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    lomax61
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Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 

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

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

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

Stranded: Heart of Black Ice Bay - 5. Town

Brathay visits Fleming in town and experiences a treasured local secret.

Brathay barely slept.

For a full hour he had stayed behind to placate Mrs Sturridge. Yes, the kitchen was and would remain her domain. Of course her approval would be sought for any meal he proposed—his already doubtful reputation would be the only one tarnished if he served up anything inedible. And if by some miracle he came up with a triumph, they would share in the praise. By the time he had finished, and she felt grudgingly satisfied that he had not come to usurp her role, he felt drained. After that, knowing he had the goal of coming up with a recipe to impress Leonmarkh and his men or suffer the fate of being sent away, he had lain awake and jotted the events of the day into his notebook. Getting into the habit of writing down daily events along with his thoughts had become a ritual, the simple act of recording them like a purification. Once he had finished, he sat fully clothed on top of the bed, listening to the crackling fire, flipping through the small book of Mulian recipes, seeking inspiration.

In the early hours, he woke with the book plastered to his face.

With the help of Brokerman, Brathay had learnt to manage his feelings fairly well, but now felt backed into a corner and had begun to feel the seeds of uncertainty and anxiety which stoked his dislike of Leonmarkh. What kind of a man cowered behind his captains and did not allow the simple courtesy of a private audience? Right now, he was trying to outplay Brathay and have him shipped home in disgrace. But if Leonmarkh thought Brathay would acquiesce easily, he would need to think again. Brathay reminded himself that he relished a sporting challenge.

When sleep did come, fractured dreams of shadows and dark ghouls appeared, hiding in secret corners of the courtyard, of raging seas trying to displace the foundations of the mighty keep, and hundreds of voices laughing at him as he tumbled and sprawled in a platter of food on the stone floor of the hall, crushed in humiliated defeat,

A stablehand knocked on his door just after six bells, holding a lamp aloft, his grubby face illuminated in the orange glow. Brathay had been up for barely half an hour, long enough to perform his basic morning ablutions in free-flowing ice cold water and to dress for his escape to the town. Apart from the usual distant thrum of waves, he noticed a thick stillness in the air that morning as he dressed, peaceful but out of place. As soon as he opened the door to a waft of chill air, he understood why.

After a nod to the stableboy, he stepped forward to the low wall around the upper loggia. Even in the morning gloom he could see the culprit. Overnight a heavy fall of snow had covered the courtyard, an unblemished sheet of white engulfing everything below. Once the morning sun had fully risen—which had already begun—soldiers would most likely be employed to clear the yard.

After a second, the young stableboy joined him at the railing.

“Hit us from the west, it did. So the east side got it worst,” he said, pointing below, where the snow had drifted into the covered corridor. “Not even November yet, neither. Didn’t come this hard ’til December last year. We’ll need go round the west side to the gatehouse. Mr Sturridge had me saddle a Pholkur called Tuskerman for you. He’s taller ‘an most and should manage the deep snow just fine. An elder from the town is down at the gatehouse already waiting on you.”

Brathay heard humour in the boy’s last words and turned to see him grinning.

“Mr Sturridge says you have a fancy for keeping folk waiting. Is that so?”

Brathay huffed out a steamy breath while shaking his head into the morning. No point answering the boy. He had become infamous this past week. When he peered around the rest of the abodes on the same level, he noticed lamps lit outside the east side but the rest in darkness.

“I know the soldiers sleep on that side, but what is the purpose of those other dwellings?”

“Barracks. All of them. Keep usually houses up to four hundred. As you rightly say, his lordship’s fifty men is in the one to your right. Them others is empty. Come on, we ought to hasten. You plan on wearing that lot?”

Brathay looked down at the cold weather clothing Brokerman had secured for him. In all honestly, he had begun to think of the clothes as a second skin, the padding keeping out the worst of the cold.

“Yes, why?”

“You dress like one of them locals. Is that who you’re hobnobbing with today? Townsfolk?”

“First of all, I am not local. Secondly—not that it is any of your business—I am visiting a man who used to be a counsellor at Aulderly where I study. Visiting him and his partner. Let us hasten, before I am late again and the subject of even more idle gossip.”

Lifting a bag onto his shoulder, Brathay heaved the door closed as the lamplit boy headed to the stairwell.

