Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter Three

Kitty and Edward set out for the Gathering Field three days after they had explored the country to the south of Alskar. Edward was surprised at how he had become impatient with the delay as though all he wanted was to be out on the road with Kitty once again. This was in marked contrast to how he had felt when they had first started their rides together. They had not met for those three days and Edward found he began to miss Kitty. He would find himself pausing in his work, a vision of Kitty forming in his mind and he had this strange desire from time to time to rush out and ride to the Fort to see her. A few times he thought of writing her a note and then blushed when he realise he would see her again in only two days. During these three days, he felt the earth had stopped and time was passing so slowly and it was as though his life had changed. He did not know why but all he thought of was somebody else other than his family or close friends.

They rode north along the road by the river at a reasonable pace because Edward wanted to arrive at the Gathering Field well before dark. He did not understand until much later what Kitty's mocking smile portended when he made a remark about arriving in time for their escort to put up the tents before it got dark. All he had in mind was that they should be all prepared for the night before dusk set in.

By mid afternoon, the mountains reared above them, almost blocking out the sky and dominating the whole of the horizon. The peaks were hidden in cloud and the sides higher up still appeared grey and uninviting. Around the foothills, though, the spring was evident in the green of the grass, the splashes of yellow of the daffodils and primroses. The trees had a green sheen as the leaf bud had begun to break and the birds were returning from their warm migration ready to nest and sing as the weather warmed.

Among these signs of burgeoning spring, they rode up a steep hill and when they topped the crest, looked down into a wide valley. It spread from the foot of the mountains in a shallow sloped meadow bounded on one side by a band of trees several hundred yards wide lining the river. To the south among the trees were fields and clearings connected by what looked like well worn paths, the place where the people camped at the time of the Gathering. At the base of the mountains to the north, an outcrop of rock jutted out into the meadow. Beside this, a grass bank sloped up to the base of a sheer cliff rising several hundred feet into the air.

Looking around while they sat on their horses, Edward was surprised to see one of the clearings at the south end of the meadow was lined with tents and smoke was slowly rising into the air from a cooking fire. Three blue tents stood in the middle of the clearing away from the others.

Edward shook his head and looked at Kitty his eyes narrowed. “ I was hoping we would be alone, “ was all he could say.

Kitty smiled and laughed happily at his expression. “ Do you honestly think my father would let me come all this way and rough it with you? He might have let that happen back in Parison with one of the young men from the court but even then many people would have been engaged in the preparation for our stay away from the comforts of the palace. Some servants would have been sent to make sure we were coping with being away from the luxury of the court. Those will be our tents, the blue ones in the centre of the camp. They were sent on ahead yesterday so that everything would be prepared when we arrived. I am afraid there are enough soldiers to maintain a discrete guard in shifts so that none of your natives can get close to the daughter of an Imperial Grandmaster and contaminate her. There are also enough servants to look after our needs and enough cooks to mount a banquet but they are here to look after us. I am sorry Edward but this is the way things are done for the daughter of an Imperial Grandmaster and military Governor of Sandaria and Rombuli. I could not have stopped this even if I had wanted to so I did not make the attempt. Try to relax and enjoy the sensation of having your every whim looked after.”

Kitty reached across the gap between the horses, gripped his arm and kissed him warmly. Edward shook his head but could only shrug and smile weakly. He was not used to this kind of treatment and this is not how he had dreamed of their being away together. There was, however he reasoned, little point in making a protest especially to Kitty. Actually, deep down, he started to wonder whether he might like being waited on and having servants there to look after his every want. With a broad grin at the thought of having his every wish granted, Edward kissed Kitty back fiercely.

They rode down the hill sise by side laughing, across a bridge over a stream which still rushed down its course replete with the melting snow and into the meadow so green in the weak afternoon sunshine. When they got to the campsite, grooms ran forward and helped them dismount, leading the horses away as soon as their feet touched the ground. A servant dressed in black bowed to Kitty and indicated the tent to the right that had obviously been prepared for her. Another servant stepped forward and indicated the tent on the left for Edward. While Edward hesitated, Kitty walked regally towards her tent and graciously entered while the servant held open the flap for her.

When Edward entered the tent, he found a bed along one wall, a small table, two chairs and a carpet on the floor. To the back was a tub of steaming water. Edward undressed under the watchful eye of the servant and climbed into the tub. Another servant entered with his saddlebag while he was washing with unfamiliar soft soap which contrasted with the hard soap of home. Climbing from the tub, Edward grabbed a towel and dried himself to discover that the servant had laid out a robe for him to wear. Two men entered the tent and took away the tub and water while the servant came in with a glass of wine and some snack on a tray, placing this on the table.

“ Dinner will be served in an hour sir. I expect you are hungry after the ride. If there is anything else you want just ring this bell and I will come. I will leave you to relax and dress for dinner. ” The servant bowed and backed out of the tent.

Dinner was served in the third tent standing between Kitty's and Edward's, everything being brought from the cooking tents placed to the side of the field. To Edward, the whole experience was strange, sitting under canvas with servants waiting to answer his bidding and in the company of Kitty. He was rather quiet but this did not seem to matter because Kitty kept up a stream of conversation. After dinner they sat outside the tent, wrapped up against the chill and watched the moon rise above the trees over the river while servants served them wine. To Edward this was the height of luxury and decadent living.

The next morning after breakfast, they walked side by side out into the meadow and towards the outcrop of rock. When they got closer, Kitty could see an overhang of rock sheltering a wide deep ledge. At one end of the ledge, the rock formed a flat vertical surface between two pillars, impossible to tell whether these were man made or natural. Next to this flat wall of rock was what could only be described as a stone throne worn smooth by generations of use. Stretching away from the throne was what again looked like a long stone bench of about the height to accommodate a line of seated people. Rising from the side of the outcrop was a bank of turf cut into terraces.

Edward stopped walking and looked at Kitty, waving his arm as though to indicate the whole meadow. “ It does not look very important this place, does it? To the Rombuli this place is more important than Nimmar. This place is central to our belief in ourselves as a separate people with their own traditions and history. ”

Taking Kitty's hand, Edward climbed the uneven steps until he stood on the ledge beside the throne. Putting his legs over the edge, Edward drew Kitty down beside him. Thus they sat side by side looking out over the meadow towards their camp as the sun climbed higher into the sky while, with hardly an interruption from Kitty, Edward told her about the Rombuli.

“ After the harvest every autumn, the Rombuli nation gathers here in this meadow to give thanks for the harvest and give thanks for delivery from the long trek. Here and at that time the new Council is elected and from them a new Leader of the Council. The old leader sits on that throne at the start of the day and gives up the throne to the new leader for the Ceremony of Age at the end of the day. Actually, the Leader of the Rombuli has been the same for as long as I can remember but it is possible to vote him out of office. It is just that for years he has been voted back into the office at every Gathering. The members of the Council sit along this ledge and preside over the games until the leader changes and the new Council takes its place.”

“ What actually happens on that day is not hard to explain. In the place where we are camped and along the edge of the meadow, tradesmen set up their stalls and either offer their services or sell their goods. There is a great deal of noise and movement down there and a lot of exchanging of greetings and ideas. Up here in the meadow are the games; archery, swordsmanship, wrestling and late in the afternoon a horse race. Actually there are two contests going on at the same time. One is open to all who want to take part and has over the years become dominated by what can only be termed patronage. By that I mean the men and sometimes women who take part have patrons who support their training and give them a living as long as they agree to take part in the championship. There is a great deal of betting on the open championship. The other contest is much more free and is between the sixteen year olds from all over Rombuli. It is our custom that young people reaching sixteen are adult and can take responsibility for themselves. This actually usually means that they have to start work in some way that again means entering a few years of training. At the Gathering, those people who have reached sixteen during the previous year are taken into the Rombuli nation by being presented to the Council.”

“ That then is what the Gathering Ceremony is all about. It is a wonderful day especially for those reaching sixteen because they are the centre of attention and usually receive gifts. But to many people the highlight of the day is the singing. See that grass bank cut into terraces. Up that slope, gathered from all parts of Rombuli are massed the choirs of all the towns and villages. Any competition they may have felt early in the day is forgotten as they mingle together to form one vast choir. They sing without accompaniment and their voices fill this field between the mountain and the river. I can see them now, bank on bank of singers looking out over the field. Those not fortunate to belong to a choir join in from the field out there. They all raise their voices to the heavens until the sound echoes away into the mountains, on and on through the hidden valleys to finally be lost in the vast depths of those granite slopes. You should hear their songs, Kitty and you would weep and laugh and shout.”

