Thursday, 15 July 2010

The Return of the Exiles: Chapter 1

Edmund J Gubbins

The Return of the Exiles

Book 1
The Rombuli Saga

©Edmund Gubbins 2005

Chapter One

The violent storms of the night, which had rushed across the river and poured down on the land, had passed by the first faint light of day, rumbling away towards the hills and the mountains to the north and west of the town of Alskar. In the soft misty light of the dawn, the land around the town lay sodden under the pale blue, washed out sky. The scattered clouds, all that remained of the towering black thunderheads of the night before were now lit by the rays of the rising sun, turning their edges to pink. So violent had been the storm and so heavy the downpour, miniature canyons had appeared in the roads and tracks which meandered through the town to the central square and beyond to the river. Caught by dams formed by the debris floating on the rush of water during the height of the storm, muddy puddles spread amongst the potholes in the roads, the last mute testament to the storm's violence. In the still of the morning, the sound of the waters rushing between banks bore witness to the fact that the river was now in full flood. The sound of rushing water was amplified as the river flowed fast and full past the ramshackle quays where the barges tied up to load their cargoes before setting out to Nimmar, the Capital of Rombuli. Even now in the comparative calm of the morning, anybody venturing out could quite clearly see how, during the storm, the streets of the town had bubbled and swished with running water. The thatched and slated roofs of the houses had poured water into gardens, turning many a proud vegetable patch into a brown muddy pool. Sudden gusts of wind had bent and buckled trees, shedding branches, which were just starting to bud in the early spring, across the fields and pastures of the countryside.

While the storm had lasted, most of the people living in Alskar town had crouched in their houses, thanking their Maker they did not have to be outside braving the wind and the rain. Others looked out fearfully at the lightening, believing the Gods were angry and fighting each other for supremacy over the heavens. These people made all the correct gestures to ward off the bad luck which can happen if a person sees the Gods during a thunderstorm. Still others hid under the bedclothes, fearful that the storm portended the change of an age and the end to life as they lived it now. All the people of Alskar shuddered at the sound of the thunder and fearfully waited for the storm to pass hoping that their property would be safe from damage. Animals, trembling in their stalls at each blast, had strained against their restraints, raising their noses to the storm and only became calm once the storm had rumbled away into the mountains.

Edward Eastland came out of his house, rubbing his blue eyes to take away the last vestiges of sleep and pulling his broad shoulders back to ease the slight ache of his back muscles. Of medium height but strong build, he looked around to assess the damage the storm might have caused. As he stood looking around the grounds near his home, he ran his fingers through his dark brown hair as though to keep this in place. The yard of beaten earth and cinders in front of the house had turned to mud during the storm and Edward walked warily across this to the gate from where he could inspect the structures for any wind or weather damage. The buildings enclosed three sides of the yard, the living quarters to the left, a forge where Edward spent his working hours in the centre and the stables and sheds for the animals and equipment to the right. The whole arrangement was single storied except for the loft above the stables and had the appearance of having grown rather unplanned from a much smaller earlier construction. This indeed was what had happened as different generations of Eastlands had added parts to or altered the building left by their ancestors.

A large broad shouldered man dressed in a leather apron waved to Edward as he appeared from round the corner of the stables and walked towards the forge. He stood waiting by the door for Edward to approach.

“ Good morning, Edward. What a night! I don't suppose you got much sleep what with all that noise. Clare was so scared, I thought she was going to crush me the way she wrapped her arms round me at every loud bang. It was worth it though having her arms about me like that.” The man's grin was so wide and suggestive as to leave no doubt in Edward's mind about what he was talking.

Edward grinned back affectionately. “ Good morning Chuck. As, unlike you, I do not have anybody to crush me to their breast, I expect I would have slept through the storm but my mother and Morag made so much noise going out just as the storm got going, they woke me up. I even had to get out of bed because Morag left the door banging, she was in so much of a hurry. At least your wife doesn't rush off in the middle of the night to help her mother deliver babies or attend the sick. Still, what they went out for last night was a bit special. It was Matt's wife having the baby.”

Edward had known Chuck for as long as he could remember. Chuck was the son of the man who had helped Edward's father in the forge before Chuck's father had retired. As they grew up, though Chuck was an older boy, they played together along with Matt, the son of one of Edward's father's wagoners. Later, Chuck had taken training as a blacksmith and started to assist his father in the forge and had stopped playing with Edward. Then, on Edward's sixteenth birthday, his father had told Edward that he was finished with play and must give up exploring the surrounding countryside with his friend Matt. From this time, Edward would have to learn the blacksmith's trade from his father and Matt was to go into the warehouse as a packer and loader. Actually, having spent some time during his boyhood observing what went on in the forge and then experimenting in the evenings when all the other men had gone home, Edward had already gained some of the joy of working metal so his entry into the forge was not too much of a wrench.

