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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

Stranded: Heart of Black Ice Bay - 23. Deception

Brennik shows his true colours.

What had earlier been a regimented and largely orderly sight when Brathay had been escorted across the courtyard had turned very quickly into alarm and chaos. Morkhlach soldiers scurried towards the tower entrances on their way to positions along the ramparts. The clanging of the gatehouse bell competed with the mournful sound of a lone bugle. Most soldiers Brathay passed appeared confused or flustered. And he could understand why. They most likely had no idea why Cormaland would want to set their military might upon them. Cormaland boasted the finest naval force in the empire. What the soldiers did not know was that the princess of Cormaland, who was also the sister of Lord Leonmarkh, would want to exact revenge on those who dared hold her brother hostage.

Brathay twisted his head around and peered up at the southwestern tower on his way to the grating. The beacon raged wildly, tall flames and smoke rising into the sky. Zhorman would be hard pushed to get the blaze under control anytime soon, if that was his intent. Lord Brennik stood waiting for Brathay at the familiar wall around the hole in the courtyard, two of his soldiers studying the stone block that remained open.

"Brathay," said Brennik, sounding far too calm given the situation. "We did not remove the crystals. Fire up this defensive device, please."

"I am not sure that is possible, Lord Brennik. I believe a fall of snow was needed to activate the crystals before. After that, we simply kept the mechanism running. That is why the book calls them snow-fire crystals. Today, as you can see for yourself, the skies are clear."

"You," called Brennik to one of the men standing by the trio of switches. "Fetch ice from the cold store. If we do not have snow, then perhaps we can replicate it. In the meantime, do what you have to do here, Brathay, and we shall see what happens."

Brathay knelt at the stone, which still displayed the three circular levers. He knew the middle of the three needed to be turned to open the grating and activate the device. Unlike the third switch, this one turned quickly, and the iron covering slid slowly further open with each turn. But, as he had expected, nothing else happened. While he knelt at the wall, one of the guards came over carrying two pails of chipped ice and, after a nod from Brennik, emptied them into the grating.

Brathay stood and waited patiently with the others, staring at the hole.

Still nothing happened.

"Surely there must be a way to activate this contraption without waiting for a winter's day."

"If there is," said Brathay, "no instructions were left behind to detail how."

As they had been speaking, Brathay's gaze once again drifted up to the blaze and thick black smoke of the beacon. Lord Brennik's gaze followed.

"Why do they not have that under control by now? You, guard. Go and find out what is delaying them."

As the man moved away, Brathay noticed a scarlet-faced Admiral Khallis striding across the flagstones, the fringe of his long white hair flopping down into his eyes. Even Brathay could sense his agitation, the redness of his expression from anger rather than exertion.

"Why is Cormaland's navy in these waters? My understanding from the duchess is that this is a family matter we are dealing with, a domestic matter that relates only to Khloradich. Do we know if these are naval manoeuvres Cormaland is carrying out?"

"Do not concern yourself with their ships—" said Lord Brennik.

"How can I not concern myself? They have nothing short of an armada out there on the water."

"I heard your soldier say they are flying battle ensigns," said Brathay. "I have little knowledge of naval operations, but would those flags have been raised if they were only here to run routine military exercises?"

"No, apprentice. They would not," said Admiral Khallis before glaring back at Brennik. "So I ask again, Lord Brennik. Why are they here?"

Lord Brennik said nothing but stood calmly with his hands behind his back, staring down at the grating.

"Maybe I can answer that," said Brathay, keeping his tone calm. "Admiral Khallis, surely you know that Princess Clorrice, the wife of Prince Stephan of Cormaland, is also Lord Leonmarkh's sister. She may have married outside of the country, but she is still family. And as you correctly state, what is happening here is fundamentally a family matter."

