Wednesday, 15 September 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 10

Late the next morning after a troubled sleep, Edward left the room in which he was a virtual prisoner and sat in the secluded garden behind the Mansion. The air was cool with the hint of the coming autumn, the sky was grey and overcast. The flush of roses climbing up the wall to the side of the garden were starting to fade with the petals coating the ground in a crimson carpet. Edward's body ached from his struggle with the Covenenters and his feeling of triumph in facing down the combined might of thee of them had vanished into a pit of depression. Even the sounds of the birds singing as they perched on the trees growing down the slope away from the Mansion leading to the river did not cheer him up.

He sat slumped in the seat, mind almost in neutral just waiting for something to happen. It was as though he had lost all the fight he had shown in his confrontation with Latask. It was as though all his efforts the night before had come to nothing and he realised that he was really powerless against the Imperial might of which the Covenent was only a small part.

Kitty joined him later but even her lively chatter lapsed into silence in the face of the lack of any real response from Edward. They had lunch together, conscious of being watched all the time by the guards assigned by Boric to watch over Edward in theory to keep people away but Edward knew that in reality he was a prisoner. Edward tried to talk to Kitty about what had taken place in his room the night before but his thoughts were so muddled and the experience so close it turned out to be an incoherent waste of time. The Governor sent a message to say that he would see him in the presence of Latask on the morning of the following day and that Edward was to rest as much as possible.

That afternoon as dusk seemed to come into the garden early in the continuing overcast sky, a message reached Edward's mind from his father. The message was hurried but plain though Edward was startled because he had never tried to communicate over such distances and until now he would not have believed it possible. It was one thing to talk with his mind to his father when they were close but over sixty miles was an entirely different matter. The message was simple and stark leaving Edward worried and even more depressed.

Our house is surrounded by soldiers and we are under attack. Come quickly before the Covenenters come because we will not be able to hold out against their power without your help.”

Kitty who had been sitting with Edward all this time was startled when he jumped to his feet.

Her voice was full of concern. “ Are they trying to get through to you again?”

Not really aware of her concern but concentrating on trying to keep in touch with his father, Edward stared at her and then shook his head. “ No it is not Latask this time. I have this strange feeling there is something wrong at home. Don't make me explain how I know or where my feeling comes from. All I know is I have to get back to Alskar as soon as possible.”

It was obvious that Kitty was thoroughly confused but in a practical way that he had not thought possible when they had first met, she said, “ If you have to go home, you had better see my brother straight away. He will most likely provide you with an escort to make sure you get there as quickly as possible.”

“ Kitty, I can't ask your brother,” Edward answered her bluntly. “ He has put his reputation on the line for me all ready. Besides, until he brings me before the Governor in the morning, he will not let me go. I have to attempt to slip away without anybody knowing I have gone until it is too late to stop me. It is vital I get home as soon as possible.”

Kitty smiled like a mother contemplating a stubborn child. “ How are you going to get away from here without those two soldiers following and bringing you back?” Kitty nodded her head towards the two figures standing near the entrance to the garden, trying to look as though they were not paying any attention to what Kitty and Edward were doing.

“ I don't know but I must find a way,” Edward replied sitting next to her on the bench. “ I suppose I could call for a horse and go for a ride. Hopefully, I could then give those two the slip once we got into the country.”

Kitty laughed out loud, so loudly that the soldiers shifted their positions and looked in their direction.

Then her face was very serious, more serious than Edward had ever seen her, and she took Edward's hand in hers. “ If you manage to get a horse, they would not let you off the island. I don't understand what they think you have done or why Latask is worried about what you can do but I do know you will not be allowed out of the Mansion. There is a way by which you will have a chance of getting away but you will have to trust me.”

Edward stared at her his eyes large, his expression now very grave, letting the silence gather about them. He tried to weigh up the danger to Kitty in her offer of help against his desperate need to leave as soon as possible.

What could he do? Kitty was special even though he had tried to deny there was any hope of them ever getting married. Edward winced at the thought of how much stress he had caused her even though he thought it was for the best and now he was thinking of using her to get away from the island. It was not just a case of outwitting Latask, indeed if that was all he was asking he would not have hesitated. Though she had not fully grasped what it was he was asking, he was about to make her betray all those she most loved even her brother. Could he ask her to do such a thing? Edward asked himself. He was desperate and could think of no other way by which he could leave the Island.

“ I suppose I have no choice though I hate to get you involved. Especially as what we are about to do will compromise you in the eyes of your family and friends. If anything dangerous happens while we are trying to get away, you must promise me that you will run and leave me to face the consequences.”

Kitty smiled, a secret smile that spoke volumes of love but also of favours rendered as though she was going to enjoy having Edward in her debt.

Kissing his cheek, she said. “ Edward, even though you have made it quite plain to me that we should give up all our dreams of a future together, I still love you. When I came to your room last night, I was going to get you round to my way of thinking about our future. I had convinced myself that I would do anything to make you want me. Oh, Edward do not look like that. I mean anything even if it meant taking off all my clothes and forcing my way into your bed. Imagine how I felt at the sight of you all twisted back in pain, surrounded by Covenenters. I would have fought them myself to save you but just in time I ran away and went to my brother. Remember, after this is all over, what he did for you. He is your friend Edward and you might need his friendship one of these days. Do you think that helping you to escape from here is in any way more dangerous than what was happening to you on that bed? It has no fears for me after seeing you twisted in pain. They can be evil those Covenenters though most of us never see that side of their nature especially around the ruling elite. Last night I thought they were going to kill you and for the first time I could see how ruthless in pursuit of their aims they could be. If they can do that to one person I love, why should I stay loyal to them? Come on, if my plan is to work, we had better get started.”

