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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 - 22. Message

The house staff step up.

Escorted across the unusually brightly sunlit courtyard and up to his room, Brathay waited while the guards finally unlocked the door. They had what looked like Millflower's jumble of keys on a ring and took a long time while exhaling a few expletives before they found the right one. Once he stepped inside, with the door closed and locked behind him, he almost laughed to see the chambermaids jumping up guiltily from lounging across his bed. And before he had stepped further into the room, a very teary Mrs Sturridge scurried over to him and scooped him up in a rib-crushing hug.

"Mr Brathay. Thank the Seven," she said, releasing him and brushing imaginary crumbs from her apron.

Once his eyes had become accustomed to the lack of light in the room, he breathed with relief to reconnect with them; Mrs and Mrs Sturridge, the stableboys, the chambermaids and kitchen hands—minus Emiline, who presumably did not survive her injuries—as well as the innkeeper, Joxi, and two other villagers he didn't know. Marietta and Fleming, Mrs Sturridge explained shortly, had been settled together in a room above the infirmary. Mjaj, due to his relative seniority and strategic importance, had been appointed a room of his own.

Standing beside the fire, he captured their attention by telling them what had transpired in the Great Hall. Although he left out some details, not a single person interrupted as he spoke, ending his story with a simple pronouncement.

"Lord Leonmarkh needs us to light the beacon."

Brathay could barely hear a breath being taken. Most of them appeared naturally traumatised by the past few days, and now, after learning about the duplicity of both Khraxwall and Millflower, this additional news of Leonmarkh's brutal treatment and Zhorman's betrayal appeared to have stunned them all to silence. For a long moment, he wondered if they did not believe him.

"I don't understand," asked Myxel, in all innocence. "Didn't you just say his lordship were gagged and couldn't speak? How could he have told you about the beacon?" Myxel sat cross-legged on a rug huddled beside the fire next to Morrent and the young kitchen maids. Without heat from the crystals, the chamber had returned to its normal state of miserable coldness even with a blaze burning in the grate, not as cold as the heart of midwinter but still depressingly nippy.

"He is. But we have another way of communicating using signals." Brathay hesitated when he saw the look of confusion on the faces of those listening. "How, is not important. The thing is Leon spelled out the letters b-e-a-c-o-n. He needs us to light up the beacon."

"Captain Zhorman was always such a gentleman," said Flodhrum, the chambermaid, perched on the edge of the bed and staring off into space.

"Flod," said Ghellikh, the rosy-faced junior maid next to her, rolling her eyes. "You think any man of high rank must be civilised."

Brathay looked on surprised. In all the time he had been there, Ghellikh had never spoken a word, had always been in the shadow of either Flodhrum or Millflower.

"Well?" said Flodhrum, frowning back. "They usually are."

"Even Captain Haycock?" Ghellikh provided a self-satisfied smile before focusing her attention back on Brathay. "The problem as I see it, Mr Brathay, is how are we supposed to do that? Light the beacon? We're as good as prisoners in here."

"And what good would it do, even if we could," said Myxel. "Khraxwall will soon have the fire enclosed and extinguished the way he did last time."

"If I could get my hands on that two-faced devil—" began Mrs Sturridge, now perched on a stool at the small table, lifting items from a basket and arranging a plate of food for Brathay.

"Norla, you are not helping," said Nokh, standing behind her, his hands on her shoulders. "If Leonmarkh needs the beacon lit, then we needs to find a way to do exactly that.

"Give me and Morrent a sword and we'll take on them guards. Make them take us up—"

"You'll do no such thing, the pair of you. And you will stop with these fanciful ideas," said Mrs Sturridge sternly before handing a plate of food to Brathay. "End up getting us all roasting on a spit, you will."

At first, Brathay began to pick absently at the food, more interested in the conversations going on around him, until the taste of apple slices and creamy cheese and sweet bread rolls reminded his stomach that he had not eaten for a few days. Without stopping, he gulped down the food then said thanks to a smiling Mrs Sturridge, who took the plate and handed him a cup of hot tea.

"Look, the way I see it, even if the door here were left wide open, we couldn't just walk up there. Me and Flod might be able to—you know—persuade a couple of the guards to take us up there, but they'll not leave us alone, will they? Cause I know I wouldn't, if I got us up there," said Ghellikh, with a giggle before digging her elbow into a scowling Flodhrum's ribs.

