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    lomax61
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Although the genre of fantasy, and this sub-genre of political fantasy, is a new one for me here on GA, I have been developing the world of Mulia in which this story takes place (and other stories in this world) for the best part of 20 years, so we are like old friends.

A link to the world map is included here, although I provide many descriptions in the story.

https://www.brianlancasterauthor.com/general-8

Heart of Black Ice - 3. Keep

Brathay arrives at Black Ice Keep.

On the sixth day from Aulderly, Brathay noted the marked drop in temperature. Low clouds had covered them from the first day and stubbornly remained for the duration. From the elevated track through the mountains, he finally spotted the dark ocean to his right, lines of white spume cresting obsidian waves. As though to augur a warning, a sudden gust of icy wind assaulted the train of wagons, flapping edges of the tightly bound canvass coverings and wailing away between the crags and boulders lining their way.

"That there's the Northern Sea,” said the old Braggadachi merchant. “She'll stay within view the rest of the way. Once we crest the next rise, the cove housing Black Ice Bay will reveal itself, so long as there's no heavy sea mist today. We should arrive at the keep mid-afternoon, by my reckoning."

On that first day, the trader had introduced himself as the troupe leader. A man of few words, he had explained sternly but with perfect clarity what Brathay could expect along the way and what would be expected of him. With Royal Palace garrisons stationed along the Cormaland coast, policing hotspots and coming down hard on any occurrence, attempted heists had become a thing of the past. But wild mountain cats or grey bears in search of food could hamper progress, and all travellers needed to be ever watchful. Brokerman had paid for his attachment, and in turn, Brathay had been loaned a horse, a tent, and given simple campfire cooked meals along the journey. Eleven other traders accompanied the leader riding four carriages to carry their wares. Each day, the old merchant led the way from the front with Brathay and a colleague by his side, while three more—including Marietta, the other guest on the trek—brought up the rear. Each of the wagons had extra horses tied behind, to be sold off at their destination.

"You have been there often?" asked Brathay.

"Many times over the years. Many times," said the chuckling merchant. He appeared to have warmed to Brathay's many questions along the journey, probably happy to have the usual monotony filled with noise.

"And will you stay? Or will you return? Have you decided yet? I sensed a marked chill in the weather at sunup this morning."

The man tilted his face into the air and inhaled deeply. He had already explained how the weather dictated the duration of their stay. If snows came early, they would hunker down until spring. If not, they would return along the mountain path. The skill was to judge carefully because being caught in a snowstorm along the treacherous track with no way forward and no way back would—not could—prove fatal. Brathay understood that assertion clearly now. Even in broad daylight with fine weather, he had shuddered at the many narrow passes with their steep drops on either side.

"Chill air don't mean aught. There is snow forming, I grant you, but none will fall for days. I believe we chance the return, like as not. Most of us. Two are coming home."

A couple of his men stood out from the others. Already dressed in distinctive winter clothing, the pair of quieter merchants had pale skin, flat foreheads, and wore their dark shiny hair tied back in a tight ponytail. With their expressionless faces—epicene almost—they gave nothing away, something Brathay found disconcerting. Once or twice they had taken turns to speak to him falteringly in the common tongue, particularly the one called Dnan. Most of the time they conversed with each other in a language Brathay had never heard. Marietta and the old merchant had voiced their surprise at hearing how the pair had taken the initiative to engage him. Both men were known to be fiercely private. He had wrongly assumed them to be Trepideaian. During the evening meal Marietta had corrected him, explaining they were East Cordatogan—Sjin-Shatir—their language particular to the area around Black Ice Bay. At the thought of her, he turned in his saddle to look to the back of the train.

"Three are coming home if you include your other passenger."

"Aye, you're right," said the merchant, also turning in his seat then nodding. "Mistress Marietta. Although why anyone would want to spend winter in this icy grave escapes me."

"She wishes to join her partner."

"Bring him to Kumbleton then, rather than trudge all the way up here. Winter will be far more sufferable. If they knew no better, then I'd say fair do's. But she comes back every year. Don't understand some women."

