Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Return of The Exiles

Chapter 5

A week after the proclamation had been affixed to the Meeting House door by Imperial Grandmaster Borovic, the people of Alskar Province awoke to the realisation that this was the day on which they would find out the fate of their sons. There had been persistent rumours over the week while the people of Alskar and the surrounding countryside waited, that soldiers had been returning to the fort at Alskar from other parts of free Rombuli escorting young men. These men had disappeared into the fort and had not been seen since. Not that anybody from Alskar had actually been to the fort to find out what was happening but the rumours became wilder as the time passed. Before long it was whispered that the men had been in chains though again nobody would admit to having seen the men going into the fort let alone in chains.

The day before the young men from Alskar District had to present themselves in the town square, Alskar town itself was crowded with all the inns and boarding houses full. Many private houses were overflowing with relations and guests staying so that they would not have to travel on the morning of the parade.

On the morning of the parade, the roads leading into Alskar from the outlying villages and farms were crowded with people. They were travelling into the town to observe what was going to happen or to come with their sons to meet whatever fate awaited them in the square before the Meeting House at eleven o'clock. There was naturally an undercurrent of nervousness in the air and not the usual gaiety that accompanied the crowds attending Alskar fairs or other holiday outings. Luckily for those who were going to have to stand in the square, the day had dawned warm and fair especially welcome in early spring. No matter which way people looked or who they consulted, there was no hint of rain.

Long before eleven o'clock, Alskar Town Square in front of the Meeting House was filled with people standing round in groups, talking anxiously among themselves. All the men between the ages of eighteen and twenty five were there with their families looking anxiously up the road to where it came out of the trees, for a first glimpse of the soldiers coming from the fort and escorting Imperial Grandmaster Borovic. The mood of these family groups was sombre and they talked in low voices, some of the mothers holding their son's arm as though to gain a last feel of their boys before they went away. The low sound of the voices gave the appearance that everybody was scared, that laughter would invoke the wrath of the Empire.

To Edward, the morning had been strange and unfamiliar. For as long as he could remember it seemed, though it was in reality only five years, he had arisen first and made ready the forge before breakfast usually accompanied by his assistant Chuck. Today, his father had, however, given everybody in the forge and in the warehouse the day off and all the usual bustle of the morning had strangely not happened. The fires were banked so that they would not go out but no work had been laid out. If Edward had thought about the significance of the day, he would have realised that all over Alskar province business had ceased for the day.

After getting out of bed, Edward had sat with his family and had a late breakfast. After eating he had walked through the growing crowds to the Town Square accompanied by his family. Now as he stood with his family waiting for the arrival of Grandmaster Borovic and the Covenenter, he pondered what his father had meant about having to take care while he was in the square and not reveal his power. He had been very careful all his life to keep his power under control at all times and many of his friends had no idea that he had any power. Even Margaret Fox, who had no compunction in showing anybody her power, had no idea of the extent of Edward's power. She knew that he could communicate with her by his mind but his other powers he had never revealed to her. He resolved to himself that no matter what happened, he would keep a tight grip on his power, as he continued to think of it. This was especially true, he thought if the Covenenter is here.

A group of young men began to gather in the centre of the square and seeing this, Edward said goodbye to his mother and father. Morag held his hand, kissed him and told him to be careful. All his family was warning him to be careful. Having said goodbye, he went to join the group of nervous men in the front of the Meeting House.

Matt greeted him warmly and they stood talking about Matt's baby daughter while they waited for Borovic and the soldiers to come. All the young men standing in the square were trying to appear calm and unconcerned but the way they spoke in hushed tones and the nervous expressions betrayed the apprehension they were all feeling. None of them had ever gone through anything like this before. It was something they had never had to think or talk about. It was something that had not happened to their fathers and so they could not even draw comfort from the experience of their parents. In this they were alone and they deep down looked on the future with dread. Matt told Edward that he did not want to leave his wife and baby but could see no way of protesting or convincing the Army that he should stay behind.

“ Of course,” he added hastily, “ that is if they want to take us away. I wish they would come and we could get this over with.”

