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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

Heart of Black Ice - 20. Betrayal

Once again, Brathay wakes in a cell.

Brathay woke with a pounding headache and only slowly became aware of the familiar icy coldness enveloping his skin and a putrid stench he would rather have forgotten. At first, he believed he had lost his sight—the darkness all-consuming—until his eyes picked out a faint orange glow of torchlight from outside reflected on the damp wall of his cell.

He touched the painful spot at the back of his skull and felt caked blood. This time, at least, someone had furnished him with a blanket that provided a degree of comfort.

Gradually, recollections of what had happened came back to him, and he swung to sitting too quickly, igniting a new wave of pain in his head. Even so, his concern for Leon, Zhorman, the other captains and the house staff overrode the ache. And what had triggered him again, had invoked his talisman during the combat? Unlike the two previous occasions, the power had to have been summoned through his anger. That much he could understand about himself. Few in his life had witnessed the manifestation of the kind of rage he had felt in the courtyard. And although he had not had the same blind fury since the age of ten—had learned to control himself according to his father's wishes—one particular incident always came back to haunt him.

During a training exercise with soldiers on horseback from his father's regiment—and as his father looked on—one of the men had caught him unaware, had quietly shoved and unsaddled him as four of them readied for a circuit race. Each rider had been tasked with plucking a ribbon-tied spear from the ground at four points along the course and, while remaining seated on horseback, to throw the spear into each of four targets.

From the ground, despite a brief flash of embarrassment, blind anger, not unlike that he had experienced seeing Ligger fall, had consumed him. With precious seconds lost, he had rallied quickly, had remounted and spurred his steed forward, even though the men had gained significant ground until he reached the first spear. With everything to prove, he had pulled the red-ribboned javelin from the ground and hurled with all his might. Without stopping to check on his success, something the other men had made the mistake of doing, he had galloped on to the next spear.

With the fourth and final target hit—the first of the soldiers to do so—he had brought his steed to a stop as the others rode home before climbing down from the saddle. Still boiling inside, he had gone straight over to the mounted soldier who had unseated him and had hauled him to the ground. Without stopping, even while being lashed out at by the seasoned soldier, he had pummelled the face of the man until two other horsemen had appeared and pulled him off.

On that day, his father had finally acknowledged him as his own. Not long afterwards, he had taught him to control and channel his rage, rather than letting the fury control him, something Counsellor Brokerman often referenced. His father's words came back to him on the days his anger threatened to bubble like molten lava.

"Hide behind your calm, Brathay, and give nothing away. People incorrectly transpose niceness with weakness. Contain what you feel inside in readiness. There is no better element of surprise than the unexpected retaliation from someone an adversary misjudges as weak and powerless."

He sat with his head hanging between his legs, replaying the day in his head until the nausea had finally passed. Taking a deep, steadying breath, he rose slowly to his feet and went to the cell door.

"Hello?" he called out, expecting to hear nothing in return.

"Brathay?" From his left came the distant but urgent and unmistakable voice of Bhullard. Overcome with emotion at hearing her call his name, Brathay's eyes began to tear up. At least another had survived. Her voice came again, more insistent this time. "Brathay, are you there? Are you hurt?"

"Yes. No," said Brathay, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I mean, yes, it is me. I have a bump on the head, but am otherwise fine. How are you?"

"I have been better, but am still in one piece."

"How long have we been down here? I have lost all sense of time."

"Difficult to say with the absence of light, but I would say one night at least. I did not hear them bring you down, but perhaps they gave you something to make you sleep."

Right then, Brathay recalled waking to consciousness under the open sky with someone craning over him. He also remembered being fed something warm to drink then falling back into darkness. While Bhullard had been speaking, he heard someone cough.

"Are there others down here with us?"

"Other soldiers. Haycock and Ligger were carried to the makeshift infirmary at the back of the kitchens. Ligger was cut up badly and still unconscious, but alive when they took him away. Haycock was not in a much better state. I pray they are not beyond the skill of Fleming and his helpers."

"What about Leonmarkh and Zhorman?"

