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.