Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Return of the Exiles


Chapter 4

Three days after Edward had last seen Kitty, Cannoc rode into the yard in front of the forge with an escort of Imperial soldiers. As this had been rather a familiar sight over the last few days, Edward hardly paused in his work. After dismounting from their horses, the soldiers spread out in front of the forge making Jeb reach for his hammer. Edward signalled for him to stay calm but Jeb kept the hammer in his hand despite Edward’s warning frown. Chuck also stopped work, his eyes following Cannoc's every move. Cannoc and a sergeant approached the forge and, putting down his tools and after wiping his hands on a rag, Edward left his work and went out into the sunshine to meet Cannoc. Jeb still clasped his hammer and glowered at Cannoc, despite Edward's warning gesture.

“ Is your father at home?” Cannoc asked without a smile or any form of greeting.

Edward tried to hide his surprise behind his smile. “ Hello Undermaster Cannoc. I think my father is in his office near the warehouse though I can't be sure. I haven't seen him come back past the forge so there is a good chance he might still be there. Come on. I'll show you the way.”

Cannoc fell in beside Edward but did not speak, walking upright and rigid in a very military fashion. Edward began to wonder what he had done to alienate Cannoc so much but this did not stop him asking the question which was burning inside. “ Is Kitty Borovic well?”

Cannoc looked at Edward, his eyes narrow and his lips a thin line. “ The Imperial Grandmaster's daughter has been sent back to Nimmar by her father. She asked me to give you this letter and this is the first chance I have had to deliver it to you. You should be careful in your thoughts about her, Edward Eastland. You might be a pleasant divergence while she was here in Alskar but you are nothing in the eyes of the Empire. You should really forget her as soon as possible and leave any thoughts of seeing her again where they belong.”

For the first time in his life Edward was confronted by open hostility and he did not know how to react. His first instinct was to laugh at Cannoc's attitude but one look at Cannoc's expression made Edward think better of making any comment. Tucking the letter into his belt, all he could do was show Cannoc to his father's office.

Idris Eastland was sitting behind a table checking some documents when they entered. His jacket was flung over a chair and he looked annoyed at the interruption. On noting Cannoc's official expression, he quickly hid his annoyance and stood to receive his guest.

“ Take a seat,” Idris said indicating one of the chairs near the desk. “ How can I help you?”

Cannoc remained standing, rather stiff and formal in his field uniform, every inch the Imperial soldier. “ This is an official visit,” he said flatly. “ I will stand. ”

Idris Eastland smiled faintly at Cannoc’s attitude but resumed his seat noting the annoyed look Cannoc gave him. “ I can see how official this visit is from the way you are standing so stiff and formal. There is no reason why we cannot be comfortable even if we are discussing serious Imperial business.”

Despite Idris’ attempt at friendship, Cannoc remained standing stiffly before the desk, his face grim.

“ I could make you stand in the presence of an Imperial officer, ” his voice grated harshly in the room. “ It is the custom for you peasants to stand when confronted by an Imperial Officer.”

Idris leant back in his chair and smiled again, perfectly relaxed. “ But you won't make me stand, my dear chap, because you need my help.”

Cannoc sighed. “ Enough of this banter, Eastland. I have here a signed order from the Imperial Grandmaster of Alskar and Sandari Provinces. He has asked me to deliver this personally and to impress on you that his instructions are to be followed to the letter or the consequences will be dire. ”

Cannoc reached into a pouch at his side and handed Idris a sheaf of papers.

Idris opened the papers and spread them on the desk. As he read the words, a frown appeared on his face. When he had finished reading the last sheet, he looked up at the Undermaster but did not speak at first. Idris was deep in thought as though he did not know how to respond. Edward stood in the background watching his father and wondering what it could be in the letters to make him so unsure of himself.

At last, his face bleak, Idris spoke. “ You have to understand that this is a busy time of year for my people. They are planting and lambing at the moment and have to take advantage of any good weather. I may be able to get some of them to come but many will be reluctant to leave their work at such short notice. Wouldn't just a number of the Council be sufficient? Those present could then tell the others what was said.”

Cannoc remained stiff and upright, his expression impassive. “ Imperial Grandmaster Borovic told me you would try to stress how busy everybody is at this time of the year. He then impressed on me the importance of making you understand that the order in those papers is quite specific. At eleven o'clock tomorrow all twenty-six of the elected elders of this district will be in the Meeting House in Alskar so that he can address them personally. As the Order in your hand states, the only excuse he will accept for non-attendance will be ill health. He made it plain to me that he is quite prepared to send troops to make sure that anybody not in the Meeting House is really ill. You have no choice but to obey this order. It is given under the powers invested in the Imperial Grandmaster by the Emperor.”

