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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.


Stranded: Heart of Black Ice Bay - 24. Aftermath

Brathay learns the fate of his friends.

(Note: Thank you for your patience. I wanted to post something meaningful here, not just a boring tying up of loose ends, but a thread to the next adventure in the series. And yes, this story will continue, after I have posted the Epilogue).

Despite the sounds of laughter and cheers—Khloradich soldiers meeting their counterparts from home—Brathay felt a sense of dismay noticing pools of blood on the flagstones and medical staff assisting with injured soldiers, many he knew by name, some of those laid out unmoving.

He passed unnoticed, heading towards the kitchens until he discerned a distinctive voice cutting through hundreds of others. As he came to a stop, a powerful elation filled him, raised gooseflesh prickling the skin of his body. Because he knew instinctively that the voice belonged to Leon. But as he turned in the direction of the sound, another raised voice, ugly and provocative, came from outside the Great Hall, where a row of defeated Morkhlach soldiers either sat or knelt in a line on the ground. One of Leon's soldiers he had often joked with had just kicked a prisoner in the face—unprovoked as far as he could tell. Brathay shuddered in disgust, took a deep breath and marched over, just in time to stay the arm of the soldier as he raised his fist to strike the man again.

"You touch that man once more," said Brathay, his voice calm and steady. "And you will have me to reckon with. Do I make myself clear?"

"He killed my brother, Mr Brathay," said the soldier, glaring down at the man.

"Do I make myself clear?" said Brathay, tightening his grip on the man's arm.

The soldier's attention and anger had been directed at the prisoner but dissolved when he turned to take in Brathay. Something the soldier saw startled him. His mouth dropped open, and he took a step back in shock, pulling his arm away and rubbing the spot where he had been held. Perhaps they had been told of Brathay's execution. Coming face to face with someone back from the dead would scare any man witless.

"Yes," said the soldier. "Yes, sir."

"These men are your cousins, your allies. They were following orders. But in their case they were being led by a self-serving lunatic. If any one of them had considered stepping out of line, they would have suffered the same fate as Admiral Khallis. Have some compassion and respect. And do not let the machinations of a madman spoil an age old allegiance of brothers."

"Yes, sir. I'm sorry, Mr Brathay, sir."

Brathay knelt down, pulled a cloth from his jacket and handed the fabric to the bloodied soldier. Confused at first, the man eventually took the material and wiped his face.

"Men of Morkhlach," said Brathay, scanning them all in turn. "I apologise if you have been treated badly. I know that some of you feel what happened here should never have been allowed. No matter, I want you to know that I will make it my mission to ensure you are returned to your families, unaccountable, unpunished and unharmed, even if I have to petition King Bruckbar himself. In the meantime, can we get you anything?"

Whether his words meant anything or not, he could not tell. Most of them stared in fear at the ground, still not convinced of their fate. Brathay understood only too well. Mere days before, locked in cells, Leon's soldiers might have felt the same way.

"Water?" croaked one soldier.

"You," said Brathay standing instantly and addressing the man who had struck the man on the ground. "Get these men drinking water."

"Yes, Mr Brathay, sir. Right away."

As the soldier hurried off and Brathay moved onwards, he ignored the other guards looking at him strangely. On his way to the kitchen, he peered down briefly. The glow of his talisman had faded but still emanated from beneath his shirt. Shaking any concerns away, he latched onto his need to see Leon. Heading across the square, he passed a circle of newcomers standing around marvelling at the snow-fire light sucking flakes into the heart of the keep. The air temperature had warmed, and light from the moonskulls gave the courtyard a sense of festival.

Further on, he spotted a group of local villagers talking with Dnan, Marietta and Fleming standing among them, and another wave of gratitude filled him as he went over to greet them. But when he drew close, as the villagers nearest noticed him, each of them began to drop to a knee. When Dnan followed suit, Brathay could not stand the deference and rushed over to his friend, kneeling in front of him.

"Dnan," he asked, "I am fine. I am alive. There is no need to kneel."

"Brathay," came Marietta's amused voice from behind him. She whispered something to Fleming, who smiled at Brathay before heading off through the crowd. When Marietta stood before him, she held out her hand to help him up.

"I am well, Marietta," he said, ignoring the hand and standing to face her. "I was on my way to find Leon."

"And he will want to see you, too, but right now he is busy attending to the procession of dignitaries who have sailed or rode to his aid. Give him a little time."

"Of course. I understand."

"Come with me through to the kitchen. There are some people who will want to know you are still alive."

