It was still dark when Edward was awaken by the sound of people moving around the apartment the morning after the meeting of the Governor's Council. Edward sat up in his bed when he heard Tulla and Zita speaking in the next the room to discover that the fire was blazing cheerfully in the hearth. It still shocked him a little to realise that the servants had been into his room to make up the fire while he was still asleep alongside his wife. Kitty was so used to having servants around, it was as though they were not visible until she wanted them to do something for her. Edward felt he would never get used to another person wandering around his apartment while he was there.
Kitty lay close, snuggling up to his body but showing no signs of moving. With a sigh, Edward gently moved her arms away from his body and swung his legs from the bed. Even though Kitty had been reluctant at first to let him go after he had told her of the Governor's orders, a discussion about duty that ensued had convinced her of his duty and she had reluctantly agreed.
She had made him understand, however, that he would have to get up on his own the next morning. Having travelled in the wet and cold the day before, she was going to lie in bed until mid morning, she told him emphatically.
As Edward looked around for his clothes before venturing out into the sitting room, Tulla said brightly from the doorway to his bedroom, " Good morning, Mr. Eastland. I am glad to see you are up. Over Master Ormrood is waiting for you in the entrance hall of the Mansion. Zita and I took the liberty to pack what you will require as instructed by the Over Master. I hope you did not mind. Your breakfast is laid out in the sitting room by the fire and your clothes are on the chair. Will I call Mrs. Eastland before you go?"
Pulling his wrap around his body to keep out the cold, Edward smiled at Tulla. " Call her while I am having breakfast. No doubt she will go “
" It was cold and frosty when I went out to find Over Master Ormrood. Enjoy your breakfast." Tulla smiled again and left Edward to dress.
After dressing and eating a quick breakfast, Edward went back into the bedroom to say goodbye to Kitty. She was sitting in bed bundled in the bed clothes, sourly looking out of the window at the brightening sky.
" Do you have to leave so early?" she asked grumpily her eyes still misty from sleep. Looking at her, Edward had to conclude that she could be as messy as any other woman early in the morning " I am afraid so. If you have any complaints, moan to your brother. He is the one who has arranged all this for me." Edward kissed her. " I will see you in a few weeks, I expect."
" Hurry back Edward. I hate it when you are away," Kitty said kissing him fiercely.
Leaving Kitty preparing to snuggle back under her bed clothes, Edward left the apartment and strode down the corridor to the top of the staircase. Looking down the stairs, he saw Tag in the hall, leaning against a pillar waiting for him to descend. Tag was of medium height, broad shouldered, dressed in tan coloured leather clothes with his long black hair pulled away from his face by a red cloth. He grinned in greeting when he saw Edward descending the stairs and pushed himself sinuously away from the pillar.
" Good morning, Mr. Eastland," he said cheerfully. " All is ready for our ride. I gather from Boric that we are going to Alskar Province. He told me that you would know what our itinerary will be. You can explain to me what we have to do as we ride."
Matching Tag's step pattern as they left the building, Edward replied with a smile, " Call me Edward. We have a lot of riding to do together and this formal address will get wearing after a while. The plan is to get to Alskar by this afternoon and stay at the inn in the market square overnight. Then we go on to Fox's farm to meet Margaret Fox and her father. After that I am not certain. All I know is that we will have a lot of riding to do but it could result in our chasing shadows. Where we will stay each night, I have no idea."
Tag grinned once more. " I have packed a tent on to one of the pack horses so, if we have to, we can sleep rough."
Edward growled in reply. " I know what Rombuli can be like this time of the year and sleeping rough will not very pleasant especially up on the moors of Alskar Province. Let us hope we can find buildings to sleep in every night."
Tag laughed. " Come on Edward. You are taking all the adventure out of our quest!
When they came out of the door, they found a couple of grooms holding six horses, one of which was Midnight.
" Our horses, two spare horses and two pack horses seems to be enough. I took the liberty to include your long bow though how you can shoot with that thing is beyond me. I have my short horse bow. I see you have your sword and a dagger." Tag waved his arm to include their gear.
Edward frowned. " Alskar is a peaceful place and I cannot see us needing all those weapons while we are there."
" Troubled times, Edward," Tag looked serious. " If the Empire is in trouble, we have to be prepared for trouble, no matter where we go. I wanted to bring more men with us but Boric told me you would not allow me to have anymore. Something about frightening the natives if we came with a troop of soldiers. So, you will only have me to watch your back."
" I have certain powers which might help as well," Edward said as they approached the horses.
" So I have heard," Tag replied laughing," but even somebody with power still needs somebody to watch their back."
They mounted their horses and rode away from the Mansion towards the gate and the bridge over the river. As the guards raised the barrier to let them through, waving to Tag, Edward’s mind drifted back to that time years ago when he had last left the Island to ride to Alskar. He had left Kitty in Nimmar and rode as fast as he could to Alskar only to find his family dead when he had arrived. As he and Tag rode up the hill out of the town, Edward could only hope that his journey would be more peaceful this time.
The ride to Alskar was uneventful, though cold and wet in the drizzle driven across their road by a wind from the mountains to the north.
It was late afternoon in a gathering gloom when they crossed the bridge and entered the town. The Grey Dog Inn looked welcoming as they alighted from their horses and handed these to a groom with instructions about their gear. Across the square, the Meeting Hall stood dark and watchful and there were very few people abroad on the streets.
Pushing his way through the door of the Grey Dog, Edward led Tag into the sitting room. The lanterns were already lit, bathing the room in a smoky light. A large fire in one corner gave out heat from the logs burning fiercely and the few people in the room looked round at the visitors but soon returned to their conversations and their drinks. Tag noticed that the wooden floor was cleanish and the tables polished.
A man came round from the serving bar, a frown on his face. Edward recognised Joe and at the same time Joe recognised him.
" Edward Eastland! How are you? It has been a long time since you came here. What brings you to this part of the world?" Joe wiped his hands on a cloth, eying Tag and their weapons in enquiry.
" Hello Joe. The last time I saw you was at my parents funeral." Edward shook the offered hand. " This is Tag and we need two rooms for the night. After we have settle into our rooms, I will explain everything over a meal and a beer. Have you two rooms?"