Idris' face remained impassive but his eyes were hard and troubled. “ What will happen to anybody who is not ill but still refuses to come tomorrow? ”

Undermaster Cannoc's expression once more did not change and he replied in a flat measured tone. “ The price of non attendance will be arrest and a trial for treason to the Emperor. Those found guilty will have all their property confiscated. They, their families and anybody who helps them will be deported and forced to work for the Empire outside Rombuli. You should have some idea of what that means. ”

Cannoc paused to let the full import of his words register with Idris before continuing in the same measured tone. “ Though there are many people on both sides who do not agree, the Rombuli in Alskar province have been allowed a relatively free life under the agreement between the Imperial Officers and Derek Gorland. You have to agree that the Imperial government does not interfere in the daily running of this province. For this once you are being asked to obey the will of your guardian and protector. It is not too much to ask of your elders. If I were you, I would make sure that all your elders are in the Meeting House at eleven o'clock tomorrow. I bid you good day. There is no need for your son to see me out. I know the way.”

Undermaster Cannoc saluted in the Parison fashion and strode from the office followed by his sergeant. Edward and Idris could only gaze in silence at the door through which they exited. For the first time in Edward's experience he was feeling the full might of the Empire and he realised there was nothing he could do about it. In that one instant, Edward understood his father's caution in any dealings he had with Imperial Officials.

Idris sat slumped in his chair and slowly re-read the papers that Cannoc had left on the desk. “ I always feared something like this would happen, ” Idris said in a low voice as though to himself. “ One day, I have told myself over and over again, our so-called freedoms will be called into question. What am I to do? ”

Idris sighed deeply and then straightened in his chair. He smiled ruefully at his son and then shrugged. “ All right Edward there is nothing we can do about the order other than to obey. I have no idea what Borovic wants but from the way Cannoc talked it cannot be to our advantage. We will find out tomorrow what the Imperial Grandmaster intents. In the mean time we had better get organised. I have to arrange to contact all the elders about the call to the meeting. While I sit here and draft letters to them all, could you go and round up as many of your friends who can ride as you can find quickly. Between you there will be a lot of riding to do before the day is finished."

An hour latter, Edward and his friends gathered in the kitchen of the house to wait for their instructions. They stood around shuffling their feet while they waited for Idris to arrive. At last he came through the door clutching a sheaf of papers.

“ Thank you all for coming at such short notice, ” Idris said, once he was seated at the head of the table. “ I know it must seem unusual for me to call you all like this but what I want you to do will not wait. I have here an order from the Imperial Commander of the Army in Rombuli. It orders all the elders to be present at the Meeting House tomorrow morning to hear the Imperial Grandmaster. I want you all to deliver my letters to the elders.”

Idris picked up some bundles of letters and handed them around. “ I have split the letters into areas and each of you has to deliver the letters in your bundle. Please be as quick as possible. When meeting the elders you must impress on them the importance of attending the meeting. I don't think there will be any trouble. I will contact the elders who live in Alskar town. Now you have a lot of riding to do and the best of luck.”

Edward watched his friends put the letters into pouches and waved to them as they left.

“ What about me? “ he asked his father when all the others had ridden away.

Idris stood gazing out of the window for a while before turning to face his son. He smiled wearily and said. “ Ha my son. For you I have saved up what could be the hardest task. I would go myself but I cannot be away for that long. You are to ride out to the farm of Mark Fox in the hills. He has to be convinced that he has to come to the meeting tomorrow. He is my friend and I would hate to feel that any thing is going to happen to him and his family.”

Edward's heart sank. “ But father that is thirty miles away. Not only that but I expect he will be up in the hills with his sheep at this time of the year. It could take days for me to find him. And then I know what he is like. He won't listen to what I have to say. Look, father, I know he is one of your friends who you can talk to with you mind. Why don't you contact him like that? He will listen to you.”

Idris sighed again and shook his head. “ I know Mark Fox. Even if I used all my power in thought transfer, he would refuse to answer. You know he represents the hill farmers and only comes into town for the markets and if he thinks things are important. Like all his people, he stays up in the hills and lives his own life to his own rules. They are a slow moving people from the hills but they can get very angry if they think that somebody from outside is interfering with their way of life. The only way to get Mark Fox to come to Alskar tomorrow is if one of us goes up into the hills and delivers the message personally. You are the one who can do this. You have to convince him of the importance of coming and the consequences of not attending. Look Edward, of all the Rombuli, I am the one who has had the most contact with the Empire. Indeed some Rombuli call me a collaborator behind my back but that is irrelevant at the moment. I believe Cannoc when he warns me of the consequences for any of the elders if they do not attend. I would not like any of my friends feeling the full power of the Empire against them just because they were too pig headed to obey the Imperial Grandmaster. Even more, I could not live with the image of my friend Mark Fox's farm being burnt to the ground. Edward you have to ride up into the hills and convince him to come.”

“ They wouldn't burn down his farm just for not attending a meeting, would they?” Edward gasped in horror.