Holding court by the fire, Mrs Sturridge cried aloud when she spied him. As before, she hurried over and gave him a tight hug which seemed to go on forever, while Nokh stood behind, patting him on the shoulder. Contrary to the Mrs Sturridge he had grown to know and love, she could muster no words. In her clasp still, he looked over to see a smiling Bhullard towering over a tiny, grinning Bhod, who still wore Myxel's hat, her red fringe poking beneath the rim.

"Does his lordship know what you did, Bhod?" asked Brathay, as Mrs Sturridge let him go and went to stand with her arm around Nokh.

"No," said Bhod. "But it don't matter none—"

"Oh, yes, it does. Everybody needs to know. If you had not lit the beacon, I am convinced the king's troops would have remained where they were and the Cormaland ships would not have attacked. I see now that both were waiting for our signal."

"Wait," said Bhullard astonished. "Bodhlo lit the beacon? How?"

"Climbed out along the sea wall of the keep, she did," said Myxel proudly. "All by herself."

Bhullard looked at Brathay for confirmation. He simply grinned and nodded his head.

"We seem to have been looking in the wrong place for the heroes of this day," said Bhullard.

"Not all of them. Captain Zhorman played his part. Bhod lit the beacon, but he made sure it stayed lit for as long as possible. And he managed to deceive Lord Brennik, let him think he was working for him, and knew he would have to pay with his life."

"Leonmarkh was told. He is shattered," said Bhullard, staring sadly into space. "We all are."

"How are Haycock and Ligger faring?"

"I have just left them. Both are in the infirmary. Haycock is taking time to mend but Ligger has recovered remarkably. When the stable—when Myxel—reported to us about Zhorman and about you being alive and well, Ligger simply shrugged, but said nothing else."

"Is that so?"

"Mr Brathay," said Mrs Sturridge. "Don't wish to interrupt, but I am going to need your help again. As you can see outside, we have crowds of people and I need to feed them, now I have my kitchen back. Don't suppose you have any ideas for putting together a Braggadach feast in a couple of hours? Are there any surprises left in your box of tricks?"

"Morrent?" said Brathay to Myxel's stablemate. "While I go to the infirmary to prod a bear, can you do me a favour and run up to my room, bring the box of herbs and spices hidden under my bed down to the kitchens? There are lots of easy recipes for Braggadachi specialities. You can surprise us all this time, Mrs S. And remember that you will be impressing none other than the king himself tonight."

"Oh, heavens, thanks for the reminder."

"I will ask Mjaj for any other ingredients you need," said Marietta. "And it goes without saying that I will be staying here to assist you, and a couple of villagers can help, too."

"Go on, Morrent," said Mrs Sturridge, shooing him away. "We need to get prepping. And you, Bhod—"

"I know, I know," she said, grinning. "Peel them spuds! Myx, you're with me."

Brathay laughed along with everyone, happy to get back to some sense of normality. As the room busied, Bhullard led Brathay out of the kitchen and into the infirmary a few doors away.

He remembered the large room was one where the chamberlains had dried bedlinen. Around forty pallets had been crammed into the space, each filled with one of the wounded.

Brathay went over and stood with Bhullard at the side of the bed housing Ligger's bulk. The big man had been sitting up with his giant arms folded—although Brathay had an inkling the moodiness was an act—his face as grim as a rockfall. Haycock lay in the next bunk, bandaged up but alive and currently sleeping. When Ligger said nothing for a long moment, Brathay turned to Bhullard, who rolled her eyes at him.

"You stole an honourable death from me," murmured Ligger eventually, staring at the wall.

Brathay lowered himself down to sit on the edge of the bed and studied Ligger. He had used his power to bring Ligger back from death, but he was happy for people to believe he had simply used the techniques a physician might have adopted. Although he would tell nobody, except perhaps Leon, he had tried to do the same for Zhorman, but to no avail. The man's lifelight had long been extinguished.

"He saved your life, rock for brains," said Bhullard. "You should be thanking him. If he had not fought those men off and managed to get your heart pumping again—thank goodness for his institute training—you would not be here today bemoaning your happy fate."

"Besides," added Brathay. "There is nothing honourable in dying at the hands of soldiers who have been lifelong allies. That would have been a tragic and pointless end. And I truly believe you are destined for greater things."

"You do, do you?"

"Certainly. Such as meeting a maiden who will see through your foul temper and thick headedness, and will be happy to bring a small army of little Liggers into this world, to reap havoc among the people."

"Yes," said Ligger, his face finally cracking a smile. From behind him, Bhullard laughed, too. "I like that thought. And I will name one of them Brathay—

"I am honoured—"

"I have not finished. And he will be the one I will have to watch all the time, the most mischievous of the brood, who will pretend to behave but will ignore my instructions, get into all kinds of roguery, and will never treat me with even a stray dog scrap of respect—"

"Hey! That is unfair!"

