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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 - 9. Ride

Brathay and Leonmarkh journey to Bear Lake.

That night Brathay lay fully clothed on top of the bed, breathing wisps of steam into the chill air, mulling over his meeting with Lord Leonmarkh. What had been the intent behind the lord's naked display? Because what had happened had not been coincidental. Had he been testing Brathay, or setting a trap, perhaps? And if Brathay had fallen for the lord's charms, if he had dared to approach and touch the man, what would have happened? During fourth hall studies, Brathay had learned many ways to create or premeditate such an incident, had studied notable cases in history where men or women had set up similar scenarios and, once mistreated or bruised by the aggressor—usually, but not always, male—had slipped a knife blade between their ribs and been wholly justified in claiming self-defence. Except Leonmarkh needed no weapon to snuff Brathay's life if he so wished and, being the Watchman and a lord, who would have questioned him anyway?

Unable to sleep for fear his dreams might return him to the scene of the muscled form of the Watchman, he kept his mind busy going over what he had learned and selectively recorded diary entries in his journal, things like the impending arrival of a supply ship, the possibility of foraging the local countryside for supplies. On a page at the back of the book, which had other doodles, he copied out the pictograms from the heartstone poem. Even if someone saw them, they would surely have no idea what they represented.

And then inspiration came to him. Leaping up from the bed, he stoked and replenished the fire, then lit a candle from the flames before taking that and his notebook over to his desk.

With the idea fresh in his mind, he wrote clearly onto his observations page. If his suspicions proved correct, and someone had indeed been snooping into his writings, there should be a spectacle worth viewing over the next few days. After carefully retying the cord and extinguishing the candle between thumb and forefinger, he finally managed to sleep.

The following day, he bolted erect at what he interpreted as sounds of the keep being bombarded. Booms and crashes reverberated around the walls of his chamber, flashes of bleached light flickering beneath his door. As his heartbeat normalised and he listened more carefully to the wild and sporadic clatter of rain on the external shutters, he realised a savage thunderstorm had engulfed the fortress.

And so the onslaught continued for the next five days and nights, with torrential rain lashing the area and everyone confined for the most part to their rooms. Only at mealtimes did Brathay brave the weather, picking the most covered route to the refectory but still getting drenched. Leonmarkh never called for him and rarely looked his way during shared meals. His captains, however, now included Brathay in their conversations. They chatted and laughed along with his jokes, which felt like progress for Brathay even if his lordship never produced so much as a smile. Apart from the kitchens, everything else stopped while the seemingly unending rain fell; drills for the soldiers and checks by the captains, Khraxwall's inventory inspection, and, of course, the chambermaid service, although someone managed to come in on the third morning while Brathay took his breakfast, to clean and provide kindling—and to read his notebook.

On the sixth day, the storm passed, even though clouds staunched any hope of sunlight. Brathay had been inspecting the empty barracks above the gatehouse to discreetly check on their state of tidiness in case they were needed when he heard a loud commotion coming from the courtyard below.

Hidden in the shade at the loggia, he watched as soldiers led horse after horse from the stables until around twenty stood outside in the puddle-dotted courtyard, snorting and whinnying with disapproval. Nokh had his arms folded, refusing to help, putting an arm out to stop any of his stable boys from doing so.

Near the entrance, Khraxwall stood with a primped up Miss Millflower half hidden behind him. Every now and again, she peered into the darkness of the stables, a handkerchief covering her mouth and nose. Eventually, a clearly annoyed guard came out carrying a huge bulky sack, predominantly white but covered in patches of straw and what Brathay guessed to be dark clumps of horse dung.