“ Edward you have lived in relative peace and safety as has all the people of this province for a few generations.” Idris replied soberly. “ We must never forget that beneath the outward calm is the iron fist of the Empire. I have no doubt what so ever that if Mark Fox is not at the meeting tomorrow, Borovic will dispatch troops to bring him back to Alskar. Son, I know Mark Fox, indeed we were brought up together. He is very stubborn. If the troops went to his farm, he would resist all their efforts to arrest him. The trouble is, the Army would not rest until they had found him and arrested him even if that means smashing everything he owns to the ground. I know he has power and knows those hills like nobody else but in the end they would find him. If they had to they would call in the white robes. You have never seen a white robe but I have confronted them. You have read of them in the Book. Mark Fox may have some power but his power is nothing beside the white robes. Even I have great difficulty in resisting that priesthood's attempts to search my mind and I am the most powerful of our people in that sense. You have to convince him that it is vital he is in the Meeting House by eleven o'clock tomorrow.”

“ I will go to his farm and try, father but I know Mark Fox as well as you and fear convincing him will not be easy. “ Edward turned and left the room leaving Idris leaning back in his chair with his eyes staring out of the window. Idris was not seeing anything but looking inward and wondering if all of his carefully planned steps to becoming a wealthy trader were about to come to an end.

As soon as he was ready, Edward rode out off Alskar with the words of his father ringing in his mind and the letter from Kitty unopened in his pocket. It was to be a long time before he had a chance to read Kitty's letter.

He headed his horse towards the hills and set as fast a pace as he thought prudent in the circumstances. The woods and the fields he passed were turning green in the spring sunshine and if it had not been for his mission, Edward would have been happy to be out away from the forge on such a bright day. He stopped at noon for a quick meal and to rest his horse in a pleasant copse beside a bustling stream. Soon after lunch the meadows and woods gave way almost abruptly to the stark heather clad rocky hills. The cart track he was following became a path and he had to slow down as the ground became steeper. Edward had to concentrate on the direction he was taking as faint tracks criss crossed the path he was following through the hills and even the outcrops of rock started to all look the same.

Stopping at last at the crest of a hill to let his horse recover from the climb, he looked down into a rock strewn valley where smoke was rising from the chimney of a slate grey farmhouse. Surrounding the farmhouse were fields following the contours of the ground, lined with stone walls and huddled between outcrops of rock. Except for the ground immediately around the house nothing was flat but every field sloped in a different direction making it hard to see if there was anybody among the sheep dotting the fields.

Two dogs stood at the gate stiff legged, hair raised at the back of their necks as Edward approached. Their barking attracted the attention of somebody in the house because a woman of about Edward's age came out into the yard wiping her hand on a cloth. She strode across the yard, her heavy body giving the impression of earthly solidity.

“ Down Spot, Down Patch,” she shouted at the dogs peering at Edward from under her tightly drawn back hair. “ Well! What does Edward Eastland want so far from the bright lights of Alskar? ”

Then she smiled in welcome and her plain face came alive. “ It has been a long time since I last saw you.”

“ Hello Margaret, you are looking well,” Edward said sliding down from his horse. “ I have come to see your father.”

“ What a shame. I thought for one moment you had come to see me!” she said laughing as she waved her hand at the gates that opened with a squeak. “ Come on inside and I will get you a drink. The dogs will not touch you while I am here. Father is in the field at the back of the house lambing. After you have had a drink I will show you the way.”

I see you have the gift, ” Edward projected his thoughts at her and smiled.

Yes, “ she replied into his mind. “ Its funny but neither of my brothers can do that even though my father can.

After Edward had finished his drink, they walked round the back of the house and through a gate in a dry stone wall. The sound of sheep bleating filled the air and they saw several men in the field tending a flock of sheep. As they approached, a big man with a barrel chest and arms that looked as though they could wrestle with a bear walked towards them.

“ Good afternoon, Edward " his voice was deep and powerful but his eyes were hooded and wary. “ What brings you up into the hills? Its a bit out of your normal way.”

Edward handed Mr.Fox the letter from his father. “ My father sent me to find you and deliver this letter. He said to tell you that it is very urgent.”

Mr. Fox read the letter and snorted. “ I have no time to come all the way down into Alskar on some foolish outing. There are hundreds of sheep needing my help at the moment. Tell your father that the meeting can take place without me. Call at the house on the way back and have a meal. It is a long ride back to Alskar.”

With those words, he dismissed Edward and turned back to his sheep. Edward did not intend to put so much authority and power into his thought but the result got Mr. Fox's attention. ” Mr Fox!

Mr. Fox stopped dead in his tracks and then turned to face Edward, his face like thunder. “ Edward, “ his thought sounded in Edward's mind. “ Beware or I will lose my temper with you.

Edward held his ground, his mind locked onto Mark Fox's. “ Father! " his mind shouted not certain whether it would reach over the distance to Alskar. “ Help me!