Brokerman had been right about her. She would prove a valuable contact. Not dissimilar in age to the duchess, the similarity ended there. Employed as a Ballyhooky miller's right hand, she laboured hard during the summer months and joined her partner Fleming for winter. Already she had provided cheerful but sound advice on how to endure a northern winter. She had brought sacks of flour with her to sell to the keep and also to see her and her partner through the season. She had gladly inspected and wholeheartedly approved of the warm items of clothing Brokerman had chosen and purchased on his behalf. On their third day, she had offered an open invitation to entertain and cook for him, not so much if, but when he needed to escape the monotony of keep life.

Sharing stories around the campfire at night, Brathay had told the troupe little about his posting. They knew only that he was employed to advise the house staff on the running of the keep. Brokerman had given him far more to think about during their final fireside conversation. One particular burning question he had not asked. Why had Brokerman invited him to meet with Duchess Valisqua in the first place? Surely not simply to hear the story of her son’s plight from the source? Why not wait until she had returned to her quarters before inviting him over and telling him the whole story? Brokerman did nothing without a reason.

Naturally, Brathay had been given the standard graduation “colours of living” lecture about the relative safety afforded students by Aulderly's remote location and cultured but manufactured environment. Life on the outside could be far more brutal, unpredictable, and often unjust. The counsellor had advised him to take nothing for granted and to place his trust in few.

Along with the rest of the faculty and students, Brokerman knew as much about Brathay's upbringing as he chose to tell them, which was very little. Life on the outside could be hell. That much they had right. Brathay knew that particular truth better than most.

"I did not enquire,” he asked the merchant leader. "I know you're from Braggadach, but from which town or city do you hail?"

"Khloradich. Same as his lordship, Leonmarkh. He's the sole reason we travel this far north."

Although Brathay listened for any casual comments made by the tradespeople, he had consciously avoided asking direct questions about the lord. After Brokerman's warning, he decided to form his own opinion from his inevitable encounters with the man. But after another glance at the merchant, at someone neutral from the lord’s duchy, he wondered if he might loosen his resolve. He did not need to worry.

"Don't know him, mind. But I hear he don't suffer fools much, if you know what I mean?"

Brathay snorted. The merchant's succinct evaluation confirmed everything Brathay had heard about the man.

"I do. And I will try not to be one."

Brathay had enjoyed the journey. During his seven years at Aulderly, he had ventured out of the grounds on field trips many times, to take horses and gallop across the local meadows, or climb many of the smaller local mounts. But to see the institute from the high mountain pass had been nothing short of breathtaking, an unforgettable sight that had left him frozen to the spot—until the older merchant had barked at him to keep up.

The last time he had spent so much time on horseback had been on his ride to Aulderly seven years ago. For a weeklong mounted journey, riding through the daylight hours, he was woefully out of practice. As he squirmed in his saddle, he hoped the keep would be able to conjure a hot bath upon his arrival.

At the top of the subsequent rise, the merchant brought his horse to a halt and pointed down. On Brathay's left, the lower grounds of the mountain were covered with vast forests of evergreens, while on his right, the land descended to the sea. Brathay drew level and stopped, following the man's gaze.

"Yonder lies Black Ice Bay."

Brathay had to look twice. Grey stony hills forming into a narrow valley of rough colourless grass and jagged boulders descended towards the seafront like a rockfall. Only as he leant forward in his saddle and looked closer did he make out formed shapes, rough stone cottages with walls constructed from local rock and roofs of slick black slate. Sat in a narrow cove, the hills around appeared to offer up the scattering of humble dwellings to the sea, waiting for the endless black waters to rush in and claim them. The settlement bore no resemblance to the pretty coastal villages he had visited around the Thiradonian coastline. With their orderly rows of pastel or plain white cottages, and a single lane descending through the centre down to the sea wall, he had always likened them to summer butterflies.

Black Ice Bay looked like a reptile.

More startling, the elevated keep commanded attention. Balanced on the edge of the north cliff overlooking the bay, the fortress resembled the empty nest of a monstrous sea dragon, casting its pall of doom over the town.