" For you Edward, I will always have a room. Top of the stairs and to the front of the building. I will get Bob to bring your bags up. Welcome back to Alskar."
Later, Tag and Edward came back down into the sitting room and Joe showed them to a table to one side of the fire. He called a serving girl called Massie and instructed her regarding the meal she was to fetch for Tag and Edward. As she left, she looked over her shoulder with a puzzled frown and Edward knew then that his return to Alskar was not going to be anonymous. Soon the word would be out and he could imagine many people coming to the Inn to see him. Still, he thought, I am not supposed to be here unnoticed.
They ate their meal in silence though Edward noted that Tag never for one moment stopped looking around the room. He was especially attentive when anybody new entered through the street door and his hands were never very far from his weapons. When they had finished, Joe came back to their table with three glasses of beer and pulled over a chair to join them. As though this was a signal, two other men left their table and joined them.
" You know Jerry Macklin, " Joe said indicating a grey haired man of medium height who had joined them.
" Greetings Mr. Macklin," Edward said smiling. " I hope you have forgiven me for being part of the action which led to Gary's death."
" Welcome home, Edward," Jerry Macklin replied. " I never did blame you for his death, you know, which was why I asked you to lead the his funeral service. It is the pigs who control the Empire who were to blame. I am now Mayor of Alskar taking over the leadership from your father though I have not his power or his authority. Joe thought I would like to hear what became of you so I hope you don't mind if I join you. I expect you remember David from when you were growing up here. He is here to represent the younger ones who remember you."
Edward caught the look in Tags eye and the way Tag lent back in his chair to make sure his feet were out from under the table. Edward nodded to David, a short thin man who he remembered more of a friend of Matt's rather than himself.
" It is a surprise to see you here," Jerry Macklin went on pointedly ignoring Tag and his weapons. " The last I saw of you was when you and Morag were being led away by the Imperial Master and his troops up towards the Fort. There were persistent rumours that you had been let free and were working around Alskar Province but nobody ever saw you and you never came back to Alskar Town. Morag disappeared completely though it was understood that she had been dragged away by a Covenenter. Then a wagoner told my son that he had heard from the blacksmith that you had been arrested down near Pinaar and escorted back to Nimmar by some Imperial troops a few months ago. Now you have turned up here, free and accompanied by an Imperial Ranger, if I am not mistaken. At the same time there are rumours circulating that the Empire is in trouble. What can you tell us?"
" Should I have to tell you anything?" Edward answered harshly.
Jerry Macklin did not have a chance to reply. A large red faced man thrust his way through the group around the table and confronted Edward. A knife hilt was banged on the table and the man thrust his face close to Edward's across the surface.
" How can you come here like this? Did Matt die following one of your crazy schemes in vain?" The man shouted angrily. " We thought you were one of us especially when you stood up to the Covenenter in the Town Square that day. I was so proud that somebody had the courage to stick up for my son. Now you have gone over to the enemy!"
Tag started to move but Edward waved him back into his seat. " What are you talking about?" Edward asked calmly.
" What is this Bob?" Jerry Macklin asked, putting a restraining hand on Bob's elbow.
" I was given a permit to transport some corn to Nimmar," Bob shouted, his eyes never leaving Edward's face. " While I was there, he got married to that Kitty Borovic he was so concerned with while she was here with the Grand Master. He is now one of them and we should have nothing to do with him!"
Bob moved suddenly, the knife rising from the table and thrust towards Edward. Tag came out of his chair, a sword suddenly in his hand but Edward did not move. The knife stopped half way to its target, Bob stood rigid trying desperately to force the knife home but he was held in a spell as though shackled in place.
" Get a chair!" Edward ordered Tag, who quickly, his eyes staring at his friend, obliged. With hard eyes, Edward forced Bob back into the chair. The knife fell to the floor and Tag picked it up and put it on the table in front of Edward. All of the people in the room were staring wide-eyed at Edward.
" This has gone far enough!" Edward snapped. " Sit down Tag and put your sword away. These people are not fighters like you except for the odd barroom brawl. They would not stand a chance if it came to a fight. Anyway as you can see, I can defend myself in my own way."
He looked at the knife, jerked his head and it floated across the table to land gently in Bob's lap. " Put that knife away before you harm yourself."
Jerry Macklin shook his head. " We all knew you had some power from that day you stood up to the Covenenter but never this much power. Your father never went out of his way to show us his power even though we all knew he had the talent. Morag only used her to help the sick and injured. Can you tell us what this is all about?"
" Joe, serve everybody with a drink while they listen to what I have to say," Edward said smiling. " Three years ago I was taken to Nimmar, like a number of Rombuli, to prepare the Province for the visit of the Emperor. While there I found the place where the symbols of the Rombuli nation were kept. Matt and I planned a scheme to recapture the symbols for our nation. The idea was for Matt and his friends to bring them back to Free Rombuli and present them at the Gathering that year while I stayed behind to give the Covenenters a target. It all worked well except we had to kill a Covenenter while in the Meeting House on the Island. That made the chief Covenenter Latask mad and he came to my room with the idea of forcing me to tell him who was responsible. With the help of Boric and Kitty Borovic, I escaped and rushed back here after getting a mental message from my father. You all know what happened that night and the next day. The Covenent had me and Morag at their mercy but Boric Borovic rescued me again. I was banished into Alskar province with no home and the threat of sanctions hanging over my head if I left Alskar province or caused trouble."
Edward paused his eyes distant and moist. " They did not let Morag go with me. The last I saw of her was being led away by the Covenent and I have no idea what happened to her after that. She maybe dead for all I know. That happened because we cared for Rombuli and our people. Bob you do not have to tell me about sacrifices. My mother and father killed, my best friend killed and my sister disappeared."
" Did you actually see and touch our Symbols of nationhood?" Jerry Macklin asked in a reverent voice. " What happened to them after the Covenent took them away?"
" Oh yes," Edward said. " I broke the spell that held them to the wall and helped to wrap them in their containers for Matt to take away. Actually, the Covenent has put them back on the wall of the Meeting House on the Island. Vaguely you have all heard a part of that story. Some of you seem to have heard that just before the Gathering this year, I was arrested down near Pinaar”.
" Well not specifically but there was a rumour that some people had seen you. It swept through the Gathering. Though some people said you had gone voluntarily with the Army showing that you had changed sides. A few even speculated that this proves that it was you who betrayed Matt and your family." Jerry stopped, realising at the last moment just what he had inferred.
