Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Return of the Exiles

Chapter 6

The next morning, as the sun rose over the hills towards the east turning the grey drab walls of the fort pink, the whole compliment of the fort were drawn up in ranks to salute the raising of the flag and to watch the departure of the Imperial Grandmaster and his troops. Imperial Grandmaster Borovic sat on his horse in front of his guard to the right of the flagpole, the colour party to the left and the rest of the troops stretching down the parade ground on foot. In the centre, drawn up in ranks of five on their rustic horses sat the Rombuli with the four drill instructors in the front. All the long hours of training over the last two days was concentrated on their faces and somehow they kept their horses relatively quiet and still while the bugle sounded and the flag rose into the air.

When the flag fluttered at the head of the flag pole and the ceremony came to an end, Imperial Grandmaster Borovic saluted the colour party and led his personal troop past the ranks of the Rombuli towards the gate. Edward watched his friends fighting to keep their horses steady and on the whole they succeeded. As the Imperial Grandmaster came abreast of each rank he saluted, the salute returned by the men. It twisted Edward's heart to see the Rombuli give the Imperial clenched fist salute but he was proud of the way they stuck to their task. Like the wind bending corn in a field, as the Imperial Grandmaster passed the fists rose and fell in a continuous wave.

The Imperial Grandmaster and his party rode out of the gates of the fort and at a brisk pace through the streets of Alskar. There were the first signs of stirring in the streets of the town as tradesmen were taking the shutters from their shops and dockers stirred along the wharves by the river. Edward deliberately avoided looking up the road towards his home as they rode through the square in case he saw somebody he knew. The last sense he had for some little time of the place where he was born was the smell of baking bread overhanging Daniel's bakery near the junction of the riverside road and the main highway. With relief Edward followed Cannoc across the bridge and out of Alskar. It was a wrench for him to leave especially under escort and against his will but it was something he had no control over so he thought the quicker they left his town behind the better.

Through the day with very few stops, the Imperial Grandmaster kept the troops moving at a brisk pace across the rolling pasture land of central Rombuli. Sheep and cattle grazed the land, woods and copse acting as wind breaks for small villages or isolated farmsteads passed on either side of the road as the troops rode by. The brown of ploughed fields was turning green with the first shoots of the corn planted in the winter. When the party rode through cuttings, the banks beside the road were covered in a profusion of yellow as primroses greeted the advent of spring. People working in the fields and living in the villages looked up as they passed and other travellers on the road gave way before the banner of the Imperial Grandmaster.

As the thrill of riding a well bred and trained horse receded, Edward began to take more notice of his surroundings. All the people working in the fields were Rombuli but they worked in gangs under what he took to be foreign overseers from their dress and manner. All the traffic on the roads was controlled by Parison or Walloon masters with the Rombuli as drivers or porters. Edward had heard about the way the Rombuli were treated in Nimmar Province from his father but it was a shock to see his people treated like this at first hand. He knew that this part of Rombuli had been taken away from his people. When the Imperial Army had defeated Derek the Strong, all those centuries before, only those Rombuli willing to swear allegiance to the Empire were able to retain their land in this part of Rombuli. Not only had they to swear allegiance to the Empire but they had had to give up their own religion and embrace the faith of the Covenent. Those Rombuli who stubbornly clung to the old ways had sunk into servitude, unable to control their own destiny or to move to the free province. They were stopped from attending the Gathering or having contacts with the people of free Rombuli by the might of the Imperial Army. With these observations, all the joy of riding through the land and of exploring new places vanished and Edward was once more plunged back into depression.

Late in the afternoon, a few hours after stopping at an army staging post for lunch, the Imperial Grandmaster's troop rode up an escarpment and stopped to look down on Nimmar. The town lay in a flat plain at the bottom of the hill between two rivers, the great river Alskar coming from the west and the Solar running through the plains from the mountains to the northeast. The road they travelled led straight down the hill, becoming a broad highway as it passed the first buildings and then on towards the apex of land where the two rivers met. Wharves lined the riverbanks and, in rows along the banks, large warehouses were built on the outskirts of the narrow streets of the old town. Inland, away from the river and near to the road, were large villas standing in their own grounds surrounded by walls enclosing well tended gardens and flower beds showing the first signs of colour in the spring sunshine. Across the Solar river between the road leading east over a bridge and going on into the distance through Battle Pass before disappearing on its way to Sandaria, lay the Imperial Army encampment. This vast area was enclosed in a dirt rampart and the barracks were laid out in neat lines.

By some quirk of nature, where the two rivers joined a spit of land had been severed from the bank to form an island in the river. Two bridges joined the island to the banks of the rivers, both guarded at their landward ends by soldiers in guard boxes. One bridge spanned the river from the centre of the town at the far end of the town square near the Meeting House, the other from the army encampment. Around the island an imposing wall of grey stone had been erected, denying all access to the islands accept by one of the two guarded gates. Along the top of this wall, even from as far away as the escarpment, Edward could see soldiers patrolling.