"We break off here," said the merchant, waving his arms to signal those behind, pointing to the start of a narrow track while still talking to Brathay. "Two wagons and the other guest'll take the sea path down to the town. Rest of us continue moving. Keep staff await us, like as not."

After Brathay issued a hasty farewell to Marietta and a promise to come and visit, the reduced troupe continued on towards the keep. Brathay felt hypnotised by the structure. Compared to the etchings he had sought out at the institute on his last day, most depicting majestic strongholds set atop lush hills or white cliffs and accompanied by summer sunshine, Black Ice Keep conveyed grim desolation. Perhaps that had been the architect's intent, to blend the fortress with the town and the rugged surrounds, to provide a warning rather than a welcome.

Strategically and militarily, the location could not have been better chosen. Built on a single generous clump of the headland and surrounded on three sides by high cliffs that dropped to the dark sea below, the structure was joined to the mainland by a narrow strip of land with a steep track leading up to the gatehouse.

From the high mountain track that circumvented the bay town before dropping gently then abruptly ascending towards the darkened entrance, he spied not a single embellishment on the keep. The simple square construction of dark granite blocks comprised four turrets and, around the central structure, three levels of evenly spaced embrasures. Only the north- and south-eastern turrets sat on the sheer cliff edge overlooking the vast black ocean. The south-eastern tower has the addition of a vast metal brazier. Raised above the tower top, the black cradle sat inside a solid metal frame, covered over by what appeared to be canvas but clearly containing dark kindling—the keep's unlit beacon.

Brathay studied the sight of what was to become his home for the next eight months, a structure that grew bigger and more daunting the closer he drew. He had seen paintings and heard ghost tales about the burnt-out fortresses of the Scorched Kingdom, untouched for millennia since the horrific events that razed them to the ground, broken structures that still filled anyone unfortunate to pass within view with an illogical but truly palpable dread. Black Ice Keep, although wholly intact, would have made a worthy addition.

As they climbed the final single track, now blanketed by the keep's shadow, Brathay recognised the banners of Braggadach hanging high and limp outside the gatehouse, a background of gold, a black war ship inside a blazing orange sun, and bunches of deep red and green grapes embossed beneath.

The lead merchant brought the party to a stop by holding a hand up then rode forward alone. Brathay's horse, possibly anticipating food and rest, snorted and snickered and shook its mane. Moments later, the merchant returned and ushered them forward.

Heavy wooden doors fortified with iron stood open to reveal a short tunnel to the keep's courtyard. As Brathay passed along the passage, he looked up and noticed the wide gap housing the giant portcullis, a standard feature of Mulian strongholds.

Inside the impressively sized courtyard, only two soldiers and three house staff met them. Brathay had no idea about the size of the lord's garrison, but seeing only two slovenly looking guards confounded him. Moreover, these two appeared to have been selected to help the house staff unload the wagons, neither of them checking the credentials of the accompanying traveller. Brathay made a mental note to bring this to the attention of the lord. After dismounting his horse and unloading his bags, he waited to one side for the merchants to complete their work until a distinguished-looking older man approached him and held a hand out in greeting.

"I am Hulm Khraxwall, steward of the keep. People address me as Khrax or Khraxwall. I don't mind which. I understand from the messenger that you have chosen to join us for the protracted season?"

Khraxwall did not hide his bemusement, and Brathay chose to give nothing away, not until he had a true measure of the man. He bore distinctive Braggadachi features apart from his thick wiry hair, which had turned white with age and added extra handsomeness to his tanned and weathered complexion.

"My name is Brathay Stonearm, apprentice of Aulderly." Brathay peered over the man's shoulder. "I believe Lord Leonmarkh is expecting me. If he is not here, could you take me to him?"

Although he had only just met Khraxwall, the man appeared flustered but composed himself quickly.

"His lordship is currently indisposed. He is running a full-day military drill with his men, patrolling the lowlands. They will return towards sundown."