Idris's startled voice sounded in Edward's mind. “ There is no need to shout!

Edward smiled faintly. “ Sorry. I have Mark Fox here and his mind is open to you. Will you tell him what it is he must do.

Idris's voice was still plain to Edward even though he addressed his thoughts at Mark Fox. “ Mark. I know you live a life free from most contact with the world up there in your farm but this is not the time to keep out of the affairs of our nation. I know how busy you are but I have to insist that you come to Alskar by eleven o'clock tomorrow.

Edward saw Mark's muscles bunch and heard his angry reply. “ And how the hell do you think you are going to make me come?

Mark my friend, “ Idris answered evenly. “ You know I cannot make you come to Alskar. The order that Edward delivered does not come from me but from the Imperial Grandmaster acting with the full authority of the Empire. He had that message delivered to me personally with orders to deliver it to all the Council members.

Bah! “ Mark exclaimed. “ I care nothing for the Empire. I pay my taxes, obey their laws and keep out of the way as long as they leave me alone. This is my land and has been in my family for generations. You tell the Imperial Grandmaster Borovic to come and get me if be wants me.”

Mark. That is just what he threatened to do if any of the elected elders are not in the Meeting House at eleven o'clock tomorrow.”

We can hide in the bills and they will never find us, “ Mark shot back.

I thought you would say that. Idris said. “ The only problem is they will find you. The same order says that anybody who refuses to come will be hunted down and their land confiscated. I believe them when they say this. Do you want to see your flocks destroyed, your house burnt to the ground and all your family and helpers killed?

Mark stood and stared belligerently at Edward for some time and then his shoulders slumped. “ Alright Idris, I believe you, though I wish the time would come when we were able to throw off this yoke they have placed round our necks. I will be there tomorrow at eleven."

Edward let his mind disconnect from Mark's and his father's, surprised that he had the power to hold two minds together. Once released from the power of Edward's mind, Mark shook his head as though to clear his thoughts and then grinned at Edward. “ If your father puts it like that, I have to be convinced. He is one of the few Rombuli who has showed both the strength and moral courage to stand up to them. Have something to eat before you go back. I must organise my sons and the men to carry on while I am gone. May you ride with our Maker.”

After reporting to his father when he got home that evening, Edward at last had a chance to open the letter from Kitty. He found a quiet place in the forge and sat reading the letter.

‘ Dear Edward ‘ it began.

‘ I must apologise for having to leave Alskar so quickly without getting the chance to say goodbye. Even though you may think the worst of me, I would not want you to think that I used you while I was in Alskar and then will forgot you as soon as I had to leave.’

‘ This is not making much sense but all I can say is that my father suddenly decided that the situation in Alskar may become a little tense and has bundled me back at very short notice to Nimmar. Please forgive me for not being able to see you before I left.’

‘ If you ever come to Nimmar, please come to see me. You could come any time because I am sure if I asked, my father would give you a permit. If you came, I could show you around Nimmar and introduce you to all my friends. I will definitely come to see you when I next come to Alskar. ‘

‘ Edward, I would like to think of you as a friend and hope that you like me as much as I like you.

Until we meet again

Kitty.’

It was only a short note written in haste but to Edward it was a wonderful thing. In all his life nobody had ever written a letter to him personally. He puzzled over it's significance and reasoned that he would never see Kitty again but even given those thoughts, it was a wondrous thing. And he had to admit that he had come to like Kitty after the initial problems of their first meetings. He wondered whether he should write but decided to wait until after the Imperial Grandmaster had held the meeting in the Meeting House.

Edward was working in the forge the next morning as men and women began to gather early in his father's kitchen to discuss what Idris thought this meeting was all about. He could not concentrate on the work in hand, Edward found and by the time the group of elders left with Idris, he had packed away his tools and was ready to follow them to the Town Square accompanied by Jeb and Chuck.

When they arrived in the square, other people were gathered in groups in front of the Meeting House talking quietly and waiting for something to happen. Some even stood on the steps which rose from the square on each side of the double doors of the Meeting House to form a platform from which many Chairman of the Council had addressed the crowds with important speeches. There were constant nervous glances up the road leading to the fort but from the town square trees hid the fort from the view of the people. Nothing like this had happened in Alskar for most of the people’s lifetime though a few very old people murmured vaguely about the raising of some local troops to go and fight a war some place when they were very young.

The atmosphere among the people in the square was such that the very air felt shrouded in fear like it was during the fogs that descended over the river in the autumn. The tension and apprehension fairly oozed out of the people waiting so nervously and even the weather seemed to join their mood. After days of bright sunshine, the clouds gathered over the distant hills in great black thunderheads and the wind had turned to the northeast. This sent shivers through the waiting crowd as though they sensed their impending doom borne on those damp, heavy winds from out of the mountains.