Ligger leant over and grabbed Brathay in a headlock, jostling him from his perch, both of them laughing. Eventually, they settled back, and Ligger became his old self, talking about everything that had happened to him and the subsequent battle and about how he thought he had died in the final fight.

"Seriously though, Ligger," said Brathay, standing and gently shaking his head. "We have lost too many already. I could not have stood losing you as well."

"Pity the bastard slipped the net," said Bhullard, nodding grimly. "I would have liked to have met him one-to-one in combat. And do not even mention the steward's name to me."

"Sorry," said Brathay, confused. "Met who in combat?"

"Lord Brennik, of course. Although word has it he made others do all his muscle—"

"Lord Brennik is dead."

"Dead?" said Bhullard, shocked. "How can that be?"

"Because I witnessed them burn, both him and Khraxwall."

Brathay sat back down again. Of course. Nobody would yet know what had happened. Even Myxel had only glimpsed a smouldering woodpile and a row of dead soldiers that included Zhorman. When Brathay finished the tale of Khraxwall's final act of sacrifice and revenge on Brennik, everyone, including those in beds nearby, listened so mesmerised he could barely hear the sound of them breathing.

"May I never again be too quick to judge," said Bhullard eventually. "Somebody needs to get word of this to King Bruckbar and Leonmarkh. I believe they have soldiers out hunting for him. I know they captured his captain, Rhedhul, but this news will need to be told."

"Let me do that," said Ligger, pulling the covers back and swinging his legs over the side. "I need something to do rather than laze about—"

"Back to bed, Captain Ligger," came the firm voice of Fleming from across the room. Brathay had not realised he stood there. "You will rise only when I say you are fit enough to do so. You are not on the battlefield any longer, and in here, I give the orders. Captain Bhullard can relay the news. In the meantime, I need to speak to Brathay alone."

Fleming led him back outside, asking Brathay to retell his experience at the beacon tower. Brathay realised they were not heading for the Great Hall or Leon's chambers but towards the main gate.

"Wait," said Brathay, stopping before the gatehouse tunnel. "Where are you taking me?"

"To the springs."

"But Fleming," said Brathay, turning to look back into the crowded courtyard. "I need to see Leon."

"And you will. In good time. Let him finish what needs be done here, then I will bring you to him. After everything you have been through, my friend, you need the healing waters of the springs to help you feel wholly clean again. And, on my part, I did promise to return you there one day. Now seems like the perfect time. Along the way, I can fill you in on what happened."

Outside, through the lightly falling snow, Fleming navigated a steep path down from the keep, one Brathay had not used before, but a convenient route past Fleming's cottage and crossing the village. Brathay smiled to himself, noticing snowflakes melting on the pathway and feeling the warmth under his boots, realising the springs had finally thawed and started flowing again.

"That was the secret path Leonmarkh took down to my house, when he met with Nhomakh. But before I tell you what happened during that visit, I ought to explain some things you would not have known."

Fleming stopped to allow Brathay to draw level with him before continuing.

"Long before his death, Leonmarkh's brother, Jacomine, guessed at his mother's ambitions, and had her closely watched. He kept Leonmarkh and Charteris fully informed. But the eldest brother was finding his feet as the new duke, and they did not want to overburden him. None of them uncovered the intricate plot she had woven with her brother. Fortunately, King Bruckbar had insisted on being appraised, too. Royal spies had got wind of a plot to destabilise the country and undermine Bruckbar's rule. The problem was that nobody knew when or how the perpetrator would strike. Until, what should have been Renmark's masterstroke, became the fatal mistake in his plan—"


"Exactly. Before Renmark's banishment from Khloradich, Zhorman had been an avid admirer of the man, and a loyal devotee. Renmark drew on that old relationship to sway Zhorman. Neither he, nor Leonmarkh ironically, had any idea that Clorrice had told Zhorman everything about her uncle, of his deviant ways and subversion and attempts to gain power. Zhorman went straight to Leonmarkh, and together they hatched the plan for Leonmarkh to take up the post of Watchman of Black Ice Keep, in the hopes of drawing his uncle's attention away from Khloradich. Their ploy was a huge gambit, a worm on a line and a game of patience, but one that eventually drew in the big fish. Poor Zhorman had to do things he hated to prove his loyalty to Renmark, which eventually included things like killing the civilian Millflower, then framing you for the murder, and standing by while the Morkhlach soldiers beat Leonmarkh senseless. But Leonmarkh knew the only way to draw out his uncle was to let him think he had the upper hand. Which is another reason why he left signalling the Cormaland navy and the king's forces until the very last moment, until Sunder Renmark had taken the bait and arrived personally at Black Ice Keep. If the man had smelled one hint of a trap he would have disappeared into the night again."