“This elder says he’ll return you after evening meal.”

“Did he now?”

“Says you’ll take food in town first.”

“Then he knows more than I.”

The boy emitted a high pitched laugh.

“Mr Sturridge says to remind you to get back afore sundown. Says the road can be tricky after dark, even without snow. And he fears there might be more overnight. So best all round if you leaves early.”

“Thank Mr Sturridge for his sound advice.”

On the lower level, shallow powdery snow on the west of the courtyard rose like a wave in an upsurge towards the other side, almost to the height of a man. If this represented the first fall of winter, he could only imagine what the worst of the season would bring.

“Mind them townsfolk,” came the boy’s voice, as his short silhouette walked ahead along the tomblike corridors in the morning gloom. “They ain’t like us. Got funny ways about them, they have. Prefer to keep themselves to themselves, according to Miss Millflower.”

“What do you mean, funny ways?”

“Customs, I suppose. The way they live, the things they believe in, what they eat and drink. According to Miss Millflower, they’re inbreds, whatever that means. Not sure if that’s true or not, but I ain’t never seen one with a speck of dirt on ‘em, or any of ‘em crack so much as a smile. And I ain’t sure they care for us being here.”

Both of the local merchants Brathay knew had been quiet and private, but always courteous. If anything, having a huge fortress overlooking their home like a prison guard, somewhere more than likely they considered a hidden haven before the construction of the monstrosity, might be seen as irksome for these quiet villagers.

“Maybe they take issue to having outsiders looking down upon them.”

“Yeah, maybe they do. Just, you know, be mindful.”

Although misplaced, the boy’s words indicated a friendly concern for Brathay.

“I will. And thank you for your kindness, Myxel.”

Instantly the boy stopped and turned around, a combination of shock and astonishment in his face.

“You know my name?”

“Of course. Mr Sturridge introduced you on my first day here, did he not?”

“He did, but—”

“You thought I would not remember your name.”

“Everyone calls me ‘boy’.”

“Where I come from that would be deemed rude.”

Myxel’s face transformed into a grin before he turned and continued forward with a spring in his step. He led them into the gatehouse tunnel and placed his lamp on a shelf built into the wall. Standing next to one horse and checking the bridle of another, a man of senior years had his back to them. Except for the hessian bag hanging from his shoulder, he dressed in similar clothing to Brathay, the hood to his cloak pulled back to reveal a severe white ponytail, tied tightly with a dark leather strap identical in style to the Sjin-Shatir merchants. When he turned, Brathay could tell immediately he was not native to the area, the ruddy complexion, eyes, and scraggy white beard more reminiscent of the elders he had known in Thiradon. On seeing Brathay, he took a step forward, a warm grin transforming his serious features. Transferring the reins into his left hand, he greeted Brathay enthusiastically as though they were old friends and introduced himself as Elder Fleming.

“Mari said you had purchased local garments from the merchants. I must say, they fit you like a native. How are you finding them?”

“Since my arrival, these clothes are—without fear of contradiction—the best friends I have made.”

“Ah,” said the man, his furry eyebrows raising knowingly. “Things going that well? Once we are away from here, you can tell me everything.”

By the time they had readied the horses and led them out through the gatehouse, daybreak revealed a snow covered landscape. Myxel—call me Myx—promised Brathay he would await his return to tend his steed and Brathay felt he had won over another ally. With no further snowfall that morning, the earlier trail Fleming’s steed had taken to the keep, looked to provide a convenient map for their journey to the town. Outside, as Brathay readied to mount, sporadic gusts from the sea buffeted him occasionally, bringing icy winds and making his eyes sting. Fortunately, he had brought thick kerchiefs, and tied a blue one around his mouth and nose. After he had mounted, Fleming nodded his approval. Unhurried, they rode in companionable silence, until they finally broke free from the cold shadow of the keep.

“We need to take the mountain track up around the back of the town,” explained Fleming. “Somewhat tedious, but there is only one route in and out of the keep. Even at a slower pace, we should be there in less than an hour.”

“No matter,” said Brathay, straightening in his saddle and drawing in a sobering breath. “I am simply happy to be released from confinement.”

As they rode, Fleming explained about himself. Some fifteen years ago, he had finished up at Aulderly and retired to Black Ice Bay, to continue his specialisation in herbal medicine and interest in the northern tribes. Another reason had been to study the people, who not only lived to a remarkable age, but did so with relatively good health.