“ They sing in Rombuli, the one day we are able to speak our own language without fear of being arrested. Most of the songs are based on passages from the Book of History of the Rombuli. The choir sings of the history of my people, enacting with solos the great moments in that history, of the great men and women who have shaped the destiny of the Rombuli people. They sing of the time of the great trek, the time of chaos and the finding of this spot, of the defeat of the Sandaria and the new homeland. Then they sing of the coming of the Empire, the burning fields, the defeat at Nimmar and the last stand at Alskar.”

Edward stood and looked down on Kitty and started to sing, his deep voice echoing in the confines of the overhang. What Edward sang that day was the song which always ended the singing, the song which everybody present started to sing until the voices of the whole Rombuli nation were joined as one. There were tears in his eyes as he sang but he did not falter. This was the ballad of Derek Gorland. The song tells of Derek's fight alongside the Sandari, the battle of Nimmar, the intervention of the mysterious Covenenters and of his final defeat and surrender. It whispered out the tale of Derek’s execution alongside his wife in the square before the Meeting Hall in Nimmar.

Then Edward's voice rose with these words and Kitty could only sit and stare

“ Though you may kill me, letting my blood soak into the dust

Staining the ground like sunset, the Rombuli weeping like iron rust.

It is all too easy to kill a man but not the sense of a nation.

In the days ahead, a leader will come with the sword of Derek

Shining before him like a flame, to lead the people to victory.

Directly descendant of Derek he will be

And the whole nation will come to see

Out of the mists of time he will stride

One to lead our nation with pride

We will be a nation made new

No matter we are so few

He will lead us to Nimmar's gate

To resurrect our nation state.”

“ And there it ends, the longing of my people to be in charge of their own affairs, to be rid of the Empire. I know I should not be telling you this in this way but I promised to tell you about our ways so that you might understand us a little better. Anyway that is what the Gathering is all about. Come on let us go and have a drink and then I will tell you about our history.”

They walked back to the campsite and had their drinks and a snack. Then they returned to the outcrop and Edward continued his story.

“ It is recorded in the Book of History that a long time ago, about four hundred years, the world went mad. I know it seems silly to put it in that way but it is the only word that describes what happened. There were violent storms in some places, earthquakes cracked mountains, floods washed away crops and roads and in some places there was drought. Some called it vengeance for disregarding their Gods while others said it was only nature. Still others talked about the war of the Gods. No matter what it was called, to everybody the world was going mad. Peoples, fearful of their security and wanting to preserve their land, armed and marched to fight other peoples trying to find land to grow their crops. All civilised values gave way before the onslaught. Savagery and ruthlessness raised their heads in replacement. Tyrants rose to subjugated ordinary citizens, forcing them to give up their land, to fight and get slaughtered in the name of their particular ruthless leader. The ordinary people desiring peace, wanting to till their land, sew their clothes, trade their goods, could do nothing in the face of such power and they had to obey and watch the destruction of all they had worked for.”

“ The Rombuli lived to the west of the mountains near a lake but they were not immune from the chaos of that age. They were attacked from the south and west and though they tried to defend their land, they were slowly pushed back towards the centre. The Rombuli people were being slaughtered by well trained armies and ruthless soldiers. It was obvious that the Rombuli had to do something to preserve their nation. After a great deal of debate and argument, some decided to leave and find a safer place. Of the ones who stayed behind nothing has been heard of since and they have passed into history.”

“ And so began the long nightmare of the Rombuli people as they joined the millions of other people on the march in search of land and peace and food. Like a vast army of ants the Rombuli moved away from the lake and out into the unknown lands which surrounded their country. They fled before the might of superior forces. For months they trekked across the land trying to keep their cattle alive and their supplies intact. Hunters spread out to try to find game, to find fish, to find roots and fruit in the blasted land but there was little to be found. Progress was painfully slow as they tried to avoid clashes with other people and often detoured miles out of their way to avoid trouble. As summer drew into autumn they came to the edge of a vast forest which none of their people had ever been through. With fear they set out to navigate their way through the forest worried about what might lurk among the trees. Once through the forest they came to an area of moor land and bog stretching away on either side. On searching for a way round the moors, they discovered the pass near the mountains blocked and guarded by the soldiers of another nation who showed no sign of letting anybody through to the land beyond the moors. At a Council meeting after the report of the soldiers blocking their way, the leaders decided that they had to find a way through the moors and bogs. Once through the moors they found a fertile valley and settled down to regain their strength through the autumn and winter.”

“ It is written that with the fury of a demented dragon on the loose across the land, the long cold winter of their journey began. A winter that was never to be forgotten by those who lived through those days of bone chilling temperatures, biting winds and heavy snow. Though they had gathered a great deal of fuel in the autumn to keep their fires burning, hardly anybody truly felt warm that winter. The old suffered along with the young unable to stand the creeping freezing of the blood. Some did not survive but they could not be buried because the ground was too hard. They were lined up in the freezing snow to await burial in the spring. The leader of the Rombuli also died that winter but not before a last talk to some of the other Councillors.”

“ Idris Mellor, the Council leader warned the rest of the Rombuli that they were in grave danger in staying where they were after the winter was over. He said he had had a vision in which he saw two armies waiting for the winter to break ready to attack the valley in which they rested. He told the Rombuli they had to make their way to a place called Wyllon Dale in the mountains to the south. There in the valley between the mountains and the spur of rocks called the Arrow they will be delivered from their danger. After a great deal of heated debate the Rombuli decided to follow Idris' vision rather than stay and reap the consequences. Some went along with Idris because they thought it was a religious message from their Maker, others because they wanted to do something and a few because they did not want to be left behind.”

“ The winter broke suddenly bringing warm, wet weather and a rapid thaw. So the Rombuli buried their dead, gathered together their livestock and set out once more on their trek to find safety in this hostile world. This time however, it was different from the trek before the winter came. An army was coming up from the south searching for the Rombuli and they were soon running before this army for their lives. Another army was camped outside Ashurst the capital of this land that we now know as Walloonia. The Rombuli raced away before the two armies, always just ahead with some of their number used to harass the army at their rear while others spied on the other army ahead of them. Now suddenly into their midst came a man called Nelvask. He said he was one of the Circle and had been searching the turbulent lands for the Rombuli for almost a year. At first they were all suspicious but he enacted a mind melding with one of the leaders and they accepted him reluctantly. When offered food however, the old man said the ritual phrases ‘ Maker, I thank you for guiding me through this day, for the food which I will eat and I ask for the strength to endure what is to come. ’ Only a Rombuli or one who was a friend of the Rombuli could know those phrases.”

“ Nelvask then started to act as an adviser but it was soon realised he could do things which the Rombuli thought were impossible. He could move objects just by looking at them and willing them to move, he could mask his presence such that none saw him pass and he could read others thoughts better than any Rombuli. He taught the leader of the Rombuli, Edmund Gorland to use his limited mental powers more productively, and lead the Rombuli towards Wyllon Dale.”

“ It was madness even to the untrained eyes of the Rombuli to put themselves in a position with the mountains at their rear and the two armies on the plains to their front but this is what Nelvask wanted. Leaving some of the able bodied to defend a hastily erected rampart, Nelvask lead the rest into the mountains. For two days the Rombuli rear guard held out while the rest disappeared into the mountains. Then Nelvask collected up the rear guard and led these into a canyon leading into the mountains. Standing in a canyon with Edmund Gorland, Nelvask faced the might of the Walloonian Army. He used his mental powers to pull down the sides of the canyon, to bury the first remnants of the pursuing army under tons of rubble and cut the rest of the army off from following. But the Rombuli were cut off from the plain and could only travel deeper into the mountains.”

“ For a week Nelvask led the Rombuli into the mountains until they were lost. And then one afternoon with the sun falling behind the highest peak, they started to descend into a particularly green and fertile valley. This is my home, Nelvask explained and your people can stay for a few months to regain their strength, harvest some grain and build up the cattle. There was plenty of room and the Rombuli settled down in peace that they welcomed after their long hard journey. They forgot in the perfect weather the reasons for running, the turbulence in the world and started to grow into a nation again.”

“ The Rombuli stayed in that hidden valley in the mountains through the rest of the spring and much of the summer. The cattle grew fat on the grass and the children started to laugh again. When Nelvask gave the order to move there was some mutterings among the people, but Edmund Gorland was able to gather up the remnants of his people and behind Nelvask, he led them out of the mountains.”

