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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 - 4. Welcome

Brathay is finally given a lukewarm welcome.

Happy to find his own way back to his chamber, Brathay treated himself to an unsupervised scout around the courtyard. Instinctively, something did not sit right. Having identified two unused features of the keep he felt sure there had to be more. Decorative moonskulls? Whoever heard of such a thing? And surely previous Watchmen would have left behind instructions? Why had none been provided? He shivered. As the day had waned, a distinct chill invaded the air seeping into his bones, partly down to the ubiquitous shade of the keep. In the morning, he would start to dress in his warmer local attire.

Heaving open the solid door to his chamber using his shoulder, he entered the gloom. During his time away, helping with the millstone, someone had gone to the trouble of preparing his quarters, evidenced by the fire burning in the metal grating, to the fresh bed linen on the somewhat ornate but ancient four poster bed, to the bucket of clean water and towel left for his ablutions.

After a glance at the comfortable bunk, he yearned to throw himself onto the thick quilt cover and let the aches of his body melt away. But he would not allow tiredness to divert him, would get himself settled properly and stay alert for the call from Lord Leonmarkh. He had barely lifted his bag onto the bed and undone the clasps, when someone thumped on the chamber door.

He hauled open the portal to a tall and thin woman who pushed past him without a word, stepping across the threshold into the room. After a quick appraisal of the arrangements, she turned to him, her back to the fire. In a plain grey dress worn from the high neck to her black boots, she wore her grey hair up, tied severely with a black cord, her face stern and unsmiling. Only the small sapphire dragonfly broach sparkling in the centre of her collar provided any colour. Her fingers fidgeted with an array of large iron keys on a metal ring hanging from a thick black leather belt around her waist.

“I am Miss Millflower, the chamberlain. Before you get settled, let me explain the extent of the chamber staff assistance during your stay, however brief that may be.”

The opposite end of the scale to Khraxwall, her voice not only carried the haughtiness of authority but an added frostiness of dislike and resentment.

“I have a very small team who are already overstretched. They will bring water late each afternoon and light a fire. There will be a pile of kindling left outside your door for you to replenish your fire. You should know that I am an exacting woman and everything will be carried out according to my strict instructions. Other than that, you will fend for yourself. If you need to empty your waste or need more water, take your bucket down to the levels below the courtyard. Your room will been aired, dusted and bedclothes changed once a week, anything else you wish for will be your own responsibility.”

As she spoke, she ran a forefinger along the top of the small table where Brathay’s notebook lay, before staring briefly at the fingertip, then returning her hand to fiddle with the bunch of keys.

“We are not in the habit of entertaining visitors, apprentice. I do not know how things work in Aulderly, and frankly, I do not care. Here our priority is his lordship, the captains, the soldiers, then everyone else. In that order. Anything you need, you get yourself and not bother my staff. Are we clear so far?”

“Clear as a full moon.”

“Your predecessor treated one of my staff as her personal servant. Until I found out. That will not happen again. They have all been forewarned of your presence.”

“I see.”

“On a personal note—and I am sure I am not the only person to hold this sentiment—we neither want nor need your type here. This is a military installation and no place for student civilians. My advice to you is to depart at your earliest opportunity, and certainly before the weather settles in. And while you are in residence, except for mealtimes, remain in your chamber and keep out of everyone’s—”

“While I thank you for your advice and candidness, Miss Millflower,” said Brathay, witnessing the woman’s eyes startle open wide, clearly not someone used to being interrupted. “I will not remain inside. I am here to inspect the keep and to offer advice. I cannot do that if I am imprisoned in this room—”

“I said nothing about being held prisoner. Advice is merely advice, meant to aid you during your stay, and something you can either take or discard.”

“Then it is something I will choose to discard.”

Somewhat insolently, she moved over to Brathay’s bag, pulled back one side and peered at the contents.

“Do not make an enemy of me, apprentice,” she said, her voice low and threatening.