All the young men seemed resigned to their fate though Matt did mutter to Edward that the Army would have to force him to come along. When Matt said this and seeing the wild look in Matt's eyes, Edward was filled with concern. Edward realised, however, that there was nothing he could do or say which would help his friend so he tried to make sure the their conversation kept off the subject of leaving Matt's wife and baby behind.

At eleven o'clock, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic rode into the square surrounded by his personal escort and accompanied by Cannoc and the Covenenter in his white robe. The other troops quickly pushed the crowd back to the edge of the square until only the group of young men was left. The soldiers then dismounted and after their horses had been led away, stood facing the crowd with drawn swords making it quite plain to everybody there that nobody other than the young men would be permitted in the centre of the square. Some in the crowd growled at this treatment but soon lapsed into silence when the soldiers glared in their direction.

A sergeant erected a folding table in front of Borovic, Cannoc and the Covenenter near the Meeting House. When this was done Cannoc placed some papers on the table and saluted the Imperial Grandmaster.

Borovic ordered the sergeant to get the young men from Alskar into line and after a great deal of confusion from those not used to being ordered about, a line formed leading around the square to the table. The line slowly shuffled forward, Edward in front of Matt near the centre of the line. When Edward came to the table he called out his name and watched as Cannoc ticked this off on his list. As he walked passed the Covenenter, Edward was very conscious of the Covenenter's black eyes observing him very closely. For some reason the stare from those eyes sent a cold shiver down Edward's back, though whether this was from the eyes or as part of his fathers warning Edward could not tell. It was with some relief that Edward joined his friends in lines forming across the square facing Borovic. He thought he was able to hide from the Covenenter's gaze in the anonymity of his friends.

As soon as all the names had been ticked off Cannoc's list, Borovic gave instructions for the sergeant and two soldiers to inspect the men. As the soldiers started to walk down the lines of men the square fell silent, even the birds seemed to be withholding their song. The slight creak of the soldiers gear was very loud in the air as the tension mounted. The sergeant closely inspected each man, looking them up and down as though checking a prize horse and Edward thought how degrading. Certain men had a red badge fixed to their chest when the sergeant nodded to the accompanying soldiers.

Edward was convinced he would get a badge but the sergeant after giving him a cursory glance moved on. Edward wondered why he had escaped the scrutiny of his other friends and happened to be looking at the Covenenter as the sergeant passed. For a moment Edward felt the black eyes burning into his and the slight pressure of a probing into his mind. With ease he lifted his defences. The penetrating gaze of those eyes scared him even though the Covenenter was some distance away. In one brief moment, Edward was made aware of a power in the depths of those eyes he had never encountered before. This, Edward realised was only a hint of the power which, when fully unleashed, could make men obey no matter what they were ordered to do. Once more Edward felt the probing of his mind but his defences as taught by his father held. That was a small comfort to Edward but it could not stop the fear of the Covenenter that was taking a grip on his mind.

Once the sergeant had inspected all the young men and reported back to Borovic, all those without badges were ordered to disperse and rejoin their families. Around twenty men were left standing in the square and Edward now had some idea why he was not chosen. All the men were of the about the same height, six feet or so, a good three inches taller than Edward. Without glancing back, Edward walked towards his family. He noticed that Morag was comforting Matt's wife and glancing over his shoulder saw that Matt was amongst those still standing in the square. As Edward came to the line of soldiers guarding the townspeople, he heard a roar from the square and turned to see what was happening.

“ I will not leave my wife and daughter!” Matt was standing rigidly facing the Imperial Grandmaster and shouting at the top of his voice. “ I don't care whether the Emperor has ordered me to come with you or not. Tell him to find somebody else to act as his escort!”

Edward stood rooted to the spot. He knew how short Matt's temper was having many times felt its full force as they were growing up together. He also knew that once in the grip of his temper, Mat would lash out blindly at anything or any one who got in his way. In extremes when he could not win an argument by words, Matt used his physical strength to get his way without ever thinking of the consequences until it was too late. Many times Edward had come to Matt's rescue by talking their way out of difficult situations. In desperation, Edward thrust his thoughts into Matt’s mind even though he had never tried this before. Desperately he tried to get through to Matt and make him stop. What Edward found was Matt's thoughts were too full of despair and anger and Edward's mental thrust met a complete blank.