“ They came out of the mountains down a long twisting path and here into this meadow. Nelvask and the remaining Council members climbed up here where we are sitting and faced the gathered Rombuli standing down there across the meadow. It is written in the Book that Nelvask stood with his arms raised and whether from some magic or the acoustics of these rocks everybody could hear his voice. This is what he said as it is recorded in the Book. " I have led you the Rombuli through the mountains to the comparative safety of this land. Now is the time for us to part. This land is populated by small bands of nomadic tribesmen called the Sandari who also inhabit the grasslands beyond the mountains to the east. There is room for you all to live here and I ask you to do all you can to spare these your brothers. There has been enough killing on your journey here and I to my shame have done my share. How you split up the land, I leave to you and your ancient ways. One thing I ask of you. In the centre of the land is an island at a place where two rivers meet. This island I ask to be made a haven of peace where people can come and sit quietly and commune with their Maker. When the time is right, I will come to the island to be a teacher and a help for all the people of this land. Farewell my friends. May you travel with your Maker and obey his laws.”

“ It is recorded that Nelvask strode from the rock, mounted his horse and rode away into the mountains. As he left, the Rombuli began to sing, the chorus rising into the air until it seemed all the land around was filled with the joyous sound and the mountains sent back echoes to send harmonies through the music. When they had finished singing, they held a meeting in which the land was divided amongst them but of more importance, they agreed to all meet again. Each anniversary of the day they came out of the mountains, they were to meet here and those reaching sixteen the previous year would be accepted into adulthood through the Ceremony of Age. This became know as the Gathering and is still held to this year.”

“ And that is how we arrived in this land. The Rombuli, safe at last from their enemies and from the weather, spread across the land, settling back into their old ways and traditions. Nimmar became the capital. A solidly built town taking the place of the temporary Sandari watering place it had been before the coming of the Rombuli. The island which Nelvask described in the mouth of the two rivers was named the Island of Peace and once the Rombuli were settled, Nelvask returned and set up his school and mission on the island. Thus we grew as a people for the next a few hundred years and then things changed. This part of our history concerns both the only real hero in our past and also the Empire.”

“ Come on Kitty. That is enough for now. Let’s go back and have lunch,” Edward suggested looking at the position of the sun. They walked back to the campsite hand in hand not talking much but happy to feel the other by their side. It’s so easy, thought Edward as they walked. You just think you want lunch and up it comes. Kitty was still thinking about what Edward had been telling her and she was pleasantly surprised to find she had not been bored. Indeed, her affection for Edward was growing and her knowledge of the Rombuli and their history seemed to her vital in her relationship with Edward. After lunch they returned hand in hand to the Council benches and Edward resumed his story.

“ Derek Gorland, descendant of Edmund Gorland who had been leader of the Rombuli during the long trek, was supposed to inherit and look after the family estate in succession to his father. It has always been the tradition in Rombuli that the eldest son inherited the lands and the younger sons received a proportion of the family’s wealth. In the past a lot of the very old families kept the wealth together by sharing responsibility for the family lands and farms. Since settling down after arriving in what was now called Rombuli, the Gorland's had developed a vast estate close to the mountains and the eastern border with Sandaria. As he grew, Derek could not settle into the life of a farmer and estate manager. He had, since returning from his instruction under Nelvask, become the closest to a soldier that any Rombuli had ever been. From an early age, he had explored the land around the estate and become very experienced in woodcraft and tracking. When he was old enough, he joined the scouts who patrolled both the streets of Shardlaw and the surrounding countryside. Soon he became the leader of one the patrols. These patrols also went up into the mountains to keep the Sandaria from crossing the border and raiding the isolated hill farms to take away their sheep.”

“ One day after returning from patrol up in the mountains along the border with Sandaria, Derek was summoned into the study of his grandfather and told to make ready with two of his companions to go to Nimmar. The call from the Council had been urgent but no explanation had been given for the sudden summons. They would have to wait until they were present at the Council to find out why they had been sent for.”

“ When they arrived in Nimmar, they found the Council already in session and it was soon addressed by two of the Sandari, Olave Redring and his son Arlick. These Sandari came to tell the Rombuli of their worries about the great Empire that was pushing up against their borders to the east. The Empire was centred on a far away place called Parison across what is recorded as the great water. Did you have to cross this Great Water to get here when you travelled from Parison with your father? “

Kitty smiled once more. “ In reality it is a great lake with Littleport on the Cloothland side and Faranton on the Sandari side. There are regular sailings between the two ports with all the army personnel and the administrators who travel around the Empire. Parison proper is over three weeks journey on horse back through what were about eight different countries before the Empire came along. It is very boring riding all that way. I did enjoy being on the ship however. We have an estate on an island near Parison and have to travel across the sea from Parison when we visit.”

“ I have never been on a ship or seen any place with more water than the Alskar River which runs through the town. I think I would quite like to go on a ship though I have only seen paintings of ships. Even more I would like to see the sea though even when you describe the sea, I cannot really grasp what you mean. We had a trader once through here who told me all about his voyages across the sea in large boats. Yes I would like to see the sea, ” Edward said almost wistfully. “ Anyway, to continue the Rombuli story. Olave talked about how the Sandari were a scattered nomad people each tribe looking after their own herds and moving around between their grazing lands. It was rare for the Sandari to get together as a nation, more often they would fight over land and grazing rights. Now in the threat from the Empire there was to be a mass gathering of all the tribes at a place called the Rock to decide what to do about the Empire. It seems the Empire had made a request to build trading posts along the main tracks in Sandari so that they could more easily buy mainly the Sandari horses. Olave then stated that he thought if the Sandari were being approached now, the Rombuli would be next. Therefore he suggested that the Rombuli send an ambassador to the Rock to join in the meeting. The Rombuli appointed Derek's grandfather as the ambassador to Sandaria.”

“ The conference at the Rock went on for a number of days but at last it was resolved to at least meet the Empire’s representative. Derek went with Olave and Arlick to meet the delegation from Parison at a place called the City of Dead Spirits, on the shores of the great water. They waited there for a number of days, the Sandari refusing to enter the ruined city because they were nervous of the dead. Their religion including a reverence for their ancestors who they thought helped guide them especially in times of strife. They would not go into the city because it was not the spirits of their people who resided there but some long forgotten race. Derek went into the city and camped on the walls overlooking the lake and the port to observe. It is written that Derek and his two companions were astonished to see the Imperial delegation arrive in a number of very large ships. In a military fashion that Derek had never seen, the large ships waited while soldiers came ashore and secured the dock area. Once this was done, the large ships came alongside the quay and the senior officers disembark. When they were all ashore and gathered on the dock side, there was a very large army detachment waiting to go to the Rock. In smart ranks and with banners flying, the Imperial troops escorted their negotiator back to the Rock with the Sandari riding in an undisciplined fashion all over the plains in supposed escort. The Book makes clear that the Imperial Army was professionally impressive and the Rombuli and Sandari provincial amateurs by comparison.”

“ After the meeting it was decided that Olave for the Sandari and Basil, Derek's grandfather, for the Rombuli should go to Parison to negotiate the treaty with the Emperor. Derek went with his grandfather. The journey to Parison was long, tedious and uneventful, demonstrating the control the Imperial Army held over the roads in the Empire. Parison as you have told me is a very big city and to Derek, as recorded in the book, it was too big. It was also the first glimpse that Derek had ever had of the sea. Do you know he had never seen the sea? Anyway the book records that they were put up in an Imperial guest house for a few days and then taken to the Imperial Palace.”

“ Is it still the same as described in the book? “ Edward asked wistfully. “ It still amazes me that I am speaking to somebody who has been there, this place of legend in our Book of History. Quoting from the Book as far as I can remember there is a bridge leading from the road to the town to the walls of the Citadel. Then they had to climb up a winding road to a vast gate of solid wood bound with iron. The gates opened to reveal a tunnel through the walls. Inside they found a vast courtyard leading to an inner wall guarded by soldiers and a moat crossed by a bridge. Inside the wall was an inner courtyard of flattened gravel but the inside of this wall was lined with stables. Across the courtyard was a third wall enclosing the inner buildings of the Citadel. This wall is described in the Book as being of pinked toned stone decorated with carvings and topped with a sloping tiled roof. The gate admitting entrance to the inner sanctum was lined with bronze burnished to a mirror shine and picked out with the sign of the sun with a serrated fiery edge. Once through this gate, so the Book says, is a vast mansion with steps leading up to the imposing front door. Around the mansion are lawns, shrubs and flowers reflecting their colours in the numerous fountains that shoot their waters towards the sky. Formal cut hedges line the paths some in the shape of birds or animals. Hidden garden shelters are covered in climbing plants where people can meet unobserved by those around them.”

“ Is it really like that? “ Edward almost whispered. “ There is nothing in all my experience which can compare with that.”

Kitty laughed happily. “ That is a very good description of how it must have appeared a few hundred years ago. I have seen drawings of the palace and garden from that time. It has changed since then though. There have been extra wings built onto the house and the garden is much more informal. The wall is a shade of pink stone though and the outer courtyards sound much the same. I wish I were back there seeing the things you describe. No that is not true now that I am here with you but it was a few weeks ago when I seemed so lonely.”