" There is nothing I can say to put a stop to those rumours, I suppose," Edward answered sadly. " Actually in reality I was not arrested as such. Imperial Master Borovic had a request from the Governor Rulask asking me if I would accompany him back to Nimmar to take a place on the Governor's Council."
" So you did go voluntarily then?" Bob demanded still angry.
Edward shrugged. " To me at the time there was no option. If I had resisted they would have tried to arrest me and people, many of whom were my friends, would have got hurt trying to give me a chance to escape. When I arrived in Nimmar I met Kitty Borovic again. At the Council, Governor Rulask informed us that the Empire was in trouble. Indeed he told us that it was collapsing. Latask the Covenenter then outlined what he knew. It appears that the provinces of Sardonia and Rombuli have not been able to contact Parison for a number of months. Indeed, everybody they sent to investigate disappeared and was not heard from again. What convinced me of the seriousness of the situation was Latask. He was scared and I had never seen one of the Covenent scared before. To shorten my story they expect to be invaded in the spring.”
" Good," said David with a smile on his thin lips. " It will give us a chance to throw off the yoke of the Empire. We have suffered enough under their boot for too long!"
" If that is what you think then you are a bigger fool than you look!" Tag spoke for the first time causing all eyes to turn in his direction. " I know I am not one of you and many of you might regard me as part of the enemy. I do however have some experience of these matters. From what we know of our enemy, which is not much, they will roll you under and you will have no rights left. You will really be a subject people, not allowed to think for yourself, doing what you are told and completely controlled. It will make your time under the Empire appear like a golden age. If I was you lot, I would listen carefully to what Edward is saying."
To stunned silence Tag sat back in his seat but his hand stayed close to the hilt of his sword. There arose in the room a murmur of angry voices most of the anger directed at Tag. To stop any more aggression towards Tag, Edward banged the table for attention.
" Two other things before I go to bed, " Edward said once he was certain he had their attention again. " I did marry Kitty Borovic and I make no apologies to you for that. The second thing is we were married by Nelvask, the Ancient One."
Once more there was a stunned silence around the room until Jerry Macklin burst out. " If that is the Nelvask mentioned in the Book, he disappeared many years ago. How could this be true?"
" It is the same person," Edward answered quietly to a sceptical crowd. " Latask asked me to contact him and bring him to Nimmar, which I did. As you will find out in the near future, Nelvask demanded as a consequence of his agreement to help Governor Rulask and the remains of the Imperial Army, that the Rombuli people be set free from what my father called the Imperial yoke. A delegation from the Governor is coming with a proclamation that will be posted on all the Meeting House doors in every town and village in Rombuli. What that means, I will leave for you to find out when the delegation comes. What is important is that part of the deal will be Nelvask calling a Rombuli Council in Nimmar where each district will send a representative, as was the case in the past. My advice is for you to send somebody to that Council. The threat is grave and we must all pull together and forget the slights from the past."
" If that is the case, what are you doing here?" Jerry Macklin demanded aggressively.
" That to a certain extent is my business," Edward said bluntly. " No don't get more angry with me. One advantage the Rombuli have had through history is in being able to communicate through thought transfer. In any war this gives the army the chance to keep abreast of what is happening on the battlefield almost instantly. Derek Gorland used this in the war against the Empire but failed because of overwhelming odds and their similar ability. Nelvask has asked me to find those in Alskar province with the talent and invite them to come to Nimmar to form an intelligence gathering and communications network. That is what I am here to do."
Jerry Macklin laughed loudly such that the other men in the bar looked round in his direction. " You will find that task very difficult. Most people with the talent keep it well hidden so you will have to seek them out without much help from the rest of the population. Your father was one of the few who never denied he had the talent but even he did not publicise it to everyone. I wish you luck.”
" Thank you Mr. Macklin," Edward observed dryly. " We can but try. Just think about what I have said and do what you think is right for our people."
Getting to his feet, Edward nodded to Tag and walked through the crowd to the door accompanied by silence. Every eye followed his back but as soon as he left the room, a babble of voices broke the silence.
" Not the heroes welcome you thought you would get when you came home," Tag remarked as they climbed the stairs.
" No, " Edward replied thoughtfully. " In many ways their attitude is understandable. They have lived under the Empire all their lives but the one thing that has sustained them is the thought that most Rombuli would not co-operate with that Empire. To them I have joined the enemy and it must be hard to accept. Only time will tell if they can rise to help the Empire counter the threat which is posed across the border. All we can do is try to play the part we have been given."
The next morning Edward and Tag left the Grey Dog Inn and rode up the hill away from the square. Once more Edward was transported back to the time when he had galloped up this very street with the glow of a fire lighting the sky ahead. The people they passed cast hardly a glance in their direction and they soon came out of the shelter of the buildings into a biting wind coming straight from the mountains to the north. Ahead of them were the fire blackened ruins of buildings and Edward paused to look.
At Tag's raised eyebrows, Edward said rather bitterly. " That was once my home. The Covenent killed my father and mother here, trying to defend the Symbols of our nationhood. This was the place where Jerry Macklin's son Gary perished on that night three years ago, as did my best friend Matt. Looking at the ruin of my home, you can see why those we met last night are still bitter. They think I was partly responsible. Add to that the fact that I am still alive and their love ones dead, makes it all the more obvious."
Turning his horse, Edward led Tag away from his burnt out home along the road towards the moors. He did not look back, even though the land was once more his by proclamation of the Governor. With a sigh, he told himself to concentrate on the job in hand. If he came through the coming upheaval and they won the coming war, he would have the time to plan what to do with his former land. If they lost the war, there would be no need to think about what to do with his former home. In that case, he would either be dead or a captive controlled by the enemy.
Once clear of the town, they followed the track to the north east out onto the moors overlooking Alskar town. Not knowing how long they were to be in the saddle, they did not push the horses too hard. At what felt like midday all most impossible to gauge through the overcast and threatening sky, they stopped to eat lunch in the shelter of some rocks. The land through which they travelled was bleak and rock strewn, the moors stretching away in rolling hills with hardly any trees to break up the landscape. It was a bleak outlook which accompanied their meal and they did not stop long.