“I have no intention of doing so, Miss Millflower. But I have a duty to advise Lord Leonmarkh while I am here, something neither you nor any other person in the keep will prevent me from doing. And, knowing that you are an exacting woman, perhaps you might remember that my name is Brathay Stonearm, not apprentice.”

“Do I really need to bother branding your name to memory?” she said, before looking up and meeting his gaze with a thin smile. “When you will be gone within the week?”

“We shall see.”

“We shall indeed, apprentice. We shall indeed.”

After she had gone, Brathay allowed his annoyance to bubble to the surface briefly, before quickly suppressing the annoyance with a harsh shake of his head, telling himself that one member of the domestic staff would not sway him from his goal.

Taking the weight off his feet, he sat on the edge of the bed and looked about the room. Tiredness had crept up on him again during his confrontation with the chamberlain, his mind and body complaining that he had reached his destination and could surely now rest. From beyond the shuttered embrasure, he could hear the constant lull of waves breaking against the cliff rocks below, a sound to which he would need to become accustomed. Even with the fire crackling in the grate, the room retained very little heat, but the feather mattress felt enticing.

While unpacking items of clothing, he found a letter tucked away down one side, something he had not packed. For a second, he closed his eyes and huffed out a sigh. Who else but Polsom would have stashed a message in his bag in the dormitory while he had been packing? Maybe having passionate written words from the boy would provide comfort during darker nights. He pulled out the envelope and studied the writing. Strange. Whoever had penned his name on the front was not Polsom, who wrote in a decipherable but unattractive script, nor Brokerman, whose distinctive writing he would recognise anywhere. This elegant and cursive style belonged to another, someone whose handwriting he had never seen, who had scribed a simple message on the front:

For the eyes of Brathay Stonearm

Only if urgent help is demanded

Without a second thought, he placed the letter back inside. Not now, he thought, lying back on the bed and closing his eyes. Right now he needed to concentrate on preparing himself mentally for his meeting with the lord, without any other distraction. What kind of welcome he would get, he had no idea. Hopefully better than the one he had just encountered with Miss Millflower. But as Brokerman said, he needed to stay alert and attentive. Maybe he could close his eyes for a few moments and collect his thoughts.

What seemed like seconds later, more loud thumping roused him.

When he wrenched the portal open, the first thing he noticed was that light had completely drained from the sky, and secondly, that a young girl he had seen earlier stood glaring at him, her fists balled on her hips.

“I been asked to fetch you. Everyone’s gathered. Evening meal ‘as already been served but nobody can eat until the new guest’s been welcomed. That’s you. And they been out all day so they’re all starved. You need to come now.”

Without waiting for a response, she turned and marched off. Befuddled with sleep and rattled at being caught off guard, Brathay hauled the door closed behind himself and hurried to match her pace.

When he passed through the entrance to the refectory, puffing and panting, the girl went over to stand with a deeply grimacing Miss Millflower. Exactly as the girl had said, the lord’s soldiers sat in place, waiting to eat. Upon seeing him, all conversations quietened, all eyes turning his way. An uncomfortable stillness settled in the air. Three benches filled the space lengthways probably large enough to house sixty to seventy men and women on each side but currently housing less than fifteen, the soldiers crammed together at the far end.

An impressive looking man sat in the middle of the head table. Even seated beyond the soldiers, Brathay could make out the golden brown skin, the colour of Braggadach desert sand, the long dark hair falling to muscular shoulders, and the full but trim dark beard on the handsome features. Although he could not make out the exact colour of his eyes, they glowered dark and threatening in Brathay’s direction. With two equally broad men on one side and a fearsome looking man and woman on the other—his captains he assumed—the sight could have appeared almost comical had their stature not overridden the incongruity, the head table clearly designed to seat at least three times as many seniors.

“You are late,” called the man in three distinct commanding monosyllables. “I am Lord Leonmarkh, Watchman of the keep. And I have no patience for tardiness. Approach.”