Edward shrugged and continued. “ They were shown into the mansion and made to wait in a small room for what seemed like ages. At last they were taken into an office to meet the Imperial Chamberlain. The Chamberlain handed them the agreement that they had negotiated at the Rock. They were then told that they would be accommodated in the mansion for the night and in the morning they would go before the Emperor's Council to iron out any the last minute changes which either side might wish to make. In the afternoon the signing ceremony will take place and then they could go home.”

“ The next day they went before the Emperor's Council, “ Edward paused and looked closely at Kitty. “ Have you ever had much to do with the Covenenters? ”

“ As little as possible, ” Kitty shot back, her face turning white and her hands starting to shake. “ There were always Covenenters, especially one called Tulka, around the Palace of the Emperor but I kept out of their way. The rumour is that they had a lot of power and could make people do whatever they wanted. Many people whisper that they employ magic but I have never witnessed any magic. Why do you ask? “

“ There is a puzzling passage in the Book of Rombuli History, ” Edward replied hesitatingly not sure of how to phrase what he was going to say. “ It seems, or this is how it is written, that as soon as they got into the room Derek could sense somebody trying to probe their minds. The person doing this was described as dressed in a white robe with a hood and to have a medallion round his neck that glowed. This is the first mention of the Covenenters in our history though they were to play a much larger part later. Anyway, Basil called for a break in proceedings until they had sorted out the problem of the Covenenters. Don't ask me how it is done but when they went back Basil and Derek used their powers, magic if you like, to protect the mind of Olave. The strength of the mental pressure asserted by the Covenenters was very large but Derek and his grandfather managed to withstand the assault. Derek had great satisfaction in putting down the Covenenters and the treaty was finally signed.”

Kitty was once again staring at Edward. “ Are you telling me that one of the Rombuli actually had a mental battle with a Covenenter and won? “

“ That is what it says in the book, “ Edward replied lamely. “ It is the only account we have of how the Empire came to take over our country.”

“ Can you do these mental things? “ Kitty was wide eyed. “ Do all the Rombuli have this power? ”

" Not really. That power was lost by my people some time ago, ” Edward lied easily remembering what his father had told him about hiding from other people his mental abilities. Though he wondered whether he would have enough power to withstand one of the Covenenters.

“ For ten years all went well. The treaty gave the Empire the right to trade with Sandaria, to position sufficient troops to protect their convoys and to build army controlled trading posts by agreement with the Sandari and the Rombuli. Trade had flourished and many Rombuli had become quite wealthy as traders and agents.”

Edward paused, frowning and shaking his head. “ And then it all went wrong. We do not know whose fault it was and anyway the Rombuli Book of History must be biased, even I have to admit that. Some of the Sandari had objected to a sacred place being used to build one of the trading posts and when the Imperial Army took no notice of these protests some hotheads attacked an Imperial Army detachment killing a number of soldiers including their officers. The Imperial Army demanded the hotheads be handed over to face Imperial Justice but the Sandari refused saying that as it had happened in Sandari and the Empire had no jurisdiction, the matter must be handled by the Sandari. The Imperial Ambassador warned the Sandari that the Empire would not tolerate this and that the full might of the vast Imperial Legions would come to Sandaria and capture the hotheads. Still the Sandari refused to hand over their citizens and there was soon a state of war between Sandaria and the Empire. Some people preach that the Empire pushed the Sandari into a position where they had to fight so that Sandari could be absorbed into the Empire.”

“ The Sandari naturally called on their new friends the Rombuli for help and Derek raised an army to go to their assistance though the majority of the Rombuli Council refused to give him support. At the Lintam Ford, the Sandari Fourth Army with their Rombuli allies met the Imperial Army in an effort to keep the Imperial Army from crossing the river and entering Sandaria. At first with the long bows of the Rombuli and the light cavalry of the Sandari, the allies held out. Then Derek saw the white robes of Covenenters among the attacking soldiers and the allies began to lose. In the end, the allied army had to retreat. This they did back towards the centre of Sandaria and the Rock. The Rombuli and a small detachment of Sandari made a stand among the hills leading to the valley of the Rock more to gain some much needed time for preparations of the last defence of Sandaria than in any hope of defeating the enemy. They had learnt that the other parts of the army, one in the southeast near the City of Dead Spirits and one in the North east by Idear and the bridge crossing to Tredich, were both retreating back towards the Rock in some disarray. After a brief fight, the Rombuli were once more in retreat. It is written however that Derek once more confronted and stopped one of the Covenenters, using his sword to ward off the energy blasts of the Covenenter. Walking, riding, staggering and helping each other the whole of the Sandari army streamed towards the Rock ready to make a last stand.”

“ The next morning in the dawn flags flying proudly, the Sandari Army waited on their horses or on foot and watched the Imperial Army descend into the Valley of the Rock. Separate Companies of the Imperial Army wheeled away at a signal and came to a halt at obviously predetermined positions. After an hour and when it was full light, the two armies faced each other across the green grass, silently waiting for the signal for the fighting to start.”

“ The Sandari priests had other ideas about the battle and before the fighting could start they filed out to confront the Imperial Army on their own. One priest faced the line of the rest of the priests, and to the beat of a drum began to chant, his staff end thrust into the ground at his feet. The other priests began to dance. Now you might not believe this but this is what is written. A mist began to form and out of the mist could be heard moaning and lamenting and vague shapes could be seen. A Covenenter rode out of the ranks of the Imperial Army and confronted the Sandari priests. He said that what they were doing, trying to raise the dead was forbidden and it must stop. The Chief Priest of the Sandari laughed but the Covenenters raised his staff, swept the field with blue fire and ordered the dead to rest in peace. The mist cleared as though by magic and the Sandari Chief Priest was flung to the ground. Then the battle began. All day the battle raged but the Sandari were pushed back towards the Rock until defeat was inevitable. Derek said goodbye to his friends and led the remnants of the Rombuli Army back home.”

“ Arriving home Derek found the Imperial detachments left in Rombuli for patrolling the roads, had barricaded themselves into the Gorland estate on the border with Sandari and what is more were in control of the Falls Way which led from Sandari to Rombuli. It was obvious there was no way the Rombuli could prevent the Imperial Army entering Rombuli.”

“ The Rombuli set up their position on the road from Shardlaw to Nimmar in as good a defensive position as Derek could make it. Some Rombuli harassed the Imperial Army with fast hit and run raids as soon as they entered Rombuli. The Imperial Army were drawn onwards to the Rombuli position and because of the terrain had to attack the strong centre up hill. All day the line held and just as it seemed the Imperial Army was going to have to retreat, three Covenenters appeared and turned the tide of the battle. In the end Derek had to order a retreat.”

“ The Rombuli Army and a great many of the people retreated to Alskar where I now live. There Derek called a Council meeting to try to get agreement on what they ought to do. Some were all for fighting on, some wanted to surrender while others hoped to negotiate. Derek with tears in his eyes sent his best friend under the sign of peace and asked the Commander of the Imperial Army to meet him, Derek at the Gathering Field at dawn in two days to take the surrender. If there was agreement, the Imperial Army as not to cross the river until the evening before the surrender. Then Derek told his men to disperse except those who wanted to be with him at the surrender.”

“ Can you picture the scene Kitty? As the light brightened over these fields, the preparations for the end of independent Rombuli were complete. An Imperial Army delegation led by the Imperial Grandmaster commanding the army, flanked by a Covenenter and the Imperial flag party, escorted by his personal cavalry in full ceremonial uniform rode out of the trees down where we are camping and took up their places facing this overhanging cliff and the seat of the Rombuli Council. The Imperial Army was confronted not by a defeated army cowering and asking for mercy. Out there right in front of where we are sitting drawn up on horse back were two lines of horsemen. Above them fluttered the banners of all the major Rombuli families and all the flags of the Rombuli districts. When the first rays of the sun reached the base of the cliff, Derek Gorland rode into view, flanked by a horseman carrying the Gorland banner, a white horse galloping across a green background, on his other side a horse man carrying the Rombuli flag, the black and white with the oak leaves and acorns. Derek's helmet and breast plate gleamed in the morning sun and as he passed down the ranks of silent horsemen, each horseman dipped the banner in salute. When Derek had passed the last horseman he stopped. Out of their ranks rose the Rombuli hymn of hope and farewell echoing away into the mountains. Derek Gorland rode forward then alone and gave a sword to the Imperial Grandmaster as a token of surrender. The Empire graciously gave us limited freedom in Alskar province. Of Derek nobody really knows what happened to him though the Book does hint that he was executed in Nimmar Square.”

“ So you see Kitty, we have our history like you and I wanted you to be here while I explained.” Edward smiled shyly at Kitty Borovic when he finished speaking.

“ Thank you Edward, ” was all Kitty could reply.