All Edward could do was stand and watch. Very deliberately, Matt tore off the hated red badge, flung it onto the ground and turned away from the centre of the square, ignoring the sergeant’s order to stop. Walking purposely towards Morag and his wife, Matt did not look back. Two soldiers stepped passed Edward, grabbed Matt by the arms and wrestled him to the ground. There was a surge from the crowd and the rest of the soldiers struggled to maintain order. Acting together from long practice, order was restored and silence once again descended on the square.

Suddenly Matt sprung upright and flung the soldiers holding his arms away. Letting out a roar of frustration and rage, Matt rushed across the square towards Borovic. Matt was too quick for the soldiers occupied as they were with the crowd and in one round house swipe he smashed the sergeant out of his way. In a daze, Edward saw the Covenenter come round the table and stand directly in Matt's path.

Edward yelled desperately for Matt to stop, pushed his thoughts into Matt's mind and tried to somehow warn his friend. He was too late. The Covenenter placed his feet firmly apart and calmly drew his staff from his belt. To Edward standing helplessly at the edge of the square everything happened in slow motion. The Covenenter pointed the staff at Matt, murmured a few words that Edward did not understand and blue flame sprang from the end of the staff. Two tongues of flame spiralled together across the square and focused on Matt.

It was as though Matt had run full tilt into a brick wall, so abruptly did he stop. He did not fall however. Like a puppet he was held upright in the blue corona of light, twitching as though having a fit. With another muttered phrase, the Covenenter let the blue light fade and Matt slumped to the ground as though dead.

Edward did not make any conscious decision to move but he soon found himself running across the square towards the place where his friend lay twitching. Skidding to a halt with the dust flying from his boots, Edward sank to his knees beside his friend. Ignoring everybody, he grabbed Matt's wrist hardly able to feel anything because of the racing of his own heart. To Edward it was as though a nightmare had come to life but he knew he would not wake up in a moment but would have to live through the consequences. A slight flutter exploded through Edward and for a while he knelt beside his friend trying to calm the wild beating of his heart on the realisation that Matt was alive.

Looking up Edward saw the Covenenter had not moved. He stood his white robe fluttering in the breeze, his black eyes boring steadily into Edward's. His staff pointed unwaveringly at Edward's chest.

“ Leave him where he is,” the Covenenter ordered, his voice falling like dead leaves into the silence around the square. “ He will be unharmed when he regains consciousness.”

“ You are evil, “ Edward spate out feeling the full force of the Covenenter's mind trying to will him to get up. Edward easily resisted these efforts.

Ignoring the Covenenter while turning to talk to the Imperial Grandmaster, Edward said very slowly. “ Why do you permit this? All he wants is to be with his wife and baby. If your baby were only a few weeks old, wouldn't you resist every attempt to take you away by force? No, I suppose not. All you see is duty to the Empire. Your family and your life can go hang if you get an order from the Emperor.”

The Imperial Grandmaster stood by the table his expression impassive but did not reply.

“ Get up and leave him here. “ The Covenenter ordered in a tone that brooked no argument. “ Go back to your forge and stop interfering in matters which are no concern of yours. I will not forget your defiance and we will meet again.”

Kneeling in the dust by his friend’s side, Edward stared at the Covenenter almost willing him to use his staff.

Go on,’ Edward's mind projected, ‘ make me do what you want’.

For a wild moment their minds locked but Edward resisted the pressure to make him get to his feet. Edward wondered whether he could resist the power of the staff and in his mind he caught a swiftly hidden feeling of doubt in the Covenenter's mind. Still staring at the Covenenter, Edward sensed the tension in the crowd and realised that any false move on his part could result in a riot. Suddenly he understood that too much resistance of the Covenenter by him could result in many people getting hurt. Reluctantly he let his mental defiance slowly drain away. He did not drop his mental defences though.

Shaking his head to clear his thoughts, Edward turned to two of the young men who were staring open mouthed in his direction. “ Come here you two and help Matt to his feet.”

