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    lomax61
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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

Heart of Black Ice - 19. Attack

Leon and his soldiers struggle to defend the keep.

Brathay and Marietta emerged from the Great Hall with the last of the crowd. Someone was ringing the hour bell repeatedly and urgently while soldiers and house staff ran frantically around amid the chaos trying to get a fire under control. Whatever had been launched at the keep had either been aflame or had started a fire upon impact. The wooden outer structure of part of the kitchens burned hungrily, flames licking the upper floor. Two bodies had been laid outside in the courtyard safely away from the fire, with Fleming and the innkeeper tending them.

"Looks like Emiline and a villager are hurt. I need to help. Go and take cover."

"Wait. I have a mountain of questions. What do you think happened to Mollik and why would Haycock tell such vile falsehoods like that in a court and who, by the Seven, murdered—?"

Marietta turned and held him by the shoulders.

"All in good time, Brathay. We have other priorities right now. But know that Haycock was not lying. He was simply repeating what he had been told—rather over-dramatically, if I may be candid. I have seen more convincing marionette shows. Which makes me wonder if he knew all along. But when this crisis has past, we will go and seek out Leonmarkh and his loyal captains and I will tell them everything I have discovered. Go now, and please do not concern yourself about Mollik. He is safely secured in our home in the village, out of harm's way."

Brathay's mouth fell open.

"Your home? But he was our key witness—"

"Who had been threatened with harm if he did not modify his story. Haycock is unaware, thinks the fabricated testimony is real, but Mollik came to see me." Marietta's eyes glanced nervously at the sky as she spoke. "He refused to tell me who had threatened him but he is essentially an honest man, Brathay, and did not want to tell falsehoods to the court. And as I had more than enough evidence to prove your innocence—even without the wonderful testimony of this young stablehand—I simply took him out of the equation."

"Come on, Mr Brathay." said Myxel, leading them forward. "We needs to get to safety."

"Go," said Marietta, smiling, "Stay safe and we will talk later."

Myxel hurried him diagonally across the yard. When Brathay turned to watch Marietta head towards the kitchens, his eyes widened in horror to see the true devastation a single projectile had caused.

"Gaffer says if we're to stay up top, we needs take cover in the stables, less chance of getting hurt in case they get lucky again. Says nothing they got can break through the sea-facing walls."

Brathay had to agree. Ashenback granite was famed not only for its durability but for its impregnability. As they approached the stables, Morrent came stumbling towards them, his eyes wide with excitement.

"Phormikh's back—he's our other stablehand, Mr Brathay. He was out here when the guard spotted them ships. Snuck up to the battlements, he did. Says there's only one warship with cannons. The rest are normal ships. But he says they look like they're from home, maybe not from Khloradich, but definitely Braggadach design. Wish it had been me up there, I'd have known for sure."

As they moved, Brathay's gaze shot up to the beacon tower, concern rising for Leon. If the ships came from Braggadach, this attack must be directed at him. And if so, was his uncle involved? Brathay could see nothing of the top of the beacon tower from their position. But something else caught his attention. Into the cloudy day above them, the snow-fire beam still shone despite there being no snow, but where the beam had always been stable and unwavering, the shape flickered now and appeared erratic. The sight seemed odd, but amid the chaos of bodies running for cover, nobody else gave the spectacle any mind. Still, something nagged at Brathay, something he had observed before but could not quite equate.

Right then, there came another distant boom followed by the unearthly shrieking that grew louder in the air above them, and this time Brathay saw the distinct dance of the snow-fire light begin, trying to pick out an object in the sky but stuttering as though restrained. Everyone ducked low when moments later, a vast fiery shadow moved across the sky overhead and disappeared beyond the east wall of the keep, out to the shoreline where they had found Millflower's body.

In that instant, Brathay knew what he had to do.

"Mr Brathay!" called Myxel, who had stopped with Morrent when Brathay turned towards the grating in the keep. "What are you doing, sir—?"

"Trust me, Myx," he said over his shoulder. "I think I know what must be done. Head to shelter. I will come and join you soon."