Shortly after lunch they breasted yet another hill and stopped to look down on a huddle of grey buildings, farm house and barns, surrounded by a stone wall. Behind the house were signs of a cultivated garden and an orchard.
" Fox's farm," Edward observed waving his arm in the direction of the buildings. " This is our destination."
" Is it always this bleak like a grey place in nightmare dreams?" Tag asked shivering and pulling his cloak tighter about his body. " Why would anybody want to live here? My families estate is in the hills but it is green and pleasant with trees and meadows."
Edward looked around and shook his head." It is not my idea of a place to live but it can be quite mystically beautiful in the spring especially went the mist descends. Also, the dark edges are taken off the rocks by the snow in winter that I hope we do not have to endure. In those hills above the farm there is good grazing for sheep. It is simple really. The Empire desires wool. This farm, like many others, supplies it."
Clicking their horses into motion, they rode down the hill towards the farm. As they approached the gate, two ferocious looking dogs rushed from beside the barns and stood stiff legged and snarling out of reach the other side of the barrier. A large woman came out of the house, called the dogs to her side and came to lean on the gate squinting into the sudden low sunlight, waiting for them to arrive. When they came close, Edward slid from his horse and walked over to the gate.
The woman grinned, the grin transforming her plain face into something almost attractive.
" Well if it isn't Edward Eastland come to visit us again. If I know you, this is not just a social call." She grinned even more.
" Hello Margaret," Edward said leaning over the gate and kissing her on the cheek. The dogs showed their fangs but Margaret hushed them with a pat on their heads. " How are you keeping, up here in this bleak place?"
" We get by," Margaret answered looking inquiringly in Tag. " Who is this hunk of a man you have brought to visit us?"
Edward laughed. " This is Tag, a Ranger from the Imperial Army. I suppose you could call him my escort. Tag this is Margaret Fox who we came all this way to see."
"Don't ask questions now. I will explain everything when we are inside. I need to speak to your father as well." Edward spoke with his mind.
" The reason for your visit gets more curious by the minute!" Margaret shot back with a thought. Out loud she said, " Come on inside. The dogs will not harm you while I am here.
Tag dismounted and with Edward, led the horses through the gate. As he passed the dogs he stopped, said something in a language Margaret and Edward did not understand and the dogs let him stroke their heads. When she saw this, Margaret's eyes were big and round.
Looking Tag up and down she said, " How did you do that. These dogs do not usually answer to anybody but my father and I."
Tag shrugged his shoulders. " I have a way with dogs."
"Is he married?" Margaret asked Edward.
"No," Edward shot back. "He says that army life is not conducive to marriage. I would be careful there. He is a very tough man."
Margaret smiled a secret smile and led the way to the barn. As Tag passed her on the way into the barn with the horses, some signal passed between their eyes that excluded Edward. They took time to rub down their horses and when they were finished, Margaret led them into the house.
Mrs. Fox greeted them warmly when Margaret took them into the kitchen. Fussing around them, she settled them in chairs by the fire after taking their coats and hats. Once she was certain they were comfortable, she gave them hot drinks.
They sat beside the fire getting warm and chatting quietly while they waited for Mr. Fox to come home. Edward listened to the Fox's news with only a minimum of attention, the talk mainly about sheep and the marriage of two of Margaret's brothers. While he waited half listening to the others in the room, Edward was nervously rehearsing what he would have to say to these people when Mr. Fox returned.
In the event, the conversation passed off relatively easily. Mr. Fox had mellowed since Edward had last seen him and over dinner he listened politely as Edward related the events of the last few weeks.
When Edward had finished, Mr. Fox said. " Since your father was killed and you were taken away, I have not involved myself with affairs of Alskar Province. I have not even been to town in all that time, leaving the selling of the wool and of the lambs to my sons. After what has happened to us at the hands of the Empire, it seems extraordinary to me that the Imperial Government should need our help. Coming from you, though, I am inclined to believe the change of circumstances, though the thought of war fills me with dread. Did you really see Nelvask, the name I have only seen in the Book? If he has become involved, I feel we have to understand that the future is grave. What can we do to help you, Edward?"
At Mr. Fox's response to what he had to say, Edward shook his head in wonder. " All the journey from Nimmar to here I have been apprehensive about your reaction to what I had to say. Now I am here, I find you agreeing without much hesitation. There are a number of things you can do though, in reality, it was not you I came to see. I came to put a proposition to Margaret.
Margaret frowned and then smiled, once more Edward was aware of how her face took on a different aspect when she smiled. It was like the sun suddenly illuminating a shadowy room, he thought.
" As you are married, Edward, it must be something else than asking me to be your wife." While saying this, she looked quickly at Tag and then away. Tag smiled faintly but he did not look away.
Edward laughed and shook his head. " Margaret, you know there was never anything like that between us."
" Ah Edward but a girl can always dream, " she replied with a grin which lit up her rather plain face once more. " What is it you wanted to ask me?"
" Before I talk to you about what we have to do, there is something I would like to ask your father," Edward replied, looking across the table at Mr. Fox. After Mr. Fox raised an eyebrow in question but Edward continued. " Do you remember when we met in your top pasture when I came here to ask you to come to Alskar for a meeting with the Imperial Grandmaster?"
Mr. Fox looked puzzled but Edward continued, " You wouldn't listen to me then. So I caught your mind with my power and attached it to my father's that day. In the end, he convinced you of the need for you to go to Alskar for the meeting. Well, I would like to get you in contact with Nelvask in the same way, if you agree."
Mrs. Fox was shaking her head. " Why do I have this feeling that we are being drawn into something which will change our lives for ever? You have to do this, Margaret and Mark but you be careful of what you agree to when you talk to this Nelvask. Both you and Margaret have tried to keep your talent within the family and some people would feel it is best left like that."
Mr. Fox took his wife's hand his eyes sad. " We have had a good life even though it has been tough up here on the moors but I feel we have to become involved, as you put things. Indeed, I have this feeling from what Edward has told us that we will become involved whether we like it or not. It might be best if we get involved from the start on our terms rather be reluctantly drawn into this problem later. What do you want me to do?"
Edward smiled. " You amaze me Mr. Fox. I can now see why my father thought of you as his friend. All you have to do is open your mind to mine after I have contacted Nelvask. Then I will join you two together. After that, you will be able to open your minds to each other without me. While you are talking to Nelvask, I will talk to Margaret."