"No, apprentice," said Khallis, shaking his head after a moment of doubt had flickered across his face. Brathay noticed Brennik had begun to smirk at the hole in the keep while Brathay provided his explanation to the admiral. "You are wrong. Lady Valisqua wrote to the Duke of Lokhradich personally. I saw the missive with my own eyes. All she wants is justice for the death of her secondborn. She also wrote that her stepdaughter is aware and wholeheartedly approves of her request for assistance."

"I think you will find that what Lady Valisqua truly wants, Admiral Khallis," said Brathay, not holding back now, "is to assume rule of the duchy of Khloradich. With or without the approval of her stepdaughter, and with her brother by her side."

"Her brother?"

"Lord Brennik? Would you like to explain?" asked Brathay. "Or should I call you by your former title Lord Sunder Renmark, brother to the Lady Valisqua Renmark, raised together in Floris Prima in Thiradonia."

"What does he mean?" asked the admiral, now completely confused.

"Bravo," said Brennik, smiling and nodding slowly at Brathay. "I thought you had capitulated a little too easily, apprentice. What else did he tell you, my little Lord Leo?"

As Brennik spoke, Brathay had been looking over his shoulder and noticed a guard running directly towards them. Without waiting to be invited, the soldier began blurting his message.

"Lord Brennik. Admiral Khallis. The lookout asked me to report to you immediately. He has spied a royal galleon leading the Cormaland fleet, which means—"

"Thank you, soldier. We know what that means. And most likely the princess and her husband are sailing to save her little brother. Signal the men on board our galleon. We need to press our advantage. Tell them to reposition and ready the Dragon to strike the royal ship as soon as they are in range—"

"You will do no such thing, lieutenant," said Khallis, horrified, before turning to Brennik. "In case you had forgotten, Lord Brennik, the nations of Cormaland and Braggadach are close allies. On top of which, our battleship was sabotaged, and is in need of urgent repair."

"Even with my preference for land travel, admiral, I know that a burnt-out foremast sail would not render any ship totally incapacitated nor, I suspect, make her no longer seaworthy. And I am sure she can stand her ground at anchor against any incoming ships. Tell the men to fire the Dragon as many times as necessary. I need to let these fools know we are not to be trifled with. I should have dealt with the young female DuMankin when I still had the chance. Get your best marksmen on the job. And let us see how willing the Cormaland navy is to fight once their figureheads are lying on the ocean bed."

Brathay was not surprised by the words, but Khallis' mouth had dropped open, his already scarlet countenance taking on an unhealthy shade of purple.

"That would be suicide! A wounded bird fighting back against attacking vultures! I have seen the Cormaland navy in action, have run drills with them. They will outmatch anything our ships have to offer. Give up this madness, Brennik—or whoever you are," he said, finally coming out of his confusion and resuming an air of authority. "We must raise the parley flag and hold counsel with them, find out what they want. I will most certainly not order my men to lift a sword against Cormaland. To do so would be insanity."

"As I have said before, the soldiers in this keep are not yours to command, Admiral Khallis."

"They take their orders from me."

"Not anymore," said Brennik, casually flicking two fingers of one hand towards the well-built soldier and then at Khallis. With a signal from the captain, who had drawn his sword, two of the guards peeled away and approached a bewildered Khallis, grabbing him roughly by the upper arms.

"Unhand me. You would not dare incarcerate a senior naval officer—"

"No," said Brennik, rubbing his chin. "No, of course you are right, admiral. That is no treatment for someone of your elevated rank. Guards, release him."

Confused, the guards let the admiral go and stepped away. Khallis, once released, stared at them with disdain, brushing down the arm of his robe, and missed the silent nod Brennik gave to his captain. In a savage but graceful motion that Khallis saw too late, Rhedhul swung the blade of his sword around and decapitated the admiral. Even the two guards staggered further back in horror and disgust as the head rolled away and the body dropped to the ground, the central artery in the neck still pumping blood.