There were only two buildings on the island as far as he could see from the top of the hill. One a vast mansion with outbuildings at the side, surrounded by formal gardens, the imposing columned entrance facing the town. At the highest point of the island stood a smaller building with a pointed roof and punctuated by high fluted windows. The island was the Island of Peace, long revered by the Rombuli people. It had been, when the Rombuli were free, a quiet place of groves of trees and sheltered nooks with benches separated from the bustle of the town. It was here that meetings of the Council were held in the low built Meeting House on the other side of the island unseen from the town. It was here that any Rombuli could come, in fact anybody no matter what their religion or where they came from, to find a place of peace and quiet and come as close to their Maker as they allowed themselves. Now Edward saw for the first time the rape of the Rombuli, its traditions and its culture. Pulling his expression into a look of calmness, Edward tried hard not to let his shock show to the troops surrounding him.

The troop, which had been riding in loose formation, tightened ranks and descended into the town. They rode in the centre of the highway in formal order with the Imperial Grandmaster's banner in the front. All traffic on the highway gave way before the troops, any army officers saluting as they passed and pedestrians pausing at the side of the highway to watch. Edward tried to take in as much of his surroundings as possible but the party did not slow. They rode passed saluting guards, over the bridge and onto the island. In front of the Mansion, the troops formed an honour guard while the Imperial Grandmaster, Cannoc and Edward dismounted.

Servants ran from the house and grooms had taken charge of the horses as soon as the Imperial Grandmaster's feet had touched the ground. The horses were whisked away and Edward followed Borovic and Cannoc up the steps towards the entrance to the Mansion marvelling at the size of the columns beside the imposing door. After a brief word from Borovic, Cannoc took Edward by the arm and placed him in the care of a lady dressed in a short white shift. She indicated for Edward to follow and he was soon lost amongst the corridors and stairs of the building. Eventually the lady pushed open a door and indicated for Edward to enter. The room was large with a bed in one corner, a table and chairs and two comfortable looking armchairs by the fire. The carpet on the floor had a soft feel under Edward's boots. A window looked out over a small garden now shadowed in the dusk and beyond the tops of some trees through which the sparkle of the river could be seen in the setting sun.

“ Welcome to Nimmar and the Imperial Mansion, ” the servant said smiling at Edward's confusion. “ I have been assigned to look after you while you are here. There is a bathroom through that door and I will order some hot water for you to wash. I will lay out your clothes while you are in the bath. You must be made presentable because you have been invited to dine with the Imperial Grandmaster and his guests tonight.”

Still smiling, she placed the saddlebags on a chair and left. Edward sat on the bed feeling very small and very lost. He was unsure of his position in this house and bereft of all the things that made living familiar. All he could think of was that he had to sit and wait patiently for something to happen, too emotionally exhausted to even explore the room. Ordered to leave Alskar by a Covenenter without much warning, he had been dragged away from his home and thrust into a room in the fort like a prisoner. All the way to Nimmar he had been escorted by troops as though on guard around him even though any thought of escape had not occurred to him at the time. Now however he was not being treated like a prisoner and he found this rather puzzling. Left alone in this vast building, he had for the first time a chance to consider what was happening to him. He did not get very far with his thoughts before he came to the conclusion that he did not have any control over what was happening and it would be better to let events unfold before starting to worry too much. It was not something he had ever done before, calmly sit down and wait for other people to decide what was to happen but there did not seem to be any alternative.

His thoughts were interrupted by a knock at the door and Edward jumped with surprise at the sound. Crossing the room, he opened the door to find two men dressed in black standing in the corridor. Between them they held a barrel of steaming water. Grinning, they pushed passed Edward followed by Tulla the maid. The two men carried the water into the bathroom, emptied the water into the bath and departed nodding to Edward on the way out.

“ Mr. Eastland. If you would kindly go and have a bath, I will sort out something for you to wear to dinner. When you are ready, I will show you the way to the Imperial Grandmaster's reception room where you will be invited to have a drink and meet the other guests before going into dinner. Leave your dirty clothes on the bathroom floor and I will have them washed."

Once more all Edward could do was obey though he felt embarrassed to let some other person look after his things. Later emerging from the bathroom wiping his hair he found Tulla standing by the bed shaking her head and muttering to herself.

“ Ha there you are. I hope the bath water was satisfactory. “ The look she gave Edward made him want to go back into the bathroom. “ I have done the best I could with the little clothes you have brought with you. I will leave you to get dressed and then come back in a few minutes to take you to the Imperial Grandmaster's apartment.”

Tulla went out muttering about the state of Edward's wardrobe and how could she make her charges presentable if they had brought no formal clothes with them to Nimmar. What was the world coming to, Edward heard her remark to somebody outside the door, when the Imperial Grandmaster invited such obviously poor people to be his guests.