As though taking their cue from a leader, the crowds drew back from the front of the Meeting House to line the buildings surrounding the square and silence fell such that the whistling of wind through the branches of the trees on the hill was plainly audible. From out of those trees lining the road leading to the fort appeared a group of soldiers walking their horses in perfect unison. In their midst rode Imperial Grandmaster Borovic, straight backed on his black horse. Into the square they advanced, a troop of soldiers in rows of four in front, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic and his personal guard, and a troop of soldiers in ranks of four behind. Most people could only gasp at the appearance of these soldiers. Gone were the light blue uniforms, shiny breastplates and the crimson cloaks of the officers. In their place was the functionally of the drab grey, dull metal breast plates and dull helmets. This was an army ready for trouble.

What drew Edward's attention away from the soldiers and their appearance of being prepared for trouble was the figure riding beside the Imperial Grandmaster. He or she, for Edward could not tell, was dressed in a white robe with a hood drawn up to hide the face, white boots and gloves. A red sash held the robe in place and there was no sign of a weapon except for a small wooden staff thrust through the sash at the waist. Around the neck was a heavy gold chain with a gold setting holding an amber jewel. This was one of the priests of the Empire said by some to have magical powers though none had ever seen any evidence of this power. It was also whispered that these priests could read men's minds and force any man to do their bidding by shear force of their will. The Covenenters, for this is what they were called, were bound together by training, breeding and secret incantation, so some people said. It was rumoured that Tulka their leader, who resided in far away Parison, was as old as time and was the most powerful man in the Empire.

People stepped back further as the Covenenter approached, fear of the unknown spread by rumour and whispers in the dark. Not one of the Covenenters had ever been seen in Alskar in living memory but the sight of the white robed figure spread dread amongst those who watched. Edward's eyes narrowed and he tried to recall the words of the Book of History but the deeds of the Covenenters written about in those pages gave him no comfort. The magic written about in the Book was unheard of and awesome but he took comfort from the fact that one Rombuli had managed to stand up to their kind. He instinctively raised the barriers to mind penetration as taught by his father. Why a Covenenter should pay any attention to him, he was not sure.

The soldiers spread out efficiently around the square facing the watching crowds and the Imperial Grandmaster's personal body guard dismounted in front of the Meeting House, walking in through the doors to gasps from the crowd. Never had soldiers violated the Meeting House, this place being the property of the Rombuli and should only be entered by Imperial Officials by invitation or that was how they understood the agreement. Borovic, the Covenenter and Cannoc also dismounted looked briefly round the square at the watching people and they too disappeared into the Meeting House.

Edward turned and taking Jeb and Chuck with him walked back up the hill to the forge and started to work again. All around there was tension in the air and even the bird song seemed to be muted. The whole town seemed to pause, to hold its breath waiting to find out what was going on behind the guarded, closed doors of the Meeting House.

Idris sat in the Meeting House on the slightly raised platform with the scribe beside him looking out over the table. On each side of the table sat twelve figures in high backed chairs, their voices a low murmur while all eyes kept glancing at the door. The long table at which they sat was in the middle of the large room. Under the roof of the building was a balcony, reached by flights of stairs on each side of the entrance hall, with benches for people to sit and watch any discussion of the Council in the room below. Under the balcony behind the table were other rows of benches where people could sit and listen to the debates or where anybody not a member of the Council could sit until called upon to speak. The whole system was open and the sessions of the Council could never be held in secret, showing that this building was more than the just meeting place for the elders but the cultural centre of the town. Here celebrations were held as well as town meetings and any other gathering of the people of the town.

At eleven o'clock precisely, the door burst open and the Imperial soldiers entered and ranged themselves around the room in front of the spectator seats which were this morning empty on Idris's orders not knowing how Borovic wanted to conduct the meeting. Behind the soldiers came Imperial Grandmaster Borovic, the Covenenter and Cannoc. They walked round the table behind the elders and ordered Idris to take a seat among the other elders further down the table. Placing his sword on the table, Borovic waved Cannoc and the Covenenter into chairs and looked around the room.

When he was satisfied that all was in order, Borovic addressed the elders. “ Would you all call out your names in order so that they can be checked against our list.”

As each elder called out their name, Cannoc ticked them off against a list he had placed before him on the table. When the last name was called, Cannoc nodded to Borovic. The Covenenter sat and said nothing but his black eyes took in all the people in the room. His gaze seemed to linger on Idris for longer than the others but Idris detected no attempt to enter his mind.

Good,” said Borovic grimly looking round the table at each elder in turn. “ I am glad to see that you all took my orders very seriously and made the effort to be here this morning. I would not have wanted to let loose my army or the Covenenter on any who did not come. I have called you all here to inform you that in the late summer our great Emperor is planning to pay a short visit to Nimmar. He is engaged in a tour of all the out lying provinces of the Empire to see what it is like in all the places he gets reports from. Long live the Emperor!”

