Friday, 5 November 2010

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 16

         Nelvask staggered backward as the rent in the fabric of place shut with a bang. With a gasp for air, he collapsed onto a bench outside his home. Leaning heavily on his staff, Latest walked to the bench and confronted Nelvask, his eyes haunted and hollow.
" What were they?" Latask whispered, as though so frightened that if he spoke loudly, they would appear again. " I have never seen anything like them anywhere in this world. How did you know what to do?"
As Latest sank to the bench at his side,  Nelvask drew in lungfuls of air. The knuckles of Nelvask's hand were white as he clung tightly to the bench in an effort to stop his hands shaking. 
" If you had spent more time studying in the library while on the Mountain instead of hatching plots to do down Carfilla and the blues, you might have learnt something," Nelvask wheezed through tight lips but he could not hide his grin.  " As I recall things, all that time I spent consulting books about the true purpose of our mission on earth, you and the rest of the Covenent laughed at me. Don't deny it now. I can still hear the sniggers as I passed groups of Covenenters on the way to the refractory. Comments about dusty tomes and dusty brains. Indeed, it was because of what I learnt while undertaking my research in the library vaults and then tried to tell the Covenent as part of the Circle, that Tulka got me banished from the Mountain.”
Enough of my triumph over you for the moment and let me get to the point.” Nelvask scratched his chin deep in thought as though trying to recall something from his past. “ In an obscure book about the perils of the world which we might encounter, there was a passage about something I did not understand at the time. It talked of another place and time separated from us by a different dimension. In this place were creatures we had never seen or heard, one such creature being the Magumbwe. These were black creatures bred by magic and there to protect the high Priestess and her property. It described them well. About eight feet tall, faces like lizards, bodies like body builders and black and smooth all over. They are indestructible, the passage said, except to wizards fire, what ever that is. The only thing a non-wizard can do is to send them back to their origin. It gave instructions on how this could be done. It was a bit vague about how this knowledge came to us but mentioned a war ages ago between people of high magic and how the war almost destroyed the earth. The winners, who ever they were, and the passage had nothing to say on this point, banished the losers to this place where the Magumbwe lived. Thank my Maker that I recalled what it said in time."
" Why were they chasing Surat?" Latask asked, shaking his head as though to clear his mind. " More to the point how did they get here? Are there any more of these creatures about?"
  " I can't answer those questions now. Until Surat is healed enough to talk to us, we will have to wait for an answer. All I can surmise is that he must have something which is the property of the Priestess," Nelvask replied.
They both looked across at Edward who was watching as some healers were placing Surat on a stretcher. 
" Take him to my house," Nelvask shouted and then looked at Latask and then at Edward.
" Yes Nelvask, how did he do that?" Latask said his eyebrow raised in question. " In all my training it was said that we had to have a go-between in order to teleport from one place to another."
" You are right but we both saw him come through to here without our help," Nelvask murmured.
Edward got to his feet, his face grim. 
        " Don't talk about me as though I am not here, you two," he barked at the two old men who were staring at him. " Something had to be done. The Magumbwe, as you call them, were throwing soldiers out of the way and trying to get to Surat. As I saw things there seemed no way in which the soldiers could stop them getting to Surat. All I did was to grab Surat, mentally shout for you to be ready and then come here."
" But Edward," Nelvask said in a patient voice. " It is supposed to be impossible to transport yourself, let alone carrying somebody else, over any distance without the help of another mind to act as a focal point. In all my reading, I never came across even a hint of how it can be done in the way you seem to have accomplished it. I have tried teleporting myself to a place that I know intimately and failed. I expect Latask has tried as well and failed. How did you do it?"
Edward frowned and then replied. " It came into my head that all I had to do was to grab Surat, build a picture in my head of where I wanted to go and then wish myself in that place. It was as though I passed through a place outside of time, all grey and cool, after the clearing in the woods faded and then I was staggering out of the void here outside the Meeting House. I had no idea it was impossible."
Latask caste a glance at Nelvask his eyebrow raised in question. " We will have to look into this some more. Stay in one of the rooms with the other people you recruited and we can ask you some more questions in the morning."
" I am sorry Latask but I have a mission to fulfil. I must get back to my troops," Edward remarked grinning at the look Latask gave him. 
Mentally he contacted Margaret. " How are things with you, Margaret?"