"Joxi, my friend," asked Nokh. "I don't s'pose a flaming arrow fired from the village could reach the beacon? Has anyone ever tried anything like that afore?"

Joxi sat with two villagers on chairs Brathay had not seen before, ones the guards must have provided. All the time, they had been politely listening.

"Even from beneath the keep," answered Joxi, leaning forward in the chair. "The distance is too great and that is without taking into consideration the difficult trajectory. And even then, the wood of the beacon has been doused in Grey Flame. The fire from the arrow would have no effect, unless it could somehow be rigged to spark with a local flint. The main issue is how we get word to the villagers when none of us are allowed to leave."

"Of course, you're right. Worth considerin', though."

"Shame we don't still have the snow-fire machine," said Morrent. "I bet Mr Brathay could use that to light the beacon."

"To be honest, Morrent," said Brathay. "I am not sure any person can manipulate the light of the device in that way. And I wonder, too, if the beam would have any effect on Grey Flame."

For the next several moments, everyone sat mulling over the dilemma. Brathay noticed the eyes of Bhod, the tiny kitchen hand, widening at Myxel a couple of times in silent communication, but Myxel simply shrugged and shook his head in response.

"Look, there is another way," said Bhod eventually, clambering up from the floor and nodding at the wall behind Nokh. "One nobody will be expecting. But you mightn't like it."

"You're not serious," said Myxel, staring agog at her.

"Serious about what?" asked Brathay, looking between the two of them. "Are you going to tell me of a secret door in this room?"

"A secret what?" said Myxel, frowning with confusion at Brathay. "No, of course not. That's not what she means. And this way ain't no secret, neither. Go on, then. Tell him, Bhod."

"During the past summer," said Bhod, with her hands on her hips, "back when nobody visited and we could get our work done easily, Ghellikh used to be given the keys to the guest chambers along here—Millflower just wanted her to check them over, give 'em a quick dusting. Once she got inside, though, she'd call all the young keep staff to have leftovers sitting on the comfortable beds and play games together for an hour. Most of them were the silly ones kids play, but one was a kind of stupid challenge. Like who could eat a boiled egg whole, who dared drink the entire bucket of leftover barley water from breakfast in one go, that kind of thing. But one time we wanted to see who would climb out from the window of the first chamber along the south side of the keep and back in through the window of the last."

"Along the outside wall?" asked a horrified Brathay.

"Yes."

"That there's a sheer drop," said Mrs Sturridge, equally horrified. "Straight into icy grey soup."

"Yes, well. That was part of the fun, see?"

"No I don't see," said Mrs Sturridge outraged. "Fun, you say? If I'd known, I'd have shut that down straight away. Honestly, Mr Brathay, I really don't understand the young-uns these days. When I were a lass, our idea of fun was picking marigolds and blowing dandelion kisses, not trying to kill ourselves."

"Don't worry, none of this lot was brave enough to take on my challenge. Well, none except me. I was the only one who climbed out and went all the way along. And I could do the same again, all the way up to the beacon. If you'll let me."

"Thank you for that suggestion, Bhod," said Brathay. "But I cannot ask you to do that. If anyone was going to do anything that risky, it would be me. There must be another way."

"Let me do it, Mr Brathay sir," said Myxel. "If you don't want a girl going. The keep has ledges around the outside. And each of the towers is built with these large stones with gaps in that us youngsters can easily get our hands—"

"Are you too stupid that you don't remember, Myxel Jhordip?" said Bhod loudly, craning over him where he sat on the floor, her fists balled tightly on her hips. "The reason I went last time is because I was the only one small enough to squeeze through the outside opening."

"Oh yeah, she's right," said Myxel, turning defeated to Brathay. "If we open the shutters this side, you'll see the space inside narrows as it gets nearer to the outside hole. Only Bhod was small enough to squeeze through the far end. I can just about get my head through. Whether she can still fit is another matter."

"I can do it, Mr Brathay. All I need to do is climb along to the tower. From there, Myxel's right. I'm sure there are plenty of hand holds up to the beacon—"

"You are not climbing out of no windows, little missy—" said Mrs Sturridge.