Although Brathay had a hunch based on the illustrations in the Watchman's notebook, he had no idea which of the granite blocks in the small wall around the mechanism turned on a pivot. He quickly dismissed the rising irritation at being held captive for so long and unable to investigate freely and turned his full attention to the moment. One by one, he began trying the top line of stones until finally, he found a brick that moved slightly—although with a great deal of effort and tearing skin from his hands in the process—to reveal three levers. From memory, he knew the middle lever might reactivate the rotor if switched off. But he could not remember the order of the others and worried if he inadvertently switched the device off—with no snowfall that day to ignite the crystals—he may not be able to restart it. He closed his eyes and tried to remember the sequence in the book.

Almost at the exact moment, another distant boom sounded.

Eyes wide open now, he dropped down in front of the switch on his far right. But when he pulled on it, the handle would not budge. Using both hands this time, he tried again, but the lever must have seized up over time, and his blood-slippery hands did not help his efforts to gain traction. Once again, the air filled with the ghostly whistling sound of an incoming projectile and, despite his muscles aching and his fingers cutting into the iron lever, he inhaled a lungful of air and prepared to put all his might into turning the switch one last time.

"Take cover!" came the warning from a familiar voice behind him. With that, a large body shielded him, but he could still make out the huge shadow moving across the sky and landing somewhere outside the keep, just beyond the gatehouse. Apart from the first lucky strike, these later shots had missed their target, but appeared to be getting closer and more accurate.

"Need a real man there, apprentice?" came the amused voice of Ligger behind him.

Brathay almost wept with relief to hear the sound, wanting to throw his arms around the boulder of a man and hug him. Instead, he stumbled back out of the way and spoke rapidly.

"Quickly, Ligger. I need you to turn this third lever to the right. The one covered in my blood and one I cannot move." Another offshore reverberation had him glancing nervously at the sky. "Do not ask me why I need this done because we do not have time. Just please trust me. I do not have the strength for this task, but maybe you do."

Without questioning, Ligger knelt at the device and used both hands. At first, Brathay watched on, but then his gaze rose again to the sky. All the time, even though the missile had yet to appear, the whistling sound grew more substantial and frightening.

Ligger grunted a couple of times, then finally hissed, having managed to turn the switch. At first, nothing changed. Brathay held his breath, hoping the device would not shut down. Instead, the beam's usual hum took on a different sound, higher-pitched and constant, and the usually broad scope became a narrow shaft of light darting around in the sky as though trying to locate something specific.

When the fiery sphere appeared in their sightline—one that would undoubtedly have overshot the keep again—the beam instantly found the target and followed the trajectory. As he watched on, the light became brighter and more intense until the flaming object burst into thousands of tiny and harmless particles, floating down like black snow into the keep.

Soldiers and house staff taking cover in the courtyard and upper levels rose up and cheered aloud. Brathay sighed with relief and felt sure the aggressors would have witnessed the sight too and hoped they might abandon their attack.

"What is this?" asked Ligger, still kneeling but catching flakes of black debris in the palm of his hand.

"My guess is the energy generated by the crystals can also be turned to defend—"

"Sorcery?" said Ligger, his expression guarded. "Have I just employed a forbidden art?"

"Ligger,' said Brathay, resting a hand on his shoulder. "All we know for sure is that this tool was already crafted at the time the keep was built, probably since the forging of the alliance of the eleven kingdoms. And most likely for protection. Surely even you have heard childhood tales about the merciless invaders who arrived on the northwestern shores—"

"The Putrinarch? You think it is they who are here—?"

"No, of course not. They did not travel to our shores on ships. I am simply saying these kinds of thaumaturgical devices must have been created by our people after those horrific events, and this one was probably built to aid survival in the harsh cold and ward against another invasion. More to the point, has one evil thing come from the installation and operation of the crystals? One single thing?"

Still kneeling, Ligger mulled Brathay's words over and shook his head deliberately.

"There are things I do not comprehend, apprentice Brathay," he replied. "Things I probably never will. But they exist and, in this case, I am glad to have them used in our favour."

Brathay breathed out a relieved sigh, unsure whether Ligger would have insisted on having the device deactivated.