Kitty led him back to the room he had been given by Boric, making certain that the soldiers were following closely behind. Telling him to wait patiently, Kitty went out and Edward heard the murmur of her voice as she spoke to the soldiers by the door. Try as he might, Edward could not sit still waiting patiently as instructed by Kitty but paced up and down the room. Over and over again he tried to make mind contact with his father but the result was an ominous silence.

Kitty returned after about an hour accompanied by her maid carrying a bundle of clothing.

“ I fetched some of your clothes,” she greeted him as soon as her maid had left the room. “ I told the soldiers that I had to bring them here because this would save you having to go to your room for a change of clothes and that Tulla will be bringing the rest of your things once she as time. I think they were convinced.”

Edward dressed quickly in his old brown clothes ignoring Kitty's fascinated stare as he stripped but concentrating on getting ready to leave as soon as possible. He was startled to find, after he had dressed, she had slipped off her cloak to reveal her riding outfit underneath instead of a gown.

“ You had better put on your black cloak to hide those clothes. Anybody seeing you dressed in a cloak will think you are out to dinner and not running away. Come on follow me.”

To Edward's surprise she did not go to the door but into one of the clothes cupboards. While Edward stared open mouthed, she fiddled with a hook. The back of the wardrobe slide open to reveal clothes hanging in the cupboard in the next room. Kitty vanished through the opening, leaving Edward to scramble after her. They went from room to room, hidden doors revealed by Kitty's soft hands until they stood in a small drawing room which had all the signs of neglect and little use. All the furniture was covered in dustsheets and there was dust on the wooden floor surrounding the deep pile carpet.

“ This is the private apartment of the wife of the Imperial Grandmaster of the Army in Rombuli but as you can see it has not been used since my father took up the post. The new Imperial Grandmaster's wife will be joining him in a few weeks so it will be cleaned up then. Through that door over there is the master bedroom and beyond the Imperial Grandmaster's apartments. I haven't got time to explain about these secret doors or why they were built. In fact I have no idea why they were built. Again, I have no idea who else knows they are there. Boric and I found them a long time ago when we were playing hide and seek. We had a wonderful winter after that discovering where they all went. We never told anybody else about our discovery because they presented us with the perfect way of avoiding people when we wanted to get round the Mansion unnoticed. Even so I can't say how secret they are.”

Kitty walked over to a large ornate dressing table standing in one comer of the room. Sliding open a drawer, she reached inside and grunted at the clicking sound. Pulling at one comer, she walked slowly back into the room as the dressing table curved out into the room to reveal a black space behind.

Kitty pulled Edward close and kissed him fiercely. “ You go down there. At the bottom of the stairs go straight ahead ignoring any passages leading away. At the end you will find a door. Open this and wait behind the shrubs that hide the entrance. I will join you later. I have to be seen going to the stables and getting the horses.”

She pushed Edward into the space and closed the door. A spiral staircase led downwards into the blackness and he felt his way down a step at a time, always fearful in the dark that he would miss a step and fall. He sensed rather than saw the stairs come to an end, feeling the rough stone of the wall until he was certain he had found a passage leading away from the foot of the stairs. Ignoring all the side passages that he presumed led to other rooms in the Mansion, he felt his way gingerly in the pitch black until his finger met a door. Pulling this towards him, he felt the door open and light filtered by the shrubs but dazzling to Edward at first, flooded into the passage.

Edward waited for what seemed like ages in the gloom of the passageway with the door open the merest crack. His heart was beating too fast and he was ready to run back into the passage at the slightest sound. All he could see through the screen of the shrubs was a faint hint of the darkening sky as evening started to draw in.

At last he heard the approach of horses hooves on the grass and, after resisting the urge to run away, anxiously parted the shrub to see who was coming. Kitty was mounted on a horse directly in front of the door holding the reins of two other horses. After looking round, Kitty motioned Edward to come and join her.

After Edward had mounted one of the spare horses, they rode slowly round the house and out onto the path. They headed for the bridge, side by side, leading the spare horse and trying to look as relaxed as possible. Edward's heart was fluttering wildly as they came to the bridge, the impulse to flee strong especially when a soldier stepped out into the torch light illuminating the road to confront them. Kitty smiled at the guard, her body relaxed and her expression friendly.

The guard recognised her and sprang to attention. After a brief exchange during which he hardly glanced at Edward, the guard stepped aside and let them proceed. Edward had a great desire to gallop across the bridge and away from the gaze of the guard but Kitty placed a hand on his arm to restrain him. They continued slowly towards the town, giving every appearance to anybody watching of a young couple out for an evening ride on a visit to friends in the town.

Outside the gate to a large house, Kitty reined in her horse. The lights were burning brightly and in their glow, she turned to face Edward. Tears were in her eyes, running down her cheeks but still she tried to smile. Her voice shook as she spoke.

“ We must part now, Edward Eastland,” she whispered, her voice barely audible above the breeze blowing through the trees and the murmur of the river past the piles holding up the wharves. “ Go home to Alskar and find out what has happened to your family.”

Edward wanted to say so much but all he could do was choke out his farewell in a strangled voice, heavy with sorrow and emotions he could not control. “ Goodbye Kitty and thank you for all you have done. I will think of you often until we meet again.”

Kitty lent across the space between the horses and clung to him for a moment as though to stop him going, her tears wetting the front of his cloak. Then she let him go and buried her head in her horse’s mane.

