Thursday, 25 November 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 18

They walked along several corridors, their boots rattling on the wooden floors, following Nichollos until he stopped before large double doors. After knocking, he waited for an answer before opening one of the doors at the sound of a voice bidding them enter.
Nichollos ushered them into the room beyond the door, closing the door behind their backs once they were inside. The room they had entered was large with several settees grouped in squares around small tables, display cases lining the walls and large picture windows overlooking the grounds. To the right of the door through which they had entered a large fire place enclosed a roaring fire and a man was sitting on a chair near the hearth reading from some papers. He looked up after the door shut behind them and motioned them further into the room.
He squinted at each of them in turn and then smiled. " Ah, Boric Borovic. I remember you from the time I was in Parison to see my grandson inducted into the Imperial Guard. Sit down all of you and I will call for a drink. What brings you to these remote parts of the Empire?"
Boric bowed deeply and motioned the others forward. Boric took a seat  on a chair the opposite side of the hearth from the old man and indicated for Tag and Edward to sit on a settee further from the fire.  This they did but Tag could not resist a wink at Edward.
" It is a long story but I will be brief," Boric started.
The old man raised an eyebrow. " I have ordered rooms to be made ready for you for the night and a dinner will be served in a couple of hours. Before you go to your rooms it would be good if you outlined what has been happening in the outside world. We get rumours of great events here but not much chance to hear from somebody involved. Over dinner you can tell me the whole story but before then I would like to hear what has been happening."
Boric lent forward in his chair. " My companions and I were sent on an assignment by the Governor of Rombuli, Rulask the Emporor's son. Oh, this is Tag Ormrood, Over Master in the Imperial Rangers. Edward Eastland, a member of the Governor's Council and advisor to the Governor on Rombuli affairs." 
Tag and Edward bowed deeply and the old man acknowledged them with a wave of his hand. 
Boric continued. " As you must know, the Empire has been in trouble for the last year. There is some force at work within the Empire which we do not understand. Whatever is happening, the plain facts are that the outlying parts of the Empire, like Rombuli, have lost all contact with Parison and the rest of the Empire. An army has been rolling across the land pushing back the Imperial authority and the Imperial Army seem powerless to stop them. Whenever they conquer any part of the old Empire, all contact is lost. Even what remains of the much feared Covenent is powerless to stop the advance of this rebel army. Last autumn, the only places left of the old Empire were Walloonia, Sardonia and Rombuli."
The old man looked troubled. " So the Empire is finished, as I suspected from the snippets of information I have gathered. My son was with Grand Master Boman trying to defend what was left of Walloonia. Have you any news of him or my grandson?"
Boric looked very serious. " I am coming to that your Grace. We were sent to make contact with Grand Master Boman and the Covenenters Nomal and Rembert. We found them at a place called Bryents Ridge preparing for a battle. I did not meet your son but there were a great many officers there and we only met Boman. The next day there was a battle which lasted most of the day. Eventually, the enemy broke the resistance and drove a breach through the Walloonian Army. We were on the left flank and became cut off from the main army. As far as we know Grand Master Boman was going to retreat towards Wyllon Dale with the remnant of his army and try to brave the mountains and join with the Rombuli Army in an effort to preserve something of the Empire."
The old man shook his head and reached over to pull a bell cord. A servant appeared almost instantly. " Ask Nichollos to go to the library and fetch a map of Walloonia for me." When the servant had gone, he turned back to Boric. " So a historic last stand in remote Rombuli is the plan. My God that plan is madness. Why not retreat here?"
Boric shrugged and turned to Edward. " Can you explain better than I can?"
" With your permission, your Grace, can I say something?" Edward asked deferentially taking his cue from Boric.
The old man smiled. " Thank you for the courtesy young man but in the current climate, if you have something to say, just join in. This is not the time to stand on our hierarchical status."
Edward smiled shyly. " I have no real knowledge of the courticies involved in Walloonian society. Where I come from everybody is treated equally when it comes to a discussion like this. We, by that I mean the Empire, have a big problem. The enemy have a power that we do not understand and find very difficult to overcome. Now Nelvask and Latask, the Covenenter, have found a way to counter the enemy's power but only over a small area and to a limited extent. By falling back to Alskar province they feel they can contain the power and maintain a small bit of the Empire while a plan is hatched on how to overcome the Enemy and start to fight back. That is why Grand Master Boman and the two Covenenters are trying to get to Wyllon Dale with what is left of the Walloonian Division of the Imperial Army. It is written in our Book that the Rombuli managed to pass through the mountains with the help of Nelvask during the great upheaval four hundred years or so ago. With four Covenenters and Nelvask acting together, they feel there is a chance to hold the enemy at bay for enough time to hatch their plan because the terrain will funnel the enemy through a small gap which is easy to defend. As you can see I am not a soldier, merely an advisor on social policy to the Governor but it has its merits when looked at with all the military and magic knowledge of those involved."
Tag laughed out loud. " Don't you believe his modesty your Grace. Edward has almost as much power as any one of the Covenenters that I have come across in my dealings with the Empire and I have seen him use it."
The old man looked sharply at Edward.  " Do you practice magic young man?"
Edward frowned and then shrugged his shoulders. " I would not say I practice magic, as you call it. I seem to have an in built power to do certain things that most people find impossible."
Boric reproved his friend. " Be careful Tag. You are embarrassing Edward. Now, your Grace, we were talking about the war and what happened."
The old man ignored Boric. " I have never met anybody who dealt in magic other than a member of the Covenent in all my dealings with the Empire. Oh, some of the priests from the Temples of the Sun God say they can do magic but I have always suspected that what they do is more tricks of sleight of hand than real magic. What can you do?"
Edward stared at the old man for a long time before replying. " This is not meant as a snub but I do not think that is any of your business."
For the first time since they came into the room, the old man sat up straight in his chair and glared at Edward. " When I ask you a question, I demand an answer! "
Edward rose from his chair and confronted the old man. He ignored the sharp intake of breath coming from Boric and signalled for Tag to remain seated. " Look old man, nobody demands to know what I can do with my power, not even Nelvask my teacher. I do not come from your estate or your country. Therefore, I am not one of your fawning sycophantic subjects. You may be able to demand instant obedience to your commands from those people but not from me. I can do things with my power and that is all you have to know. If I have insulted your sense of social class by being blunt with you, I am sorry but I am not used to being spoken to like one would to a servant. If my attitude towards you makes you feel I am not welcome in your house, have your servants load up my horses and I will find a place to camp until Boric and Tag are ready to leave."
The old man relaxed back in his chair and laughed. " Short temper your friend has there Boric. Sit down Edward and you are welcome in my house. It is a long time since anybody spoke to me like that and I expect I deserved it. Now Boric, you were telling me what happened after the enemy army broke through."
" Before I continue, we had better illustrate what Edward is capable of before you anger him enough for him to start chucking his power around," Boric said, motioning Edward to stay silence. Edward scowled back at Boric but stayed in his seat. " About midday of the battle of Bryents Ridge, if we can call it that, the enemy unleashed their weapon. We had seen it before just as we left Sandaria. Flying creatures with men on their backs. The men have something in their hands that sends out a beam of light and heat which can knock a man off his feet or his horse. Arrows fired at the creature are burnt to a cinder by the beam of bright white light. When these creatures appeared, Edward rode out in front of our soldiers on the left flank, challenged the creature and the rider and killed them by diverting their light back upon themselves."
The old man looked at Edward, who shrugged. " All I did was to do what had to be done and was in my power to do."
Tag laughed nervously. " He scared me out of my mind. But that is not all. It is rumoured in Rombuli that Edward faced down three of the Covenent in Nimmar. I saw him stop a dagger thrown with force at his head and with a flick of his head send it back to land in the table in front of the man who threw the dagger at him. Oh he has power all right."
In a subdued voice, the old man asked Boric to continue.  " When the enemy broke through our positions, the left flank was isolated from the main bulk of the army and soon came under sustained attack by superior numbers. There was nothing for it but for us to make good our escape. We went north to the Crundale to Ashurst road where the others left us to go north to Mayno Castle where they had agreed to meet to set up a resistance movement. We had other plans. When we got to Ashurst we found the creatures and their riders all ready patrolling the roads from Ashurst to Whyland Dale. There was no way we could join with Boman and the rest of the army. So we came this way."
" Is Ashurst under siege then? " The old man asked.
" No my Lord, " Tag replied, " There is no need for the enemy to set up a siege. As soon as they pass a place and surround it, their power makes all the people obey commands and become pliable to the demands of their troops and administrators. I suspect they marched round Ashurst and the troops inside opened the gates. There will not have been much of a fight and the soldiers left in Walloonia will all join the ranks of the enemy."
The old man bristled with rage. " Walloonians loyal to the King will not give up without a fight! We will defend our country and the Empire with our last drop of blood! Even the old men like me will take up arms to defend our country."
Edward was very gentle. " No doubt if they had free will they would fight like you imagine but they will have no choice. The power the enemy has at their disposal has conquered an Empire with very few battles in less than two years, an Empire that took over one hundred years for Parison to capture. People and armies have just surrendered and then become loyal to the new rulers of the Empire. We have no idea how they exercise this power, whether there is any opposition in the captured parts of the Empire or who is the leader. I have no idea who the men on the creatures are but they do not come from any country I have ever heard of, though I am no expert. The only people who are not helpless before this power are the Covenent, and as far as I know there are only four of those free plus Nelvask and a few of the Rombuli like me. So don't get distressed about your countrymen giving up with out a fight. Except for a few cases, the whole Empire has given up with out a fight."
A servant came into the room and whispered in the old mans ear. " Your rooms are ready now. I will think about what you have told me and we will discuss it some more over dinner. The ladies of the house will join us for dinner later. Try not to alarm them too much. I will look forward to seeing you then."
Boric rose and bowed before leading the others out of the room. Nichollos was waiting in the corridor. 
" This way please," he said indicating a corridor to their left.  They followed Nichollos along the corridor passed shut doors hiding the rooms beyond until he stopped before an alcove with three doors leading off.
" These rooms have been made ready for you. Imperial Master Borovic's bedroom is through the door at the end of the alcove, Over Master Ormoord's to the left and Mr. Eastlands to the right. Baths have been prepared in the rooms and I have taken the liberty of supplying some clothes which should fit you all and which are suitable for dinner. One of the servants will fetch you from your rooms when dinner is ready. I hope you find everything in order but if there is anything more you require just ring the bell and Joe your steward will come. I will see you all at dinner." Bowing, Nichollos turned on his heel and left them to their own devices.
Boric turned on Edward his face bright red with anger and grabbed the front of Edward's shirt. " Don't you ever speak to the Duke like that again! He is the third most important person in Walloonia and has to be treated with respect."
Edward looked Boric in the eye and forcibly removed his hand from the front of his shirt. " Take your hands off me Boric and calm down. I showed him respect when we got there and through our conversation. He had no right to demand to know about my power, no right at all."
