I need you."

Leon had hiked in a breath as his brain assessed Brathay's sheen of perspiration. In a flash of panic, Leon had risen on one elbow and planted his palm across Brathay's brow.

"You are burning hot. Are you unwell?"

Brathay had reached a hand to hold Leon's cool wrist.

"No. I feel incredibly alive. And your touch is like a balm. But I need more of you. Are you tired?"

Instantly, Leon drew Brathay to him. Every touch of skin on skin, every breath on his body, and mouth tasting him felt like heightened arousal, a brand new ecstasy. Each cell of his body had become hungry for touch, and Leon's fingertips and tongue threatened to dismantle him. Had Leon asked him anything that night, he would have gladly told him. And the desire had been mutual.

"Brathay, what do you need from me? I will give you anything."

When the tip of Brathay's cock touched Leon's, his body clenched, and he gasped. Wanting more of the sensation, he arranged himself on his side, facing Leon, and reached a hand down between them. Once he had their cocks lined up, he placed one hand on Leon's hip and the other on his chest.

"Push yourself inside my foreskin. But slowly. Give me time to accommodate you."

Even though Leon's heavy breath spoke of passion and urgency, he moved deliberately. With each gentle advance, gooseflesh rose on Brathay's skin, the fingers of his hands clutching Leon's flesh.

"Is it painful?" Leon had whispered.

"It is. And it is not. I am sensing both pleasure and pain. Please do not stop."

Leon did as asked but also seemed to be caught up in the sensation, pecking kisses onto Brathay's neck and face, his hands roaming freely down Brathay's body, adding fuel to an already out-of-control fire.

They began a long and fluid dance of bodies, ebbing and flowing, colliding and withdrawing. Brathay's pleasure built impossibly until he teetered on the verge of a mountainous orgasm, his body unable to advance to the final climax, something holding him back.

Until Leon had growled aloud as he filled their coupling with his hot seed, allowing Brathay to do the same and his body to explode with a pleasure that left him light-headed and gasping. He had not realised he had also bitten into Leon's shoulder until the furnace filling his veins had begun to abate.

"I am sorry, my love," he whispered, touching fingers to the mark. "Did I hurt you?"

Leon had been withdrawing slowly, his head resting on Brathay's shoulder until their damp bodies separated. Expelling a final groan, he had fallen back panting at the ceiling and absently ran a hand over the red welt.

"Pain has no bearing amid such pleasure. What happened?"

Even as they had lain side by side, Brathay felt his body cool down and calm, his temperature and his cock deflating. Over the past weeks, each had enjoyed the other's body in many ways, but nothing compared to the coupling of that night.

"I do not know. But I am sorry I woke—"

Leon had reached out a hand instantly to stay his words, touching Brathay's cheek.

"Do not, Brathay. Do not apologise. You have my permission to demand my participation in that particular pleasure whenever you wish, and whenever you feel the need.”

When Leon slept, Brathay had stayed awake, marvelling at the sensation lingering inside him, a fading but shimmering pleasure like an echo that follows a person along the meandering river even after the waterfall is out of sight. Even now, he wondered why that particular intimacy had remained in his memory and, more importantly, what it had meant.

"I would like to address to the apprentice directly?" Haycock's voice brought Brathay out of his reverie and back to the make-do courtroom.

He had approached the table where Brathay sat and stood before him. Leon had agreed that only other witnesses would need to stand out front when questioned. Brathay would be allowed to remain seated next to Marietta.

"During your studies at Aulderly," began Haycock. "You specialised in something called hall studies as a part of Interconnection, did you not?"

"I did."

"On a level those gathered will understand, can you tell the court what hall studies entails?"

"Students are singled out during the year of Interconnection, those considered gifted with heightened inter-relational abilities. While Interconnection, on a fundamental level, guides all students through the shallows of relationships and sexual awareness, hall studies immerses them in the deep end, so to speak. The further they go, the deeper the submergence."

"And what specifically can you tell the court about fourth hall practices?"