"I would like to have done that a long time ago," said Brennik, glaring down at the body while smoothing a hand across his own neck. "Have I not suffered enough on the voyage here, being forced to listen to the gripes and whines of that pompous windbag? Take the body down and lock it in a cell where his soldiers will not see. We can pass the blame onto Leonmarkh's troop when the time arises."

"What about the apprentice, Lord Brennik?" asked Rhedhul, his foot resting on the admiral's body, using the tunic to wipe clean his blade.

"He will remain here with me."

"As you wish, your lordship. Let me go with the men and lock the body away, then I will return to you."

Brennik stood and watched on as the imposing figure of Captain Rhedhul marched behind the guards who carried the remains of Admiral Khallis. He waited until they had disappeared into the tower entrance before speaking.

"Impressive, is he not, Captain Rhedhul? Now there is a soldier who knows how to obey," said Brennik before returning his attention to Brathay. "And now I see that you are indeed the son of your father. It is a pity. Had I known you in your fertile youth, with your looks and wiles and discipline—and especially with no mother or siblings around to distract you—I might have moulded you beautifully to my way of thinking. You would have made a far better disciple than traitorous little Leo."

Brathay said nothing for a time, still stunned at the brutality he had witnessed. Hearing mention of Leon's name, he wondered where his lover had been imprisoned because he had not been in a cell with the other prisoners. His mind also played over the horrors Leon had confided about the sick exploitation of this corrupt man, something Brathay had now witnessed first-hand.

"You manipulated all of this?" he asked eventually. "Turning Lord Leonmarkh's best people against him? Exactly how much do you hate him?"

"I do not. I would have loved him if he had let me. But the kind of love I am able to offer is not one he is willing to accept. Little Leo has always suffered from the weakness of excessive pride. And as for his people, I only enlisted Khraxwall and Zhorman. Independently, I might add. It is much easier to exert control over individuals when they are unaware of others under one's control. Millflower was an exception, manipulated not by me but by my sister. Valisqua encouraged her greediness, a weakness we could turn to our advantage if the necessity arose. We also aligned her with Zhorman. They worked well together."

"Until you had her killed."

"Her uncontrollable greed killed Millflower. Thinking she could demand higher payment by threatening to turn on us and blab to Leonmarkh. My sister was not so convinced about her removal, and on very few things have I been in agreement with Admiral Khallis, but we both believed Zhorman did the right thing. She would have undone everything we had put in place."

"And then you had me framed."

"Honestly, apprentice? The solution to make you the scapegoat was a masterstroke. People easily made the leap to you being the perpetrator of the crime, and the ensuing confusion about what to do bought us the precious time we needed to manoeuvre our forces. We played on your skill as a fourth hall assassin, as someone who had discovered Millflower's duplicity and had decided to remove her. My sister still believes you capable of such cold ambition. During your meeting with her at the institute, she was quite impressed—and it takes much to impress my sister—although later she was naturally outraged to hear of your nomination. She had pressed for someone else who was, how did she put it in her note to Millflower, harmless and less sharp who might even prove useful to us. After your appointment, she predicted you might cause problems for us and, in that, she was clearly correct."

While Brennik had been speaking, Brathay noticed the thick-set soldier called Rhedhul over his shoulder returning across from the tower with Khraxwall trailing behind like a lame dog, trying to keep up.

"And what of Khraxwall? How did you manage to enlist him?"

"With ease. For all his strict formality, the steward is a romantic dotard. Why would any man want a wife fifteen years his senior, and moreover, a woman who no longer knew who he was or remembered anything about their life spent together? But then, love is beast of many colours and something I can turn to my advantage. Do you know the most effective way to destroy someone entirely? It is not by taking away something they love, but by returning it to them broken."

"What are you saying?"

"Khraxwall lives for her, the poor fool, a woman I have had in my safekeeping. He believes her to be back in my lodgings in Morkhlach, which is partly correct. The reality is that I have done him a blessing. Her corpse, minus the finger that housed the wedding band I offered him as proof, is most certainly safe and secure."