Boric was still angry. " As the Duke of Marinette he has every right to demand anything of his fellow human beings. God, he is an aristocrat."
Edward looked shocked. " He is a man like any other man. Somebody as old as he is and who has given service to his country will always gain respect but not servile obedience. If he cuts himself does he not bleed like all men? If he catches a cold does he not sneeze? If he eats bad meat is he not ill? He is no different from all the rest except he happened to be born into a family with power to rule by fear and bullying. I am sorry Boric but my nations attitude to rulers is different from yours."
Boric laughed and the tension went out of the air much to Tag's relief. He had been standing next to his friends ready to intervene if they had looked like coming to blows. " You might think so Edward but in your history the same families turn up time and time again like the Gorlands and the Sharpes. There is not much difference when we get down to things. Who was the most important man in Alskar Province? Your father. I rest my case."
Edward opened his door and said with a grin. " I will see you both at dinner."
The bath was wonderful and Edward soaked for such a long time, the water was getting cold by the time he had finished. Once dry, he approached the bed and the clothes that had been laid out for him. He was at a loss to work out which garment went on before which and he rang the bell to fetch the promised servant. The servant grinned when Edward explained but soon had Edward dressed like a nobleman of Walloonia in tight breeches, ruffled shirt, lace cravat, yellow waistcoat, and dark blue top coat with highly polished boots.
Later, Edward was taken to the dining room. Crystal chandeliers ablaze with candles hung from the ceiling above a table that Edward calculated could sit up to twenty people but which was laid at one end for seven. At the head of the table sat the Duke and one side were Boric, a lady Edward did not know, and Tag. On the other were two ladies and Nichollos indicated for Edward to take his seat between them.
Once they were all seated, the Duke rose from his chair and surveyed his guests. Raising his glass, he proposed a toast to the Empire and long health for the Emperor. Everybody responded. After he had seated himself, Edward bowed and said the prayer to his Maker. The other people round the table except Boric and Tag looked puzzled but said nothing
" Not that we know what has happened to the Emperor," the Duke remarked before resuming his seat. " Ladies, let me introduce Boric Borovic, Tag Ormrood and Edward Eastland. Gentlemen, Lady Morweena, wife of my son, Lady Barbara wife of my grandson Illian and Lady Borava, wife of my grandson Marvent. Boric will tell us during dinner what he knows about the war and the decline of the Empire."
The dinner passed peacefully while Boric described the plight of the Empire and the outcome of the battle of Bryents Ridge. Tag and Edward largely remained silent, only offering a comment when asked a direct question. The Duke and his daughter in laws showed their concerns for their children and husbands but admitted that there was little they could do other than wait and hope.
Towards the end of the dinner, the conversation turned to other matters and Lady Borava addressed Edward directly. " Have you ever been to Parison, Mister Eastland?"
" No, my Lady. This is the first time I have ever been outside my country Rombuli." Edward answered truthfully aware of the large brown eyes, framed by a mass of brown hair, regarding him steadily. " I hope I am not breaking some hidden custom but please call me Edward."
" Oh, no there is no custom. Call me Bora like everybody else here. I was in Parison a few years ago to marry Marvant and we lived there for a little while. I think I met Boric and his sister Kittiana there though we did not mix together or get to know each other during my stay. There were a great many receptions and parties where our paths crossed. I don't expect he remembers me after all the people he must have met. When there was a hint of trouble, Marvant sent me back here for safety. Since then I have not seen him. What do you think has happened to the Emperor's Guard?" The large brown eyes had grown moist and Edward felt sorry for the Lady.
Edward could only shrug. " I am sorry if I cannot bring you any comfort my Lady, but we have no idea of what is happening in Parison. I was  recalled to the Governor's Council last autumn after being in a remote part of the country and I know a little of what had happened to the Empire before my recall. I know how you must be feeling, though. I was married last autumn and left my wife three weeks ago not knowing what was going to happen. The last we heard of the situation in my home was that the enemy had attacked Rombuli through Sardonia. As I understand things, and I am not a soldier, the Rombuli Division of the Imperial Army with the help of the Sardonian and Rombuli irregulars was going to fall back and hold a small province. This is in the hope that a plan of how to overcome the power of the enemy can be devised by the Covenenter Latask. I hope my wife has managed to retreat from Nimmar with the army."
" How long did you know your wife before you got married?" Lady Borava asked obviously pleased to get off the subject of the war and her missing husband.
" Just over three years," Edward answered. " We met when I was ordered by the military Governor of Rombuli to show her round the province because  she was lonely sitting in the fort surrounded by soldiers. We did not get along at first but in the end we came to like each other."
Lady Borava frowned. " Then she is from Parison?"
Edward chuckled. " Yes. Boric's father was the Governor and she is his sister Kitty."
Lady Borava smiled and looked at Edward with new respect." I don't mean this to sound over bearing but that was quite a catch for you. They are from one of the most influential families in the Empire from what I gather. Can you really do magic like the Duke says you can?"
Edward's was taken aback by her question and paused before answering.  " I have some power, yes, though I try not to use it unless I have to."
" Can you show me?" Lady Borava asked shyly. " The only people we have ever met who have power, as you put it, are members of the Covenent and everybody fears them because they use their power to manipulate people. Some would say they are the power behind the Empire."
Edward looked at her and then around the table at the others who were all deep in conversation. He sighed. " In many ways it is a curse but I will show you a little."
He pointed his hand at a knife lying by a bowl of fruit in the centre of the table. The knife rose from the table and nestled in his hand. " Does that show you a bit of what I can do?"
Lady Borava eyes were round with wonder and Edward noticed that all conversation between those sitting at the table had stopped. In the silence, Edward placed the knife on the table by his plate and grinned at all those round the table.
" I am sorry to startle you, your Grace," he said sheepishly to the Duke though he winked at Tag. " My innate sense of respect for a lady made me want to show that I can perform magic because she was curious to see what would happen. I will not do anything like that again."
The Duke laughed. " Edward, just warn me before you do that again. The sight of a knife rising from the table as though under its own influence nearly caused my heart to stop. Well Ladies, I am going to take Boric to my study to discuss what they are going to do after they leave here. You can entertain Tag and Edward while we are gone."
Boric addressed the Duke directly before he had a chance to leave the table. " Could Edward come with us, your Grace? He knows as much as me about our course after we leave you in the morning."
The Duke raised his eyebrow but did not disagree. Rising from the table, he turned to the ladies and said. " Well it looks as though you will have to argue over who will entertain Tag for a while. Come on Edward, follow me."
The study proved to be a room full of parchment rolls on shelves, with a large table in the centre and small desks each side of the fire place. Spread over the table were some maps which the Duke indicated when he had taken a seat at the head of the table.
" Maps of Walloonia, Dunsfold Manor and grounds and a map of the surrounding countryside. Tell me what you intend to do?" the Duke pointed to the maps.
Boric and Edward leant over the table, tracing for the Duke the path that they had followed since the battle of Bryents Ridge. Boric then indicated the likely path of the fleeing Walloonian troops under the command of Grand Master Boman. He tapped the map at Wyllon Dale and the path into the mountains. Boric then traced the path of the enemy and how their position had put any thought of crossing Walloonia to meet up with Boman and his troops as impossible.
" You tell the Duke what we intent to do next," Boric said, shaking his head.
Edward looked at the maps lying on the table and then turned to the Duke. " I made a promise to Nelvask and Latask that as soon as possible I would return to Rombuli to use my power to help defeat the enemy. The direct route back to my home has been thwarted by the enemy placing themselves between us and the mountains, so we have to find another way to get back to Rombuli. If we go north from here round the moors and the bogs, we will be weeks longer on the journey. If we go south from here, we will no doubt run into the enemy. Therefore, I intend to go west through the moor and the bog.”
The Duke laughed harshly. " That way is suicide. There are rumours that some people know how to get through the moors and bogs which border my land but I have never met anybody who has been through the bogs. How do you intend to find the way?"
" It is written in the Rombuli History that during the great upheaval four hundred years ago many of the Rombuli, while fleeing from the land round Lake Umburti, passed through the Great Forest and then through the moors and bogs to the west of Walloonia, " Edward replied. " I intend to find the place where they came out of the bog and then we can retrace their steps. The only way we can get back to Rombuli is to get to the Lake and then south of the mountains."
The Duke frowned but did not disparage the idea. " How do you intend to find out where they came out of the bog?"
" Again it is written in our history that the Rombuli, after they passed through the bog, over wintered in a valley," Edward replied. " It is recorded that many died that winter and were buried in a field near the camp when the Spring came. The graves where built like cairns using rocks from the surrounding country. Even after all this time there must be some trace of those graves. If we can locate those we will be able to find where they came out of the bog."
The Duke was frowning. " I can tell you where the cemetery is. Better still, I can get somebody to show you in the morning exactly where it is, though they will not go further then the entrance to the valley. They avoid the area if they can because many of my people think the valley is haunted by the ghosts of the people in those graves. What then after you have found the place where the Rombuli came out of the bog?"
" I will find the path that my ancestors took if I can," Edward replied with a shrug. " Once through the bog we will make our way through the Great Forest and then south to Lake Umburti. From there we will find our way round the mountains and back to Rombuli."
The Duke clapped his hands and once more laughed out loud. " Young man, I admire your conviction but not your reasoning. Nobody goes into the Great Forest and comes out again. All the stories about that place are of people disappearing into that accursed forest and never being seen again. To do what you want, you will have to travel round the forest."
Boric broke in to the conversation. " If we have to travel round the forest either to the north or the south, we will add days if not weeks to our travel time. We have to get back to Rombuli as soon as possible. Therefore we have to go through the Forest."
" I do not envy you your journey but there again I have no idea what will become of us. What do you think we should do?" The Duke spoke to Boric obviously having decided that whatever he said, these men were intent on going through with their plan.
Boric considered his host for a while and then said. " All you can do is stay here and wait for what will happen. I have no idea what the enemy will do because once they have taken over a part of the Empire all contact has been lost."
" Thank you for those comforting words, my boy," the Duke smiled faintly. " Oh to be young and strong again. I would sally forth and fight the enemy. I will take your advice and sit tight here hoping the enemy will ignore us for a while. We will now go back and join the ladies."
Later that night, just after Edward had gone to bed, there was a knock on his door. On inviting who was outside to enter, Edward was surprised when Lady Borava came into his bedroom.
" Good evening, Edward," she began sitting on the edge of his bed. " I hope you don't mind me calling on you like this but I am so scared, I had to talk to somebody other than those of the household. What is going to happen to us? Without Marvant here with me, and I haven't heard from him for over a year, I feel so helpless. I do not even know whether he is alive or dead. What is going to happen to us?"