"I am not at liberty—"

Somewhat dramatically, Haycock redirected his attention from Brathay to the three arbiters, turning from time to time to include the seated audience.

"Then allow me to enlighten the court so that we have all the salient facts. Your lordship, fourth hall studies is also known as Deviance. Very few make the grade. Those gifted with beauty, sensuality, and the sharpest intelligence are selected, those who understand their power of attraction over others and have no problem divorcing themselves from their own quest for satisfaction. Fourth hall introduces darker arts, the relationship between pleasure and pain, non-conforming human relations in groups or with accessories, and nurtures those whose Lifework might be to serve as a beloved, a seducer—or as an assassin. Yes, your lordship, students graduating from fourth hall students are given absolute power to use their skills to deal with perceived threats to the empire."

A hum of excitement rose from the audience. Brathay even noticed Nokh and Mrs Sturridge frown at each other. Marietta placed a placating hand on Brathay's arm. Without waiting for the noise to die down, Haycock forged on.

"Before you came to Black Ice Keep were you—or were you not—told that if you discovered even the slightest hint of sedition, or were unable to persuade his lordship to the empire's way of thinking, that you were to deal with him?"

"I cannot answer that question."

"For I strongly believe the residents of the keep do not really know you, Mr Stonearm, do not really appreciate what you are capable of. And I commend you because you have excelled at deceiving the residents, including myself, into believing that you are nice and kind and good-hearted—because that is what you have been trained to do. Captain Bhullard, can I ask you to stand and address the court?" Haycock paused his deliberation as Bhullard, sitting on the front row, rose from her seat. "During your search of Millflower's room, you found a written message, did you not?"

"I did. Captain Ligger and myself found a single page containing a note."

"And where did you find this note?

"It was tucked in between pages of a book containing her schedules. Captain Ligger had been checking one of her bags. I merely picked up the book and flicked through the pages. We both saw the separate page fall to the floor at the same time."

"Can you please read aloud this message for the court."

Haycock handed her the sheet of paper, and she faltered, staring hard at him before reading. Brathay felt sure she had not expected Haycock to ask her to read the note aloud.

"Dear friend. I am glad you wrote. You are wise to be concerned. Institute apprentices on assignment are considered little more than empire rats, sent on the premise of assisting but mainly to spy on royal leaders. For the most part they are harmless and the less sharp among them can even prove useful."

"Not so with fourth hall graduates. They are conditioned to infiltrate and beguile and coerce. More troubling is that fourth hall students are trained in discreet elimination techniques. If they deem a subject a threat to the realm's security, they have licence to remove that threat quietly along with anyone assisting the aggressor, by whatever means they deem necessary. If your lord is not already aware of this, then he is a fool, and you could do a lot worse than to warn him."

Bhullard stopped and gently shook her head.

"Finish the message, Bhullard."

Bhullard took a deep breath before carrying on.

"Most important of all, destroy this missive as soon as you have read the content. If the apprentice in question were to stumble upon this, and doing so would be comfortably within their remit, you may be putting your own life at risk. These particular agents are ruthless and efficient."

"Putting your own life at risk," Haycock repeated. "One cannot help but wonder whether the apprentice knew the contents of this message—perhaps the deceased had confronted him—and he had decided to deal with her, to remove her from his more urgent path to Lord Leonmarkh. "

"Would that not contradict what you earlier claimed?" asked Marietta, standing from her seat. "If fourth hall students are so thorough and resourceful, as you have gone to great pains to point out, do you think they would eliminate a person then carelessly leave damning evidence in their wake?"

"Even assassins make mistakes—"

"Amateurs, perhaps. But not students who are supposedly trained in discreet elimination techniques. Moreover, this message does not necessarily reference Mr Stonearm by name, does it?" asked Marietta. "The message writer could be referencing the previous apprentice, Miss Moonstar. And to whom is the letter addressed? Is there anywhere that Miss Millflower's name is mentioned directly, Captain Bhullard?"

"No, but—" began Bhullard.