"You had his wife killed," said Brathay, more loudly than he needed.

"Sire," came the loud voice of Captain Rhedhul.

Brennik turned and had been about to address his captain when another guard hurried over and interrupted, planting himself before Brennik.

"Your lordship. The men are unable to gain access to the beacon. Someone—we think it may be Group Captain Zhorman—has locked and barred the tower door. When he first arrived, Zhorman sent the guards away, told them he needed to handle the emergency alone. And now he is ignoring our pleas."

Grooves of annoyance appeared briefly between Brennik's dark brows. After a few seconds of thought, he stared once again up at the blazing beacon.

"Can I assume from your expression," said Brathay, "that this is not something you had anticipated?"

Brennik ignored him and turned his attention to his muscled captain.

"I need that beacon shut down, Rhedhul. It is imperative that what is happening here does not reach the attention of the Royal Court, do you understand? How do you propose—?"

Rhedhul had been about to answer but instead let out an exasperated groan when another guard appeared from the northeastern tower exit and scurried over to the group.

"Sire, one of our riders has reported an army approaching from the south. Some way off yet, but a sizeable number of infantry, he says. They are but a few hours' ride from us."

"Thank you, captain. When they are in range open the gates," said Brennik smiling and turning to Brathay. "You see, Brathay Stonearm. Little Leo thinks he can outmanoeuvre me, but I am one step ahead. These will be the reinforcements I requested from my sister in Khloradich a few weeks ago. Just in case. And not a moment too soon, I am glad to say. I am not without spies and resources of my own. Now the odds will be equalised. I just need that blasted beacon extinguished. Rhedhul, we need to throw men at this. What do you suggest?"

"Leave it with me, your lordship. We can divert Zhorman's attention by ramming the door from the other side—this may not have much effect but while he is distracted, we can place ladders along the ramparts to get our men up to the tower and neutralise the problem."

"Excellent. Do not hesitate to take down the traitor by whatever means necessary. I do not want him left alive to cause any more trouble. He has outlived his usefulness to me and, more importantly, we have no room for more prisoners."

"Very good, your lordship," said Rhedhul.

"Ah, steward," said Brennik, acknowledging Khraxwall for the first time. "Go with Captain Rhedhul. Once his men have cleared the tower, explain to them how to shut down the beacon."

Khraxwall, a man Brathay knew to have only ever followed orders and done his duty but who had been working all this time for the enemy, would not meet Brathay's gaze. The skin of his face sagged a bloodless grey, and he appeared lost and tired. Had it not been for his deceit that had led to Leon's barbaric treatment, Brathay might have felt sorry for him. Without a word, he limped after the captain.

"You truly are a horror of a human being," said Brathay.

"I am a statesman who has a realistic view of this stark world, who has no care for platitudes and will do whatever is necessary to get what he wants. Something the traitor Zhorman said, which is entirely true, is that this empire is crumbling. Not because of invasion or plague or internal conflict, but because of indifference. Once the empress is gone, there is not one king or queen presently living who could reign over this empire. Most are too comfortable lazing in their palatial homes, none are charismatic and, most importantly, none have shown any kind of ability or desire to lead. But there are others who would."

"You?"

"Possibly. Although I believe Duke Ervine is better placed. If he were to seize power, I would happily align myself to him."

Along with my father, thought Brathay, but said nothing.

"But that is a thought for another day," said Brennik. "I have more immediate matters to deal with. As you probably guessed, my sister Valisqua will have taken over the reins in Khloradich by now, to ensure continuity in the dukedom. And the duke of Morkhlach has already given written consent for me to take power when he dies. Once the Duke of Lokhradich learns of Admiral Khallis' death and treachery he is sure to want to unite with our dukedoms. Then we can truly turn our attention to the throne of Braggadach."

"And what are you going to do about the Cormaland fleet? Once they sink your battleship? Because they will, you know."

