Wednesday, 29 September 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 12

That dinner, on the night when Edward returned to Nimmar after his wanderings through the distant parts of Alskar Province, was informal with only a few of the Governor's friends around the table. To Edward it passed in a blur of changing emotions and of wonder that he was not only once more back in the Mansion but was accepted by the very people who had exiled him. If anybody had asked Edward even minutes after it had finished what he had talked about, what he had eaten or even what he had been drinking, he would not have been able to answer.
Like a ship adrift without a rudder, he sat and let the winds and the currents of his feelings carry him along through the evening. He did talk to other people and answered their questions but it was as though he had no control over his feelings. Everything passed in such a way that things happened without him making any conscious effort to absorb what was happening. Even though he still had no idea why he had been brought back to Nimmar by Boric, he was content to wait for the morning to find out why he was here.
Kitty sat by his side, very close but even she did not say very much except to make rather polite conversation about his health and what he had been doing for the last three years. Whenever the opportunity presented itself, she would hold his hand, smile at him or press her thigh tightly against his under the table. It was as though she needed to reassure herself all the time that he was truly sitting beside her. All she wanted to know was that his presence was real and not some figment of her imagination. She seemed to cling to him, willing him not to vanish like a dream on the coming of dawn to a bedroom.
And so the meal passed for the two of them, blissfully unaware of what was happening around them. In the soft warmth of an autumn evening after the meal was finished, they went out with the others onto the terrace for drinks.
Tentatively both Boric and Rulask tried to sound Edward out about the loyalty of the Rombuli in Alskar Province to the Empire. They were hinting that there was trouble in the Empire and Rulask might need the people of Rombuli on his side but they could not hold Edward's attention for long enough to make sense of what they were telling him. In the end, with knowing grins, they gave up and left Edward to sit quietly beside Kitty holding her hand and talking about nothing in particular.
Late in the evening after dark with the lanterns casting long shadows across the shrubs, people started to leave until Edward was left with only Boric, Gloria and Kitty still sitting on the terrace in the soft glow of the lanterns.
As Boric was leaving with his wife, he said rather dramatically, “ Well Edward, I will see you in the morning in the Governor's office straight after breakfast. We start early so do not be late. There is to be a meeting about how we can face this trouble that is affecting the Empire. The Governor has said he would be grateful for any advice you can give concerning free Rombuli. Have a good nights sleep.”
Then they were alone for the first time since parting on the road out of Nimmar that fateful night when Edward had rushed home to find his parents dead, killed by the Covenent. Kitty put her arms around his neck and kissed him long and hard. Edward responded as though he was making sure there was no chance of her getting away from him again. After their passionate embrace, taking her arm, Edward walked with her back through the now silent Mansion to her rooms.
When they reached the door to her apartment still holding hands, Edward took Kitty into his arms again and kissed her fiercely. “ Goodnight Kitty. Seeing you like this has made me pleased to be back though my feelings about the Empire have not changed. I will see you tomorrow after this meeting and then we can sit and talk about our future."
Kitty smiled her most beautiful smile, the smile he remembered which had always made his resolve melt. “ Oh no Edward Eastland, you are not getting away from me that easily again. This is not the same as it was down by the river. You will come into my room and discuss our future, as you put it, now.  After that, or before maybe, we will demonstrate our love for each other in the only way I know how. You remember the time I came to your room and found you with the Covenenters?  Well, I am about to fulfil what I promised to myself that night. “
With that remark, Kitty opened the door and pulled him inside her apartment. Standing just inside her sitting room, Edward hesitated but found events were now out of his hands. It was so obvious Kitty was in control, once more he let events carry him along on their currents.
“ The bedroom is through there,” Kitty announced still with a soft smile of amusement at his hesitation. “ I will be a few moments and then I will join you. When I come back, I expect to find you in bed.”
Turning on her heel, she left him standing opened mouthed by the door.
As though the air in the room had become too heavy, Edward struggled against his wonder and fear but managed to walk to the bedroom. To him the bed was enormous and seemed to dominate the room. He undressed quickly as though he felt that if he hesitated he would not be able to carry on. Pulling back the covers, he climbed onto the bed and snuggled down under the bedclothes.
Kitty appeared moments latter and Edward could only stare from his position on the bed. She was dressed in a simple white shift that fell straight from her shoulders to almost the floor. Every movement she made emphasised her figure and the fact that she was not wearing anything underneath. Crossing the room, she climbed into bed beside Edward and snuggled close.
That night Edward and Kitty discovered the joys of love. They soared together on the currents of their passion, sometimes slowly, sometimes almost brutally but always with loving care. Using their instinct, they explored each other’s bodies, cocooned themselves in the warmth of their mutual need and never left each other's arms. It was as though the outside world had ceased to exist, as though there was no past or future only the present. In between love making, they talked, not about the future but about their awakening love. Finally they fell asleep in each other’s arms, sinking into an untroubled sleep which floated their problems away on the currents of their warmth.
Edward awoke with the sun streaming through the window of the bedroom, casting the room in a golden glow. He felt completely at ease with his world as though all the cares of the last few years had been made to vanish in the arms of the woman he loved. Kitty lay across his body sleeping soundly though even in sleep she appeared to smile.  Gently moving her aside, Edward climbed out of the bed and looked out of the window. Kitty's room faced across the river to the town that was starting to bustle with activity as people went to work. Stretching, Edward turned from the sunlight and went to search for a drink.
The rattle of the door handle in the sitting room made him rush back into the bedroom to put on his trousers. Kitty's maid Zita came into the room followed by Tula. They were both smiling hugely at his startled expression and giggled in unison when they saw Kitty. Tula was carrying a bundle of his clothes that she laid out on a settee ready for him to dress.
“ You had better get dressed soon,” Tula said trying unsuccessfully to contain her mirth. “ You are due in the Governor's office in an hour and he will not be pleased if you are late on your first day. Zita is going to get your breakfast and you should be washed and dressed by the time she comes back.”
“ Thank you Tula,” Edward said putting his arm round her shoulder, his face breaking out into a grin.
“ I will move all your stuff into here during the day,” Tula said trying not to look too smug. “ I am pleased to see that after all this time you two have finally come to your senses. If you had asked me for advice, maybe you would have done this a long time ago.”
Turning on her heel, she left Edward standing in the centre of the sitting room lost for words.
After eating breakfast alone, Edward kissed the still sleeping Kitty and went out to find the Governor's office. As he walked through the corridors trying to find Rulask and the meeting room, he soon discovered the Mansion was all ready alive with hurrying officials and labouring servants. For some reason Edward had the feeling that they were all smiling with him and in the glow of his happiness the morning appeared brighter than normal. After asking a passing soldier the way, he was soon standing in the outer reception to the Governor's office. A man bent over what appeared to be ledgers, rose from his desk, bowed deeply and ushered Edward through the door to the Governor's office.
There were four people sitting round the large highly polished oak table when Edward entered the room. This was the Governor’s small private office not the much larger Council Chamber beside the Great Hall. The highly polished table could seat twelve people, the inner circle of the Governor's advisors. Around the walls were other tables and chairs obviously for the secretaries to sit and take notes or for other people to join in the discussion. Through an open door behind the Governor, Edward caught a glimpse of a room with comfortable chairs and low tables that must be the Governor's private sitting room. The tables near the walls were unoccupied despite the neat stacks of paper and quill pens ready for the secretaries to record what transpired in this room.
At the head of the table sat Rulask, the Governor of Rombuli and Sandaria. His face was grave even though he tried to smile when Edward entered.
“ Welcome Edward Eastland. At last you have taken up my offer of a place on my advisory council. You know Imperial Master Borovic and Latask, the Covenenter. This is Imperial Grand Master Silker, the commander of the Army in Rombuli and Sandaria. Please take a seat next to Latask.”
Once Edward was seated, Rulask looked round the table and said. “ Now we are all here, I can begin. Most of what we have to say will be for Edward's benefit though I want you all to report as though everything was new. In that way we may pick up something which we can use to our advantage or that we have over looked before. I would ask you all to be brief. I think Latask should start, then Silker, and I will sum up at the end. Borovic is here because he is the one who is going to have to help you in the end. Latask?”
Latask lent back in his chair and looked at Edward from under his eyebrows as though trying to weigh up Edward's likely response to what he was going to say. “ I will not go into too many detail so you will all have to accept what I am about to say. To speak bluntly, the Empire is crumbling before our eyes. To put that another way, because we do not know for certain what is actually happening, the structures that the Covenent has encouraged in the Empire are crumbling. We round this table have to accept, openly now, one of the major factors in the success of the Imperial system has been the support of the Covenent for those families who hold the power. I need not describe that power or its basis to you Edward. Suffice to say, one aspect of that power is the means to get people to follow whoever the Covenent decided would be the next Emperor. Another has been the Covenent's ability to communicate with each other over long distances indeed from any point in the Empire. There have never been many of us, nineteen at the most but by establishing temples with priests in all the far flung corners of the Empire, we have known, through our ability to read those priests minds over those long distances, what has been going on in any part of the Empire instantly. By utilising some of our other abilities, we have been able to physically transfer ourselves between different places in an instant so that we could be at any trouble spot before the trouble became too great for us to handle.”
Edward laughed harshly and interrupted Latask. “ So that was how your Covenenter was able to beat me to Alskar from Nimmar when he attacked my family and killed them. I wish I had that power and then I would have been able to help my family that night.”
“ Yes that is how we travel so quickly between places though it is not that easy and can be very tiring. Actually, we have taught our priests to open their minds to us with a picture of the place where they are and we can then use them as a conduit along which we travel.” Latask's eyes narrowed. “ I was not there when your parents and friends were killed but I do know that the Covenenter who was assures me there was no other option. Enough of this for now though I will return to that subject latter.”
Latask shook his head and shrugged away the angry look Edward directed in his direction. “ What is of more concern to me, and should be to you at the moment, is that I have lost contact with the rest of the Empire. I do not know how but projecting my thoughts beyond the borders of Sardonia is like entering a void. There is nothing there, no thoughts, no contact. The only two Covenenters I have contact with at the moment are two in Walloon but they cannot help me because they are helping their army remnants to retreat across Walloon and have no time to pass the time of day with me. They do say though that as the army retreats so they lose contact with all the land behind the enemy lines. Since my last contact, they have retreated so that the mountains mask their thoughts and I can no longer thought transfer with them. Therefore we must conclude that what is causing this loss of contact is very powerful and is intent on capturing the whole of the Empire. In case you were wondering Edward, I have sent my two other Covenenters, into the void that is the rest of the Empire to try to find out what is happening. They have not returned or made contact since crossing the Ford. I am now all alone. We have to find out what is happening in Parison but I have no idea of what else we can do to gather that intelligence. In other words I need help from you.”