"One of the stablehands saw the enemy fleet arrive. He said they are of Braggadachi design and one is a warship. My worry is they have a volley of cannons to fire upon us and we—"

Ligger rose to his feet and turned to Brathay, cutting him off.

"No," he stated decisively, this time placing a hand on Brathay's shoulder. "I may not understand sorcery, but I know sea warfare. Braggadachi warship cannons are useless against elevated positions like Black Ice Keep. The cannons are too low in the water, fixed in place and designed to fight other warships. I warrant the fireball came from a Broxian Dragon—a new breed of giant moveable cannon—fixed onto rails in the decking. And if you say there is only one galleon, then they can only fire single shots. No warship can house more than one Dragon, they are too big and heavy and cumbersome. The burning question is, who has come to challenge us?"

From what Leon had told him, Brathay had his suspicions, but he could not share that knowledge with Ligger without a lengthy explanation.

"Let me ask you, Ligger. If it had been you tasked with taking the keep, how would you go about it?"

"That, apprentice, is actually a very intelligent question. I would not waste effort using force, because this fort cannot be breached using traditional means. I would resort to a siege, to starve the inhabitants out. Unless I had someone on the inside who could open the gate and raise the portcullis—"

"Or someone who could gain access for them via a secret passageway? But according to Leonmarkh, that way is now closed, is it not?"

"Without a crumb of doubt. I helped bring down the roof of the cave. The way is entirely blocked. To clear the debris from that narrow a passage would take days, if not more. Let us hope they expected to find the passage clear, because they will be thwarted before they have begun. Ah, here is Haycock."

After his arrest, Brathay's suspicions about the informant and Millflower's murderer had turned to Haycock. What better way to divert attention from himself than by acting as the prosecution counsel. Brathay had not voiced his concern to Leon because he had no concrete evidence and knew what being accused without proof felt like. When he looked over, Haycock came rushing over to them, out of breath but grinning madly. Against the odds, he appeared to be happy with the turn of events, to relish the fight, the clip of his scabbard undone and battle-ready. He slapped Ligger cheerfully on the upper arm when he reached them before nodding briefly to Brathay. All of the suspiciousness and animosity of the morning appeared to have evaporated, lost in the crisis of the moment.

"Who should I kiss for ripping that fireball from the sky?"

"The apprentice. But if I were he, I would forgo the kiss and ask instead for your head on a spike," said Ligger. "He discovered the heating device can also be turned into a defence weapon."

"Ah, I owe you an apology, Brathay Stonearm," said Haycock, nodding and becoming serious. "But you must understand that I was only doing a job handed to me by Leonmarkh. And I had to do my level best, even if I did not believe everything I had been told or felt uncomfortable about some of the evidence I had been given. I only hope you will forgive me, because I fear Bhullard never will."

"Did you know about Mollik?"

Haycock had the decency to appear contrite, looking away before finding the strength to address him.

"I found out. But I know why Marietta could not tell you. If she had, the courtroom would not have witnessed the genuine dismay you expressed at the absence of your key witness. But his presence was not required. A few days ago I arranged with Myxel for him to stand up and tell his story. Usually a court will not entertain testimony from a boy, so we needed to create a spectacle and, if I may say so myself, we did so rather splendidly."

Brathay did not know whether to believe him, but after what Marietta had said, he wondered if the whole morning trial had been little more than a performance. But put on for whom?

"Enough bleating, you two. Back to the matter at hand. I have secured the main gate," said Ligger. "Portcullis is down and the outer doors are heavily barred and bolted. Nothing will get past them. What news from you?"

"Every available soldier is stationed in position along the ramparts or above the gatehouse. Bhullard is settling the last of the villagers into the lower levels. Now, I suppose, we wait. Is this likely to become a long besiegement?”

"The apprentice asked me the same thing and that is what I would do. I wonder if they underestimate the surplus of supplies we currently hold? But if Leonmarkh and Zhorman have come to the same conclusion, that this is likely to become a waiting game, then why is the beacon still unlit?"

"Look," said Brathay, pointing across the courtyard to the stables. Brathay had noticed Myxel running towards them, his face flushed with exertion and excitement.