They reached the spot where the steep climb to the cave entrance began, with Fleming leading the way.

"He had an escape plan ready. Renmark. For him and his captain."

"I have no doubt."

Fleming fell silent for a while and halted where the ground levelled out. Brathay took the opportunity to ask a question that had been uppermost in his mind.

"How did they manage to ride here so quickly? The collective houses of Braggadach? From Aulderly, I rode for seven days."

"King Bruckbar is a resourceful man. During the worst of the winter, when Leonmarkh came to my house to visit Nhomakh, they arranged to bring his forces here. Leonmarkh left messages to be sent by bird to his brother and sister, and to the king to let them know everything Zhorman had learnt. Naturally, everything had to be done covertly. Their army, which included houses from other parts of Braggadach, had been assembled to deal with alleged boundary problems along the northern border, a routine matter but one that needed a show of force. Once Bruckbar had been informed of the small fleet leaving from Lokhradich—validating Zhorman's intelligence—the army changed course marching around the south of Blackbone Forest and heading east through the mountains. Leonmarkh charged Nhomakh and some Black Ice villagers with meeting the army at Echo Meads in Squallop and leading them safely through the mountain pass to the keep. They timed everything so that the final part of their journey coincided with the date of your trial. When the Lokhradich fleet arrived, the army was already sheltering south of here, awaiting Leonmarkh's signal. And in Cormaland, the navy simply watched and waited for the admiral's fleet to sail past, then followed."

"Were his sister and Prince Stephan aboard the royal galleon? Renmark thought they were."

Fleming issued a steamy chuckle into the air.

"No, they were not onboard. The royal galleon was a tactical decoy. Leonmarkh risked himself, but he would not risk the lives of either of his siblings. He forbade them both from coming. Although, reportedly, Clorrice flew into a rage, threatened to requisition a ship if they would not bring her and give her the chance to run Renmark through with her own knife. But eventually Stephan talked her around. Imagine what might have happened if, by some twist of fate, Renmark had been victorious, and the last of the DuMankin children had been assembled here together. Leonmarkh is smarter than that. As for Charteris. He had domestic difficulties of his own, picking the right time and having solid enough evidence to have Lady Valisqua arrested and convicted. Poor man. Imagine having to do that to your own mother? Fortunately, messages from Millflower found in her chambers and the testimony of others in her employ proved her culpability beyond doubt. They even found correspondence from someone who could only have been her brother."

"Renmark realised he had been outplayed. On the beacon tower. But he was still intent on having Leonmarkh executed."

"You know, apart from being unaware of Zhorman's duplicity, I fear Renmark's obsession with Leonmarkh led to his undoing. We are almost there. Can you smell the air?"

A familiar scent of rotten eggs tainted the crisp, fresh air. They rounded a corner, and Brathay saw the mouth of the cave. A villager stood waiting for them outside, holding a torch to light their way. The figure bowed on spotting them before entering the cave.

"The springs are not usually opened until the beginning of April, but Mjaj has made an exception for you. Villagers have been working to clean the inside. You will be entering the second pool today."

They passed through the entrance into the depths, following the light and feeling warmer air. When they reached an antechamber filled with other all torches and where the odour became almost cloying, Fleming stopped.

"Undress here. I will fetch balms and oils and cloths for cleaning."

With the villager's help, Brathay began to undress, grateful to be out of clothes he had not changed for days. Towels for drying sat on low shelves around the room. The attendant placed his dirty clothes in a small pile in an empty space. When Fleming returned, he put a wicker basket down next to Brathay but made no move to undress.

"You are not bathing?"

"Not today. And I hope you do not mind, but one of the chambermaids brought the attendant a fresh change of clothing from your room. The items are laid out in the next chamber for when you finish."

"You have thought of everything," said Brathay, then noticed Fleming smiling at his locket. Absently, Brathay smoothed his fingers across the surface of the stone.

"You know," said Fleming. "Zhorman, may he rest peacefully, studied the parchment, the one I used to copy the symbols from your locket onto and recognised them. In all honestly, I had never thought to ask him. I had been waiting to hear back from the sages of Aulderly, and only mentioned the trinket in passing."

Brathay stared down at the locket, remembering the last words Zhorman had spoken to him.

"Had he lived, I would have liked to have learnt more about our shared ancestry. What did he tell you about the symbols?"

"They are in the language of ancient Noth. Words would have been read from northwest to northeast and then south going in a circle. So the four symbols translate as 'mother', 'son', 'eternity', and the final word is a little harder to translate into the common language, but the best we could come up with is 'look down from the clouds, or stars, or heavens'. Later on, your Counsellor Brokerman wrote to me with the most concise phrase, which was: Mother will always be watching over her son. Does that mean anything?"