" Where in the name of my Maker are you?" Margaret almost shouted so that her voice echoed in his mind. " Did those creatures find you? There was chaos here as the soldiers realised, despite all their efforts, these creatures could not be killed by conventional weapons. Then you grabbed Surat and disappeared. The creatures rushed to the spot where you had been, threw soldiers away from them, appeared to sniff the air and roar in defiance. Then they too disappeared. Where did you and they go?"
" Peace Margaret, peace," Edward projected his calming thought. " I am back on the Island at Nimmar with Nelvask and Latask. I will explain everything as soon as I get back. Now make sure you are away from the fire and there is a clear space in front of you. Concentrate on the space and fix a picture in your mind. Good now relax and let me connect with your mind. Excellent. I am now coming to join you." 
With those words Edward waved goodbye to Nelvask and Latask and willed himself along the line of Margaret's thoughts into the clearing. He staggered out of the greyness into the fire light in front of a startled Margaret.
" How did you do that?" Margaret asked aloud, flinging her arms round Edward's shoulders to help keep him upright.
" I thought we could all do that," he replied extricating himself from her arms aware of Tag glowering at him from behind Margaret. " All you have to do is make a mental bonding, get the other person to picture the place where they are standing and project yourself along their thought path to where they are standing."
Boric, accompanied by the two soldiers who had been with Surat, pushed passed some of Tag's men, who were watching the exchange between Edward and Margaret with puzzled looks. To see somebody appear out of the air was beyond most of the soldiers understanding. 
" Well Edward what were those creatures and what happened to you?" Boric demanded in his best officer's voice.
" I took Surat to Nelvask and Latask back in Nimmar." Seeing the skeptical look crossing Boric's face, Edward hurriedly added. " I will not explain how I did it but just believe me. I left Surat to be looked after by some healers in a room close to Nelvask's house by the Meeting House on the Island near Nimmar. Latask and Nelvask are hoping to find out how Surat managed to avoid being affected by the power so that he could make his way here accompanied by some soldiers. If they find out, Nelvask will let us know. Hopefully, my friends will be able to negated the power and operate more effectively behind enemy lines if the army is over run. How many soldiers were hurt?"
Boric sighed. " Luckily nobody was killed but fifteen have various injuries mainly broken bones. We will have to leave them with an escort in the morning when we go on so that they can make their way back to Shardlaw and better attention. What were those creatures and what happened to them?"
Edward sighed wearily. " From what Nelvask told me they are Magumbwe from another place and time. I know it sounds far fetched but you will have to believe me. Nelvask sent them back to the place from where they came. Look, Boric, I am exhausted and need some sleep. I will tell you more in the morning."
" Right everybody, let us get some sleep. We leave at first light," Boric said to those standing watching.
As they walked back to their tents, Tag asked Edward in a low voice so that only Margaret, who was by his side could hear. " How did Nelvask get rid of those things?"
" As I told Boric, they are called Magumbwe or so Nelvask told Latask," Edward replied. " From what I gather from listening to Nelvask telling Latask, the Magumbwe come from outside our time and place. All right Tag, don't look at me as though I have lost my senses, I am only repeating what Nelvask said."
" How did he come by this knowledge?" Tag asked.
" When he was on the Mountain, he was a scholar and widely read. Indeed Latask is always making fun of the time Nelvask spend in the vaults of the library looking in old books and papers. It seems that Nelvask came across a parchment which described the Magumbwe and laid down how they could be killed."
" What did he do?" Margaret asked eagerly.
" I don't really understand the fine details," Edward said, stopping by the fire near their tents to think. " I arrived on the lawn in front of the Meeting House and pulled Surat away onto the steps. Nelvask stood waiting and when the Magumbwe appeared he raised a screen of white light and heat that they could not pass through to get to me. Then he opened what I can only describe as a curtain across a window behind the Magumbwe. There appeared a long wide flight of golden steps rising steeply towards the gates of a palace, the roof of which was visible above the gate. There were other Magumbwe on sentry duty on either side of the gate and people in very colourful flowing robes climbing up and down the stair. That is all I saw because then with his power Nelvask pushed the Magumbwe through the curtains onto the stair and closed the whole illusion down."
Tag looked horrified. " When I saw those creatures, it crossed my mind that they were not of this land. If they can get here and if we can’t defeat them here, one of these days I suppose we will have to go there and root them out. Lets hope there are not too many of them."