Brathay began moving quickly down the middle of the four benches past empty places on each side.

“Stop,” commanded the man.

He had barely reached the first of the soldiers when the powerful voice had him faltering and almost stumbling to a stop.

“Whatever you have come here to say can be heard by everyone. Those sitting with me are my captains. To my immediate right is Zhorman then Bhullard, and to my left, Haycock and Ligger. Speak with haste so that my soldiers can finally eat.”

Still feeling bleary, Brathay peered around himself. The soldiers would naturally be hungry, but as the lord had implied, none had touched any of the pots of stew or piles of bread.

“Your lordship, my name is Brathay Stonearm. I am an apprentice from Aulderly, sent here to advise—”

“Can I ask a question?” asked the slyly grinning woman called Bhullard who had the same sandy colouring of the lord. With seasoned lines around her face—not battle scars—her mien spoke of age and experience, and of someone who liked to laugh.

“I—yes, ma’am.”

“Have you just returned from beacon watch?”

The other captains chuckled instantly and a few of the soldiers at the front joined in. Brathay raked a hand through his hair in a pointless attempt to tame the locks. At the same time, before he could control himself, he felt heat rising in his face.

“Apologies for my appearance. I overslept. Having ridden these past seven days, I—”

“Look, apprentice, everyone knows why you are here,” said the man sitting next to the lord whom he had named Haycock. “Did you unpack yet?”

“Not entirely, sir.”

“Then can I suggest you stop—entirely—and scurry back whence you came. Before you no longer can. His lordship has no need of your adolescent wisdom.”

Brathay seethed with anger, but managed to bite back his instinct to react. He had tasted public scrutiny before coming to Aulderly and had also learnt from the experience of Belynda not to expect too cordial a welcome, but he had been entirely unprepared for this immediate public humiliation. Around him, he felt as though each of the soldiers held their breath waiting to witness his response. Taking a deep calming breath, he raised his chin and took a stride forward to address the lord directly.

“My business is with you, Lord Leonmarkh. And you should know before you allow your captains to continue grilling me, that I am here for the duration of the winter.”

“Are you? We shall see,” said the lord, his eyes still in Brathay but his words for the man next to him. “What think you, Captain Zhorman?”

“Difficult to say, your lordship. Clearly not an institute wench, but with that face he could as easily be another heart serpent sent to try to seduce and sway you. As the arrogant Brox witch intended.”

Ironically—or perhaps arrogantly—Zhorman, with his mix of short dark curls speckled white, and mahogany skin, undoubtedly had parents of mixed races, one of those most likely being Broxian.

“Are you? Are you as my captain claims, a heart serpent?”

“As I have already stated, your lordship, I am an apprentice advisor—”

“Liar!” shouted the boulder of a man on the end.

“Hush, Ligger,” said Leonmarkh holding up a hand. “Let us assume he speaks the truth. Tell us then, apprentice, what possible motivation, what compensation could you possibly have been promised to accept a hardship posting of this nature? This is a place where in the midst of winter, the snot from your nose freezes solid, where toes or fingers are known to blacken and fall off overnight, and where the midnight piss of a man freezes mid flow.”

Brathay decided to be as candid as possible. Once again, he addressed his words to the lord.

“Your lordship, my true calling will begin next summer in a noble household in Thiradon. If you need to check, Counsellor Brokerman in Aulderly will confirm. It was he who suggested I take on this short-term placement, to gain some real world experience.”

“And this man is a friend?” asked Haycock. Eclipsed only in masculine potency by Lord Leonmarkh, Haycock had a roguish charm, his eyes teasing but at the same time inquisitive. Something in the fine looking man’s expression resonated deep in Brathay. Maybe, at some point, he could work his charm and entice the man into becoming an ally.

“I consider him so.”

“Sounds more like the devious ploy of an enemy,” he said, grinning playfully. “To send someone to a hell-hole such as this.”