Edward could see she was close to tears and despite the fact that he was dressed only in a pair of thin sleeping shorts, he moved from under the covers and placed his arm around her shoulders. Through the fabric of her dress he could feel the trembling of her body and he pulled her close.
" I have no experience of what happens when the invading enemy takes over a district, " he said honestly. " I suspect the best you can do is stay here and see what happens. I know that is not much comfort for you but it is the best I can say."
Her large brown eyes looked into his and he was aware of the sweet smell of her hair close to his face. With out an invitation, he bent forward and kissed her cheek. 
" I know how you feel," he went on. " I don't know what has become of Kitty or the rest of my people. The future is not clear to us but we are striving to find some way of combating the enemy, who ever they are."
Lady Borava brought her arms round his back and kissed him in return, this time on his mouth. 
" Can I lie with you for a while," she asked shyly. " For some reason I need to feel the arms of a man around me."
Edward was at a loss for words and could only nod, moving back to his place under the covers. Lady Borava stood and unbuttoned her dress, letting this fall to the floor at her feet. Picking it up she placed it carefully across a chair and then snuggled into the bed beside Edward inviting him to hold her tight. They lay for a while not speaking, just holding each other for the comfort it gave. Then they talked quietly, of their home and their dashed hopes for the future. How it began Edward did not know but after a while they started to caress each other and then they were both naked. They made love then out of the shared need for companionship and the physical attraction they had both felt at dinner. They fell asleep in each others arms late in the night, a sleep that neither thought they would have that night. When Edward awoke early to the knocking on his door, Lady Borava was gone.
The horses were saddled and waiting for them when they emerged from the house after breakfast. The Duke stood in the shelter of the porch, bundled up against the cold drizzle that greeted them but there was no sign of the ladies.
Boric took the Dukes hand and shook it. " Thank you for putting us up. I hope things are not too bad for you when the enemy come."
The Duke smiled. " I hope you find what you are looking for," he said in reply. " I do not envy you travelling in this weather. Tommy will show you the way to the burial grounds further up the valley." He indicated a man sitting patiently on a horse waiting for them. 
Turning to Edward, he said, " Travel safely with your Maker, young man."
Edward bowed deeply. " May you be with your God and may he give you the courage and strength to endure what is to come."
They mounted and followed Tommy through the gates of the Manor. The track they followed was wet and slippery from the drizzle and they were soon out of sight of the house. After an hours ride through the rolling hills, they could smell the musty stink of the bogs ahead. 
A valley opened out before them and Tommy reined his horse to a stop, turning to say. " Go through the gap ahead and you will find the burial ground on your right. As far as I remember, there are about thirty graves marked by cairns of boulders. This is were I leave you."
Nodding to each of them, he turned his horse without waiting for a reply and set off back to the Manor. The three riders watched him go with feelings of apprehension but Boric finally shrugged and turned his horse into the valley. Just as Tommy had indicated, they had not gone far when they saw the neat rows of mounds to their right, each mound covered in grass and, if they had not been looking for the signs, hardly visible. Boric led them to the mounds and dismounted.
" Let us have a break while Edward makes sure this is the place. Then we will search for a way through the bog." Boric grinned at Edward, who scowled in reply.
While Boric and Tag waited, Edward walked to the graves. There was no indication of who was buried there but to Edward there was an ambience as though his ancestors were telling him that these were their graves, the graves of those who had not completed the great trek. He looked around until he found one grave that looked higher and more imposing than the others. Approaching this mound, he walked round it until he stood before one end. He took time to clear away the grass and earth that had accumulated over the years and his digging revealed a flat rock with some words chiselled into the surface. Leaning closer, he traced the outline of the words and made out a name. IDRIS SHARP, the name jumped at him and he knew he was in the right place. Edward bowed his head and said a quick prayer to his Maker to look after these people. Turning on his heel, he went back to join the others.
" This is the place we are looking for," he told them. " If we follow the valley we should come to the place where they came out of the bog."
They mounted and rode along the valley towards the west. The smell of the bog increased and before noon they rode over a fold in the ground and stopped. 
Before them it spread, black and murky into the misty distance, punctuated by tufts of grass and pools of stagnant water which bubbled every so often before subsiding with a plop. Other than the black grass, withered and miserable, there was no identifiable features, just one long expanse of black earth.
Boric gasped and looked round at Edward, his expression one of total horror. " You do not expect me to go through there do you? " 
As though to emphasise his words the nearest pool of black water bubbled and then subsided with a splash as though a creature had looked out at them and then submerged again. " Do you know what horrors are lying in wait for us in there?"
" There is no recording in the Book of the Rombuli meeting any creatures when they came through the bog," Edward replied sharply.
" But that was four hundred years ago!" Tag growled. " You have no idea what has taken up residence in there since. Besides there were thousands of Rombuli and even the most horrific of creatures would think twice about attacking thousands. There are only you, me and Boric and those things making the splashing noises are just lying there waiting for their next dinner. You must have second thoughts about going through there having seen it rather than just read about it. Edward, I am your friend and I promised Nelvask that I would keep you safe but asking me to go through there is almost too much."
" If we go back now, we will almost certainly have to give up any hope of returning to Rombuli until it is too late," Edward said stubbornly, his face hard and his expression determined.  " You two can go back if you like but I am going through the bog and then through the Great Forest in an attempt to find a way back. Follow me or go back."
So saying Edward pushed his horse into motion towards the bog. At the edge of the black festering, stinking, mess he dismounted and grinned at the other two who had followed. " Still with me I see though I could hear the muttering about me being stubborn and mad at the same time all the way here. Look, let's have a meal while I try to figure out how to find our way through the bog without getting us sucked into a quick sand hole."
" Cheerful, isn't he?" Tag muttered to Boric as he dismounted. " I remember the day when he would not say a word to either of us. Just stood round and followed when ordered. Come on, let's light a fire and prepare a hot meal. We have no idea when we will eat a hot meal again."
Edward sat on his own regarding the marsh but turned when Tag started to go towards the woods for some fire kindling. " Cut three stout poles about the same height as me while you are in the woods, please."
While the others collected some wood, built a fire and started to cook a meal, Edward sat concentrating on the bog. He was trying to align his sense with the ambience of the place. With an effort, Edward let his mind and aura sink into the different emanations from the stinking mess in front of where he sat. Any feelings, any senses or any sensation which might give him a clue as to which way he should go, he was trying to conjure. There had to be a path of dry land which he could follow to see them safely through to the other side, he reasoned to himself. 
At first there was nothing, just a void, no sense of anything but a black stinking mass of rotted vegetation. His mind started to recoil from its study but he forced himself to concentrate even harder. Then he began to feel the whole place reaching out to him. It was as though it was challenging him to find a way through. As though it was gleeful to embrace him in its evil smelling wasteland. His body shuddered at the thought of fighting that evil spirit but he continued to concentrate.
The sense of something else being present was faint at first but it became more insistent. It was as though he heard a voice in his head, a voice imploring him to listen. A vision of the bog came into his head, from where he did not know. Suddenly, he was taken out of himself by an invisible hand and he soaring above the land until he could see their camp as a tiny dot on one side of a trail which led through the bog and out to the other side.  We found our way by getting in tune with the vibrations, by following the hard vibrations and ignoring the soft emanations coming from the water. In the centre is an island. You must reach this by nightfall or all the nocturnal creatures which prowl will come out to catch you. Take wood for a fire because you will need it. Edward follow your instinct. The voices stopped and Edward was alone. 
Edward once more bowed his head and concentrated on the bog, trying to keep the vision in his head. Then it slowly became plain and the path ahead was visible to him in his head. He knew what he had to do and how he could work out the path to follow. With a grateful sigh, he got up and joined the others for some food.
Of course, it was not as easy as he had thought after seeing the vision or how the voices had convinced him it would be. Whatever is as easy as the thought? Edward pondered during that journey. They set out after loading up the horses. Edward in the lead with his horses, Boric second leading his horses and Tag bringing up the rear.
" Make sure you follow precisely where I go," Edward had admonished them before the set out. " If I stop, you stop until I tell you it is safe to go on. This is not going to be easy."
" Not easy," Tag muttered. " This is going to be down right repulsive."
Ignoring Tag's comment and without a backward glance Edward set out towards the bog. He lost all awareness of place and time as he tried to attune his senses to the psychic vibrations emanating from the black, stinking earth and stagnant water. Slowly a pattern emerged in his mind and he walked forward. Soon they were lost to the outside world, a misty drizzle cutting off any sight of dry land, only the few yards of bog around them were visible. Edward guided them, probing in front of his feet every so often, when not sure of the way, with the pole Tag had cut. On deciding which way to go, he indicated left or right. Once there was a splash and Edward turned to see Tag up to his waist in black oily water trying to pull his horses free.
" Be careful,"  Edward admonished him. 
" I am being careful," Tag almost shouted back as he managed to get the horses back onto the relatively dry path. " This is not any  fun, you know."
Edward ignored the last remark and turned back to his task. Noises tried to intrude on his concentration but he ignored the popping, the snuffling of bog animals and the sudden splash as a large body plunged into the water. The day wore on and they staggered forward, not talking at all, putting one tentative foot in front of the other, Edward concentrating on the path ahead, Boric on Edward's back, Tag on Boric's back. In a line they wandered, lost to the outside world. It was getting dark when Edward led them onto a large patch of dry land, like an island in the centre of a black lake. There were some scrubby trees growing in the centre of the island that gave some shelter and under these they set up camp.
" How far have we come?" Boric asked after they had set a fire and then scowled as Tag burst out laughing. " What is the matter with you?"
" Have you seen your face?" Tag asked still laughing." It is as black as the funeral robe of the priests of the Temple."
" Don't laugh at me,"  Boric almost shouted back. " You should have a look at your own."
" Come on you two. Try to stay calm," Edward intervened to prevent a fight that seemed to be brewing. " This is the halfway point. I have found this place in the centre as I told you we would when we started. Trust me for the rest of the journey through the bog. I will get us safely to the other side. Now let us have something to eat and then get some rest."
They spent a miserable night close to the fire, hardly sleeping as the night noises of animals and other creatures, the like of which they could not imagine, sounded louder and louder. Nothing came within the glow of their fire but they still huddled together until the faint light of dawn made Tag get the breakfast.
The next day they continued their struggle against the bog and the stagnant water which seemed to reach out and claim them at every opportunity. By mid day they were all black, covered in the evil smelling and clinging black mud. The drizzle continued to fall from a grey sky, causing a mist to obscure every detail of the land through which they passed. At what they all judged to be mid day, they stopped for a cold meal on a few tussocks of black grass but were soon trudging forward once more.
" Are you certain we are going in the right direction?" Boric  grumbled irritably in the middle of the afternoon after once more helping Tag rescue the horses from the water. " We could be going round in circles."