Rulask cut in. “ Silker, now for your report.”
Silker sat upright in his chair like the soldier he was, as though he was on the parade ground inspecting his troops. “ Briefly, we sent half our troops across the river to find out what was happening in the Empire and assess what we had to do to counter the threat. We thought it must have been a rebellion by some of the troops. Not one of those soldiers has returned or managed to get word back to us. I know some of them might have joined the other side but quite a few were very loyal to me, Borovic and to Rulask. Sorry, Latask but I cannot say they were loyal to you because that would be a lie.  Scared maybe but not loyal. What this means is that we do not have enough soldiers to defend this province from an outside threat. Indeed we have barely enough to keep order inside the Province. If there is an attack on this Alskar and Sardonia, our only hope is to mobilise the population of both Sardonia and of Rombuli. To do this the Imperial army needs help. First, we have to convince the people that the threat is genuine and not being used as a means of oppressing them even more than they feel they are oppressed now. Secondly I have been told that you have the power to communicate with your mind just like Latask and the Covenent and that there are more like you in Rombuli. Any army that has a means to communicate instantly has a distinct advantage over its enemies who have to use messengers to physically carry messages which takes time. This is the advantage the Imperial Army has always had with the Covenent and their trained men. What really concerns me is that we seem to have lost those trained men in attempts to find out what is happening in the rest of the Empire.”
Rulask looked once again at Edward. “ So you see all or what we have been speaking this morning boils down to the fact that we need help. We need help from your people and we need help from those with power. One thing you can do Edward is co-ordinate the mobilisation of your people.  Borovic will help you with that and you two can go away after this meeting and start to make the plans for the mobilisation of the Rombuli people. Silker has found somebody to do the same in Sandaria. Latask though also has a request.”
Latask smiled faintly. “ As we have all been saying to you, we need help. As far as I can make out there is only one person who could help me in the way I need help. Edward, that person and I will have to agree to forget our past differences if what I have in mind is to work. Will you agree to help me and at least suspend your dislike of me?”
Edward looked from one person round the table to the other and then shrugged his shoulders. “ The way you all put the arguments to me, makes me believe that as in the past I have little choice but to do whatever you all ask of me. It seems, whenever I have been mixed up with the Empire, people have got hurt and many killed, including my family and friends. With that in mind, I see I have no option but to agree with your requests. As for helping you Latask, I haven't the power to help in the way you want.”
Latask laughed grimly. “ Oh, Edward Eastland, don't kid yourself. You have far more power than anybody else from outside the Circle I have ever met. You have to believe me and through this time of trial you will surely learn how powerful you are. That night in your room you resisted our power and nobody other than one of the Circle could have done that. Enough of this. You can help me by getting in touch with Nelvask.”
Edward laughed and shook his head. “ Don't be silly, Latask. I have no idea where Nelvask is let alone how to contact him. It is over four hundred years since any of the Rombuli have seen or heard from him.”
Latask was getting angry. “ Use your mind power you fool. That was why it was given to you!”
“ I have only ever used my mind to make contact with five other people in all my life. My father, Mr. Fox, you, the other Covenenter and Mr. Fox's daughter. Except when my father was in danger, I have always been looking at the person or at least know precisely where they are when I have thought transferred.” Edward shrugged. “ I would not know how to start.”
Latask lent across the table and grasped the front of Edward's shirt, his face suffused with anger. “ Boy, this is important. You have to take this seriously. I need one of my own kind to help me. From what is happening in Walloon, I cannot call on the two Covenenters to leave what they are doing and help me. They have their hands full trying to help their people and, like me in Rombuli, that is what Tulka sent them here to do. They tell me there is an army moving into position for an assault in the spring which is at least four times as big as their own. They are needed there. All the other Covenenters have disappeared into the blank void that seems to be covering the rest of the Empire. For all I know, they are dead. Boy, I hate to admit this but I am scared. For the first time in my life I am not in control but having to react to events without any information. We can't keep in touch even with the troops in Sardonia like we used to by mind contact, only by sending messages by horse rider. The priests that I have left, the ones I did not send into Parison, are no good and will not go to the front even when I threaten them. Oh I could force them but they would be useless, shaking with fright and trying to run away all the time. I need help. The only other person like me who is free from the effects of the cloud covering the Empire is Nelvask. You have to get in touch with him and convince him to come here and help me.”
Edward shrugged free from Latask's grasp and sat looking blank eyed out of the window. How was he to get in touch with somebody he had never met before? First he had no idea what Nelvask looked like or how his brain waves would react to Edward's. Second he had no idea whether Nelvask was even alive.
The voice of Rulask interrupted his thoughts. “ Edward, you will have to help us. I know it is hard for you because of the way you have been treated in the past but we need your help.”
Edward refocused his eyes on the room. “ All right, I will try my best. I have no idea how I can help you but I will try. You will have to leave me alone while I work this out. Latask, have you a copy of the Book of the Rombuli that I can study?”
“ Why do you want that banned book?” Latask asked harshly his anger obviously near the surface once more.
“ Inside there is a picture of Nelvask which might bring me insight in how to contact him,” Edward smiled at Latask. “ Besides when I read the passages on Derek Gorland and Nelvask, my Maker might give me an insight into the workings of Nelvask’s mind.”
“ Leaving aside how you are so familiar with such a banned book, I expect I can find you a copy.” He went to the door and said something to the clerk.
Very shortly, Edward, furnished by Latask with a copy of the banned book, left the other four still discussing the situation in the Empire and went back to Kitty's room. Kitty had just risen from bed and was still in her night shift but she smiled happily when he came into the bedroom to greet her. Much to her annoyance, Edward kissed her abstractly and then sat down heavily on a settee in the sitting room. He sat ignoring Kitty, staring out of the window lost in thought.
Seeing she was not going to get any sense out of Edward or to get him back into bed, Kitty hurriedly dressed and came to sit by his side.
“ What is the matter my love?” she asked running her fingers through his hair.
Edward sighed heavily. “ I have just come from the meeting with the Governor which your brother warned me about last night. There was a lot of discussion about the Empire being in trouble, the main thrust of which I did not understand. The important thing which concerned me was that Latask asked me to get in touch with Nelvask, the ancient teacher of the Rombuli who disappeared over four hundred years ago.”
“ Well what is the problem?” Kitty asked lightly. “ Write out a message and send one of Boric's Rangers like your weapons trainer Tag to find him. I am sure he will come if you ask.”
“ Be serious for a minute will you Kitty. That maybe what happens in the Imperial Palace but here it is not that easy,” Edward told her bluntly. “ I told you ages ago that Nelvask vanished just before Derek Gorland surrendered, taking Derek's son with him. Nobody has seen him since and that includes the Covenent who have been actively searching all these years. As far as I am aware, nobody has heard anything from him since he vanished into the mountains the day Derek surrendered. For all we know he might be dead.”
“ If he is like Latask and the rest of the Covenent he won't be dead.” Kitty replied emphatically. “ By our Gods, nobody knows how old they are but he seems to have been around the Empire for longer than anybody I know has lived. The way he talks he must have been present at some of the major events in the Empires history so I guess he is long lived. If this Nelvask is the same, he will be alive somewhere. Think, Edward, on where he was likely to go after leaving the Gathering Field. It can't have been anywhere in the Empire or he would have been found a long time ago. What does the Book say? Let's start from there.”
“ The book states that he disappeared bearing Derek's son into the mountains,” Edward replied gloomily.
“ That’s where we have to start. Who knows about those mountains?” It was obvious by the way she smiled and the expression on her face that Kitty was enjoying herself.
“ No that will not do,” Edward stated frowning. “ The mountains are impenetrable from this side or so I have been told. People have tried to follow and explore them but they have always failed. Every time the attempt is made, the explorers seem to end up in dead end canyons, against sheer walls of rock or wander into valleys that cannot be crossed. The book though does tell us that the Rombuli came out of the mountains after spending the summer in Nelvask's valley but nobody has ever managed to find the way back. It is as though there is a power there making sure that the mountains are impenetrable.”
Kitty grimaced and then laughed. “ That's it. He is up in those mountains somewhere guarded by his power so that nobody can find him if he does not want them to discover his valley. Now you have the power or you talk of power. I was there when your father got in touch that time, don't forget. Why are you so reluctant to use your power to contact Nelvask? “
“ Don't be silly,” Edward snapped irritably. “ As I told Latask in the meeting just now, I have only ever made mind contact with people I know or who I am looking at. I have never met Nelvask or had mind contact with him before.”
“ But Edward when your father got through to you that afternoon, he was miles away in Alskar.” Kitty was thinking her way through the problem even though she had no idea if she was right about Edward’s power.
Edward stared at her unable to grasp what she was trying to say. Was that all there was to it? Just sit here and mentally call Nelvask's name? Surely not. There must be more to it than that. If that was all he had to do why has Latask with that much more power been unable to contact Nelvask. Suddenly Latask's words took on a new meaning. Of course, Latask had tried, had used all his experience and power but Nelvask had refused to answer. The enmity between Latask and Nelvask ran too deep for Nelvask to heed any summons from Latask. That was why Latask wanted him to try because there was a better chance for an answer to Edward's request than for a response to Latask. That still leaves me with a problem, Edward told himself. How on earth am I to get him to reply if Latask with that much more power could not?
“ All right Kitty, I'll try it the way you suggest,” Edward told her, feeling foolish, but making up his mind. “ Get the Book from over there and bring it to me. I will find the picture of Nelvask which I know is in there some place. Maybe if I have some form of reference, I will be able to get a response from him.”
They sat close together on the settee, and turned the pages of the Book until they found the picture of Nelvask. Kitty frowned and then let out a gasp.
“ What's the matter now? “ Edward asked irritably, his concentration disturbed.
“ Look at that other picture,” Kitty said pointing to another picture on the page. “You look so much like him.”
Edward looked at the picture to which she was pointing. “ Oh that's Derek Gorland as a young man before he took over the leadership of the Rombuli. I suppose I do look a little like him, though I expect half the Rombuli nation could claim a resemblance. Put that aside for a moment and let me concentrate.”
He sat next to Kitty on the settee, trying to clear his mind of her scent and her presence that gave him a very pleasant sensation but distracted his thoughts from the task in hand. Visions of her bed from the night before rose up in his mind and he had great difficulty overcoming the desire to leave Nelvask and return to her bed. With a great test of his will power, he put the sense of Kitty sitting beside him out of his mind and concentrated on the picture of Nelvask. Feeling rather foolish, he emptied his mind of all other thoughts and began.