All the soldiers sprang to attention and gave the Imperial salute. Idris scowled but remained silent though there were some angry murmurs from some of the elders.

“ Most impressive, “ growled Mark Fox.

Turning to Idris, he went on in a loud voice which could be heard throughout the room. “ Did they bring us all this way just to tell us that and to watch a grown men beating their chests.”

Cannoc glared at Mark Fox and started to rise from his seat, his hand on his sword but Borovic gently pushed him back into his chair. Ignoring Mark Fox, he took a parchment from Cannoc and slowly unrolled it onto the table.

“ This is the proclamation which will be given to each of you. Another copy will be attached to the Meeting House door. What it contains is quite simple. In a week from today at eleven o'clock all able bodied men from Alskar district between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five will present themselves in the square outside the Meeting House. From those present, twenty will be chosen to train as an escort for the Emperor when he arrives in Rombuli: signed Imperial Grandmaster and Governor of Rombuli, Borovic.”

Looking round the room and gauging their reaction, Borovic smiled grimly. “ I do not need to remind you that this is an order with the full authority of the Emperor which must be obeyed.”

When it was obvious that the Imperial Grandmaster had finished speaking, silence lengthened in the room. Around the table the elders looked from one to the other but none dared speak. There was confusion in their ranks, fear in their hearts and so they could not voice their apprehension.

After letting the silence thicken for a few minutes, Mark Fox could not contain himself any longer. “ What does the order mean exactly? “

Borovic smiled faintly. “ What it says. In a week from today every man between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five living in Alskar District will line up in the square outside. A drill sergeant who will be in charge of their training will then inspect them and choose the twenty to form part of the Rombuli honour guard to escort the Emperor when he is in Rombuli. The same thing has been happening all over this Province and we will end up with about one hundred troops to form the guard. Once they have all been gathered together in Alskar Fort, they will be taken to Nimmar for intensive training. Though that has not been decided yet, it is hoped that this will lead to a permanent Rombuli troop in the Imperial Guard. I would like to see each eighteen year old Rombuli serve for a one year spell in the Imperial Army at Nimmar but that is in the future. At this time all you have to make sure is that all your sons are lined up in the square in a weeks time."”

Again there was silence around the table. Each of the elders appeared lost in thought or bowed down by a feeling of helplessness. For many of those present it was the first time they had had such close contact with the full might of Imperial power. Most of them had left the contact with the Imperial Army and officials to others like Idris. Many, coming in contact with the naked power of the Empire for the first time, did not like what they heard or felt. There is not a man, however he feels deep down, who likes to be reminded that he is powerless to defend himself against some other power.

Idris sat straight in his chair and spoke directly to Borovic. “ Is this order legal under the terms of the agreement between the Rombuli and the Empire?”

Once again Idris felt the Covenenter, who had sat silent throughout the meeting, turn his mind in Idris' direction. There was a subtle hint of pressure on Idris's mind but Idris raised his defences against the probing. The Covenenter had gained Idris' full attention however.

Speaking for the first time and directly to Idris, the Covenenter's voice was high pitched but firm. “ Idris Eastland. You are not in any position to question this order. All you have to do is obey and as chairman of the council, make sure all the other Rombuli obey the order. Just make sure that all the men we have requested are in the square in a week’s time. That is especially true of your son Edward.”

Idris felt his blood run cold at the way the Covenenter emphasised Edward's name but he continued to stare defiantly into the Covenenter’s eyes. Suddenly he knew where the true power in the Empire lay and he made this knowledge aware to the Covenenter by addressing his question direct to the Covenenter rather than Imperial Grandmaster Borovic. “ What happens if anybody refuses to come? ”

The Covenenter's chuckle was silenced by a wave of Borovic's hand. Borovic is trying to make the others believe he is in charge thought Idris but I know now where the power lies. Actually, I should have been more aware of that from my time in Nimmar and from my reading of the Book. I must warn Edward.

Sighing deeply, Borovic said. “ Enough of this. Why do we always have to answer these questions and have such a big debate before the Rombuli can do anything? I have lived in this province for ten years and the way in which you behave at times like these still surprises me. Let me make myself plain. Nobody in this room, in the square outside or at home should be in any doubt about the consequences of disobeying this order. The Empire will declare any that are not here in a weeks time and anybody who helps them as an outlaw. They will be hunted down and ruthlessly dealt with. If that is all the questions you have then the meeting is finished. I will leave now and I look forward to seeing you all in a weeks time.”

Imperial Grandmaster Borovic rose to his feet, sheathed his sword and marched from the room followed by Cannoc, the Covenenter and his personal bodyguard. At the door the Covenenter paused, looked directly at Idris and bowed slightly. That bow made Idris even more worried.