" Eternally lost in this hell of a wasteland," Tag replied. " There is a legend of my people which tells of an evil man who preyed on vulnerable poor people, being condemned to wander for ever in a desert without water or food. This must be what it is like."
" Oh shut up you two," Edward answered wearily. " If you can do a better job, you lead."
It was getting dark when Edward suddenly realised that he was no longer treading on black earth but green grass. The ground all around was solid not shifting and as if to answer his prayer, the clouds parted and the setting sun lit up the surrounding countryside. On each side of the track he was following, gentle hills stretched away into the distance and ahead of them a slope of a grassy meadow led up to a ridge plainly visible.
Edward looked back and stopped to wait for Tag and Boric to join him. They were covered in black mud but Tag grinned.
" Well Edward, somehow you got us through that black hole," he said begrudgingly. " What now?"
Edward grinned in return. " I suggest we go to the top of the hill and then find a place to spend the night. After a nights rest, we can decide what we are going to do next."
They led the horses up the slope, and at the crest of the hill, looked out over the country to the west. The ground sloped away to a flat plain through which they could make out a path running north to south. In the distance there arose the forest, trees stretching away to the horizon both north and south. From where they stood, there was no gap in the trees and no end to the  forest.
Tag pointed off to the south. " Look," he said." There is a grove of trees down there which will give us cover for the night and provide wood for a fire. I suggest we set up camp there. It looks as though there is a stream running through the trees which will provide us with water."
The grove of trees proved to be just what they wanted and they soon had a camp set up in a sheltered spot away from the wind. Boric lit a fire and started to prepare a meal while Tag went to look after the horses. Edward explored their immediate surroundings and found a place where the stream formed a pool behind a natural dam. With relief, he took off his clothes and plunged into the water, shivering from the chill of the water but glad to wash away the mud. When he went back to the camp, Tag and Boric followed his example. They did not talk much that night about the future, just relaxed by the fire, relieved to be free of the bog.
The next morning over breakfast, they discussed their next course of action.
" I can not see any break in the trees," Tag remarked. " Are you certain there is a road through the Forest?"
Edward was standing looking across the valley at the forest. "According to the Book, the Rombuli passed through the forest and then turned north to find a way through the bog. I think we will have to go down to the path and then turn south and see if we can find a way through the trees."
" All right," Boric said. " Let us pack up here and get going. Are the horses fit Tag?"
" I had a look at them while you were getting breakfast and they seem none too bad from their ordeal. They will be fit to carry us if we do not push them too hard." Tag looked out to the forest. "I don't know which is worse, the bog or the forest. At least in the bog we did not have to confront any monsters. From what I have heard, and what the Duke told us, the forest is not a place to spend a lot of time crossing if we want to see the outside world again. I think we should keep our weapons ready when we get in amongst the trees."
Edward laughed. " Tag, I never thought I would see you nervous about anything. I hate to say this but we do have my power to help us. If I have to, I will use it against whatever danger we find while we are in the forest."
" Am I supposed to find that reassuring?" Tag asked with a shake of his head. " What happens if the monsters have as much power as you or are unaffected by your power?"
They rode silently down the slope to the path, each enclosed in their own world and confronting their own fears. To Edward, the problem was not any monsters they might meet, he was sure he would be able to deal with whatever they confronted, but the time it was taking them to get back to Rombuli. He had this abiding nightmare that they might arrive back too late to do any good, to find that the enemy had conquered his homeland and that Kitty was lost to him for ever. This constant fear made him want to speed up their rate of progress but he realised there was no way they could go any faster.
To Tag it was a question of what he might have to confront that day and night. He had agreed to accompany Edward and Boric on this trip and act as their protection. What he had not anticipated was coming to places like the bog and the forest. All of this was outside his known world, unlike anything he had ever been through before. Because of this, he was trying to mentally prepare himself for any coming confrontation, going over the tactics and weapons he might need when fighting surrounded by trees and wondering how he would react if they came up against an unknown powerful enemy he had never encountered before. 
Boric, like Edward was thinking about the time and how he wished he could be back fighting for his country and how the time was passing. He wondered what had befallen his father but even more longed to see his wife and son again.
They reach the path they had spied from their camp and turned south. Though at one time it was obvious this had been a well used thoroughfare, now the stones were worn and cracked by the weather and weeds and shrubs were growing in the cracks. At times they had difficulty making out the way and had to go round places where the patches of bushes had overgrown the road making progress difficult. After an hour, the road forked, one fork going on south, the other leading into the forest now very close to the west. The road disappeared through a gap in the trees but the beginning of the path through the forest was plainly visible.
Edward, who had been leading, stopped and waited for the others. " That must be the path through the forest," he said pointing to the gap through the trees.
" We are being watched," Tag observed looking nervously towards the forest. " I can sense somebody watching. They must be waiting to see what we are going to do."
Boric laughed. " What is it with you and this journey? For one of the best Rangers, who always appears to be in control, you have been nervous and on edge since we set out from the Duke's Manor."
" You might laugh, Boric but I have heard nothing but evil about this forest," Tag replied earnestly. " I will follow Edward because those are my orders but that does not mean I have to be happy with what I am about to do. I tell you there is something lurking in the forest that I can feel though not see. As soon as we are in the trees it will attack."
Edward shook his head. " Right, I hear what you are saying Tag, but we have to go through the forest if we are to avoid any more delays in getting back to Alskar Province. From all the reports I have heard, it will take us three days at least to get to the other side, so the sooner we get started the better. If it makes you feel any better, keep your hand near your weapons the whole time."
So saying, Edward turned his horse and headed for the trees. Tag looked at Boric, shrugged and set out to follow Edward. The path disappeared under the trees and all around became gloomy and dark with the light filtered by the dense canopy of branches over their heads. The path was plainly visible but over grown making progress slow. Every so often they came across a clearing where the trees drew back from the path and in these clearings the light was suddenly bright but for the most part the branch cover was so dense, the light was dim. About mid day, they came to a small clearing and Boric called a halt.
While they rested the horses and ate a cold meal, Tag looked round nervously. " We are being watched," he said. " Can you hear those noises? There is something quite big following our trail."
" You must be  imagining things. I cannot feel anything hostile to us among the trees, " Edward replied. " It is the dimness of the light and the constant movement of the trees which makes you see and hear things. Just try relax a bit, Tag."
Boric was looking round at the trees hemming them in. " This is a scary place. As we ride, I keep thinking I see flashes of something stalking us but, even when I stop and look, I cannot see anything. I am certain there is something back in the forest."
" You see," demanded Tag," I am not the only one imagining things as you put it."
They rode on for the rest of the day, pausing once to rest the horses. Tag rode with his hand near his sword, tense in the saddle and continually looking about. Edward tried to reassure him by telling him that he could not feel any menace in the forest but it did not make any difference. As the afternoon drew on, Tag left the trail to find a camp site, returning quickly to lead them to a clearing with a stream flowing to one side and a jumble of rocks giving shelter.
It did not take long to make camp and Tag soon had a fire going. Boric cooked a meagre meal and it was dark by the time they had finished. The horses grazed nearby roped so that they could not wander off. Edward pointed out to Tag that the horses did not seem to sense any danger but agreed that they should keep a watch.
Edward took the first watch and though he thought he saw movements in the trees and heard snuffling and growling noises, the time passed uneventfully. Boric took over and Edward fell into a deep sleep. He was shaken awake by Tag urgently pulling off the blanket that covered him. It took him a few minutes to realise where he was but he soon sensed that dawn was breaking because he could make out the outlines of the trees around the clearing.
" What's the matter?" he asked in a low voice, looking round to find Boric on his feet staring into the forest, his sword in his hand.
" There is something out there," Tag whispered back. " It sounds large and fearsome. We have not got a sight of it yet but I think you should be ready."
Edward picked up his bow and made ready the arrows. Tag had covered the dying fire, and they stood side by side facing the forest in the gloom of the dawn. Suddenly there was a roaring noise and a great crashing as the beast or beasts pushed aside the vegetation and made for the camp.
Edward watched as the trees moved and heard Tag gasp as a large body pushed its way into the clearing. It was too dim to make out many details but Edward could see a large head with a gaping mouth and two rows of razor sharp teeth. There was another crash and another of the creatures appeared. They stopped looking around the clearing until their eyes focused on the men standing with their backs against the rocks. Just in time Edward raise a power shield between them and the creatures which stopped the stream of flame which issued from the creatures mouths. Raising his bow, Edward as though in a dream, notched an arrow and let fly at the nearest creature. The arrow thudded into its flesh near its massive shoulder and it let out a bellow. The horses were straining at their restraints, whinnying in fear but Edward ignored them. He let fly another arrow at the other creature and once more noted the arrow smash into the creatures flesh.
Tag and Boric had backed away until they were up against the boulders but Edward stood his ground. 
" Lets get out of here!" Tag yelled. " We will have to leave the horses. If we go round the boulders maybe we can lose them in the forest."
Edward did not move. " There is something wrong here," he said. " Stay there and hold your position."
Edward stepped forward outside the protective shield he had erected and faced the creatures.  Raising his hands above his head, he concentrated on the creatures and brought his power to bear. With a cry, he brought his hands down in a sweeping gesture and released his power. There was a scream from the direction of the creatures and in a blinding flash of light they vanished.
When his eyes recovered from the brightness, Edward smiled as he saw some men spaced at intervals around the clearing with bows drawn and arrows pointing in Edward's direction. Two men were slumped on their knees, holding their heads in their hands. 
Tag and Boric gasped but Edward did not look in their direction. He waited, his arrow pointed at the centre of the line of men. Out of the woods another man stepped, his sword drawn, his eyes never leaving Edward. He was tall and moved with the grace of a borne fighter, dressed in a brown cloak and shiny boots. His expression was haughty on a round face with almond shaped eyes and his face was framed by a mass of long reddish hair reaching to the collar of his coat.
They stood looking at each other, neither prepared to make the first move while the other men stood like statues just inside the clearing, their arrows still pointing at Tag, Boric and Edward. Edward looked back to find Boric and Tag looking wide eyed at the men but steadfastly gripping their swords each in a defensive crouch as though ready for a fight.

Running After Maria by Eddie Gubbins

James Ashleigh went to sea after leaving school and began to live, what turned out to be, for him, the ideal life. Plenty of money, plenty of women and drink and visiting places only previously read about in books. The ideal life for somebody in their mid twenties with nothing to hold them in one place. 
One day at a party aboard one of the ships on which he was an officer, in port in Finland, he meets Maria and life's complications start. After several voyages from London to Helsinki where he stayed in her flat making love and or accompanied her to concerts, he asks Maria to marry him but he is devastated when she refuses.Though she says she loves him and still wants him to come to her flat,  it is his Englishness which prevents her from saying yes. She will not marry him if this means leaving Finland. Though angry and bewildered, James lets their relationship drift on. One summer when James has been taken to see Maria's parents, Maria announces she is pregnant and in due course has her baby. Then out of the blue tragedy strikes.