“The village has around five hundred inhabitants. Most make their living from the sea, from fish and shellfish and local varieties of kelp, but a few keep mountain goats for meat and dairy, and others grow wild rice and root vegetables. They are an interesting folk. In all the years they have existed here, they have never known hunger.”

“You like them? The locals?

“I do. And I like to think I have been accepted as one of them.”

“They must be a hardy people to survive in such harsh conditions. Had it not been for this clothing they wear, I would never have felt warm. The paltry fire in my tomb of a chamber does little to keep out the cold. And I have no idea how locals wash themselves, but I have not felt clean since I arrived. Rinsing in icy water may be bracing, but does little to truly cleanse the body and remove the stench.”

Fleming raised a snowy eyebrow at Brathay and issued a steamy chuckle.

“There are ways the locals have found not only to survive but to flourish. You will see for yourself after we have broken fast.”

“Am I to meet some of them?”

“Naturally. And I wager that by the end of the day you will be grateful you did.”

Brathay tucked that thought away for later.

“They must despise having an empire fortress overlooking them every day.”

“On the contrary. The Sjin-Shatir are a pragmatic people and not only understand the purpose of the keep, but are grateful. Faced with a significant invasion from the sea, they know they would be unable to defend themselves. In the past, the keep has also provided refuge during times of hardship. Across the centuries, the sea has risen up a number of times and engulfed the village. Usually the villagers would have seen any threat from the sea for themselves and head to higher ground. But the worst of them, some one hundred and ten years ago, happened in the black of night. Fortunately, the Watchman’s night sentinels saw the danger from the tower, the mountain waves heading to shore, and the keep soldiers managed to evacuate every one of the villagers into the keep. None perished, not a single soul lost, even though the village was destroyed. The Sjin-Shatir have long memories. They consider the soldiers of the watch their protectors. And if the sitting Watchman ever asked for assistance, they would move heaven and earth to deliver, even if doing so left them short.”

Brathay had not considered the positive side of having a monstrous castle sat on the outcropping. Everything he had read pointed to the function of the beacon and providing an early warning to the empire of any threat of invasion. But, of course, the soldiers would make sure the villagers would be protected, too, in the event of any danger from the sea.

“I should forewarn you, though, before you meet. While considered a rational people, they are fundamentally different from us, deeply superstitious and with an embedded belief system relating to their ancient lore and prophecies. Some of their customs will seem alien to you. Remain calm and do as they ask. Nothing will be expected of you that might harm or offend you in any way. “

As they rode side by side down the clear slope of course grey slabs meandering gently down towards the sea, the village of Black Ice Bay began to take shape around them. A familiar invigorating scent of briny sea air wafted up from the ocean on chill gust of winds, all mixed with a pungent smell of freshly caught fish and kelp hanging out to dry along the seafront.

Encountered from the ground, the settlement made sense, the gentle access track of dark granite big enough to take a medium sized wagon. Someone had already taken the trouble of clearing the track of snow. As they descended Brathay started to recognise what he assumed to be homes all facing seaward. Many looked as though they had been carved into grey boulders lodged there thousands of years ago, the facades curving gently upward and crested with wild grass and fringes of settled snow. Pretty rock gardens lining the ground beneath while various sized baskets made of latticed straw sitting upturned alongside huge earthen vessels covered by wooden lids indicated somebody in occupancy. Entrances appeared to have been excavated into the sides of the stones, nothing blemishing the smooth face of the rock. Further along and on lower levels of the village, dwellings followed more contemporary designs, drystone walls of dark speckled local stone with clearly marked doors and window frames of dark wood, some with roofs of tightly bound logs and rough grass, and others of black slate. At the front of the bay, a few larger building two stories high had been constructed.

Everything appeared colourless, either black or varying shades of grey with occasional accents of white from recently fallen snow. Even the vast sea before them comprised a dark grey, the occasion waves crested in white spume, the sky its usual grey hue of dead flesh.