Except for extenuating circumstances, when sending a rider ahead to announce the arrival of an official guest, the head of the household always made a point of greeting them in person. Such was the standard common courtesy practised amongst all the nobility in all kingdoms of the empire. Had Brathay been slighted? Khraxwall must have interpreted Brathay's silence as such because his tone changed from official to one of warmth.

"For the best all round, in my opinion. I can show you the keep freely and uninterrupted—which I gather is your main focus—before getting you settled into your chamber. To be frank, apprentice, you will learn far more from the house staff and me than anyone else in residence here, and without having to waste time going through the longwinded niceties of formal introductions. Let me help with your belongings and give you a quick tour of the courtyard level before showing you up to your room." Without another word, the steward picked up the heavier bag from the three around Brathay's feet and began to move across to the far side of the courtyard, walking with a slight limp. "Now, my understanding from the messenger is that you have knowledge of this type of rubble and may be able to assist us. I have several questions and would be very grateful for your advice and assistance. Let us hasten because I already feel rain on the horizon."

Brathay instantly warmed to the man, admired his quick emotional percipience. Moreover, he had quickly made Brathay feel not only valuable but necessary. Perhaps the man had attended Aulderly during his time. Maybe one day they would have that conversation.

"To manage your expectations, even when the soldiers return, the keep will feel barely occupied. Past watches have comprised four to five hundred soldiers filling this stronghold, not including the Watchman and his or her captains and generals, and the house staff. With that many inhabitants, the place would no doubt have felt bustling. We only have fifty soldiers, four captains and twelve house staff. The instructions left for the running of this place are frankly risible, written for a much larger party. Soldiers are supposed to be available in three shifts every day. Four on the gatehouse, two on each of the towers, with two specifically to guard the beacon. One shift alone would require thirty to forty of his lordship's troop, which would leave no time for other requirements. So we have agreed to a compromise. Even so, the house staff are often run off their feet."

"Why would a country release so many soldiers? No disrespect meant, but there is little to do here, apart from watching the open seas and the northern wastelands."

"Black Ice Keep is also used as a military training facility. Usually for a nation's elite soldiers, to learn combat in extreme conditions, in harsh mountainous regions and dense areas of forest. In a two year tenure, most nations would send four bands of soldiers, one replacing the other every six months."

What the steward said made perfect sense. Having the isolated location to themselves would provide an ideal opportunity to fine-tune fighting skills without the distractions and comforts of home. Was their any validity in the rumour about Leonmarkh inviting mercenaries and building an elite army? Rather than ask, he would need to observe.

Khraxwall led Brathay diagonally towards the stables, across the vast courtyard of smooth flagstones where a recess in the centre slanted gently down to a massive grating of black metal, all surrounded by a circular knee-high stone wall with intermittent chinks at ground level. When he reached the other side, an amused Khraxwall noticed him studying the hole because he stopped and nodded to the feature.

"Do you know its usage?" asked Khraxwall.

"No. Enlighten me."

"I wish that I could. We thought perhaps for drainage, but the sheer size of the cavity is excessive. In our first month here, I had soldiers raise the heavy mesh. Lord Leonmarkh incorrectly guessed at a dungeon. There is barely enough headspace to keep a small dog, let alone a man. But I noticed during a heavy storm how rainwater draining beneath the wall and falling through the grating collected in a vast covered vat of stone that in turn feeds one of two troughs circumventing the lower levels of the keep. Not excessive amounts of rain, I hasten to add. I thought the same might happen with snow, which is more plentiful in these parts. Last year, we had only four or five heavy snowfalls, but each time the snow froze, clogged in the grating, nothing passing beneath, not until the thaw. When we lifted the mesh, we found layer upon layer of a type of black volcanic crystal housed in a metal casing, a material common enough in the northern kingdoms, according to one of our soldiers. They are reportedly used to filter rainwater of impurities. But we are fortunate not to need that function here."

"How so?"