This is the story of one man’s descent into depression after tragedy strikes, his anger at other people trying to help and his redemption in the arms of somebody who admired the dedication of other people who try to help. It explores the question of whether a person can really be saved after a devastating loss especially of somebody that person loves deeply? Does not their world and the will to live end?

Published at for downloading as an ebook.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 17

It was still dark when Edward was shaken awake the next morning by a soldier he did not recognise. He struggled to remember where he was but took the offered drink as the realisation of having to face the coming battle sunk into his sleep fuddled brain. Fear had been a constant companion during the night and he had not slept very well. The fear had not been with him exactly all the time but had been there in the background like the ghost of the deceased at a funeral.
        It was cold in his tent and he shivered violently as he dressed though whether from the cold or the fear, he could not tell. All around the tent, he could hear noises of people stirring but they were speaking in low voices as though, on a day like today, they were frightened of disturbing the Gods. It was as much as if they were telling themselves that if they kept their voices down, the Gods would not notice what they were about to do. While dressing, Edward had difficulty donning the breast plate that he had been given the night before but after a struggle with the unfamiliar straps, he was dressed ready to face what the day would bring.
" Good morning Edward," Boric greeted him as Edward emerged from his tent into the misty predawn morning. " Tag is off all ready with his patrols to stop any surprise advance through the woods on our left flank. As soon as you are ready, we will ride to our position on the battle field."
I'll never be ready for this, thought Edward as he pulled on his helmet and mounted his horse which was held by one of the soldiers. Once they were ready, Boric and Edward rode side by side out of the camp towards the front line. Coming out of the trees they approached the brow of a hill and joined Cannoc and the other troops by the standard fluttering in the breeze. Looking out from their position, Edward could not see much across the valley in the dark but he soon realised that even if it had been light, the mist would have obscured the far slope.
" What now?" Edward asked anxiously, casting nervous glances around their position.
" We wait," Boric answered tersely.
All around the banner on the hill top, soldiers were taking up their positions, orders were being shouted and a sense of confusion reigned. As the light in the east started to glimmer in the sky, silence fell on the waiting troops. Around Edward, the horses formed up into troops and all eyes were on the emerging outlook in front of the army. As the light brightened, the mist started to rise. Edward could now make out the ground in front of their position. It fell away down into the valley floor where a stream crossed the fields making the ground wet and muddy. From the valley floor, the ground rose to a crest opposite their position. To Edward's right, the road from the east came down over the hill opposite, through the valley floor and on up the slope to disappear through a gap in the hills. Astride the road just below the crest was the main bulk of the army, flags flying.
As though on cue as the sun came through the clouds and crested the hill opposite, there was a strident call of horns and Edward had his first look at the enemy. They came pouring over the hill, marching in ranks down the slope to take up positions opposite the army. After forming their defensive ranks of bowmen and foot soldiers, the enemy cavalry rode on down the slope to the valley floor and after picking their way across the mud and the stream, formed their ranks. For a while they remained still, both armies facing across the valley as though waiting for a sign.
Then to Edward all was confusion. A brazen trumpet sounded from the enemy ranks and with a great cry, the enemy charged. Up the slope they came into range of the archers and arrows filled the air. Horses screamed, men fell and the heavy cavalry rode out from the ranks of the main army near Boman’s position. Charging down the slope, they met the enemy with a great clash. All Edward could see was a melee of horses and men and then the enemy disengaged and retreated down the slope leaving the field littered with dead and dying men and horses. Regrouping the enemy charged again. This happened time after time and each time the clash seemed to Edward to take place further up the slope, closer to where he sat watching. It became apparent even to Edward's untutored eye that the ground in front of the left flank sloped in such a way that it naturally drifted the enemy horse towards the strong centre of the army. Even so, horse bowmen came close to their defensive ranks and the lines of pike men and of archers started to have gaps in their ranks.
Handing the reins of his horse to an attendant, Edward dismounted and ran forward to the ranks of bowmen. The sergeant in charge raised his eyebrows but nodded when Edward picked up a bow. The arrows were sticking from the ground at his feet and to Edward this was something he could understand. In three ranks they raised their bows to the angle indicated by the sergeant and fired in ranks at his signal. Fire, pull an arrow from the ground, pull the bow string, raise the bow to the angle and wait for the signal to fire. Then this was repeated. During the pauses when the enemy retreated, the stock of arrows was replenished by runners coming from behind the lines. After a time it became automatic and the feeling for the battle was lost. Edward became encased in the little world which was the ranks of archers around him and the pike men in lines in front. He hardly noticed the forays of the cavalry as they passed through the ranks of the archers. Fit his arrow, pull the string and release on signal.
Then as the sun passed through the south and started to fall behind the army, there was a lull. No not a lull, thought Edward but an eerie silence. The enemy had been getting closer and closer to the massed ranks of the army but now they withdrew and formed ranks out of bow shot range. Down the slope behind the enemy cavalry marched the foot soldiers of the enemy army forming silent ranks behind the cavalry. There they stood in silent ranks as though waiting for a signal.
" We are in for it now. They are preparing for a final push with all of their army, " muttered the sergeant. In a louder voice he shouted, " Get ready you lot. They will charge and not stop until either we are overwhelmed or they are defeated."
Then the enemy started to bang their shields with their spears and swords in a slow measured beat. The boom, boom of the beat sending shivers down the spines of the opposing army. All around Edward the archers were looking at each other, their expressions puzzled, their hands gripping their bows tightly.
The rhythm of the beating quickened and now the enemy were stamping their feet in time to the beat of the drums. Over the brow of the hill behind the enemy army four figures rose into the air and glided silently down to hover above the soldiers. 
The beating on shields stopped suddenly and the battle field was plunged into silence. Edward had seen them before, triangular faces ending in large snouts with large jaws and gleaming teeth, long bodies and tails like lizards but with wings spreading out from their back. Even in the light of a spring sun, their hide looked like leather, grey and solid. On their backs were figures holding straps with one hand and sitting on a kind of saddle attached by a harness round the creatures body. The figures were black helmeted, with black breastplates and black metal grieves on their legs.  Long hair streamed behind the men in the wind.
Edward felt the anger he had experienced near the bridge begin to mount once more until it was overwhelming. With an angry gesture, he thrust his bow into the hands of the archer nearest to him and turned to run back to his horse. The sergeant, face red and angry barred his way, his sword in his hand.
" Where do you think you are off to then my lad? Running away from the enemy. I could kill….." The sergeants voice stuttered to a halt at the look Edward gave him.
" Sergeant, you are a good man but this is my business not yours. What am about to try is outside your experience. All I ask is that you make sure the archers are ready if what I am about to try fails." Without a second look Edward pushed passed the sergeant and ran up the hill.
Taking the reins of his horse from the soldier groom, Edward mounted, made sure his sword was loose in the scabbard and started forward. Tag grabbed the reins and stopped his horse abruptly. The horse whinnied in protest.
" Are you out of your mind?"  Tag shouted making himself heard above the anxious clamour of the soldiers around him. " I have warned you before about this mad course of action."
" Let go my horse, Tag," Edward ordered in a voice which brooked no opposition.  " This is something I have to do. There is some deep down compulsion telling what I have to do. It tells me I have to do this now. Let go of my horse before I force you to let me go."
Boric's voice came from behind Edward, sounding worried but firm. " Let him go Tag. I believe him. I think his time is here for this task and we must let him have a go. Come on. We will escort him out onto the field."
Edward grinned at his friend. " Thank you Boric. One thing. When we get out there and get the attention of the rider, you must stop and let me go on my own. Just be on hand to pick up the pieces when this is all over."
" Very reassuring," Boric muttered as he nudged his horse forward alongside Edward.
Together, Boric on one side, Tag on the other, the three friends rode through the ranks of the army looking neither to left or right. The archers and the pike men opened a path for their passage, all faces following their progress apprehensively. When Edward reached the place where the sergeant stood watching, he paused.
" As you can  see sergeant, I am not running away. Get your men ready to cover my back. It could get very sticky out there," Edward grinned.
The sergeant saluted and turned to his men. " Get ready to fire when I instruct you."
They rode away from the flank of the army, three small figures on the last expanse of the battle field. The opposing army appeared huge at the bottom of the slope but Edward did not look in that direction. His eyes were focused on the creature with its rider hovering above the field. As he rode forward, he was judging the distance between him and the rider. When he was sure they were close enough, he paused again.
" Well my friends," he said not looking at his friends, his eyes never leaving the creature. " This is as far as you come. Get ready to act if there is any chance that I can be rescued."
Leaving Tag and Boric, Edward rode away from the army on his own. Boric watched as though not really there, as though watching a scene from one of those plays put on by companies of strolling players at his home. He heard Tag gasp by his side but did not look round keeping his eyes fixed on Edward. Slowly Edward was being enveloped in a silver light. It shone faintly around him like a translucent barrier covering his horse as well.
When Edward stopped a good twenty metres from his friends, he raised his sword above his head and sat motionless on his horse. Suddenly a shaft of silver light shot skywards from the tip of his sword and the creature bellowed his attention.
The rider on its back turned the creature and it flapped lazily in Edward’s direction. He did not move and Boric found it hard not to yell to his friend to ride away.
While the creature was hovering a short distance away from where Edward sat motionless on his horse, the rider on its back lent forward as though to ascertain who was defying him. Raising an arm, the rider sent a beam of intense white light towards Edward. Boric watched detached as the beam smashed into Edward and his horse. The barrier surrounding Edward started to glow until the light was so bright Boric and Tag had to shield their eyes. Brighter and brighter it became as the rider poured energy into Edward's protective barrier.
As Boric started to feel that nothing could survive in that intense light, the glowing corona surrounding Edward started to move. Slowly at first and then faster, the white corona twisted until it was like a mini tornado. Faster and faster while the creature roared its defiance. 
Then Edward flicked the end of the sword and a bolt of light smashed into the side of the creature making its hide smoke. Again and again the sword point flicked like the end of a whip and more bolts of light smashed into the creature. Turning away with its hide smoking, the creature tried to retreat. The rider was trying desperately to steady the creature. More bolts left Edward’s sword point but now they hit the rider almost knocking him from the creatures back. As the creature started to fall from the sky, one last bolt left the sword, smashing into the rider, setting his clothes on fire and he fell backwards from the creatures back to fall smoking and burning into the ranks of the enemy army. The creature gave one last scream and plunged to earth behind the enemy's ranks.
The light surrounding Edward flickered, faded and went out. Tag smashed his heels into his horses flank and rushed forward. Edward was slumped over the horses neck his sword dangling from his hand almost touching the ground. Tag grabbed Edward and heaved him back into a sitting position, taking the sword from his hand and putting it back into its scabbard. Tag noticed the sword was shining like silver but he had no time to think about that. Hauling Edward's horse around, he started back towards the army accompanied by Boric.