Miss Millflower appeared vindicated, pointing wildly at the stable master and then at the sack. Ignoring her, Khraxwall seemed to conduct a stern conversation with Nokh, who simply shook his head and shrugged but said nothing. At a word from Khraxwall, the soldier emptied the contents onto the ground near Miss Millflower's feet. Carrots and apples and other discoloured fruit and vegetable bounced out and rolled along the ground, causing the horses to become excited, some of them nudging forward to bite at the special treats. Once again, Miss Millflower thrust the kerchief into her face, but this time her eyes went wide with a mix of shock and embarrassment and confusion.

Only then did Nokh begin to speak calmly—nothing Brathay could hear, but he assumed the stable master was explaining the contents and origins of the treat sack to Khraxwall, something the steward would have already known about. When Khraxwall finally turned to Miss Millflower, she sank back a couple of steps before pointing accusingly at Nokh. After listening to heated words passing between the two, Khraxwall eventually held up a hand and stopped them both before turning his full attention to Miss Millflower. Even from across the yard, Brathay could see her pale indignant face, sense her dismay as she listened and accepted his berating, occasionally nodding fearfully.

Brathay smiled. He had finally had his suspicions confirmed. Miss Millflower or one of her maids had indeed been snooping into his notebook. His last entry detailed how he had seen someone sneaking in and out of the stables after midnight with a white sack and how he suspected the person of having stolen items of silverware, perhaps taken from the refectory or the chamberlain's storeroom.

Tonight, he would add an entry about hearing he had been mistaken about the cache of silver in the stables but about feeling vindicated because Miss Millflower and Khraxwall had thought the same thing. Knowing Millflower read his entries might still prove helpful. No point in showing his hand just yet.

Over the next few days, following the wet spell, temperatures plummeted. If at first, Brathay considered the absence of rain a respite, he was soon to be proven wrong. Pools and puddles froze over, and unmelted overnight frost made external surfaces treacherous. Four soldiers and one kitchen hand had to be bandaged up at various times, after sliding and hurting an arm or a leg or, in the case of the kitchen lass, banging her head.

Moreover, Brathay noticed supplies of kindling depleting rapidly, everyone needing more restocks to keep their rooms warm day and night. On the second day of the cold spell, Khraxwall instigated rationing. Brathay assumed he was not alone in hoping the supply ship would arrive soon.

And then, to make matters worse, the unthinkable happened. Snow began to fall again. Not a blizzard nor a snowstorm this time, just an unending curtain of snow like the fall of purest white blossom on a spring day. Beautiful but treacherous, because with the ground having lost its heat, the snow settled across everything like a frozen invasion.

Two weeks after his meeting with Lord Leonmarkh, as the weather finally stilled, the lord sent for him. Once again, no guards had been stationed outside his rooms, and Brathay entered without knocking. Inside, only two torches burned from the wall housings while a modest fire blazed in the fireplace.

Leonmarkh had not heard him enter. He perched on the corner of his bed, his head hung low, staring at a thin slip of parchment resting delicately in his joined palms. Brathay had been about to disturb him but stopped, sensing something private and painful about the scene. When Leonmarkh pulled a palm away and ran the hand through his long hair, a sad sigh escaped him, one he staunched quickly by squeezing the bridge of his nose.

Once again, Leonmarkh surprised him. He had not thought the lord capable of vulnerability. Backing back out and pulling the door to, he knocked loudly before calling announcing himself. After a few moments, he heard the voice of Leonmarkh asking him to enter.

Leonmarkh had moved to sit behind his desk.

"Have I already missed bath time?" asked Brathay. Without waiting to be offered, he strolled across to the desk and perched on a stool. Humour appeared to have no effect on Leonmarkh's sullen mood.

"We received news late last night. The ship bringing us supplies had to turn back due to a bad storm. You will, I am sure, be pleased to hear that I am going to take your advice. As the weather appears stable for now and our need has become dire, I have charged my captains with taking the horses and soldiers out tomorrow to chop trees for kindling and hunt for food. Wild rabbit, pheasant, deer, boar and any other wild game they can find."

"Do you wish me to approach the village elders?"

Finally, a shadow of mirth played across Leonmarkh face.