For a moment they looked from Edward to the Covenenter and back as though not certain how to react. Finding no response from the man in the white robe, they came and helped Edward get Matt to his feet. Edward deliberately spent some time brushing the dust from Matt’s cloths. Matt's eyes fluttered and Edward saw that he was coming round. The two men helped Matt back into line leaving Edward alone facing the Covenenter. Edward deliberately brushed down his own cloths after climbing to his feet and approached the Covenenter.

Thrusting his face close to the Covenenter's, Edward said in a low voice that only the one in the white robe could hear. “ We will meet again and I will remember the lessons I have learnt today. You could not compel me with your mind and maybe I could resist the power of your staff. The trial between our wills will have to wait for another time.”

Edward turned away sensing the silent laughter of the Covenenter in his mind. Underneath the laughter however, he sensed doubt in the Covenenter's thoughts as though for once the Covenenter was uncertain of himself.

Ignoring all the soldiers and the Covenenter, Edward walked away from the square. He passed through the crowds without looking back and on up the street towards his home. So absorbed in his own thoughts, he did not hear the sergeant bark the order for the Rombuli to march out of the square or watch as the soldiers remounted. By the time Imperial Grandmaster Borovic lead the column through the trees and on to the fort, he was almost home.

Edward's thoughts were in turmoil. He knew that all the people in the square from Borovic to the humblest soldier and all the residents of Alskar had been cowed by the exercise of power by the Covenenter when he had stopped Matt attacking Borovic. Everybody watching in the square had been struck by their sheer helplessness when Matt had been beaten down by the Covenenter's power. How can we Rombuli ever hope to regain our freedom against the occupiers of our land? most of the people had thought. All they possessed were work callused hands against the power of the Covenenter's mind and will. Even I, thought Edward, one of the few with any hint of power did very little to counter the power of the Covenenter. Though I may have defied him for a little while, in the end I climbed meekly to my feet and came home as though compelled by the force behind those deep black eyes.

What puzzled Edward was not the mental power that had failed to make him move. He had scurried away even though the Covenenter had failed to penetrate his mind. No, it had been the fear of the blue flame that had held Matt suspended like a puppet. Edward had thought about resisting that force but the fear of what it could do to him had finally made him move. Deep in the recesses of his mind, he had not known whether he could resist that force and so had turned away rather than risk a trial of strength.

One thing he had learnt from the experience and he stored this away for future reference like a squirrel hoarding away nuts for the winter to brought out when needed. The amber medallion had something to do with the power of the Covenent. Edward had noticed, even though he was so concerned for his friend, the amber glowing when the Covenenter had uttered those alien words. It had been glowing still when the blue flame had leaped from the staff and had only died away when Edward had turned away after letting go his defiance of the Covenenter.

Edward was sitting in the kitchen having a drink lost in thought when his father, his mother and Morag returned. Idris confronted him straight away.

“ What do you think you were doing there in the square?” Idris demanded leaning over the table and thrusting his face close to Edward's.

“ I was trying to help Matt, ” Edward replied evenly not letting his father's anger intimidate him.

“ You stupid idiot!” Idris almost shouted. “ What have I been trying to get into your thick head since you were a child? We know we have a little power but I keep telling you to keep that knowledge from the Imperial officials.”

“ Father when I saw Matt held in that blue flame, I could not help myself,” Edward replied with a sigh. “ All I could think was that Matt needed my help and I acted on instinct. He is my friend after all.”

“ You should have tried to stop yourself,” Idris shouted beside himself with rage and fear. His fists beat the table to emphasise his words. “ You almost succeeded in starting a general riot out there. Not only that but your mother and I had to stop Morag from coming to your aid. It’s bad enough having one hot head in the family but two! If she had managed to get away, I would have had to intervene and then we all would have been exposed.”

Idris shook his head as though to clear his thoughts and then smiled faintly. “ Now you have confirmed what they have suspected for years. They now know we have some power and will watch us very carefully in future. Still my son, what is done is done. At least they now know that there are people who can resist all their efforts to finally subjugate us all. Actually, in your place I would have acted just the same I suppose. Come on lets have our lunch.”