Tag was shaking his head. " When he semi-ordered me to accompany Edward on this trip, Boric Borovic did not tell me about all of this. He hinted that you had some talent and that you had to gather some people with similar talents to help the war effort. That, I was told, was the purpose of our journey. Before I came on this trip, I had no idea that this mind joining was so common outside of the Covenent. Oh, I learnt something about your power in Alskar when you forced that man to drop his knife without getting up from your seat."
" What was that?" Margaret asked urgently, a worried look crossing her normally placid face. " Did somebody from Alskar attack you?"
" Matt's father attacked me with a knife because he thought I had betrayed his son when we were in Nimmar together. I used my power to stop him." Edward answered shortly.
Turning to Mr. Fox, he said, " Shall we go and sit by the fire?"
Once Mr. Fox was sitting by the fire, Edward called Nelvask. "Nelvask, I need you to answer me."
There was silence at first but then Nelvask's familiar voice echoed loudly in Edward's mind. " Hello Edward, where are you?"
"I am at the Fox's farm and have Mr. Fox here waiting to talk with you. He is one of the people I know with the talent. He will be very helpful in getting Alskar town behind the plan you have," Edward said. " I also have Margaret his daughter here and, if I am lucky, she is the one who will lead me on to others with the talent so that I can try to persuade some to come to Nimmar with me. Will you have a word with Mr. Fox?"
" It will be a pleasure to get back towards the position I was in before the Empire invaded. Connect my mind to his and then we will be able to talk whenever we like." Nelvask's voice beamed pleasure through Edward's mind.
"All right Mr. Fox. Open your mind to mine." Edward used part of his mind to maintain contact with Nelvask while opening part to Mr. Fox. He felt the burden taken away as Nelvask took over and relaxed back into his seat. Mr. Fox's face was a picture of wonder as he concentrated on Nelvask's thoughts.
Getting up from his chair by Mr. Fox, Edward went back to join Margaret and the others at the table. Before saying anything, he drank deeply from his mug of beer.
" You look tired Edward Eastland. I hope you are going to get some rest before you leave." Looking at her son, Mrs. Fox got up from the table. " Let us go and wash the dishes, leaving these people to their deliberations. I have no doubt we will not be given a say in what they are going to discuss."
It was a surprise to Edward when Tag rose also and followed Mrs. Fox into the kitchen leaving Margaret and Edward alone. Margaret watched Tag's back disappear through the door to the kitchen, sighed and then turned to Edward.
" Well Edward Eastland, what do want from me?" Margaret asked when they were alone apart from her father sitting with his eyes closed in his chair by the fire.
" I have a proposition to put to you," Edward started tentatively, a frown creasing his forehead. " The Imperial Army, when they are campaigning have always had the Covenent and their priests to provide them with communications. Unfortunately, from what I undestand, the Covenent is to all practical purposes defunct. Nelvask, though, thinks there are a number of young people in Rombuli with the talent who could provide that communications network the army might need in any future conflict. Don't ask me how he is going to do it but he has set himself the task of finding anybody with the talent outside free Rombuli, in other words outside Alskar. In reality, he is much better at sensing people with talent than I am. In addition to his task, he has set me the task of contacting those with the talent in Alskar province and asking them to join us in Nimmar."
" So that is why you came to me?" Margaret smiled.
" You are quick!" Edward exclaimed opening his eyes wide in mock surprise. " Having been set the task, I had to start somewhere. We are both aware that, even in free Rombuli, people with the talent have hidden it away for fear of the Covenent. The times I was at the Gathering, I came across very few people who used their talent openly. Obviously, I knew you had the talent because we have communicated by thought transfer before when I have visited the farm or you have come to Alskar visiting my home. My plan is to start with you and see if you could lead me on to others with the talent."
" What if I refuse to help?" Margaret asked, her expression now very serious.
" Then I will have to think of another way of getting people with the talent to come forward." Edward answered bluntly.
" What does helping you and Nelvask entail? I still find it hard to believe that somebody I have only read about in the History of the Rombuli is actually alive." Margaret was now frowning.
" There are two levels of help you can give. One is for you to point me in the direction of anybody you know who has the talent and then resume your life here as though nothing has happened. You have to know somebody else other than me." Edward smiled.
" Yes, like you I know somebody else," Margaret answered smiling back at Edward though her eyes were still serious. " There is a man about our age down in Milton who I have communicated with in the past. He is called Markus Drover. I think his grandfather had the talent and his father. We could ride down there and find out. That way you would have a start. What was the second level of help?"
" You could throw in your lot with me and Tag, after helping me find others, come with me and as many as Tag and I can find back to Nimmar to set up Nelvask's communications network." Edward answered her seriously. " That would mean leaving home and maybe never coming back. Some of our people will have to be with the army reporting back to Nimmar about what is happening on the battlefield. It could be very dangerous."
Margaret stared at Edward for a while, her eyes lost and distant. When she spoke, her voice was almost a whisper.
" I have always dreamed of getting away from here and seeing more of the world than these moors and occasionally Alskar town, " she said as though to herself. Then she sat up straight and said in a strong voice as though she had made up her mind. "Edward, I will try to contact Markus and then we will leave in the morning to find him. Oh do not look so startled. I will come with you and Tag through your search and then go with you to Nimmar to meet Nelvask. My mother will not be pleased but I will convince her of the need."
" So you will be taking away my family will you?" Mr. Fox was standing unnoticed behind Margaret's chair.
" No Mr. Fox I am not taking your family away, " Edward replied sadly with a deep shrug. " She has agreed to come with me."
" It has the same result," Mr. Fox but he held up his hand to stop Edward’s protest. " Its all right Edward. Nelvask has convinced me of the dire situation Rombuli is getting into. I never thought I would hear a voice from the past like I have today. He has asked me to call a meeting of the Alskar Council, get in touch with any I know who have the talent and to try to convince people that they ought to co-operate with the Imperial officials. He wants a Rombuli Council on the Island at the Meeting House as soon as possible. That means getting ten Counsellors elected, eight from the counties and one each from Alskar and Pinaar as the largest towns, in the same way as in the old days. They will join the fourteen from the rest of Rombuli, eleven from the counties and one each from Nimmar, Shardlaw and Ironton. The declaration of freedom for the Rombuli people will be posted tomorrow on the Meeting House door in Alskar and then over the next few days in all the villages of the Province. It takes time to arrange all of this but Nelvask wants it done as soon as possible. Imperial Master Borovic, the brother of your wife, will brief the Council in Alskar of what is needed in trying to train our men to become incompetent soldiers and then the trainers will spread out through the land. May our Maker have mercy on us and give us the strength to endure our coming trials."