"It amuses me that you think I do not converse with them. Is it your belief that I have been locked in this room for the past eighteen months? No, Brathay, I will call upon their goodwill only as a last resort. Let us see what my champions can muster first of all. And while they are away, you and I are going to see what mystery lies hidden at Bear Lake."

"Me? Surely Zhorman would make a hardier companion."

"I need someone who can read old Thiradonian maps. Besides, I have had help translating the last of the hieroglyphs, and I think the message is meant for the eyes of the Watchman alone. And as you are already privy to some of the content, bringing you along makes the most sense."

"I see," Brathay answered quietly.

"Do not worry, Brathay Stonearm. This is not my attempt to finally rid the keep of you. If I had wanted that done, there are a number who would have willingly volunteered. But you have proved your use, and something you said during our last meeting resonated. And as I say, I need someone who can read maps and understand the strange markings." Leonmarkh opened the small black book in front of Brathay and pointed to the hieroglyphs. "As for the poem, the translation in its entirety is as follows: Watcher defend secret. I take this to mean that as the Watchman, I need to keep this information to myself. Lake sleep bear, which I had already assumed to relate to Bear Lake. Underneath eagle mountain unseen. Unearth heart stone trine. The full meaning of those last lines eludes me."

"Is Eagle Mountain marked on the map we found?"

"My thoughts, too, but no. Unless you can see that which I cannot. The Eagle Mountain I know is in east Braggadach along the Trepideaian Ridge, bordering Blackbone Forest."

Probably anticipating Brathay's arrival, Leonmarkh had already laid the map out on the table. A small grey pebble sat on the location of Bear Lake, while a black one sat over Black Ice Keep. Brathay scanned the area around the lake but could find no names even remotely resembling a bird, most with largely uninspiring terms in the common language such as White Peak, Black Ice Range, South Mountain. Only the one called Sunkisser made Brathay smile, but the mountain sat at the edge of the map, far too many miles south.

"A name that has fallen out of use, perhaps?"

"Perhaps. But not something we can check. We will leave at first light tomorrow. I have asked the kitchen to pack us supplies for our journey, enough to last two or three days, although I plan to return the same day. The stablemaster will ready my horse and arrange another for you. Dress in your warmest outdoor clothing."

Brathay nodded while trailing a finger along the route from the keep into the mountains and stopped a little way along, tapping at a point on the map.

"Can you see how this track is marked differently in a broken brown line? That is because the trail is only accessible by foot. We will need to leave the horses at the base of the steep climb up to the forest plateau. These lines indicate the elevation, and this symbol marks shelters for the horses, probably caves."

"Is there no way around?"

"There is, but taking that route would add another day and a half to our trek."

Leonmarkh threw himself back in his chair and frowned down at the map.

"I had anticipated we would have the horses for the whole journey. How does this affect our timing?"

"It does not. I already noted and compensated for everything. As you said, we should be able to complete the trip in a day, barring any incidents or sudden changes in the weather."

"So be it. Go and sleep early. We leave just after sun-up."

** ❄︎ **

At seven bells the following morning, Brathay had to admit to being impressed at seeing the disciplined activity and orderly arrangement of soldiers in the courtyard. Haycock and Ligger had two wooden carts, each tied to a sturdy horse. Leonmarkh had tasked them with heading into the forest to collect as much firewood and kindling as the carts and soldiers could carry. Zhorman and Bhullard had their best archers on horseback, while others would search on foot for smaller game.

Something else stirred his interest, and he sidled over to Bhullard.

"Why is there a kitchen hand with you?"

Bhodhlo sat on a horse behind one of the female soldiers, her thin arms around the woman's waist, her cheek pressed to the back of the soldier's tunic.