That night Morag and Edward talked late into the night going over all the happenings of the day. They let their mutual anger and frustration at not being able to resist the Covenenter run its course. Though they knew it was futile, they solemnly vowed to work for the destruction of the Imperial presence in their country. They left the details vague and for another time. Underneath their talk were visions of secret raids on Imperial buildings, ambushes of Imperial troops and the glorious day when they would ride into Nimmar at the head of a liberating army. Then they would take back what was rightly theirs. If he had overheard them plotting in this way, their father Idris would have thought ‘let them dream’ and gone back to the harsh realities of winning freedom by diplomacy or at least gaining some space in which the Rombuli could control their own lives.

Harsh reality did indeed intervene before Edward and Morag could do anything about their dreams. As Edward banked the fires in the forge in the cold light of the early morning and made ready for the day ahead before going indoors for his breakfast, a detachment of soldiers again rode into the yard. This is getting like a bad habit, Edward thought in exasperation as he carried on with his work. There was nobody else around and Edward watched warily as the soldiers spread out around the perimeter of the yard facing towards the buildings. With a sinking heart, Edward, once the soldiers were in place, saw the Covenenter ride into the yard and dismount. Edward straightened and stood watching as the Covenenter walked towards the forge. He sent a mental message to his father and stood facing the white robed figure.

“ Good morning Edward Eastland.” The Covenenter seemed almost cheerful but he spoke aloud rather than use his mind.

“ What do you want?” Edward asked bluntly, pulling his mind into focus and getting ready to counter any mental probing.

The Covenenter chuckled and lent casually against a doorpost. “ You are very interesting among the Rombuli, Eastland. There are not many people in the whole of the Empire let alone this uncivilised backwater who can resist my efforts to probe their minds or my attempts to control what they do. Indeed most of the people we have discovered who have some mental power have been absorbed into the Covenant as priests or helpers. We go out of our way to seek out sources of this power and to deal with them. In that way, we of the Covenant remain strong and focused.”

“ I suppose you have them killed unless they do as you tell them,” Edward said making no attempt to keep the contempt out of his voice.

The Covenenter again laughed as though he was determined to remain calm in the face of Edward’s provocation. “ Oh no Edward. That would be a waste of power. No we offer them a place under our protection and a place where their power is not seen as hostile to other people. Most people jump at the chance to join us. Those who don't, we keep an eye on so we always know were they are. There are not many like you that we do not know about anywhere in the Empire.”

The Covenenter paused waiting for Edward to comment but when Edward remained silent, he resumed. “ Here in Alskar, we have come across one person who refuses to bow to us, one person who has the skill to resist our power. With regard to that person, we have made sure we know what he is doing and where he lives. Then yesterday we found another in Alskar who can resist our power. Is it not strange that these two people live here under the same roof? Don't misunderstand me. Rombuli has always been a strange place when compared to much of the rest of the Empire. In the years since Rombuli was absorbed into our glorious Empire, we have come across a few of your rustic countrymen who are not easily controlled but all of them submit to us in the end if we use enough power. During the Rombuli campaign, we found it was our ability to communicate with our minds that gave our armies so much of an advantage, but this was matched by the same ability among the Rombuli. Once Derek Gorland was defeated and Nelvask the traitor was driven away never to be seen again, we thought we had suppressed all the power in this land. That was never the case. It has remained hidden for years but something like that cannot be hidden forever. No, that is not what is important. Even most of the Rombuli we have discovered to have some power usually submit. What I find fascinating is the complete failure of my power concerns two people, you and your father."

The Covenenter left his words hanging in the air between them like a misty curtain but Edward remained silent. He resisted the pressure on his mind the way his father had taught but did not move. It was with some relief that Edward saw Idris come into the forge tucking his shirt into his pants. Idris took in the scene at a glance but Edward could only answer his fathers raised eyebrow with a shrug.

“ Ha Idris Eastland, good morning to you. “ The Covenenter bowed slightly in Idris' direction. “ Now you are both here I can say what I came here to say.”