“ Go quickly Edward before I beg you to stay. I will spend the night with my friend Alicia which will give you a little time before they realise you have gone. I will think about you every day until we meet again. I have this strange feeling that we will not meet again for a very long time if ever. May you travel with your Maker.”

Her use of the Rombuli farewell startled Edward but, shaking his head as though to clear his thoughts, he squeezed her arm and rode away up the hill and out of town. When he reached the crest of the hill, Edward stopped his horse and looked back down the road by which he had entered his new life a few months before into the lights of Nimmar. Kitty sat on her horse in the middle road, staring after him into the dark, the lights from the house casting a halo round her body. Edward waved even though he knew she could not see and prodded his horse into motion.

The ride from Nimmar to Alskar was nightmare for Edward pursued as he was in his imagination by the Covenent behind and the Imperial Army waiting for him in front. Dragging him forward was the spirits of his family and his resolve to find out what had happened. It was difficult for him not to urge his horses ever faster and he reigned in his impatience at the time the ride was taking and let the horses pick the most economical speed. By changing horses frequently, he in fact made very good time. Bereft however of any knowledge of what was happening, his mind conjured up pictures that became more and more outrageous until the whole province of Alskar was in revolt and the Imperial Army in retreat. It was with a sense of relief that late in the night he recognised the grove of trees where he had first met Kitty and knew that he was nearly home.

As he approached the bridge over the river, he was alarmed to see a red glow in the sky, flickering in a dance against the clouds that could only mean there was a fire somewhere in Alskar. For a while he had been aware of an unfamiliar sound, a buzz and a murmur that rose in volume as he approached the town. He galloped over the bridge and on into the square and the source of the noise was apparent.

Carrying torches, the whole square was thronged with people standing in groups but all facing away from the road over the bridge and up the road leading to the forge and Edward's home. The road approaching the forge was jammed with people who looked up startled at Edward but moved aside to let him through. The crowded grew silent as he made his way up the slight incline in the road to the forge and then he was at the front rank. Spotting a familiar face, he jumped from his horse and rushed over to speak to him.

“ What is happening Joe?” Edward asked urgently taking in at a glance the crumpled forms of people laying by the side of the road, attended by anxious towns people,

“ Edward Eastland,” Joe gasped, his eyes dodging backwards and forwards around the people watching them. Convinced he was not going to get any help from these other people, he swallowed hard and continued. “ There has been a fight between your family and the Army. You had better go and look for yourself.”

Remounting, Edward rode forward slowly. At the end of the street where it opened out into the courtyard of the forge a few men crouched against the walls peering into the light shed by the fire, improvised weapons in their hands. On seeing Edward approach they waved him forward into the light but Joe sprang to the bridle to bring the horse to a halt.

“ Don't go any further. There is a power out there that we cannot fight. We maybe weaker and less well trained than the soldiers but at least we know what to expect from them. Somehow there is somebody out there with the power to knock a man off his feet or a horse without coming close. Every time anybody has passed this point, they have been just driven back or knocked unconscious. Don't go up there Edward please.” Joe was confused, hurt and a little humiliated in his helplessness at not being able to fight what lay beyond an invisible line drawn in the dust of the road.

Gently Edward leaned down from his horse and patted Joe's shoulder. “ I must find out what has happened to my family Joe. Tell all the others to remain here and not do anything to provoke whatever it is with the power until I return. There is no sense in anybody else getting hurt.”

For a moment Edward thought Joe was going to refuse to let go of the horse but in the end his hand dropped and he stepped back amongst the others.

Without a glance at those crouching in the road, Edward rode out into the light of the flames consuming his home. It was difficult to make out details with the light in front but he was soon confronted with a line of soldiers drawn up across the entrance to the yard in front of the forge, weapons centred on Edward's chest. Every building maintained so lovingly by his mother and father was on fire, all Edward's boyhood landmarks engulfed in flames. As he approached the line of soldiers and the start of the fires, a white robed figure stepped into his path and stood waiting for Edward to reach him.

“ Well, Edward Eastland , we meet again,” the Covenenter cackled out loud so that those around could hear what he said. “ I thought I had blocked out your fathers cry for help but from your sudden appearance here I think not.”

“ What have you done with my family?” Edward asked ignoring the Covenenter's comments but again speaking out loud.

“ Undermaster Ulvic will show you.” the Covenenter replied bluntly ignoring Edward’s distress. “ Afterwards you will come back here and we will work out how we are going to calm down the crowd. We do not want any more bloodshed, do we?”

“ What if I refuse to come back to you and go instead to lead my people against you?” Edward asked, even though he knew what the answer would be.

The Covenenter's black eyes flashed from within the dark shadow of his hood. “ Eastland, you of all people are well aware of my powers. Do not make me use those powers to their full extent on your friends. There has already been too much bloodshed for my liking. It is violence in pursuit of the unobtainable. Go with Ulvic please and then come back to me.”

The Covenenter turned away in dismissal.

Edward rode forward further into the light of the fires, Ulvic by his side riding stiffly in his saddle as though upright on parade. The flames turned his breastplate and helmet a deep red giving him the appearance of something out of the spirit world come to punish the Alskar people. Black figures moved against the ruddy background, lifting blanket wrapped bodies into a cart. Apart from the crackle of burning wood, an eerie silence hung over the surrounding land as though the very soul of the earth had departed.