“Perhaps they sent him here to make a man of him,” said Zhorman. “But you see, to us, boy, you are little more than a nuisance, a parasite and another mouth to feed—”

Noticing the lord had rudely and dismissively turned away to converse with Bhullard, Brathay’s temper rose.

“Perhaps I did not make myself clear, your lordship. I will not leave in the morrow, or the morrow after that. My service to the keep is for the duration of winter, and has been sanctioned by King Bruckbar himself, someone I believe you know and respect. Would you truly have me turned away? Or is it customary in Braggadach to return gifts to a royal sender? Because in Thiradon where I grew up, such an act would be seen as not only deeply disrespectful, but nothing short of a treasonous insult—”

“In Thiradon,” interjected the lord, his words firm and clear, his fierce gaze lighting upon Brathay, “if my knowledge of your history serves me well, such gifts have often proven treacherous. Was that not the case for your King Joseph the Unwitting?”

“Your knowledge is sound. The tenth King Joseph was deceived and poisoned with a gift of rare wine sent by his politically ambitious queen. Some eighteen hundred years ago. I have no such ambitions. But if we are trading stories, my own understanding—and I doubt my command of the past is a match for yours—is that instances of treachery taint all of our histories. Or am I mistaken and do your history books paint Braggadach as the exception with the monarchy being a paragon of virtuous harmony across the ages?”

Out of respect, Brathay did not name a specific member of Braggadach royalty—with so many to choose from—but a deep rumble of laughter from the men began to reverberate around Brathay. Notorious instances of treachery peppered braggadachi history, far more than any other of the alliance kingdoms. His words even managed to garner a smile and an appreciative nod from Haycock.

“Lord Leonmarkh, I came because I am familiar with Trepideaian fortress operation—buildings such as these. I have studied their simple, functional, yet solid designs which are built to withstand an army or weather a siege. Trepideaian architects and engineers made structures to last centuries—”

“If you are so well versed in Trepideaian construction,” said Zhorman, “then perhaps you can tell us the purpose of the grating and hole in the courtyard, or the vents in the walls of each room that only appear to let in more cold air, or the sunken pit in the royal chamber which appears to have no purpose whatsoever.”

“Those aspects are unknown to me—”

“As I suspected—”

“Perhaps they are unique to this stronghold, to this location—”

“Perhaps they are and perhaps they are not. Perhaps we will never know,” said Zhorman, before leaning across to the lord. “Lord Leonmarkh, would you not have thought the institute could muster someone a little more informed and experienced. Somebody who at least has some hair around his manhood.”

A roar of laughter went up among the men.

“At least the witch was pleasant on the eye,” added Zhorman.

“Yah,” added Ligger, a man of few words.

Brathay smiled at the floor, and waited for the laughter to diminish.

“As I was saying, your lordship. I may not know the purpose of those functions yet, but I will find out. That is my pledge to you—”

Brathay had been about to use the opportunity to mention the state of supply rooms when a voice sounded from behind him.

“Your lordship,” said Khraxwall surprising and quietening everyone. Brathay turned to see the man stepping forward through the refectory entrance. “Since his arrival, this apprentice, Brathay Stonearm, has already been of immense value. He has pointed out things of which I was previously unaware, features of the keep to help facilitate operation, and has already proven his worth.”

“I see,” said Lord Leonmarkh, nodding slowly, before pausing for thought. “Thank you, Khraxwall. In which case, while you remain among us—for however long that might be—I will extend the courtesy of allowing you to share meals with us.”

“Thank you, your lordship.”

Brathay nodded his thanks to Khraxwall then noticed Lord Leonmarkh signalling one of the waiting staff to arrange a setting on his table. After his humiliation, Brathay felt relieved to join the captains. On his way to his seat, he vowed to try to engage Lord Leonmarkh in personal conversation but when he got there, nobody moved to offer up their seat. Left to sit at the end of the table next to the haystack-sized man called Ligger. Apart from a cursory greeting, the man-boulder turned away from Brathay. After some minutes had passed, with Brathay staying silent, he leant in to ask an innocent question, repeated twice and unanswered, only to realise he would be frozen out for the duration of mealtimes.