"Captains, Mr Brathay," he said breathlessly. "Our other stablehand, Morrent, just slinked up to the top of the northeastern tower. He were up there when you shot that fireball out of the sky. Told me to tell you that just afterwards, some of the sails on the galleon down there burst into flame."

"From the snow-fire device?" asked Haycock.

"No, sire," said Myxel, shaking his head emphatically. "At least he don't seem to think so. Nothing came from the keep. But he said he did notice longboats had been launched from the other ships and a bunch of local fishing boats gathered near where the battleship is anchored. Said he saw sailors on the galleon firing flaming arrows at some of 'em, but they just bounced off or missed 'cause none of 'em caught fire."

"Grey Flame," muttered Brathay.

"Surely the villagers would not risk—?" asked Haycock.

"You heard what they told Leonmarkh," said Brathay, turning to him. "They would repay his kindness in any way they could. And although they may come across as peace-loving, my sense is that they do not take kindly to bullies picking on their friends."

"Then they put themselves at risk if they are caught," said Ligger. "I am less concerned about the galleon. Five of the ships most likely carry troops. If they are now in longboats, then what is their intent? To invade the town? Because any attempt to scale the walls would be fruitless. Even the narrow lane to the gatehouse would not provide a significant means of attack."

"Whatever their intent, it does no harm having allies outside the keep walls," said Haycock. "Where, in the name of the eleventh king, is Lord Leonmarkh?"

"I have not seen him since the trial ended," said Ligger. "But I trust he has a good reason for not firing up the beacon. This may be not be a threat to the realm, may be an internal conflict, but attacking an outpost of the empire is tantamount to high treason—"

As he spoke, their attention was drawn to a loud clamour, clashes of metal, and a distinctive grunt of exertion. From the courtyard exit to the southwestern tower, Bhullard backed out slowly, trying to prevent those who confronted her from emerging from the stairwell. Immediately, Haycock drew his sword and went to assist. Ligger had been about to do the same until soldiers wearing silver breastplates with a distinctive deep blue falcon emblazoned on the front poured out of the southeastern stairwell. Brathay's attention was immediately drawn to the enemy soldiers filling the upper levels, the sheer numbers overwhelming Leon's gold and brown clad soldiers.

"What betrayal is this?" said Ligger, unsheathing his sword and turning to Brathay and Myxel. "These soldiers are from Morkhlach in the north of Braggadach. They are supposed to be allies. You two, take cover below while I will do what I do best."

When Myxel darted back towards the stable, Brathay looked around wildly for some kind of weapon but could only find a discarded broom, rake, or lesser household items. When he looked across, Ligger had already engaged, disarmed and flattened three men. Without a second thought for his own safety, Brathay approached one of the downed soldiers nearest him and plucked his sword away. The weight felt good in his hand, and he moved to assist Ligger. When the captain turned and saw him, eyes wild and forehead damp with sweat and blood from a nick, he frowned at first but then let out a deep roar of humour before fighting even more fiercely. Brathay joined in, and before long, they had backed the soldiers into the stairwell, preventing any more from emerging.

When he looked to the ramparts, Brathay saw Leon's well-trained soldiers successfully pushing back the advancing Morkhlach troops. Both sides fought in a similar fashion although repeated exercises in the harsh north had paid off and gave Leon's solider's the edge. Even so, he could tell they would soon be outnumbered. Ligger fought valiantly, seven or eight bodies already on the ground around him. And although Haycock and Bhullard appeared to be holding ground too, he noticed a few enemy soldiers emerging from the northern towers behind them. Somehow they had found a way into the keep, or someone had opened a way for them. Right at that moment, a stream of soldiers from the northwestern tower began to emerge unchallenged and run to the aid of their comrades in arms. Chill dismay filled Brathay. Even with their skills, Leon's soldiers stood no chance of defeating such overwhelming numbers.

Haycock had turned to meet the new assault, back to back with Bhullard, who continued to face the soldiers before her. Even so, they were being beaten back on both fronts and would soon be swamped and disarmed.

"What can I do, Ligger?" said Brathay, desperate to help." Tell me what I can do to help—?"

"Apprentice," said Ligger, with a grunt, still engaging a soldier. "This is not your fight."