"Yes, it means everything."

"Would you mind if I study the locket a moment?" asked Fleming, reaching out the palm of his hand. Brathay realised at that moment that he had never taken off the token from around his neck. Fleming noticed his hesitation.

"I will return it to you immediately. But, if I am right, I want you to see something."

After a brief nod, Brathay lifted the chain over his head and handed the talisman to Fleming.

"Look," said Fleming, holding out the stone to him. When Brathay looked, the texture of the stone appeared the same, but now the symbols had disappeared, leaving behind a smooth, unmarked surface.

"You and the stone are connected. Brokerman explained about this kind of talisman. He described it as a conduit, likened its purpose to a faucet that brings forth water. The stone taps into your power."

"But where does the power come from?"

"From you, Brathay. From within you. If what Brokerman says is correct, that you are part descended from the Noth and possibly someone of significance, then you are able to harness the power of the natural world. But being able to control this kind of power is tricky, and, from what Leonmarkh told us, we believe another spirit—your mother, perhaps—played a part not only in activating the stone, but in assisting you in your time of need. The problem we have is that there is nobody living who can help you understand your potential."

Brathay took back the trinket and placed it over his head.

"Bearing in mind anything associated with the use of sixth science is forbidden, maybe that is for the best."

"What you are, Brathay, is a wholly natural being, a product born of nature. But, yes, there are those in power who refuse to believe in anomalies, see only extremes and anything different as a perversion and might argue to have you locked away at the very least. Fortunately only a few of us know of your abilities, and we have pledged to keep your secret. I just wish someone knew more about the power to be able to guide you."

"Then I will learn to understand it myself. I think I am beginning to do so already. You know, everything I was taught at Aulderly points to the Noth having been a cruel and savage race, which led to the last king razing their lands and wiping out their people."

"And were you also taught that history is often rewritten to favour the victors? I taught Mulian history at Aulderly, from the Boundary Wars all the way up until modern times. Very little knowledge remains of Nothland history, except for key major events, but I have always been skeptical of the reasoning behind the annihilation of the land. What king would sacrifice his own kingdom and people in such a monstrous way? History says he succumbed to a madness of abject despair after betraying the alliance, and had given up all hope of redemption. But there was no such inherent madness in previous monarchs of Nothland."

"I have not been there, but the land was levelled was it not? Which, according to my tutors, is why we still call the region the Scorched Kingdom."

"I have been to the border, and that is a fact, proven beyond doubt. It is the reasoning for the catastrophic event that I question."

Brathay thought back to his mother's voice on the beacon tower.

"Do you know anything about a last statue?"

"Interesting. Why do you ask?" said Fleming curiously.

"Nothing important. I seem to remember someone mentioning it. Probably back in Aulderly."

"Again this harks back to the desecration of the land. After the king's betrayal and even with levelling of Nothland, retribution by the rest of the empire nations was merciless. All relics relating to the race were destroyed which included portraits of the king and his family, and any sculptures or other representations. Except there is one remaining statue, carved into a cliff face in the ruins of Tokyo Minor, one that still stands today. According to myth, the statue was allowed to remain to remind any travellers of the face of treachery. I have never seen the carving, but I am informed it is impressive."

"Maybe one day I will."

"And maybe you will. But that is a matter for another day. Right now, there is something I need to check. Will you give me your hand."

Brathay shrugged and held out his hand. Fleming met his grasp in a handshake and wrapped another hand around Brathay's wrist.

"Hmm, yes. Joxi was right. I can feel two distinct heartbeats."

"I have two hearts?"

"No," chuckled Fleming, releasing his hand. "Only one. The other belongs to your unborn. You are with child, Brathay."

Shock stilled Brathay to silence. Once again, instinct told him that Fleming was correct. Of late, something had crystallised inside him, newfound courage and his inability to restrain strong emotions. In addition, his senses had become heightened. Even now, he could pick out the multitude of odours in the caves and hear the sounds of dripping in the depths and even the breeze outside coming to him with crystal clarity.

"How can that be, though? Look at me," said Brathay, holding his hands out at his sides. "I am a male of the species. Were the Noth also genmorphus?"

"No, not according to history. And you are clearly not one of the Sjin-Shatir. My theory, one I need to check with my sources, is that you may be descended from a similar tribe that existed on the northwest coast of Nothland between Moscow and New Edinburgh. Scholars believe them to have been wiped out during the destruction of the land. Not much is still known, except that both male and female of the species could inseminate their mate, and either could give birth. Your condition supports this theory."

"I am at a loss for words."