They went back to Alskar the next day, riding back into the town as dusk was falling. Edward was quite startled when Kitty lent over her horse’s head and gave him a hug and a kiss right in front of Edward's house. Turning, Kitty rode off up the road to the fort waving as she turned the bend.

The next day Kitty did not come and Edward had to get back to his work in the forge. All day Edward was on edge and rather short with people though he did not know why this should be. When Kitty did not come the next day either, Edward shrugged his shoulders and went back to work cursing himself that he had been taken in by her supposed change of heart. I suppose she used me when she had nothing better to do and has now found better outlets for her energies. Morag, Edward's sister, told him not to be so stupid when he asked her whether he should go to the Fort and enquire. The third day after they had come back from the Gathering Field, Edward knew the answer to Kitty's silence.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Return of the Exiles

Chapter Two

Early the following day, Edward rode out of the yard by the forge and down the street into the Alskar town square. People waved as he passed and his friends called out greetings but he waved back abstractly, his mind on other things. He hardly noticed the Meeting House dominating one side of the square as he crossed towards the broad avenue that led out of town towards the Fort.

The sword, wrapped in a velvet cloth and strapped to the saddle by his leg, dominated his thoughts. He was a little nervous as he considered the likely reception he would get when he arrived at the Fort. Would his work be good enough to satisfy the Imperial Grandmaster? Repairing the sword was the best work he had ever done, he realised from his experience of making weapons. He was confident that the sword was now as good as when it was first made but he still wondered at the reception he would get when he got to the Fort. As he rode away from the town, the Fort came to dominate the landscape and Edward's thoughts as well.

He had passed this way on many occasions either when visiting friends on the farms that surrounded Alskar or when delivering repairs to farmers after completing the work in the forge. However, he had never been inside the gates of the Fort and the thought of passing through those gates added to his sense of heightened tension. In the same fashion as he had problems crossing the bridge into subjugated Rombuli, which had filled him with dread yesterday, now the thought of crossing into another alien place made him apprehensive. The Fort was built of grey stone and had loomed over the area around Alskar for generations. To Edward and all the other Rombuli living in Alskar Province, or Free Rombuli as the Imperial Officials always called it, the Fort was a fact of life. The massive iron bound gates glowered at those who approached but most Rombuli gave the building a wide berth, unless they had business inside. To the Rombuli it was there, solid and immovable like the river which flowed through the town, a fact of their everyday lives. Nobody could ever imagine this towering grey presence not being there above the town. For Edward, there was no conception of a time when the Imperial Army flag did not fly above the gate of the Fort.

The Fort squat above the town, plainly visible to any traveller using the road, huge solid and indestructible. To Edward's father and the other Rombuli who cared, it was a stone symbol of what they called the repression of their people. It was a constant reminder that the Rombuli living in Alskar were not really free even though Imperial officials referred to the province as Free Rombuli. From out of those massive gates rode forth companies of soldiers to guard the roads, patrol the towns, escort Imperial officials and subjugate the population. At any sign of trouble in this province, the soldiers stationed in the Fort were ever ready to intervene. Orders issued by the Army Commander in the Fort had to be obeyed even if they were against the understanding said to have been negotiated by Derek Gorland when the Rombuli had been defeated by the Imperial Army. All this outward sign of power was designed to show the Rombuli they had very little control over their own affairs but deep down for people like Idris Eastland, this bred a sense of frustration even though he had become a wealthy man under the Empire.

The Fort had grown over the centuries, features slowly added as each Army Commander tried to make it more comfortable for the officers and travellers and more impressive to the population in the area around its prominent position. Each extension took away more land from the citizens of Alskar, the walls of the Fort eating more and more into the very fabric of the neighbourhood. It was loathed by a few, it frightened many but most people living in Alskar and the surrounding countryside, tried to ignore it as they went about their day to day business.

Ancient tradition, forgotten by many people but handed down from generation to generation of those trying to keep alive the sense of being Rombuli, claimed that the building of the Fort in this place was a violation of an intensely symbolic Rombuli custom. It was said that before the coming of the Imperial troops and the building of the Fort, the hill where the Fort now stood had been a Hill of Peace where any person could bring their problems and joys in silent contemplation before their Maker. In the shadow of the hill, had been built the Meeting House where the local council met, where the ancient traditions and skills were taught and where the ancient Books, The Book of Guidance and The History of the Rombuli People, could be read, studied and copied. This place, like similar places near all the great towns of the nation, had been in ancient times the main focus of the town. Now that had been violated and the symbols of the Empire represented by the glowering presence of the Fort had taken its place.

Edward had often heard Idris Eastland speak in ringing tones to any who would listen of these ancient traditions and how they should be observed even under the oppression of the Empire. He had watched his father at town meetings, at the Gathering and to friends who came to visit, speak of one of the greatest crimes committed by the Empire. On these occasions in a voice ringing with emotion, Idris would declare that the Empire had levelled the Hill of Peace, pulled up the sacred groves and hedges and built on the site a monument to war, repression and subjugation.

Edward remembered these words of his father as he came closer to the Fort and the resentment of the domination of his life by the Empire filled his thoughts. Actually, in quiet moments, Edward would have to admit to himself that the Empire had very little contact with his life. Indeed, yesterday had been the first time that he had had any real contact with the Imperial Army because any contact between his father's business and the Imperial Officials was usually handled by his father.

Maybe it was the pull of the old Hill of Peace or the effect of the clear spring day but Edward found himself asking his Maker why the Rombuli, who over the centuries had tried to follow His guide to living, should at this time be so down trodden. No direct answer came but it did cross Edward's mind that there was no passage in the Book of Guidance about keeping His followers free from domination by other men. The Book was about how men and women should conduct their lives so that all would live in peace not about some omnipotent God who would look after His followers every waking hour.

As he came closer, Edward could see the gates of the Fort were open. Inside was a flat sandy parade ground and he could catch glimpses of people and horses moving about inside the walls. The sentries on each side of the gate stood rigidly motionless in their spotless blue uniforms, their breastplates highly polished and their golden helmets glinting in the sun. They sprang across the gate swords drawn when Edward came close, barring his way. Pulling his horse to a halt, Edward waited for one of them to speak.

“ What is your business at Alskar Fort? ” the sentry on Edward's right barked never taking his eyes from Edward's face. Why do they all have to shout? Edward thought thinking of Cannoc the day before at the forge.

“ I have an appointment with the Imperial Grandmaster, “ Edward replied nervously while trying to sound important.

“ Dismount and remain here! ” the sentry ordered, turning and marching smartly through the gate.

He returned quickly, nodded to his companion and they returned to their places beside the gate. Edward was left to wait ignored by the sentries.

He stood by the side of the road holding the reins of his horse, seemingly forgotten even by the sentries. For a wild moment he thought of testing their attention by trying to walk through the gate but decided like a coward to wait where he was. All he could see from where he stood were glimpses of soldiers, some on horse back, some on foot, marching or riding across the small patch of parade ground. From the cries of the officers, these men were being drilled. The shouts and commands echoed off the walls, the sand spattered from the hooves of the horses and every so often soldiers in grey uniforms came into view dragging rakes over the sand to make it smooth.

After a while, Undermaster Cannoc strode through the gate and smiled in greeting as though seeing a friend, “ Hello Eastland. The Imperial Grandmaster will see you in his quarters. I have been sent to show you the way. “

Turning without another word, Cannoc led Edward through the gate. Shouting to a soldier standing nearby, Cannoc ordered Edward's horse to be taken away and then strode across the parade ground Edward following.

“ I am sorry about the manner in which I treated you yesterday, ” Cannoc said over his shoulder in a rather formal tone. “ I was under a great deal of strain and pressure from the Imperial Grandmaster. This is my first tour of duty as an aide to such an exulted person. I felt I had failed in my duty because the carriage had gone off the road. When I came to ask you for help, I was trying to get back in his good books by giving the impression that I had everything under control. Actually, I think in the end he was not mad with me but secretly worried about his daughter. I have the feeling he is regretting ever agreeing for her to accompany him on this mission.”

Cannoc talked non stop as he and Edward crossed the parade ground. It was as though the Undermaster had been deprived of companionship for a long time. I suppose I am about the same age, Edward thought as they walked through an archway and along a shadowed passage between two buildings. When they came out into the light again, Edward stopped with a gasp of surprise. Instead of the barren functional flat sand of the parade ground, he saw a garden with shrubs covered in bloom and yellow spring flowers nodding in the breeze in carefully attended flowerbeds. At the end of a twisting path between the flowers and the shrubs, fountains splashed beside a pathed patio in front of an imposing house. He had never suspected that a dwelling like this was hidden behind the walls of the fort.