Nelvask, this is Edward Eastland and I have to speak to you.”
Nothing happened and Edward shook his head. Kitty smiled reassuringly in his direction.
Nelvask will you please answer me. It is very important.” Edward put more power into his thoughts this time.
Greetings Edward Eastland. I have been waiting a long time for you to contact me. Indeed I have been hoping that more than one person would be in touch over the years.”
Edward jumped. It was as though Nelvask was sitting in the room with him, the voice was so clear in Edward’s mind. Kitty was watching him with mounting excitement, certain from his expression that something was happening, but Edward only waved his hand to keep her quiet and indicate that he was in contact with Nelvask.
What is so important that you feel you need to get in touch with me after all this time? I have waited for one of the Rombuli to contact me since I left the gathering Field all that time ago but in vain. Though I could have made myself known to any of the Rombuli, I thought it best in the light of the power of the Covenent to wait for one of you to contact me. Now what have you to say to me Edward Eastland?
It is a long story Nelvask, but I will be brief by cutting out the details. Then if you need any more information, you can ask me questions when I have finished. Latask, the Covenenter seems to know you. Anyway, he asked me to see if you would respond to my call to you. He has tried but you have never answered him. He wants you to know there is trouble in the Empire, what the trouble is I am not sure because I only arrived here yesterday. What he wants is for you to help him combat the trouble in some way.
Oh he does he? The last time I saw Latask, he was one of the leaders of the rabble who were busily kicking me out of my home on the Holy Mountain. He split me away from all my books and my study, to go wandering round this land alone and outcast. You have some idea what that is like. Only when my Maker told me to find the Rombuli fleeing from danger into danger, did my life take on a true meaning again. Why should I help him, given all the heartache he caused me? Why should I leave my retreat where I have my books, my land and my loyal servants to follow the bidding of my enemy? You will have to convince me by answering that question. What do I care for their bloody Empire?”
All I can say is that it isn't just the Empire which is in trouble but the Rombuli nation as well. As far as I can make out, the Empire has been attacked by something that has so much power they can stop mind contact between the Covenenters and this happens wherever these people gain control. Latask thinks that in the spring, Sardonia and Rombuli will be attacked as the last places in the Empire still free. Already Walloon is under siege. On his own, because the other Covenenters have been sent to find out what this power is and have not returned, he feels he cannot stop the advance in the spring. He thinks you will be able to help him resist this unknown enemy because he says his and your combined power will be a match for whatever it is out there in the rest of the Empire. If you hate the Empire think of the harm that could come down on the Rombuli nation you say you love. Look, I am not making much sense because I have only a sketchy knowledge of what is happening. If you will only open your mind to his, he can explain much better than I can. What shall I tell him?”
There was a long silence in Edward's head, then Nelvask's voice sounded once more. “ I think I understand though there are some gaping holes in your explanation. The best thing I can do is come to Nimmar and confront Latask. I will be able to get to the bottom of this then and decide on my response.
When shall I tell Latask you will arrive?” Edward asked eagerly.
Oh there is no need to tell him. I will come at once. It will give me great pleasure to see his face when I walk unannounced into his room.” The laughter in Nelvask’s voice was plain to Edward.
How will you get here?” Edward frowned, his expression puzzled.
That is easy. You are going to help me. All you have to do is concentrate on the room and then open your mind fully to mine, I will do the rest. It strikes me as surprising, however with your power that you have never experimented with this technique yourself.” Nelvask sounded puzzled. 
Experimented with what?” Edward asked eagerly.
You just concentrate on the room and then you will find out.” Nelvask chuckled at some private joke.
Edward got up from the settee, waving for Kitty to stay where she was. Standing to one side of the room, he concentrated on fixing a picture of the room in his head.
As the picture of the room became fixed in his mind, he felt as though his thoughts were being grasped by an outside force. There was a wrenching sensation in his head, the air in the middle of the room shimmered with a silver light and then there was a man standing on the carpet directly in the spot where Edward was looking.
Kitty let out a gasp but Edward did not look in her direction. He stood rooted to the spot unable to understand what was happening. Grinning widely, a tall broad shouldered man dressed in simple brown jacket and trousers stood in the room looking around. His face was covered in a silver beard but the mouth was smiling and the deep blue eyes twinkling.
“ Well Edward we meet at last, “ Nelvask said walking the few paces to put his arm round Edward's shoulders.
Edward stared, at first unable to say anything.
Then he spoke his voice hoarse with wonder. “ It was you wasn't it?”
“ What was me?” Nelvask asked laughing so naturally it gave the impression that he was always laughing.
“ It was you who told me what to do that night when the Covenent were trying to get me to confess that I had had a hand in stealing the Rombuli flag.” Edward demanded an answer.  “ Yours was the voice which came into my head and gave me advice.”
“ Yes that was me, “ Nelvask said, the grin leaving his face. “ When you called out for help, I almost came but then realised it was not quite the time to go fighting the Covenent. I have never before felt quite so much power in one of the Rombuli. You did well that night with my help. Now introduce me to your lovely companion before her eyes pop out of her head. From the look of things we are in her room and it is the height of bad manners for a gentleman to enter a lady's room without an invitation.”
“ Sorry,” Edward muttered but grinned. “ Nelvask this is Kitty Borovic, lady in waiting to the Governor’s wife, daughter of Imperial Grand Master Borovic, the Head of the Emperor's personal guard. Kitty this is Nelvask, the ancient Rombuli Teacher, though how he got into your room I have no idea.”
Kitty rose from the settee where she had been sitting watching Nelvask and Edward.
She curtsied gracefully. “ Welcome to my room Nelvask though I am still in shock from watching you appear out of nowhere. How did you do that?”
“ Oh, Edward opened his mind to me and I used that as a conduit to reach him. He can do that as well you know if he tried. In fact I expect he could use you as the homing person if he trained you to open your mind to his. In time he might even be able to transfer you from place to place as well.” Nelvask was looking at Kitty quite strangely. “ I see you two are more than friends.”
Kitty blushed but did not look away. “Yes, Nelvask and we are to be married as soon as it can be arranged.”
Nelvask smiled hugely and kissed Kitty on the cheek. “ That is good. I can see you love each other. Can I come to the wedding? I haven't been to a wedding for ages. Enough of your wedding for now, we can discuss the details later. I suppose I had better go and talk to Latask though I would rather stay with you. Will you two show me the way to his office?”
Edward and Kitty led Nelvask through the Mansion to the office of the Governor where they expected to find Latask. The official who had shown Edward into the Governor's presence earlier in the morning looked rather hard at Nelvask but informed Edward that Latask had returned to his quarters.
“ Where is that?” Nelvask asked as they left the office.
“ At the bottom of the hill in the chalets by the Meeting House,” Edward replied.
“ So he has commandeered my home has he? We will have to see what we can do about this.” Nelvask looked hard at the corridor.
“ Please Nelvask do not cause too much trouble. Latask asked you to come in peace to help him and I said I would tell you that you will be safe while you are here.” Edward pleaded with his spiritual leader.
“ If that is the case Edward, lead on, because even if I know the way, it seems I am your guest.” Nelvask said bowing deeply in mock deference to Edward.
Edward, Kitty and Nelvask walked out of the Mansion taking along the path towards the Temple. Nelvask looked around, his face growing darker and darker the further they went.
Sweeping his arm in a circle to include the Mansion, the Temple and the wall, Nelvask grunted to nobody in particular. “ What have they done, oh my Maker? All this was for the people to come in silent contemplation, for children to play, for families to picnic. It is not meant to be shut away from the people so that only the privileged few can enjoy the peace and the beauty. Oh Latask what have you done to my people and my island!  In the end you will have to answer for this to me but I will leave it for now because you ask me to come in peace.”
They came in sight of the gate leading into the Covenenter's compound and the creatures who watched.
“ That is an abomination! Half animal half machine!” Nelvask cried aloud and waved his hand in the creatures’ direction.
Edward felt the power and the anguished cry of the watchers and then they toppled from their place on the gateposts to smash into pieces on the ground. With another wave of his hand, Nelvask collapsed the force field along the hedge and grimly threw down the gates.
“ Oh Maker this is my home and I am back.  Never again will the Covenent be allowed to put barriers around this place. I will see that all the people will be able to come and see this island. Given the chance, I will set my people free from the yoke of Latask and the Covenent. That will be my price for helping Latask. Come Edward and Kitty and witness the confrontation between me and Latask.”
Nelvask made no pretence of following them but swept down the steps, his cloak billowing out behind. At the bottom of the stairs, Nelvask did not hesitate but walked straight across the lawn ignoring the pathway and banged his staff on the door to one of the bungalows.
Latask came to the door and smiled. For a moment Edward felt that there was going to be an explosion as the sparks flew between these two old men but then they both seemed to relax.
  Greetings Nelvask,” Latask said extending his hand in some semblance of friendship.
“ Greetings Latask,” Nelvask replied, taking his hand. “ We will hold our discussion in the Meeting House, so send somebody to make it ready. I see you have put shutters at the windows. Have these removed and lets get some light in the room. Which bungalow will I be staying in seeing as you are in mine?”
“ I have had the one at the end made ready for you,” Latask replied.
Nelvask turned to Edward and smiled. “ Thank you Edward. You and Kitty can go back now. Tell the Governor that I am here and that Latask and I will be in touch when we have filled each other in on what is happening in the world. Oh, by the way. Latask and I will officiate jointly at your wedding so you two had better make plans now.”
Edward stared at Nelvask and then holding Kitty firmly by the hand, walked resolutely back up the steps to the Temple. By his side, Kitty was fuming as evidenced the heat emminating from her hand.
 “ How dare he start ordering us about concerning our wedding,” she finally exploded when they ere at the top of the stairs. “ I will not have anybody tell me what we are going to do. We will decide who will officiate and where the wedding will take place.”
Edward suddenly laughed. “ Kitty don't you want to marry me?”
“ Of course I do but...”
“ No buts Kitty. Let us make the arrangements. Come on let us go and see the Governor and explain.” Edward said, taking her hand and pulling her into motion towards the mansion.
“ Why the Governor?” Kitty asked getting more frustrated.
“ Because he will have to approve or we will never get married.” Edward explained patiently. “ He is the highest ranking Imperial official in the province and will see your marriage as important for the Empire. If he thinks I am of too lowly a station, he will refuse. If he thinks your father would object, he will refuse. If on the other hand if he thinks that your marriage to me might bind the Rombuli people closer to the Empire, he will approve. Let us go and convince him that our marriage will bring benefits not only to us but to the Empire.”
They managed to see Rulask that morning, telling him that Nelvask had arrived and was in conference with Latask. Rulask gave Kitty a big hug when they asked about getting married but the idea they had entertained of the ceremony being in a short time, vanished at the hands of the Governor and his wife.