During the time when he was learning the trade, mending ploughs and other farming implements, something happened which had always puzzled Edward. The Rombuli were forbidden by the Imperial edict to make or carry weapons, Imperial soldiers and administrators making sure the law was obeyed. Only at the time of the Gathering were the Rombuli permitted to carry long bows and swords openly. Even the carrying of knives was looked upon with suspicion by the Imperial troops and only relatively small innocent knives were allowed. All this was especially true whenever the Rombuli gathered in large numbers except at the time of the Gathering and then only at the Field of Deliverance. Being forbidden to carry weapons, it was only natural that the making of weapons by Rombuli craftsmen should also be banned.

Whilst Edward openly learnt his trade by day, in the evenings or late at night after all the others had gone home, his father, Idris Eastland, would come down to the forge and teach Edward the skill involved with making swords, daggers and lances, the weapons of war. We must be prepared in case one day we will need this skill, his father had told Edward quietly. During these sessions alone in the forge late at night, Idris taught Edward to get the balance right, how to make sure the edge was keen and how to apply decorations to the handles. Before his training was over, Edward had a collection of hand made weapons which he could only store away from hidden eyes and get out to look at during a night when he was alone. His father continually warned him about letting the Imperial garrison know about his skill but Edward had no dealings with the Imperial officials so there was little chance of his skill being noticed. All dealings with the Imperial officials involving the forge and the trading business were undertaken by his father.

Whenever duties and work permitted, Idris and his son would go hunting together in the woods around Alskar. It was during these trips, Edward learnt to use the long bow so beloved of the Rombuli people in the legends told by father to son . It was not long before Edward's father noticed that Edward was even more proficient with a bow than Idris, who had been national champion in his younger days. On top of this, although Idris had become an extremely busy man, he had managed to teach Edward about the Rombuli people, about their history, about their customs and religion and about how they as a people had fallen into the hands of the Empire.

As he stood talking to Chuck outside the forge, Edward looked up the road leading passed the home buildings to the warehouses next door. He smiled at the memory of his father getting angry at the idea that the trade and wealth of the Rombuli were controlled by some other nation and not the Rombuli people. Idris had ground his teeth at the idea of the Imperial administrators looking on the Rombuli as provincial, dull and rather slow. As Edward grew in those early years, he understood how determined his father was to beat the Imperial merchants at their own game. At first, Idris fought the authorities without success but each set back made him even more determined to get what he wanted. All he wanted, he said innocently whenever he got the chance to visit the Fort to put his case, was to build a few warehouses on land he owned next door to the forge.

“ All I want,” he would declare, “ is a chance to carry out some local trading. I don't want to travel outside the area in which the Rombuli are free.”

In Edward's early years, the tension this fight brought to his home was reflected in the times of set backs and the way in which his mother tried to keep things calm until she would finally explode. What got to Heather, Edward's mother, was not the arguing with the officials from the Imperial Government but with the Alskar council as well.

“ These are our people and we must keep them on our side,” she had told her husband.

Many of the Rombuli living under the power of the Empire and control of the Imperial Army, were scared that what Idris was doing would bring Imperial sanctions down on their heads. These good citizens were content to keep the traditions of the Rombuli alive in the privacy of their homes. On the holidays, when the Rombuli gathered especially at the Gathering in the autumn, they sang the Rombuli songs as loud as anybody else. Most of the time they wanted to let their patriotism fade into the background and to have the Imperial Army leave them alone. Idris Eastland was not like that. Oh no, Idris Eastland was not like that.

He wanted the Rombuli to have control over their every day lives. He told everybody, including the Imperial administrators who stopped him building his warehouse, that the Rombuli were a proud nation and they could look after their own affairs while still paying Imperial taxes and obeying Imperial laws. Edward was about ten years old when his father finally won. It was a glorious day, even rivalling the day Edward was officially made a man at the Gathering after his sixteenth birthday. Idris Eastland built his warehouse and from that day ceased to be Idris Eastland blacksmith, but became Idris Eastland merchant. He took on other blacksmiths, added a coach and wagon repair shed and business boomed. Now, Idris Eastland had a reputation for honest dealing and would do business with everybody in Rombuli, even the Imperial Army.

After assessing the damage caused by the storm, Chuck and Edward banked up the fires in the forge ready for the day’s work. Briefly, they consulted the list of jobs for the day’s work and agreed on a schedule. That done, they parted to go back to their homes for breakfast.

Edward found his father in the kitchen alone. “ Are mother and Morag still at Matt's house?”

Idris smiled. “ Yes. Your mother went out early last evening and Morag later. I hope everything is all right because they have not sent word to me yet.”

For as long as Edward could remember, his mother, Heather, had assumed a position of helper in need to the women of Alskar. Heather had had two children and then been told she would not have any more. There after she helped tend the sick, bound up wounds, looked after children while their mothers were ill, delivered babies and generally lent a helping hand and a sympathetic ear. Nothing seemed too much trouble and Idris, bound up as he was in building his business, looked on in amused bewilderment as their maid ran his house. At times there were under currents of resentment from the villagers because Heather helped not only Rombuli but travellers and even the Imperial Army. To her a sick person was a sick person and she did not ask questions of how they became sick or where they came from. She tried to heal anybody who asked for her help.