"Because the keep is serviced by underground mountain streams of fresh water, which do not freeze during the winter. I will show you later if we have time, but the water continuously feeds the first trough and keeps us supplied all year round, irrespective of the season. As for the crystals, we tried heating a handful, wondered if they might contain fossilised energy like charcoal. Nothing happened, even when placed in a furnace. Oddly enough, when we removed them, they retained an uncanny coolness. One of his lordship's soldiers said villagers along our northern borders believe they ward off evil spirits."

"Did you enquire with the townspeople?"

Khraxwall's grimace accompanied the rubbing of a scar above his eyebrow.

"You will doubtless come to learn for yourself, but few speak or understand the common tongue, and those that do never venture into the keep, let alone into the world outside Black Ice Bay. I showed a stone to one of the town elders, something he had clearly never seen. But as you are probably aware, Watchmen have been recruited from all parts of Mulia across the centuries. Perhaps they had another use for the crystal, something we are unable to fathom."

"Thaumaturgy?"

Khraxwall caught Brathay's eye, then looked away and breathed out a steamy sigh of disgust.

"I like to think not. But if so, then not something we will ever employ."

"Not without a leavener."

"Do you mean a shaman? If there were any still living, I doubt they would choose to inhabit Black Ice Bay. Whatever secrets the crystals hold, the bearer took with them."

Brathay doubted the assumption. If someone had brought the stones, why would they leave them when they returned home, knowing newcomers would be unable to use them?

"The idea of a sixth science unsettles you?" he asked.

"Does it not you? I am as aware as most of the banned art. And that usage is considered treasonous."

"And yet I notice the keep has shallow gridiron containers of moonskulls affixed high on the inside walls along the loggias around the keep. Is their use considered illegal? It certainly is not in Aulderly."

Many items once deemed thaumaturgy had been overlooked or adopted into another of the sciences by the general population because of their usefulness and apparent harmless qualities. Small grey and otherwise unremarkable pebbles called moonskulls had been mined from the mountains in Trepideaia for millennia. They could absorb the light of the sun and, as soon as darkness fell, provide a bright white glow for several hours. Among the nighttime mining communities, they were considered lifesavers and good omens. And even though their brilliance appeared to glow white-hot, they remained cold to the touch, giving off no hint of warmth.

"They serve no purpose here. We believe they are for decoration only."

"Do they not light when darkness falls?"

"Not once in the twelve months I have served."

"Have you not emptied them and laid them out beneath the daytime sun to absorb the sunlight of day?"

"What sunlight?" said Khraxwall, peering into the sky amused as they crossed the open courtyard. "Unblemished sunlight is erratic at best and, even then, reaches the courtyard for only a few hours during daylight. We live, for most of the year, in perpetual shade beneath a cover of thick cloud."

Khraxwall had a fair point. Moonskulls worked well only when left spread out during the day under direct and intense sunlight. Southern nations used them extensively. Beneath the current diluted sunlight, they would provide little to no light. The question then was, why bother having them affixed to the walls? Another mystery.

"Of what stone is the keep constructed?" asked Brathay as they passed down another darkened corridor.

"You do not know?" asked an amused Fleming. "I thought you were the expert. Are you not a student of the similarly constructed Aulderly?"

"Black Ice Keep is built from Ashenback granite?" said an astonished Brathay.

Brathay stopped, stunned and ran his fingers along the surface of the cold wall. If both had been constructed from the same granite, the keep stone had developed an entirely darker personality.

Walking through the inner sanctuary of Aulderly's interior had always evoked excitement in Brathay. A honeycomb of brightly lit corridors linked subterranean halls and classrooms, occasionally brightened by patches of sunlight from skylights. Lined by exotic plants and bushes, white marble statues of the Empire's heroes, and colourful tapestries, and with its walls echoing with the squeals and excited chatter of adolescent students, Aulderly had always felt like a stroll through an ornate palace garden.

With its passages of dark earthen stone where sunlight never touched the dank walls, where a person hurrying from the warmth of one chamber to another—especially at night—might feel watched as though by cold eyes of the dead, living in the keep would be like living in a tomb.