Once the Imperial Grandmaster and the troops had left the Meeting House and the doors were shut, pandemonium broke out in the room. Everybody started to speak at once in very loud voices. Idris returned to his seat on the platform and repeatedly banged the gavel in an effort to bring some order to the meeting. Slowly a tense silence descended over the room.

“ Well you all heard what Borovic said,” Idris began banging the gavel as more angry murmuring started again. “ Let me say a few words and then we can decide what to do.”

He took the few nods of agreement and the general silence as approval. “ What upsets me most is the manner in which the proclamation was delivered. There was no need for Borovic to invade our Meeting House with his guards as though we are a rabble that poses some threat to the Empire. If he had come with a request and a proper explanation, we would have listened and been much happier to hear him out. Doesn't he realise that by acting the way he did, in one brief moment he has virtually overthrown all the ancient agreements between the Empire and the Rombuli? The delicate balance of trust painstakingly built over a number of years, the way in which much trouble has been avoided, has been knocked away. Now the old enmities so successfully held in check are right out in the open. The question before us is what are we going to do? ”

Mark Fox spoke then, his hands on the table balled into fists, the knuckles white against the polished surface of the table. “ There is only one thing we can do. That is to ignore the summons and take the consequences. If in a week’s time nobody comes to the square, they will have to decide what to do. If we all stand together, they will find it impossible to act against us.”

There were some murmurs of agreement but John Bailey, the baker, from Alskar town disagreed. “ It is fine for you, Mark, to speak of resistance while sitting up in those hills. Your family might be able to hold out for a while if the Army came but we in the town will feel the full force of the Army very quickly. Against their power we will only be able to put up a token resistance. I reckon we should obey the order, though it hurts me to say this. That is my opinion but I think we should all listen to Idris who has had more contact with the Imperial powers than the rest of us. “

Will Sharp, rubbing hands roughened from years of driving wagons together, shook his head. “ That might be one of our problems. How can we be sure that Idris is not influenced by all the years of contact he has had with them? His son Edward has been overtly friendly with the Imperial Grandmaster's daughter so I am told. They were seen only last week riding through Alskar with an Imperial Army escort looking for all the world as though they were friends. I say we listen to Mark Fox. ”

Idris went white with anger but did not have a chance to respond.

Mark Fox jumped to his feet and banged the table with his fist. “ You will withdraw that remark Will Sharp or I will personally come round the table and beat an apology out of you. Just because you are a waggoner and think you are the toughest person in this room does not give you the right to insult somebody like that. I have known Idris all my life and a truer patriot for the Rombuli nation you would be hard put to find. Idris and I may have our differences but to call him a collaborator is monstrous. Besides he is the only person here who knows anything about the Covenenters. Although I will vote for resistance, I will hear him speak and I will not hear another word against his motives.”

Mark stared belligerently round the table daring anybody to question Idris again and then resumed his seat when there was no further challenge. Slowly colour returned to Idris's face but he remained silent.

“ Idris, “ John Bailey pleaded. “ Tell us what you think. We do not all think like Will Sharpe.”

Idris shook his head as though to clear a fog that had formed in his mind, hunched and then relaxed his shoulders and looked around the table. “ By the rules which govern our council, I take Will's statement as a challenge to the chairman. Therefore according to the rules, I have to stand down so that you can elect a new chairman.”

Idris replaced the gavel in its cradle, collected up his papers and went to sit with the others.

Before anybody else could speak, Mark Fox, his expression like a gathering thunderstorm, again banged the table with his fist. “ This is madness. Instead of concentrating on the real enemy, we are now dividing and arguing amongst ourselves. I therefore propose Idris as chairman. Anybody opposed to my nomination?”

Mark glared round the table but nobody spoke or even looked at him. With a grim smile, Mark Fox resumed his seat.

Almost sweetly in a sugary voice he said, “ I take your silence for agreement. Right Idris, resume your place as chairman of the council.”

Idris took his seat on the platform and looked around the table, a slight smile on his lips. “ As I see things, we have no choice. We are a small community of tradesmen and farmers. None of us has ever been trained in warfare though we are all willing to try to resist if we have to. Two things worry me about resistance. First there is the power of the Imperial Army. If they put out their full might, rebellion would be crushed pretty quickly. Oh I know Mark and some of us could hold out in the hills for a while or we could retreat to the mountains by the mines but we would surely fail. Second there is the Covenenter. We have rarely seen those mysterious priests in this part of the country in my lifetime. I have been to Nimmar as you know a few times on business and have heard what they can do. Even most of you must know some of the stories. They have a power that is hard to fight and I would not like to pit myself against one. I know this goes against your feelings Mark but I think we should obey the order.”

There were general murmurs of agreement and Mark Fox shrugged. “ All right Idris, you seem to have the majority. I will go along with what you say for now but reserve the right to resist if I think that is the right thing to do later on.”

“ Thank you Mark, “ Idris replied. “ Are there any other opinions? If not, we will all convene here in a week’s time. “ The meeting broke up with the resolve to carry out the order.