Kitty and Edward were still staggering when they left the Governor, having been told that the wedding would take place in the Great Hall as a symbol of the joining in friendship of the Empire and Rombuli. The Governor's wife would organise the issuing of the invitations to all the prominent families in Rombuli. She asked Edward who he would want to invite. After some hesitation, the only people he could think of were Tom, June, Lucy and Derek. The Governor insisted he sat down and wrote out an invitation for them to visit Nimmar as soon as possible. Orders were then issued for the Army to provide an escort for Tom and his family when they travelled to Nimmar.
So it was four days later, four days in which he had been more and more pushed aside as the wedding preparations took on a momentum of their own, Edward stood on the steps of the Mansion waiting for his friends to come. He had hardly seen anything of Kitty since the date had been decided, this included his free time at night. Once the fateful decision had been taken, he had been moved out of her rooms to a suite of his own in another part of the Mansion. Next door was the suit containing a living room and three bedrooms that had been put aside for his friends.
As the pace of preparation became even more frantic and he was more and more ignored, Edward had started to wonder whether he had made the right decision in deciding to marry Kitty. He was thinking, as he waited for his friends too come, it might have been better if he had gone away to stay with them rather than invite them here. His thoughts were interrupted when he saw a coach with an escort of soldiers coming up the drive from the bridge and his excitement rose. It was as though he was waiting for his family, indeed they were the only family he had had for the last few years.
An Undermaster dismounted by the Mansion and saluted Edward. “ Your friends have arrived safely, Mr. Eastland.”
“ Thank you for looking after them for me, Undermaster,” Edward replied, knowing this was a duty the Undermaster would rather not have undertaken but as a loyal soldier of the Empire had stoically undertaken his duty. “ You can go back to your quarters and relax. I'll look after them from now on.”
The Undermaster saluted smartly and turned on his heel to march away towards one of the other entrances to the Mansion.
The coach pulled up at the door and the footman dismounted and put the steps in place. The door opened and June looked fearfully out. The footman took her arm and helped her from the coach, followed by Lucy, Derek and Tom. They all stood self-consciously looking about but their faces lighted up at the sight of Edward coming down the steps.
“ Tom! June! Lucy! Derek! I hope you had a good journey. Forgive me for sending for you like this without giving you any warning or even any time to prepare for the journey. I hope you were not too worried about being summoned by the Governor of Rombuli to come to Nimmar straight away. Did the soldier tell you why you have been asked to come?”
Edward hugged each of them in turn. “ Come on I'll show you to your rooms and then I will explain.”
After Edward had instructed the servant about where to bring their bags, they all crowded after him through the imposing Hall and down the wide corridor to the second staircase.
June followed close, her mind unable to grasp what was happening to her and her family. The house was too big, so big in fact she had no real basis on which to judge its status or its wealth. Up more stairs and along another corridor she followed hardly having the courage to look about.
Then Edward stopped at a door with a servant waiting outside. People whose main job seemed to be to open doors for her made June nervous and wanting to tell them to let her open the doors herself. The servant swung the door open, bowed and stepped aside. June led the way into the room and then stopped dead causing the others to crowd up against her back.
What greeted her was, to her eyes, the height of luxury set out in a vast room. The settees and armchairs were covered in cloth the like of which she had never seen and on the floor was a deep pile carpet in bright colours. There was a dining table and six chairs and other highly polished smaller tables around the room. Flowers in glass vases further brightened the room making June smile at the thought that even rich people liked their flowers.
“ This is where you will stay while you are here,” Edward explained pushing passed his open mouthed friends. “ You must treat this like home. Through that door is your bedroom, Tom and June. Through that door is a bedroom for Lucy. Through there, one for Derek. Through the other door is a bathroom.”
Turning to Tula standing by the bathroom door with a pile of towels trying hard not to smile, Edward said, “ This is Tula, your servant while you are here. Tula, this is the family who took me in this year and became the first friends I had for a long time. This is Tom, his wife June, their daughter Lucy and their son Derek. Look after them well while they are here. They are not used to this kind of life especially having servants to look after them.  Remember how I reacted to seeing all this not so long ago when I first came here to the Mansion. Help them all you can. Now I will leave you for a little while so that you can settle in then I will come back for a drink. Later we will have dinner together and I will tell you why you have been summoned here.”
That night Edward arranged with Tula for a dinner to be served in his room for his friends.
After Tula had shown them in and they had been served with drinks, Edward smiled and said. “We will wait for a while until we are joined by somebody else. As you see the table is laid for six. Have a drink while we wait.”
It was not long before there was a knock on the door and Kitty entered the room after a servant opened the door for her. June was immediately struck by how self possessed and in control Kitty was. It is as though she expects servants to open doors for her, as though without thinking, she will put out her hand and a drink will appear. And the servants instinctively obey her with out question or hesitation. When Kitty had a drink in her hand, Edward introduced her to his friends.
“ This is Kitty Borovic, the Lady in Waiting to the Governor. It is because of her that I have had you invited to Nimmar. Kitty and I are getting married next week and I wanted you to be here to support me,” Edward put his arm round Kitty and smiled.
Kitty was watching Lucy when Edward said those words and could not help seeing the cloud which crossed her face. It was as though she had lost something important and a light had gone out in her life.
“ I am pleased to meet you all,” Kitty said kissing June on the cheek and embracing Lucy and Derek. “ Tomorrow, you June and Lucy will spend the day with me. I have arranged for a dressmaker to come to my apartment and we can have a very pleasant day being measured for and trying on dresses and underwear. The men I will leave in Edward's hands. I know they are to be fitted for some clothes but as men take a lot less time over those things, I expect they will be finished a long time before us.”
Later that evening after a very pleasant meal, Kitty managed to get Lucy on her own for a few minutes. “ Lucy, I have known Edward for a number of years and I have been trying to get him to marry me for most of that time. Don't feel bad about him. He will be upset if he thinks you are really angry with him. Tomorrow I will tell you the story of our romance and you can judge for yourself about how you should treat Edward.” 
Lucy smiled shyly. “ Oh, Kitty it is not jealousy really but he was such a catch when he arrived to work for my father, I just thought I could win him. That day he looked so vulnerable and sad. I suppose I tried at first to cheer him up and things went from there. I should have known there was somebody else because although always kind to me, he kept his distance if you know what I mean. You do not have anything to fear from me as far as Edward is concerned.”
The next day the women disappeared soon after breakfast and the men were left on their own. Edward took Tom and Derek into Nimmar and arranged for their outfits to be made for the wedding. Then they spent a pleasant day lazing around the Mansion.
The wedding of Kittiana Borovic and Edward Eastland took place in the Great Hall of the Mansion at Nimmar. With the worry about the troubles in the rest of the Empire put aside for a day, people treated it as though it was to be the last social event in that part of the Empire for some time. It was just like the time the Emperor came to Nimmar with everybody of consequence vying to look wealthier or more important than the next person.
Nelvask and Latask jointly presided in a ceremony that took elements of both the Parison and the Rombuli wedding rites.
Through the ceremony June tried not to look out of place though she felt conspicuous of her social standing among so many nobles of the Empire. She had worked out, though she had not said anything to her family, that there was a social order in the Empire. Though most people would never have noticed, she had seen that Kitty was obeyed without any hesitation or questioning looks, that with Edward there was just that little hesitation when he gave orders and with her the questioning looks at first and the minor hesitation were most notable. It was different when she was with Kitty than when she was alone except for whenever she was with Tula. She looked around her now at all the splendour and wealth and lifted her chin determined to enjoy Edward's wedding.
Tom supported Edward while Boric in the absence of his father gave away the bride in the time honoured Rombuli fashion. They drank a toast as the sacrifice to the Parison God, wrapped their joined hands in a sacred chausible held by Latask before the fire. Then they lit a double candle in the Rombuli fashion, the candle burning into one while the hymn to the new creation was sung by all the guests. And June with tears rolling down her cheeks cried out proclaiming them man and wife as they walked around the aisles of the Great Hall.
At the party lasting long into the night after the wedding, Lucy was the centre of the attention of many of the young men. Tom at first tried to stay close to her but in the end gave up and let her dance with who ever she wanted. Soon June started to relax and holding Tom's arm circulated among the guests leaving Lucy to enjoy herself.
After the wedding and the meal and party, Edward and Kitty left to spend a few days at the country estate of the Governor. As they left, Rulask told Edward that the serious business would start on their return.
And so at last Edward and Kitty were married and in many ways the destiny of the Empire and Rombuli were tied together.

Running After Maria

Running after Maria


Eddie Gubbins

Published as an ebook for downloading at:

James Ashleigh went to sea after leaving school and began to live what turned out to be, for him, the ideal life. Plenty of money, plenty of women and drink and visiting places only read about in books. The ideal life for somebody in their mid twenties with nothing to hold them in one place. Then one day at a party on one of ship on which he was an officer, in port in Finland, he meets Maria and life's complications start.

This is the story of one man’s descent into depression after tragedy strikes, his anger at other people trying to help and his redemption in the arms of somebody who admired the dedication of other people who try to help. It explores the question of whether a person can really be saved after a devastating loss especially of somebody that person loves deeply? Does not their world and the will to live end?

Saturday, 25 September 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 11

Imperial Master Borovic and his troops escorted Morag and Edward out of the square through the silent and resentful towns’ people. Like the waters cleaved by the bow of a ship, the crowd parted to let them through. The murmurs of disapproval were muted as though the people were emotionally drained by the day’s events and did not have any more energy to show their resentment at the Imperial Troops interfering with their act of grief. The main sound in the dim light of the overcast sky was the jingle of the horses’ harnesses and the clatter of their hooves as they met any hard surface. The silence was complete, the people hardly seeming to breathe.
As they rode away from the town, Edward had no idea of what Morag was thinking. Every time he glanced in her direction, she was sitting upright on her seat in the trap looking straight ahead her eyes showing little emotion. At the same time, Edward was resigned to his fate. There was no doubt in his mind that the Covenenter would have his way and Edward would be taken back to Nimmar to face Latask. After that, he knew not what.
In one sense, he was beyond caring about the future. Only a few moments before, he had buried the rest of his family and many of his friends. Though he had failed in the attempt to recapture the Rombuli flag and present it to the Gathering, he was somehow still alive, unlike the others who had raided the Meeting House with him that fateful night. Why he did not know but in his state of mind, there must be a purpose to his survival. Even so his future was bleak. All he could think of in any constructive way was that he had to try to get Morag released.