This was the Emperor's Guest House, or that was how Cannoc described it. It had been built to accommodate important travellers visiting this part of the Empire and contained several large suites of rooms. Cannoc informed Edward as they approached that Imperial Grandmaster Borovic usually stayed in the Commanders quarters in the fort proper but had taken up residence in the guest house because he was accompanied by his daughter.

Cannoc ushered Edward, without hesitation, through the solid oak door, flanked by guards in ceremonial uniforms and held open by a uniformed servant, into a marble floored hall. Leading from the hall to the upper stories of the house was the widest staircase Edward had ever seen. The staircase split in two halfway to the upper floor, the curves joining a gallery that encircled the whole of the upper floor. This made the hall even more imposing, because the ceiling, held up by beams curving together to form a dome, was high above the upper floor. Without slowing, his heels clicking on the marble floor, Cannoc saluted the guards at the base of the stairs and started to climb rapidly. After looking round briefly, Edward had to run to catch Cannoc half way up the stairs.

In this gleaming interior, with its marble statues and paintings on the walls, Edward felt very rustic in his homespun brown woollen jerkin and trousers. Even the uniforms of the soldiers were splendid and made of richer cloth than his clothes. His sense of pride in being Rombuli and not wanting to appear overcome and intimidated by his surroundings, forced Edward to lift his head and fight against the desire to look at the floor. A rather unexpected thought occurred as he walked round the gallery above the hall. All this splendour is here to make ordinary people like me feel inadequate, to feel small in the face of the wealth and power of the Empire. As he was to learn later, such thoughts were nonsense. Though appearing grand to him now with his limited experience of anything but Alskar, he was to come to realise this was only a modest house on the outskirts of the Empire. It was not built to impress anybody but to accommodate Imperial nobles in the style to which they had grown accustomed.

The two sentries standing outside a door the other side of the gallery from the top of the stairs, sprang even more rigidly to attention when Cannoc approached. The door between the sentries opened silently without an audible order as far as Edward could detect and a servant dressed in white ushered them into a small hall. Knocking at one of the doors leading from the hall, he pushed this open and announced Cannoc and Edward to whoever was in the room.

The room they entered was bright with sunlight, facing south towards the great swamp and looking over the vast curve of the Alskar river as it turned towards the east and Nimmar. The ground dropped away from the house, giving an uninterrupted view and looking down on the outer defences of the fort. Couches and chairs were scattered as though randomly around the room on top of a carpet into which Edward thought his feet were going to disappear. A fire burnt low to one side of the room and landscape paintings of what Edward took to be scenes of different places in the Empire lined the walls. Dominating the whole room from the place it hung above the fireplace was a large portrait of the head and shoulders of a middle aged man with greying blonde hair, shaggy eyebrows and steel set lips. It was Edward's first glimpse of likeness of the Emperor.

“ Do you have to invite them in here? “ The petulant voice came from somebody hidden behind the back of one of the settees and was meant to be overheard by those coming into the room.

As Edward walked across the room, Kitty lounging on the settee came into his view. Her blonde hair recently brushed reaching in a cascade to her shoulders, the plain blue of her dress highlighting the golden colour of her skin. Her face glowed without makeup making her look younger than her eighteen years.

She glowered at Edward, her lips pouting and her eyes hard blue. “ You could have met them in the Commanders office and then I wouldn't be disturbed.”

“ I thought you were going to be more sociable this morning Kitty, “ Imperial Grandmaster Borovic remarked with a long sigh. “ Eastland has business with me and there are reasons why I do not want every common soldier in the fort to know what that business is. You can always go back to your room while Eastland is here, if that is what you want.”

Turning to Edward, and in that gesture dismissing his daughter, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic raised his eyebrows but only said, “ Well? “

Without a word, Edward unwrapped the sword and handed it to the Imperial Grandmaster. In his nervousness he glanced at Kitty only to look away quickly to stop any reaction to her fixed stare and what appeared to be obvious dislike. For the second time Edward was struck by the thought of how beautiful and attractive Kitty was behind the superior look she threw in his direction. He tried to hide any trace of interest in Kitty as a woman that might have showed on his face but did not know how successful he was. No mater how objectionable she was, he had to admit that she was very attractive.

Looking less imposing without his breastplate and helmet, the Imperial Grandmaster studied the sword minutely by the light from the window. Holding it loosely in his hand, he tested the balance and went through, what to Edward appeared to be a series of complicated manoeuvres which entailed lifting the blade with a stiff forearm from his side, straight up in front of his nose and straight out from the shoulder at arms length among other actions.

“ It feels good, young man, ” the Imperial Grandmaster commented as he placed the sword in it's scabbard. He rewrapped the velvet cloth and placed this on a table. “ Will you join us for lunch and then stop to watch the parade? ”

For a moment Edward was on the verge of accepting the Imperial Grandmaster's invitation because he was intrigued at the thought of lunching in such exulted company and then watching the Imperial Army from close quarters. One glance at Kitty's expression on hearing her father’s invitation and the plainly audible sigh that escaped her lips, made Edward change his mind. The thought of having to spend time in the company of Kitty Borovic made Edward inwardly shudder even though he still did in a strange way find her very attractive.

“ I am sorry to sound discourteous sir but I must get back to the forge. We have a lot of work to do checking and mending equipment for the farmers just before planting at this time of year. I know you must think my reason is rather trivial but I am no soldier and the planting is more important to the people round here than my watching the Imperial Army.” Besides, Edward thought but did not speak aloud, I have no desire to spend any more time than I have to in Kitty Borovic's company or being the butt for her acid comments or the means for her to take out her frustration on her father.

“ A pity, “ the Imperial Grandmaster murmured, looking rather surprised at Edward's refusal. “ Show Eastland out, Undermaster Cannoc. When I have something else for you to do, I will be in touch. You did a good job with my sword and I have a feeling I can trust you.” He picked up his sword and strode from the room.

Edward rode back down the hill wondering whether he had made a mistake in refusing the Imperial Grandmaster's offer to stay for lunch. What would my father have done in my place? he found himself wondering. His spirits however lifted as the brooding bulk of the Fort receded behind his horse and the familiar houses of Alskar surrounded him. He wondered anew, whether it was the glowering presence of Kitty, her obvious attractions as a woman which confused his sense of rightness as Rombuli or the overriding sense of power lying behind those walls which had sent him scuttling away as quickly as he could move. There was no real answer to the question because he had to admit it was a small part of all those things.

The Rombuli are a very proud people, he thought as he turned for home out of the Town Square. We are proud of our rites that come to us from deep in our history. We are equally proud of the story of the long march that enabled us to arrive in this country all those centuries before. Now we are bereft of our nationhood by the unwanted yoke of the Empire. Now we live under the hidden threat of a forceful compulsion to follow the path of the people of the Empire. This is what makes many people conform to an alien ideology or at least keep as low a profile as was possible. Am I running away in much the same spirit? Edward asked himself.

Inwardly, Edward acknowledged that the Rombuli in Alskar Province were left to get on with their ordinary lives in their own way, allowed to hold their own beliefs about life and to carry out their own rituals concerning their Maker as long as this was done in private. Edward was no fool. He knew, like all the Rombuli, if the Empire desired change in the way in which they ruled free Rombuli, the Imperial Army had the resources, the ruthlessness and the absolute power to enforce the change. For the time being, it suited the Empire to let the Rombuli remain as free as they were but that could change with the any change in the centre of power. How could a rag bag of contradictory individuals steeped in the rhythms of farming, used to waiting patiently for the right weather and the rolling seasons, hope ever to challenge the authority of men like Borovic and the might that backed up that power. The power, represented by what was in the Fort above Alskar, had seeped into Edward's consciousness and by the time he reached home, he was once more rather depressed by the thought of how helpless the Rombuli really were.

Two mornings after his visit to the Fort, what Imperial Grandmaster Borovic had in mind for further service from Edward materialised outside the forge. Edward was concentrating so hard on his job that the first hint he had of something happening was when Chuck's eyes widened as he looked over Edward's shoulder towards the door of the forge. Edward turned to watch Undermaster Cannoc and six soldiers ride into the yard and dismounted. Sitting in their midst was Kitty Borovic. She was dressed in a brown riding habit, her blond hair was tied back behind her ears and she was looking as though she had entered an alien place. If she could have held her nose with dignity she would have, Edward thought.

After dismounting and handing his horses reins to one of the soldiers, Cannoc walked to the entrance to the forge. To Edward, he looked rather embarrassed but his military training came to the fore.

“ Edward Eastland, ” he said rather formally. “ Imperial Grandmaster Borovic asked me to escort his daughter Kitty here. He requests that you ride with her and show her some of the countryside around Alskar.”