“They may be a simple people, but the town provides all their needs. At the seafront, the largest building to the right is the fishing wharf, where daily catches are brought and sold. The next one along is the combined mill and bakery, and the one to the far left is the town tavern. Leonmarkh’s soldiers have brought them lot of trade. Some past Watchmen forbid their armies from mingling with the locals. But not Leonmarkh. His soldiers have developed a fondness for the local brew and pay handsomely for that and the talent of the local pleasure givers. Even your Lord Leonmarkh is considered a regular—”

“He is not my lord.”

“The locals are fond of him. He frequents the tavern at least once a month, and is not only seen as considerate but also a generous—”

“The entitled can afford to be—”

Brathay staunched his scorn. He knew better from his training than to allow anyone to affect his judgment, and most certainly not to disclose his feelings to others. Although Fleming kept moving his horse forward, he stopped talking but Brathay felt his eyes on him. After a quick glance, Brathay let out a deep, steamy sigh before apologising and then relaying his experience of the past two weeks, of either being completely ignored or brushed aside at every opportunity. Fleming listened quietly until he reached the part about the planned meal.

“Let us get indoors. Sounds like you need to retell your experience and Mari will want to hear, too. And she, too, will have ideas you might want to consider regarding this interesting challenge.”

As they headed into another bend in the lane, Fleming led them off the main track, up a snow covered path to a small cottage set aside from the rest. Built into the hillside, only the facade and nearside wall remained exposed. A scarlet painted wooden door fronted the structure, with a small window either side, the ground either side of the entrance cleared of snow and surrounded by a vibrant garden of wild evergreen bushes. The edge of a black slate roof peeked out from beneath caked snow, and white smoke billowed from a stone chimney.

Fleming led them past the cottage to a small stable set into the hill, where Brathay helped to unsaddle their steeds. Once Fleming had fed and watered the horses, and Brathay had petted Tuskerman, they trudged back to the house.

A thick hessian covering over the inside of the door helped to keep heat from a lively fire inside. Just across the threshold, pine scented warmth embraced Brathay, the heat making his eyes water and his cheeks sting. Following Fleming’s example, he removed his boots and left them by the door. Overlapping rugs of hemp covered the whole floor, and a couple of simple cane chairs arranged beside the stone fireplace gave the room a plain but friendly ambience. Brathay’s eyes came to rest on a flint wall of shelves filled from top to bottom with books and small plants in pots. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, an inviting smell came to him, of freshly baked bread, cinnamon and cloves, and something delicious cooking.

“There you are,” came the familiar voice of Marietta, as she pulled aside a tapestry hanging over an opening to the left of the fireplace. “Brathay Stonearm. How are you faring?”

“He has much to tell, Mari, but let him get settled first. We’ll go next door,” said Fleming, before leading Brathay to another room to the right, this one much larger and colder, filled with shelves of jars and pots and dried herbs. On a high shelf by a crystal window sat a bamboo cage of full of white birds cooing gently. “I would normally invite you to remove a few of your layers and warm yourself by the fire, but I need to take you to our first meeting soon. So rather than get too warm, we will eat here in my workshop first of all.”

After they had both seated, Fleming removed his shoulder bag and cleared space on his worktable while Marietta brought them bowls of steaming oatmeal porridge with chunks of honey sweetened bread. Every morning, Brathay had eaten warm oatmeal, but Mrs Sturridge’s bland and watery offering paled by comparison. In between eating, Brathay told them about his arrival at the keep and his experiences. He saw no reason to abbreviate his tale.

“Yes, that does sound cold and unwelcoming,” said Marietta. “Fleming will be able to give you a potion to help you sleep, but only if the sleeplessness continues. Had the same happened to me, I may have admitted defeat and packed my bags by now.”

“But you must not, Brathay,” said Fleming urgently. “You are doing the right thing—”

“Do not distress. I have no intention of leaving voluntarily. Lord Leonmarkh has set me a challenge and I am not known to submit easily not without doing everything in my power to win. But at the moment, I feel as though I am alone, me against the rest of the keep.”

“You are not without aid. We are here if you need us, whenever you need us. And in my humble opinion, getting to know the menials and acquainting yourself with the soldiers, taking small steps, is the right thing to do. There is a sayings here. The patient fisherman brings home the biggest catch. You have all winter to influence Lord Leonmarkh. Your chance will come. As for producing an evening meal for so many, Marietta and I will have a think today and conjure some ideas.”

“We will,” agreed Marietta. “I have never cooked for that number, but I am sure we can think of something.”