Riding surrounded by his escort, Borovic appeared lost in thought as though he was past the time for making conversation and he too was contemplating the future. Even so he kept casting curious glances at Morag and Edward seeing this, hoped he might find an ally in his attempt to get Morag released. So they rode through the town and on up the hill to the fort, each lost in their own private thoughts.
When they arrived at the fort, the soldiers took away the horses and the trap before Borovic escorted Morag and Edward into the room where Edward had confronted the Covenenters that morning. Sitting in the chair behind the desk with a drink in his hand was Latask. He looked up and smiled when they entered as though greeting long lost friends.
“ Sit down all of you,” he said almost jovially. “ Have a drink. This wine is uncommonly good for such an outpost. Now we will have to decide what to do with the prisoners.”
When they were all seated with drinks supplied by a white clad servant, Latask spoke again. “ Imperial Master Borovic, the Covenent claim jurisdiction over the prisoners because this is a matter outside the sphere of the Army. You will hand them over to my care and then we can all go back to Nimmar.”
Borovic smiled grimly in return sipping his wine. “ Morag and Edward Eastland have been taken into custody by the Army on behalf of the civil administration of the Governor, Latask. I will deal with them according to my instructions and you will not interfere.”
“ No Borovic, not this time, “ Latask replied still smiling faintly. “ Morag Eastland is to come with me on the instructions of my leader, Tulka. I have instructions that she is to be taken to Parison to await the verdict of the Covenent there. She is the only surviving member of the rebellion against the Covenent in Alskar following the siege of the Eastland forge. There can be little argument on this because she was never in Nimmar and as such is outside the jurisdiction of the Governor. “
Boric ignored Latask's emphatic statement and started to put the case for the Governor's jurisdiction over Morag. He and Latask argued long and hard about the niceties of policy and power but it soon became obvious to Edward that Boric was on shaky ground.  Indeed, Edward soon realised that until he had come upon them outside the Meeting House, Boric did not know that Morag was involved. He was not arguing with the backing of the Governor but out of loyalty to his friend, Edward. In the end Boric had to concede the argument to Latask.
All the time they were arguing about her fate, Morag sat looking at her hands clasped in her lap as though she did not care what happened to her after the deaths of her family. It was as though the last few days had drained her of all the spirit she used to show, as though there was nothing left. All Edward could do was sit and sip his drink while yearning to penetrate the withdrawn look that Morag gave to her hands.
Boric looked from Edward to Morag and back to Latask. “ If you must take Morag away, can Edward have some time alone with her before you go?”
Latask's eyes glowed and his voice was full of menace. “ There will be no need for that. They will have plenty of time together on the journey to Parison. “
Hearing those words Edward grasped Morag's hand in reassurance. At least, he thought, we will be able to face our fate together. Boric got up from his chair, drew a piece of paper from his jacket and placed it on the desk in front of Latask.
“ What is this? “ Latask asked fingering the paper but not looking at what was written on its surface.
“ It is an order granting the release of Edward Eastland from our custody but banning him from leaving Alskar Province. It is signed by the Governor.” Boric was trying to hide his triumph in the face of Latask's hostile stare.
Latask slowly unfolded the paper and read. When he looked up again, his face was expressionless. “ I don't agree with this but there is not much I can do about it. All right, they can have thirty minutes together before we leave for Nimmar. A room will be made available to them.”
Edward and Morag spent their thirty minutes reassuring each other that they would be all right. It was an awkward time and both were rather relieved when the soldier came to take Morag away. As she disappeared through the door, it was the last time, Edward thought, I will ever see her.
Latask was waiting when Edward returned to the Covenenter's office. “ You may have escaped us this time Eastland, but you are not really free. We will be keeping an eye on you and your movements. Rest assured that wherever you go, we will know what you are doing. When the time is right we will be able to find you. You cannot hide from us so do not bother to try. May you travel with your Maker, Edward Eastland until we meet again.”
As Latask left the room, those words rang in Edward's head.
Boric arranged for Edward to be given a horse, a big black army trained horse called Midnight, in addition to a horse and cart with some blacksmiths equipment and a tent with bedding. He also gave Edward a pouch with some gold out of his own resources. When this was all ready, Edward walked with Boric to the gates of the fort.
“ Well Edward it is time for us to say farewell,” Boric said his eyes sad. “ I did not want things to turn out as they have. Since we started working together, I had high hopes that we might become firm friends and be working together for a while. Indeed, times may yet change and you may still come back to Nimmar. The Governor still harbours a hope that you will be able to join his Council once this trouble has all died down. Try not to think too badly of me.”
Edward gazed out over the town lying below the fort, his town and his people. Turning back to Boric, he said quietly. “ In a different age at a different time, we could have been friends. Of all the Imperial officials I have met, you are one of the few who has taken the trouble to find out about our history. I have to thank you for the efforts you have taken on my behalf. I am sorry we have to part like this. One thing you could do for me.  Give my regards to Kitty when you next see her. Tell her I am well and wish her well in the future. I will think of her often in my wanderings.”
Boric smiled for the first time since he had met Edward that day. “ I will do as you ask when I get back to Nimmar. She will be glad to hear that you are at least still nominally free. Until we meet again, Edward, may you travel with your Maker.”
Edward tied Midnight to the cart and climbed wearily, stiffly into the driving seat. “ Travel safely with your particular God, Boric Borovic. I have no particular desire to get mixed up with the Empire again so this really is goodbye.’
Waving, Edward put the cart in motion and drove through the gates and to freedom without a backward glance at the fort or the Imperial Master standing in the gate.
After leaving the fort, Edward wandered round Alskar Province during the autumn taking any passing job he could find until he found a place to stay in the far north for the winter. He spent the time helping out on the farm and making knives and other implements which he planned to sell at the various fairs that were part of the Alskar province calendar.
In the spring, he said goodbye to the farmer and started travelling again. He made his way to Pinaar in the south of the province for the spring fair.  Setting up his stall in the fields set aside for the fair, he did a brisk business selling the tools he had made during the winter and doing small repairs that the people brought to his stall. There was an air of excitement hanging over the fair and he found out that Governor Rulask was visiting Pinaar as part of the tour of the Province during the time of the fair.
When the day came for the Governor's visit, soldiers came round the fair early and rounded up all the people, ordering them into town to greet the Governor on his arrival. Edward had no desire to go into town to see the Governor but wanted to remain as anonymous as possible and so he went along with the crowd.
Actually, the whole episode made Edward want to laugh. The Empire was acting stupidly, showing a complete lack of understanding of the Rombuli people. They herded the people into the town, gave them flags to wave and made them line the roads approaching the Meeting House. What a farce, Edward thought. All the soldiers had to do was announce that the Governor was coming to Pinaar and the natural curiosity of his people would have brought the crowds onto the streets. Left to their own devices, the people would have come anyhow, clapped politely and even raised a cheer. As it turned out, the Imperial progress was greeted in almost total silence.
Mingling with the crowd, Edward took up station where he could easily see the steps of the Meeting House and the rest of the square. The weather had turned warm and the sunny day reminding Edward of the time a year ago when he had stood in the square at Alskar and confronted the Covenenter. At the thought of the Covenent Edward shuddered and the words of Latask came unbidden to his mind.
On the steps of the Meeting House stood the welcoming party, the chairman of the Council and the few Imperial officials from the area. Behind stood the other members of the Council all dressed in their best clothes and trying to look important. The sun shone on the gleaming white building and made the thatched roofs around the square glow golden in its light.
There was a stir among the crowd and the Governor's party swept into view. Leading was Imperial Master Borovic and the Governor's bodyguard, all shiny breast plates, black horses and lances with the Governor's pendant at their tip. The troop wheeled their horses into line before the Meeting House and presented arms as the carriage carrying the Governor drew to a halt before the steps. The Governor stepped down from the carriage dressed in a purple cloak and his wife joined him, her deep red dress dazzling the crowd.
Edward did not see the Governor greet the Council leader or hear the polite cheers of the crowd. His eyes were fixed on the carriage so fiercely he could not have looked away even if anybody had tried to force his attention elsewhere.  After the Governor's wife had stepped from the carriage to join her husband, Kitty Borovic stepped out onto the square. Edward could not take his eyes away from that figure standing by the carriage.
To Edward, Kitty seemed to shine in the sunlight, to draw the light to herself and mask those who stood close by. Kitty was wearing a light blue dress with fur-trimmed cloak and hood. The hood dropped away from her head as she descended from the carriage and her golden hair swung free. She flicked it back in place with a slight shake of her head, a gesture Edward had seen so many times, and his heart almost stopped beating. Looking at her standing demurely behind the Governor's wife, he realised once more how beautiful she was.  It took a supreme effort of will on his behalf to stop from pushing through the crowd and calling out to her.
Edward must have opened his mind without thinking, as though trying to project his thoughts into Kitty's mind to make her aware that he was close by. Behind the carriage was a white robed figure on a white horse and he turned slowly to look directly at the place where Edward was standing. The white robed figure slowly smiled and nodded in Edward's direction.
Greetings Edward Eastland, “ His voice was as clear as though he had been standing next to Edward in the crowd despite being fifteen yards across the square beside the carriage. “ I told you we would be keeping an eye on you no matter where you travel. At the same time I said we would meet again and here we are. I am pleased to see that you are looking well though a trifle worried. We still have unfinished business you and I. I am still convinced you were responsible for Hayak’s death last year. Until it is time for our confrontation, go in peace."
As calmly as he could, Edward shot back, “ Greeting Latask. I am pleased to see that you are still the hand that moves the puppets. One thing you could do for me. Tell Kittania Borovic that I am well and I send her greetings. “
Latask laughed. “ Why not come out of the crowd and tell her yourself. “
 Not this time Latask, “ Edward shot back. “ I will refrain from giving you the chance to hurt me while claiming that I was a danger to the Governor. 0h don't feel so surprised. I do have some ability for reading your mind. Until we meet again, may you travel with your particular God. “
Until we meet again Edward Eastland, may you travel with your Maker. I will make sure Kittania Borovic gets your message.” Latask smiled beautifully in Edward's direction.
The old fear of being spied on, of having no freedom, made Edward close his mind to Latask and push his way back through the crowd towards the field where the fair had been set up. Without a word to anybody, he packed his things, left Pinaar and resumed his wandering.
For the next few years he drifted around Alskar Province, plying his trade as a travelling blacksmith. He took any passing job that became available but did not stay long in any one place. At the most, after a week he moved on. Always moving in the hope that the Covenent would forget or lose track of his whereabouts, in reality he was running away. He did not have any desire for riches but because his needs were small, he was able to accumulate a little capital. One day, he thought as he passed through some village and saw the forge, I will be able to settle down and own my own place once more. But all the time Latask's words rang in his mind and he even began to suspect any person who tried to become friendly as being a spy for Latask.