"I know as much as you. But they are not down here. When they brought me to my cell, I saw neither. I asked around the other imprisoned soldiers but they know nothing either."

"Ligger said the attackers wore the uniform of Morkhlach—"

"That in itself is a mystery. Morkhlach is landlocked and although the duchy has a significant army, they have no need of a navy. The man on the battlements with Leonmarkh was Admiral Khallis from Lokhradich. He is famed across the kingdom as being a seasoned seafarer. He is also a staunch ally of Khloradich. The question is what has caused them to join forces against Leonmarkh and his brother? And, more importantly, is King Bruckbar aware of what is happening— Hush, someone comes."

Brathay noticed the light growing stronger and heard distinct footfalls approaching from the right. They stopped outside Brathay's cell, and even though the man at the head, not a soldier, had his back to Brathay, the figure seemed familiar.

"Should I unlock the cell?" asked a soldier.

"No. It is best I speak alone—"

"Khraxwall!" came Bhullard's shout, her anger echoing off the walls. "You traitorous demon. Give me a sword now, and I will gladly part your head from your body."

"Silence!" shouted one of the guards. He strode away from Brathay's view, and next, he heard something clanging on a cell door.

Ignoring the taunt, Khraxwall had already turned to address Brathay. By torchlight, Brathay could not see his features distinctly but could still sense some hesitation in the old man's face.

"Admiral Khallis has insisted you be taken from here and placed with the civilian staff, somewhere more warm and fitting and comfortable in one of the chambers. He has also requested your assistance with the snow-fire device and straight afterwards wants to see you in person. These guards are here with me to escort you—"

"Where is Leonmarkh? What have they done with him?"

"I do not know where he is being kept, I only know he is alive, awaiting justice. In the meantime, you will accompany us to the courtyard, the Great Hall then to the chamber where others are staying."

"I will remain here, thank you. You have forfeited your right to any cooperation. And now I am aware of your deceitful nature, I prefer there to be a locked door between us."

Khraxwall had clearly not been expecting that response. After a moment of reflection, he turned to the guards standing behind him.

"Go and check on the other prisoners. Let me know if any needs a physician."

Once the guards had departed, Khraxwall turned back to Brathay and spoke quietly.

"It would be ill-advised to insult the admiral. He has taken over operations here. And he has charged me with seeking your aid to shut down the illegal heating device. Apprentice, he is offering to treat you with the same respect any guest of the empire would be shown."

"Why should I believe you? You have already betrayed us all."

Khraxwall closed his eyes, his jaw working.

"You cannot begin to understand—"

"Lord Leonmarkh put his faith in you, and look where that landed him. He even forgave you when you made mistakes guarding the food supplies and the beaconwood—"

Khraxwall's eyes opened wide.

"Surely you cannot still be that naive, apprentice. The only mistake I made concerning the beaconwood was in getting myself burned while putting a torch to the damned piles, because in my haste, I forgot about the potency and immediacy of the flame."

"Why would you do that? Render the keep powerless?"

"Because that is what I had been instructed to do."

"By whom?"

"By one who has my reason to live held in the palm of their fist."

Brathay mulled over the words. Was Khraxwall indeed being manipulated by somebody? Could Brathay believe a word that came out of his mouth?

"How did those soldiers manage to get into the keep? Leonmarkh thought he had closed off the only way in or out—apart from the front gate."

"When you first arrived, did you not investigate the whole structure? Let me guess? You managed to get as far as this floor—naturally, because the stairwells ends here—but also because you did not want to spend any more time than you had to down in this godforsaken space. Am I correct?"

During those early days, Brathay had not even ventured out onto the third floor, having seen the end of the stairs and been repulsed by the unholy odours.

"You are correct."