"We have Mrs Sturridge to thank. She asked us to bring Bhod along to forage for herbs and other edible plants while we're hunting game. Although knowing the little monkey, she'll end up shinning trees and catching birds and rabbits with her bare hands. I will keep an eye on her. I see Leonmarkh and you are heading out together. He tells us you are searching for a freshwater lake, says you are investigating one of the mysteries of the keep and checking whether we may have another source of food to see us through the winter. Says you are riding with him because he needs someone who can fluently read Thiradonian maps. Not sure of the need for freshwater fish when there is a vast ocean on our doorstep, but Leonmarkh does nothing without good reason."

"Should I be worried?"

Bhullard chuckled good-heartedly.

"He will never tell you this himself, but he admires you. Thinks you are a survivor with a brave heart. And believe me when I say this. Compliments spoken aloud by him are rarer than an eclipse."

When Bhullard moved away, Brathay turned and spied Haycock staring. Undeterred at being caught, the man simply grinned and winked before urging his horse forward.

The stablemaster brought around the steed Brathay had ridden to the village and another taller chestnut mare with a light coloured mane. Brathay noticed the other stable boys running around the yard, helping others on horseback. Nokh nodded to him, standing by in attendance, holding the reins of both horses. Eventually, Lord Leonmarkh finished his discussion with Khraxwall and strolled over to them, carrying a large pack on his back and two long sticks under one arm. After a cursory glance at Brathay and a quick nod to Nokh, he fixed one of the sticks into the back of Brathay's pack.

"A village elder convinced me into the wisdom of bringing a staff. It might feel cumbersome to carry right now, but you will thank me later. We will need to use them not only to assist in crossing the rough terrain but also to check the snow's depth as we traverse on foot. Wait here for me."

Considering his large backpack, Leonmarkh rose swiftly and nimbly into the saddle, the mare not even moving as he adjusted the stirrups and made himself comfortable. After a second, he urged the horse to the gatehouse entrance and turned his mare to address his troops.

"Soldiers of Braggadach. This may be a routine operation, but I ask you to stay alert. In this weather, the lands on and around these mountains can be treacherous. Moreover, there are creatures out there trying to survive the winter who are also foraging for food. Which means that you are also prey. Do not let your guard down. I do not want to lose any of my men or women to carelessness. Locals tell of savage mountain bears, of white wolves and wild boars in the forests. You may be hunting the latter, but do not forget that they can be fierce when cornered, as ferocious as any wild animal you may have encountered back in our home country, enough to disembowel any of you in minutes. We have been fortunate with the weather this week, but I fear our luck will soon run its course. Listen to your captains and obey. If you notice a change in the climate, however small, let them know. They have been instructed to return everyone immediately to the keep, no matter how fruitful or otherwise is your quest. If the village elders are right—and they are rarely otherwise—then extreme weather is predicted soon, much worse than any we have experienced. I do not want you caught outside. Survival for any soul stranded in such weather is unlikely. Stay on guard and stay safe. Braggadachi to the hunt!"

"Braggadachi to the hunt!" called the soldiers in unison, followed by a loud cheer. One thing Brathay grudgingly acknowledged about Leonmarkh was that he knew how to lead.

Forty-five soldiers, including the captains—around fifteen mounted the rest on foot—filed out of the keep. Brathay had watched his father lead five hundred out of Thiradon City to patrol the country's internal borders, a sight of true magnificence. Even to an untrained eye, with the narrow route to the keep which could only take two horses abreast or three soldiers on foot, the number appeared pitifully meagre. At the lord's bidding, he waited and watched, ready to bring up the rear riding next to Leonmarkh. At that moment, Zhorman rode his horse forward to join Bhullard, and could not disguise the glare of disgust he cast Brathay's way as he passed.

Maintaining strict formation, they took the lane high up around the back of Black Ice Bay, a route Brathay knew well. From the same vantage point, he could make out the extent of the snowfall, blanketing forests and mountains and lowlands all the way down to the seafront. Smoke billowed from small chimneys, and he smiled to himself on seeing the glistening black path, free of snow, winding down to the coast. Thoughts of another trip to see Fleming and to the hot springs warmed him. As they passed the track on their left, sloping down towards the town, his map indicated a narrow trail to the right, leading off the main path, dipping first but then leading up into the mountains. Leonmarkh looked over and noted the same thing before calling ahead.