"Then this could have been sent in response to anyone. To you, Captain Bhullard, or to any of the other captains or house staff, come to that. The fact that you were the one to find this in Millflower's chamber does not automatically make her the recipient, merely the present holder. It could be yet another piece of evidence carefully positioned to incriminate him, could it not?"

"I suppose so."

"More speculation without proof," said Haycock.

Marietta ignored him and forged on. "And while we are on the subject of the search of the chamberlain's room, Captain Bhullard, can I ask if you found anything else of interest?"

"I am not sure what you mean."

"It is a simple question. The discovery and contents of the message clearly surprised you. Did anything else you found appear unusual to you?"

"No. I mean, not really—"

"Bhullard," said Ligger, his bulk rising from the bench. "Tell them what else you found."

"Ligger," said Haycock, angered. "Sit down. You have not been invited to give evidence—"

"Captain Ligger," said Zhorman. "You can speak once you are called upon. In the meantime—"

“Tell them, Bhullard—“ Ligger boomed.

“Ligger!”

"Stop!" said Leon, thumping his hand down on the table and bringing the court to silence. "Bhullard or Ligger. If you found something else in the chamberlain's room, then you are duty bound to tell the court. Now what else was there?"

Bhullard rested a hand on Ligger's shoulder and nodded in silent communication. Satisfied, Ligger lowered into his seat.

"Locked away beneath the chamberlain's bed, we found a small chest filled with empire crowns. My understanding is that some house staff choose to save their wage from remote duties in this way. I did not particularly see this as anything out of the ordinary."

"How much would you estimate was contained in this chest?" asked Marietta.

"I have no—"

"Three hundred and fifty-two crowns," said Ligger. "I counted each of them."

"Thank you, Captain Ligger. And how much does a chamberlain earn each month, while performing her duties for his lordship?"

"A crown a month," said Khraxwall, also seated on the front bench. Brathay noticed how old he looked, bent over with tiredness, his face ashen. "The chamberlain was paid one crown each month."

"And you have been in residence here for how many—? "

"Twenty-two months," added Khraxwall before pushing his head into his hands.

"Then one has to wonder where the additional three hundred and thirty crowns came from. Even if the excess was a result of a lifetime of saving—which I find hard to believe—surely Millflower would not bring that kind of wealth with her all the way to Black Ice Keep."

"No," said Khraxwall tiredly through his fingers. "She would not."

Marietta had covered items on her table with a simple sack cloth and pulled the fabric back now to reveal a small chest. She stood, lifted the box of dark oak from the table and brought it to Bhullard.

"Captain Bhullard. Is this the chest you found in the chamberlain's room?"

"Yes. This looks like the one—"

"Lord Leonmarkh," interrupted Haycock. "I do not see how this bears any relevance to the case—"

"You will, Captain Haycock," said Marietta, opening the lid of the chest. "If you give me a moment to explain."

"Continue on," said Leon.

"Please take one of the coins from the box, examine it, and tell the court what you see."

Bhullard reached forward and plucked a large coin from the pile.

"This is a silver empire crown, the peacock crest of the Royal House of Fenchundest on one side and the profile of the empress on the other."

"Are there any markings on the coin? Look carefully."

"I do not—there is a slight nick on one side and a couple of scratches. And there is also a red mark, some kind of dye, along the bottom rim."

"I see. Can you take another coin and see if the same red mark appears on the next coin?"

Bhullard replaced the coin and drew out another.

"Yes, there is a similar line on this coin."

"Thank you, Captain Bhullard. One last thing. Together with Captain Ligger, Haycock and three other soldiers, you managed to successfully shore up the secret passage from the lower keep to the village. Did you discover anything while you were there?"

"We found two crates of rotting fruit discarded by the iron gate that leads out to the seafront."

"I see. Anything else?"

"No, not that I—"faltered Bhullard, before looking to Ligger, who mimed opening a lock.

"Ah yes. We discovered one of the keys on Millflower's keyring opens the lock to the iron gate."

"Thank you, Captain Bhullard. No further questions."