Left to himself, Edward dressed mechanically in his best brown woollen clothes, finishing off with a rather rustic sleeveless sheepskin jacket. Looking at himself in a mirror, Tulla's words echoed in his mind and once more he sat on the bed dreading what was to come but quietly awaiting his fate.

By the time Tulla returned, Edward had a strong desire to tell her that he was tired and would take a meal in his room. One look at her expression of half concealed scorn and he meekly followed her out of the room towards the stairs. As Tulla led the way, Edward was more aware of his surroundings this time, and he made a note of landmarks and after a while was certain he could find his way back to his room on his own if he needed to return alone.

Tulla led Edward back through the house to the vast entrance hall. Guards stood flanking a door to one side and they entered the Imperial Grandmaster's quarters through this door. Indicating a door on his right, Tulla left him to face his ordeal on his own. On entering the room behind the door that Tulla had indicated, a servant gave him a glass of wine and the other people in the room after nodding politely carried on with their conversation. Edward drifted to the window and looked out at the moonlit garden feeling once again lost and alone.

“ Edward,” a voice from behind made him turn. Kitty stood behind him smiling. He had come to regard her as a young girl during their outings in Alskar but here with her hair piled in waves above her head, and dressed in a gown of deep blue that matched her eyes, Edward realised that she was a young woman. A magnificent ruby nestled in the ve of her dress, emphasising the swell of her breasts and the smoothness of her skin. Kitty was no longer the girl who came for rides with him in Alskar but a sophisticated woman of the court.

“ I am glad you could come. Father said he was going to bring you along to look after the group making the uniforms and arms for the Rombuli escort for the Emperor.” Kitty chatted away oblivious of the effect she was having on Edward who could only reply in monosyllables. She introduced him to the other guests and Edward noted the change in their attitude once they realised he was a friend of Kitty's.

The meal was an ordeal. Edward struggled with the unfamiliar food, with the eating implements and the flow of conversation the subjects of which he mostly could not follow. Stubbornly, he silently stuck to the ritual of thanking his Maker for delivering him safely to the end of the day and asking for the strength to carry out His word in the days to come. It did not help him to relax when he noticed the splendour of the other people’s clothes or to have Kitty sitting so close in all her finery. With relief, Edward went back to his room when the meal ended.

The next morning Tulla woke Edward early, bustling into the room and throwing back the curtains to let in the early morning light. She laid out breakfast on the table and laid out his old travel clothes on a chair. Indicating the robe at the end of the bed, she made sure he knew it was time to rise. It was strange for Edward to sit in a robe and eat his breakfast rather than in his working clothes but he was soon finished. Once dressed he sat at the table waiting to be summoned.

He did not have long to wait. Tulla escorted him through the building to a side door where a large man was waiting. The man's hands were rough from long hours of work and without any fuss he told Edward to follow him to the barracks and the workshops. They walked up the hill and passed the Temple in the early morning sunlight accompanied by bird song and through the scent of spring flowers. The guard at the end of the bridge leading to the army barracks waved them through with hardly a glance. Unlike the relative peace of the island, the army barracks was a place of activity and noise. Soldiers were drilling under the watchful eyes of drill sergeants and there was the constant noise of metal clashing on metal.

For the next few days, Edward was immersed in his work, eating his meals in the workshops and being escorted at first by Oxivoc, the man he had first met, from the workshops to his room each night.

After a couple of days, Edward was left to make his way back and forth from his room to the workshops on his own, the guards at the gate nodding in greeting each morning and night from familiarity. In many respects his task was straight forward. All he had to do was meld his team of craftsmen and women together to produce the uniforms and weapons for the Rombuli troop which was to escort the Emperor into Nimmar when he arrived in late summer.

The first problem came when they submitted their designs for the approval of Borovic. The Imperial Grandmaster had his own fixed ideas about how the uniforms should look, in reality based on the ceremonial uniforms of the Parison, Walloon and Burger soldiers. The Imperial Grandmaster and his officers argued fiercely with Edward in the workshops, the rest of the team looking on in trepidation. As always, a compromise was reached. The uniforms were to be black with red lined capes clasped at the shoulders by silver oak leaves. The lance pennants were crimson with the Imperial mailed fist surmounting two silver oak leaves and acorns. At least, Edward through his arguments had managed to retain some hint of Rombuli identity even though the style of the uniforms was most definitely Parison.

Once the designs had been approved, the team set about putting the designs into practice and went into a steady phase of productive activity. They began to relax as the work became routine and to take a certain pride in their craftsmanship as the work progressed.

Outside the workshops, the Rombuli troops exercised, slowly changing from a group of farmers and tradesmen into a more recognisable troop of soldiers. One day all work stopped and Edward's team crowded outside to watch the form of their men, as the Rombuli troop had affectionately been called. The Imperial Grandmaster was going to check on their progress by watching a practice parade.