"Nothing. While I have little Leo, I believe they will not dare attack us here—" said Brennik, but stopped mid-flow and looked to the beacon tower. "Sounds as though my men have broken through."

Brathay looked up to the tower and could see nothing, only flames and smoke still rising, but he could also make out clashes of metal, scuffles and cries of pain. At the exact moment, he heard a set of boots clomping across the empty courtyard and turned to see a soldier running from the direction of the gatehouse, the same man who had reported to Lord Brennik before.

"Your lordship. The rider. He says the approaching army is—it is—"

"Speak up, corporal," ordered Brennik. "The approaching army is what? Are they here?"

"The approaching army is flying the national flag of Braggadach. Beneath are the standards for the royal houses of Branersh, Khloradich, Cragginch and Lokhradich."

Brennik's face drained of colour, his lips pressing tightly together. If a mere gaze could kill, the messenger would have been dead.

"That cannot be," muttered Brennik, his voice low. "It would take weeks to negotiate, let alone muster that kind of an army, and another two to ride here. Unless…"

"Do you think you might have been outplayed, Lord Brennik?" asked Brathay. "But you never know. Perhaps if you agree to surrender to Leonmarkh, King Bruckbar may show leniency when deciding the fate of you and your sister."

Brathay did not believe a word he had spoken, and, clearly, neither did Brennik. After a moment of reflection, Brennik turned to glare at Brathay while addressing his soldiers.

"Guards, I need to speak to our rider and hear this news with my own ears. Secure the hands of the apprentice behind him and tie a gag through his mouth. I do not want to chance him using that forked tongue on any of you. Watch over him here until I return."

As the soldiers did as asked, pulling his arms painfully behind him, Brathay watched Brennik march to the gatehouse and disappear inside. Four remained behind and did not waste any time getting him tied up tightly. Even when they had finished, they stood on either side, waiting for Brennik to return.

"What do you think it means?" asked one, after several minutes had passed.

"Maybe he managed to get them to support us. Against Cormaland."

"And maybe camels can fly."

"Anyway, we'll find out soon enough, won't we?"

"Don't you think this is all wrong? My sister-in-law's from Khloradich. She runs a fruit and veg stall with my brother back home. We visit her folk by the sea most summers."

"I'd keep that to yourself if I were you—"

"And did you spot that Captain Big and Mighty of theirs? Wouldn't mind having him on my side in a fight."

"Never mind him, did you see this one when Big and Mighty went down?"

"I see they finally got that fire under control."

Brathay looked above, noticing only a few wisps of smoke rising from the cradle and wondering what had befallen Zhorman. The distant but distinct sound of a volley of cannons from the bay broke the relative stillness, echoing around the keep walls. A few moments later, Brennik and Rhedhul appeared, marching towards them from different sides of the quadrant.

"The beacon is neutralised," said Rhedhul.

"Good work, captain," said Brennik, moving past them all, his annoyance plain. "Let us head up there now. Bring the apprentice."

With the point of a sword pressed into his back, Brathay tripped over multiple times on the tower steps. On the third time, one of the guards hauled him to his feet by the collar of his overshirt. When they emerged in daylight, blood stained the flagstones. Several fallen soldiers, including the still and bloodied body of Zhorman, had been laid against the keep wall. Through the cloying smell of blood came the unique, almost metallic odour of Grey Flame oil. Khraxwall stood to one side, his work done, his hands bloodied from moving bodies, his eyes downcast.

Brennik moved first past everyone and stood at the battlements, staring out to sea and. Ordering the guards to stay at the tower door, Rhedhul led Brathay forward to join him. Low clouds filled the sky bringing chill gusts of wind. Explosions continued to fill the air, the sound echoing around the bay and off the mountains around Black Ice Bay.