" For somebody who wanted nothing to do with the Empire, you have changed, " Edward remarked.
" When I was protesting to Nelvask about getting involved, he asked me a simple question." Mr. Fox frowned. " He asked me what your father would have done in the same situation. Idris would have buried his principles, his hatred for the Empire, because he would have reasoned that without our help the Empire was doomed. It might be doomed anyway but with our help it has a chance. At least for a while Rombuli will be free once more. Therefore I agreed to help."
Mr. Fox smiled slightly, looking at his daughter with concern in his eyes. " Just one more thing Edward. Promise me and her mother that you will look after Margaret as much as you can.
" I will do what I can but we are all in the hands of our Maker," Edward answered.
In contrast to the cold drizzle and mist Edward and Tag had suffered on their journey to Alskar, the sun shone from a pale blue sky when they set out the next morning. The moors still looked damp and bleak stretching away from the muddy path they followed but their spirits were lifted by the sudden brightness.
They rode in single file, Edward in the lead, Tag bringing up the rear, Margaret in the middle, not hurrying but preserving their horses for the many miles they had to travel before their mission was completed.
Two hours after leaving the Fox's farm, they topped one of the rolling hills and stopped to look down on a well used track which meandered through a valley and the small village of Milton. There were about ten cottages in the village strung out along the road, all with smoke rising from their chimneys.
Margaret drew her horse alongside Edward’s when they stopped and said pointing into the valley, " There we are Edward. Markus Drover lives down there in that village with his parents. His father is a potter and Markus paints designs on some of his works. He is a very sensitive man and you will have to let me do the talking."
Edward shrugged. " You know the man better than I do. Has his father got the talent?”
Margaret frowned. " I am not sure but I have an idea. I seem to remember overhearing my father and your father talking about being in touch with him. We will find out when we get there."
She moved her horse ahead and Edward, followed by Tag, trailed along in her wake. The few people around in the village looked suspiciously at them as they approached until one young man waved to Margaret. The road through the village was muddy and the cottages were even more run down than they had appeared from the top of the hill.
Margaret came to a stop before one of the cottages, the sounds of work coming from another building to one side. Alighting from her horse, she passed the reins to Tag and walked up the path to what Edward took to be a workshop.
Knocking on the door, Margaret stood waiting until the door opened and somebody invited her inside. She came out a few minutes later accompanied by a tall thin young man dressed in a smock splattered with different coloured paints. Tag and Edward dismounted.
" This is Markus, Edward. Markus this is Edward Eastland," Margaret introduced the man.
" Hello Edward," Markus smiled nervously." I have seen you before. I was there when you stood up to the Covenenter in Alskar a few years back. Have you really that much power?"
" Hello Markus," Edward answered, shaking his offered hand. " I acted instinctively that day and a lot of good it did me. Yes I do have a great deal of power as you put things. I try not to use it too much."
" My father was in touch with your father a few times," Markus frowned nervously. " We were sad to hear what happened. Come on inside. My mother is preparing lunch and Father will join us once it is ready. Margaret tells me you have a proposition to put to me. If you don't mind, we will wait until we are all sitting at the table before you tell us what you want me to do."
" I think that would be a good idea," Edward smiled. " This is Tag one of the Governor's Rangers. He is our escort, though what danger we are in down here is open to question."
" You didn't say that in the Grey Dog in Alskar," Tag murmured but still grinned at the look Edward gave him.
When they were sitting round a table with the family, Markus, Mr. Drover, Mrs. Drover and her two daughters, Megan and Lorna, after the meal of bread cheese and beer, Edward told them what had brought him to Milton. He left nothing out and when he had finished, sat back to wait for their questions.
" We have kept ourselves to ourselves and not broadcast our talent to many other people," Mr. Drover started tentatively. " The only other person I have ever told about my talent was your father, Edward. He agreed with me that we should not be open about our talent. After what happened to your family, I was even more convinced of the need to hide away. Even now after you tell me that you have thrown in your lot with the Empire, I am reluctant to believe you about the need for us to help."
Edward interrupted Mr. Drover with a wave of his hand. " I understand your reluctance to help me but time is short. We need men like Markus to help us but it has to be their choice. Nobody is going to force them to help. Now open your mind to mine and I will connect you to Markus Fox and he will explain what he is doing."
Mr. Drover stared at Edward for what appeared to be an age but in the end nodded.
" Mr. Fox," Edward projected his thoughts outward towards the foxes farm. " I have a Jack Drover, the potter, here and he would like to communicate with you."
"Ok Edward," Mr. Fox's voice sounded in Edward's head. " I am on the way to Alskar now to sound out the town Council. Connect us."
" Mr. Drover meet Mark Fox," Edward projected his thoughts at Jack Drover, and felt Jack and Mr. Fox's minds connect. Jack Drovers eyes opened wide and then he smiled.
Mrs. Drover shook her head but started to collect the plates. " Come on you two," she said to her daughters. " Let us wash the dishes and leave these people to their deliberations. Edward Eastland, I have always dreaded this day but hoped it would never come. May our Maker help us to come to the right decision."
Tag got to his feet as the women disappeared. " I'll go and look to the horses while you talk. I am a man of action and few words and I cannot help those with the talent make up their minds."
" Well Markus, you have heard what I have to say. What do you want to do?" Edward was blunt but he sat back and waited for Marcus to reply.
" What do you say?" Marcus asked Margaret with his mind.
Margaret laughed but answered aloud. " Marcus, Edward is connected to my mind and he can understand your thoughts if my mind is open. We will talk normally."
" Is that right?" Marcus demanded of Edward.
" Only if the other person allows it to happen. You have been taught by your father how to shield your thoughts, haven't you? " Edward asked.
" Yes but this thought transfer between more than one person is alien to me." Marcus shot back.