"And even if you had snooped around, you probably would not have found the single spiral stairway between the other two on this floor, built at a much later date, that leads down to a sea portal. The entrance from this floor is covered by wooden pallets because I knew one day I might need its use. Leonmarkh may not have had the foresight to consult previous Watchmen, but I am more thorough and received this gem of wisdom from a retired steward friend from Khordimun who spent four mind-numbing years in the keep and let on to many of her secrets. Although he said nothing about crystals, he told me about the flow of fresh water into rooms, something I saw no value in relaying and happily credited to you to take the focus from myself. But the fifth stairwell was another matter altogether. And when the tide is just right—as we made sure it would be when the attack occurred—longboats carrying twenty sailors in each were able to sail right into the heart of the keep. From the beacon tower, Leonmarkh would have realised his fate too late to do anything. Two hundred men had already broken through his defences. After that, his defeat was only a matter of time."

Brathay had underestimated Khraxwall. The man was genuinely duplicitous and had managed to fool everyone in the keep. Or maybe not everyone.

"Is that why you murdered Millflower?"

"I did not. I do not expect you to believe me but I did not kill Pallice Millflower. At the time, I firmly believed you to be the only person capable of committing the crime. Everything pointed to you. It was only during your trial that I began to see more clearly, that not only had I been mistaken, but that I, along with many others, had also been deceived. Most people know that I considered her a true and loyal friend. We worked together for many years and made a good team. And despite our closeness, I genuinely did not know she had been pilfering from the stores and, with hindsight, had probably been doing the same thing in different households for as long as we had worked together. Which is an important lesson in life I doubt they teach you at Aulderly, apprentice, that you may think you know someone completely and not really know them at all."

"You are wrong. It is a lesson I have learnt well. Through a living example standing on the other side of this door. Is there any honour left in you at all?"

Brathay could not be sure, but that particular remark appeared to make Khraxwall flinch, but he regained his composure quickly.

"If you manage to get to my age, then you will come to understand that life is a series of compromises. We all have to do things we would rather not in order to get what we want, and often just to survive. One day those words will mean something to you, once the sheen of youthful idealism has worn off."

"I would rather die than betray those who have placed their trust in me. What could anyone possibly have over you that could warrant such treachery?"

"They hold my wife, apprentice, my reason for living. Unless I do as they say, they will wrench her from me. So you see, I had no choice in the matter. Now, will you come with us voluntarily, or should I ask the guard to take you by force? The method of choice is yours. The end result will be the same."

Brathay mulled over the options. He needed to hear for himself what had transpired and maybe look for signs of Leon and the others.

"Then let us go."

"Sire," came a voice from the left. "The female captain from Khloradich is requesting medical assistance. Asks that we call the medic Fleming to examine her. What would you have me do?"

"First of all, captain, you know Admiral Khallis' instructions as well as I. Everyone is to be offered any assistance they need. But in the case of Captain Bhullard, I strongly advise that you have six guards with you and ensure they have their weapons drawn. Do not let them drop their guard for one instance because she will take advantage. And do not bring Fleming. If she really is in need of medical assistance, the ship doctor will more than suffice."

"Forgive me, steward, but six seems a little excessive—"

"Unless you want to explain to Admiral Khallis how you allowed more of his soldiers to be killed under your command, I suggest you do as I ask. Now, unlock this door."

Two armed guards escorted Brathay and followed Khraxwall along the familiar route through the lower floors and up to the courtyard. The keep appeared almost foreign by daylight, populated by unfamiliar soldiers in their silver armour with the blue bird on the front, busying themselves with chores. All signs of the earlier conflict had been cleaned away.

Small changes had already taken place, unfamiliar banners hanging from the four sides of the inner courtyard, guards now tending the horses at the stables with Nokh and his stableboys nowhere to be seen. Brathay felt a moment of dread at their absence, offering up a silent prayer that nothing terrible had befallen them during the fight. At odds with these changes, the snow-fire beam still shone fiercely, a solid, unwavering beam projected into the sky.

Khraxwall stopped before the small outer wall and addressed Brathay. By daylight, he could see the strain in Khraxwall's face. Perhaps the stress had always been there, but the man looked tired and wizened, as though he had aged prematurely since the trial.

"Please make this abomination cease."

"You realise that the likelihood is, if I deactivate this device, I will not be able to restart it unless there is a significant fall of snow. Which means no heating and lighting."