Idris stood looking from the Covenenter to Edward and back as though he did not understand what was taking place. It was not difficult for him to realise he had missed most of the conversation between his son and the Covenenter and was puzzled by the relaxed attitude of the Covenenter and Edward's almost calm expression. This appeared to contrast with the way the Covenenter had spoken to him when he came into the forge. To Idris it was as though he had interrupted a verbal joist to which he was not a party but was now being sucked into it's mysteries against his will. He did notice however that Edward hardly took his eyes from those of the Covenenter as though he was alert to any sudden moves or attacks.

“ What is it you want?” Idris asked bluntly thinking quickly that there was no point in playing mind games with the Covenenter.

The Covenenter again chuckled. “ Idris Eastland, I am here to keep an eye on you two. Why else do you think a Covenenter would concern himself with the Imperial Army making a routine rounding up of Rombuli youth to serve their Emperor? The army has enough power to crush any rebellion without any help from me. They have managed quite easily in the rest of the province, as you must have noticed with the young men being escorted into the fort. So I am keeping my eye on the only source of power in the Empire which we, the Covenant do not control. There is something else though.”

The Covenenter looked straight at Edward. “ Edward I would like you to accompany the Imperial Grandmaster and his troops to Nimmar. You will be his guest and under his command. This is an order of the Emperor just as the one to your friends the other day. I would have left it to the soldiers or that insufferable Cannoc but having some idea of your powers, I thought I had better deliver the invitation myself.”

Idris gasped but Edward did not react. His mind raced as he tried to weigh up his options. “ I thought the men you wanted were all chosen the other day,” Edward remarked trying to keep his voice as soft and calm as possible. “ There is too much for me to do here for the farmers and the merchants for me to come to Nimmar. I cannot accept your invitation.”

Edward made his words sound brave but deep down he knew it was only a small defiant gesture. The force of the mind blast the Covenenter threw at Edward without any sign of gathering his force while still leaning casually against the doorpost was staggering. It rocked Edward back on his heels even though he was ready when it came. It was more powerful than anything his father had shown him but with an act of supreme willpower, Edward made his mental defences hold and forced himself to regain his balance and step forward a pace while still remaining upright. In a gesture of pure exhilaration, Edward stared directly into the Covenenter's eyes.

With his feet planted firmly on the ground and no longer leaning negligently against the doorpost, the Covenenter tried to make Edward move. Eyes blazing he poured more and more power at Edward. Clutching at straws and feeling his resistance giving way, Edward focused on the glowing medallion and the power being channelled through the stone helped him resist. It was as though by opening his own mind to the other power Edward was able to draw off a little of that power and use this to augment his own.

Sweat broke out on the Covenenter’s brow but still Edward resisted. After a while The Covenenter let his power drop and wiped away the sweat running down his face with a large white handkerchief. He cast a fierce glance at Idris standing wide eyed and motionless staring at Edward, and then turned once more to Edward.

“ If you resist any more, I will have to force you to come,” the Covenenter grated between his teeth. His hand moved to his belt and he drew out his staff. The amber jewel still glowed and Edward could not help seeing a vision of Matt caught in the blue flame. Shuddering inwardly, he smiled slightly and could not help getting in a last defiant word before giving way before that staff.

“ You could not force me with your mind so you will have to use your staff. Are you certain I will not be able to resist even that pressure.” While he was talking, Edward watched the staff intently bracing himself to resist if the blue started to arc across the distance between them.

Whether it came from within his subconscious or from some outside source like his Maker, Edward suddenly knew what to do. Tumblers seemed to drop into place in his mind and he caught a vision of a man surrounded by a pulsating glowing white power shield. In a detached way, drawing on the knowledge he had just gained he started to erect his shield until his skin tickled.

“ No Edward! “ Idris yelled in order to penetrated his concentration. “ Not now. Not here. The time is not yet come. We need you to fight a latter battle.”

Edward felt it then, his mind still locked with the Covenenter. A slight shiver of doubt went through the Covenenter's mind and the point of the staff wavered. Triumphantly Edward realised he had won this particular battle, that he had finally really faced down a Covenenter but he shut the feelings of elation out of his mind. Letting the shield die, Edward stood facing the Covenenter. Like a beast at bay eyes wary and watchful, the Covenenter lowered his staff and let the light in the jewel die also.

Standing rigid in the doorway, Idris let out an audible sigh of relief as though he had begun breathing once more.