Feeling the pressure of those words, he even tried to vanish for a year by going into the mountains and visiting the mines. There was plenty of work for a blacksmith but the life was rough and lawless in the mining settlements. Edward made money but in the end found the need for constant vigilance, the way in which life was seen to be cheap, the feeling that only the strong mattered and the weak were worthless, wore Edward down and he soon resumed his wanderings.
Three years after he had run away from Pinaar, he was back for the spring fair like all the other travelling tradesmen and craftsmen. Though small in the eyes of the Imperial Officials who saw a posting there as a distinct demotion, Pinaar was the largest town in the south west corner of Rombuli with about five thousand inhabitants. It lay in a valley close to the great fens to the south, within sight on a clear day of the jagged and impassable mountains to the west. The town had grown around the junction of the road running along the edge of the swamp all the way to the mountains and the road leading from the great highway between the mines and Alskar. The great road lay about forty miles to the north across the rolling gentle hills of fertile farms which were the bread basket of Alskar with the village of Minto at the cross roads of the road from Pinaar and the great west road.
Off the well-trodden path, Pinaar was mostly left alone by high ranking Imperial Officials but there was a small fort on a hill by the swamp road as it curved inland towards the Village of Holby where this road met the main highway. There stood the estate of the Imperial controller of the Province who was now a civilian. The house and estate had been owned by a Rombuli nobleman before the invasion and its occupation by the Imperial Official. It was now a fortified house and only held a small detachment of troops who where commanded by a junior officer. To the people of Pinaar it was a demonstration of the authority of the Empire even though they very rarely saw or had contact with the army.
Thus in this far flung corner of the Empire, Pinaar was the most important town and the spring fair was a big event in the lives of all the people who lived in the district. All kinds of people flocked into the fair to buy cloth, tools, to exchange gossip after the long winter and meet people who they had not seen for a long time.
There were jugglers, conjurers, dancers and con men. As in the rest of Rombuli, there was a singing contest, wrestling matches, horse racing but archery, swordsmanship and other martial sports involving weapons were banned. It was for everybody involved a time of celebration at having come through the long winter, at turning out the animals to pasture and at a successful planting.
While he was setting out his stall displaying the knives, scissors and other tools he had made during the winter, Edward noticed a lady standing watching him closely. She appeared nervous, as though she wanted to say something but did not have the courage to speak. When he straightened up and looked at her, she pulled her shawl around her shoulders and hurried away, head down looking at the ground. A little while later Edward saw her again but this time he smiled in greeting. The lady looked around and then approached his stall.
“ Hello, “ Edward said in greeting still smiling. “ Did you want to buy something? You are early. Most of the crowd will not be here for at least another two hours.”
The lady looked at him for a while, not saying anything and still obviously nervous, twisting the end of her shawl in here fingers.
Then she looked up and smiled faintly, though the smile hardly lit up her worried looking expression. “ I am June Baston the wife of Tom, the town blacksmith.”
Edward held up his hand. “ If I am taking trade from your husband, just tell me and I will stop. It is not my intention to harm any other blacksmith.”
“ No! No!” June replied hurriedly, waving her hands in a gesture designed to stop Edward saying more. “ It's not that at all.  Tom has had an accident and broken his leg. He can't work for a while and though his helpers are quite good at their jobs, they need somebody who is a trained blacksmith to organise and supervise their work. I don't know how but he seems to have a fair idea about how good you are at your job.  I suppose word gets round very quickly in these parts especially about trade people. Your knives are highly prized. That's beside the point. Tom asked me to come here and see if I could find you. What he wants is to know if you will come to the forge and take his place until he is able to start again?”
Edward stood looking at her in silence, trying to analyse the feeling this request had generated in his mind.
“ I will think about it.” was all he could say.
June smiled with relief, her hard face becoming softer as some the worry and fear dropped away.
“ Thank you,” she said. “ Come to my house for dinner tonight. You will be able to meet Tom, my daughter and son and all the helpers. After we have eaten you can give us an answer. “
For the rest of day, Edward was wracked with doubts as he tried to decide how to react to the woman's invitation. The thought of spending time in one place rather than travelling the roads and for ever moving on, of sleeping in the same bed night after night and of eating meals cooked by the same woman in the same company, appealed to his sense of identity. It was one of the main things he missed most during all his travels, the meals at the family table in the evening. On the other hand there was his need to keep moving, to make it difficult for Latask to monitor his movements. He had got used to a life where in the main he lived on his own and weighing these things in his mind, he instinctively wanted to say no.
In the end his natural good manners made him decide to at least have dinner with the family. Even when he was dressed in some reasonably decent clothes for the first time in ages, his mind was still confused and he was still wavering between saying yes and saying no. Packing his goods away, he asked one of the other stallholders to look after his tent and cart, mounted Midnight and rode away into town.
That night was to remain long in Edward's memory. To his surprise, it was like coming home. June Batson served a meal the like of which he had not eaten since leaving his mother to go to Nimmar. It was a meal of good solid Rombuli fare. Soup followed by roast lamb with vegetables and finally, steamed pudding. Through the meal he was plied with the best beer he had tasted again for years and everybody talked non-stop.
There were eleven people in the room, Tom and June, Derek, their son and Lucy their daughter. The others were all helpers and their wives.
Lucy was the older child around eighteen, conscious of her femininity and she looked along the table to the end where Edward sat with the undisguised interest of a young woman for a single, attractive man. Derek was just coming up to sixteen and Edward found that he would be undertaking his coming of age at the Gathering that year. To Edward, all the people round the table acted like one big family, another reminder of what home had been like before he went away. Tom sat at the end of the table his leg resting on a stool and his crutches by his side. When the meal was finished, Tom smiled at Edward and asked if Edward would come and help out at the forge. The meal having drawn Edward into the happy household, Edward could only say yes.
Later that evening, Tom showed Edward to a room above the stable that he could occupy while he stayed at the forge to help. The next day Edward collected his belongings from the fair ground and moved in.
He worked for Tom through the spring and into the summer. Soon after Edward started work, Tom would to stagger out to the forge on his crutches to sit talking while Edward and the others worked. Edward soon realised that Tom was not there to check up on his workmanship but to try to find out more about his helper. Despite the none too subtle probing, Edward disclosed nothing.
What Edward came to like was getting back to a routine and getting up every morning from the same bed. Up in the morning, check the fires in the forge, breakfast in the big kitchen with the family, work all day and back to the kitchen for dinner at night. He would then take out Midnight, his big black horse for the needed exercise. Actually the horse proved to be the one source of trouble to Edward while he lived with the Batsons. Many people wanted to buy Midnight, even offering large sums of money but Edward always refused. That horse is my one source of wealth, he would tell Tom who could not understand how a travelling blacksmith like Edward could afford a horse of that nature. One night, somebody tried to steal the horse but only the timely arrival of Edward prevented a nasty incident as Midnight attempted to kick them to death.
Tom slowly recovered. Walking at first with the aid of crutches, then with the aid of walking sticks, one day in mid summer, he took his first steps unaided. He was by now helping Edward with the light work and starting to take back the organisation of the work in the forge. Edward slowly watched this happen, pulled back more and more into the background and finally with regret realised he was no longer needed.
On the night when he realised he was no longer needed, when dinner was finished, Edward rose to his feet at his customary place at the other end of the table from Tom and banged the table for attention. Everybody fell silent and looked in his direction.
“ I have been very happy here with you all,” Edward began nervously. “ To you Tom, I hope I have been helpful while I have been here. When you came so nervously to me at the fair, June, you asked me to help until Tom was ready to take over again. I was reluctant to come at first but that night when I had dinner in this room for the first time, I knew I should stay and help. Well, today I finally realised that Tom is fit again and no longer needs my help. No let me finish. In other words, I have kept my promise. Now, true to the agreement we came to, I will have to be moving on. I will leave in the morning so that I can get to Down End for the fair there next week.”
Lucy looked thunderstruck. Almost every day, she had expended considerable effort in trying to interest Edward in her feminine charms. She had taken every opportunity to be in his company, sat next to him at meals and flaunted her figure whenever she had a chance. After much pleading, Edward had even consented to her riding out with him in the evenings when he exercised Midnight. At social functions in Pinaar, Lucy had always walked with Edward, linking her arm in his whenever she thought he would not notice. On one occasion she had tried to accompany him back to his room one night but Edward had gently kissed her cheek and sent her back to the house. All her efforts to ensnare Edward had come to nothing but she still lived in hope. Now with those few words, her hopes were being dashed.
Derek sat opened mouthed trying to fight back the tears. He realised how much he would miss Edward. They had continued the lessons Tom had been giving his son in the blacksmith’s trade whenever Derek had the time. Soon after arriving, Edward had even made Derek a bow and was teaching him how to shoot properly. In many ways they had become more friends than teacher and pupil.
Tom smiled a secret smile from the other end of the table and said. “ Sit down Edward and listen to what I have to say. We all thought you might want to leave as soon as you thought I could look after every thing again. You do not have to leave. There is plenty of work for us both at the moment. Besides, Lucy has not bagged you yet and Derek has not had all his archery lessons. What I thought, being serious for a minute, was that you could stay at least until the Gathering time. You could then come to the Gathering with us. It is Derek’s Coming of Age and he would like you to be there."
It worked just as June and Tom hoped it would. Much to Lucy's delight, she almost thrust her breasts at Edward when she lent over to say thanks, Edward agreed to stay. June smiled at her husband and went to fill Edward's beaker once more.
Edward was up early on the morning when they planned to leave for the Gathering. As the town most distant from the Gathering Fields up near the mountains north of Alskar town, the people of Pinaar would have to travel for at least three days from dawn until dusk in order to arrive in time.
Edward packed his cart in the gloom before dawn, gathering the few personal belongings he had brought with him and the things he had collected since he came to Pinaar. Looking round for what he believed would be the last time, Edward sighed and went into the kitchen for breakfast.
Tom and Derek were already seated at the table and they both smiled broadly when Edward came to join them.
“ Good morning Edward,” Derek greeted his teacher with excitement. “ I could hardly sleep at all last night being so excited. Today seems to have been a long time in coming.”
Edward smiled back rather wistfully. “ Though it seems a long time ago now, I still remember vividly what it was like to set out for the Gathering Fields with my family after my sixteenth birthday. I don't think I slept a wink the night before.”
Tom and Derek waited hopefully for Edward to continue but Edward helped himself to the porridge and did not say anything further. Secretly hoping Edward would not notice, Tom and Derek looked at each other but Tom shook his head. It was an acknowledgement that the game father and son had played ever since Edward had arrived had once more failed.