"What?" asked Haycock, jumping to his feet. "Is that it? What does that prove? Are you simply wasting the time of everyone here?"

"I will address this matter further later. For now, the witness is yours again, Captain Haycock."

Haycock turned to the three jurors and raised both palms in the air in a somewhat dramatic gesture. After a second, he returned to his table and checked his notes.

"No further questions for Captain Bhullard. But I would like to call Elder Fleming and the village innkeeper to the front," said Haycock.

Marietta stood at this request and addressed the jurors. "Is it customary in Khloradich to have two witnesses called at the same time?"

"Elder Fleming is only on hand to translate for the tavern owner,” said Haycock. "He will not be questioned personally. Not at this juncture, anyway."

"Go ahead," said Leon. Brathay felt sure he noticed a slight smile crease his lips.

Fleming led the innkeeper, wading through the audience to the front of the room where they both stood, facing Haycock.

"Can you please tell the court the name of the Sjin-Shatir innkeeper?" Haycock asked Fleming.

"Their name is Joxi," said Fleming, nodding to the tall Sjin-Shatir who stood beside him.

"And does Joxi understand they are under the oath of the empire?"

"They do."

"Apart from being the owner of the tavern, can you tell the court what else Joxi does in the village."

"Captain Haycock, why not let Joxi tell you? They speak the common tongue as well as you."

"They—?" Brathay could see from his shocked expression on Haycock's face that this piece of news had caught him by surprise.

"Please return to your seat, Elder Fleming," said Leon. Fleming smiled up at Leon and nodded before doing as asked.

"My main occupation is as village innkeeper," said Joxi, unaware of Haycock's reaction. "But I also assist Elder Fleming during medical emergencies. Before he came to the village, I acted as the main physician. But he has more extensive experience than I."

"You were in attendance when the body of Miss Millflower was discovered, were you not? You also performed a thorough examination of the body?"

"That is correct. Mr Fleming was confined in the village at the time."

"Why did you not speak the common tongue during your inspection at the beach?"

"Mjaj is my elder. Out of respect, and as is customary, I allowed them to translate my findings and explanations into your language."

"I see," Haycock appeared to consider this for a moment before shrugging. "According to your preliminary and later examinations, can you tell us how Miss Millflower died?"

"From strangulation. And the bruising on her neck, including the buckle marks, were consistent with the belt your captain produced at the time."

"This," said Haycock, holding up Brathay's curled belt in his fist and letting the length drop theatrically. "A belt and buckle of customary Thiradonian design."

"I did not know who the belt belonged to at the time. Objectively, however, I can tell you without any doubt that the belt you have in your hand was used to commit the crime."

"No further questions. Please take a seat—"

"One moment," said Marietta. "I have questions."

Joxi turned from Haycock, smiled at Marietta and appeared to visibly relax.

"When you examined the body, were any of the victim's bones broken?"

"No, ma'am," said Joxi. "None were broken."

"None?"

"No."

"If a recently dead body were thrown over the keep parapet—which I think you will agree is a significant drop—would there be further marks or injuries on the torso?"

"Yes, of course. Skin is still fragile and bones remain brittle even in death."

"Just so we are all clear, a body dropped from the sea-facing rampart would sustain other marks?"

"Yes."

"But would the corpse still maintain injuries if it landed in the sea?" asked Haycock.

"There is still a strong probability. But perhaps not as substantial."

"A convenient theory," countered Marietta. "Except that any guard who has been on rampart duty will tell you the sea-facing wall where the belt was found is surrounded below by rocks. Even during high tide they are visible—to a lesser extent, I grant you, but they are there nonetheless. With that in mind, I do not see how the body could have avoided sustaining other marks if dropped from the ramparts. Which begs the question, how else could Millflower's body have ended up in the sea?"

"How indeed, Marietta? Do you have any theories?" asked Haycock.

"Not at this time. But I have more questions for the innkeeper."

"Go ahead."

"From your work as innkeeper, do you recognise anyone from the keep in this room?" she asked.