Morag was two years younger than Edward but she had made plain to her father that she was not interested in either marriage at an early age or helping with the business. Morag set out to help her mother tend the needs of the district. There was a difference between Morag and her mother, which soon became apparent to many people. Morag could relieve pain, sickness and mend wounds like nobody else. Edward was not too sure how she did what she did and anyway was too involved with learning his trade to think too deeply about Morag. She was only his younger sister anyway. He had seen her when an accident had happened in the forge or warehouse, run her fingers over the patient and pinpoint exactly what was wrong. It was as though some secret power flowed through her fingertips and gave her a mental picture of what was wrong and where. She could tell her mother how to straighten a broken leg so that it would set properly or even whether a bone was setting right after it had been bound in a splint. On the few times Edward asked her about her ability, she smiled mysteriously and said her Maker guided her mind. Edward was rather sceptical about this but he had to acknowledge whatever it was, it worked.

As Edward was leaving his father's house to start work on Mr. Bailey's plough, Matt strode into the yard from the village. “ Hello, Edward!” Matt called, a big grin lighting up his face, making the bent nose, broken in some fight years before, even more prominent.

“ Well? ” was all Edward needed to ask his oldest friend.

“ It is a girl! ” Matt said, his grin getting even more broad. “ She is so small and delicate, I can hardly believe she is mine.”

Edward looked his friend up and down, noting the broad shoulders, the broken nose set in a round rather flat face and how much taller Matt was than he. With a grin, Edward slapped him on the shoulder and replied. “ I hope she takes after Polly, your wife, because I would hate to meet a girl who looks like you! Congratulations! “

Matt made a threatening gesture and then grabbed his friend’s hand. “ Thank you Edward. You must come and have a drink with me tonight. I must get going or your Dad will give me the worst job he can find for being late. Oh, Morag asked me to tell you she will be home for lunch. ”

“ I'll tell Mrs. Miller when I see her, “ Edward called as he went into the forge. Before starting work he sent Jeb his assistant to let his father know what was happening with Heather and Morag.

Edward, Chuck and Jeb were putting the finishing touches to Bailey's plough when a group of soldiers rode into the yard. They had obviously been riding hard because their uniforms were splattered with mud and the horse’s breath steamed in the cool spring air. The leader wore a uniform that was of expensive cloth and his horse was big, black and well cared for. He was about Edward’s age, fresh faced and clean shaven. Even to Edward, the horse appeared well trained because it stopped instantly on entering the yard while the escorting soldiers fanned out to guard the road and the entrance. Edward, looking at the leader from the shadow of the forge, thought he was no ordinary soldier, though Edward did not have too much experience with which to judge the position in the hierarchy of the army of any soldier.

“ Who is in charge here! ” the soldier ordered, more of a command than a question. He sat his horse as though he considered the task he had been asked to perform beneath his dignity and getting off his horse would make him dirty his boots.

Edward looked from Chuck to Jeb and back. They both grinned and shrugged, hidden as they were from the soldiers by the plough they were working on at the time.

“ I suppose I am, ” Edward replied hardly pausing in his work and only glancing at the soldier. “ Edward Eastland.”

The soldier looked at Edward with the contempt of an Imperial Army Officer from Parison, the capital city of the Empire, for the Rombuli people. There was no doubting his feelings of utter superiority and his distaste at having to be at the forge speaking to a local peasant.

“ You must come with me! ” he ordered Edward in a loud voice but he did not dismount from his horse. “ Bring your two work mates and load a wagon with your tools. There can be no argument.”

Edward was left in little doubt that the order was to be obeyed without question because the tone in which it was issued smacked of the parade ground and instant obedience. Though Jeb and Chuck stopped what they were doing, Edward carried on working.

“ I am sorry but we have to finish this plough for Mr. Bailey. He wants it back this evening so that he can start ploughing his fields tomorrow. Unfortunately, we were a bit late in starting this job because the job we were doing before this one ran into complications. When we have finished this plough, we will come. All you have to do is tell us where you want us to go and what sort of job it is you want us to do. We have to know that so that we can make sure we bring the right tools. It would be a waste of time if we had to come back here because we had forgotten something. We will be there as soon as possible. Now please leave us to get on with this job or we will never get out to you.”

For some reason, the way Edward treated him made the soldier very angry. Drawing his sword, he jumped from his horse and came into the forge. Jeb and Chuck stopped their work on the plough and backed away. Edward stood his ground and noted out of the corner of his eye that Chuck and Jeb still held their hammers in their hands. The other soldiers had also dismounted and were walking menacingly towards the forge. Striding round the plough, the Undermaster, Edward now recognised the uniform, came close to Edward and placed the point of his sword against Edward's throat. Edward stared into the Undermaster's eyes and gripped his hammer harder, calculating whether he would be able to wield his hammer into the Undermaster's groin before the sword was pushed through his throat. Dispassionately Edward calculated that it would be touch and go but thought he might be able to get away without too much injury.

‘ What am I thinking about,’ Edward then thought. ‘ The soldier is a trained killer and I have never hit anybody in my life.’