Smiling to himself, Edward walked over to where the Covenenter stood still full of doubt. “ All right. You have demonstrated that you have all this power but I have shown you that I might be able to resist. Now, I will come with you without your having to make me because that is far safer for my family and friends. We will however do it my way. First we will go into our kitchen and have breakfast. Then I will pack properly. Once I have packed, I will say a proper goodbye to my family. Why not join us for breakfast? ”

The Covenenter stared at Edward as though he did not know how to respond, as though he had never had to face the fact that there were people other than the Covenent who could resist his power. Then he smiled, the hood falling away from his head and his black eyes sparkled in face haloed by long black hair. Laughing, he bowed slightly and stepped back to let Edward lead the way.

The Covenenter sat in the kitchen talking to Idris after breakfast while Edward endured his mother and Morag arguing about what he should take. Finally they had compromised and packed what they could into saddlebags. Edward's mother chattered away, warning him of all possible dangers and in the end Edward let his irritation drop when he realised that his mother was trying to hold back her own fears as to what would become of her son in the months ahead. At last they conceded that Edward was ready and followed him out into the yard. Edward said goodbye to his family, hugging his mother, kissing Morag for the first time and hugging his father in turn. When he was ready, Edward unlike his friends of the previous day rode away from home with the best wishes of his family ringing in his ears.

When they reached the fort, the Covenenter left without a glance at Edward, to go back to the guesthouse at the rear of the complex. The leader of the troop wasted no time and ushered Edward into a building overlooking the parade ground. Cannoc sat behind a desk reading some papers.

Looking up, Cannoc actually smiled in greeting which made Edward more nervous than when he was facing down the Covenenter. Even the Covenenter had made disparaging remarks of Cannoc. “ Good morning Eastland. You took a long time getting here. We were expecting you over an hour ago.”

“ We were delayed by a discussion between the Covenenter, my father and myself. Then we had breakfast together while I made up my mind about coming. It took a great deal of persuasion on the part of the Covenenter to help me make up my mind.”

Cannoc looked puzzled, not really following Edward's sarcasm but hid his surprise by trying to sound efficient and in control. “ You are not here to join the others who are going to be trained to become the Emperor's escort. You are here to lead a team which we have got together to do something else. The Imperial Grandmaster himself will brief you later on what you are to do. I have the job of finding you accommodation and introducing you to your team.”

With those remarks Cannoc dismissed Edward and a soldier led him across the parade ground. They entered a building that looked like all the other buildings inside the wall of the fort and the soldier took Edward down a corridor to small room sparsely furnished with a small table, a chair and a bed. Edward's saddlebags were already in the room by the bed so he assumed that this was to be his room while he was staying in the fort.

“ You will stay in this room while you are here,” the soldier said looking distinctly unhappy in Edward's company. Rumour of my confrontation with the Covenenter has already swept the fort, Edward thought. “ Come along with me and I will show you where the others in your group are accommodated.”

He once again led Edward out of his room, along a short passageway and into a large room, the walls of which were lined with bunks. A group of about twenty men and women looked up from where they were sitting as the soldier led Edward through the door.

“ This is Eastland, He is here to organise you, “ the soldier told the group. Turning to Edward he said. “ Somebody will come to collect you when the Imperial Grandmaster has the time to see you. Be ready to come immediately.”

The soldier left the room leaving Edward with the group of people, none of whom he knew even by sight. There was silence in the room and Edward suddenly realised they were all waiting for him to speak.

“ I’m Edward Eastland and I am a blacksmith by trade, “ he said as a way of breaking the ice. “ I expect you all know each other by now. Maybe it would be best if you all introduce yourselves to me. We can then have a guess at what we are supposed to do. Like you all, I have no idea why I am here.”

They introduced themselves one by one and Edward found he was among a group of blacksmiths, furriers, saddle makers and tailors. They seemed to be expecting him and when he asked why, he was told that the soldiers had told them to wait until their leader arrived when all their questions would be answered. Edward was a little embarrassed at being looked upon as the leader but decided not to query their assumptions. He found through further questions that some of them had been in the fort for a week waiting for something to happen.