"This is where we part ways. Be on the keep path before late afternoon. Then let us all convene at the keep this evening before sundown. Over a hot meal and warm beer, we can look over our spoils and see who has the best stories to tell from the day. Safe return."

"Safe return."

With that, Leonmark led his horse onto the wide snow-covered track that sloped between the undergrowth. Brathay turned and raised a hand to Bhullard as his steed followed. When they eventually climbed and reached a level part of the way, Brathay looked back to where they had come but saw no sign of the troops.

Leonmarkh led them along the rough pathway, riding in silence for most of the time. When Brathay spotted Leonmarkh ahead, eating the sweetened bread the kitchens had prepared for them that morning, he did the same. At the same time, he kept noticing Leonmarkh peering constantly around himself, taking in the scenery, and turning in his saddle to look over Brathay's shoulder into the distance, perhaps to check their progress.

Thankfully, they had picked a beautiful day, the sun making an occasional but welcomed appearance from behind ever-present clouds. By midmorning, less than three hours into what had turned out to be an enjoyable ride up gentle slopes and even included a brief gallop, Brathay smiled at his map. Growing more prominent in their view, they approached the base of a forested plateau surrounded on each side by a steep drop—an unmistakable landmark with thick woodlands sitting atop a flat table mount—where they would need to leave their horses and take the rest of the way on foot.

Just as the map indicated, a shallow cave sat among the rocks at the plateau's base. Although the interior had not been inhabited for a long time, the location provided shelter and a stone trough fed by a mountain stream. After dismounting and tying up the horses, Leonmarkh tasted the water with a forefinger. Satisfied, he took the opportunity to drink deeply then filled his canteen, allowing Brathay to follow suit.

When Brathay stepped out of the cave's gloom, he saw Leonmarkh surveying the slope up to the plateau.

"From what I can tell," he said, pointing up at the summit. "The track up is not overly steep but winds up to a wider path that runs below the plateau. Hopefully, these tight shrubs will have kept out the worst of the weather. Let me lead the way again."

Without another word, Leonmarkh set off with Brathay trailing. Their path took them through a thin area of woodland that had taken the brunt of the recent storm. Snow-covered shrubs and bushes created shapes like grotesque creatures trapped and frozen in place by a fearsome ice blizzard. Brathay worried they would need to wade through similar drifts on their way up, but his fears were eased when, around five minutes later, they began to hit soft brown soil free from the snow where the path started its gentle climb.

Curving around bushes, the meandering path took them steeply upwards. Brathay kept his head bowed and followed a few steps behind, breathing evenly, matching Leonmarkh's steady pace. Some thirty minutes later, when Leonmarkh stopped suddenly, Brathay almost walked into his back. But when he raised his head and noticed Leonmarkh peering at the scenery around them, he realised why they had stopped. The path broke into two. One way continued further up, disappearing into the depths of the forest, while the other led them to a broad, snow-clogged path around the outside of the plateau. To Brathay, the choice was easy.

"Look how thick those trees are. Growing so close together, the forest floor is bound to be free of snow and probably relatively flat. I suggest we continue to climb, then head inside and take a path close to the periphery if we want to make good progress."

Leonmarkh scanned the area around them then peered back over his shoulder, his gaze lingering on the way they had come.

"I prefer to remain in the open. Let us keep the forest on our right and take the open path. This way, we do not stand the chance of being disoriented by trees and heading off course. And we can also more easily monitor the weather."

"Our main landmark is the vast snow-topped mountain in front of us. If we follow a straight line through the forest, we cannot help but reach our destination. Moreover, travelling will surely be much faster, easier, and more comfortable under cover of trees."

