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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 - 21. Brennik

Brathay learns the reason for the attack.

Brathay felt as though his skin had begun to catch fire.

A fury so intense erupted from within that he started to lose control again. He felt the blood draining from his face and a tremor beginning beneath the surface of his skin, centring in and around his chest. For a long moment, he did not breathe, not until his lungs began to ache. And then the combined voices of his father and Brokerman sounded loud and resolute in his mind.

Breathe, Brathay, breathe. Do not give yourself away. Pick your moment.

As he came back to himself, he noticed the naval officer had stepped away from his conversation and, from the raised vantage point, peered down his long, sharp nose at Brathay.

"Apprentice Brathay Stonearm. I am Admiral Khallis of Lokhradich, head of the fleet. Lord Brennik here tells me your father is General Kuat Stonearm, Duke Ervine's right hand, and that I ought to be civil to you. Which is just as well because I had half a mind to have you publicly flogged after the bloodlust you exacted on members of the Morkhlach infantry."

Brathay ignored the admiral entirely and addressed Zhorman with one word.

"Why?"

At least the captain had the decency to look slightly taken aback at the accusation. After a second, Zhorman raised his chin and stood his ground.

"What are you asking me?"

"Why are you allowing them to treat him this way, tethered like a wild bear?"

"There are six soldiers no longer breathing because of him, and eight in the infirmary. The restraints are a matter of necessity," replied Zhorman.

"And the shaven head?"

"Comrades of the fallen were naturally angered. He is lucky to have been pulled out alive."

"You promised his older brother you would defend him to the death, did you not?"

Zhorman stalled again. Perhaps Brathay should not have shared this personal knowledge about Leon, should not have shown the degree of his friendship with him, but his heart needed to understand.

"In case you were in any doubt, Mr Stonearm," said Khallis, folding his arms. "Group Captain Zhorman is not the one on trial—"

"Group captain?" said Brathay, his tone level. "You threw your leader, your fellow captains and soldiers to these wolves for a mere promotion? I made the mistake of considering you a better, truer man than that. It would appear as though Leonmarkh and I were both wrong about you. You are of the same sniveling, self-serving, backstabbing turncoat breed as Khrax—"

One of the soldiers stepped forward soundlessly and punched Brathay hard on the side of the face. He did not see the blow coming and was knocked sideways to his knees. White lights flashed across his eyesight, and as his head cleared, his attention was drawn to another sound.

Leon had begun to struggle violently in his chains until a nod from the admiral had one of the guards striking him across the back of the head with the handle of a sword. He watched Leon squeeze his unbruised eye shut and clench his teeth, clearly in pain. Brathay flinched as a wave of nausea curdled his stomach. He needed no better incentive to reel in his anger. Instead, he climbed shakily to his feet, determined to save his rage for a time when he had an advantage.

"Admiral Khallis," came the cultured voice of Lord Brennik as Brathay composed himself. "I must object most strongly to this unnecessary use of force. As appointed officials of Mulia, this is not how we treat civilians—"

"In times of war, Lord Brennik, that is exactly how we deal with prisoners. We are past diplomacy."

"Then maybe I should remind you that these are Morkhlach troops, assigned to you by—"

"That sailed here in my ships, under my command, and who I continue to lead because you have no military acumen—"

Zhorman stepped forward then and raised his hands to silence the pair.

"Gentlemen, the apprentice asked about my motives. Will you at least allow me the opportunity to answer his question?" said Zhorman, waiting for the two men to stop arguing.

"If that is the case," said Lord Brennik, coming forward to join Zhorman. "Can I suggest the four of us continue this discourse privately in the hall's antechamber. I fear this public squabbling is leaving a bad impression on the soldiers."

"As you wish," said Admiral Khallis, leading the way through a door at the back of the dais, where a small table and chairs had been set. Even though he had no choice in the matter, Brathay did not want to leave Leon alone. Until he justified to himself that he might negotiate more rationally without the sight of Leon constantly in his view. Brennik led Brathay to a seat and sat beside him while Khallis sat opposite them. Zhorman remained standing at the head of the table.