When all was ready, the Rombuli came trotting into the parade ground still dressed in rustic brown but mounted on the big black horses of the Imperial Army. The Imperial Grandmaster sat on his horse watching and to the watching Rombuli craftsmen, it was an impressive sight as the Rombuli troop rode passed in a line, each rank dipping their lances as they came abreast of the Imperial Grandmaster. They wheeled away in unison and took up their places facing the Imperial Grandmaster and the colour party.

When all the troop was in position and sitting still in their ranks, the drill master rode forward to present his men to the Imperial Grandmaster. Borovic rode through the ranks on an inspection and he looked very pleased with what he saw. When he was back at the head of his troops, he announced a two day break from training. Oxivoc informed Edward later that this applied to his workers as well.

That evening, the atmosphere in the Rombuli quarters was like a holiday and the evening meal was followed by a rather loud party. Everybody was looking forward to their first days of relaxation since they had arrived and the beer flowed like water until everybody was rather drunk. All the Rombuli sang patriotic Rombuli songs and danced traditional Rombuli dances. Edward went back to his room rather late that night, tired but happy. He was determined to spend the next two days exploring not only the island but Nimmar as well.

The next morning Tulla arrived with Edward's breakfast later than had been usual since his arrival in Nimmar. If anything, this convinced him that today was to be different. The sun was high in the sky when she drew back the curtains and Tulla informed him with a smile that there was no need to rush his breakfast. Take advantage of the chance to relax, she instructed Edward as she left his room. After having a leisurely meal, Edward dressed and went down to the small garden he could see from the window of his room. Sitting under a tree relaxing in the warm sunshine, Edward's mind drifted lazily over the events of the past few weeks. He was still trouble by what he was doing. In a spirit of pride at the small revival of the Rombuli and being in a small way able to represent their nationhood, had the Rombuli come to accept the domination of the Empire and their virtual captivity within the Imperial Army? At least, Edward reasoned, we are still a distinct group and will be a distinct group when the Emperor comes to Nimmar in the summer.

Kitty found him half asleep in the mottled shadows of the tree and he came fully awake to find her standing hands on hips, her body haloed by the rays of the sun.

“ Is this where you are hiding? “ she demanded without even saying hello. Edward could not make out her expression because the position of the sun at her back cast her features in shadow. “ Edward Eastland you have been deliberately avoiding me since you arrived. You have not come to dinner once, except for that first night. What is more, you haven't even sent me a message to tell m e what you are doing. “

Edward smiled indulgently his eyes still half open. “ Kitty, I have not been avoiding you. I have been very busy in the workshops. It is easier for me to take my meals there without having to come back to my room and get changed.”

“ You could have made the effort to come back and have a meal with me every so often,” Kitty stated petulantly.

“ You could have found me and ordered me to have dinner with you. I would have had to obey the daughter of the Imperial Grandmaster and Governor of Rombuli and Sandaria. ” Edward countered flatly though continuing to smile. He was determined that nothing was going to spoil his two days off work.

“ I could not find you and order you to have a meal with me because I am not allowed in the barracks. You always leave for work so early, a long time before decent people get up, there was no way I could see you before you went to work. Then you come back so late, I can't see you then. Besides I have no power to order you about even if I wanted to.”

“ Maybe you haven't but your father has. If you had asked your father to order me to have dinner with you, I expect he would have given the order. Besides, I have no great desire to be the object of amusement for all your friends because of my rustic ways and provincial clothing."

“ That's another thing,” Kitty continued ignoring Edward's mocking tone. “ Your clothes are a disgrace. Tulla is complaining all the time about her efforts to keep you presentable and tidy. She is rather glad you chose not to come to dinner with me. Father has instructed me to take you into town to visit a tailor and get fitted out so that you don't look so out of place when you have dinner with us again. Also you must have a formal outfit when we are presented to the Emperor and that includes a sword. Father expects you to make that yourself. We will go to the tailors tomorrow and then we can explore the town. Today though I am going to show you round the island, take you to the Temple of the Sun and lead you on a tour of the Imperial Apartments. We will visit the Great Hall where the Emperor will hold court while he is here. Come on. Get up off that bench and come with me.”

Edward sighed heavily in mock protest because the thought of spending the next two days in Kitty's company made him feel happy. “ If those are your orders, then I will obey, oh mighty one. I did think I was going to have a day of rest but I expect I can drag myself round behind you looking at all the sights.”

Kitty feigned resentment at his words, playfully punched him in the chest and then reached out her hand to help Edward to his feet.

Through his half hearted protest Edward thought back to the changes that had taken place in their relationship since that first meeting across the bridge from Alskar. Then she had been haughty and disdainful of his efforts to help her. On his first visit to the fort, she had been rude and unfriendly. At that time Edward had positively hated her and would have done anything to keep out of her company. Now that time seemed long ago. Kitty's smile and the light touch of her hand on his arm, was answer enough to how things had changed.