" Marcus, he is the most powerful Rombuli there has been for years, so believe what he says." Margaret interrupted. " When I get to Nimmar, Nelvask will teach me about shielding my mind and controlling my power."
Suddenly she lifted a knife off the table with her mind and thrust it at Edward with a flick of her head. Edward stopped the knife and left it suspended between them.
" See what I mean about his power?" Margaret looked hard at Markus.
Marcus stared his eyes wide with wonder as Edward slowly lowered the knife back onto the table.
Edward said aloud. " Enough of these games. We do not have much time. What are you going to do?"
" I sit here painting pots and plates for my father and dream of travelling." Marcus' eyes grew distant. " I am intrigued to find out if it really is Nelvask from the Book. But I am scared of leaving my familiar surroundings and setting out into the unknown. How many others of us are there?"
" So far there are three, you, me and Margaret but my job is to find more." Edward answered honestly grinning.
" And it will mean being able to bring my talent out into the open?" Marcus asked.
" Yes Marcus, you will be with a number of other people all with the talent," Edward laughed. " By my Maker, to be able to let my talent free into the world and to some purpose. I have dreamed of this for a long time. All those years where my father warned Morag, my sister, and I against showing other people what we could do. All that time when I had to test my power in secret and not show anybody what I was capable of accomplishing. Now I will be able to use my power out in the open and have somebody teach me how to control my talent. This is what I have dreamed about. On top of that, a chance to free the Rombuli. What more could we ask?"
" All right Edward, I will do as you ask, " Marcus suddenly smiled shyly to himself as though surprised at his decision. " What do I do now?"
Edward grasped Marcus hand. " Good for you Marcus. You will wait here until we are ready to go to Nimmar. When that time comes I will ask you do join us in Alskar so that we can all travel to Nimmar together. Now, is there anybody else you know who has the talent?"
" There was a woman called Michella who worked in the kitchen out at Downland Farm who I met at the Gathering once." Marcus frowned and looked sad. " We have kept in touch. The trouble is she is a strange woman. Not only can she read peoples thoughts but also she has this ability to tell people if they are ill. Some years ago ignorant people, who blamed her if anything happened which could not be explained, hounded her out of this district. The last I heard she was down near Pinaar working in a dairy at a farm. I can try to get in touch with her for you."
" Good Marcus. You get in touch with her and we will go down to Pinaar to see her." Edward sighed. " We will leave now. Give our regards to your father. Thank your mother for the meal."
" Are you not staying the night? It is a long way to Pinaar." Marcus looked surprised.
" I have friends in Pinaar and we can stay with them." Getting up from the table Edward shook Marcus’ hand and strode with Margaret towards the door. Mr. Drover was still sitting in a chair by the fire deep in thought.
It was dark when they rode down the muddy road and passed the fortified house on the outskirts of Pinaar. The lights of the town shone brightly in the valley and Edward led the way through the Town Square to the blacksmith’s house. Edward told Margaret and Tag to wait, dismounted and knocked on the door.
The door opened, spilling light out into the yard. " Who is it?" Tom Baston's familiar voice asked.
" Its Edward Eastland," Edward answered. " Sorry we are so late in calling but we have business in Pinaar and I was hoping you would let us sleep in room above the stable."
" Edward!" Tom came out into the yard and hugged his friend. " I didn't think we would see you so soon after your wedding. Come on in. June will get you some food. Derek will be pleased to see you. Of course you can use your old room."
" There are two others with me," Edward said waving his hand in the direction of the figures on horseback shrouded in gloom.
" Bring them in as well. Any friends of yours are welcome in my house." Tom waved to Margaret and Tag. Taking this as a sign they were welcome, Tag and Margaret dismounted.
" We will put the horses in the stable and then see about some food. I am curious to hear why you are here." Tom remarked taking the horses reins from Margaret.
After the horses were stabled and they were sitting at the kitchen table, Edward told them about his visit and the problems of the Empire. June, Tom and Derek listened with rapt attention, their expressions getting more grave as the story unfolded.
When Edward had finished, Tom sighed and said." When we were in Nimmar for your wedding, we caught the feeling that all was not right. Only chance remarks overheard in passing but enough for even provincials like us to realise that something was happening. Then yesterday, Benny Newton from Dale Farm was in here collecting his wagon and he said he had heard from Alskar that the Empire was mobilising. I don't know how he heard because it was only this morning when an Imperial Army officer had a meeting with Bert, the Council Leader, to tell him what was to happen. If somebody visited his farm, we would have known because they have to pass right by here to get to the farm."
Edward was suddenly paying close attention to what Tom was saying and asked. " Did Benny Newton say who told him?"
Tom frowned at the tone with which Edward had posed his question. " Not really though I did get the impression the information came from Norman Sharp in Alskar."
Edward turned to Margaret. " I think I should pay this Benny Newton a visit tomorrow. How about you and Tag going to see Michella while I go down to Dale Farm to talk to Benny Newton? We can all meet back here in the afternoon and discuss what we do next."
Tag frowned. " Is it safe for you to go there on your own? Boric told me to stay with you all the time."
" Oh I will be perfectly safe Tag. You look after Margaret. She has the hardest task." Edward smiled at the look of concern on Tag's face but had to stop himself from laughing as Tag tried to hide his pleasure at being alone with Margaret for almost a whole day.
Edward set out for Dale Farm the next morning, one of those cold and frosty autumn days when the sun shone from an almost cloudless sky. The trees of the wood bordering Pinaar shone with a brilliance of golden colours and when he came out from the cover of the trees, the fields bordering the track showed the signs of ploughs. After passing through another line of trees, Edward saw ahead a neat farmhouse with kitchen garden at the back and well tended barns to one side.
As he approached the gate, two men stepped out into the road barring his path, one carrying a bow, the other a sword. When he got close, Edward dismounted and led his horse the rest of the way. Both men were bigger than Edward, obviously brothers with the same round faces and thick black hair.
From his look and manner as the older of the two, one of the men bluntly ordered Edward to stop. " Who are you and what are you doing here on our land? "
Edward smiled in greeting. " I am Edward Eastland but if I wanted to argue, I could ask you what you are doing blocking the highway. From what I see, this is not your land but a public highway."