“ What do you think is going to happen to us? “ a large blacksmith asked rubbing his unshaven chin with knarled and calloused hand.

“ I have no real idea, “ Edward replied honestly as he acknowledged each in turn. “ Looking at our skills, it appears they want us to supply our troops out there with equipment. Don't worry. I have a feeling that I will be called before the Imperial Grandmaster soon and given our instructions. In the mean time, have we access to the fort workshops? ”

“ Yes, they are at the end of the passageway, “ answered the blacksmith.

Edward took them to the workshops and set them the task of familiarising themselves with the equipment that they might have to use. Edward felt it was far better giving them something to do rather than let them sit around worrying about the future. He wanted to take their minds off the fact that for most of them this was the first time they had been deprived of their freedom. I am not a leader he thought but it seems sensible to me for their minds to be occupied with something.

Once they were all fully employed, Edward went back to his room leaving them alone and trying to give the impression that he trusted them. Outside the window of the room he had been allocated was a balcony looking out over the parade ground and Edward took a chair outside. He sat watching Matt and his friends making ragged attempts to get to grips with riding horses in harmony. In other circumstances what Edward saw would have been very funny. Indeed he could not stop a grin crossing his face, though he tried to hide this if one of his friends looked in his direction.

The riders on their own farm bred horses were trying to cope with unfamiliar orders from shouting drill sergeant. The riders bumped into each other, turned right when they should have turned left, ran when they should have walked and some horses snorting in protest dumped riders unceremoniously into the dirt of the parade ground. All attempts at ordered riding usually ended in chaotic mess in the middle of the parade ground. Irritably, muttering about the insanity of their superiors who had had this mad idea to recruit these farm boys and try to make them into soldiers, the drill sergeants sorted things out and took their own particular group back to the edges of the parade ground and tried again.

“ They are making rather a mess of things at the moment aren't they? “ A voice in Edward's ear made him turn.

Cannoc was standing behind Edward watching the efforts of the Rombuli to ride in unison but he was not laughing at them.

“ They are doing their best,” Edward defended his friends almost automatically.

“ They will improve once they arrive in Nimmar. There they will be given properly trained army horses to ride. Even though things are a bit chaotic, I can see that some of them are fair horsemen. With proper horses, they will soon get the hang of things. I have come to take you to see Imperial Grandmaster Borovic.”

They found Borovic in his office signing papers and issuing orders that sent functionaries scurrying away clutching sheaves of papers. He ignored Edward and Cannoc for a while until the last piece of paper had been signed.

Looking up, he addressed Edward bluntly. “ We leave tomorrow at sunrise. You are to come with my personal guard and me. The plan is for us to ride all day and arrive in Nimmar late afternoon. The rest of the troops will follow with the Rombuli and your people. They will take two days, stopping on the way for the night. That way we can make sure that everything is ready in Nimmar before they arrive. You will leave your horse here and I will give orders for it to be taken back to your father. Are there any questions? “

“ Most of the questions will wait until we arrive in Nimmar.” Edward replied evenly. “ One though I think you should answer and that is what we are going to do when we get to Nimmar. I have to go back to my group, as you insist on calling them, and they will want to have some idea of what is going to happen to them.”

“ That is easy. Your group are going to make the weapons, saddles and uniforms for the Rombuli troops for when they escort the Emperor. I thought that was obvious. You can rest assured that the accommodation for them will be adequate. They are to be housed close to the Rombuli troops and it is hoped that they will add a sense of fraternal solidarity. Strictly speaking they are not prisoners but their movements will be closely monitored. One thing we will not abide is any hint of trouble when the Emperor is staying in this Province.”

He paused for a moment and then continued in a much friendlier voice though this made Edward defensive. “ You will not be staying with the other Rombuli but as a guest in the Mansion. I know this will separate you from your countrymen but I hope you will accept my hospitality.”

Edward looked at Borovic, weighing in his mind the likely motives for this seeming sudden kindness but could read nothing in the Imperial Grandmaster's expression. “ If that is what you require, I will accept. My father will be grateful, sir.”

Borovic smiled. “ Well a bit ungracious but it is enough. Now go back and tell your group what is happening. I will see you at dawn.”