Leonmarkh stared behind them and then in front once again, making a measured assessment, before peering sidelong into the forest.

"No. We take the outside route. Trust me on this, Brathay."

Brathay had been about to object, but Leonmarkh had already set off. Before long, much to Brathay's irritation, their pace slowed to a crawl as they hit waist-high snow along the exposed path. To share the burden, they took turns forging through the snow, each using their wooden staff to thump the ground and find a safe course. Brathay barely refrained himself from voicing his annoyance. If they had taken the route along the forest floor, they would undoubtedly have covered more ground in a much faster time. An hour later, with both of them panting steam at their exertions, the impressive panorama of White Mountain came into view.

Stopping to drink from his leather canteen, Leonmarkh said nothing, even as Brathay stood with his hands on his hips, trying to catch his breath while glaring at the man. Luckily, the area of open ground before them had escaped the worst of the storms, and their path became more accessible. Most important of all, they made up time along the way. Another hour later and they approached a steep hill blocking their way. Brathay immediately consulted his map. The creator had marked out a path around the circumference of the rise, indicated by another dotted brown line.

"We can circumvent this. Over by those three rocks, there should be a narrow path that runs around the base. There's going to be some snow, but that route will still be faster than trying to climb over."

Once again, Leonmarkh said nothing but performed what was becoming his irritating routine of looking about himself, including back the way they had come, before looking up to the top.

"We head for the summit. The elevation will provide a good vantage point to check for landmarks and make sure we are heading in the right direction—"

Brathay breathed out an irritated sigh and waved the map in the air.

"We are heading in the right direction, according to the map. And if we want to make good progress, the logical path would be around the circumference of the mount."

"No. We climb to the top."

Brathay peered up with dismay. The apex of the mount sat higher than the tallest trees of the plateau forest. Unlike the gentle ascent up the path to the plateau, this almost vertical climb amid gravel and shrubs and boulders would be punishing. But once again, Leonmarkh had already started moving. Fuming, Brathay trudged after the lord.

"This makes no sense at all," he muttered, primarily to himself.

Leonmarkh picked his way carefully around buried boulders and shrubs, seeking out accessible footholds, ones Brathay could easily step into. Brathay matched the lord's pace in silence, but inside, he still fumed and had momentarily considered aborting the climb and taking the lower path, waiting for the lord at the other side of the hill. Except his irritating self-discipline kept asserting itself. He also realised the sense in them staying together, not only for protection but in case either of them had any mishaps. By the time the summit came into view, Brathay's chest rose and fell painfully, the skin on his palms grazed from grabbing handfuls of vegetation and his thighs shaking from the exertion. At least the thick wooden staff had been proven its worth, something he could use for leverage and support at the steepest parts of the incline.

A small area of grassland opened up at the top of the hill. Brathay collapsed onto the soft greenery, laid back and squeezed his eyes closed. Chill breezes numbed his cheeks, but fortunately, no significant winds blew at them. Nevertheless, he knew instinctively that they would be exposed in this location. When he opened his eyes again, he caught Leonmarkh performing his usual routine, anxiously seeking something out on the horizon from the way they had come.

"What are you seeking?" he asked, his eyes following the lord's gaze. Brathay's question caught Leonmarkh by surprise and, after expelling a soft sigh, he lowered himself into a cross-legged sitting position.

"Look," said Leonmarkh, pointing ahead of him. Beyond a stretch of woodland, Brathay could make out a stretch of white pasture in the distance with a mound in the centre. Too far away to make out any detail, he knew from the map that this was their destination.

"Bear Lake. Finally within reach."

"The lake is before us, Leonmarkh. Why do you keep looking back the way we came?"

Leonmarkh rested his staff across his knees. A gentle but chill breeze played with strands of his hair. Without looking up, he rubbed the thumb of one hand into the palm of the other.