"Don't matter none, anyways, Norla. Even if she managed to get up there," said Nokh. "She won't be able to light no beacon, will she? As Joxi said, it's soaked in that villager's oil stuff."

Joxi sat forward and raised their hand.

"Forgive me, but I meant we could not fire an arrow. But if the girl can get close enough she could set the wood aflame. I have a small lighter box with a local flint that will ignite Grey Flame. One strike is usually enough. But you must not be too close because the fire will catch quickly and burn fiercely."

"How about if I do it at arm's length?" asked Bhod, holding out her thin arm.

Joxi simply sat back and nodded once. Brathay had been about to object.

"Stop right now, Bhodhlo," said Mrs Sturridge, the fright plain in her face. "You are not climbing out of no window. I would never forgive myself if anything happened to you."

"Bhod," said Brathay. "Mrs Sturridge is right. I cannot allow—"

"You need to let me do this, Mr Brathay," said Bhod, her anger and determination plain. "His lordship needs the beacon lighting. And we have to act now. Have you noticed how there's barely any wind today, so the weather's on our side. But if we wait, it may not be. I can do this, everyone, I really can. Just have a little faith, will you?"

"She can, you know," said Myxel, grinning proudly and standing up next to Bhod. "We haven't been able to do much to help in this mess, us young-uns, so let us do what we can now. I can watch Bhod and guide her from the window."

"Do we have anything we could secure around her waist?" asked Nokh, to nobody in general. "Do you have rope in your belongings, Mr Brathay? I got some in the stable. I suppose I could ask to visit and bring some back, but that might look a bit suspicious—"

"Maybe we can tear up sheets from the bed," said Ghellikh, pulling the bedcover back.

"Stop it, all of you!" shouted Bhod. "We need to do this right now, if we're going to! And I don't need no rope nor sheets. They'll only weigh me down. Just give me the lighter box and help us get these blinds open. They're heavy and as stiff as a rusty cartwheel."

"Won't they be able to see her from the ships?" asked Nokh.

"Not in them clothes," said Myxel, indicating Bhod's grey top and leggings. After a moment, he took off and handed his dark grey woollen hat to her. "And she can wear this to cover her red hair."

Bhod smiled happily at Myxel as she pulled the hat onto her head. Brathay shook his head but grinned at the pair of them. With her hair tucked up, she could easily be mistaken for a stableboy.

The decision made, the room became a bustling hive of activity. Myxel talked tactics with Bhod while one of the villagers arranged their chair by the window. But the sense of elation was short-lived. Even though Brathay leant his muscle to Nokh and Morrent in opening the shutters, no amount of shifting and grunting appeared to budge them.

"We're dead afore we start," announced Nokh, standing back and passing a hand across his brow. "Them there shutters won't budge a jot."

"Oh no, you don't, Nokh Sturridge. Out of my way, all of you," said Mrs Sturridge, waddling over to them and swatting them away.

Brathay observed her checking over the hinges. He could not be certain, but he was sure that, as she ran the hand of one hand over a hinge, she pulled a small clay bottle from her apron pocket with the other hand. After standing back and providing a sharp tug, she had both shutters swinging wide open, allowing a steady draught of cool sea air to fill the room.

"And that there's a lesson for you all today, ladies," she said, turning to the room. "If you want a job done properly and urgent-like, don't sit around waiting for a man to come along."

Even Flodhrum giggled with the rest of the girls. Bhod ran forward and jumped up onto the chair without showing an ounce of fear. Mrs Sturridge, still standing there, leant in and gave her a tight hug.

"You be careful, my girl. Come straight back. Once you're done and this dreadful mess is all cleared up, there'll no doubt be plenty of spuds to peel."

Before Bhod crawled into the space, Joxi held out the small metal device and showed her quickly how to click the trigger and generate sparks. She tried a couple of times successfully before grinning and securing the lighter in her pocket. Brathay closed his eyes in silent prayer monetarily, asking for her to be kept safe, and when he opened them, she had already gone. Myxel crawled in after her, his words of encouragement heard back in the room. As everyone clambered around watching, Brathay lowered himself into a seat, feeling exhausted and realising the lighting of the beacon was now out of his hands,

"Are you feeling well, Mr Stonearm?" asked Joxi, touching his arm.