They explored the Mansion first. Kitty gave everything a cursory glance as she intoned an explanation of what they were looking at as though it was nothing special. It was not long before Edward was struck almost dumb by what for him was a first sight of such splendour and casual wealth. Crystal chandeliers filled with hundreds of candles, intricately carved pillars reflecting in the highly polished hard wood floors and a succession of busts in niches along the walls were to Edward's eyes a sign of uncountable riches.

In the Emperor’s personal apartments with their thick carpets, warm tapestries and silk covered furniture, Edward was rendered speechless with wonder. The carpet pile was so deep Edward thought his feet would disappear and it gave him the sensation that he was walking on air. The bed was vast and there were whole areas bigger than the whole of his house in Alskar set aside for courtiers and servants. Kitty tried to explain why all these people were required to wait on the Emperor's every whim but even after her explanation, Edward was still puzzled at the need for so many people to wait upon another person. Was the Emperor so helpless he could not even go to bed without help? Edward asked himself as they left the Emperor's bedroom.

Hurrying through the rooms that gave Edward little time to take in all the details, Kitty led him down a flight of stairs leading from the apartments into the Great Hall. The Hall spread out before Edward as he descended the flight of stairs at one end, empty now but giving Edward a glimpse of what it must be like when the Emperor came into the room.

The steps ended on a raised white marble dais in the centre of which and facing down the hall towards the tall oak doors was a throne. It was large and made from a black wood Edward had never seen before. The arms were shaped like the strong forearms of a man with silver mailed fists at the ends. On one level below the throne were six smaller seats made in the same black wood. From a vantage point by the throne, Edward could look along the hall spreading away in the distance, punctuated by two lines of pillars. Beside each of pillars was a statue of a previous Emperor. Soaring away in either wall were tall windows with coloured glass depicting all the Imperial heroes of past ages. Under each window was draped a group of the flags of all the Imperial regiments and nations. Edward wanted to stay where he was staring at the hall and examining all in detail but Kitty was impatient to move on.

“ Oh come on Edward don't dawdle. We have to be in the Temple of the Sun in a few minutes.” Kitty hurried him away from the throne and towards a door at the side of the Great Hall level with the dais.

Protesting, Edward hurried after her passed some offices with people working and out into the sunshine. Kitty turned up the hill and made for the Temple. As they walked up the path, soldiers, merchants and town people joined them, all climbing towards the Temple.

With the rest of the people, they went through the door and into the semi darkness of the interior. As his eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Edward looked round curiously. The people, like Edward and Kitty were crowded onto long wooden benches, facing a raised dais surrounded by an iron grill shaped to form symbolic suns. A block of grey granite surmounted the dais and indistinct in the gloom the tall figure of a statue.

A deep toned bell sounded and all those present knelt facing the altar. A group of white robed priests filed through a door at the side of the altar. The priests were led by a Covenenter though whether this was the same one Edward had met in Alskar he wasn't sure.

While the priests knelt in front of the alter in a semi circle facing the statue, their golden chains touching the floor, the Covenenter stood arms outstretched before them facing the congregation. All the time, the priests chanted a song in, to Edward, an alien language, the congregation interposing a set of responses at set intervals. Edward had no idea what was taking place. The whole rhythm of the chanting slowly ascended in volume until everybody in the Temple exulted with a loud cry. Then there was total silence.

The bell sounded again and the Covenenter called out in a loud voice, his staff in his hand. There was a very bright flash of pure gold light which blinded Edward temporarily and when his sight returned, the statue glowed fiercely, revealing the figure of a woman with heavy breasts but in place of her head was a bronze representation of the sun. Flame licked upward at the feet of the statue and the congregation intoned a different ritual chant.

As the flames leapt higher, two young women completely naked but for golden chains around their waists supporting large golden medallions that hide their total nakedness came forward leading a white goat. They passed behind the granite alter, the flames glittering on their bare skin and then deftly suspended the goat above the stone, leaving it hanging bleating. Two more girls appeared, naked like the first, one bearing a great golden bowl, the other a silver knife. Kneeling before the Covenenter, they touched their foreheads to his feet and offered him their implements. Edward stared fixedly at the knife, anticipating what was to come but wondering what was the supposed significance of the whole exercise.

The Covenenter slowly walked to the altar the golden bowl and knife held ritually above his head. Placing the bowl deliberated under the goat, with one sharp movement, he cut its throat. The blood poured into the bowl and the silence in the Temple was almost tangible. Once all the blood had been gathered, the Covenenter lifted the bowl above his head while the carcass was removed. Just as slowly, flanked by the priests carrying red candles, the Covenenter carried the bowl around the Temple. The kneeling congregation repeating like a wave a phrase as he passed. It was a phrase in the Parison language that Edward understood.