" I will pray with you on that!" Edward endorsed his sentiment going into his tent and leaving Tag to say good night to Margaret.
The next day at dawn, what was left of the company packed up their camp and set out for the Ishika on the Lake. They left the wounded behind with an escort and instructions to commandeer some wagons which were on the way back empty to Shardlaw to carry the injured. That afternoon they arrived at the army camp between the old City on the Lake and Ishika the port built by the Empire.
" Why has the City fallen into ruin?" Edward asked Boric as they left the Army Commander's tent after reporting their arrival and introducing the communications people. " From here it looks as though it commands a perfect view over the lake."
" The Army has set up an observation post in the ruins but the city remains empty because of the sensitivities of the Sandari," Boric replied frowning. " Come on lets get a bottle of wine and I will take you up into the City ruins. On the way I will tell you what I know of its history."
As they rode from the camp up the hill towards the remains of the gates of the City, they were aware that their horses trod a path which had once been a mighty highway leading to the city from the plain. Now it was overgrown with weeds and cratered by the elements.  When they approached closer to the City, the size of the walls became apparent. Though tumbled down, what was left standing showed that the walls had been at least twenty feet wide at their base and from the amount of rubble lying on the ground, very high. Obviously there were no gates but the remains of the twin round towers of the gate house denoted where the gates had been. 
Once inside the City, they found tumbled blocks worn by the weather but plainly, even after so long, chiselled into shape by man. Among the tangled mass of blocks, bracken and brambles, it was possible to make out the shape of individual buildings. Aeons must have passed during which the ravages of time had been at work on the ruins but the greatness of the civilisation that had built this city covered the ruins like a shroud. Soldiers leaving their post to return to the camp saluted Boric as they passed.
From the ruined gate, the road went straight ahead through the ruins, rising slightly all the time. Grass and bushes covered most of the ruins, even the broken walls flanking the road, but had obviously found difficulty in taking root between the blocks of the stones making up road. The sun was low down in the west when they reached the top and came to a flat terrace over looking Lake Sardonia. The soldiers on duty saluted Boric. The terrace was broad, the flagstones pitted and broken and a low wall overlooking the drop to the harbour had fallen away in places. Edward had the sense that this was a place where important people would gather for drinks and dancing of a warm summers evening. He sensed rather than saw that once the terraces of the city had been cultivated with many flower beds which must have been a riot of colour in the summer. People had obviously come here to walk in the soft breeze which must have blown inland from the lake. He wondered aloud who those people were but Boric could not tell him.
The road they had followed ran away from the terrace in a gentle curve across the face of the slope losing elevation all the time until it reached the level of some quays below where they were standing. From their vantage point they had a perfect view of the quays, the road and the Lake. All was quiet and the soldiers on duty told them there was no activity on the lake at the moment though they had seen ships low down on the horizon from time to time.
When they were sitting sharing a drink with the off duty soldiers, Boric told Edward what he knew about the City.  
" The Sandari tell of a legend they believe about this City. Aeons before the Sandari migrated to this land, a powerful people, with skills and knowledge long forgotten now, lived in this land and built cities of great grandeur of which this is only one of the minor ones. It is a fact that over the other side of the lake are the ruins of a city at least five times the size of this one. This city, the Rock, which you will see tomorrow, and the Catham ruin with the mighty bridge over the gorge carrying the Lirense River from the hills to the Lake are further evidence of what they accomplished. Who these people were we have no idea. What they believed in is lost to us but even more puzzling is the way they have disappeared without leaving us any clues as to who they were. How they managed to build these places back then when we would be hard put to build them now is also a mystery.  The Sandari will not come near the city because they call it the City of Dead Spirits. They believe it is possible to release darker Spirits than one's ancestors in a place like this by transgressing the boundaries of the Spirit world. This is the best place to set up an observation post but as you can see, all the soldiers are either regular Imperial troops or Rombuli. Now you know as much as me about this place. Come on we had better get back to the camp and make sure the communications people have settled into their places."
They left the camp outside of the City of Dead Spirits the next morning in bright spring sunshine. The land through which they travelled northeast soon became a series of hills and valleys covered in grass. It stretched on before them, going up and down. They could never see too far ahead. When they reached the summit of the hill up which they travelled, they would find the track disappearing down into a valley and up the side of another slope between a sea of grass.