It was strange but for a moment there was silence on the field, even the horses seemed to stand still. Despite the vast numbers of men facing each other across the fields, there was not a sound. Then as Tag, Boric and Edward approached the army ranks, all changed. A loud cheer went up from the troops, echoing around the hills. Weapons were clashed on shields, feet stamped and horns blared.
As though on some prearranged signal, the left flank of the army moved, despite this was not being in the plan. As one they charged down the hill towards the enemy flank, crying their battle cries into the heavens. Horses and men on foot all in one great surge down the hill towards the enemy.
Boric was incandescent with fury. Leaving Edward and rushing up the hill through the ranks of the charging soldiers, he screamed at Cannoc, the veins on his neck highlighted as he tried to make himself heard. "This is madness! Get as many of your cavalry as you can control and defend the flag at the top of the hill."
Boric lent from his saddle and grabbed the archery sergeant who was trying to hold a company of archers in their designated place.  " Get as many men under control as you can and form a defensive wall round the flag at the summit of the hill! We have to hold this position!"
By the time Edward and Tag had reached Boric, a group of cavalry troops were in place by the side of Cannoc and a screen of archers had taken up defensive positions.
" Tag make sure our supply horses are ready and you can get us out of here," Boric shouted his orders to his friend. " What has happened to the army discipline? This can only end in disaster. We have not enough men for an all out assault. As soon as it is obvious that all is lost, we have to get out of here."
The soldiers of the left flank of the Walloonian army smashed into the enemy with a clash like thunder. The enemy ranks held and then retreated. For a while it looked as though the army was going to break through but after the initial push, the two sides ground to a halt. One enterprising cavalry officer led his men against the gap between the enemy right flank and the main body of the enemy troops and broke through. A cheer went up from the army and the rest of the army started to advance on a broad front. 
Seeing the chaos on the field, one of the riders turned his creature and attacked. The enemy cavalry seeing a gap between the left flank and the main body of the army smashed their way through the gap and turned the left of the army ranks in on itself. The whole army line started to collapse and the enemy burst through the ranks in several places led by the creatures. Now the army was in retreat, fighting taking place in pockets rather than in ranks. It was chaos on the field and Boric could see that Nomal was leading an attempted orderly retreat away from the field.
" We are being cut off from the main part of the army," Boric shouted to anybody who was listening.  " Sergeant get your archers doubled up with the cavalry on their horses and we will at least save some of the men. Tag get us out of here."
The horsemen under Cannoc helped the archers onto their horses to ride behind and, even under such circumstances, their discipline helped them form ranks and followed Tag down the slope away from the fighting. Boric pulled Edward away and set off in pursuit.
When they reached the bottom of the hill, Tag thrust the reins of a pack horse into Edward's hand and leading his own set off once more away from the battle field through the trees. They rode as quickly as possible along paths which were hardly visible. Edward noticed two of the Rangers slip away towards the rear but he could not think deeply about that, only concentrate on following the horse in front. The trees closed in and he could not see where he was being led.
The troops crossed a more defined path and Tag turned onto this, leading them steadily northwards. After what seemed an age to Edward they came out of the trees into a clearing and Tag called a halt. He ordered everybody to dismount for a little while but he led his horse back to the path where it led into the clearing. After a while the two Rangers came out of the woods to talk to Tag before returning into the woods again.
" Mount up!" Tag ordered and quietly said to Boric. " We are being followed by a group skilled in tracking or so my men tell me. We had better move on and put some distance between us and the battle field before dark. We don't have much time because the sun is already low in the sky."
They came out of the trees into a valley an hour later. The road turned to the left skirting a hill which was covered in scrub. To the right another track led away through some low trees and bush into a valley in the hills. Straight ahead a steep cleft in the hills led away northwards but Edward could not see very far into the valley because it took a sharp turn to the left and disappeared. Tag spoke briefly to the other two Rangers and once more led the group into the steep sided valley ahead.
Edward urged his horse forward alongside Boric and said." Can I take a few of the bow men and see if we can catch the people following us? We can hide the horses around that bend in the track and then catch you when we have made the attempt. The trackers will be held up by the Rangers efforts to hide our trail. I think it is worth a try."
Boric raised his eyebrow and then grinned. " All right Edward. You can have a try. I'll tell Tag later when he notices you are not with us."
Edward called the archery Sergeant over and explained what he had in mind. The sergeant grinned and talked to four of his men. Once they were hidden from the valley just round the bend in the trail, Edward ordered the men to dismount and led his horses into he cover of a clump of bushes and gorse. Ordering the troopers to hold the horses, he fetched his bow and arrows from his pack horse and led the archers up the slope. Almost crawling, they found cover over looking the place where Rangers had led them out of the woods and made ready their bows. The sergeant raised his eyebrows at Edward's long bow but did not say a word.
" Hopefully they will come out of the woods over there," Edward pointed across the valley to the place where the path they had followed emerged, " and will hesitate for a while until they have figured out our trail and the direction we have taken. The trackers will be in the lead and it is up to your men to shoot some of them once they are in range. There is bound to be an officer in charge and it is my job to try to down him. It will be a long shot because I expect he will stay back by the woods until they are certain of which way we have gone."
The sergeant looked sceptical. " I will get my men to hold fire until they are half way from the woods to the entrance to the canyon which should give us plenty of range. I fail to see how you are going to hit a target that far away even with that overgrown bow of yours especially in this light. If they don't come soon, it will be too dark for us to see. I have heard of these long bows but this will be interesting to see how far and how accurately you can shoot!"
They waited in silence, closely watching the woods and the path by which they had come into the valley. Incongruously so close to the scene of so much slaughter and hatred, Edward heard birds singing in the trees, sweet songs designed to attract a partner. The low sun broke through the clouds to the west and shone on the sheen of green that was now covering the trees as a sign of spring. All seemed so peaceful in the valley as though a battle with all its death and destruction had not taken place close by.
Two riders came out of the trees, paused to look around and then carefully rode back and forth dragging branches behind their horses, to confuse the pursuers, Edward thought. At a signal from one they lifted the branches and rode into the valley. Shortly, Edward heard a disturbance in the shrub behind where they lay and looking round found one of the Rangers crawling towards him through the bush.
" Mr. Eastland?" the Ranger asked, his round face streaked with mud, his straggly long hair tied in a ponytail and his leather jerkin and trousers clinging to his short lean frame. " Rogers, the Ranger. They are only a few miles behind so you will see them in a moment. We did not get too good a look at them because they are so alert to anybody getting close and besides it is getting dark under the trees As far as we can tell there are about six or seven of them. The trackers are quite small on build but the other one is big and riding a good horse. That is all we can tell you."
" Thank you," Edward replied. 
He did not get a chance to say anything else because there was a disturbance at the edge of the wood and some figures crouching low, came into view. 
" Wait!" Edward ordered as some of the archers started to raise their bows.
There were five of them when they became fully visible and Edward heard the gasps of the men around him. They could only have come up to Edward's chest when standing to their full height. and they were dressed in heavy woollen jackets and shiny trousers with their features hidden by knitted hats pulled down over their ears. All wore gloves on their hands.
" They come from some country where it is a lot hotter than it is here," the Ranger whispered in Edward's ear. " You and I would be sweltering even in this cold spring with that many layers of clothes. They must find our climate extremely cold."  
Edward did not reply but watched as the trackers spread out and started to examine the ground in front of the woods. They paused to look back at the track where they had exited the woods and another figure rode into view, seated on a massive horse. He paused right on the edge of the trees and said something to one of the trackers. The tracker waved his arms as though indicating that the trail was confusing, and resumed his study of the ground. The horseman rode out into the light. 
Even from this distance Edward could see he was tall, a good head and shoulders taller than Edward. He was dressed in black leather, with a dull silver coloured breastplate and dull silver coloured armour covering his thighs and sword arm. Equipped to fight on horseback, Edward thought. On his head was a helmet of the same metal, with side panels covering his ears and a nose guard in the shape of a birds head and neck. The sides of the helmet swept up to form a pair of wings. At his belt was a sword larger than those used by the Imperial Army and which, to Edward, looked really heavy. It would take a great deal of strength to fight with that sword, Edward thought.
The man took off his helmet and took a sip of water from a water skin hanging from his saddle. His dark red hair was long and down to his shoulders. As he sat waiting for the trackers to report, the man ran his fingers through his hair and pushed it back from his ears. Edward noticed the ears were pointed like nothing he had seen before. When the man looked towards the valley and the slope where they were hiding, instinctively Edward raised a covering shield to hide them from the mans probing mind. One thing Edward did take note of was that the man was handsome and had the look of extreme confidence, if not arrogance, that Edward always associated with good looking, tall men.
The trackers all came together from their examination of the ground and, after a brief consultation, pointed off towards the canyon through which Tag had lead the soldiers. One of the trackers detached himself from the group and returned to the man on horseback. Edward could not hear what was being said but from the gestures of the tracker and the man it was obvious that they had decided that the enemy had followed the trail through the canyon.
The trackers spread out across the trail and slowly advanced towards the valley entrance, studying the ground to make sure they did not miss any signs. The man stoppered the water skin, tied it back onto his saddle, placed his helmet back on his head and followed them slowly. As the trackers drew nearer to the archers waiting in the scrub,  the sergeant signalled for them to get ready. Each archer attached an arrow to his bow and waited for the sergeant's signal.
The trackers reached the point where the sergeant reckoned they were in range and he nodded to the waiting Edward. Pulling back the bow string, Edward sighted along the arrow and let the shaft fly. He watched in a detached way as it speed across the gap between him and the rider. He did not hear the sound of the other bows or see their arrows, so much was he concentrating on the rider. As though sensing that something was happening the rider looked round and pulled his horse to a halt. His gaze suddenly fixed on the spot where Edward stood and a look of fear crossed his face. He started to pull the reins round to turn his horse but was too late. With a sickening thump which could be plainly heard on the hillside over looking the trail, the arrow thumped into the mans chest, piercing his armour and sending him tumbling backwards out of his saddle to land in a cloud of dust flat on his back. The arrow protruded from his chest but ignoring this, he struggled to rise to a sitting position. Moving his hands to his front, he grasped the shaft as though to pull it clear but then crumpled in a heap and lay still. Two of the trackers went down as arrows thudded into their bodies but the hail of arrows missed their leader as he rushed back towards the rider to see if he could help. The other two trackers limped away towards the woods with wounds to their legs.
Edward did not see any of this. He had dropped his bow and was sitting with his head in his hands trying to shut out the noise. As soon as the arrow smashed into the rider, there was such a loud mental scream, even louder than that of the Covenenter in the Meeting Hall on the island, that Edward was mentally incapacitated.
" Get up!" the sergeant shouted in Edward's ear, shaking his shoulder, his eyes wide with fright. " We have to leave now!"