Beside the path leading to the burning remains of the back of his house, two soldiers stood, springing instantly to attention and saluting the Undermaster. Ten shapes lay lined up on the grass bank behind the soldiers, on the bank where Edward used to play as a boy under the watchful eye of his mother at the kitchen window and through the open door by which she would call him for his meal.

Undermaster Ulvic made as though to dismount but Edward spat at him through lips made rigid with suppressed anger. “ You stay where you are, Undermaster. I will do this by myself.”

Ignoring the Undermaster's startled look, Edward jumped from his horse, and pushed the soldiers out of his way.

Slowly he knelt by each body, pulling aside the blanket to see who it was. He was too caught up in his grief and frustration for tears to come. They were all there, laid out in a line as though waiting for an inspection. Edward's father and mother, old Jeb, his son Harry, Chuck and his wife Clare, all lined up in death as close as they had been in life. Beside them Matt, James, Gary and Tim, all killed in pursuit of their impossible dream.

Edward wanted to rant and rave, to beat his fists against the earth, to call upon his Maker to reap vengeance on their killers but realised he had to bottle this up for the moment. All he could do was kneel quietly with his head bowed and ask his Maker why this had happened. There was no answer because there could be no answer except the folly of human beings. Folly in their greed and their superior opinions of their place in the world and the place of other people. How could there be an answer when all his family lay dead before him? He stood alone in the world, all his dreams shattered in two dreadful days. Feeling lost and apart from the world with no sense of meaning to his life, he knelt and let the grief build inside.

Alone? The question came unbidden to his mind and he hurried back along the line of bodies searching each face but not really focussing on what he was hoping to find. After a time, it sunk in. Her body was not there. Morag, what has happened to Morag his mind was suddenly focused on something other than grief. Morag was not here among the dead so she must be some place else.

Edward turned quickly, remounted and rode back to the Covenenter. The troops were still in a line facing towards the town but somehow the sense of confrontation which was there when Edward had arrived was now somehow missing.

“ Well? “ the Covenenter asked as Edward dismounted.

“ Two things,” he answered, his voice harsh and tight in his throat. “ If you want to avoid any more confrontation, you will have to let the towns people take away the bodies and prepare for a proper funeral. You will have to make it plain that you will not interfere in those preparations and the towns people will be left alone during the funerals.”

After a pause during which the Covenenter looked at Edward as though to gauge whether Edward was being devious. “ You can go back to your peasant friends and tell them that they can collect the bodies when the soldiers have left. They are free to make whatever arrangements they like as long as they do not cause the Empire any more trouble.”

“ Good, that should satisfy the towns people. Now, what has happened to my sister Morag?” Edward asked trying to control his emotions but finding it difficult to maintain his calm exterior.

“ Your sister is being held at the fort. Imperial Master Borovic will arrive tomorrow and decide her fate. You are to accompany me to the fort as well.”

“ I am afraid you will have to let me attend to the funeral arrangements for my family before I come to the fort. Besides, you will want me to help quieten the crowd after you have gone. If you take me away as well, goodness knows what they will do,” Edward replied. “ You can leave an escort of troops if you like but their presence might be provocative. The best course of action for you will be to let me stay here until the funeral arrangements are complete and then I will come on to the fort. I give you my word that I won't run away. Though, with you holding Morag there is not much chance of my going anywhere else but the fort once I am free of the funeral preparations.”

Edward felt the pressure on his mind and laughed openly at the Covenenter. “ There is no need for that. In any case there is no power on earth which will let you into my mind as you found out both here and in Nimmar. Do you agree with me or not? “

The Covenenters black eyes glared out at Edward from under his hood. “ All right Eastland, I agree to your suggestion. I will give instructions for a troop of horse soldiers to wait for you on the outskirts of town ready to escort you to the fort.”

The Covenenter turned his back in dismissal and strode away to his horse.

By my Maker,” Edward shot his thoughts at the retreating back, “ do you think I am that stupid? Your soldiers will keep a close watch on the town until all is quiet but it will suit your purpose to let the people think I have got the better of you.”

The Covenenter either had shut his mind to Edward's thoughts or chose to ignore them.

Leading his horse, Edward went back across the courtyard towards Joe and the other towns’ people. The injured had been carried away leaving the able bodied to stand and stare resentfully as the soldiers made their preparations for departure. All eyes watched curiously as Edward came closer.

“ What now, Edward Eastland?” Joe asked when Edward reached him. “ We thought you would not come back but we were powerless to help you once you had crossed their lines.”

“ It's all right Joe,” Edward said, putting his arm round Joe's shoulder and trying to compose himself before telling them what had befallen his family and his friends. “ I have come to an agreement with the Covenenter about what is to be done.”

Amid angry murmurs from the other men, Joe looked very suspicious at what Edward told him. “ What have you agreed in our name? You weren't even here when all this started.”

Edward shut Joe up by pushing him away. He felt tired beyond belief, physically and mentally drained. With the accumulation of what had happened, he found he did not have the patience to be gentle any more. All his family lay under blankets in a line on the grass bank behind his burning home and he had not been here to help them when they most needed him. Even though he had come as quickly as possible, he had been too late. Now all that was left for him to do was bury his mother and father and go to find Morag where she was being held at the fort. Even then he would have to face down the Covenenters again and he did not know if he even had the will to do that let alone the energy.