"I appreciate this is much for you to absorb, but you needed to know because I believe your body will soon begin to change," said Fleming before taking him by the elbow and leading him to the far side of the cavern to a wall carving lit by candles that he had not noticed before. "What do you see?"

The carving illustrated a lone figure of indeterminate sex with a child drawn into its stomach. On either side of the figure stood a bear and a serpent. This person smiled serenely and had light shining from the centre of their chest.

"One of the Sjin-Shatir."

"Which is what the Sjin-Shatir have thought throughout history. Until recently, when they heard stories of your pendant light and saw your chest glowing earlier as you approached them. And even more so knowing from Joxi that you are carrying a child. That is why they took the knee, because they believe you are special, that your coming was prophesied."

"But what does it mean?"

"I am afraid I cannot answer that. I am not sure anyone can. But the villagers will want to make sure you are well cared for while you are with child, Brathay. And I strongly advise to allow them to do so," said Fleming before handing the basket to Brathay. "But for now, go and surrender to the healing power of the spring water. I will be waiting for you here, if you need me."

Brathay walked naked into the next cavern, where the spring waters bubbled and steamed. The attendants had lit candles and placed them on rocks around the periphery. Brathay placed the basket down and hesitated at the edge, staring down into the dark, unfathomable water. In the past, dread would have begun to gnaw at his stomach. Today, nothing came, and he gently shook his head,

"Do not be afraid, Brathay. I am here," came a voice from the water, one he knew intimately.

When Brathay looked up, the imposing figure of Leon rose from the depths, his head bound by a black cloth, one side of his face still bruised and yellow. But his lover was otherwise intact. And the powerful feeling Brathay had felt earlier at hearing his voice across the courtyard rose inside him again, propelling him forward and breaking the still surface of the waters, leaving silver ripples as he staggered to his beloved. Leon's expression turned to wonder as they met and fell into each other's arms.

"I thought I had lost you," murmured Brathay into Leon's neck, hot tears on his cheek. Leon appeared unable to respond, simply tightening his hold on Brathay. Eventually, he relaxed his grip so that he could smile at Brathay.

"You cannot be rid of me that easily, apprentice. The DuMankins are made of hardier stuff."

Brathay laughed and placed a gentle kiss on Leon's still swollen lips.

"As are the Stonearms."

"We make a fearsome couple, do we not?"

At first, Leon stared into Brathay's eyes, smiling and gently touching his face with his fingertips, before his gaze drifted up to stare at the top of Brathay's head.

"Tell me what happened, Brathay. I tried to find you after I escaped from my chamber, but you were not in the cells and the house staff said you had left with Zhorman."

Brathay told his tale, sparing no detail. Towards the end, Leon had his eyes closed, a pained expression on his face and Brathay almost faltered. After a pause, Leon quietly asked him to continue. Only as Brathay told of his mother's intervention followed by his descent into the courtyard did Leon open his eyes again. But instead of pain, they were filled with understanding, acceptance and love.

"I am sorry I could not tell you everything," he said eventually. "But I had grown to care for you so much and I thought you not knowing would protect you in case things had not gone—"

Brathay stopped his words with the fingers of one hand over Leon's lips.

"I took what you told me and I worked out much of the rest. Still I did not know everything you had planned, but I knew you well enough by then to recognise your resourcefulness. And surely you know by now that I am not a child who needs protecting—"

"You should have left here when I first ordered—"

"But I did not. Because I would not. And nothing you could have said back then, or that you can say now, will ever change that decision."

"I am just trying to tell you how regretful I am—"

"Do not, Leon. Because I regret nothing."

Even though Leon smiled and nodded, he did not appear entirely happy. Something pained him still.

"You are sure you saw my uncle die?"

"Khraxwall grabbed hold of him, clung on to him like a lover. They burned together before my eyes."

Leon looked away and nodded but still seemed unsure.

"Forgive me if I appear obsessed, but when we leave here, I will send one of my soldiers to the beacon tower to check on the burnt remains."

"Whatever you need, if it will help you to breathe more easily. In the meantime, I need to see the extent of your wounds. Can you remove your headscarf?"

"Brathay, I would rather not—"

"Hair grows back, Leon, so put your vanity aside. Mane or no mane, I am not leaving your side. And remember, I have seen the scars you bear on your body. A few more on your head will not unsettle me. Besides, I am under orders. Fleming gave me an ointment to assist the healing."

After a few moments of hesitation, Leon slowly unbound the scarf. Brathay made sure not to wince at the marks now standing out livid where the head had been shaved.

"Still handsome," said Brathay, stroking Leon's face. "Let me sit on a rock, then you can sit in front and lean your back into my chest so that I can rub balm into your head."

"Can you not do that as easily if I kneel in front of you?" smirked Leon.