“ Stop what you are doing when I talk to you, ” the Undermaster rasped through tight lips and grinding teeth, his face red and angry. “ I am an officer in the Imperial Army and an aide to Imperial Grandmaster Borovic, Imperial Army Commander of Rombuli and Sandaria. When I give orders, they come directly from him and must be obeyed. This means you as well as the army. Indeed this especially means the scum of the Rombuli peasants like you. When you address me, stand up straight and call me sir.”

Edward slowly straightened his back and wiped his hands on a cloth but noted that the sword never left his throat.

Father, we have trouble in the forge. ” He projected his thoughts towards his father’s office.

When he was standing upright, he faced the soldier squarely and looked him unwaveringly in the eyes. Slowly Edward raised his hand and pushed the sword point from his throat. For a moment the soldiers knuckles tightened on the sword and then he let the blade drop until it was level with Edward's stomach. This gesture made Edward's flesh crawl even more as he felt the sword point close to his middle

Trying to sound calm and in control of his nerves, Edward said quietly, “ There is no need to threaten me with your sword especially here in my own work shop. You are in the free part of Rombuli at the moment and I do not have to bow down to your every whim without you giving me a reason. All I want to do is finish the job in hand for a client who has been promised this plough today. Once we have finished this job, we will come and help you.”

For a moment the Undermaster looked into Edward's eyes, his sword point twitching close to Edward's body. Then he shouted for his horse before threatening Edward one last time. “ You will come to regret the way you have treated me this morning. I will now go back to Imperial Grandmaster Borovic and get an order to close down your business. I will return with a troop of soldiers to make sure the order is carried out personally.”

As he turned to leave, sheathing his sword as he moved away, he was brought up sharply by the sight of Idris standing silently in the door listening to the Undermaster and his son. Edward sighed and thanked his Maker that his father had received the mental message he had sent.

“ What is the trouble, Undermaster? ” Idris asked, stepping away from the door and in front of the Undermaster. “ I am Idris Eastland, the owner of this establishment. How may we help you? “

His tone was conciliatory but there was no mistaking the hard edge to his words. For the first time since he had arrived, doubt entered the mind of the Undermaster.

“ Your employee here disobeyed the commands I gave him, ” the Undermaster almost shouted as though the very thought of anybody, not least a Rombuli, disobeying any of his commands was beyond belief. “ I gave him an order in the name of the supreme commander of the Imperial Army in Rombuli and Sandaria, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic. ”

“ It is not an employee but my son actually, ” Idris remarked, his tone reasonable but again there was no mistaking the hard edge to his words. “ I will ignore for a moment your threat to close my business down. Just sufficient to say I have a document signed personally by Imperial Grandmaster Borovic giving me authorisation to run my business. Now, what is it you want my son to do? ”

“ As a member of the Imperial Grandmaster's staff, I do not have to justify my orders to the likes of you,” the Undermaster snapped. “ I have the authority and the power to have people flogged and transported to some other part of the Empire for their showing such gross disrespect for my rank. I am a Parison noble and he is only a Rombuli peasant.”

Idris actually laughed and shook his head. “ If you have them flogged and transported they are going to be in no position to help you or the Imperial Grandmaster are they? Instead of climbing onto your dignity and showing us what a superior being you are, why don't you calm down and allow us to discuss your problem like civilised men. Of course, you may have problems with relating us to civilisation but we may be able to understand what you want and then suggest ways to help you.”

For an instant Edward thought the soldier was going to strike his father. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Chuck moving forward his hammer cocked as though he was ready to strike. The escort had drawn their swords and Jeb had moved round the forge until he stood in the door ready to confront the soldiers as they came into the forge. The Undermaster stood stiffly erect, his hand on his sword. The tension in the forge could almost be felt as though an electric storm was coating everything in a blue haze of static electricity.

You hold Jeb and Chuck back there Edward and let me deal with this! ” Idris ordered.

Edward waved his hand slightly at Jeb and Chuck, who put their tools back by their sides and stepped back into the shadows.

With an effort of will which caused the breath to wheeze from his lungs, the Undermaster took his hand away from his sword and waved the other soldiers back to their horses.

When the Undermaster spoke his voice was calm showing that he had his emotions under control. “ You are right, Eastland. This confrontation is getting us nowhere. I am Undermaster Cannoc, aide to Imperial Grandmaster Borovic. We are on our way from Nimmar to Alskar on Imperial business, “ he paused but then continued when he realised his pompous outburst had no effect on his audience. “ We were about two miles from the bridge over the Alskar River when one of the carriage horses lost it's footing causing the carriage to roll into a ditch. One of the carriage wheels is broken and all the baggage spilled into the ditch. There maybe more damage to the carriage but we could not move it to inspect the underside. I was sent here by the Imperial Grandmaster to get help. He specifically told me to contact you because he assured me you would send help without question.”

Idris smiled broadly. “ That is much better, “ he said, his smile taking all the tension out of the situation.