They had taken it in turns with hints and gentle nudging to find out about Edward's passed life, of where he had grown up and where he had least to be a blacksmith. They had found nothing about why he had become a wandering vagabond or what had truly happened to him. From what had taken place when some soldiers had come into the forge wanting some work done on one of their wagons, Tom and Derek did guess that Edward had at some time been in conflict with the Empire. It had been the way Edward had tensed at the sight of the uniforms and how he had slipped into the background that had aroused Tom's suspicions. People in Pinaar had heard about some trouble in Alskar years ago but nobody seemed to connect Edward to the trouble. Anyway it was a long time ago and a long way away.
“ Try to remember Derek that the Gathering is not until four days time and we have a long journey ahead of us, “ Tom squeezed his sons arm. “ It is not all pleasure. After the Gathering and your ceremony of age, you will officially be a man. I will expect you to work full time in the forge when we get back. I know you have had some lessons both from Edward and me but those have been part time. Now will begin the serious business of getting you ready to take responsibility for the business when I want to retire.”
Edward laughed softly. “ By my Maker Tom, you are bringing back memories today. I can clearly see my father standing in our kitchen at home telling me much the same thing. He stood by the window looking out over the yard as the dawn broke over the moors. Like you two, we had arisen very early. It is not only the work at the forge that is very important, he said to me. Your childhood is over and onto your shoulders will now fall greater responsibilities. Your task has been set out by succeeding generations of Eastlands. We as a family have made a pledge to our Maker that we will keep alive the Rombuli heritage and the idea of nationhood for our people. This responsibility has been passed from father to son for all the time the Empire has captured our land. We must talk when we get home of what this responsibility means for you. In some ways he was rather pompous was my father.”
Tom tried to keep his face expressionless while his mind at last started to make the connections he had been searching for over the last six months. He started to think of the trouble in Alskar, of the business family who sent agents all over the province to buy grain and other produce, who had had a fight with the Army and been killed. Idris Eastland that had been the name. Tom started to speak but the look Edward cast in Tom's direction stopped the words before they were uttered.
Getting up from the table, Tom told Derek to call his mother and sister. “ I am going outside to make sure every thing is ready for our journey. Coming Edward.”
The sun was fully up in the sky when they were ready to leave. The wagon was drawn up in the yard, loaded with all the things they would need over the next week, the forge and the house was locked and shuttered and they were ready. Beside the wagon, Edward's cart stood with the big black bulk of Midnight tied to the rear. Several other horses were saddled ready for the men and the stamping, snorting and jingling was in concert with the birds in the trees greeting the dawn. Everything was ready for the long journey and the pulse of excitement ran through the land.
Derek stood close to the wagon with his cloak pulled tight about his shoulders against the slight chill in the early morning air. He imagined he could reach out and touch the excitement in the air around him. He thought everybody must have been able to feel it. This was the climax of all his waiting. Now at last the time had come.
Tom secured the last rope over the contents of the wagon and did a last check to make sure everything was secure. Then he helped the women and children up onto the wagon seat. The other men mounted their horses. As Derek started to climb into the wagon, Tom gestured him to remain on the ground.
Leaving Derek standing by the wagon, Tom went back into the stable, returning shortly, leading Derek's pony already saddled.
“ Derek, in four days time you will have passed the test of manhood in front of what remains of the Rombuli nation. I deem it proper that you should ride beside me not as baggage on the wagon.”
Tom handed the reins to his son as Derek tried to stop the tears running down his face. All he could whisper was thank you as he took the reins and mounted.
Edward stepped forward at this point. “ One more thing before we go Derek. I do not have any children yet but there is a tradition in my family before somebody sets out for their Ceremony of Age. I have made this for you to wear at the Gathering.”
Edward handed Derek a package wrapped in a white cloth. Unwrapping the cloth, Derek discovered a knife in a leather sheath. Derek drew the knife that glinted palely in the light. The hilt was covered in black leather with a pattern of acorns in silver with vines linking these with the crosspiece in the shape of curled oak leaves.
“ Put it in your belt and wear it with pride at your Ceremony of Age,” Edward said turning away and getting up onto the seat on his cart. Tom sat on his horse his suspicions now confirmed. Signalling his wife, Tom led the way out of the yard followed by the wagon and Edward's cart. Lucy sat beside Edward trying not to look too smug but feeling as though her world was complete. Sitting straight on his pony, the knife by his side, Derek rode proudly beside the cart ready to meet his future.
They rode through the town, the dust rising from the wagon wheels and from the hooves the horses. When they came to the Town Square, other wagons and horsemen were already there, with groups of people talking quietly.
Tom dismounted as a rather short fat man approached. Edward recognised the Chairman of the Council.
“ Morning Tom,” the fat man called. “ It looks as though it is going to be a hot journey if the weather keeps like this.”
“ Greetings George, “ Tom replied. “ It does look as though it is going to be a hot journey. I hope everybody has brought an adequate store of water. They will need it before we get to Combe Bridge tonight unless they send people off to find water during the day. How many more to come?”
“ Jed Ellis and Bill Tate,” George replied wiping his brow with a cloth. “ Ah here they are now. Will you take up the rear so that you can help anybody who gets into trouble?”
Tom nodded and went back to his wagon. There were a few moments of confusion with people and horses milling around but soon everything settled into place. One after the other with their escorting riders, the wagons formed a line and the convoy wound out of the town on the road leading north east towards Combe Bridge.
On a slight rise in a position overlooking the town stood a large building which did not seem to know whether it was part of the town or not. It was much larger than any other building when looked at against the one storey thatched cottages that made up most of the village being of three storeys with a red tiled roof. Even more striking in a land of low fences or no fences, this building was surrounded by a high timber fence with watchtowers at the corners. Massive gates stood open most of the time guarded by soldiers and anybody catching a glimpse of what lay behind the gates would see a flat courtyard flanked by stables built against the walls. Over the gate flew a large flag, dark crimson with a single silver mailed fist in the centre. This was Pinaar Fort built to dominate the surrounding countryside.
All Edward could see was the red roof tiles over the rise of the ground and the other wagons, when the convoy came to a halt. Tom looked back but could only shrug at Edward's enquiry to indicate he did not know what was happening. The convoy sat and waited in the sunshine. The men dismounted from their horses and tried to find some shade at the side of the road. All eyes were on the head of the convoy. One of George's sons came riding back along the column after a while and stopped beside Edward's cart.
“ Edward there is an army officer sitting in the middle of the road backed up by a troop of soldiers stopping the convoy from going anywhere,” George's son scratched his head in confusion. Obviously he had never experienced anything like this. “ I don't know why, we did not ask, but the officer asked if you were with us. He knows who you are because he was quite explicit about your name, what you do for a living and in his description. He requests that you come to the front of the convoy and have a word with him."
“ What if I refuse? “ Edward demanded, conscious that Tom and his family were watching intently.
“ My father asked him that, “ Mark replied. “ He said he did not want to send troops to get you but ... His threat was plain even to me but father has the impression the soldier was quite confident that you would come and talk to him.”
“ Edward,” Tom was standing beside the cart listening to what was being said. “ I don't know what this is all about but from the hints you have dropped and the way you reacted when those soldiers came into the forge, you have had trouble with the Imperial authorities before. If you are in danger, we are all willing to help. We can block the road to give you time to get away before they can get back here. You know this area and I am sure you will be able to lose them in the woods.”
Edward looked round at the faces of the people who had gathered, all staring seriously in his direction. For a wild moment he contemplated getting onto his horse and riding away. Then his thoughts turned to the troops smashing into these people who had held out the hand of friendship when he arrived and were now his friends. The thought of fleeing and leaving these innocent people to take the consequences made the suggestion of fleeing die in his thoughts.
Edward smiled affectionately at Tom and sighed. “ Thank you all for thinking of me but no Tom that is not the way. As you have guessed there is something from my past which seems to have caught up with me. Unfinished business you might say. I have been hoping that as the years pass, their pressure would get less. I thought I would be free of them but it seems they will not let me go. All right Mark tell your father to tell the Army Officer I will come.”
Mark rode away leaving Tom, his family and helpers surrounding Edward.
“ Right, will you all help me? “ Edward said to Tom and his family. “ I am not going to face him dressed as a peasant.”
Turning to the cart, Edward pulled aside some of the load. Drawing out a bundle, he handed this to Lucy. “ Tom will you saddle Midnight while I get dressed. Lucy and June will you lay out my clothes on the back of the cart. Derek, under the floor of the wagon beneath the seat you will find a compartment. Inside is a sword. Will you get this for me?”
Edward stripped and dressed himself in his black formal clothes which had he brought with him from Nimmar. Lucy handed him the items wide eyed in wonder. Over his shoulder he draped the black cloak, clasped at the neck by the silver acorn and oak leaves. When he stood, everybody stared at his appearance, transformed to look more like one of the Imperial officials who came through the town every so often than a Rombuli blacksmith. Derek handed Edward the sword and belt, and he strapped this round his waist. Edward then mounted his horse.
“ Tom and Derek will you accompany me? “ Edward asked. “ Then you will have some of the answers to the questions you have been trying to get answers to since I came to stay with you. Besides, with you two by my side, I will at least have some numbers on my side to oppose his full troop.”
Waving to the rest of his friends, Edward rode through the waiting throng of towns’ people with Tom and Derek by his side. When Edward reached the head of the convoy, he stopped and George indicated the soldiers blocking the road.
The Imperial Army troop sat their horses astride the road, the Imperial Master at their head. The soldiers were dressed in dull grey working uniforms not the colourful, bright uniforms of the parade ground. Somehow this made Edward uneasy. Smiling faintly to Tom and Derek, Edward rode forward towards the troops, Tom on his right, Derek on his left.
When Edward reined in his horse a yard from the Imperial Army Troop, the officer smiled slightly.  He saluted by banging his clenched fist against his chest.
“ Greetings Edward Eastland,” the Army Officer said in a quiet but not unfriendly voice. “ May you travel with your Maker.”
“ Hello Boric Borovic,” Edward replied, sensing the astonishment of Tom and Derek that he should be so well known to an Imperial Army Officer.
“ It has been a long time since we last saw each other,” Boric smiled somewhat sadly.
“ I did not expect to ever see you in Pinaar. I hope you have been well,” Edward made polite conversation while trying to fathom what was the motive for Boric being here.
“ Things have been better,” Boric replied bluntly. “ Enough of this sparring. Your friends have a long journey to make and we do not want to hold them up any more. I have an order from Rulask, the Governor of Rombuli, to find you and ask you to accompany me back to Nimmar.”