At the end of the service, Lord Leonmarkh and his men rose and left first, leaving Brathay sitting alone at the head table. Not a single private word had been spoken between him and the lord or his captains.

** ❄︎ **

Every day for the next two weeks, Brathay watched Leonmarkh’s soldiers come and go during the daytime, while he was left alone to fend for himself with only evening meals taken at the head table. Perhaps they shared the meal but he always ate in silence, Leonmarkh’s captains chatting together but blatantly ignoring him.

After a second and third request to a sympathetic Khraxwall for a private audience with the lord, and with no response forthcoming, he had almost given up trying.

“I am not sure this helps, but his lordship treats all his guests with the same—”

“Discourteousness? I wonder how King Bruckbar would react if he were treated as such. Or his mother, the duchess, come to that.”

As they stood inside the cold room, Khraxwall accepted the remark with a soft sigh and a shake of his head, continuing to mark things down on a handheld chalkboard. Brathay had agreed to join him on his weekly rounds, always watching but never participating. Privately, he had done some checking of his own. Many of the tallies Khraxwall had recorded did not match. In the storeroom alone, he had discovered fully stocked vegetable and fruit boxes sitting in front of deviously stacked empty crates. Somebody had been falsifying supply numbers. Only numbers in the ice room and for the stocks of the lord’s wine, ale and mead appeared to tally, maybe because these rooms were situated closer to the refectory.

Brathay wrote his findings down in his notebook on a page he entitled ‘observations’, but knew better than to mention the discovery to Khraxwall. Even though he liked the man, he did not yet understand the internal dynamics of the keep, did not truly know whom he could trust.

Moreover, Brokerman had instructed him to report directly to Lord Leonmarkh, if only he could gain an audience. Brokerman had also advised him about exercising patience. In all his years of influencing, Brathay had learned that direct communication was not the only way to get a person’s attention.

On the positive side, he now wore his new clothes daily which kept out the worst of the cold. He also managed to move around the keep largely unnoticed or unchallenged. Although he had not ventured down to the lowest level which stank of decayed kelp and keep waste, he had drawn a sufficiently accurate map of the keep in his notebook. Khraxwall had not mentioned, but the crystal beneath the courtyard sat in a massive circular cradle of latticed metal with three empty slots, the whole contraption pivoting on a giant fulcrum. With the strength of ten soldiers, Brathay felt sure he could have the whole thing turning, though for what purpose he had no idea.

During daylight, Leonmarkh either took his soldiers out on patrols, or had them perform combat training in the courtyard. Although no significant snow had fallen, torrential offshore rains hit them on three of those days, and Brathay had to admit to being mildly impressed to witness inclement weather not deterring the soldiers from their combat exercises.

At night, Brathay slept fitfully, unfamiliar with the chamber and the relative quiet, so different to the array of sounds of his dormitory in Aulderly. On a couple of nights, under clear skies and moonlight, he ventured outdoors and strolled up onto the battlements. Soldiers only guarded the gatehouse and the beacon throughout the night. On one occasion, as he returned from staring over the parapet at the sky and the village below, he noticed the silhouette of a man at the top of the northwestern tower, above Leonmarkh’s quarters. Gentle gust of wind tussled the man’s long hair. Did Lord Leonmarkh also have sleepless nights?

Good news arrived on the morning of the previous day, in the form of a messenger from Black Ice Bay inviting Brathay to visit the home of Marietta and her husband, to spend the day with them. With the news lifting his spirits, he readied for dinner with Brokerman’s words coming back to him, and he decided on a new ploy. That evening, he purposely turned up late, certain he would be singled out and berated by Lord Leonmarkh.

He was not wrong.