"I am not sure what Lord Leonmarkh has fed you, so let me first provide a few harsh truths. The rule of the DuMankin dynasty has been coming to a natural end ever since the late duke passed. Naturally, the family are clinging on to power, but their demise is inevitable. The current duke, Charteris, has proven incompetent which is why he is being pressured to relinquish his position. Jacomine, who would have taken his place, has finally passed on, and of the late duke's male offspring, only Leonmarkh remains. And as King Bruckbar will have learnt by now, we are all dismayed to hear how the youngest played a hand in Jacomine's death. Traces of poison were found in his body, slowly administered over the past two years by someone Leonmarkh handpicked to medically assist his brother. Even if those charges cannot be proven, why would the king allow the duchy to be ruled by a man who cannot even be trusted to run a remote and, frankly, largely redundant keep, where beaconwood burns unguarded, where soldiers steal from under his nose, and where murders are allowed to take place unchallenged. And if that is not enough, he has openly used the forbidden art simply to heat the building, flagrantly flaunting the laws of the empire which is, in itself, punishable by death. Forgive me, apprentice, if I gave you the impression of being one of his captains who blindly followed their child lord. But let me ask you this. Do you think they are aware of what is happening in the real world, beyond their precious duchy? Would they even care? Are you, apprentice? Aware of major events unfolding in our empire, in our time?"

"I know the empress is dying—"

"As we speak she continues to decline. Corpulent midnight priests with their pomp and arcane blessings are already dusting off their gowns. And do you know who will succeed her?"

"Does anybody? Officially, a royal successor should be appointed from the next line of kingdoms, from my home country. But there are no royal successors in Thiradon. Our nation is led by a regent—"

"Duke Ervine. Yes, he is a mere regent of Thiradon, not of noble birth, even though he has done more for his country and for this empire during his short life than all of the realm's entitled kings and queens combined. But there is change in the air and I wish to be on the right side of history."

"Leonmarkh told me you were his oldest brother's best friend. Was he misled?"

"As a student of hall studies, you will know as well as any how important it is to align yourself with the right people, to influence them, in order to get what you want. I have waited a long time for this moment."

"Your moment of triumph? And has this newfound glory justified the despicable things you have done to get here? Will you, for example, be inspiring the men under you to murder innocent chamberlains in cold blood?"

"Watch your tongue, apprentice," said Khallis.

Zhorman stopped speaking then, smiling coldly, appearing to consider how to answer the accusation. Brathay knew he should keep silent but could not resist pushing home his knowledge.

"I heard every word of your conversation in the stairwell the night she went missing. Asking her to keep snooping into my journal. Her objections to the way she was being treated. I had the distinct impression she had reached a breaking point."

"Then you will know the chamberlain had become a liability," said Khallis. "And in doing so became a casualty of combat. Had I been in Zhorman's place, I would have done the same thing. Probably sooner."

Brathay kept his attention trained on Zhorman. "Does Khraxwall know it was you who ended her life?"

"Khraxwall knows what he needs to know. But he unwittingly provided the means for the disposal of her body, when he showed me the seawall door. More to the point, Admiral Khallis is correct. For a long time, Millflower proved to be a worthy agent who had access to the rooms of all senior members of the keep. You might be surprised how careless usually cautious people can be when unseen house staff have keys to their rooms. For the most part, Millflower did an excellent job of keeping me appraised of any messages received by bird or notes of interest she found penned. Even her petty pilfering served me well in keeping her on side. But if you overheard my conversation that night—which I see you clearly did—then you will know she was on the verge of running to Leonmarkh and blowing everything wide open, everything I had worked hard to align during my life and over the past eighteen months. As Admiral Khallis says, her removal was an act of tactical necessity."

"A convenient way to excuse the committing of atrocities. I would watch your back, group captain. As you are aware, the villagers have pledged their support for Lord Leonmarkh."