“I packed a recipe book in my bag, one presented to me by Fullroy—” began Brathay.

“Fullroy Mulligrew?” said Fleming, aghast. “Does he still haunt the kitchens of Aulderly? I thought he would have been snapped up by one of the houses by now. He was a mere fledgling when I taught at the institute. Even back then, he had a natural talent for tastes and textures. He transform the inedible to edible.”

As they finished breakfast, Fleming told stories about trading ingredients with Fullroy, who was always on the lookout for herbs and spices—often ones used for medicinal purposes—to enhance his flavours.

“Why don’t you leave the book with me,” said Marietta, standing and picking up their empty bowls. “While the two of you head for the caves. Give me something to do.”

As Marietta left the room, Brathay peered inquisitively at Fleming, but the man simply smiled, intent on giving nothing away. Leaving the horses in the stables, he led Brathay on foot back down onto the clear stone path leading across to the other side of the gorge. Although he said nothing, Brathay thought he felt warmth rising from the stone underfoot even in his thick leather boots, but the sun had yet to make an appearance. At the far side of the ravine, where boulders lined the cliff side, a small snow-covered passageway disappeared steeply upwards between the rocks. After an invigorating climb, Brathay followed Fleming into the mouth of a cave lit by brands fixed to walls and became immediately aware of the cloying heat and humidity. A strange odour filled the air, too, a mix of spicy incense and something that smelled like rotting eggs.

“Black Ice Bay’s best kept secret,” murmured Fleming. “Natural hot springs. Rising constantly from beneath the volcanic mountain, flowing into the cavern before draining out into the sea. Outsiders are rarely invited to bathe here—the pools are considered sacred—but when I mentioned your visit, the town elder insisted I invite you to join. I am guessing the merchants you rode with spoke on your behalf.”

Brathay had stopped walking, innate fear curdling his stomach.

“Fleming,” he whispered. “I am not able to swim. Is the water—?”

“Fear not,” said Fleming, turning back to Brathay and calming his fear with a hand on his shoulder. “The deepest point will barely reach your chest. And I will be there with you in case you are not comfortable. But I truly believe you will find the experience worthwhile.”

Fleming carried on through to an adjoining antechamber, where four local men awaited them. Brathay noted another passageway leading off from where the smell of sulphur came stronger. These people wore simple linen gowns of light brown tied at the waist with a rope belt and worn just below the knee. One of them nodded at Brathay, the merchant Dnan, who had accompanied him from Aulderly. Fleming went straight over and greeted them in their own tongue before providing a short bow. Brathay watched carefully, and tried to imitate his friend, the gesture immediately returned by all locals. Although looking at Brathay, the merchant Dnan said something to Fleming and the two had a short exchange of words, at the end of which, Brathay felt sure he noticed a hint of humour on Dnan’s face.

“Dnan wished to enquire how you are faring? I hope you do not mind, but I told them what you told me, about your less than warm welcome. They are unusually humorous for their people. Did you know they are the firstborn of the village leader?”

“I did not. We spoke very little on the way here. His command of the common language is minimal, although far better than my understanding of his.”

“Ah, yes. The trip with the merchants to Braggadach and Aulderly was Dnan’s first outside the village. I think they both warmed to you. Dnan used an expression which is hard to translate exactly into the common tongue, but means something like ‘without sharp edges’ meaning they believe you mix well with everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from.”

“Thank him for me.”

Fleming faltered a moment, appeared to weight up whether to explain something to Brathay.

“Brathay, did you study genmorphy during your year in Interconnection?”

“And in Metamorphosis. An ancient people of both genders, who can adapt their body to either gender when they choose to procreate —”

“Not so ancient, Brathay. The Sjin-Shatir are genmorphus, living and breathing examples of the human condition. I tell you this now so you do not inadvertently cause offence, and to explain the reason I refer to them as they, and not him or her. And because being twin-gendered is only a small part of who they are as a people.”

What Fleming said made sense now. Both of the local traders had softer faces, neither distinctly male nor female, and yet a mix of both. That their bodies could transform to either gender was truly amazing. According to hall studies, most genmorphus tribes had lived along the west coast of Nothland and had been wiped out along with most of the Noth during the invasion that razed their country to ashes.

“Why do they not teach this at Aulderly?”