Turning to Edward, Idris said. “ Right Edward. Load the wagon with the necessary equipment and take Chuck with you. When you get to the place where the carriage has been damaged, see what you can do to help these good people. Don't make that face, just do as I ask without any argument. I will help Jeb finish Bailey's plough and get it back to him by tonight. Oh, was there anybody hurt, Undermaster? “

“ One of the soldiers who was driving the carriage has a broken leg but other than that there were only a few bruises, ” Cannoc replied in a tone that gave the impression that as it was only one of the soldiers, it was not important. “ We will deal with him once we get him back to the Fort. ”

“ I'll get my daughter Morag to bring out the trap as soon as she can. She is good at setting broken bones so she can help with the soldier when she gets there. If necessary she can bring him back here. When you get back to the place where the carriage came off the road, give my greetings to Imperial Grandmaster Borovic. Tell him I offer the sparse comforts of my home and lunch. He will be able to clean up and make sure everything is in order before going on to the fort.” Idris patted Cannoc's shoulder much to the soldier’s obvious embarrassment. “ Come in to my house and have a drink while you wait for Edward to load the wagon.”

Before Edward left the forge to help the Imperial Grandmaster, his father drew him aside out of hearing of Cannoc. “ Be careful while you are doing this job Edward,” his father told him his face very serious.

Edward had to suppress a desire to laugh at his father’s expression. “ It is only a routine job, father. Chuck and I have done these jobs hundreds of times.”

Idris still looked serious. “ That is what worries me. For the life of me I cannot figure out why the Imperial Army has to call on the services of a provincial blacksmith for help. They have all the resources they need to get that wagon back on the road. Think Edward! They have all those soldiers and back up staff like blacksmiths at the fort, therefore do not really need you and Chuck. “

“ Maybe the part of the Army which deals with accidents like this are in another part of the province.” Edward remarked with a shrug.

“ Each unit of their Army, even the guard for Imperial Grandmaster Borovic, are trained to look after themselves in enemy territory,” Idris stated emphatically shaking his head. “ No, there is some other motive behind this request. Maybe they are testing us in some way, trying to judge whether we are operating outside our licence. It could be a plan they have for the future. I wish I knew what they were up to. Never mind, there is nothing we can do about it now, so there is not much point in worrying. There will be something the Imperial Grandmaster has in mind so you be careful. Don't show them any more of your skills than you have to. Remember you are only a small time blacksmith whose main job is repairing farm machinery. Make sure you do not let any hint of your other talents slip out while you are there. Go on but please be careful.”

It did not take long for Chuck and Edward to collect the equipment they needed from the forge and load this onto the wagon. Indeed, this was something that often happened and they had a mental checklist that they used before setting out on such a job. As soon as Edward and Chuck were ready, Cannoc told his escort to mount and led the way out of the yard.

As they approached the bridge over the river, Edward felt his stomach go tight. It was not only the hostile stares of the local people at his wagon being escorted by Imperial Soldiers or worry about what he would find when he got to the crash site. Even the worried warnings of his father were not the cause of his distress. No it was something much more fundamental. All his life Edward had looked upon the land across the bridge as alien territory. His father had drummed into him from the time he could walk that to cross that bridge was forbidden. He had often come to the riverbank and stared across wanting so desperately to set foot on the other side but never daring to cross the bridge or swim the river. The experience of Matt and two of his friends did not help his fear. When they were growing up, Matt and the others had tried to convince him to go across but he had refused. Laughing, the other boys had left Edward on the bank and swam the river to the other side. They were gone for a week, their parents almost beside themselves with worry but for all their parents’ enquiries, they heard nothing. Then the boys had been returned after a public flogging in the Town Square. A notice was sent to all parents in Alskar warning them of the consequences of any more children crossing the river without the required permit. The parents would not only lose their children who would be sent to other parts of the Empire to work as bonded serfs but the children's families would have their wealth confiscated as well. Even though nobody really understood why there was this need to stop the boys playing on the other side, no friend of Edward's had ever tried to cross the river again.

Now faced with the prospect of crossing into subjugated Rombuli, Edward felt his knees trembling and pulled the wagon to a halt. For a moment he could not move and Chuck did not say anything to help. Sensing that the wagon was no longer following, Cannoc turned and came back over the bridge.

“ What are you doing? ” Cannoc asked when he was alongside the wagon. “ Come on! Get moving before I get one of my soldiers to drive the wagon for you.”

Edward looked from Cannoc to Chuck trying to still the racing of his heart and loosen the tightness of his muscles. “ I am sorry, “ he said miserably. “ Ever since I can remember my father has warned me about going across this bridge to the land on the other side. When some of my friends went across the river once, they were publicly flogged and their parents fined. I am sorry but it takes a lot of effort on my part to overcome my fear and go across that bridge. I know you won't understand but that is how I feel.”