Facing Joe, Edward said harshly. “ No, you are right. I have no authority to make arrangements in your name or on behalf of Alskar town. In deed, I have no authority to do anything but what I want to do for myself. If what you want to do is attack the Imperial Army, you can hold a meeting of all the towns people now and decide to attack the fort if you want to and you may kick the soldiers and the Covenenter out. Defeating them is hardly likely especially in the light of the demonstration of their power and the strength of their army. There are more soldiers coming tomorrow from Nimmar. So you can all gloriously take them on as well, if any of you survive the fight at the fort. I am tired and weary from travelling and fighting the Covenent and I could not care any more what you decide to do. I know what I have to do.”

Edward paused and looked around. When he continued he could not keep the cynicism out of his voice. “ You can even claim that I am one of them, if you like. Even this, though it would grieve me, will have no effect on my decision. To many of you back here in Alskar there must have been plenty of opportunities for me to join them during my enforced stay in Nimmar. In fact, I suppose some of you, despite what my father told you, thought I had sold out before I went away. I can imagine what you were thinking when you saw me riding along the roads out of town with the daughter of the Imperial Grandmaster. Whatever you all think will not stop me acting as I see best. Joe believe me, I am one of the most loyal of all Rombuli, loyal to the idea of our nation, loyal to our language and loyal to the wish for freedom from domination by the Empire. Besides I am partly to blame for what happened here. One thing I have learnt while I was away is that the power of the Covenent and those in white robes is too much for you. Have you forgotten what happened in the square that day before we went away?”

Joe looked at Edward long and hard as though trying to see through to his inner motives. “ Edward, I hear what you are saying. What would you advise is to do?”

Edward sighed heavily, dreading what he had to say next. “ Up near the remains of my house you will find ten bodies wrapped in blankets.”

Ignoring the sharp intake of breath from some in the crowd, he hurried on. “ Matt, Tim, Gary and James are there. They returned to Alskar with the old Rombuli flag that we managed to steal from the old Meeting House of the Rombuli on the Island of Peace. I stayed behind in Nimmar in the hope that while the Covenent and the army were questioning me, Matt and the others would have more time to escape. Our plan was for them to hide some place, they did not tell me where because in that case I would not be able to tell the Covenent, when the Covenent questioned me later, where they had gone. They were to hide until triumphantly unveiling the flags at the next Gathering. Somehow they ended up at my father's house and I must have failed to hold off the Covenent because they trapped them in the house. Besides those bodies there are the bodies of Jeb, Harry, Chuck, Clare who you all know worked for my father.”

Edward could sense the rising tide of anger as his voice now faltered. For a brief moment he could not speak and the tears ran unhindered down his cheeks for the first time since he had arrived home. Forcing his head up and the tears to stop, Edward looked right into Joe's eyes. “ Beside the bodies of my friends and work colleagues, you will find the bodies of my mother and father.”

Silence descended like a curtain covering the light from a window, all eyes were staring at Edward and nobody moved. “ The agreement I have come to with the Covenenter is that when all the soldiers have gone, we can take away the bodies and make ready for a funeral tomorrow. I suggest we lay out the bodies in the Meeting House until the funeral. After that has been done, I have promised to go to the fort and face the Covenenter.”

Joe stepped forward. “ I am sorry Edward, “ he said in a low voice putting his arm around Edward's shoulder.

A man Edward only vaguely recognised stepped forward, his face blank with bottled up anger and grief. “ I agree with you about the funeral arrangements, Eastland. I am Gary's father. I cannot see the point of you sacrificing yourself by going back to the fort. You have to get away before they come looking for you.”

Edward shook his head. “ No Mr. Machlin that is not possible. I have to be here for the funeral of my friends and my mother and father tomorrow no matter what it costs me. We, Matt and the others, set out on this adventure together and I must see it through. Besides, if I don't go to the fort they will come looking for me. The Covenenters can be ruthless when the need arises and anybody found helping me would pay a very high price. I have to go to the fort and face them.”

“ What if we won't let you?” Joe interjected.

“ Don't make me have to answer that,” Edward pleaded. “ Besides, there is another reason why I have to go to the fort before the funeral. They have Morag and I have to try to see her.”

There was a second stunned silence and then an angry murmur of agreement. Turning back to the remains of his house, Edward found the soldiers had gone.

“ Bring ten stretchers and send some people to make ready the Meeting House,” Edward ordered almost unconscious of the way in which all the men seemed to accept his leadership without any protest.

It was a sad solemn procession which wound its way from the burnt out wreck of his home through the streets of the town sometime later. Edward walked in front leading his horse followed by the ten stretchers carrying the bodies wrapped in blankets. Ten stretchers with forty bearers all bare headed and silent. From somewhere a drum had been found and the slow beat accompanied the bearers as they tried to keep in step along the street to the square.

The silent crowds lining the street held torches to light the way which caste flickering shadows on the walls as the procession passed, as though the were accompanied by the souls of the departed. The beat of the drum, the only noise other than the stamp of feet, echoed its melancholy phrase through the rest of the silent streets of the town and the torch light glittered on faces wet with weeping. Above the tension and the grief of the crowds was a feeling of frustration that nothing could be done.

At the Meeting House facing out over the Town Square, they laid the bodies out on the large oak table, a pure white candle at the feet of each body. When this was done, Edward passed down the line, bowing briefly at each body, letting his sense of grief slowly seep into the room. Visions of each came into his mind, pictures of each person as he had last seen them. When he reached the end of the line, his mind had gone blank and appeared to be frozen. Shivering almost uncontrollably, without a backward glance, he went out of the door and into the darkness of the square.