His thoughts turning darker, Brathay observed without comment as Khraxwall showed him the keep service rooms, the storerooms with stockpiles of items such as dried goods and ales, the ice room with piled barrels of preserved meats and fish, the dry log pile stores. All storerooms had men assigned to keep strict inventories, something over which Khraxwall had complete control. Finally, they walked through the kitchens and refectory and past the stables and the chapel. Food, the steward explained, would be provided in the morning and evening, the morning meal at leisure but the evening meal strictly communal, attended by all the soldiers and guests, and served at seven bells. The household staff ate once his lordship and his men had retired.

Brathay did his best to remember the names of the domestic staff Khraxwall introduced as they hurried about their tasks. Still, even with his skill, the flow of faces eluded him. Three names he committed to memory: Mr Sturridge, the stable master, his wife Mrs Sturridge, the head cook, and Miss Millflower, the chamberlain. He had all of winter to brand the others into memory. Resisting the temptation to ask questions, Brathay listened objectively while making a mental note of what he would need clarifying later.

Eventually, the steward led them around to the southeastern turret to a dark archway housing a staircase with a stone stairway too narrow to fit more than one person. As he climbed ahead, Brathay talked to his back.

"Before I left Aulderly, one of the masters said you experienced mild weather last winter."

"Mild?” Khraxwall exclaimed. Brathay's words had made the steward stop and chortle. "As winters go, last year was colder than anything I have experienced in my sixty-nine years. But yes, the townsfolk talk of last year being unseasonably clement. They also talk of such an event boding ill for the following year."

"And yet your supply rooms do not appear overly full."

"Lord Leonmarkh saw little need. He feels we have enough to suffice. Vast forests surround us with wood for fires and game for meat to support a small nation. We have almost twice as much in storage as we used last year. And if heavy snowfall covers the land, he claims we can harvest and survive on the fruits of the sea."

Once again, discomfort filled Brathay's stomach. Of one thing, he was clear. The keep appeared woefully stocked for a long and dire winter. And Brokerman spoke of the seas freezing over during the blackest months of the season. How then would they reap anything from the sea?

He needed to speak to Leonmarkh.

Khraxwall stepped out of the staircase into a narrow passageway with one side overlooking the courtyard. He led Brathay to the second door of solid oak, no doubt designed to keep out the worst of the weather.

"This is the more comfortable of the three guest chambers," said the steward, unapologetically, pushing the thick door open and placing Brathay's bag inside. "Conditions may seem cramped, but the keep is not intended for visitors. Dignitaries rarely venture this far north. For obvious reasons."

Brathay moved next to Khraxwall and peered into the room. Although lit by a wall torch, the room remained in virtual shadow. As he lowered his own baggage to the floor, he noted the canopy bed, a large fireplace containing an empty cast iron brazier, and a table and chairs of roughly hewn oak. Heavy tapestries had been hung to brighten the place and probably to provide insulation from the cold. Although the wall had an opening where a casement would have been, this had been covered by secure wooden shutters.

"For the past six years, I have slept each night on a straw pallet in a dormitory with eleven other boys. I consider having a room of my own a veritable luxury."

Khraxwall nodded his head slowly, a low, guttural chortle issuing from him and reminding Brathay of a growling dog. While pointing to a corner of the room where a loose tapestry hung over a small recess, he went over to stand next to the wooden shutters built into the wall.

"All chambers have a closed-off area for ablutions if you feel the need the privacy. Frankly, I do not see the point." As he spoke, Brathay moved across the room and moved the tapestry to one side. "House servants will bring you what you need—wood for the fire, water for washing and drinking. Be mindful that hot water is not plentiful. Shutters keep out the worst of the weather. Do not open them unless you wish to feel the full force of the northerly winds. Last time someone did, it took two soldiers an hour to get them closed and locked again."

"Does the water from the mountain springs not flow into the rooms?"