For the first time since arriving unexpectedly in the entrance to the forge, Cannoc smiled. “ I can understand though not for the exactly the same reason. When I was a boy I used to trespass on a farm near my home and steal strawberries and other fruit. Not too much, just enough to eat. One day the farmer caught me and gave me such a beating. Even now I have to make a real effort to go past that farm whenever I am at home and if I can I take a different route. I always go the longer way. Silly aren't we? At our age and still scared of doing certain things which we know will not harm us. Look, we are going to help the supreme commander of the Imperial Army in Rombuli so I am certain you will not be accused of breaking any law when you arrive there even though you have to cross the bridge. Imperial Grandmaster Borovic is not stupid and what could be more stupid than arresting the people who have come to help. Follow close behind my horse and everything will be all right.”

Cannoc placed his horse directly in front of the wagon, smiled reassuringly at Edward and started slowly forward. Edward swallowed hard and set the wagon horses into motion.

‘ What an idiot,’ he thought. ‘ Twenty years old and still afraid of going across the Alskar bridge. In some ways do men never grow up? ’

On the other side of the river from Alskar town, the land rose gently through grass meadows until it disappeared into a belt of trees near the ridge line. When the road emerged from the trees, it ran gently down into a valley turning sharply right before reaching the bottom. As the road turned, there was a bank on one side dropping steeply into a stream. From the top of the hill, the carriage was visible to Edward, lying on it's side in the stream, one wheel completely smashed. Soldiers were trying rather unsuccessfully to pull it out of the stream and back onto the road. Others were collecting the contents of several boxes and trunks that had spilled over the grass as the carriage crashed down the bank.

When they came level with the place where the carriage had run off the road, Edward stopped the wagon and sent Chuck to assess what was needed to pull the carriage back onto the road. Cannoc motioned for Edward to follow and led the way up a grass slope to a clump of trees. The soldiers’ horses were tethered near the trees and two soldiers stood guard. A few yards away a temporary shelter, no more than a windbreak made of canvass with another canvass sheet as a roof, had been erected. Two people, sitting on trunks, watched through the open front of this shelter as Cannoc and Edward approached.

The man's hair glinted silver in the light of the weak sun and his cloak hung from stiff upright shoulders. The cloak was clasped at the shoulders by golden clips in the form of a mailed fist and beside him on the trunk was a helmet with a golden plume. Beneath the cloak, a breastplate glowed also golden in the light and his boots though splashed with mud were highly polished. He looked Edward up and down with steady grey eyes, the skin around the corners lined and wrinkled as though he spent a lot of time gazing into the distance. Even though he was sitting and Edward could not judge his height, Edward felt he was a man who would quite easily dominate any room into which he walked. The very stiffness of his bearing smacked of the military and of orders being obeyed without question.

“ Back at last Undermaster? “ the soldier said, his voice mild, his face expressionless.

Cannoc saluted by banging his fist on his chest, his body rigid and straight, his eyes staring straight ahead. “ Yes sir! “ he barked, either missing the sarcasm in the words or having no sense of humour or sense of different speech tones. “ This is Edward Eastland. His father sent him in response to your request. He will get the carriage out of the ditch.”

“ How long will it take, young man?” the Imperial Grandmaster asked directly, smiling faintly as he said this. Edward had the strong impression that the Imperial Grandmaster was amused at the reaction of the Undermaster.

Edward could only shrug in reply. “ I am afraid I cannot say yet. Undermaster Cannoc insisted I come to see you before we got started. “ Again Edward caught the faint hint of a smile at the mention of Cannoc. “ I haven't had a chance to look at the damage to the carriage yet but my assistant is down there with your men. Once we have the carriage back on the road, we can fit a jury wheel and get it back to the workshop. My father sends his greetings to you and asks if you would like to join him for lunch at our house. You could ride there while we sort everything out here, have lunch and clean up before going onto the fort.”

“ Thank you, ” he said courteously rising to his feet. “ There is the problem of my daughter.”

Edward looked at the figure wrapped tightly in a cloak sitting on the other trunk and realised for the first time it was girl.

Without thinking, Edward said, smiling in her direction, “ You could borrow one of the soldiers horses and go with your father. I expect we could give the soldier a lift back on the wagon.”

Her reaction was instant and took Edward completely by surprise. She jumped to her feet, the hood of her robe falling away from her head revealing a round face surrounded by golden hair. Her lips were pressed tightly together and her grey eyes flashed menacingly in Edward's face. Edward backed away a pace at this outburst of hostility. He could not help himself thinking even with her face screwed up with anger and superiority, she was very beautiful.

“ Are you going to let him address me like that? He is only a common blacksmith,” she snarled at her father. “ He did not even bow to you as the Rombuli should to show their respect. I hope you have him punished for this. How am I supposed to ride one of the army horsed dressed like this? I would not be able to ride side saddle and I cannot sit astride a horse in this skirt.”

Innocently, Edward looked at one of the trunks on which the Imperial Grandmaster and his daughter had been sitting. “ You could always change into something more suitable for riding. There is plenty of cover in those trees.”

Her hand whistled out so quickly Edward had no time to duck. It struck him a stinging blow on the cheek.

“ Speak when you are spoken to! “ she shouted at the top of her voice. “ I demand you go and find me a proper carriage to take me to the fort.”