"Yes, of course. I just thought—"

"That way I will be still able to take my fill of you."

They found a rock in a shallower part of the pool, on which Brathay sat and where the water reached his knees. Leon crouched down in front and, after a smile, bowed his head. Very carefully, Brathay massaged ointment into Leon's scalp, into the multiple lacerations and scabs on the bare skin. Someone—he guessed Fleming—had already treated the worst of them and shaved or cut away the clumps to leave the scalp smoother. Although he stilled at first, Leon did not appear to feel any discomfort at Brathay's touch and, indeed, soon issued a low hum of approval while swaying gently with the motion.

A few minutes in, Leon's hands began to wander freely over Brathay's body, across his chest, down the ridges of his stomach ending between his legs. When Leon lowered his head forward and took Brathay into his mouth, Brathay gasped softly and closed his eyes—but continued massaging. Nevertheless, nothing could stop the wave of ecstasy that erupted and overtook him, his breathing labouring and hips bucking, small gasps escaping him as Leon took his fill. Eventually, as Leon's oil slick fingers pressed between his buttocks and delved inside, and the inescapable eruption burst from inside Brathay, he fell forward onto Leon, only to have his lover rise up from the water like a Leviathan, lift Brathay from his feet and gently place him onto his back on the smooth rock. When Brathay finally opened his eyes, candlelight appeared to flicker brightly around them, but Brathay paid the light show no heed because Leon's eyes shone with urgency, his body vibrating with desire, his erection solid and twitching in readiness.

"Brathay, I need—"

"I know, Leon. I know what you need. I need the same thing."

During the weeks of their lovemaking, Leon had been patient with Brathay, taking time until his lover had been fully prepared before they moved to the final coupling, all except for the one night when—he felt sure now—they had created a new life. Right now, he had no patience for lengthy preparation and wrapped his legs tightly around Leon's waist. Leon expelled a sigh of relief and instantly moved his hips forward, pushing his powerful erection into Brathay until they both began the familiar motion, with Leon cradling Brathay's head in one hand and using an arm to cushion his back from the hard rock.

Leon could not last long. With a loud groan, he fell spent on top of Brathay, where they remained fused together. While Leon caught his breath, Brathay smoothed his fingers along his back and up onto his head.

"Leon. Your hair—"

"Will grow back. You have said already. Do not worry—"

Brathay had taken one of Leon's hands and guided the fingers to touch his own scalp. He had felt the beginning of hair, like running his hands through a soft brush.

"I was going to say it has already begun to do so. Short for now, but clearly there."

Leon looked startled into Brathay's eyes.

"How is that possible?"

"I believe I may be responsible," said Brathay, running his fingertips along one side of Leon's face. "Your bruising and swelling has also disappeared entirely."

Leon's eyes drifted down to Brathay's collarbone.

"You know, I always shunned any talk of thaumaturgy, partly because of what we had been taught, and partly out of ignorance, but with you I am beginning to reevaluate my belief. Right now we need to cleanse ourselves thoroughly before attending a celebration with the king."

"In which case, you will need to release me—"

Before Brathay could finish, Leon lifted him from the rock and carried him to a deeper part of the spring, where they submerged together. After laughing together, they helped each other wash until both were satisfied. Wading slowly to the shore, Leon quietened and became solemn.

"Brathay, you should know that I am yours and only yours if you will have me. I find this hard to explain but when we are together I feel as though I am no longer alone in the dark. You are a part of me now, the half that shines the way forward. But I am prepared to wait for you until you are ready to be by my side. The king has asked me to visit Morkhlach in the north, to return the soldiers to their homes and tell the duke of the incident here. He will want to know about my uncle's treachery. And I remember you telling me that you have a placement as companion advisor to the royal Mermillon court in Thiradon this summer."

"Ah, Leon. A different version of me wanted nothing more than to take up that position. I longed to find my place in this world. But I have done that, next to you. And besides, I do not want to take on such a potentially arduous task, not while I am carrying our child."

The news took a few seconds to sink in. Leon's mouth dropped open, his eyes travelling down to Brathay's stomach. When he looked into Brathay's eyes again, he smiled.

"I knew," he said simply.

"Fleming told you?"

"Nobody told me. But when I was imprisoned in my chamber, I heard a voice in my dreams, a woman's voice I assumed to be my mother, so vivid that it stayed with me upon waking. She told me you carry our child, a daughter who should be named Kharanya. But, of course, I thought it must be simply that, a dream, because what man can bear a child?"

"That, Leon, is still a mystery. Even when Fleming told me, I did not at first believe him. However, my body knows otherwise and I have learnt to pay attention to my body. Do you think we should keep this news from the others for now?"