"The villagers have been dealt with," said Khallis flatly, his expression unreadable. "They are no longer a threat to us."

Khallis' words stalled Brathay. What retribution had they brought down upon the peace-loving Sjin-Shatir? He could not stand the thought of any of them being harmed in the conflict.

"While we hold their elder," explained Zhorman, "the one called Mjaj, they have agreed to cease their hostilities."

"I see," said Brathay, trying not to show his relief. "And what will happen to Leonmarkh?"

"Lord Leonmarkh DuMankin of Khloradich is charged with treason," said Khallis. "With conspiring to poison his brother, Lord Jacomine DuMankin and further his claim to the seat of power in Khloradich. Indisputable proof of his guilt has already been relayed to the king, confessions made by his accomplice of how they were employed to feed poison to the ailing brother while Leonmarkh had the perfect alibi of being stationed here in the north."

Brathay felt his skin crawl at the blatant lie, especially when Zhorman met Brathay's gaze and a tight, cruel smile formed on his lips. Admiral Khallis, unaware of this, continued on.

"As you of all people will know, apprentice, the penalty in our country for murder is death by hanging. With the levelling of the weather, and taking into consideration Leonmarkh's birthright, we have requisitioned envoys from Branersh and from the Royal Court to join us, who should be here in a week. They will have the final say, but due to the nature and severity of the charges, the Watchman is likely to be hanged here in the keep after which his body will be shipped back to his stepmother, the Duchess of Khloradich."

Brathay's mouth went dry. How could these men treat anybody, let alone a member of the nobility, with such callousness? His mind reeled at the thought, and words would no longer come. He needed to stop reacting and focus his mind on how he could save Leon.

"As for you, apprentice, I have yet to decide how you will be dealt with," continued Khallis.

Brathay had been so caught up in the false charges against Leon he hardly noticed Lord Brennik step forward to address the men.

"Admiral Khallis, I would like to speak with the apprentice. In private, if you will permit me?"

"Go ahead," said the admiral, standing and nodding to Zhorman. "You and I need to consult with the men on how we deal with the remaining prisoners."

Zhorman turned at the door and addressed Lord Brennik.

"Be careful wth this one, your lordship. You know what mayhem he is capable of creating and, by now, you can tell he is not afraid to speak his mind. But I have also seen his cunning influence at work, not dissimilar to a hawk circling its prey."

"Your concern is noted."

Lord Brennik watched as the men left, then let out an audible sigh. Watching him, Brathay noted the fine cut of his silk clothes in aquamarine with intricate inlaid designs of golden and brown. Brennik had once been a handsome man, still lean of body with skeletal hands of long, delicate, almost feminine fingers. Unlike other Braggadachi men, his skin shone as pale as any Thiradonian and, despite his dark eyebrows, tightly curled white hair surrounded suntanned baldness.

Once the room fell quiet again, Brennik's smile appeared genuine.

"Apprentice—may I call you Brathay?" he asked.

"That would be acceptable."

Brennik poured two large cups of water from a jug and handed one to Brathay. For a second, Brennik looked on as Brathay stared at the cup. Brennik lifted his own cup to his mouth with a smile and drank deeply, proving to Brathay that nothing extra had been added to the water.

"Then please drink, Brathay", said Lord Brennik, putting his cup down. "I know you must be thirsty after your ordeal. Would you like me to arrange for the kitchens to bring you food?"

"That will not be necessary. There will be some in my quarters."

"As you wish."

Brathay had met officials like Brennik in Thiradon, men of wisdom and common sense who carried out instructions and played the middle ground between the military and the nobles. He did not envy their roles, constantly trying to negotiate a path to keep both sides happy and usually ending up pleasing neither.

"Tell me this, Lord Brennik. How can a man who has been a close family friend to someone find justification in turning on them in such a treacherous and pernicious way? Betraying them entirely in public? Who deserves that kind of treatment?"