Gritting his teeth against the impulse to hit her back, Edward said. “ My sister Morag will be arriving in a buggy soon to look at the injured soldier. You can travel back with her or you can wait with us and come back on the wagon. It is up to you but I am not going back to get a carriage for you no matter what you say or do. I am here to lift your carriage out of the stream and that is what I am going to do.”

Turning on his heel, Edward stalked away to help Chuck but not before he caught once more a glimpse of the trace of an amused smile on the lips of the Imperial Grandmaster. Edward had the distinct impression that the Imperial Grandmaster thought his daughter needed some lessons in humility.

Edward and Chuck started to set out tackles from the carriage to the nearest trees. A Sergeant ordered some of the soldiers to help, taking his orders from Chuck and relaying these to the troops. Even though he had always resented the presence of Imperial soldiers in Rombuli, Edward had to admire the way these elite guards whose job was to protect the Grandmaster and look good during ceremonies, went about the task of helping him. They were well trained and disciplined. With a few barked commands from the Sergeant, they instantly obeyed instructions, working as a team and it was not long before they were ready to lift the carriage upright before pulling it from the stream and back onto the road.

Before Chuck gave the order to start pulling on the ropes, Morag arrived in the buggy. Leaving Chuck to supervise the soldiers, Edward went to meet his sister and after a brief greeting, took her over to the canvass shelter to meet the Imperial Grandmaster and his daughter.

“ This Morag my sister, sir, “ Edward introduced his sister when the reached the spot where the Imperial Grandmaster stood closely watching the efforts to lift the carriage. The Imperial Grandmaster nodded and indicated the place where the injured soldier lay.

Before Morag could move, the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter jumped to her feet from the trunk on which she was once again sitting. “ Come on father, get your horse and the escort together. We have a buggy now and can leave while these peasants get on with their work. We can have lunch and clean up at their house and then go on to the fort. They can all come back on the wagon.”

Edward felt Morag stiffen and he tried to warn her but too late. Angrily, Morag stepped up to the girl and thrust a stiff finger into her chest. Edward had never seen his sister react to somebody else in this way before. Morag did not flinch under the glowering expression of the girl she faced nor did her eyes waver.

Talking slowly and emphasising every word with a prod from her finger, Morag addressed the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter. “ I have driven that buggy out here to take the injured soldier back to my home so that I can treat him properly. It is not leaving here until I have looked at him, made him comfortable and loaded him aboard that buggy. You may think your kind own the world but you had better pay close attention to what I am saying. You had better be warned. If you take one more step towards that buggy before I give you the go ahead, I will knock you flat on your back in the road.”

The girl's face turned purple with rage and she spoke through lips drawn so tightly over her teeth, they were white. “ Father are you going to let this peasant girl speak to me like this? “

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic pulled himself up to his full height and sighed heavily as though the burdens of the world had landed on his shoulders. Speaking sternly to his daughter with all the force of his rank and of her father behind the words, he said very sternly, “ Kitty, go back over there and sit on that trunk until I tell you we are ready to move. These people are trying to help us and until they are finished, please try to keep out of their way.”

Pouting angrily, Kitty Borovic turned her back on Morag and went to sit stiff backed on the trunk. Morag still seemed to want a fight but Edward caught her arm and hurried her over to where the soldier lay groaning. She bent over the leg to gauge how bad the break was and was soon engrossed in her assessment of the soldier’s condition. Seeing the danger of a fight had passed, Edward left Morag to return to Chuck and the carriage.

The carriage was now upright in the stream and the soldiers under the instructions from Chuck were just about to start hauling it back to the road. For a while Edward was much too busy concentrating on the job in hand to pay any attention to Morag and the Imperial Grandmaster’s daughter. After much effort by the soldiers, the carriage was pulled back to the road, where it stood leaning at an angle on the stumps of the broken wheel.

While Edward and Chuck were examining the broken wheel, Morag came over to say that she had done all she could for the soldier out here and he was being strapped to the back of the buggy. By the time Edward had come from the carriage, the buggy was ready to depart. Kitty Borovic sat looking thunderously into the distance on the buggy, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic sat on his horse in front surrounded by some of his personal guard. When Morag climbed into the driving seat, Undermaster Cannoc gave the order to move out and the escort wheeled into motion taking up station on each side of the buggy. As they moved away their pendants, dark crimson with a silver mailed fist, flew bravely from the tips of their lances. At their head rode Imperial Grandmaster Borovic, flanked by his personal guard and followed by his personal standard, red and white stripes with a silver castle in the corner. Even Morag, despite her anger at Kitty's attitude, could not help but be impressed by the way in which the soldiers moved or the precise way in which they controlled their horses.

On returning to the carriage, Edward found a Sergeant and four soldiers helping Chuck jack up the axle ready to replace the broken wheel. Once the wheel was in place, the soldiers started to collect the broken trunks, muddy clothes and spilt equipment that had fallen from the carriage when it had fallen into the ditch. While Chuck checked that the carriage would manage to get back to the forge, Edward helped the soldiers lash the luggage to the wagon. Some of the trunks were so badly damaged, Edward had difficulty in closing them even when he tried to wrap lengths of rope round them. One of these burst completely open as he pushed it into position and the pieces of a sword snapped at the hilt fell to the ground. It was not a weapon but being light and delicate Edward suspected it was used for ceremonial duties.