“Are you still among us, apprentice?” came the familiar commanding voice as he entered and made his way down the middle of the benches. He resisted the smile that tugged at his face.

“It would appear so, your lordship.”

“And did I not ask you to be punctual for evening fare?”

“You did, your lordship. My sincere apolog—“

“Then take a seat. Before you give us all colic.”

As Brathay approached the front, he saw a vacant space between two of the common soldiers on one of the long bench tables and moved to sit there. After his initial introduction and humiliation, they no longer waited for him to arrive before beginning their meal. Naturally, the men sitting around stopped speaking and stared at him. None expected a visitor to sit among them. He paid them no heed. Without waiting for comment, he reached for the stewpot and ladled the steaming contents into a spare bowl.

At first the soldiers did not engage him—even when he found out a few of their names—but unlike the captains, they could not restrain their roguish inquisitiveness.

“Do they really train boys and girls to be whores in Aulderly?”

“I heard a rumour the Dean of Aulderly has no need to marry because she has a harem of six men—”

“And two women.”

“What an appetite. Can you put in a good word for me?”

“And me.”

“Is it true?” said a female soldier, putting down her wooden spoon. “Do heart serpents really give themselves gladly to the highest royal bidder?”

Brathay smiled, good naturedly deflecting each question in turn. Instead he told a yarn he had heard from one of the students in Aulderly, about choosing a yellow striped river snake over a partnering with the dean, because at least with the venomous snake you got to die relatively quickly. They took a little longer to grasp the humour, but once they did, all of them laughed boisterously. One of the men slapped Brathay hard on the back. When he glanced over, Brathay noticed Lord Leonmarkh scowling at them. Almost immediately, the lord whispered something urgent to the man at his side—Haycock—who shot up from his seat and came over.

“Apprentice. Your place is at the high table.”

Brathay took his bowl and spoon, nodded to the men and rose, and went to take his usual place. As he headed to the front, he noticed the eyes of the grinning soldiers following him. His moment had come, the idea he had been planning something he would normally have slept on overnight. But with a tiny window of opportunity, he decided to take the plunge. Before he moved around the table to take his seat, he spoke directly to the lord.

“Can I have your permission to address your soldiers?”

“Inadvisable your lordship—” began Zhorman, but Leonmarkh held up a hand to stay him.

“To what purpose?”

“Research, your lordship. Nothing untoward.”

Brathay offered Leonmarkh his brightest smile, something the lord returned with his usual frosty glare.

“Be quick.”

Brathay purposely moved to the front of the table, his back to Leonmarkh and his captains. Banging his spoon on the bowl, he waited for everyone to notice him and quieten.

“Thank you for your attention and apologies for my tardiness again this evening. Some of you know that a part of the reason for me remaining among you over the winter is to find out the good and bad aspects of living in a fortress like Black Ice Keep and what can be done to improve life. With that in mind, I hoped you could help me, as you have already inhabited the keep for a year. My first question to you is, what do you dislike most about being stationed here?”

Many of the gathering appeared confused, wondered why an outsider was addressing them, but the soldiers Brathay had been sitting with happily joined in the discussion.

The cold,” came a few shouts, with some adding expletives.

“Snow.”

“Rain and sleet.”

“Hellish weather,” came a few others, the climate being the major cause of discomfort.

No wenches to warm the bed.

A rumble of raucous laughter.

“Boredom.”

“Mollik’s snoring.”

“Mollik’s breathing.”

“Everything about Mollik.”

More waves of loud laughter joined the merriment. Brathay waited until the noise died down.

“And how well do you favour the meals?”

A stony silence fell.

Mrs Sturridge, standing against the wall with the other kitchen staff, visibly stiffened. She stood with her arms folded tightly beneath her breasts, her eyes suddenly on Brathay. After a moment her gaze raked over the rows of men, daring them to speak. Considering the soldiers had been chosen for their fearlessness to defend the keep, none felt brave enough to ruffle her feathers. Someone coughed into their hand to mask words that sounded like ‘pig slop’. Brathay knew already from Khraxwall that the men missed certain home comforts, some of their staples back in Kloradich.