“Most counsellors know, but we choose not to divulge their story. They have been studied enough. If you learnt anything about their history, you will know they were often sold into skin slavery because of their physical beauty and their ability to assume either gender. I like to think we live in more enlightened times and choose to respect their individuality and privacy. They are also protected by the empire. They and other genmorphus tribes across the empire.”

“There are more?”

Flaming chuckled. “There are things in this realm you would not even dream of. Are you ready to begin?” asked Fleming. Brathay took a deep breath and nodded his assent. “In which case, the attendants will help to remove your clothing—”

Brathay did not want anyone to see his clothes, let alone his underclothes, ones he had not taken off entirely for over two weeks and which most likely stank of his body odour.

“I think I can manage—”

“Brathay, remember what I said. This is their custom. While we bathe, our clothes will be washed and dried. And I am guessing yours are in need of a good clean. Let them do their work while we relax in the water.”

After Brathay nodded, two of the attendants including Dnan, took him away to a private chamber. Without a word, they stripped Brathay down expertly, familiar with the many clasps of the local clothing, until Brathay stood naked. While one of the helpers took his clothes away, Dnan remained behind and stripped down, hanging his robe from a stone shelf. Even in the warmer air, cold draughts found the way into the cave, whipping around their bodies, and Brathay noticed gooseflesh raising on his forearms. Turning back, Dnan stared openly at Brathay’s naked form. Brathay had learned to feel comfortable with his nakedness, any self consciousness having evaporated during advanced Interconnection practicals.

Dnan moved to stand before him, also completely naked, hands held with the palms open at the sides, the ghost of smile. For someone of mixed gender, Dnan’s body looked distinctly male, toned and muscled and trim, hairless except for a bush of dark pubic hair and a very generous appendage. When their eyes travelled down Brathay’s body, one hand pointed to a place on his stomach above his navel and the merchant spoke words in their local tongue. Brathay knew what they had noticed.

“My scar,” he said, smoothing a hand over the raised flesh. “I am told I acquired this as a child, falling from a horse into thick gorse.”

Dnan listened carefully, trying to understand, a slight frown creasing the brow, before gently shaking their head and then pointing to the tight pendant Brathay never removed from his neck. How could he explain the gift left to him by a mother he barely remembered?

“Mother. Gift.”

This time, Dnan appeared to understand and nodded, before leading Brathay away. Brathay had enjoyed chatting freely with Fleming—especially after being frozen out by the lord’s men—and although he liked Dnan, he felt a ripple of disappointment knowing they would be spending time alone, neither able to communicate fluently with the other.

With an unusual intimacy, Dnan took hold of Brathay’s hand and led him like a child into the next chamber. Surrounded by torchlight, this massive cavern bubbled and steamed with the hot springs, the sulphur cloying and only barely diluted by incense burning around the periphery. Flames danced amid the wisps of steam in the dark water where others already lounged. Dnan handed Brathay a small cloth—too small to tie around his waist—and while still holding Brathay’s hand, took the first step into the dark water.

Once Brathay stepped in past his ankles, the water’s heat began to take effect. Up until then, his feet had been numb with cold, but now tingled with the sudden warmth. At first, he took tentative steps, but the warmth diverted him until he forgot about the acrid smell. Underfoot, smooth slabs came as a pleasant surprise even though the spring water felt almost too hot to bear. Brathay moved slowly, following the merchant’s path through the mist and matching his steps. Without turning but still holding his hand, Dnan led them towards the deeper middle of the pool, where a few others sat around and where a scattering of boulders rose above the surface. Bamboo baskets sat on the more even surfaces containing small earthen pots.

Wading to a suitable spot, where the swirling waters came almost waist high, Dnan faced a part of the cavern wall lit by row upon row of candles, waiting for Brathay to join him. Only then did Brathay notice carvings on the wall, the abstract form of a man within a woman standing in calm water with a huge spiral set in white behind them. To the right, a giant wave with the head of an eel threatened to engulf them leaning in above their heads. On the other, the mountain leaned forward to meet the sea, with the head of a bear as through preparing to do battle with the water serpent. Brathay did his best to mimic Dnan’s simple ritual of bowing from the waist and dipping the fingers of each hand into the water and, each of three times, placing them together on his forehead. Although he listened carefully he could not understand the murmured words.