"I will not hide who we are or what we have together. In all my life, I have never felt more pride than I do when I am with you. If anything, I want us to cement our union officially. What do you say, Brathay Stonearm?"

"I would be honoured, my love."

"Good. But right now, we need to change into our clothing and head back to the keep. And I want us to be side-by-side as equals when we enter the hall, want your hand in mine."

** ❄︎ **

When they arrived at the celebrations, almost every seat in the refectory had been filled. Many soldiers squashed together on bench seats. A few hundred lucky Cormaland sailors had been allowed to remain behind interspersed among the Braggadachi soldiers, while the rest had sailed back home to relay the news of their victory to Prince Stephan and Princess Clorrice. As agreed, Leon and Brathay made their way up to the top table hand in hand, to rousing applause from everyone gathered. The king, who had saved a place for Leon, whispered into the ear of the aide beside him. Instantly, the man stood up to offer his seat to Brathay allowing them to sit together, with Bruckbar on one side and Mjaj on the other.

After much deliberation, Mrs Sturridge had decided to serve up a banquet very appropriately fit for a king, a choice of two incredible recipes. First, a Branersh venison speciality in honour of King Bruckbar and, secondly, Khloradich Stürmpot again at the request of the Cormaland sailors. Kegs of Leon's ale were also arranged on every table, which possibly explained the high spirits among the men. Brathay noticed one of the kitchen maids heading outside carrying heavy pots of food and asked Bhod, serving at the head table, what was happening. She whispered to him that although they would not invite the Morkhlach soldiers to join them at the celebration in the refectory, Mrs Sturridge had set up tables for them in the Great Hall, wanting to make sure they would be well fed. As always, Mrs Sturridge stood against the wall, and Brathay waited until he could catch her eye before nodding his appreciation, making her blush and smile broadly at the same time. He even noticed some villagers interspersed among the soldiers, those trapped in the keep when Brennik's soldiers had broken through. All in all, Brathay could not have felt happier and placed his hand in Leon's beneath the table. When he turned and looked down the table, he caught Ligger and Bhullard grinning at him.

Towards the end of the meal, Leon stood to thank everyone. When his speech turned to the soldiers, who had been badly injured or had lost their lives, of Hulm Khraxwall's sacrifice, and most importantly, of the courageous and selfless actions of Captain Zhorman, the room fell silent.

King Bruckbar spoke afterwards, an inspiring speech about how the actions of one man to try and fragment and destabilise their country had actually produced the opposite effect in bringing the dukedoms of Braggadach closer together. On his part, the king vowed to do more to promote closer harmony, including working together with Cormaland and other nations and ended the night with a toast to the enduring friendships of Braggadach, Cormaland, and the people of Black Ice Bay that had every person in the room on their feet, cheering and stamping their feet, banging mugs on tables or applauding.

As with all celebrations, the evening settled into more minor conversations and pockets of laughter around the room. While the king rose to wander around the tables, Leon summoned Bhullard to him.

"What did you find, captain?" he asked.

"Apart from this," said Bhullard, holding out a golden chain with the sides of a locket fused together. "Only powder and ashes. Not even pieces of bone. Although the lighter dust is consistent with powdered bone."

"Grey Flames produces a far hotter fire than what you are accustomed to," said Mjaj, who had been listening to the exchange. "When used for the cremation of bodies, all we are left with is powder. There is nothing unusual here."

"Let me see the locket," said Leon.

"The fire has melted the metal. I was unable to open it."

"I remember this," said Brathay. "Khraxwall wore this around his neck. I wager he carried a portrait of his wife inside. I am sure the stables will have tools to prise it open."

"No," said Leon softly, after a moment of reflection, and then more confidently. "No. There is no need. Wherever Khraxwall's remains are laid to rest, let this accompany him. Let them both be at peace."

"What now, Lord Leonmarkh?" asked Brathay, smiling.

"Now?" said Leon, grinning back at Brathay. "Our soldiers will return to Braggadach and Cormaland has offered to leave a battalion behind to take over watch duties. I agree with King Bruckbar that we are a stronger nation because of what happened here. And I truly believe that strength is going to be important in the months to come. Transition is in the air, and we all need to stay strong. As for me? At some point, I need to go and placate my sister—I will need your help there, Brathay. And we also need to return home to lend support to my brother. In addition, I have the sad duty to visit Zhorman's widow and children. I want to make sure they understand how their father died a hero and a patriot, and to make sure they are well taken care of financially. But before any of that, there is something else you and I need to do."

"There is?" asked Brathay, bemused.

"Apart from returning what is not ours, I believe you and I have a promise to keep."

Thank you for reading. One more chapter to go.

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.

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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.
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