“Outpost food is not meant to be toothsome, but nutritious, especially here in the north, where sustenance is needed to help fortify a body against the elements. Were I Mrs Sturridge, having to feed an unruly and ungrateful rabble two nourishing meals a day, seven days each week, for the duration of this two-year posting, I fear I might be tempted to reach for the nearest vial of poison to empty into your stew, or throw myself over the keep wall. She is clearly a better person than I. And let us be honest, her cooking has done Mr Sturridge no harm, has it?”

“He daren’t say anything, lest she stops warming his bunk.”

“Where did you hear that nonsense?” said a frowning Mrs Sturridge. “I never warm his bunk.”

“You sleep in separate quarters?” came the same voice.

“Nay, of course not. We sleep together right enough. But he warms my bed, not t’other way round.”

Once again the hall of men burst into laughter and Brathay even noticed Lord Leonmarkh grinning at the entertainment.

“So I am going to offer my support. Once a month, starting the day after tomorrow, I will choose and prepare the evening meal, as long as Mrs Sturridge is happy and agrees to sit by and guide me. In this way, we can give her a much deserved break each month and also afford you all the chance to suffer—to sample—the cookery of another. At the very least you may get to appreciate in a new light the quality of what Mrs Sturridge provides. What say you?”

Silence descended on the hall.

“What? Brave enough to weather snow blizzards, but not brave enough to sample my food?”

“We’re familiar with how bad snow blizzards can be.”

This time no laughter accompanied the comment.

“Where did you train? As a cook?” asked Zhorman. “Or is this claim as empty as the one concerning your expertise on fortress construction?”

“In Thiradon. The walled city,” said Brathay, which was not entirely untrue. “In the kitchens attached to the barracks.”

Zhorman’s gaze lingered on him, and he appeared unconvinced. Brathay felt sure Bhullard was about to belittle him with a joke, but Lord Leonmarkh held up his hand to stop any more comments.

“You have your wish, apprentice. On behalf of the men, I accept,” he said. Brathay had not expected him to agree and wondered if he had an ulterior motive. “And to show our appreciation and approval, my captains and I will be the first to sample your food. If we deem the dish suitable, you can serve the rest. If not, you alone will hand out the evening meal of a bread roll and an apple to each of the soldiers.”

“Thank you, your lordship,” said Brathay, bowing. But Lord Leonmarkh had not finished.

“And in the case of the latter, you will give me your word that you will return to Aulderly the next morning or at the earliest possible opportunity. Do we have an agreement?”

Brathay had been outmanoeuvred. Even if he managed to produce an agreeable meal using the spices provided by Chef Fullroy, Leonmarkh’s captains could feign dislike in order to have him removed. His mind worked quickly as he returned the cold stare of the lord.

“And what if you and your captains do favour the food? What then? What do I gain for my efforts? Will you give me your word that I can have a private audience with you, your lordship? Because we have yet to do so.”

When he noticed Zhorman stiffen, Brathay realised he might have overstepped. But this would be his only opportunity, that instead of Khraxwall trying to fight his corner, Lord Leonmarkh would have to answer in front of everyone. A few uncomfortable moments passed, as the lord glared at Brathay.

“If your food pleases enough of us, then yes, I will consider an audience.”

“Not consider, your lordship. I am certain you have already considered and declined. On this occasion, you will accept and guarantee me an audience—”

“Yes, yes. Fine. I will accept and guarantee you an audience with me alone.”

“And could we extend the tasting to the heads of your domestic staff? Mr Khraxwall, Mr and Mrs Sturridge and Miss Millflower? In my experience, taste and flavours are not always appreciated equitably. With nine samplers in total, including yourself, we will have a better consensus. Naturally, you will have the deciding vote.”