"But I am here now. What would you have me do?"

"Live, Brathay."

With that, Ligger finished off the man he had been fighting and turned into the oncoming wave of soldiers, but before engaging them, he thrust a hand into Brathay's chest, sending him reeling back onto the ground among the bodies of the fallen soldiers. As Brathay fell, his vision latched on in horror to a soldier with a crossbow on the rampart above who levelled a shot at Ligger's chest. Desperate to help, Brathay tried to clamber to his feet when Ligger went down, surrounded by dozens of foes. But even the captain's colossal bulk could not withstand the sheer numbers of combatants, and, with their opponent on the ground, they spent no time in making sure he never rose again. Swords rose and fell, silencing the one captain who had gone out of his way to help and defend Brathay. He felt his heart lurch with desolation, a cry of pain escaping him turning into a sudden cry of anger and a battle frenzy that consumed his essence. With a renewed and fatal resolve, he clambered to his feet ready to die alongside his friend.

And in that moment, he staggered back when a wild burst of icy fire emanated from his chest and filled his body, stilling his rage but taking over his movements. As though watching from above, he saw his body, sword in hand, moving unchallenged into the centre of the courtyard, to step over the boundary wall of the snow-fire mechanism and reach out his sword into the solid beam of light. At the shock of power invading him, memories returned of the overwhelming sensation he had experienced when submerged in the lake, encompassing him and filling him entirely inside.

Once the metal blade turned the colour of the beam, he stepped back and held aloft a sword of orange flame, the same colour as the fire burning from his eyes. Frighteningly slowly, he saw himself cutting down any living thing in his path to Ligger, until the eyes of those coming at him filled with terror, realising what they confronted was not natural and could not be brought down. When he reached Ligger, his enemies stumbled back in fear. Without heeding them further, Brathay knelt next to the body of his fallen friend and pushed the flat palm of his hand onto Ligger's bloody chest. A mix of orange and white light drained from him into Ligger's body, slowly but surely bringing Brathay back down to earth, back to himself. As fatigue enveloped him and he felt ready to drop, a strong voice rose above the clamour of battle.

"Soldiers of Khloradich." Leon's loud voice sounded worn but still filled the keep. "Lay down your arms. This is not a fight we can win. And I will lose no more of you. Lay down your arms now and I have been promised your lives will be spared."

Brathay's tired eyes scanned the keep wildly until he eventually picked out Leon, standing ragged on the western ramparts. Even from a distance, Brathay could see blood covering the left side of his face and his clothing—robes he had worn in the courtroom—ripped and bloodstained. Enemy soldiers stood either side, roughly holding him up by the forearms, while one very prominent general stood to his right, a sword held beneath Leon's chin.

Slowly at first, sounds of battle began to recede until all Brathay could hear was the newly arriving garrison from the northern towers. Enemy soldiers around Brathay, realising his vulnerability, grabbed him forcibly by the arms, knocking the dead sword from his hand and pushing him to lie flat on the ground.

"Make sure this one doesn't move," came a rough voice.

Someone planted a boot on his neck, and his head turned in the direction of the last of the soldiers filing into the keep. As the trickle finally slowed, one familiar figure hobbled in unhurriedly behind them.

Steward of Black Ice Keep. Hulm Khraxwall.

Once again, despite feeling spent, fury began to blind Brathay's vision with tears of anger, a burning sensation rising in his chest and he began to struggle until a sharp blow to the side of his head plunged him into unconsciousness.

Thank you for reading. At last the mysteries begin to unfold...

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.

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Chapter Comments

Things looked black before. Now they look blacker still. I will refrain from asking how black things can get, as I fear what the answer might be. 

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It seems odd the keep has no cannons. None have ever been mentioned previously or during the attack.  It is a serious oversight in strategic planning.

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Brathay still has the book describing the interworkings of the keep. Can he figure out a helpful solution with new tricks or capabilities or passages? Has any information be gotten from far away on the meanings of certain symbols that could reveal more about the book and keep? Can the villagers help or hinder the duke? What exactly are the duke;s plans for the keep and Leon? He is not going to want to stay in the keep for the long term, I bet.

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