" Didn't you hear that scream?" Edward asked, grasping the front of the sergeants tunic. " It was so loud in my head, I thought the world would shake apart."
" What scream?" the sergeant asked hauling Edward to his feet. " We didn't hear any scream. Besides, both the rider and the trackers were too far away for it to affect you like that."
Edward shook his head to clear his thoughts and then shrugged. " It must have been mental. You lead the way. Once we are mounted, we can catch up with the others. I don't expect we will be followed now."
" I take my words back," said the sergeant as they came down the slope to the horses. " That was some shot. I didn't think you could hit a target at that range and with the dusk drawing in."
When they reached the horses, the sergeant ordered them all to mount. Rogers lent over to Edward and said. " Tell Over Master Ormrood that we are going back a little way to make sure there is nobody else following. We will catch up with you in camp later tonight."
For a moment Edward did not recognise the name but when he realised the ranger was speaking of Tag, he grinned and nodded. He felt tired, so tired it was all he could do to stay in the saddle. As though sensing this the Sergeant arranged the other horses around Edward as the rode through the canyon.
The canyon walls gradually sloped away and the floor of the valley widened. It was now almost dark and the sergeant was looking round nervously. A soldier suddenly jumped into the road in their path and waved them into a gap between some boulders. This led to a small dell with a stream running along one side and a slope running up to a small plateau at the end away from the entrance where the camp had been set up. Small fires were burning shedding some light on the scene but Edward did notice the half hidden sentries and the general air of alertness.
He dismounted by the camp and gratefully handed the reins of his horses to a willing soldier. Walking through the little camp he found Boric and Tag sitting near their tent eating their evening meal.
Tag grinned. " Well Edward, what happened?" he asked.
Edward ignored the question at first but sank wearily onto the ground. Tag handed him a water skin from which Edward drank deeply.
" The sergeant will fill you in on the details, Boric and Tag." Edward wiped his mouth with his sleeve and motioned to the meat on a spit over the fire.
" Help yourself," Tag said.
After helping himself to some food, Edward told them what had happened back at the entrance of the canyon.  "Don't ask me who the man on the horse was or where he came from," Edward finished. " I have never seen anybody who looked like him though I have not travelled much so that is not surprising. He might be the same race as those riding the flying creatures. What I do know is that he had power. His mental scream when the arrow hit his chest almost scrambled my brain and knocked me over. I should have closed my mind to that threat but I was not expecting it. The Ranger Rogers reckons the trackers must have come from some place where it is very hot all the time, because of the amount of clothes they had on. When we left the canyon entrance to come back here, Rogers told me to tell you that he was off back down the trail to make sure we were not being followed by any more trackers. He will be in later tonight."
Tag shook his head and got to his feet. " It is too much for me to fathom this late at night. We'll talk more about it in the morning. Get some sleep now Edward. You look shattered. I must go and check that all is in order before I lay down."
Edward slept deeply that night despite the stress he was feeling, only being disturbed slightly when he heard voices from Tag's tent late in the night. The sky was grey when he emerged from his tent the next morning and a steady drizzle was making the surrounding camp damp and cheerless. Tag was sitting under a tree with Boric and Cannoc, looking at a map and trying to keep the paper dry.
" We will go north until we reach here where this path crosses the road from Crundale to Ashurst," Edward heard him say. " We will then turn west to here where there is another track leading north. I understand you still want to try to find the Mayno Castle in the mountains in the north of Walloonia?"
Cannoc shrugged. " The officers from the Walloonian Army made a pledge when we drew up the battle plan at Bryents Ridge that if we lost the battle and it was at all possible, we would all make our way to Mayno Castle. I intend to keep that pledge and attempt to carry on the fight."
" Good for you," said Boric, looking at the map. " We will leave your troop there and follow the road towards Ashurst. I still intend to make a dash across the plain and get into the mountains from the Dale here."
" Right," Tag said getting to his feet and folding the map before stowing it away in his pack. " Lets get going before the men get too lazy and want to stay here another day." 
Turning to Edward, he grinned wickedly. " Oh, have you deigned to join us at last. Are you fit? The way you looked last night and the soundness of your sleep, made me think you would never wake up this morning. Grab a quick bite and a drink. We will be leaving shortly."
They rode northwards through the scrub and rock strewn hills for most of the morning with their cloaks pulled very close and the drizzle thoroughly soaking through all their layers of clothing. It was miserable even to Edward who was used to the weather during the spring in Alskar. Even when they stopped to rest the horses, there was no real shelter, and they stood in the lee of the horses feeling thoroughly dejected.
About noon, though it was impossible to tell the time of day from the uniform greyness of the sky, they reached the road and a grove of trees. The copse gave them some shelter from the drizzle and they ate a cold meal in the partial dry under the trees. 
They were ready to leave when the Rangers came back from scouting ahead to report no sightings of danger along the road, though they did say the villages were unusually quiet for this time of the year.
" You would expect to find people in the fields, ploughing and planting. Its strange but there is nobody about," the Ranger reported to Tag.
The journey along the road was completely uneventful and the troops started to relax a little. The villages were largely silent when they clattered through, though Edward had the feeling that some of the villagers were in hiding and watching to make sure they left the village unmolested. This sense of being watched was confirmed when he caught sight of a child being hastily pulled into a shed behind one of the houses as they rode through one of the villages.
Late in the afternoon, they reached the track that Cannoc intended to use to go north and it was easy for them to decide to spend the night in camp together and part company in the morning. They made camp in the lee of a rock outcrop with shelter from the wind and rain provided by some trees. Once more the night was trouble free and when they awoke the next morning the drizzle had blown over and the sun was visible at times in a cloudy sky.
The two groups parted company after eating breakfast together, Cannoc leading his men north, Tag preparing to lead Edward and Boric to the west along the road. Cannoc waved good-bye before disappearing with his men into some trees. Once the soldiers were out of sight, Tag mounted his horse and led Boric and Edward back to the road in the direction of Ashurst.
It was pleasant riding that morning, the clouds became fewer and the sun shone for longer intervals. 
After lunch however things were different. They started to meet people fleeing along the road. The tales they hurriedly told Boric when he asked what was happening were of flying creatures with soldiers on their backs over Ashurst, of Walloonian soldiers fleeing the battlefield and passing through the town. Then there was panic among the towns people and riots in the streets of the town as people fought to snatch supplies and leave. The citizens were packing provisions and fleeing, anywhere but in Ashurst.
Late in the afternoon with the sun low to the west in their eyes, the road they were following turned to the south and started to descend towards the plain. A short distance after the road turned south, they found a track leading away up the slope to their right. Tag turned his horses onto this track and waved for Edward and Boric to follow.
" Before he left us to go with Cannoc, Rogers told me that if we went up this track, we would come to a place where we could leave the horses hidden and then go on foot to the top where there is a ledge from which we will be able to see right over Ashurst and the surrounding plain." Tag observed noticing their questioning looks. " He also said that on a clear day you can see the mountains to the south. We have to go out onto the plain passed Ashurst if we are to make it to Wyllon Dale. I would be much happier, however, if we can  find out the lie of the land and what is happening south of Ashurst before we make up our minds. After what those peasants who we met fleeing along the road told us, I am a bit wary of blundering into another fight without warning."
Boric looked around and then back at the road that seemed to be filled with fleeing people carrying what they could on their backs. " I suppose the rich have got out long ago and left the poor to look after themselves."
Edward grinned and slapped Boric on the back. " A social conscience, my friend. What is the world coming to when one of the Empire's highborn sons has thoughts about the poor? I expect the rich have retired to their villas and estates out in the country to wait for developments though a great many younger ones will be with the army."
Boric grinned back. " You are right my friend though as you know my father always paid attention to what the poor are thinking."
They rode on up the steep track through the woods in single file until the horses were struggling to cope. At that point, they dismounted to help the horses. The track rounded a bend and levelled out as it passed through a clearing like a meadow among the trees. Away from the track, a rock face provided an overhang covered by shrub giving shelter and hiding.
  " I'll set up the camp here while you two go and have a look at Ashurst and find out what the situation is down there," Boric surprised Edward by his suggestion but he did not argue.
Tag led the way up the slope through the trees until they rounded a turn in the path and came out of the trees onto a rocky ledge. The earth dropped away almost sheer from their position and they had a wonderful view over the countryside to the south. The day was clear again now, the drizzle that had set in near the middle of the day having passed away to the east. Ten miles out across the plain the town of Ashurst was clearly visible, its high walls and tiled roofs reflecting the red of the setting sun. It stood proud and strong, guarding the roads which from all over Walloonia converged at the place where it stood. But it was obvious to the watchers that all was not right. People and carts ladened with household goods were still streaming from the city, clogging the roads leading away to the north. To the east a ragged column of soldiers was stumbling towards the city, fleeing something that could not be seen even from up here on the ledge. Away to the south, Edward could just make out the outline of the mountains but at this distance he could not see any details.
Then Edward grabbed Tag’s arm and pointed south west. Lazily riding the air currents and moving slowly north towards the city was one of the creatures with a man on its back. It hovered every so often as though searching the ground and then continued its seeming slow progress back towards the enemy army that had to be just out of sight over a hill to the east.
" Come on Edward," Tag said. " I have seen enough.  Let us go down to join Boric and decide what we are going to do."
When they had joined Boric in the camp, they told him what they had seen and sat eating the cold meal he had prepared in silence, none of them willing to express their thoughts.
Boric broke the silence first. " All right you two, we cannot sit here waiting for something to turn up. We have to decide what we are going to do next. From what you have told me, there is no way we can join up with Nomal and his men at Wyllon Dale. One other option is to make a run for the border down at West Gap Fort. I know that means weeks of travel to the way through the mountains at Gortan Pass into the swamp but that is our only option."
Tag shook his head. " Having seen that creature and its rider, I will bet that the road to the fort is closed to us. As I see things, we can either join the siege of Ashurst or go north round the moors and then south round the forest to Gortan Pass. Our map is not detailed enough to make any guess at how long it will take or what we will meet on the way. If we are still determined to get back to Rulask and Rombuli, that seems to be our only option. Obviously, we could abandon any attempt to get back to Rombuli and make our way north to join with Cannoc and the other remnants of the army at Mayno Castle. There we could at least lend a hand in resisting the enemy for a while. That would give us a chance to work out what we are going to do next."
Boric frowned. " I hate the idea of being involved in a siege. From our training it sounds ghastly. I would rather keep on the move than be bogged down in a siege."
They both turned to Edward their eyebrows raised in question. 
" Well…..?"  Tag asked letting his words hang in the air, his eyes never leaving those of Edward.
" Why ask me?" Edward replied sounding irritable. " I am not a soldier so I have no knowledge or experience to help me weigh up the options."