Khallis had been right. With only a single battleship, the Morkhlach fleet was pitifully outnumbered. Cormaland warships had scattered in all directions, enough left protecting the royal ship and giving the Dragon no single target. They had also manoeuvred into a formation that brought their galleons into an arc some distance from the bow of the Morkhlach battleship—almost like capping off the letter T—and had begun firing broadside shots. All of them watched in silence at the destruction of the lone warship, taken down sail by sail, mast by mast, until finally, the hull together with the heavy Dragon began to sink. Even before that, Brathay had spotted numerous longboats filled with Cormaland troops rowing towards the shoreline.

As they watched on, Brathay wondered what was going through Brennik's mind. At last, the defeated lord swung his attention to the road above the village and spoke aloud without turning.

"They could not have brought an army here so fast, Rhedhul. Someone has managed to get to Bruckbar. And someone found them a safe path through the mountains—probably those interfering villagers. The truth is we are enclosed on both sides. I have an escape plan that will get us out of here. But we will need to leave most of the troops behind to put up a fight. They are expendable. We are not. However, I will not leave until I have finished what I came here to do. How swiftly would you be able to build a gallows above the gatehouse? Somewhere the approaching army will be able to see a body hanging?"

"To be quite frank, your lordship, we could construct one far more easily from here. Use untreated beacon timber to build a make-do platform and attach it to the iron cradle—"

"Yes, captain. Yes, yes, yes," said Brennik, turning to him, his eyes gleaming. "That is even better. Pure poetry. A Watchman hanged from his own beacon. And the hanged body will be viewed from the road, the sea, and the village. Get your men on the task straight away. The steward will have tools you can use. And have two of them fetch Leonmarkh to me."

Once again, Brathay stood alone while the guards set about building the platform out of wood. One of them arrived with ropes, hammers and nails, and before long, they had rigged up a small stand, which sat over the edge of the battlement like a small drawbridge, secured to the metal beacon casing by two rope lines. Brennik continued to stare out at the skyline as more chill breezes blew in from the sea.

"What have they done with you, my dear sister," he heard Brennik say before he turned to Brathay. "She gave that brute two sons, two male heirs. And what did he do? Discarded her like an old unwanted pet. Found himself a shiny new plaything. Any other woman would have taken her pride, his money, and left the villain behind. Not my sister. She stayed on and bided her time, knowing old age would finally take him, and her son would inherit the title. After a lifetime of being in the shadows, she deserves to rule Khloradich—"

Footsteps clattered on the steps, and a guard appeared in the doorway, breathing heavily. After taking a second to recover, he approached Brennik. A few moments later, Khraxwall appeared behind him.

"Lord Leonmarkh is not in his chamber," said the guard. "The cord binding his arms and legs to the chair is all that remains. The guards on his door said nobody has been in or out since you last visited. But they searched the chamber, and he is nowhere to be found."

Brathay bowed his head and breathed a sigh of relief through the mouth restraint. Brennik had made the mistake of securing Leon in his quarters. He must have escaped through the secret door.

"Well, Brathay Stonearm," said Brennik. "We need to give our enemies a show to welcome them. It would seem your presence here is fortuitous. I need a body hanged from this gallows and you appear to be in the right place at the right time. Captain Rhedhul, get the guards to raise the apprentice to the stand."

Rhedhul did the task himself, lifting Brathay effortlessly from the ground, climbing the beacon ladder and placing him onto the platform. Fortunately, the men had done a good enough job, and the structure only bounced slightly. On his way up, thrown over Rhedhul's shoulder, Brathay noticed Khraxwall stop and stoop down to pick up a metal container near the wall beneath the beacon cradle, something Brathay had seen before. Joxi's small lighter box. He realised Bhod must have dropped the item when she lit the beacon. Khraxwall slipped the container into his pocket and went back to the stairwell.

"Good," said Brennik, watching Brathay from below. "Now slip the noose around his neck."

Just as Rhedhul had placed the rope around Brathay's neck and tightened the knot, another voice sounded from the stairwell.

"Your lordship, the prisoners have escaped. They are attacking our men in the courtyard."