"Into the lower keep. Not into the rooms. As you can see, there is a raised basin, and we get what we need from the servants who collect water from the trough beneath the courtyard. You will just need to find somebody—"

Brathay recognised the Trepideaian design. Without waiting for permission, he went over to a section of the wall covered from floor to ceiling in slate. He spotted a slightly raised tile, which, with some difficulty, he slid back to reveal two stone faucets. The first moved stiffly at first and even then had no effect. But when he twisted the second, free-flowing water poured into the basin from a fissure in the wall. Cupping a hand beneath the stream, he dipped his mouth into the liquid and sipped carefully.

"Yes. Spring water," he said, shaking off the excess water from his hands into the basin.

"Are you telling me all rooms have this feature?" asked Khraxwall.

"I imagine so."

"Why would the levers not be left in view? Why hide them?"

Khraxwall appeared irritated, perhaps because he would need to explain the discovery to Lord Leonmarkh. Brathay merely shrugged the question away.

"Any number of reasons. Architects across the realm in no matter which country, choose to conceal what they deem unattractive features, usually with tapestries or paintings. It is a vanity well known in the industry. But the engineers excel in harnessing mountain lakes or streams to facilitate the operation of large structures such as this, to raise and lower heavy doors, to force water into rooms for personal usage, to assist in the kitchen and for other domestic functions—"

"Such as?" asked Khraxwall as he walked over and turned off the faucet.

"From what I have studied? Washing clothes in large vats, raising small platforms to carry heavy loads, turning millstones—"

"Wait," said Khraxwall. "Do not belittle me. We have watermills in Braggadach, but they are normally aligned to rivers or fast-moving waterways—"

"I mean no disrespect, Khraxwall, but Trepideaeian and Cordatogan water engineering far outmasters that of any other nation. If you ever get a chance to view the spectacular water dance fountains in the capital city square of Trepidius, you will know what I mean. Their engineers manipulate water because of its abundance. Other nations might have the occasional mill along rivers, but these nations have developed canals, aqueducts, irrigation channels for crops, internal piping in most domestic dwellings—"

"We have a millstone in a room off the kitchen where staff grind wheat and other grains. Three or four bodies are needed to turn the wheel. Are you saying there might readily exist a way to do this without manpower?"

"More probable than possible."

"But how can that be? Water comes into the keep on a lower level."

"There will be a series of valves allowing the flow to be diverted, using the water pressure to operate the millstone. Would you like me to come and take a look?"

Khraxwall heaved out a sigh.

"I think you ought. Apparently, my eyes and ears are blind and deaf to this building. But let me first show you the beacon tower. It stands above us."

Back along the corridor, they climbed two more flights up to the top of the tower, where a guard stood on duty. Brathay wondered if the posting might be a punishment because strong icy winds buffeted the keep, and even standing in the calm of the tower, the nose of the poor man glowed red.

Khraxwall nodded to him, and they stepped out into the opening. Immediately Brathay's eyes stung from the blustery ice cold winds. Above them, an immense brazier had been installed, affixed firmly into a stand of thick black metal bolted to the floor of the tower. Brathay studied the design with interest. Mechanical elements had been added to the cradle, solid metal flaps below the basket like petals of a black flower, perhaps to assist airflow.

"Here lies the heart of our stationing in the northern keep, guarded day and night." Khraxwall stood to one side of the gap in the crenellation, pointing out to the sea, as the wind pushed and shoved his silver hair. "Should we view unknown ships approaching our shores, our duty is to light the beacon and alert the empire. Along the coast, all the way to the royal palace in the south, there are other beacon outposts, and, all going to plan, a signal can reach the royal court in a matter of hours."

"Even in heavy wind or rain? Or a snow blizzard?"

Khraxwall pointed to piles of wood shored up around the whole internal wall of the tower, piled the height of a man. Like the beacon, the wood had been covered with a thick cloth.

“We use beaconwood, a specially treated kindling supplied by imperial alchemists. The warning fire can be ignited by any one of the simple flintlock devices attached to the wall. Even in extreme weather, they are known to burn instantly, unaffected by wind, rain, sleet or snow, and five times brighter than normal kindling. Day or night, whatever the weather, the beacon light can be seen all along the west coast. Beaconwood can last up to a day without needing to be replenished. There are enough supplies here to keep the torch lit for more than a month. And we run a trial lighting every half year, in February and September. You have just missed the most recent."