Idris walked back to his home alone and lost in thought. He was shocked to the core of his being, shocked by two quite different realisations. On the one hand he was shocked that the Imperial powers could overlook centuries of relative harmony under the agreement and desecrate in such a blatant fashion the Meeting House. In addition Borovic had given orders as though they were a captive people without freedom to make their own decisions. What’s more, Borovic had treated them as though they could not be trusted with his soldiers surrounding the square and his troops lining the walls of the Meeting House. All of his adult life, while never losing sight of the fact that he yearned for total freedom, Idris had worked to build at least a semblance of trust and freedom for his people. All that had been swept away in a few minutes and Idris felt betrayed.

What hurt him even more was the attitude of Will Sharp. He had known for a long time that there were whispers behind his back about the way he had built up his business and his relationship to the Imperial officers. That had not really bothered him until today because he felt he had always tried to keep the Rombuli people in the forefront of his mind when he was dealing with the Empire. Besides he had again thought that part of the whispering accusations was to do with jealousy at his wealth rather than collaboration with the Imperial Army. Even the overt mutterings about Edward's friendship with Kitty had not really made him wonder about his position or his attitude to the Imperial Army. But the outburst by Will Sharp and the feeling that if Mark had not intervened so quickly, Will would not have been the only accuser made Idris angry. Then again maybe they are right. Maybe I have used my position to enhance my wealth and in the process become closer to the Empire than I had thought. Am I really a collaborator? he asked himself. He could not answer the question but resolved to think hard about his actions in relation to the Empire in future.

Then a chill set into his heart and he thought about the Covenenter. How did the Covenenter have any idea about his abilities? It must have been the way he was able to shield his mind unlike most of those present. Though the Covenenter had not tried really hard to probe his mind, he must have been able to sense that Idris was blocking his probing. That could of course either mean he was not trying too hard or that he knew that it was a waste of time unless he used a great deal of power. Idris could have asked Mark as one of the mind communicators if he had felt any pressure from the Covenenter but he had not thought of that at the time. Even more worrying was the reference to Edward. How had the Covenenter found out about his son or had the Covenenter made an educated guess?

When Idris reached his home, he went in search of his son finding him in the forge working on the jobs he had abandoned that morning. Sitting on the end of his son’s bench surrounded by the familiar bustle of the forge, Idris outline what had taken place in the Meeting House and his own misgivings about what had transpired. Then he talked about the Covenenter. He felt he had to tell Edward all he had come to know, over his years of dealings with the Empire, about those in the white robes. He especially talked about his experiences in Nimmar on the few occasions he had to go there for business and what he had heard there about the Covenenters.

Idris finished with a warning. “ Next week when you have to present yourself in the Town Square, be wary of the Covenenter if he is there. He has some suspicions about your abilities so try not to demonstrate what you can do.”

Edward looked at his father with raised eyebrows. “ I can shield my mind as you taught me. Do I have to hide that ability from the Covenenter?”

“ Oh come off it Edward,” Idris was angry with his son for appearing to treat the subject so lightly. “ Stop playing with me. Your mind communicating ability is as strong as both Mark Fox and mine put together as you demonstrated the other day when you went to Mark Fox’s farm to carry my message. You not only communicated with me but had the power to stop Mark shutting his mind to my thoughts. Even I can't do that. I can only communicate with one person at a time. Then there is your ability to move things by thought alone.”

“ Father I have seen you do that on many occasions so I am not the only one in this family who has that power. ” Edward protested.

“ Edward, I can lift things like a pen off the desk and into my hand if I am sitting at the desk,” Idris replied. “ I cannot make a hammer or a knife or a saw or a file fly halfway across the forge into my hand. I have tried and the effort leaves me weak and sweating and the tools hardly move. However, I was on the way back from the warehouse late one night when I saw you rack all your tools and tidy up the bench without moving a step. Go on, deny that you can move those things with the power of your mind.”

“ Oh that, “ said Edward trying not to blush. “ I thought that was my secret. I lifted Jeb onto a wagon once when he was drunk and incapable of moving himself. I have never really tested the full extent of my power. Oh, once I did make an arrow stick in the target when it was going to miss.”

“ Well I expect I am the only one who knows and lets try to keep it that way. I would not like to see you confronting the Covenenter next week and then throwing a rock at him by your mind power. Let's try to at least keep that side of your power a secret though you will have to shield your mind if he tries to probe into it."

They did not speak of this again, each leaving the other to face the worry of how much the Covenenter knew and what he might do the next week in the Town Square. Edward did speak to his sister Morag and even she asked him to be careful. Like Edward and Idris but for other reasons, the town nervously waited for the day of the parade to dawn. Like the towering clouds of an approaching thunderstorm, the fact of the meeting hung heavy in the air over the town and everybody was subdued