"Damn Khallis," said Brennik. "I should never have listened to him, should have gone with my instincts and had them all executed. Captain Rhedhul, send men to the gatehouse to make sure nobody opens the gates, then go with the rest of them to the courtyard and take care of the prisoners. We still outnumber them. Kill them all this time. Go now. I do not need you here for what I intend to do. The steward will assist me."

Brathay looked up at the metal bar jammed into the beacon framework over where the noose had been draped and the support ropes tied taut like chains on a drawbridge. Heat from the metal casing and extinguished beacon warmed Brathay's back—not unpleasantly given the falling temperature. From his vantage point, he stared out over the sea and the village, a panorama that at any other time he might have considered beautiful. But not today, especially when he peered down at the sheer drop. And then something drew his attention in the distance. A bright light burning on an outcrop of land along the coastline. The next beacon in the chain. Had that been Leon's intent all along, to raise a signal? For an army and navy in hiding, waiting out of sight? And had they also succeeded in sending a warning signal down to the Royal Palace?

Shouts and clangs of combat sounded from below in the keep. Even with the noose around his neck, he had enough space to twist around and see Brennik preparing for his execution. The platform bobbed slightly with the rope threaded around each outside corner. Once the main cord was cut or untied, the base would fall, and Brathay's body would drop until the loop around his neck had pulled taut. He had seen enough hangings in the city square in Thiradon to know the method of execution worked very effectively.

"Steward. Bring me a sharp knife," called Brennik, as he checked the knot holding the platform in place. "I want to have the pleasure of seeing you draw your last breath, Brathay."

Looking the other side of the grating, Brathay noticed Khraxwall appear with his arms cradling a bucket and his hands clutching a large knife and another item. Something had happened to him. His hair and shoulders seemed to be damp with water as though he had emerged from a rainstorm.

Brathay made a noise of protest through the gag, one last appeal to the steward as loud as he could manage. But Khraxwall did not even glance at him, just kept walking forward until Brathay could no longer see him. Brathay swung his attention to the other side as Khraxwall approached Brennik.

"Do not waste your breath, apprentice. The steward listens only to—"

Brathay's eyes widened when Khraxwall tossed the contents of the bucket at a shocked and stunned Brennik, who instinctively crossed his arms to cover his face. Most of the clear liquid landed on Brennik's tunic or in his hair. Drops must have landed in his eyes because Brennik gasped and pushed the palm of each hand into his sockets. Some liquid had also cast dark stains on the wood behind him.

"You damn fool. What are you—?"

"You promised me! Promised she would be safe! You showed me her ring and I believed you," cried Khraxwall, the words issuing from him like a song of lament. "But I heard what you said to the apprentice. You lied to me and took the only thing I have ever loved, the only thing I lived for. You might as well have ripped my heart from my chest."

"Do not be a fool, steward—"

"And as you have taken from me, so I will take from you," said Khraxwall his voice calming as he let the empty bucket and knife clatter to the floor.

Seeing the blade drop, Brennik straightened and appeared to squint around himself, looking to call on a guard even though none remained. But Khraxwall had not finished. With a deliberate step over the dropped items, he lunged forward and threw his arms around Brennik in a deranged embrace, knocking them both against the pile of beacon wood by the keep wall. The lord did not have Khraxwall's strength and could not repel him, but the action seemed random and pointless until, as Khraxwall turned them around in a demented slow dance, Brathay noticed the small metal box Khraxwall held in his hands.

One click raised a spark.

And one spark ignited the oil that soaked them both.

Joxi had been right about its potency. Flames erupted around them, encasing them in its wild fire. Brennik screamed as their bodies burned together, the woodpile against the wall feeding the fire. He saw the fiery shape of Brennik try to pull away, but Khraxwall held him tight until only the shadow of their bodies could be seen within the inferno, collapsing like spent logs on an open fire.

Brathay looked on, horrified, watching the brutal immolation, unable to look away. Until he noticed flames burning along the woodpile towards the platform.