"I have no faith in the weather. A change could come at us from any direction."

Brathay looked up to the sky. Although not clear, he detected no wind, no noticeable movement in the scattered clouds and, moreover, no sign of rain or snow.

"You are being over-cautious."

"So I have been told," said the lord, rising from his seated position. "Come, let us keep moving. I know you are tired, but we only have another league to go before we reach the lake. By my reckoning, we will be there this side of midday, so once we find out whatever secret lies there, we can rest up for an hour, eat a meal, and then head back. Sunset should begin between four and five bells, by which time we should be safely back inside the keep."

This time, Brathay had no wish to object. Downhill would be equally arduous, but the thought of shelter kept his spirits fired up and his mouth shut tight. At the bottom of the hill, they had no choice but to follow the path through the woodland of pine trees, something Leonmarkh could not argue. Even though this woodland grew far sparser than the plateau forest, providing less cover, barely a few patches of snow tainted the floor. Moreover, the leaves and branches created a soft carpet underfoot, a pine scent perfuming the chill air, improving Brathay's mood. Far too quickly, in his mind, the end of the woodland came into view.

"We are here. Bear Lake."

Brathay came to a stop behind Leonmarkh and stared out beneath the cover of the edge of trees. Across a vast field of shallow snow rose a mound beneath a scattering of trees housing a stone cabin, its back built into a hillock. Once again, Leonmarkh inspected the area in his irritatingly measured way before pointing to their far right.

"I recommend we walk around the periphery to the line of trees where we can cross at the shorter point—"

Exasperated, Brathay shut out Leonmarkh's objections and ploughed forward, brushing his shoulder. For someone who supposedly led an army of men, Lord Leonmarkh made some wholly illogical decisions. Brathay had given up listening, especially when their destination sat within his grasp.

"Brathay. I do not recommend—Brathay!"

Beneath his feet, shallow fallen snow crunched softly. As he neared the isle, he surveyed the cabin, which looked old but in solid shape, the log roof beneath evergreen trees wholly intact and free of snow, and what appeared to be a flint chimney built into one end of the structure. A fire. The thought alone warmed him that they would be able to make a log fire. And with the whole back end of the cabin built into a hill, he felt sure the interior would have stayed dry. Crows flew from the trees above, possibly noticing his movement, before heading west across the sky of grey.

Encouraged by the sight, Brathay increased his speed.

Something changed then. Perhaps the quality of the ground underfoot shifted, but to Brathay, the air itself seemed to still. As he moved forward, his right foot slipped, causing him to stumble on a few steps. Like distance thunder, a low but audible crack accompanied his loss of balance, followed quickly by another, this one louder and deeper. The second reverberated through his whole torso. Peering around himself, at the perfectly flat surface of what his mind had interpreted as a field, realisation dawned, an instinctive fear filling his chest.

He stood upon frozen water.

"Brathay!" called Leonmarkh. "Remain still."

As he began to turn in terror to seek out Leonmarkh, his body dropped through the ice and into the freezing depths. Daylight was snuffed out. Submerged entirely in water, his body's descent began to slow. Only the skin of his face registered the shock of cold, the numbness stunning him. After the initial plunge, his body stopped moving, his eyes still open wide and staring out at the rays of white sunlight bleeding through the frozen surface into the calm blue water.

Survival kicked in, and he started to thrash around, trying to fight an invisible enemy, until the pressure in his chest threatened to burst out of him. Nothing seemed to work, and he stopped, defeated. A strange serenity filled him then, a thought reminding him that he could not swim. Clammy rivulets like an icy hand trickled down his spine from the neck of his jacket seeping down into his clothes. Even as he began to float slowly towards the surface, he knew instinctively, calmly, and with absolute clarity.

He was going to drown.

Thank you for reading.

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

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

NOTE: I will not be posting another chapter for two weeks, to give readers a chance to concentrate on the autumn/fall 2021 Anthology entries.

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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