Without a word, Joe handed Edward the reigns to his horse. Joe's eyes were full of tears and he could hardly look Edward in the eye. Somebody murmured quietly that everything would be ready in the morning but they would wait until Edward came before they started even if that meant in the funeral being put off until the afternoon. Joe finally patted Edward's leg, handed up the reins and stepped back.

Mounting swiftly, Edward rode through the ranks of the good people of Alskar, faces that he recognised in the flickering circles of light cast by the torches in people’s hands. Once again he felt anger, shock and frustration and he detected all these emotions in those he passed but nobody interrupted his progress or asked him to stay.

Through the silent people he rode, out of the square and onto the road leading up to the fort. As the buildings hid the square, he did not look back.

While he rode up the hill towards the fort, he thought of the previous times he had come this way. At first it had been with an overwhelming sense of resentment at the power of the occupying force and the helplessness of his people. There seemed then that there was nothing they could do to try to gain their freedom.

Then there was the time when these feelings had been replaced in the forefront of his mind by the first blossoming of his love for Kitty. At that time the journey to the fort had been full of excitement and promise for what was to come. Now the resentment and the anger were back but Edward was filled with a sense of despair. Despair that in his one real attempt to do something about the plight of his people, one attempt to bring forth the national pride and fellowship, all his family had been killed. More and more he was coming to realise what little power the Rombuli had to influence events that shaped their lives. Still he vowed to himself as the town passed his unseeing eyes, I will never again willingly co-operate with them even if this means I will have to be their prisoner.

As he passed the last houses in the town and could see the dark bulk of the fort looming above him on the hill, a small troop of soldiers came out of the shadows beneath a copse of trees and arranged themselves around him in an escort. They fell into place on either side with such precision that even in his minds depressing mood, he had to admire their professionalism. Even so he ignored them by looking to neither the left nor the right. He kept his speed to a walking pace as though he was alone but the soldiers, as though obeying instructions not to interfere, kept to his pace.

When they arrived at the gates to the fort, the leader of the soldiers ordered Edward to dismount. Once he was off his horse, a troop of foot soldiers appeared and escorted him across the parade ground, the gravel crunching under their feet. The mounted escort disappeared in the direction of the stables, from their chatter pleased to be finished with their duty. He hardly noticed what was happening around and followed the soldiers. When he was locked in small room overlooking the parade ground he started to pay more attention to his surroundings. When the door clanged shut and the key turned in the lock, he knew he was under the control of the Covenent.

Despite the grief, heartache and fear, he felt his way across the room in the semi- darkness and collapsed onto the bed still in his clothes. He fell asleep very quickly.

Edward awoke with a start to find a soldier shaking him fiercely by the shoulder, the light of a lantern in his eyes.

“ Come on! Wake up sir! The Covenenter wants to see you as soon as possible!.” The soldier was fearful of the consequences if he did not get Edward to the Covenenter quickly. “ There is some food and wine on the table and water in the bowl for you to wash. I will be back in fifteen minutes and take you to the Covenenter. Make sure you are ready.”

Feeling a little better after the food and a wash, Edward later followed the soldier out of his prison. The parade ground was swept clean, the rake marks clearly visible in the early morning light and the buildings surrounding the parade ground looked grey in the light drizzle which was now falling from a low overcast sky. The few soldiers who were about paused in their work to watch Edward pass, their glances curious but they soon returned to their tasks.

When Edward entered the Covenenter's room, one Covenenter was sitting behind a desk, his clean white hood thrown back to reveal a head of almost white hair, a beard to match and those deep penetrating black eyes. The medallion shone brightly in the light from the window but did not seem to have the inner glow Edward had come to associate with mental activity. Another stood looking out of the window over the river and town in the distance.

“ Ha Eastland, “ the Covenenter sitting behind the desk greeted Edward with a wide smile. It was obvious he was in charge and was going to do all the talking. “ Come in and sit down. We have a lot to talk about.”

Edward sat opposite the Covenenter, in the seat indicated and looked around the room. It was sparsely furnished, the desk, some chairs and a carpet on the floor.

Edward sat warily staring into those black eyes waiting for the Covenenter to speak. The Covenenter sat in his chair, one hand placed lightly on his staff that lay on the table and pointing straight at Edward’s chest. The direction in which the staff was facing made Edward nervous

“ I won't waste time by getting you to tell me how you came to get here so quickly or who it was who helped you to escape from Nimmar. It might be amusing to probe your mind though. For some reason I have been ordered to leave you alone until the Imperial Master arrives from Nimmar this afternoon. Until he arrives with my orders, we can at least talk in a civilised manner. What were you and your friends hoping to achieve by what you did in Nimmar? “

Edward shook his head dumbly and smiled faintly. “ You talk and I will listen. I have nothing to say to you on that subject. You have no proof that I was involved in the escapade as you call it. Even your attempts to get me to say something when you tortured me in my room in Nimmar came to nothing. I do have two questions for you though. What happened to Morag my sister? Can I attend my parents funeral today?”

The Covenenter's eyes flashed angrily and his hand gripped his staff. Then he laughed loudly. “ You are in no position to demand anything. We are not as uncivilised as you seem to be hinting, Eastland. The Empire regrets what happened to your family and friends but we do demand obedience from those under our protection. In relation to many of the other provinces of the Empire, you Rombuli are in a privileged position. You are allowed to follow your own customs and to speak your own language in your own homes and at your Gathering. To a small degree you have some control over local affairs. In return all we ask is that you live in peace and do not stir up trouble for the Imperial Army and Officials. How have you, your friends and your family repaid this generosity on our part, Eastland? You lead a rebellion in Nimmar, steal the symbols of a long forgotten state from our protection and then complain when people get hurt. That your family now lie in town waiting for burial, a practice we find offensive, bodies should be burnt when they are no longer of any use to the spirit, is no fault of ours. Of course you can go to the funeral today. Though I will take the precaution of sending an escort to make sure you come back.”