" Don't get smart with us, " the younger one snapped, his eyes focused on Edward. It was only slight but Edward felt the probing of his mind but his mental defences were up and the other's mind could not touch his.
" I have come to see Benny Newton," Edward answered ignoring the probing of his mind.
" Who sent you?" the older brother demanded waving his sword in the air.
" Oh put that sword away. I come in peace," Edward said evenly. " I am staying with Tom Baston. Earlier in the year I worked for him."
Both of the brothers frowned and then the older grimaced. " I remember now. You worked for Tom when he broke his leg. Then you were arrested by the Imperial Army and taken to Nimmar. The last we heard was that Tom and his family went to Nimmar to attend your wedding to some Parison Noble's daughter. What do you want with my father?"
" It is about what happened in Nimmar that I wish to see your father," Edward said quietly. " Oh stop waving that sword around and show me the way to your father."
Concentrating on the sword, Edward lifted it out of the older man's hand and dumped it point down in the earth at his feet.
" I would not do that if I was you," Edward projected his thoughts at the younger man. " I might get really angry."
The younger mans hand froze on the bowstring before letting his arm fall to hold the bow at his side. The two men stared at Edward and then bowed ironically.
" It was you, who faced down the Covenenter in Alskar town square three years ago,, wasn't it? " the younger brother asked.
" Follow me and I will take you to my father," the older brother said bending to pick up the sword. " I am William Newton and this is my brother Tony. As you have gathered, he is the one with the talent."
The two men led the way through the gate and on down the track to the farmhouse. Before long Edward was seated at the kitchen table drinking a mug of beer and explaining to Benny what had happened in Nimmar.
When Edward had finished, Benny sighed. " I was hoping to keep my family out of this," he said with a shake of his head. " Norman Sharp communicated with me this morning telling me that a Mark Fox had been in touch and was trying to call a meeting of those of his generation who had the talent. I told Norman that I did not want anything to do with this. What you have told me gives me pause for thought. Could Nelvask really be still alive?"
" Do you want to speak with him?" Edward asked automatically.
" Not really," Benny said. " I will rely on Norman Sharp's judgement. What happens now?"
Once more Edward was surprised on how quickly these people changed their attitude to him once he had explained what the problem was. It was as though they had been waiting, their minds dormant for a long time, for this to happen and once the need for action arose, they were willing at least to listen.
" That depends on you and your son," Edward answered truthfully. " I am trying to get other young people like me to form an intelligence and communications system to help combat the invasion when it comes. Those young people willing to come with me will be asked to gather in Alskar in about three weeks and we will then ride to Nimmar to join any whom Nelvask has gathered. There is to be no forcing anybody to come with me. Governor Rulask has ordered that anybody who comes will come of their own free will.. Mark Fox has decided to gather as many of the older people with the talent living in Alskar to discuss how they can help in trying to stop the invasion when it comes. So you see it is entirely up to you and your son as to what happens next."
" I will get in touch with this Mark Fox," Benny Newton replied bluntly. " He will be able to answer my questions I expect. As for Tony, it is up to him. If he wants to come with you, I will not be happy but I will not stand in his way. What have you to say Tony?"
Tony grinned like a small a boy. " Dad, I think I would like to see some more of the world. Think of being able to use my talent openly, not having to go round hiding what I can do from almost everybody outside the family. What about Heather?"
Edward looked from Tony to Benny, noticing the startled look on Benny's face at the mention of his daughter.
" Who is Heather?" Edward asked.
" She is my twin sister," Tony answered still grinning. " My father does not want to get her involved but she has as much talent as me and I think we should at least ask her if she wants to come with you."
Benny sighed heavily. " I suppose you are right, Tony. Go and fetch her from the milking parlour."
They sat waiting in silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Nora Newton brought drinks but did not say a word, silently placing each drink on the table in front of each of the men. It was obvious she had been listening to their conversation and was worried about the impact on her family. Edward noticed she cast forlorn looks at Benny from her lined and plain face but he just shrugged and waited.
Tony returned with a girl who looked so much like him there could be no doubt she was his sister. She smiled shyly at Edward and took a seat at the opposite end of the table.
" You have obviously had a talk with Tony while you were walking back here, " Benny began. " We do not need to go over everything again. This is Edward Eastland and he has a request to make of you."
" I will listen to what he has to say," Heather answered in a quiet voice.
Edward smiled in encouragement. " I have the talent as I suspect Tony has told you. Governor Rulask has given me the task of putting together a group of other young people with the talent to help combat the coming invasion of Sandaria and Rombuli. I hear you have the talent like your brother and I would ask you to join my group. This will mean your leaving here and travelling to Nimmar. What we will be required to do might be dangerous but everybody will be in danger come the spring whether they are willing to help me or not. It will mean that you can use your talent for the first time in the open. All I am asking is that you consider my request."
" Tony and I have already talked about this before we came to join you. We have decided to help all we can," Heather smiled shyly, her eyes never leaving Edward's. " I do not know much about the world outside of Pinaar. The only times I have ever travelled is to the Gathering and even then we go straight to the field and back. I know my mother and father are not going to be very happy about us going away with you but something inside tells me this is important. We will come with you."
" And now there are hopefully five plus me." Edward muttered to himself. " I can only thank you. Now is there anybody else you know who has the talent?"
" There is a woman called Michella in Pinaar. I have had contact with her a few times," Heather answered. " I could contact her for you."
" There is no need at the moment. My friend Margaret Fox is seeing her this morning," Edward replied. " Anybody else?"
" There is a Peter Powell up Long Reach way. I had contact with him one time at the Gathering but I have not heard a thing for a few years. It is rough up there on the edge of the mountains, what with the trappers and the miners coming into town. I do not know if his father or mother have the talent, " Tony offered.
" Thank you Tony. We will go and try to contact Peter tomorrow." Edward smiled gratefully. " Now we will open your minds to the others. After I have gone, you will stay here until I call you to Alskar. At any time you can contact me by using your mind."
Edward opened his mind and called Margaret. " I have two more people here willing to join our group. Open your mind to theirs.”
" No how are you Margaret! How are you doing with Michella?" Margaret's thoughts came back. Even her thoughts gave the impression of amusement and happiness. " All right Edward, I will open my mind."Edward shut his mind to their excited chatter. Things are going well, he thought