“ What if I refuse?” Edward asked equally bluntly. He sensed Tom stiffen behind him but waved for him to relax without taking his eyes from Boric's. “ I told you the last time we saw each other that I would have nothing more to do with the Empire.”
Boric smiled slightly. “ I don't want to have to use force but I have been ordered to make sure you come with me when I leave for Nimmar. If you refuse to come with me, I suppose my soldiers will have to make you come but a lot of these people could get hurt. This matter is far bigger than you can imagine and a few locals are not going to stand in my way.  Rulask would like you to resume your position on his advisory committee. There is trouble in the Empire and in order to decide what to do all past differences are to be forgotten. Anyway, I would like you to accompany me as a friend but I will use force if I have to.”
Edward looked sideways at Tom and Derek but the shock and bewildered expressions on their faces made him turn back to Boric. “ All right Boric, I will come with you as your friend. You forget my power. If your soldiers try to arrest me I worry about what might happen if I use my power against them. Just remember to tell Rulask when we get to Nimmar that I will make up my own mind about cooperation once I know what is going on and why I am needed. Can I have a few moments to say goodbye to my friends before I join you?”
Boric smiled again, the tension fading from his face. “ Of course you can Edward. I will clear the road of my soldiers and wait for you by the gate to the fort. Once we are out of the way your fiends can get underway. They have a long way to go to get to Coombe Bridge by night fall.”
Saluting in the time honoured fashion, Boric gave the order and in unison the soldiers wheeled into line and rode back to the gates of the fort. Edward sat watching them go for a while, before turning and leading Tom and Derek back along the line of the wagons.
“ You are free to leave now, George,” Edward said as he passed George's wagon on the way back to June and Lucy. “ I will collect my things from my cart and then Tom and his family will join you.”
George and his sons looked hard at Edward but they chose to keep their council. They watched him pass back down the waiting villagers before getting their carts in motion.
Edward continued riding back to his cart with a heavy heart. Once he was back with his friends, Tom, June, Lucy and Derek stood in silence while he loaded his saddlebags and fixed these to his horse. He took off his fine clothes and packed these away with his sword. At last he was ready.
“ Thank you all for looking after me for the last few months,” he said giving June a kiss and shaking Tom's hand. “ I will always remember these months with affection. You have been like a family to me when I most needed a family. Yes Tom, my family was all killed in Lascar as I suspect you have worked out. Don't worry too much about me. As you know, what has happened today is connected to my past, to events I hoped I could forget forever. I now realise I have not been fair to you. I suppose I should have told more about myself and then this would not have come as such a shock. Enjoy the Gathering and remember me to anybody who asks.”
Turning to Lucy, Edward gathered her into his arms and kissed her properly for the first time. “ I am afraid you will have to forget any plans you may have had concerning us Lucy,” he said laughing at her look of embarrassment. “ Oh I may have seemed withdrawn and unresponsive but even I have noticed the looks you gave me and your attempts to tempt me every chance you got to get me on my own. You are attractive Lucy but this is not our time. I always feared something like this would happen, thus I kept away from forming deep relationships. Maybe in the future I will come back to see you. Until then look after yourself.”
Edward then took the reins of Midnight from Derek and affectionately squeezed his pupil’s shoulders. " Derek, I hope you will remember what I have managed to teach you. I will miss our talks and our lessons. Now I have one last request to make and it is not easy. I know how proud you were to be riding beside your father to the Gathering. Could you look after my cart for me?  While you are at the Gathering, could you look after my gear? I hate  to see it abandoned at the side of the road.  When you get back home you can use my tools for practice and use my bow as well.”
Derek hugged his friend back, wide-eyed and trying not to cry with all the courage of a sixteen-year-old. “ I will look after your things until you come back, Edward. Don't let them hurt you or I will come looking for revenge when I am older.”
With mist clouding his eyes, Edward gripped Derek one last time, mounted his horse and rode away passed the wagons that were starting to move. By the gates to the fort, Edward turned and sat on Midnight, straight backed, saluting the towns’ people who had befriended him as they passed. When Tom and his family approached, Edward raised his arm in a gesture of farewell keeping it raised until the cart and Derek were out of sight round a bend in the road.
Boric Borovic and his troops were two days on the road, riding cross country to Alskar where they stayed the night and then onto Nimmar. Edward rode withdrawn into himself, surrounded by soldiers once more and hardly noticing any of the familiar sights as they passed. Too quickly he was being drawn into the nightmare of how to handle his relationship to the Empire. On that journey from Pinaar to Nimmar he relived his experiences, images of the good times in Nimmar with Kitty jumbled in his mind with the Covenent and his return to Alskar.
He remembered the time after his first encounter with the Covenent when he and Morag had vowed to oppose the Empire. Oh Morag, he cried in anguish in his very soul, what have they done to you. He relived the exhilaration when the flags were recovered. Oh how they had thought they were striking a blow for a free Rombuli. But the exhilaration had soon turned to ashes when he had rushed home to find his family slain and their bodies lined up on grassy bank outside his burning home. How he had hated the Empire then. He had sustained that hatred through all the years of wandering his land, a hatred that had dominated his thoughts, making him vow never to have any dealings with the Empire again.
And yet and yet! Through the hatred he had felt for the Empire and the Covenent had to be placed his growing friendship with Boric during that stay in Nimmar. Even in the depths of his wanderings, he had had great difficulty in reconciling the hatred deep in his soul and his still vivid feelings of friendship to Boric.
As people, he and Boric had discovered a spark that seemed to unite them, that despite their different backgrounds, they had appeared to think in similar ways. It was astonishing to Edward that the feeling of friendship had risen above the everyday problems he had encountered with being part of a subject people. He had to acknowledge that it was after all Boric who had defied Latask in Edward's room that night in Nimmar and spirited Edward away to a place of safety. Again it was Boric who had delivered him from Latask in Alskar Fort which allowed Edward the limited freedom he had enjoyed the last few years. Through all of this there were bonds stretched across the gulf of his hatred and Edward became even more confused as he thought about these things on the road back to Nimmar.
And then as the country rolled by and the road to Nimmar stretched ahead, he thought of Kitty.  Kitty with the laughing blue eyes and the golden hair.  Into Edward's mind came the pictures of her and the times they had spent together. There was the first time when she had been so obnoxious, then the rides round Alskar, the balls of the Emperors visit and finally Kitty sitting on her horse outside her friend's house in Nimmar with tears running down her face trying not to beg him to stay. The memory wrenched at his heart and he had to stop himself from crying out. Is it really possible to love a person and yet hate what she represents? he asked himself.
No, he told himself over and over again as the miles drifted by under the hooves of the horses, that is why we had to part. But a small voice answered from deep in his subconscious, what about your reaction that day you caught a glimpse of her in Pinaar? At that moment you would have given up all thought of the Empire just to have been able to talk to her. If Latask had not intervened, nothing would have stopped you from bursting through the crowds and the soldiers and sweeping her into your arms.
Still, he consoled himself and stifled the voice deep from within, that is all in the past. Kitty will have returned to Parison to find a well bred husband who will match her status and be approved by her family. By now I will be only a vague memory of a pleasant summer spent in rustic Rombuli.
In the early evening, two days after setting out from Pinaar, Boric led his troop over the hill and started to descend into Nimmar. Lights were already visible in the windows of the houses they passed and the setting sun shone on the walls of the Mansion across the river on the Island. With a sinking heart, knowing there was no turning back now, Edward followed Boric across the bridge and up the drive to the Mansion.
After giving a salute, the escort turned towards the Barracks leaving Boric and Edward to dismount by the steps leading up to the imposing front doors. Servants and grooms materialised like magic and soon Edward was following Tula along the corridors to the room he had occupied before. Once in his room, Tula did not let him relax, pushing him into the bathroom while she prepared his clothes. To Edward, it was as though he had not been away.
An hour later, washed, groomed and dressed in the best clothes that Tula could find, Edward was led quickly through the Mansion to the Governor's quarters. When he entered the sitting room, there were several couples already there some of whom Edward recognised. He took a drink from the tray held by a servant, nodded politely to the people who greeted him and went to look out of the window. Outside the terrace where he and Kitty had sat talking that morning after his brush with the Covenent was bathed in the light from several lanterns hung from the branches of the trees.
A voice made him turn to find Boric standing behind him next to a lady he did not know.
“ Edward Eastland, this is my wife Gloria,” Boric introduced Edward to the lady.
“ Hello Edward,” Gloria said her dark eyes twinkling as she looked him up and down. “ I have heard so much about you from Boric. It is as though I had known you for a long time. Tell me,” she went on taking his arm and gently leading him back into the room to join the other people. “ How do you feel about returning to Nimmar?”
Edward was just about to answer, choosing his words very carefully when he noticed Boric's broad smile over his shoulder to somebody who had just entered the room. The words died in Edward's throat. He had only ever seen Boric smile like that once, on the dock in Nimmar when he first arrived. The amused smile that was pulling at the corners of Gloria's mouth made Edward turn to see who they were looking at.
Edward thought his heart would stop beating and that he was going to faint. To him all conversation in the room had stopped and everybody was looking at him. All he could do was stand and stare.
Standing just inside the door, her hand still on the handle was Kitty. Her golden hair framed her face on which was a startled expression. She stood rooted to the spot like a rabbit caught in a sudden bright light beam. Her blue eyes were wide open, fixed steadily on Edward as though they could not believe what they were seeing. The white dress she wore hugged her figure, clasped tightly under her breasts and falling gracefully to the floor.
Edward was unable to move. To him Kitty was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen and, though he had longed for this moment, he had thought he would never see her again. He realised his mouth was open and he forced it shut with a supreme effort of will.
Gloria nudged his elbow and whispered in his ear. “ Don't just stand there. Go and say hello.”
The words broke the spell that was holding Edward motionless, the rest of the room came back into focus and Edward realised that Gloria and Boric were grinning at him. Moving as though through treacle, Edward stepped towards Kitty, all the time keeping his eyes on her face. She stayed by the door as though unable to understand what her eyes were telling her, looking as though she was torn between running away and waiting for him to join her.
“ Hello Kitty,” Edward said when he reached her. “ It has been a long time.”
Her eyes came back into focus and then she smiled shyly. “ Hello Edward,” she said softly fighting to keep her voice calm. “ I did not expect to see you here again. Why didn't you let me know you were coming?”
Edward could hardly speak but managed to stammer, “ I did not know until two days ago that I was coming back. Besides I thought you had long returned to Parison.”
Kitty kissed him on the cheek, pulled her arm through his, holding tightly as though she did not ever want to let go. She walked with Edward to join her brother and his wife. Even her admonishment of them for not letting her know and giving her such a shock did not have any real force.