"Of course. The captains and soldiers frequent the tavern every month. Even the Watchman has visited occasionally for a hot bath and a meal."

"And is it true that you used to trade supplies privately with a resident of the keep?"

Caught off guard, the innkeeper turned away sharply and looked directly at Mjaj, who closed his eyes and nodded gently.

"I did," said Joxi. "At the time, I believed the person to be honest and trading legitimate wares. The contact explained the trade in terms of shifting an over-supply of goods. I accepted this, bearing in mind the low number of soldiers brought to assist the Watchman and the high status of the contact. But when I learnt later on that a soldier—an honest soldier—had been flogged and banished for this crime, I instantly ceased trading."

"And are you able to tell the court who your trading contact was?"

"It was the chamberlain. The one called Millflower. I recognised her when I examined her body down on the beach."

Once again, a collective gasp of shock followed by a rumble of excited chatter went through the room.

"And where and when did these trades take place?

"At night. We always met in the same place. Outside the old caves to the east of the village below the keep wall, not far from the village sea front."

"Your lordship," said Haycock. "These questions are irrelevant. We are not here to try the deceased for smuggling goods, but for her murder—"

"If you will allow me, your lordship, there is a link here. Joxi, how was Miss Millflower paid?"

"She would take nothing but empire coin."

"I see. And empire coin received in Black Ice Bay is given a mark, is it not?"

"Not all coin. Only high valued silver crowns. They undergo staining, a local practice to legitimise the coinage, with a single red line on the side beneath the head of the empress. Lesser valued coins do not warrant the same treatment, such as those received from the keep soldiers to purchase ale."

"Just to clarify, your lordship," said Marietta, directly to the jurors. "This practice is perfectly legal for smaller regions whose main method of trade is bartering. The practice was introduced to prevent swindlers from forging coinage. The significant stash of crowns stowed away by Millflower is the result of the illegal trade with the innkeeper, one which resulted in the wrongful punishment and exile of a soldier named Nhomakh. Do you not see how that is the case, Captain Haycock, bearing in mind that you were the one who originally pointed the finger?"

"At the time, Nhomakh freely admitted to the crime," said Haycock stiffly.

"After significant pressure was placed on a soldier who is loyal to his lord and his captains, who would fight to the death for them if asked." Marietta diverted her attention to the high table. "Your lordship, Captain Zhorman and Elder Mjaj, apart from proving the culpability of the deceased chamberlain, I hope the proof laid out before you might lead you to consider a pardon for a wronged soldier, Nhomakh."

"We will consider your request," said Captain Zhorman. "But do not forget that still you have a case to prove. In the meantime, can I suggest a short recess for us all to stretch our legs."

"Granted," said Leon. "We will regroup in thirty minutes."

** ❄︎ **

During the commotion of scraping benches and excited conversations, Brathay remained seated. Marietta patted him on the shoulder and gave him a reassuring smile before heading into the audience to talk to Fleming. Across the room, Haycock nodded unsmilingly before being swamped by his soldiers, including Bhullard and Ligger. After chatting to Zhorman, Leon finally broke off and cheered Brathay with a smile and a nod of encouragement.

Brathay had thought himself alone when a shadow fell across the desk.

Khraxwall leant both hands on the table. He looked sick and haggard and either refused or felt unable to make eye contact with Brathay, his eyes focused instead on the table in front of him. He spoke quietly, his tone deep but the words clearly enunciated.

"Mr Stonearm, I realise too late that I have been blind. Things have been happening under my nose of which I truly had no knowledge, but of which any other steward of the realm would have been aware. I will not insult you by asking you to forgive me, but I offer you this small assist. When the guard Khlovin is brought to testify by Captain Haycock, tell Marietta to question him as she would have questioned Mollik. She will know why. I can say no more. I wish you good fortune and, above all, swift justice. But I will witness no more of this torturous travesty.”

Brathay watched the steward turned and hobble away, hunched over, out of the hall and into daylight.