Lord Brennik nodded his head, staring down at the table. The questions appeared to strike a nerve in him, and he paused a moment before raising his eyes to Brathay.

"I am not sure what to tell you. I have known men in this world who store up personal grievances or injustices together with their feelings of hatred or shame or disgust, all of which grow and fester within them like the fungus rot that devours the inside of a healthy tree. After a certain number of years, there is nothing one can say or do to reverse that ingrained loathing."

"I thought I could read people well. I was wrong."

"Look, Brathay, as you can probably tell, I am not a military man. I find this combative posturing ungainly and entirely unnecessary. I am a cat treading water here, more used to negotiating and problem solving in court than sacking forts in foreign parts. Not that I do not respect the methods of some more level headed and diplomatic military leaders. Your father, for example. I have found him to be both sound of judgement and able to provide unusual clarity in his explanation of both military and political strategy, not something you see in many generals across the realm."

"My father is not a general. He is the captain of the guard."

"Ah, of course. You have been stranded here for many months and would probably not know. Your father was—well-deservedly, in my view—promoted to the rank of general. Not everyone approved of the preferment. Some find him stubborn and difficult to impress. We have known each other for many years and I see his value to the duke. I was unaware he had a son."

That remark did not surprise Brathay.

"Please drink. It is not often these days that I get to enjoy such pleasant company." Lord Brennik poured more water into Brathay's cup. "I saw you in combat yesterday, from the safety of the northern ramparts. Now that was a sight to behold, something that might even impress your father. Tell me about these crystals? That can so readily reduce a dragonball to dust?"

Brathay hesitated. He could tell by Brennik's face that he was eager to know more. Perhaps Brathay could use his knowledge as leverage to keep Leon and himself safe.

"The crystals were a part of the construction of the keep. Leon discovered a book that explains how to use them. But you will have to ask him about—"

"I have no interest in the book. Zhorman tells how you rode out to a lake to find them."

"Bear Lake," said Brathay, offering something that Zhorman would already have told him. "The crystals were stored in a hut there."

"Were they? And what else was hidden with them?

"Nothing. Just the wooden box they were housed in."

"I doubt there was nothing else. I would like to visit this place."

"I can take you there. When things here have been settled."

Brennik eyed Brathay before smiling thinly.

"We shall see. Admiral Khallis believes you suffered a moment of battle madness yesterday when you went on your rampage, but I saw something different. I watched you harness the power of the crystal light. How did you manage that?"

"I picked up a sword that one of your soldier had dropped and placed the tip into the beam. I imagine anyone could have done the same thing."

"I think not. Yesterday, once things had quietened down, I ordered one of our guards to use the very sword you wielded, to follow your example and place the blade into the fire."

Brennik paused, his gaze drifting away towards the courtyard.

"And?" asked Brathay.

"And," he said, his gaze returning. "He is now in the infirmary, being treated for severe burns to his sword arm and a broken collar bone from being thrown across the courtyard. Is there something you are not telling me?"

"All I know is that what I did was instinctual, not by conscious thought. Perhaps you are right and the answer lies back in the lake hut."

"Perhaps it does," said Brennik smiling again. "Brathay, if you are worried about your safety here, do not be. Even Admiral Khallis is not fool enough to harm a hair on your head, despite his posturing. I sense there may not be that much love between you and your father, but you are his nonetheless and anyone hurting you would, I am absolutely convinced, bring his iron-fisted retribution."

Brathay looked away and nodded. Throughout his life, Brathay had never relied on support from his father for anything. In his heart, he doubted Brennik's reasoning but would happily press the advantage if doing so meant staying alive.

"And on that note, Khraxwall tells me your life has been made miserable since your arrival and he worries that word might reach your father. The steward says you were treated discourteously, and after being falsely accused of murder, imprisoned in appalling conditions…need I go on?"

"My life was never in any danger, Lord Brennik."