Surprised at the concern, Brathay smiled and nodded.

"I had a knock on the head, but I am otherwise fine. Why do you ask?"

"It was something I noticed in you during the trial. Would you mind if I take your wrist and check for your heartbeat?"

"Of course. But honestly, Joxi. I feel perfectly fine. A little tired perhaps."

Joxi pushed up the sleeve of Brathay's tunic and wrapped a cold hand around his wrist.

"She's already at the tower," came Myxel's excited voice from inside the cavity. "You should see her move. Like a lizard after a housefly."

"Tell her to slow down and be careful," said Mrs Sturridge, a handkerchief held over her mouth. "Oh my, Nokh. I'm not sure my heart can stand this."

Joxi smiled at Brathay and let his hand go.

"Will I live?" asked Brathay, grinning back.

"I can't say anything out loud to her now, in case they hear me," came Myxel's voice. "But—yes, she's reached the tower. She's about to climb up—"

"Mr Brathay," said Joxi, speaking over Myxel's voice. "When he is allowed, I would like Edler Fleming to double check but I think you may—"

A loud banging sounded from the chamber door, and a rattle came as someone began to undo the lock. Everyone in the room fell silent and looked around frantically at each other. With quiet motions, Brathay ordered everyone back to their seats and positions in the room.

"Myx," whispered Nokh, as loud as he might dare. "Get yourself back in here. Guards are at the door to the room. If they sees too many of us missing they might get suspicious."

"Come off it, gaffer. I can't leave Bhod out here alone."

"She's on her own now, lad. There's nothing you can do for her. Get yourself back inside, or you'll give her away to them and all will have been for nothing."

After a gripe of consternation, Myxel backed out of the hole and dropped to the floor. Jingles and grunts came from the door. Nokh barely had the shutters closed in time and stationed himself in front when four guards with swords drawn strode into the room. The largest of them—a man who almost matched Ligger in size—stood next to the entrance.

"Get up and line up against the wall with the stableman. All of you. Roll up your sleeves and hold out your hands where we can see them—"

"We already done that before—" began Morrent.

"Shut up, boy. And do as I say," said the guard.

Everyone did as asked, with three guards checking that nobody had any concealed weapons. As soon as they had finished, one of them called for the others to put away their swords.

"Which one of you is the apprentice?"

"I am Brathay."

"He's in here," the guard shouted back.

Zhorman stepped into the chamber between the four guards, one of them with the imposing build and fearsome expression of Ligger, which at any other time might have seemed excessive, but then those with Brathay held nothing but contempt for the man who had betrayed them.

Something Brathay had not noticed in the Great Hall—perhaps because his emotions had blinded him to everything around him—but although Zhorman adopted a commanding air in front of the soldiers, he appeared on edge, as though he was barely holding things together. As the guards retreated to stand in the doorway, Zhorman's gaze carefully scanned all the people in the room, and Brathay watched tensely as a puzzled expression formed fleetingly on his face. He held his breath when Zhorman's eyes landed on him and when the captain came forward to stand directly in front.

"Come over here, apprentice. Stand with me by the fire. There is something I need to see."

Zhorman stood in the light of the fire with his back to the door. Although the man was clearly Zhorman, his expression confused Brathay. His features appeared the same, a mix of Broxian and another race, his skin of midnight black with features noble and stoic. As always, he carried a natural air of authority, but his eyes held no cold dispassion. If anything, they glistened with something like fear.

"Elder Fleming spoke of a trinket you wear around your neck," said Zhorman. "One that has inscriptions. Will you show me this item?"

"I would rather not."

"I do not intend to take it from you, apprentice. I simply wish to see the stone for myself and in particular the inscription."

"What is he asking, Mr Brathay?" called Mrs Sturridge from across the room. "Whatever it is, you don't need to do nothing, not for the likes of him."

"Shut your mouth, old woman," called the big guard.

Brathay did not want to cause problems for his fellow captives. If Zhorman wished to see the trinket and Brathay refused, he could do so by force. After a moment of hesitation, he reached in and pulled the pendant out from beneath his overshirt. Zhorman's eyes widened a moment, and he reached out a hand to touch the stone but stopped.