Eventually, Dnan straightened up, turning slowly to study Brathay. In a simple gesture, they pointed a finger to the place on the wall and then to Brathay’s stomach. Brathay had no idea what they meant, although the head of the bear on the wall did resemble his scar. Before he could say anything, Dnan submerged entirely, disappearing beneath the surface. Brathay watched for a moment but then followed suit, holding his breath and letting the water warm his body, his face, his cold nose and ears. For the first time since his chilling experience in Thiradon, he embraced natural water.

After allowing time for Brathay to wallow, Dnan beckoned him over to one of the submerged boulders. Brathay perched on the smooth surface while Dnan used a cloth and oil from one of the pots to rub clean Brathay’s body. Before beginning, they raised the oil-soaked cloth to Brathay’s face to allow him to smell the balm. A wonderful melange of bergamot, mint, and something floral he could not place filled his nostrils. Possibly taking this as approval, Dnan began cleaning Brathay’s neck and back, occasionally dipping the cloth into the hot water to rinse the oil. In few of his intimacy lessons, had Brathay experienced anything quite as comforting, being washed as though still a child. Dnan scoured every part of his body, his arms, legs, genitals, feet and hands. Even as relaxed and calm as he felt, the soothing motion took his body to a new level of tranquility. All too soon, Dnan had finished, and came to sit next to Brathay.

When Brathay took the cloth from them and moved to stand in front, the merchant appeared confused, until Brathay pointed a finger between them, indicating that he would return the favour. Before Dnan could object, Brathay performed the short bow of welcome he had memorised, and noticed a vague smile form on Dnan’s face.

Placing the cloth over his own shoulder, Brathay used his hands with the oil, and an array of touch and pressure skills he had picked up before and during his time at Aulderly, to knead Dnan’s muscles. The counsellors and his peers had considered his abilities above average. Dnan appeared to enjoy the attention because they let out an occasional rumble of appreciation. Intermittently, Brathay stroked and kneaded with one hand, while using the cloth in his other hand to cleanse the merchant’s skin. Others around the pool, older figures of epicene gender, began to notice this unusual spectacle and started to drift over and observe. Brathay spotted Fleming and his aide appear nearby.

“You have skills,” said Fleming.

“Picked up before Aulderly, but refined while studying there,” whispered Brathay, continuing his smoothing touch. “Is it acceptable for us to speak?”

“As long as we do so in hushed voices.”

“I understand. Can I ask then, why are there are so few here?”

“Separate chambers are allocated for families and for young couples who are in the throes of courting. I blundered into the latter once. Quite the eye opener, I can tell you. The Sjin-Shatir assign the single pools in here as sacred places of meditation and reflection. Older members of the village prefer things that way.”

“That would explain the sense of peacefulness I feel here. I need to thank you, Fleming. Not only is my skin finally hot enough to perspire, but I have not felt as clean and comforted since my arrival. Even my bones feel heated. And the foul smell of the water no longer registers.”

“Neither will it linger. When you get back this evening, your skin will feel enlivened, but there will be no smell of sulphur. And I warrant you will sleep like a babe tonight.”

Although standing behind Dnan, Brathay leant forward and moved his hands in circles down the hard plains of the merchant’s chest, over the nub of their large nipples, then smoothed them down towards the groin and along the tops of the thighs, performing the movement repeatedly. Dnan clearly appreciated the movement, because their head rocked back onto Brathay’s chest. As Brathay brought his hands up to do the same again, this time moving into Dnan’s inner thighs, he noticed a murmur growing from the elders around them. When he looked up, they were staring not at him, but at Dnan. During his training, he had been instructed never to stop for any length of time when using smoothing techniques, never to interrupt the flow of energy, but he peered quizzically at Fleming who was clearly amused.

“What are they saying?” asked Brathay.

An older more male looking form muttered something to Fleming, who nodded sagely in agreement.

“You are having an unusual effect on the youngster.”

When Brathay peered down, he could see Dnan sporting a very large and prominent erection. For a second, he faltered. Even though he had known both men and women to become aroused during skin touch sessions at Aulderly, he wondered if he might be overstepping a cultural boundary.

“Should I stop?”

Fleming turned to say something to the elder, who shook their head and muttered something back.

“No. If Dnan wanted you to stop, they would have indicated by now. But this is something new and slightly disconcerting for their people.”

“Arousal?”