Anger was Edward's first reaction, anger at the high handed way the request was being made. Even though Cannoc's request was in the form of an appeal, there was no doubt that he expected Edward to obey. Then, remembering his father had always instructed him to try to be civil to the Imperial Army, Edward managed to submerge his urge to ignore Cannoc. Putting down his tools and wiping his hands on a rag, Edward walked out of the forge into the sunlight.

“ It is a bit inconvenient at the moment, “ he said to Kitty feeling rather foolish talking to her by craning his neck to look up to her sitting on her horse. “ I have a lot of work to do. There are people calling out for .........”

Edward never had a chance to finish what he was going to say. Kitty pouted, frowned and then interrupted in a loud voice.

“ Cannoc has a written order from my father in his pouch but he thought it best to appeal to your sense of duty rather than a written order. If you disobey that order, I could get these soldiers to arrest you.” There was no mistaking the steel in her voice. “ Cannoc thought there would be no need to order you and I must admit I thought you would jump at the opportunity to enhance your reputation by riding with the daughter of the Imperial Grandmaster. Now get your horse and let us go!”

Edward looked at Cannoc and raised his eyebrow in question. Cannoc could only shrug in reply. Turning back to Kitty, Edward stood gazing up into her blue eyes for a moment, letting the silence lengthen between them. When she looked away, he smiled and shrugged.

“ I suppose it is a waste of time standing here arguing with you and an even greater waste of effort making your escort take me back to the Fort. If you will wait a little longer, I will have to go and tell my father where I am going so that he can arrange for my jobs to be covered. You can dismount and come into the kitchen to have a drink while you wait. “ With a smile to himself, Edward helped Kitty from her horse, took her into the kitchen and went to find his father leaving his mother to fuss over Kitty.

Idris Eastland was sitting at his desk in the office at the front of the warehouse going through some papers when Edward found him. He smiled at his son and pushed the papers aside as though welcoming the interruption.

“ Why the thunderous expression Edward?” Idris asked. “ You look as though the job has gone wrong or something equally tragic has happened to you.”

“ I have the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter waiting for me in the kitchen,” Edward growled back. “ She has an order from her father telling me to accompany her on a ride around the district. I told her we were busy but she insisted I carry out her father’s orders. Shall I tell her to go away and let me get on with my work?”

“ Edward, calm down,” his father advised him mildly. “ I have been telling you for I don't know how long we must avoid antagonising the Imperial Army. Go and get your horse and take Miss Borovic on a tour of the countryside around Alskar. I will make sure your work is covered. You never know you might even enjoy yourself.”

Edward stared at his father for a moment unable to understand the calm with which his father greeted the order. With a resigned shrug, Edward strode out of the room and back into the sunlight to fetch Kitty from his mother.

Edward and Kitty rode out of Alskar towards the north, two soldiers riding ahead, two just to the rear and two more some distance back. As they rode through the town, Edward was very conscious of these soldiers surrounding him but Kitty ignored them, used as she was to their constant presence whenever she ventured out. Edward soon became aware of the glances people gave the group as they passed and of the looks of resentment on the faces of people forced to get out of the way by the soldiers. There was obvious resentment at Kitty and her escort in the attitude of the people. What hurt Edward even more were the looks of surprise when they recognised him riding beside Kitty with an Imperial Army escort. He could sense in those looks puzzled doubt as to what he was doing with the daughter of the head of the Imperial Army and it became plain they questioned his motive for being with Kitty. Those looks and the hostility from people he knew began to worry Edward. It was the first time Edward had ever felt vulnerable and had ever experienced open resentment directed at him rather than other people. He began to realise how difficult his position could soon become among the people of Alskar if too many of the towns folk saw him with Kitty and read too much into what they saw.

As they rode, Edward tried to talk, to get Kitty to say something in reply but with very little success. Even his description of the places they passed was met with a stony silence. With a sense of relief, Edward noted noon approaching and turned off the path through some woods to a grass covered clearing bordering the river. It was a favourite spot for young people to come for picnics when they were free during the holidays and when the weather was dry.

Helping Kitty from her horse, Edward said, “ This is a good place to stop for our lunch. It is sheltered from the wind and there is plenty of fresh water.”

“Tell the escort to unload the food here and spread my blanket over there,” Kitty demanded even though the soldiers were already unloading the horses. Edward did as he was told and the soldiers drew away spreading themselves out around the clearing as though to make sure nobody could approach undetected. They were obviously well drilled in this duty.

When Edward returned from making sure the horses were secure, Kitty was sitting on the blanket, her back against a tree making no attempt to get the food from the basket. “ Get me some water in that bowl so that I can wash my hands, “ she ordered not looking directly at Edward. “ When you get back you can sort out the food.”

Edward bit back a reply that sprang to his lips and took the bowl to the river to get the water Kitty demanded. What followed was one of the most miserable meals Edward had ever eaten. Kitty sat upright by the tree, issuing instructions and ignoring all Edward's attempts to talk. In the end Edward lapsed into silence and concentrated on eating.

When they finally arrived back at the forge late that afternoon, waves of relief washed through Edward. He had the feeling of an awkward job well done. This feeling quickly vanished at Kitty's emphatic statement that she would be back the next day to explore the country in the other direction from Alskar to where they had explored that day.

That evening over dinner while his mother and Morag looked on, Edward had a heated argument with his father.

“ I will not go riding with that insufferable woman tomorrow,” Edward stated flatly, after relating the events of the day to his family. “ It was the most harrowing experience I have ever had to endure in my life. You cannot imagine what it is like spending all day in the company of somebody who will not talk to you. All she is capable of doing is issuing orders and criticising whatever I do for her. Nothing is right as far as she is concerned. I will not go out with her tomorrow and that is final.”

“ Oh yes you will Edward,” stated his father equally bluntly. “ Edward we are in a very delicate position here. We have some freedoms in our day to day life but we must never forget that the Empire is in control. Though we may wish we were, we do not have the strength or the courage to openly flout their orders. Therefore it is your duty to the Rombuli people to go through with this so that the rest of us are left in peace.”

“ Duty! Duty! ” Edward raged. “ You were not there father. It was agony. No I will never willingly go for a ride with that girl again.”

“ Yes you will for your family's sake,” his father smiled. “ We have to avoid any specific attention being drawn to us. Look at it this way, Edward. Slowly I am leading our people towards the greater freedom without compromising our independent nationhood. We are doing this without having to become one of them. If you stir up trouble by disobeying and insulting the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter over such a small thing as taking her for a ride, all that I have accomplished over the last ten years could be in jeopardy.”

“ But father, the towns people are giving me strange looks,” Edward protested loudly, his voice rising in volume. “ I get the distinct impression they don't like seeing me with the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter. If this goes on too long, I am going to lose all my friends.”

“ Leave that to me my son, ” Idris said. “ I will let all the towns people know you are acting under orders from the Imperial Grandmaster.”

They continued to argue fitfully for the rest of the evening but with no real passion. Deep down, Edward realised his father was right and he would have to ride out with Kitty the next day. His fathers parting words, said with an amused smile as Edward went to bed, brought him no real comfort. " Of course the decision is yours at the end of the day Edward."

And so the next morning, gritting his teeth and determined that this would be the last time he had to endure this humiliation, Edward rode through the town towards the south of Alskar as he had promised. Kitty was as silent this day as the day before while they rode through the town and beside the river. The people they saw stared at Edward, some showing open hostility but for the most part they soon turned away indifferently, to go about their more important business. For some reason Edward could not quite grasp, he reasoned that Kitty's silence was different. For one thing she appeared to be listening to what he said and looked around as though with interest at the places they passed which he was describing. Every so often he caught the back end of her glances which she directed in his direction but obviously tried to hide by looking at him when she thought Edward's attention was elsewhere.

Once more about noon, Edward found a sheltered spot out of the wind in the lee of a rocky outcrop and some trees. A stream full with the water of the heavy spring rains flowed over some rocks in a miniature waterfall into a small pool, sending spray into the air filtering the sunlight into a rainbow as the water drops were carried away on the breeze. The stream gurgled away from the pool through its banks over a pebble and rock strewn bed making pleasant murmuring sounds as it disappeared into the trees. It was an ideal spot for a picnic, sheltered but bathed in sunlight.

Dismounting, Edward helped Kitty from her horse prepared to silently go through the agonising ritual of the day before. To his surprised she collected the food from the escort and sent them away out of sight further along the stream. Laying the blanket on the ground, Edward left her sitting on the blanket while he went to the stream to fetch some water for Kitty to wash her hands. By the time he returned, Kitty had the food spread out on the blanket and was sitting waiting.

She looked up as Edward placed the water by her side and smiled shyly for the first time since they had met. With that look, Edward suddenly realised how young and vulnerable she was. She is only a girl a long way from home, the thought suddenly struck him as he sat beside her on the blanket.