“ The God of the sun is above all others. Accept this blood as a token of our worship of you. We lay down our lives in the service to your greatness.”

Back on the altar, the Covenenter went to the fire, pouring the blood over the flames. On contact with the blood, the fire sprang towards the ceiling fiery and red. The bell sounded for a third time, the Covenenter and the priests filed out of the Temple bowing to the statue as they passed. Once they were clear of the Temple, the fire abruptly went out as though it was not allowed to burn when only the congregation was present.

Edward followed Kitty out into the sunlight after the service, bemused by what he had just witnessed. They stood on the steps being jostled by the crowd but Edward was oblivious to the pushing, his mind elsewhere. How he asked himself, does a simple man who has been taught since childhood that there is only one Maker who has laid down the laws for people to follow, accept this ritual as part of their religion? His Maker was not to be slavishly worshipped but followed in the framework of the message passed on from one generation to the next by teaching and reading.

Edward was even more confused when Kitty explained that the naked girls were symbolic of the past, giving the goat to be sacrificed in their place as had been decreed by some long forgotten Emperor. Human sacrifices as part of religion, what did this mean? All Edward's teaching had taught him that the Maker told them that human life was precious and to be preserved as much as possible. Even in war, the Book of Ages taught that lives were taken with sadness not joy. Kitty went on to explain that when the flames sprang upward at the touch of the blood all was well between the sun God and the people. If the fire went out, there was a rift between the God and his people and there would be trouble to come. What nonsense, thought Edward. At the full moon, the princesses of the moon God representing fertility exacted their rituals on the altar. At the first full moon of the spring, a woman gave birth to the chief priest’s child in front of the congregation in recognition of the returning fertility of the earth. Edward tried to hide a shudder.

For quite some time, Kitty and Edward stood near the entrance to the Temple deep in conversation oblivious of the people moving around them. After a while, a voice calling their names made them both turn. A Covenenter stood on the steps to the Temple looking down on them, his hood pulled over his head, the amber medallion highlighted against the white of his robe.

“ Well Eastland,” his voice rasped and Edward felt the force of his probing mind. “ I see Kittania Borovic has been initiating you into our ceremonies. Did you feel the power of my God?”

Edward stared at him trying to hide his fear.

“ I saw what took place in the Temple just now but the significance was beyond me.” Edward felt Kitty stiffen at his side but he ignored her and continued in a calm voice. “ Why do you have to kill a harmless creature to appease your God? All you have to do is follow that which is written in our Books and that comes straight from our Maker via Nelvask, our teacher There is no need for props in my religion. My Maker has shown the way to live in peace with our fellow man and though we may not always follow his way, he will look after us if we try. There is no need for any ritual, which is there to fool the ordinary people, in our religion. Each person is able to read the Book and follow the instructions written there, as best they can in a hostile world. If we all obeyed our Maker, the world would be a far happier place. Do you kill the goat and stand before the congregation, so tall and contemptuous of the ordinary people, in an attempt to make out that you are better than they are in the eyes of your God?”

The Covenenter's black eyes glinted hostilely beneath his hood while his mind continued to probe. Abruptly he came down the steps to stand in front of Edward, his eyes boring into Edward's.

“ Come!” he ordered pointing to a path leading along the side of the Temple through the shrubs and gardens separating the Temple from the Mansion. “ I will show you the power of my God over your God.”

At Kitty's hesitation, he laughed, the noise he made sounding sinister in Edward’s ears. “ Kittania Borovic, you can come too or would your father disapprove? I sometimes get the distinct impression that he does not approve of us in the Covenent or our methods, thinking them unfair. What stops him openly scorning us is the thought of all the trouble he would have to overcome on his own if we were not on his side. We can subdue men and women in minutes with the force of our minds, control crowds by showing just a little of our power and get prisoners to answer his questions without all the physical violence that many soldiers are wont to use. Oh, he needs us and we do not let him forget. Will you come with us?”

Kitty could only nod, so the Covenenter turned to Edward again. “ Of course there are always exceptions to any rule, like you and your father when it comes to our power and control. One of these days we will have to investigate how you two have the power but not yet.”

Kitty and Edward, fighting to contain their fear of what the Covenenter was going to do to them, followed the Covenenter along the path beside the Temple like children forced to follow their teacher until they came to a thick hedge. At the place where the path passed through the hedge, a wooden gate barred their way. On top of the gate posts either side of the gate perched two creatures, half bird, half lizard with their heads constantly turning to watch the approaches to the gate. It was obvious to Edward that nobody or no thing could approach without being detected. Though he looked hard at the creatures and even tried to sense their minds, Edward could not make up his mind whether these creatures were some kind of animal or a mechanical devise. If mechanical, their construction and workings were beyond Edward's imagining. All he knew was that he had never seen any thing like these creatures.