"But you were not made wholly welcome, were you? Not shown customary Braggadachi hospitality? And that is both inexcusable and unforgivable. Such behaviour makes our people appear little more than the peasant descendents of Noth."

Brathay did not know what to think of Lord Brennik. He had trusted too quickly lately. The one person who actually deserved his trust was shackled to the floor in the next room.

"Why are you here? I mean, why is Morkhlach involved in what is happening?"

"Now that, young man, is a very good question. Morkhlach has maintained a closeness with the DuMankin family for many years. On my part, I have also worked hard to form alliances with other duchies in the country, Lokhradich—from where the admiral hails—being one of them. Once we are able to entice Cragginch into our union we will become a formidable alliance. Now to answer your question, the quiet petition for assistance came from the duchess, Lady Valisqua, and was made directly to the dukes of both Morkhlach and Lokhradich. Being something she considers a domestic issue, she asked to avoid any excessive show of strength, simply wanting to learn the truth behind the accusations. Above all, she did not want to worry her son, Charteris, or King Bruckbar—both of whom have problems of their own right now. After hearing her request had been passed to Admiral Khallis and how he planned to lead a small armed envoy to arrest Leonmarkh, she became anxious and contacted me. I volunteered myself and our soldiers because I knew of the admiral's brutal methods and thought a display with large enough numbers might act as a deterrent and negate the need for combat. I insisted on joining them to keep the peace and seek the truth from Leonmarkh. I had no idea Khallis had already planned an attack until we weighed anchor in Black Ice Bay. By which time I could do little but go along with his plan."

"You did not know about Khallis having people inside the keep?"

"Admiral Khallis neither likes nor trusts me. And he most certainly does not confide in me. He reserves that kind of relationship for men of a similar military persuasion. Such as your Captain Zhorman."

"He is not mine, Lord Brennik," said Brathay, irked at the trite phrase.

"Whatever you think of Captain Zhorman, he has one thing right, Brathay. Our empire is made up of pockets of little fiefdoms with rulers who consider they have a right to reign and enjoy the comfortable trappings rule brings—because of the blood running through their veins. But times change, as well they should. And a new sun is indeed rising. Morkhlach, where I am from, is led by an aged and childless duke who relies heavily upon me to run everyday matters. Fortunately for me, he also gives me the people and power to do so. But what will happen to me when he inevitably passes, after I have invested so much of my life in his region? That must surely be how Duke Ervine views his contribution to the empire and his current situation. Now there is a man I admire greatly."

"We met once or twice, but I was too young to get a measure of him. Lord Brennik, I feel we have both been equivocating. What will happen to Lord Leonmarkh?"

Brennik eased out a sigh and fidgeted the cup in his hand.

"I have only so much authority and influence here. And I am going to need to use all of that to prevent Leonmarkh's execution and ensure he has a fair and honest trial. That is the foundation upon which Mulia was founded and I will not compromise those standards. But Brathay, you need to let me take care of that alone. Do not struggle against them as I am sure you wish to. I need you to convince them that you will not object to a trial. Otherwise I fear Khallis may be inclined to make an example of Leonmarkh's remaining captains. And we cannot allow that to happen. Right now we need to create more time, to keep Leonmarkh safe until I have the ear of the Royal Palace adviser. Are you willing to help me with that?"

"Of course."

"Then, as much as I hate to ask and as much as it may irk you, when we return, I need you to put on a show for the admiral and his men. Let them sense I have swayed you to their way of thinking. Do you think you can do that?"

Brathay's stomach curdled at the idea, but he nodded his assent. What choice did he have? Brennik must have sensed Brathay's hesitation because he pressed home his point.

"Do not let your pride stand in the way of us buying time and getting justice. I will need you to stand in front of Leonmarkh and address your words directly to him. You are doing this to save him. Do you feel you can do that convincingly?"

"Is this not unnecessarily cruel?"