“ There is no need for an escort but you do as you wish,” Edward answered not having the will or the energy to argue about Rombuli subjugation to the Empire with this smiling man in the white robe. “ What have you done with my sister Morag?”

“ I could say that is none of your business but as I say we are not uncivilised. I have sent for her. “ As though on cue the door opened behind Edward.

He was out of his seat and spinning round before the door was fully open. The sight of Morag as she came through the door hit Edward like a punch in the stomach. Her long black usually shiny hair was matted and tangled as though it had not been combed or washed for a long time. There were smudge of soot and blood on her face giving her the appearance of a refugee who had fled from a battleground. Her dress was torn and tattered and she held it close with one grimy hand. The other arm hung by her side as though it was broken or paralysed. Even with this her appearance of neglect, it was the eyes that made Edward shudder. Her eyes had always seemed to sparkle even when she was depressed or which had flashed like diamonds in the sunlight when she was angry, were now dead and flat. She looked at Edward with a vacant look, drawn into herself and showed no sign of recognising her brother.

Ignoring the two Covenenters, Edward walked across the room and put his arm round her knotted shoulders. Gently he led her to a settee and helped he to sit. At last she recognised him and her eyes filled with tears. Huge sobs shook her body and she clung to him with her one good arm.

Laying her back against a cushion, Edward turned to the Covenenter sitting behind the desk. Anger was making him completely blind to the Covenenter's power. Before Edward had time to think, he had knocked the staff away and was holding the Covenenter against the wall, his fist clutching the front of the Covenenter's robe.

“ Is this the way you show how civilised you are? “ Edward grated through clenched teeth. “ You leave a young woman to wallow in her own filth without any attempt to tend her injuries.”

Hearing a sound behind him, Edward turned. “ Go on!” he shouted as the other Covenenter made to cross the room. “ Blast me with your staff but make sure he puts up his protection before I kill him.”

In his anger, Edward forgot who he was and who he was holding against the wall. He plunged his mind into that of the Covenenter heedless of the danger to himself. Anger carried him beyond the point where he cared for his own safety. He plunged down into the Covenenter's mind searching for a way to hurt him. He felt the heart beating and grasped this in his mind. Then mentally he started to squeeze as though the Covenenter's heart was in his hands and he sensed the fear in the one he held. The Covenenter struggled and then relaxed against the pressure of Edward's mind.

Don't do any thing to him,” The Covenenter screamed shrilly at his companion. “ If you do, he will kill me and he can do it. He has the power! All right Eastland, put me down and we can talk.

Slowly Edward lowered the Covenenter to the ground, his mind still clenched on the Covenenter's but the Covenenters mind remained relaxed and open.

When the Covenenter was again seated in his chair behind the desk, Edward released him and went back to Morag. Deep down he knew he had really lost but he no longer cared. He had made his stand, had shown them that he had the power to resist them. He realised however that in the moment he had released the Covenenter, they could have used their staffs to overcome him and they would have been in control when he had regained consciousness. In reality there was no way in which he could have resisted their combined power for long and now he even doubted whether he could have killed the Covenenter when he had the chance. It had been recklessness brought on by anger which had made him act but now he was calmer and the doubts were once again on the surface.

Summoning up all the courage he could find, Edward faced them across the desk. “ Is this how you treat people in your civilised way? Get somebody to give Morag a bath, a change of clothes and treatment for her wounds.”

The Covenenter surveyed Edward from hard eyes, a smile playing at the corner of his mouth.

“ What will you do if I don't do as you ask?” he said, his voice a tense whisper. “ You missed your chance to kill me just now. How did you buck up the courage to kill my colleague back in Nimmar when you have so many doubts about whether it is right to kill another human being? Enough of this play acting.”

He turned and pulled at the bell cord behind his chair. When a servant dressed in white appeared, he gave the order for Morag to be given a bath, some clean clothes and have her wounds dressed.

“ Sit down Eastland,” the Covenenter ordered, once Morag had been helped from the room by a maid. “ You will be allowed to attend the funerals of your family and friends later today either under escort or not. That is up to you. By giving your word that you will return here once the funerals are over, we will let you go alone. By the time you get back to the fort, Imperial Master Borovic will have arrived from Nimmar with instructions from the Governor about what will happen to you next. It will then be out of my hands. I expect though you will never be far from the thoughts of my leader Latask. We have long memories Eastland, don't you ever forget that. What have you to say?”

“ I will give my word that I will return after the funeral to face Borovic. I have one last request and that is for Morag to accompany me.”

“ She can come but only under escort!” he snapped as though he thought that Edward was pushing too hard. “ She is directly implicated in the conspiracy after being captured in the presence of the Rombuli rebels. Take her with you but keep in mind that my troops will not be far away.”

Later that morning under an overcast sky, as though the weather matched their mood, Edward rode down the hill from the fort to the town beside the trap carrying Morag and driven by one of the army's grooms. They were escorted by a troop of soldiers as far as the town outskirts but the soldiers reined in under the cover of some trees and Edward and Morag continued alone.

The square in front of the Meeting House was lined with people standing in silence facing the building. Along the walls of the buildings lining the square opposite the Meeting House Edward noticed some foot soldiers but these were standing at ease. Just a reminder of Imperial power Edward thought as he dismounted and helped Morag from the trap.