Holding the two pieces in his hand, Edward could only marvel at workmanship that had gone into its manufacture. He could almost see the loving care which the craftsman had put into its making, almost feel the pride with which the craftsman had presented it to the person who had commissioned its making. Placing the broken pieces into the scabbard and putting it reverently back on top of the clothing, Edward placed the trunk into position on the wagon. All the secret training which Edward had received from his father made him wish he could repair the sword but he sighed and climbed up on the wagon seat ready to drive back to the forge submerging his longing in the words of warning from his father.

It was after lunch when they arrived back at the forge and after making sure the carriage was put into the workshop ready for repair and all the luggage was made ready to be sent up to the fort, Edward went into the kitchen to grab some food. He was on his way back to the workshop, when his father came looking for him.

“ Edward, I am glad I have found you.” Idris greeted him. “ Imperial Grandmaster Borovic is about to depart for the fort. He asked me to fetch you so that he could speak to you.”

Edward bit back a retort about his father acting as a messenger for the Empire, and followed his father into the living room where the Imperial Grandmaster stood by the window gazing out over the river and the town. On hearing footsteps, he turned and smiled on seeing Edward.

“ Well Edward Eastland, I have to thank you for helping me this morning. I have just had to do the same for the excellent meal your mother treated us to at such short notice. We are off to the fort now and I will send a party to collect all the luggage and return the buggy that your father has lent my daughter. You and your assistant would be of great help to me at times of emergency. Have you ever thought of joining the Army? ”

“ I am sorry sir, but I have no wish to enter the service of the Empire,” Edward replied quietly.

“ Just the sort of ignorant remark I would expect from a peasant living in this part of the world, ” Kitty said snidely from a place by the fire where she was sitting unnoticed by Edward when he entered the room. “ Come on Daddy, do we have to spend any more time in this hovel.”

Edward felt a sharp reply rising to his throat but the Imperial Grandmaster cut in before Edward could actually speak. “ Don't take any notice of Kitty at the moment. She is angry at not being the centre of attention. We will pay for your services of course but is there anything else I can do for you? “

It came out before Edward could stop himself and he was very conscious of the sharp intake of breath from his father. “ When we were loading the wagon with the luggage, a broken sword fell out of one of the smashed trunks. I would like to repair it for you.”

Edward said this boldly, as though this was what he did every day of his life but he dare not look at his father. He could almost feet the disapproval washing across the room without looking at his father's face. One thing his father had drummed into his head almost from the time he could remember was that he should never reveal voluntarily any special talent he may have to the Imperial officials.

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic's eyes narrowed for a moment and then he smiled faintly. “ Your father has been singing your praises ever since I arrived, telling me all about your skill with metal but I thought he was talking about ploughs. One thing I do know, something I have learnt from bitter experience. Putting that blade into the hands of the average army weapons blacksmith would be likely to do more harm than good. “

He paused as though weighing up the dangers. “ All right, you can make the attempt to repair my sword but keep in mind that it is precious to me. That sword was given to me by my father when I graduated from the Imperial Army School. He commissioned it from one of the foremost weapons makers in Parison. Take great care and, if it is possible, return it to me tomorrow morning at the fort. I have to review the troops in the afternoon and would like to have the sword in my hand. “

It was great challenge and Edward set about the task as soon as the Imperial Grandmaster had departed. It meant working late into the night and Edward was surprised at the number of times his father came to the forge to check on how the job was progressing. When he had finished the job, Edward slid the sword into and out of the scabbard really proud of his work. Before wrapping it carefully in a velvet cloth, Edward resolved to show it to his father in the morning before he went to the fort. However he found his father waiting in the living room when he came in from the forge. Idris took the sword and examine it minutely and even though he had made no doubt about his disapproval of what Edward had revealed to the Empire, Edward could see that he was proud at the result by the expression on his face as he handed it back.

“ You have done a good job there Edward,” Idris remarked. “ I still think it would have been better if you had not said anything but what is past is past as the saying goes.”

“ I can't think of any harm I have done by letting the Imperial Grandmaster know of my talent as a blacksmith,” Edward said seriously. “ Maybe it will make them think better of us than they do at the moment. It should show that we are not just ignorant peasants.”

“ Edward never think that the Imperial Grandmaster thinks of you as an ignorant peasant. His daughter might but not the Imperial Grandmaster, “ Idris smiled at his recollection of Kitty Borovic. “ What worries me still is the way he managed to get invited back here, get a good look around without being intrusive and then got you to reveal your talents. He is up to something but I wish I knew what it was.”

“ I think you are being too suspicious father, ” Edward replied. “ We had better get to bed so that I can be early on the road to the fort tomorrow to return the sword.”

“ Good night Edward but you be careful when you get to the fort, ” was Idris’ parting remark as they went out of the kitchen and to bed.