At their approach, the creatures heads snapped forward facing the path, the red eyes glinting in the sun light. Kitty shivered when the eyes surveyed her and she clung closely to Edward's hand.

“ Let us pass oh watchers of the gate. We come in peace.” After the Covenenter had spoken those words, the gates swung open.

As Edward and Kitty followed the Covenenter through the gate, the creatures returned to their watching and the gate swung closed as though controlled by the Covenenter's mind. Observing this made Edward even more nervous.

Steps cut into the side of a steep hill led down from the gate, the stair lined with shrubs and trailing spring flowers. Birds sang in the trees, rabbits scuttled away into the underbrush and through the trees they caught a glimpse of the sun sparkling on the river away to their right.

Again the Covenenter chuckled at their silence, sensing their fear. “ This is our haven of peace away from the demands of the noisy world. This is the one part of the island that we preserve as it was when we came and as it had been for over a century before that. It is here where the priests, priestesses and the Covenenters can relax in the knowledge they will not be interrupted. It is here where the serving girls of the Temple are trained, and cleansed of any impurity that has entered their lives, in preparation for serving the Sun God. Down there is the chalet where the virgin is prepared by the chief priest of the Temple nine months before the spring festival. It is there in the chalet through drugs and other means we make sure she will give birth exactly at the right time.”

He looked hard at Edward before continuing. “ Here we do not need soldier guards. All we need is the protection that our power given us by the gods can devise. There is no way into this part of the island except by way of the gate. The hedge hides a power field that we all maintain. The watchers on the gate will only let those through who have the power or they have been ordered to let through. There is no way out other than through the gate that any Covenenter can close with a thought. My God has given me this power to know where everybody in this area is at any time. That is anybody from the lowliest servant to the high priest. It will also allow me to know if there are any intruders even if I am not in the area. I can see no sign of you using the power your God has bestowed on you.” He said this last triumphantly.

Stubbornly, Edward replied. “ My Maker is all powerful. He has given us all gifts in plenty. It is not in the nature of my Maker to bestow power but to give us guidance on how to live our lives and how to use the power we have for the benefit of all. If you believe in interference of a host of gods into the lives of men, we are no longer free agents to live our lives within the law or not. We have then become puppets. You have through your religion reduced mankind to mere playthings of the gods, a hollow vessel to be manipulated for the pleasure of the gods.”

Kitty's hand tightened even more in Edward's as though she was afraid at the reaction of the Covenenter to what Edward had said.

“ Careful what you say in this place, my boy or you will upset the Gods and their priests.” The Covenenter chuckled. “ If you provoke the priests, they are liable to have you up there above the altar rather than a goat. No, I am talking about the real power that flows through us the Covenent from God. We are called the Covenent because we signed a pact with God written in our own blood. Because of this we are all powerful in the Empire, higher than the priests who do our bidding.”

They came to the bottom of the stair and out into the open. A collection of thatched buildings was grouped around a lawn. Paths crossed the lawn with a fountain throwing up clouds of spray at the point where the paths met. They crossed the lawn by one of the paths and stopped before the central building.

“ Since I came to this land, I have repeatedly heard your peoples lament about the destruction of your traditions and culture by the Empire led by the Covenent,” the Covenenter said turning to face Edward and Kitty. “ Observe in front of you, preserved for over four hundred years, the Meeting House of the Council of the Rombuli!”

With an exaggerated sweep of his arm, the Covenenter said to Kitty. “ It was here, Kittania Borovic, that the Rombuli elected by their districts met to hammer out their policies and to debate the great concerns of a nation. What a farce! No leader was permanently in control nor could a leader order his people to undertake any task. He had to get the agreement of the Council before any policy could be enacted. Do you realise? The leader of the Council could be deposed by a vote of the Council and another voted in his place. Not only that but when this happened, the old leader accepted defeat and stepped down without a fight. No wonder they could not fight wars. No wonder they could never raise and train an army. It was here that the last Council leader was called to sign the surrender. The Rombuli were graciously allowed to keep some control over their lives in Alskar Province. They are also allowed to hold their pathetic Gathering every autumn.”

The Covenenter turned his whole attention to Edward. “ Where is your God in all of this? Did he abandon you to your fate?”

The Covenenter appeared to grow tall, a blue corona surrounding his body and the force of his mind beat against Edward and Kitty until she sank slowly to her knees. Edward clung to her hand and willed himself to remain on his feet against the pressure trying to force him to kneel alongside Kitty.

“ Does your God allow his followers into the world to crush all resistance with the power he gives? Does he send down storms and earthquakes against his enemies? No! He sends forth into this world one nice old man without the power to confront his enemies. Behold, Edward Eastland, over there is my house, the former dwelling of he you call Nelvask, the teacher. On that very veranda he used to sit in his chair and interpret God’s message to those sent to him. He taught what he called God’s guidance through the Book and attempted to comfort the fearful and sorrowful.”