"May I?"

"If you must."

When Zhorman's fingers touched the stone, Brathay felt a tingle along the skin of his scalp, as though someone had lightly brushed fingers through his hair. Brathay flinched back in shock. The pendant's chain went taut when Zhorman did not loosen his hold on the trinket, but the group captain's expression calmed, the tightness around his eyes relaxing.

"Do not be alarmed. Like you, I have Noth blood flowing through my veins. There is power in this rare Noth-forged artefact. And the stone chooses the wearer. Nobody will be able to take this from you. But right now we must not raise any suspicion among the guards. For their benefit, tell me where you got this."

Brathay resumed his composure and stared into Zhorman's eyes.

"The people who brought me up told me the necklace was given to me by my mother. I do not remember much about that time, or her, because I was too young."

"Good. You must be careful what you say aloud to me. Brennik's guard—the larger of the four standing by the door—has a gift and will be able to read what is spoken by the movement of your lips. Let him see you looking at me as though you despise me, which I realise is not a hard task. Just let me talk and blink your eyes once to signal your understanding. Do not nod or shake your head. Do it now."

Zhorman waited for Brathay to quickly close and open his eyes.

"Elder Fleming thought it might be of value, but I see it is nothing more than Thiradonian junk," said Zhorman aloud, bringing his head forward to study the inscriptions and speaking quietly. After a second he raised his eyes to Brathay. "You know, do you not? Who he is? Lord Brennik? Blink your eyes if you do."

After a pause, Brathay folded his arms and blinked. Across the room came the sound of a soft thump and Brathay turned to see Nokh, still standing with his back to the shutters, pick up his hat from the floor, and wave an apology to the guards.

"It is of value to me," Brathay said aloud.

Zhorman remained leaning in, studying the stone, speaking quickly but quietly.

"In which case you will probably know what he is capable of. Sacrifices have needed to be made—and there will be more to come—but we had no choice but to bring the fight here, away from Braggadach and out into the open. Which is what we have done. If you have managed to light the beacon, however briefly, as I believe you have, then you have already done what I could not, and set the final consequences in motion. When the time comes, which will be very soon, you will need to step up and be ready—"

"Group Captain. Lord Brennik is waiting for you," came the impatient tone of the head of the guards.

"One moment, Rhedhul," called Zhorman without turning around but flipping the stone between his fingers. "Fleming will tell you more about this talisman when you see him next. It is unlikely I will see you again, Brathay Stonearm. So know that meeting you was a true honour. And please take care of—"

"Group Captain Zhorman. Lord Brennik does not like to be kept waiting!"

Zhorman let go of the pendant, turned away from Brathay, and strode to the open door, stopping as he drew level with the guard who had been calling him.

"Lead on."

"Group Captain Zhorman. Are you there?" came a muted voice from the courtyard below. Brathay watched as Zhorman and the guards strode to the balustrade and stared down.

"Yes, what is it?"

"You must come quickly, sire. Lord Brennik needs to see you immediately. The lookouts have spotted a massive fleet of over twenty warships sailing towards the keep. They have just appeared around the southern headland. Khraxwall, the steward, is getting the portcullis lowered and securing the keep door, but Lord Brennik asked for you to bring the apprentice to reactivate the keep device. And before I left him, Khraxwall informed me that the beacon has somehow set itself alight. An errant spark again, he thinks. Our guards do not know what to do, but he says you know how to enclose the cage, and asks you to assist them. Otherwise, he says, the coastal warning system may be activated."

"Where is Admiral Khallis?"

"He stayed at the lookout. He is—not of good countenance."

Zhorman turned to the guard called Rhedhul beside him.

"I will head to the beacon tower immediately. Take the apprentice down to Lord Brennik. Tell him I will join them as soon as I have the beacon fire under control."

"Very well."

"The naval ships sailing upon us?" called Zhorman down to the guard below. "Are they displaying any colours?"

"Sire, they are flying the battle ensign of Cormaland."

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. 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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All traitors or complicit plotters?  Still many have died and been injured.  The spurious behaviour of the formerly favored uncle is beyond forgiveness and hopefully he soon meets a swift demise ingloriously. 

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