** ❄︎ **

Haycock's questions for Millflower's senior chambermaid, Flodhrum, centred mainly on the chamberlain's mistrust of the apprentice and her open dislike of him. None of what Flodhrum said could be proven, simply a case of Millflower's word against his. But he could tell the audience had begun to view him differently with every tiny observation Haycock laid out. As usual, Marietta followed on from Haycock.

"Can you tell us when was the last time you saw Miss Millflower," she asked.

"The night of the beaconwood fire, miss."

"And what time would that have been?"

"Well after eleven bells. I had just turned in for the night. She came knocking to give me instructions for the following morning. I was to get up at five bells and start readying the empty quarters along the west wall. Ghell—Ghellikh—was to do the north, and then start tidying the soldiers quarters once morning meal was being served."

“So she visited you after Mr Stonearm said he overheard her conversation in the stairwell?”

"I—I suppose so, miss."

"And how did she seem? Miss Millflower?"

Flodhrum shrugged before looking to Khraxwall.

"She is never—was never—particularly happy with her lot here. And having to clean for the villagers did not help her mood. But I think she was resigned for us to get on with it, if you know what I mean?"

"When she handed out instructions, did she tell you what she would cover herself?"

"She didn't need to. She always looked after the seniors. Lord Leonmarkh and the captains. Said they needed her special treatment."

"And did you see her that morning?"

"No, miss. I never saw nobody. Had my head down all morning, doing what she asked. We all did. As well as the soldier's quarters, we each had two hundred more to get ready. Didn't get done until well after midday."

"And did you clean any other rooms?"

"Only the captains, miss. Captain Bhullard asked me to attend the captain's meeting in Millflower’s stead and told me nobody had tidied their quarters that morning. We all just thought Miss Millflower had been busy elsewhere. So I gave them a quick once over after the meeting."

"And what about the room of Mr Stonearm?"

"No, miss. He didn't ask, so I assumed his room was already made up."

"Might Ghell have cleaned his room?"

"No, miss.” Flodhrum managed to suppress a giggle. “She's not permitted. Miss Millflower won't let her anywhere near the rooms of his lordship, the captain or any guest. Ghell's quite new, see, and Miss Millflower has—had—her standards."

"Thank you, Flodhrum. You can go back to your seat."

** ❄︎ **

"Mr Stonearm," said Haycock, flourishing the familiar leather belt again. "Once again for the court, can you identify this item?"

"It is mine. That is the belt I wore when I travelled here from Aulderly. I keep it in my travelling chest."

"Khlovin. Please tell the captains when and where you found this?"

"I was on beacon watch, sire. Three of us there were, after the beaconwood fire. I was stationed on the ramparts, the morning the lights came on. I never saw it at first, only when I went to take a—to empty my bladder. I could tell instantly. Belt like that is not military issue. That's why I handed it over to Captain Bhullard later that morning."

"And did you see Mr Stonearm on the ramparts that night?"

"No, sire."

"Did you see anyone?"

"No, sire. But then my station is inside the stairwell. My job was to check anyone coming up the stairs to the beacon tower. Apart from that, the view from in there is over the courtyard below."

"Did you hear anything when you found the belt? Voices from below or footsteps on the stair, perhaps?”

"No, sire. But when the wind blows up there—like it did after midnight that night—you can barely even hear the hour bells being rung. Us guards have to fairly shout at each other to pass on instructions."

"Thank you, Khlovin. You may sit down—"

"Wait a moment," said Marietta, standing. "I would like to question your witness."

Brathay could tell Marietta was mulling over Khraxwall's words, wondering how she should approach the guard and what questions might unlock what she needed the court to know. Nothing about Khlovin hinted at dishonesty, and Brathay hoped he would willingly answer.

"Who was on duty with you that night?"

"Hollum were up top on beacon watch, I were on the ramparts, and Mollik was on the floor below with the living quarters."

"I see. And you told Captain Haycock that you did not see Mr Stonearm that whole night."

"Not on the ramparts. I saw him in the courtyard after evening meal. He crossed to the hole in the centre, before heading to the stables. I know it was him because of the way he moves and the way he dresses in them local clothes. A while later, I heard him having a chat with Mollik down below before his door closed. He's always civil to us soldiers."