Already shivering with the cold, Brathay decided he had experienced enough of the chilly wind.

"Maybe the guard could use a log or two to keep himself warm—“

"First of all, beaconwood is the property of the crown and only sanctioned for use in defence of the realm. Secondly, it is highly flammable and naked flames are forbidden in this tower."

"Understood." Brathay hauled his thin cloak around himself. "Are we done here?"

Khraxwall smirked grimly and assessed Brathay from head to foot.

“Today is one of the most clement days we have experienced in weeks. If you consider this cold, you may want to reconsider your stay.”

Brathay said nothing as the steward chuckled at his own comment and led the way back into the calm of the tower. Did the man think Brathay lacked mettle, that he was used to living a cosseted life usually attributed to members of the royal court? No matter. Quick assumptions serve two masters. When they reached the courtyard, Brathay noticed the stairs carried on down.

"There is little of interest and a lack of lighting in the lower levels. One down has the covered vat below the grating and houses the water troughs. And I suggest you forgo the joy of any lower levels unless you have a burning desire to witness where the house staff dispose of keep sewage, waste, and other rotting materials."

"Another day, maybe."

"As you wish. Let us head to the mill room."

Brathay had been right. Khraxwall, having witnessed the tiling in Brathay's chamber, identified a similar feature in the mill room. After using the pulley system to lower the grinding wheel, he turned one of the much larger faucets and, after some moments, the wheel began to turn. Even Mrs Sturridge stopped by to witness the spectacle, issuing a soft 'well I never,' before disappearing back into the clamour of the kitchens.

As they stood examining the slowly turning wheel, both heard the dull thud of a bell being struck five times. Khraxwall ignored the sound but, some minutes later, looked up at another, more distant sound.

"The horn of the battalion."

"You have keen hearing."

"A man in my position learns to listen to every sound, however seemingly insignificant, lest he gets caught off guard. I shall need to go and prepare for the return of his lordship and his men, ensure the stable boys are on hand to assist, and the evening meal is being readied. His lordship only attends the evening repast with his men. All other meals he takes in his chambers. Let me arrange somebody to take you back—"

"There is no need. I am sure I can find my own way. And I feel you need all the hands you can muster."

Once again, Khraxwall grimaced knowingly and nodded.

"However courageous we consider the soldiers of our kingdom for fighting our battles—which are few and far between these days—it is not they alone who protect the nation. Nobody writes songs about those on hand to feed them, to mend their clothing and their wounds, to polish their swords and armour, to restock their arrows and fix their banners, and provide bunks for them to sleep in at the end of each day."

Brathay smiled. Khraxwall had a thankless task. In many ways, he reminded him of Counsellor Brokerman. Turning on his heel, the man hurried towards the doorway but then stopped and turned.

"I will remind his lordship that you are here. He will doubtless want to meet with you before they have the evening repast together at seven bells. A scrap of advice before I depart. Lord Leonmarkh is a man of few words, and even those tend to be plain. He will cut you short if you prevaricate, so speak your mind clearly and concisely. But I have half a mind he will warm to you. There is a good sense and fairness in you, Apprentice Brathay of Aulderly. And I thank you for your enlightening and invaluable assistance today."

Despite the coldness of the mill room, Brathay warmed inside as he watched the steward leave. Everything appeared to bode well. Having won over the domestic staff, he would turn on his best charm for Lord Leonmarkh when they met privately.

Thank you for reading.

Please feel free to leave me any reactions, comments and suggestions.

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.

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The impression that we are given about the Keep is that it’s medieval in both appearance and the way that people work there, but what I don’t understand is that milling grains by water has been in use for over 1000 years, flour is still milled this way at Otterton Mill in Budleigh Salterton, UK, why the staff weren’t using this method to make their lives so much easier both in their work and personal time. 

http://ottertonmill.com/

 

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