"You have just met Admiral Khallis. And finally you know the true Zhorman. Do you think either of them care about hurting Lord Leonmarkh's feelings? But if you can make then believe you are no longer a threat, I know they will go easier on the other soldiers and house staff presently being held. And it will make my job that much easier when I push for a deferral on Leonmarkh's punishment."

Brathay stared into his cupped hands for a few moments before thunking them on the table.

"Then let us do this."

Lord Brennik stood first and led the way back into the main hall. Although Admiral Khallis remained on the dais talking with two soldiers, Zhorman had gone. Apart from Leonmarkh still chained to the floor, the cavernous Great Hall stood otherwise empty.

"The apprentice has some words he wishes to share with the pretender," said Brennik to Khallis before stepping off the platform and moving in front of Leon.

"I trust they are worth hearing," said Khallis, peering over the heads of his soldiers at Brathay.

"Lord Leonmarkh," came Brennik's voice. "The young apprentice, Brathay Stonearm, has something he wishes to say to you." Brathay watched absently as Brennik clasped a bony hand around Leomarkh's chin and turned his face to him. The following words were barely audible, but Brathay heard each of them.

"Best you pay attention, Leo, my little cirroccho."

At the sound of the name, cold dread filled Brathay. Leon had yanked his head away from the lord's grasp, and Brennik backed away, ushering Brathay to take his place. Leon gave Brathay his full attention when he stood in place, his gaze unwavering.

At first, Brathay faltered, unsure how to begin until Leon barely perceptibly nodded his head. Brathay folded his arms and looked down on his lover while the admiral, Lord Brennik and the guards stood behind their prisoner looking on. And the solution came to him very simply. Leon was not on trial here. He never had been. The men behind him were. He needed all of his strength and self-control to speak the words that finally came to him, to articulate them without his voice breaking or stuttering.

"Did I not say that I will not tolerate betrayal, Lord Leonmarkh? Throughout my upbringing in Thiradon under my father's tutelage, and during my days at the institute, I have been taught to serve the empire." Leon focused his mute attention on Brathay, blinking his unharmed eye and scrunching his swollen nose up. "But above all, I loathe those who seek to put themselves above the laws of the realm, above what is right and above the will of the people, those who think nothing of committing treasonous acts for their own personal gain." Leon's head shook a few times, and then he blinked again—the corner of his mouth twitching painfully around the binding—his face otherwise impassive. Brathay stared hard until comprehension dawned. "I have made plain to you where my loyalties lie. You know that I would do anything to have traitors of the empire brought to justice. This is who I am. What else would you have me do, Lord Leonmarkh?"

"Well spoken, apprentice," said Lord Brennik.

Unable to speak, Leonmarkh stared straight at him, fear in his good eye. Brathay returned an unwavering stare before placing his right hand on his own left shoulder and tapping twice. Finally, he brought both hands together over his mouth as though in prayer and stared down at the defeated lord.

After a deep sigh and a decisive shake of his head, his eyes meeting those of the watching audience, Brathay tapped the little fingers of each hand together three times, then lowered his gaze back to Leon.

Only he noticed the relief and the shimmer of a smile reflected in Leon's good eye.

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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@scrubber6620 and @84Mags, thank you!

While I was reading this chapter, I was trying to remember the details that were brought up here (i.e; cirrocho, the sign language, etc.).  You two helped fill in those blanks.  I now remember the discussion of the uncle, but not that of the signing.  Where was that?  Chapter10, also?

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23 minutes ago, Clancy59 said:

@scrubber6620 and @84Mags, thank you!

While I was reading this chapter, I was trying to remember the details that were brought up here (i.e; cirrocho, the sign language, etc.).  You two helped fill in those blanks.  I now remember the discussion of the uncle, but not that of the signing.  Where was that?  Chapter10, also?

Chapter 10: Frozen discussed the sign language and Chapter 11: Return discussed Leonmarkh's uncle.  

Each chapter is so full of details and small hints, as well as a few mysteries.  I feel like no matter how many times I reread this wonderful saga I find something else out!

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