He stared about himself wildly, edging away to the far side of the wobbly frame. But he had nowhere to go. He could not attempt to jump down onto the tower floor with the noose around his neck. And with his hands tied and mouth gagged, he could do little to aid himself. He needed help, but he could not shout. All the while, fire crept nearer to the rope holding up the platform.

Instead of panicking, Brathay let his eyes close and summoned strength and guidance. He refused to die this way. Once again, a strange but familiar lullaby played in his head, one he had heard in the lake, a song without words, hummed by a woman's voice.

"Mother?" came the word forming in his mind.

With his eyes shut tight, he longed to see her face, to know what she looked like. But as before, she seemed just out of reach, beyond his mind's vision. Her voice came to him as though spoken by the breeze.

"Good. Today you are fighting. And you must survive this day if you are to find the last statue. I will help you once again. But you must summon your own power, my son. There is power in you. And there is power in the beacon. Summon the power."

And then he felt it.

A snowflake. On his cheek. Single flakes at first, and then more, increasing in frequency. Until, at last, he opened his eyes to a shroud of heavy snowfall, to the hiss of flames being extinguished around him. But he also looked down to see his talisman shining brightly, and hearing a low rumble from the courtyard below, of a mechanism gaining momentum and reaching a steady thrum. Acting purely on instinct, he thrust his hands back against the iron frame of the beacon and held them there, willing power to flow through him.

And to stir himself he thought of Leon, beaten and scalped and chained to the hall floor; of tiny Bhod, braving a dangerous climb alone to light the beacon; of Khraxwall's agony at finding everything he had ever loved to have been ripped from him; of Zhorman, whose final act of bravery had brought them victory, but had lost him his life.

And the energy came flooding through him.

Vibrations thrummed through the iron frame of the beacon. Heat crackled painlessly around his wrists until the restraints dissolved and his hands pulled apart. Instantly, he lifted the noose from his neck then removed the gag. With freshly fallen snow melting on the platform, he took careful steps to reach the ladder.

Through the relative calm came the echo of footfalls from the stairwell. For a moment, Brathay faltered. If they belonged to Rhedhul, even with Brennik gone, the captain might be bloody-minded enough to finish the execution. As the sound grew louder, just as Brathay had descended to the flagstones and picked up a sword from one of the fallen soldiers, a small figure appeared in the doorway.

"Mr Brathay?" came the nervous voice of Myxel, holding a quivering sword out before him, peering around terrified at the row of bodies against one wall and then at the smouldering pile by the other. Only then did Brathay notice the clash of fighting from below had ceased.

"Myxel Jhordip," said Brathay, lowering his sword. "What took you so long?"

Myxel's gaze landed on Brathay, and he stared in shock for a second, before dropping the sword and running over and hugging him around the waist.

"We thought we'd lost you," he said, pushing his face into Brathay's chest and sobbing.

"Not today, Myx," said Brathay, putting his arms around the stableboy's back and patting him. "It seems I still have work to do."

"You need to come down," said Myxel with excitement, pulling away and swiping at his eyes. "Our king is here. In the keep. Lord Leonmarkh and Bhullard charged the gatehouse and got the doors open and the king's soldiers just strolled in. As though they was out for a Sunday picnic. And the Morkhlach soldiers just put down their swords. You should have seen it, Mr Brathay. Come down. Everyone will want to know you're safe."

"I will, Myxel. I promise I will," said Brathay before looking around. "Go on down and tell them I am alive and well. But I need a moment alone to bid farewell to two very brave and honourable souls."

As you can tell, this tale is now drawing to a close, so thank you for reading.

A huge thank you to @W_L and @Timothy M. for helping me refine this key chapter. 

Any reactions, comments, observations, interpretations gratefully received. 

And if you enjoyed this story, go to the Black Ice Bay summary page and click on the Recommend button, so that others may be tempted to read.

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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