“Not the act of being aroused, as such. They may be reserved by nature, but sexual intimacy is an extremely important part of their culture. Throughout their history, the Sjin-Shatir can only be truly stimulated by their own kind. One of the elders tried to explain this to me, that their bodies transmit a kind of energy through the skin, a subtle vibration only they can sense and experience. This is not by choice or custom, but by their nature, and determines the gender their bodies morph into when they are ready to couple and procreate. Their slang expression for the physical contact of foreigners translates as ‘cold touch of the dead’.”

“Sounds truly gruesome. What about the pleasure givers in the tavern? Are they not local?”

“You misunderstand. Many of the Sjin-Shatir are highly skilled at and revel in eliciting pleasure in other races. But they are unable to be similarly gratified. And they can only be fertilised by the seed of their own. You can understand why Dnan’s reaction to you is incongruous, although this elder believes you are descended from their people. Not only is there a similarity in your features, they say, but you carry the mark of Great Mudjadah, the great bear.”

Brathay knew very little about his birth mother, but his father’s family line could be traced all the way back to the early days of Thiradonia.

“From the wall carving?”

“Correct. Great Mudjadah and Njadullo, brother and sister, the bear and the sea serpent. They represent the perpetual conflict between land and sea. Both can be benevolent and malevolent. The Sjin-Shatir do their best not to anger either. Is that a mark of birth?”

Although Brathay continued his long strokes, he noticed D’nan’s breathing becoming deeper and more pronounced. Concerned he might be exacerbating matters, he transferred his attention back to Dnan’s shoulders.

“Dnan wanted to know the same thing. Throughout my childhood, I have been told this is a scar, the outcome of a horse-riding accident.”

“Seems somewhat ornate for a scar. And what about your neckpiece? Are those hieroglyphs from ancient Braggadach?”

“I have no idea. This was a gift from my mother.”

Unwilling to discuss his origins and upbringing, he was grateful when Dnan’s hands clamped hard onto his wrists, holding them in place, Dnan’s upper body tensing and pushing back against Brathay.

“Is Dnan well?” asked Brathay with concern. Fleming spoke something to Dnan in the local language, who in turn croaked out something causing the elders around him, including Fleming, to rumble with humour.

“They said you almost made them spill their seed.”

A little more boldly this time, Dnan spoke again, before grinning up at Brathay. Once again the elders barked with laughter, one of them adding something that made them all laugh even louder, and a few not far away to shush them. As the noise calmed, Fleming translated.

“Dnan said, if only you were willing for them to bear your children, they might consider remarrying. The joke is that this would not be possible, because you are not Sjin-Shatir. But anyway, the elder countered that Dnan already has a devoted partner who has given them three children—one of which Dnan bore himself—and the partner is gifted with one on the way, and that they should consider being less greedy and ambitious.”

Brathay laughed too, patting Dnan on the shoulder to let them know he had finished. Joining Fleming in the deep hot water, he felt relieved not to have caused an embarrassing moment for either of them.

“My apologies,” Brathay whispered to Fleming. “My intention was not to produce such a reaction.”

“They already know as much,” said Fleming, nodding at the words spoken by the nearby figure. “But the elder says you should be careful with your touch. They are willing to guess those hands could tame a lion.”

Thank you for reading.

Any reactions, comments, observations, interpretations, or guesses at what you think is to come, 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.

Stories posted in this category are works of fiction. Names, places, characters, events, and incidents are created by the authors' imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblances to actual persons (living or dead), organizations, companies, events, or locales are entirely coincidental. Note: While authors are asked to place warnings on their stories for some moderated content, everyone has different thresholds, and it is your responsibility as a reader to avoid stories or stop reading if something bothers you. 
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This chapter and comments got me going on a mental trip to my past.  Ursala Le Guin lived in my hometown most of her life. I loved sci-fi from an early age with Saturday matinees with H G Wells and reading Superman comics (best way to learn to read).:wub: This chapter rang a few bells.  I like the village with these remarkable people. There were many clues for Brathay to follow in order to make life more liveable in the Keep.  I hope he is given a chance to find them and get the Keep up to its past glories.  Excellent dialogue and timing.  I think that Brathay may find he is genetically related to the town's people when he finds out more about his mother.  It would be interesting if he were to find out that he could bear a child.😜

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