“ Sit down and let us eat, ” she said almost tentatively as though she did not know what Edward's reaction would be.

They ate in silence but not the silence of tension but of almost companionship. All through the meal, Kitty kept glancing in Edward's direction, smiling whenever their eyes met. When the meal was finished, Kitty helped Edward pack up the remains, went down to the stream to wash her hands and then came back to sit on the blanket with her head resting against the rock. The sun shone in her hair that blew around her face and she flicked it away from her face with a quick gesture of her hand. Not for the first time Edward noticed how beautiful she looked and how young.

After a time she looked up. “ Thank you for taking me out for rides like this around the land, ” she said, her voice hesitant as though she was still frightened of Edward's reaction.

“ I didn't have much choice did I? ” Edward snapped but the hurt expression that crossed her face made him wish he hadn't spoken so harshly. “ I am sorry I spoke like that. It was not necessary. ”

“ It is all right Edward, ” she replied mildly, making an effort to stop Edward's remark ruffling her pride and sense of superiority. “ I must apologise for being so withdrawn and distant yesterday. No, I suppose I must admit I was being very arrogant and superior. Sometimes I cannot stop myself from acting like that when I am with people like you. At times I tend to forget other people have other concerns than looking after my every whim. The trouble is we Borovic’s belong to one of the high families of the Imperial Court and are used to people bowing before us. As a family, the men have always been soldiers and the women marry into the top families of the Empire. You have to realise I have spent almost all my life at the Imperial Court or with my father in some Army outpost. ”

Kitty paused and looked into the distance at the stream and the shrubs, but her eyes were unfocused as though she was seeing pictures from far away. “ You have no idea what kind of a life that is. We do not have to bow before anybody except the Emperor. We always sit at the top table during state banquets and are surrounded by servants. When I am at home, I am always surrounded by other young people like me in Parison at the Imperial Palace. We have nothing to do but look for pleasure. I have never done what you would call work in my life. ”

She looked back at Edward her eyes now focused. “ It is rather different when I come away with my father on one of his appointments away from the Imperial City. He has been the military governor of this province for the last ten years and has been here a few times before that. When I first came here to join my father last year, my brother was here and I had somebody to talk to. He went back to Parison to join the Emperor's personal guard and since then, I have felt all alone. There are a few girls in Nimmar who I meet but they are so provincial. Besides I think they are only friendly with me because of my position and the influence their parents think they will be able to wield by claiming my friendship.”

“ Why did you come to Alskar with your father when you hate the place so much?” Edward asked shaking his head. He truly did not understand. “ Why did you come to Rombuli in the first place when you find life in Parison so wonderful? You must have known you would be on your own a lot of the time and people would try to use you for their own ends. I have never been to Nimmar in my life. Indeed the only time I have ever ventured across the river was when I came to help you last week. Nimmar sounds to me a grand place especially from what I have heard my father's wagon drivers say. But to you it must seem small and dreary. Then to come to Alskar which is even smaller and backward in relation to the rest of the Empire than Nimmar. The only excitement that happens round here are the village fairs and the annual Gathering. ”

“ Now I realise how simple life is here in Rombuli but when my mother died, I thought my father would need me to take her place,” Kitty grimaced. “ I had this vision of grand balls and entertainments with me as organiser and hostess in my mother’s place. Maybe not on the same scale as those in Parison but at least some sort of social round. I know now how wrong my dreams were. When I was in Nimmar before with my parents, I was very young and did not take too much notice of what was going on around me. It was only when I came back after mother died that I found there was very little social life in the provinces. Since I came to Rombuli there has only been one ball and I had to teach most of the local girls how to dance to the latest music, they are so backward. At least some of the young officers had semi competent partners to dance with. ”

Kitty smiled ironically as she continued. “ It was becoming so boring for me in Nimmar, I thought a trip to Alskar with my father would be something new and a diversion from the stifling atmosphere in Nimmar. ”

For the first time since they had met, it was Edward's turn to laugh. “ Now you are finding things even worse out here? Grand Balls, what ever they are, and a social round in Alskar. The high point of the year is the mid summer break, with dancing and eating in the town square. What boring lives we must lead in comparison to yours. ”

“ That is an understatement, ” Kitty too laughed ruefully. “ My father is so busy holding meetings and riding out for consultations, he has no time to talk to me except over an occasional dinner. There is nobody of my rank around for me to mix with except that insufferable ass Cannoc. That is why when father suggested I go for rides round the country with you. I agreed. As you see it is not easy being the daughter of an Imperial Grandmaster especially since my mother died.”

Edward stared at Kitty, his face pulled into a frown. “ I can hear what you say but find it hard to understand. Except for the merchants, officials and the army, who visit my father on business from time to time, I have had very little contact with the Empire. I do not know what the right place everybody holds in your society or how people connect socially to other people. I imagine, to you we are a very simple ignorant people living very narrow lives and not knowing our true place. To most of us though people are people and important as people. We do not care what position they are born into but only what their worth as people now. Obviously there are people like my father who are, because of their wealth or abilities, seen to be more important than say one of his wagon drivers but the wagon driver would think it strange if he was made to bow to my father. It is hard to explain to somebody like you how our society works. Why don't you spend a day with my sister Morag? She is about the same age as you and would love to put you right on why the Empire should depart and leave the Rombuli alone.”

“ If Morag is the girl who hit me when she was looking after that injured soldier, no thank you, ” Kitty exclaimed ruefully. “ That is the first time anybody has hit me like that. Is she always that fierce when she is angry? “

“ Oh come now, how am I supposed to answer that? “ Edward remarked wide eyed but smiling. “ She is my sister and I think she is the most gentle person you could meet. Well she is rather passionate about everybody having the same rights as everybody else especially when they are ill. She has hit me before now when I have said the wrong thing to her. The way you treated me the first few times we met, you and Morag should get along famously! ”

“ You are funny, Edward Eastland, ” Kitty said looking at Edward with wide blue eyes. “ Even though you made it quite plain to me that you did not want to come riding with me, you came out of some sense of duty. I have never come across that before. In my limited experience, there have only been two types of people from the lower orders of society. There are those who do as they are told because they hope to gain something from their obedience and there are those who obey because of fear. The first types do as they are ordered while bowing and scraping, the second just do as they are told. Yesterday was a shock to me. You stood in front of me and made it quite plain you were not afraid. Nor did you give me the impression that you hoped to gain anything from escorting me. I have gained the distinct impression that you came with me not out of any duty to me but out of a duty to your father.”

“ We are a proud people the Rombuli with very strong family ties, “ Edward replied quietly. “ Though you obviously do not believe it, we are a people with a long history of our own. Because of our recent history and our standing with the Empire, my father thinks now is not the time to stir up trouble or unwarranted strife between the Imperial officials and us. You came and asked me to be your guide and made it quite plain you would not take no for an answer. To avoid unpleasantness I agreed to be your guide. I must admit my father did have to persuade me a little.”

Kitty smiled, making her face soft and inviting. “ What you have just said is too simple Edward Eastland. I ask my father about the Rombuli when I got back last night after spending the day with you. I could see he was surprised by my sudden interest but he spoke at length about some of your history, as he understands it. For the first time since I arrived as young lady in Rombuli, I have begun to understand that every peoples have a history beyond the Empire even though we may regard them as ignorant peasants.”

“ If we have the time I would like to take you to the Gathering Field,” Edward said hesitatingly. “ There I could explain more fully about our history. ”

“ I would like that, “ said Kitty. “ I will ask my father if it is possible. “

“ We would have to be away for two nights so it may be impossible to arrange. He might not like to leave you in my care for that length of time,” Edward replied.

“ Leave things to me and I will ask my father. He will let me go if he thinks it is safe,” Kitty said grinning at Edward. “ Do you know you have just confirmed that you came with me not out of any sense of fear. If you had really wanted to refuse to come with me, you would have stood your ground and taken the consequences. Once again I thank you Edward Eastland for coming with me and being so patient.”

Kitty jumped to her feet, bent swiftly before Edward could move and kissed his cheek. Calling for her escort, she started to collect the blankets and place the picnic things into the basket.

On the way back to Alskar, the atmosphere between them was entirely different. All the time they talked as though they had never been anything but friends. Kitty chatted away about her life as the daughter of an Imperial Grandmaster, about living in the Imperial Palace in Parison and what it was like to be part of the Emperor's court. Edward listened fascinated by her tales of grand balls, of the great state occasions and, to Edward, the obvious enormous wealth that surrounded her all the time. It was like a fairy story to Edward and he absorbed all the details, though he could not comprehend some of the things she described.

By the time they reached the forge and the escort rode on with Kitty to the Fort, Edward realised how he had enjoyed their ride home and how he was looking forward to meeting Kitty again.