The Covenenter laughed hysterically and the blue light surrounding him crackled, making the light of the sun grow dim. “ While he sat in comfort among such a weak and silly people, the Covenent swept through the world. I have now taken up residence in his house to fulfil a promise of Tulka my leader. Tulka always vowed that we would one day take over from Nelvask. Where is your God and your teacher now?”

As before, Edward stared at his medallion, glowing golden at the centre of his chest. He focused his eyes on this light and shut his mind to the howling power emanating from the Covenenter.

Fighting to control his urge to lash out with his own power, Edward said in a quiet voice. “ Why are you so keen to demonstrate your power to me? Are you so scared of me that you have to show me what you can do so that I will be scared of you and not use my power?”

It must have been the very calmness of the voice and the fact that Edward did not bend, which forced its way through the Covenenter's aura. He let the power subside with a crack, leaving a normal sized Covenenter standing before them, his white robe shining and the sunlight sparkling on the water at his back beyond the trees. “ Forgive me! “ he croaked as Kitty unsteadily climbed to her feet. “ You are amazing Eastland. You puzzle me in how you are able to withstand my power. Not only that but even in the face of such overwhelming power, you still question its validity. Come!”

The Covenenter led them into the old Meeting House, throwing back the double doors to let the light flood into the dim interior. Looking through the door from the step outside, Edward was struck at how simple the place was considering the sense of pride the place engendered in the old stories told to Edward by his father. In many ways it was here where the sense of nationhood was most apparent and in the past had been so widely taught to those who came to study with Nelvask. And yet it was entirely appropriate that such symbols of nationhood should for the Rombuli be very simple.

A large oak table covered most of the floor with twenty-six chairs, thirteen to each side arranged along its length. At the head of the table furthest from the door was a chair with a high back carved with the acorn and oak leaf of the Rombuli nation. In front of the chair on the table was a wooden gavel and a holder which Edward surmised held the Council Leaders staff when the Council was in session.

Behind this chair on the wall were three flags. The first black and white halfs with the silver acorn and two oak leaves, the standard of the Rombuli which had not flown anywhere in Rombuli for over four hundred years. On the left of this the white standard with the black diagonal stripe and the Rombuli flag in the comer, the pendant of the leader of the Council, not used today by order of the Imperial Court. On the right the flag of Derek Gorland, the last and in many ways the only leader of the Council who understood military strategy, a white horse rearing on a green background.

Edward stood in the doorway to the Meeting House the ghosts of the past sitting round the table trying to speak to him across the intervening years. In his imagination, they cried in voices wracked with pain and guilt of letting the Empire steal their land. Hands appeared to reach across the years towards him and voices in his head beseeched him to try to right their wrongs. It was as though the whole room was full of Rombuli pleading with him.

Then the feeling of being in the presence of the past vanished before it had time to fully form as Edward's eyes lifted to the flag hanging above the Rombuli flags from the rafters. A crimson banner with a mailed fist in the centre, the flag of the Empire. It had been deliberately place in this way to emphasise the subservience of the Rombuli to the Empire. With tears in his eyes, Edward noted the fire fingered sun on the wall to his right while on the opposite wall hung a portrait of the Emperor. Even here, his heart cried out, even here in this place you beat us down.

With a cry of anguish, Edward let go Kitty's hand and lunged for the doorway, whether intent on tearing down the offending banner and plaque or eagerness to enter the room, he was never certain. Edward was brought to a standstill suddenly as though he had run into a barrier. Stepping back, he could see nothing. Concentrating his mind he was able to make out some sort of shimmering light across the door at about shoulder to knee height. It was this that had stopped him and barred the entry to the Meeting House.

With a chuckle, the Covenenter made a gesture and an incantation and the shimmering light vanished. Holding tight to Kitty's hand once again, Edward walked into the room and down the length of the table. He reached out to touch the flag but his hand was stopped by another energy field. Edward once more concentrated trying to work out how the energy field was maintained and thus how he could turn it off.

The Covenenter chuckled in the background once more. “ No Rombuli will ever again lift those banners in defiance of the Empire. Come along. Enough is enough. I have made you aware of the power you try to pit yourself against. Ho, don't protest, Eastland. I may not be able to read your mind but I can see by your looks that all you desire is to see the end of Imperial rule over Rombuli. That will be a long time coming.”

Edward wanted to protest that he did not have any desire to be rid of the Empire but the manifest falsehood of any statement like that coming from him stopped him speaking. Meekly, still holding Kitty's hand, he followed the Covenenter out of the Meeting House, across the lawn, up the stairs and out of the gate onto the path by the Temple. The Covenenter bowed formally, his smile bland but his eyes bored into Edward's. He then turned on his heel without another word and went off into the Temple. Trembling violently, Kitty pulled Edward away from the Temple down the slope and into the Mansion.