Lord Leonmarkh studied Brathay in what was turning out to be a competition of wills. This time none of his captains intervened.

“Agreed. Do your best, apprentice. Now let us eat.”

Brathay finished his meal in silence. On this occasion, he preferred things that way because he needed time to think. He barely noticed the men around him rise and leave the table. Bettering Mrs Sturridge’s offering would not be difficult. On most days the men had hot, watery stew of dried meat and chunks of bread. Even without Fullroy’s help, he could come up with something more palatable. But if Leonmarkh instructed his captains and domestic heads to rebuff his meal—they would not dare disobey him—then Brathay would be heading home at the first possible opportunity, back to Aulderly as another failure. One thing was certain. He needed to find a recipe that would inflame both taste and smell. Tonight, he would study Fullroy’s book of recipes.

If only he could get Leonmarkh to thaw fractionally, to listen to him, he might be able to sway the man to his way of thinking. At the moment, he felt as though all he had managed to do was to make enemies.

Right then, a shadow fell across the table. Brathay looked up.

Mrs Sturridge stood over him, her arms folded, her face like thunder.

“I think me and you needs a little talk, don’t you?”

Thank you for reading. More next Friday.

Any comments, reactions and speculation gratefully received.

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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Chapter Comments

So many layers and so much drama. And what a gutsy fella Brathay is turning out to be. Very delightful indeed! 

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3 hours ago, travlbug said:

"Instinctively, something did not sit right. Having identified two unused features of the keep [Brathay] felt sure there had to be more.  ...And surely previous Watchmen would have left behind instructions? Why had none been provided?"  One can't leave instructions if one is deceased:  If the Keep has ever been taken by force, then no one might have been available to pass on its secrets.  Has the Keep ever been captured?  Perhaps Khraxwall is lying about his tenure at the Keep, with the present occupiers an enemy force:  Deaths in battle could account for the Keep being undermanned, and Leonmarkh's inaccessibility could be an attempt to disguise the takeover.  Of course, the village would probably have known of such a battle. Still, the Watchmen's apparent failure to leave instructions is tantalizing.

"Decorative moonskulls? Whoever heard of such a thing?"  Again, why create an austere building and then decorate it?  Further, the weather prevents the moonskulls from providing a practical benefit. No wonder that Brathays senses something odd, and the moonstones may tie in to a deeper secret.

Miss "Millstone" is a hoot and does a good job of grinding apprentices as opposed to wheat.  (A flower indeed!)  Brathay has now been slighted by the Lord of the keep and informed that the staff is openly hostile to him.  He has been warned to depart the Keep as well, and while the warning is not delivered with threats to life and limb, one wonders if a mere Chamberlain would have felt free to give it without her Lord's backing.

Hmmm. A secret ally.  The letter in Brathay's effects is intriguing, as the elegant script suggests a high-born individual, though such people would seem rare in the Keep.

Leonmarkh purposely humiliates Brathay, who is then shut out from all dinner conversation.  Why are Leonmarkh and the rest of the Keep's inhabitants so keen on getting rid of him?  My best guess at this point is that they are guarding a secret from outsiders (their animosity transcends mere irritation or annoyance with a temporary guest). Whatever the secret, it is clearly important enough to risk insulting the king.

Of note, Brathay has found that the Keep is not undersupplied after all. Khraxwall has to be in on the deception, but what is gained by this pretense?  (Additional supplies may suggest additional men, but if so, where are they?)

"...The crystal beneath the courtyard sat in a massive circular cradle of latticed metal with three empty slots, the whole contraption pivoting on a giant fulcrum. With the strength of ten soldiers, Brathay felt sure he could have the whole thing turning, though for what purpose he had no idea."  Just what is the real, underlying function of the Keep???

The food tasting discussion is an interesting twist.  At this point, Brathay really has nothing to lose, except that Mrs. Sturridge seems ready to rip out his liver! 😂

I could not have said it any better, is it wrong to wish for Friday's to come twice a week??? 

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