"So you heard him enter his room that night?"

"I didn't watch him enter, but I heard Mollik bid him goodnight and heard the door close."

"And did you hear the door open again before your watch ended?"

"As I say, the winds up picked up after midnight, so I couldn't honestly say. But Mollik would have noticed if he had, that much is for sure."

Haycock stood then to interrupt with a question.

"You say Mollik would have noticed if Mr Stonearm had left his room, but what if Mollik had fallen asleep on duty? He would not have seen, would he? Could that have been a possibility?"

Brathay was as shocked as Haycock when Khlovin and many of the soldiers attending began laughing. When he looked up at the judges, even Captain Zhorman had a smile on his face.

"Mollik would never dare sleep on duty, sire. Not ever again. You can ask Captain Zhorman about that."

Breaking with protocol, Captain Zhorman offered the explanation.

"When Mollik first joined my platoon some five years ago, he did indeed fall asleep on night duty. Once only. You see Mollik is cursed with one of the loudest snores I have ever witnessed—think of a stable of braying donkeys. Sleeping seated, standing or prone, Mollik will snore—loudly. After I tore into him and threatened to have him stripped of rank, he never slept on duty again. Even the gusty winds of Black Ice Bay are no match for Mollik's nocturnal grunting."

Breaking the tension in the room, the whole assembled audience burst into laughter at Zhorman's words. Brathay hoped nothing terrible had happened to Mollik.

"Thank you for substantiating, Captain Zhorman," said Marietta. "When I interviewed Mollik last week, he told me he had been alert all night and did not see Mr Stonearm leave his room. If he was here today, I am sure he would testify to that."

Once again, Haycock interjected. "And he told me he had not seen Mr Stonearm, nor spoken to him all evening. To which of us has he told the truth? Did you actually see Mollik speaking to the accused, Khlovin?"

"No sire, I did not."

"So in fact it could have been someone else he was talking to?"

Khlovin hesitated a moment then, his doubt plain, milling over the words.

"Do you mean her?" asked Khlovin, his brow creased, staring straight at Haycock.

"I am sorry," said Haycock, confused. "What do you mean, her?"

"The chamberlain. I saw her cross the courtyard not long after Mr Stonearm retired. I thought she had gone to her room next to the kitchens, but then saw her return back towards the stables moments later."

"What time was this?" asked Marietta.

"Just before twelve bells. Bearing in mind what Flod said, I suppose she must have gone across to see her, and then headed back," said Khlovin.

"Was she alone the last time you saw her?" asked Marietta.

"Yes, ma'am," said Khlovin.

"And did you see her again after that?" asked Haycock.

"No, sire. That was the last time I saw her. But in answer to your earlier question, although I did not see Mr Stonearm, the voice below was unquestionably his. He has this Thiradonian twang, a bit posh, like. And when I went to check on Mollik at two bells, he told me then he had wished Mr Stonearm goodnight. He likes him, we all do."

"You are sure of all this?" asked Marietta.

"I am on oath here, ma'am. Of course I am sure. I don't know why Mollik say he had not seen Mr Stonearm, when he clearly had."

"Ma'am," came a young voice from the crowd. Brathay recognised Myxel, the stableboy, who had stood on the bench to gain height, looking scared to death, his cap in his hands. "I needs to say something, because it ain't fair if I don't, but I couldn't sleep that night, not after the fire and the commotion and trying to keep the horses from fretting and all. So I stayed awake with the guard on gate house duty that night. As everyone here knows, the post overlooks the road to the keep. Even with the keep heating now, the watch post still gets cold winds blowing through so we has a fire going night and day—"

"Get to the point, boy," said Zhorman.

Myxel flashed a frightened gaze at the captain but forged on.