Inside the dimly lighted hall the table had been removed, a platform raised at one end and the ten coffins placed in a row on the platform. A large white candle stood in its holder at the foot of each coffin. The families of the dead stood in silence before their loved ones, Gary's father coming forward to shake Edward's hand when he and Morag entered the room.

“ Will you take the ceremony Edward? You are the one who knew all of the dead. Everybody would like it if you would.” Gary's father asked. Edward nodded though his heart cried out for somebody else to do this because he did not know whether he had the strength to see the ceremony to its conclusion.

Taking the ancient script from Mr.Machlin, Edward mounted the platform with shaking hands and tears in his eyes. He looked out over the room through this mist in his eyes to check that everything was ready. Silence deepened in the room, a silence so complete it could almost be touched. Even the murmur of the crowd in the square ceased until the whole of Alskar was shrouded in silence waiting for something to happen.

Clearing his throat, Edward began to read, the words vaguely familiar from all the times he had heard them at the funerals of his father’s and mother’s friends.

“ Friends and relations, we are assembled here to pay tribute to the lives of those who have departed from us. Let us stand for a moment in silence, remembering their contribution to our happiness, to the joy we knew in their presence, to the heartache and bitterness they may have caused us but let us truly reflect on their contribution to the lives of our people.”

After a pause during which the silence deepened further, Edward went and stood in front of the first coffin. “ Gary Machlin, we entrust you to the care of our Maker. May you live in peace in the Maker's protective presence.”

At those words Gary Machlin's father stepped forward, bowed before the coffin holding his sons remains and, with a shaking hand lighted the candle standing at the foot of the coffin, saying, “ We light this candle as a tribute to your memory, as a token of our obedience to our Maker and as a light in the darkness which separates life from death.” He stepped back, bowed his head and the candle flared with a pure white light.

Edward went from coffin to coffin, repeating the words, watching each candle flame into life. Fighting back the tears which almost overwhelmed him when he stood before his mother and father, he wanted to rush down and help Morag as she awkwardly lit the candles with her left hand but somehow he restrained himself and watched those two candles flame into light.

When all the candles were alight, the hymn to death and beyond was sung. The slow measured notes drifting up towards the roof as though helping the souls of his family and his friends to find peace in heaven. Still singing and in a procession with Edward leading, each coffin was carried preceded by its lighted candle out into the square. As the procession emerged from the Meeting House, the hymn was taken up by all the people standing waiting, echoing back from the buildings of the town in a great mournful lament for the loss they had suffered.

In silence they buried their friends in the grassy bank beside the Meeting House, side by side, each grave made ready for a name stone to be placed there at a later date.

When it was over, Edward mounted the steps of the Meeting House and looked out over the sea of faces gathered before the building. The expectant looks told him he had to say a few words but before he could begin somebody started singing the old Rombuli anthem, the song for long banned by the Empire. Proudly, the people pulled themselves upright, their faces began to glow with a shared sense of pride in their nationhood and as though to uplift the spirits of a downtrodden nation, the sun broke through the clouds and bathed the square in a joyful light. Soon everybody in the square was singing and the sound swelled until it filled the entire town.

When the last echo of the anthem died away, Edward began to speak, tentatively at first but soon gaining confidence. “ My friends, this is a sad day for the Rombuli. We have buried some true patriots who died at the hands of our Imperial masters. I must though sound a note of pride even in this sad time. They did not die in vain. No, they died in an attempt to wrest back for the rest of us some symbols of the Rombuli nation and the time when we were free. While we still have people like this in our midst, the spirit and the souls of our nation will not wither and die.”

There was a murmur of anger from some among the crowd but he stilled this with a raised hand. “ They tried to return the Rombuli flag to the Gathering but failed in their purpose. Let us leave here remembering why they died and what they were attempting to achieve.”

He paused to emphasise his next words. “ But we have to remember also the lessons we have to learn from what has happened. Though their actions showed the spirit of the Rombuli lives proudly on, their deaths show that we are still too weak in the presence of the Imperial power to wrest our freedom from the Imperial yoke. Nothing will be served in the cause of our freedom by any more violence at this time. Let us all go back to our everyday lives, living in peace with our Maker but making sure the sacrifice of our friends is not forgotten. Keep the spirit of our customs alive but do not forget the White Robes. They have the power that we cannot resist and they are evil. Remember free Rombuli and look forward to the day when we will have control over our own lives once again. Freedom will come though it might take an age!”

Pulling himself to his full height, Edward shouted, “ Rombuli will be free, may it come soon!” With the spontaneity of grief the whole square took up his words, ringing them round the town time after time.

As the cry got louder, Edward became aware of the sound of horse’s hooves and there on the far side of the square was a troop of Imperial Guards passing on their way to the fort. Sitting upright on his horse surrounded by his personal bodyguard was Imperial Master Borovic.

As soon as he was sure Edward had finished speaking, he spurred his horse forward and rode through the crowd on his own, as though oblivious of the danger, leaving his escort nervously waiting in the road at the side of the square.

Edward bowed in mock deference when Borovic reined in his horse before the Meeting House. “ That is enough Edward Eastland,” Boric said quietly without dismounting from his horse. “ Now that you have completed the formalities, you will accompany me to the fort.”

“ Greetings oh Imperial Master,” Edward replied. “ It is an honour which the Empire bestows on me by giving me an Imperial Master to escort me to the fort.”

Edward helped Morag back into then trap and followed the soldiers from the square.