"The admiral is aware of that. Along with his contemporaries, he is a stickler for adhering to the laws of the realm, and as you know, anything concerning the sixth science in outlawed. Besides, we have other more traditional means to light and heat the keep."

"As you wish."

Brathay saw the stone block along the top of the wall still open and exposed and noticed dried blood on the final dial, the one Ligger had activated. Kneeling to the floor, he managed to turn the first control with relative ease, which in turn slowly closed the grating and cut off the shaft of light. Within mere seconds, the area returned to its former state of a dormant hole in the keep floor, a puzzle he had spent his early days trying to solve.

"Do you want me to go down and collect the crystals?"

"Not yet. I imagine the cavity will still be impassible with residual heat. I will take care of that tomorrow once the door has cooled sufficiently. Lord Brennik is curious to take a look at them. Now that is done, please accompany these soldiers to the Great Hall where Admiral Khallis awaits you. In the meantime, I will arrange something to eat and drink brought to your quarters."

"Which room? Will I be returning to the Watchman's chambers?"

Brathay hoped they had requisitioned the Watchman's larger rooms to house everyone. He would have a ready means of escape through the secret door to the lower level.

"Those have already been claimed. You will return to your old room."

Soldiers escorted him across the courtyard and along to the large doors of the Great Hall. On the way, indigo clad naval guards had been posted on the outer doors, and some stood inside the entrance to the brightly lit chamber where Brathay's trial had been held.

Four soldiers stood in a cluster at the far end before the raised dais, laughing loudly about something. Two other men stood to one side of the platform and appeared to be arguing, both dressed well but one of them a military-looking man, tall and stolid of composure—grey-haired and groomed—dressed in a black naval uniform with golden epaulettes, a man of admiral seniority, someone he assumed to be Admiral Khallis. At a guess, Brathay might have pegged the second man as an official. Even though shorter in stature, he held his ground against his towering adversary. Brathay could not hear the full content of their disagreement from the doorway but picked out words from the admiral such as example and deterrent while the shorter man kept repeating the phrases entirely inhumane and excessive abuse.

While Brathay took in the scene, the guards escorting him had stopped and remained inside the doorway but ushered him forward to approach the men. Perhaps they did not want their seniors to know Brathay had been held in the rank cell, held against his will.

Fine, he thought, but he would not show an ounce of vulnerability or fear in front of Leon's enemies, even if this admiral wanted to make an example of him. Without faltering, he marched forward, his head held high.

Until the group of four soldiers, on hearing his footsteps, unglued themselves to observe him. Brathay missed his footing and stumbled a fraction but then recovered quickly so that hopefully nobody noticed. And in particular, the soldier peeling away from the larger group that was Captain Zhorman.

Not only that, but Zhorman looked in good health, unscathed or touched by battle. What had happened on the ramparts when he and Leon had left to observe the ships? But the inexorable answer came to him with a shock of realisation. Zhorman had also betrayed them all.

"Ah, Brathay. Please come and join us," said Zhorman before turning to the admiral. "This is the young apprentice you asked to see. The one whose battle lust caught your eye during our taking of the keep."

Only then did Brathay look down and glimpse a broken figure on his knees below the dais in front of the men, a man with his hands shackled to the floor and a filthy gag tied painfully across and into his mouth. As Brathay approached, his confident pace faltered, and he finally stumbled to a stop.

Someone had brutally shaved the head of Leon—a cruel act of emasculation for any Braggadachi male—livid cuts evident in his scalp, clumps of hair still remaining. Someone had been unnecessarily vicious and brutal in their handling of this noble of the realm. Leon looked up then, dried blood caked to his face, his left eye closed up and bruised purple and yellow, the other opening wide in alarm. And very gently so that only Brathay caught the motion, Leonmarkh shook his head, panic dawning in his features.

Leon's warning came too late. Brathay saw what Khraxwall and Zhorman had allowed to happen to their leader—to his lover—and a now-familiar emotion erupted.

White rage.

Thank you for reading. 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.
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One thing I can agree with about this chapter is that too many questions and variables have been introduced to even speculate about what has happened and who is really behind this.:blink:

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