" I came on this mission with the instructions to keep you alive. Therefore I will follow your lead in this if you have any idea of what we should do." Tag replied grinning. " I know that sounds as though I am dodging the question but I do think you should tell us what you would have us do."
Edward grinned back. " The one thing that I know is that I promised Nelvask that I would get back to Rombuli as soon as I could after delivering the message to Nomal. By the look of what is happening around Ashurst, we cannot go with Nomal and the route via the fort is blocked. There is not going to be a siege of Ashurst so we have to find some other option."
" You saw how they are getting ready for a siege when we were up there on the ledge," Tag interrupted angrily. " From my experience, what is happening down there near Ashurst bears all the signs of a siege. What makes you think there is not going to be a siege? Have you some insight into these things which my experience has not taught me?"
" Think, Tag think," Edward replied wearily. " I have no idea of how the power the enemy exercises works but what happens when they take over a territory?"
Tag frowned and then banged his head with his hand. " All communications with the outside world stop and everybody becomes a willing follower of the enemy. What you’re saying is all they have to do is by pass Ashurst with the edge of their power field and the defenders will lay down their arms and join the enemy. Where does that leave us?"
" A good question," Boric remarked dryly. " We can't go to Wyllon Dale or to the fort even though Edward can protect us from the power of the enemy. The only option left is to go north and help Cannoc and the other troops fight a rear guard action. I know that means abandoning our promise to Nelvask and Latask to return as soon s possible but there does not seem any other course of action we can take."
  " There is another way," Edward remarked quietly. " I have no idea how to proceed from here but there is another way."
Tag raised his eyebrows. " All right Edward, what is this other way?"
" You might be sceptical about the Book of the Rombuli but most of us Rombuli do believe it is our history," Edward smiled at the way they both raised their eyebrows now in response.  " It is written in the Book that the Rombuli travelled from their home near Lake Umburti to their present land during the great disturbances of four hundred or so years ago. The account as written in the Book has the Rombuli travelling through unfamiliar lands until they went through the Great Forest ending up the other side of the moors and marshes from Walloonia. They found a way through the moors and the marshes and spent a winter holed up against the blizzards in a valley just this side of the moors and marshes. If we could find that valley, I am willing to try to get us through the moors and marshes."
  Boric frowned as though trying to recall the story he had read when studying the Rombuli for the visit of the Emperor. " Do you have any idea where this valley lies other than over there someplace?" he asked waving his arm to the west.
  " No, other than it took them two weeks to get to Wyllon Dale from their winter camping place," Edward replied shrugging his shoulders.
  " Well Tag?" Boric asked.
Tag shook his head before getting up from the fire and going to his saddle bag. He returned with a map, spreading this on the ground at his feet. Taking a length of twine, he measured distances on the map while Edward watched fascinated.
  " All right, it has to be somewhere here if my rudimentary calculations are correct," he said pointing to a spot on the map west of Ashurst.  " This map is not very detailed but there is a village called Dunsfold here and a place called Dunsfold Manor. What do you think?"
Boric studied the map. " Its not very precise is it? If your calculations of how long it would take a crowd of several thousand with cattle and belongings are out, it could be here or even here. Don't look like that Tag. I know you are good at this sort of thing. Actually, we have nothing better to go on and if it turns out to be a false lead, we can always turn north to join Cannoc and his men. Let us get some sleep and then set out across country to the village of Dunsfold in the morning and see what comes up."
The next morning the sun shone from a clear blue sky, the rain and drizzle of the night passing away to the west with the dawn. They ate a cold breakfast, struck camp and rode down onto the undulating country around Ashurst. They travelled steadily west using muddy tracks and only going close to villages if there was no alternative. They crossed one of the main roads which ran north west from Ashurst and surprised the people straggling along with their possessions on carts by crossing quickly and disappearing once more in amongst the newly planted fields.
They camped that night in a grove of oak trees out of the rain that had once more begun to pour out of a suddenly grey sky. It was an uncomfortable night but nothing disturbed their sleep or the watches they kept. They were once more on the go early before the sun had a chance to rise above the trees and the weather was clear as the rain had blown away to the east during the night. 
About midday three days later, they topped another hill and pulled the horses to a stop. There before them the hills to their right met a line of hills coming up from the south. Between the two ranges of hills, not mountains Edward noted, a broad valley was visible, green and obviously very fertile. As though guarding the entrance to the valley, a small village straddled the muddy track leading into the valley. The houses were of wood with thatched roofs and each appeared to have a small surrounding garden. There were getting on for twenty houses, Edward estimated, surrounded by well cultivated fields. Further into the valley above a grove of trees, Edward could see the roof of a large house.
" Well," Tag said. " This village could be Dunsfold and the big house over there could be Dunsfold Manor. The only way to find out where we are is to ride into the village and ask somebody the name of their village."
" Come on then," said Boric, kneeing his horse into motion and taking the lead. " Maybe there will be an Inn where we can stay with decent beds and a decent meal. I am fed up with either having to cook for ourselves or one of us getting a cold meal for the others. What about a bath? How long is it since we had a bath? The idea of a long soak in a hot bath appeals to me. Come on you two. The sooner we get down there, the sooner we find out what sort of place it is."
They kneed the horses into motion along the track that had dried in the morning sun to such an extent that the horses no longer threw up clods of earth as they passed. The village disappeared behind a slight hill and when they rounded a bend in the track, they found the way ahead blocked by a group of men standing in the centre of the track. Edward noted with some fear that they all carried weapons, swords and pikes, though on closer inspection he realised they were old weapons which had seen better days. As they came closer he noticed that most of the men were rather old, all with grey thinning hair and the hands which gripped the weapons were chaffed and rough from working the soil. Farmers, Edward thought.
Boric signalled for them to stop and dismounted from his horse. Making sure his hand stayed well away from his sword, he walked towards the men. When he came within a few strides of the group blocking their way, Boric stopped, smiled and raised his hand as a friendly gesture.
" Troubled times, my friends, if that brings farmers onto the streets to confront soldiers." The group of men shifted their feet nervously but did not get out of the way. " We are not here to confront anybody or to attack your village. As you see there are only three of us."
" There might be others with you hiding round the corner of the path," a large red faced man snapped. " They could be waiting to see how you are treated before they come on onto the village. What do you want here? The road ahead goes nowhere."
" We are looking for a place which has an old graveyard near here," Boric said, his tone relaxed and easy. " Do any of you know where it is?"
The red faced man frowned. " You will have to go up to the Manor to ask about that. Good living folks like us do not talk of those things."
" Who owns the Manor?" Boric asked frowning.
The red faced man pulled his shoulders back. " You cannot be from round here or you would know," he said belligerently. 
" No, I am not from round here but come from Parison. We have just fought a battle as part of the Walloonian Army at Bryents Ridge but the Walloonian Army were defeated and retreated back towards Ashurst. I am Imperial Master Borovic of the Governor of Rombuli's Guard. Now who lives in the Manor?" Boric had pulled his shoulders back and was using his best parade ground manner.
The red faced man stepped back a paced. " The Duke of Marinette and his sons  and grandsons."
Boric smiled. " Ah. I met him once when he came to Parison to see his Grandson, the Earl Brendon, get commissioned into the Imperial Guard. I was being enlisted as an Under Master in the Emperor’s Guard at the same time. Is Lord Paylill at home?"
The red faced man looked less certain of himself. " No. Lord Paylill is serving as Over Master with Grandmaster Boman's staff, the last we heard."
Boric thanked the man and remounted. " Come on you two," he said cheerfully, pulling his horse into motion and riding past the group of men,  standing in the road, as though they were not there, leaving Tag and Edward to follow. " We will ride to the Manor and ask for an audience with The Duke of Marinette. I can sense a good meal, a bath and clean sheets for tonight if he remembers me."
Tag shook his head and whispered to Edward as they followed Boric along the path. " This is going to be terrible, Edward, my friend. Oh, I could do with a bath and a good meal and a soft bed for the night but we are going to have to listen to two Imperial Families exchanging histories and acting all superior to every other form of human kind. You told me once that you thought Cannoc was bad. Wait until you meet this Duke. By your God, Walloonian aristocracy are unimaginably haughty and steeped in family history. They have a very clear view of how everybody in the Imperial hierarchy relates to everybody else and which family is higher ranked than the other. Can you think of an ancestor who will put you on the same level as him?"
Edward grinned and shook his head. " No, I am afraid not Tag. As far as I am aware there are no high society Eastlands hiding in my past. My father was a trader and I am, or was until Boric got me into this, a blacksmith. Look if the food is good, all you have to do is sit back and pretend to listen. Over the last few years I have become very good at that and learnt that if people think you are inferior, they tend to ignore you."
Boric looked over shoulder and frowned at them. " What are you two whispering about? Not a revolt I hope."
Tag grinned back and bowed mockingly. " Nothing to concern you, my Lord."
Boric, shaking his head, turned back to look at the road ahead.
They came to the top of a slight rise and could now see the whole house rather than just the roof. It was a low building with an archway through to what Edward thought must be a central courtyard. Over the arch the house was of two storeys. Surrounding the house was a formal garden with flower beds and lawns the contours broken with trees bearing white and pink blossom. Between Edward and the gardens there was a six feet high earthen defensive wall with guard towers at each corner and a guard walk over the heavy oak gates. It surrounded the house on all four sides. As they came closer, Edward could make out soldiers in the guard towers at the corners and above the gate. Not pausing to look, Boric rode confidently towards the gates.
" Look here my man," he shouted to one of the soldiers.  " Be a good fellow and send someone to tell the Duke that Boric Borovic from Parison is at his gate. His son, Lord Paylill knows my father, Imperial Grand Master Borovic of the Emperor's Guard." Tag's eyebrows lifted but Edward suppressed a smile with a shrug.
A short time later the gates started to swing open revealing a drive leading up to the house passing through formally laid out lawns and flower gardens. Without looking to left or right, Boric led them through the gates and along the drive. An old man with grey hair dressed in sober black stood on the steps leading to an imposing door, watching their approach.
Grooms appeared as though from nowhere as they halted in front of the steps and as soon as they had dismounted, the horses were led away. Boric strode up the steps and saluted the man.
" Boric Borovic." Boric introduced himself with a bow. " I met the Duke when he was in Parison to see his grandson Earl Brendon inducted into the Imperial Guard at the same time as I was inducted. This is Over Master Ormrood of the Imperial Rangers and Mr. Edward Eastland, an advisor to Imperial Governor of Rombuli."
The man bowed in return. " I am Nichollos, the Duke's Chancellor. You are all most welcome. The Duke is waiting for you in his sitting room. He will see you all first and I will arrange for rooms to be made ready for your stay. You clothes will be brought up from the stables or cleaned if that is needed. If you require outfits for dinner, my people will supply you with what is required when the time comes. Follow me and I will show you the way to the Duke's sitting room."
They followed Nichollos into the calm of the house and it was as though war and tension were a long way away.