“Captain, I stayed at the courtyard end 'cause it's warmer, see, and I also saw Mr Brathay that night, and I sees him chatting to Mollik near his room, even though I could only see the top of Mollik's head. But I also sees Mr Brathay enter his room and the door shut and he never came out, not while I was there, and I was there until all the lights came on. And just like Khlovin, I saw Miss Millflower head back towards the stables a bit later, but she must have gone down the stairwell 'cause I'd have seen if she came out on any other level. And after that, I never saw her again. "

"Thank you, Myxel, for your account and also for your courage to speak the truth," said Marietta, smiling and waving him down into his seat. "Unfortunately, we do not have Mollik here to clarify. But based on the testimonies of Khlovin and Myxel, it is plain to me that the apprentice could not possibly have murdered Millflower. They both saw her after he had already retired to his room. Mollik confirmed verbally to Khlovin, but Myxel actually witnessed the fact that the accused did not emerge from his quarters before Mollik's watch ended at four bells the following morning."

“If Mr Stonearm is not the murderer, then who is?" asked Haycock.

"Who indeed, Captain Haycock?" said Marietta, turning to address the judges. "Your lordship and other judges, I repeat my belief that the answer lies in the second voice Mr Stonearm heard in the stairwell on the night Miss Millflower went missing. Not a phantom voice, nor a carefully constructed alibi, but a real person stationed here in the keep. Maybe the accused did not actually see this person on the night Millflower went missing. But what if I have proof that another did? And what if someone else can testify to the same figure who slipped supposedly unnoticed into and out of the accused's chamber on the morning he had gone to join a meeting around the snow-fire device—? "

Before she had a chance to continue, the doors at the back of the room crashed open, accentuated by bewilderment throughout the great hall.

"Your lordship," called a guard from the back, standing in the doorway.

"What is it, Hollum?" boomed Leon. "Can you not see—"

"Sire, you told us not to disturb you unless it were urgent. This is urgent."

"What is it then? Hurry, man."

"Five ships approach from the south. We did not see them until they emerged through the sea mist. But the guard on watch duty says one looks to be a man of war. Should we light the beacon?"

“Did you recognise—?” began Leon.

From outside the hall, a faraway boom and an eerie whistling sound grew louder in the air. Gasps of surprise went up among the audience, looking to Leon for guidance. After a short pause, Leon spoke again.

“Carry on, Hollum.”

“I did not see them myself, your lordship. I am on beacon watch. But the guard—“

A sudden deafening explosion from the courtyard rocked the keep, the air convulsing and the floor and windows reverberating at the impact. Faint screams from outside had everyone in the room on their feet. Marietta placed a hand on Brathay's shoulder, ready to urge him forward. Over the din in the room, Brathay heard Leon's unmistakable voice rise above the clamour.

"Do not run. Our panic is most likely what is intended. I need you all to remain calm and clear headed. This attack clearly comes from the sea and we are well protected here. Captains and soldiers, to your posts and ready for combat. Ligger, get the portcullis down. Bhullard, take the villagers and house staff to the lower level where they will be safer—"

"Your lordship," called Mrs Sturridge. "My girls and me can help. We may not be soldiers but we know more about putting out fires than anyone in this room. And we can help with any wounded—"

"We can help you, too, Ma Sturridge," said Flodhrum.

"And we can fight, your lordship," said Morrent, standing on the bench with his hands on his hips, a head above those around him. "Maybe not as good as your soldiers, but we can still defend ourselves."

"Neither me or my lads are hiding down below, your lordship," said Nokh. "If whoever they are comes here, then we'll all meet them head on. Just tell us what you need from us?"

When Brathay looked around, Leon was on his feet, standing firm, his face stern but a proud smile there as well. Despite the dire circumstance, the sight filled Brathay with admiration.

"So be it. But make sure you stay close to the soldiers. Before anything, we need to know exactly what we are dealing with. Captain Zhorman, with me now to the beacon tower."

Thank you for reading. A longer chapter to welcome in the new year.

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

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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I suspect traitors and yes plural.  The sudden attack seems entirely too coincidental.  Leon's life is in danger and I wouldn't be surprised if Brathay gets to return the favor and save him!

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