The next afternoon soon after stopping for lunch, a sight greeted Edward that at first he could not comprehend. Over the summit of the next grassy slope appeared a pillar of rock. When they reached the summit, they all stopped and Edward could not stop a gasp escaping his lips. The Rock rose almost sheer out of the plain, its sides grey and black. The only feature he could distinguish from this distance was a broad path winding on a ledge, sheer side both above and below, round the Rock towards the summit. The Rock was not high, no more than two hundred feet from base to top and from his vantage point on the ridge two miles from the Rock, Edward could make out the tumbled ruins of once magnificent buildings and a thick outer wall around the flat top of the Rock. Whether the ruined buildings had been a temple, a fortress or a palace could not be grasped from the ruins but there was no doubt even to Edward's untrained mind that this Rock could not have been captured by a frontal attack. 
Around the base of the Rock was the encampment of the army. The ground around the Rock formed a natural bowl and again Edward was struck by the fact that to a watcher in the ruins, nothing could approach the Rock unseen. Even though the side of the bowl to the east was covered in trees, once the ground became flat about two miles from the base of the Rock, there was little cover.
" It is an amazing sight," Boric's voice sounded in Edward's ear. " Some of the Sandari people claim it was built as a guard post by the same race of supermen as those who lived in the City by the Lake. Others reckon it was the home of the Gods before they vanished from the earth in sorrow at mans cruelty to other men. Still others say it was a temple and a retreat for a long forgotten group of religious fanatics. What ever it had been, the labour involved in building the structure and the wall on the top of that pillar of rock must have been huge. Just think of the effort of hauling all those blocks up that road winding round and round the Rock. Pulling stones up to the top of the Rock could have only have been undertaken by slaves, because any free people would have revolted before it was completed. Whatever its former purpose, until the coming of the Empire, it had become the gathering place of the Sandari, whenever they felt the need to have a meeting of the tribal elders. It was chosen because, as I understand the story, no tribe would claim ownership because they were worried about claiming as theirs land that which belongs to the spirits of the people who built the buildings on the top. The Sandari, as you must know, believe that the spirits of ones ancestors stay around to guide the destiny of later generations and therefore burial grounds are sacred. Consequently, no Sandari would ever interfere with the burial ground of another tribe. They have never rebuilt the ruins as both the Parison and the Rombuli would have. Maybe they are right to let lie what they find and not to interfere."
Turning to his men, Boric ordered in a loud voice which reminded Edward of Boric's father. " Come on you lot. You are soldiers now and we must smarten up. Let us ride into the camp of the Imperial Grand Master in charge of the Army like proper soldiers of the Empire."
With pennants and flags flying and in close, precise rows they rode into the camp. After reporting to the camp commander and making sure the communications groups staying by the Rock were accommodated close to the main tent, Edward, Tag, Margaret and their people found a place to set up their tents for the night. Boric had taken his troops to the main camp of the army.
The next morning early, Tag roused Edward from his bed with a cheery greeting. " Breakfast is ready and as soon as it is fully light we will leave. The others are all ready. We can be at the Maldale Ford by afternoon, deliver our communications people and rest before leaving at the crack of dawn for Ilasdar Bridge. With a bit of luck, we can rest the night there, get our supplies together and slip out of the camp early into the hills. Then all we have to do is find the two Covenenters."
" Easy isn't it!" Edward sighed as he hurriedly dressed. 
After dressing, Edward emerged from his tent to find Boric sitting by the fire next to Margaret eating breakfast. To Edward's surprise, Boric was dressed in an old tunic, heavy grey cloak and dull boots. He had a fur cap on his head and no breastplate around his chest.
" Good morning Edward," Boric greeted him. " A lovely morning for a ride."
" What is he doing here dressed like that?" Edward asked Tag grumpily as he took the offered porridge that Tag had slopped onto a plate.
" Oh did you not know?" Tag grinned evilly. " There has been a change of plan.Boric is coming with us."
" Great," snapped Edward. " How many more are you going to invite along. Though on the other hand, I expect this was part of the plan in the first place and you are only trying to salve my feelings by telling me it is a change."
" Not so angry Edward," Boric remarked mildly. " There is a logic to our plan. We have to get to the camp of the Walloonian Army somewhere on the plains of Walloonia and get to Nomal and Rembert. You might be able to convince Nomal and Rembert who you are and why you have been sent but you have to get to them first. That means convincing the officers of the Walloonian Corps of the Imperial Army and they do not know you. They might know Tag as Overmaster Ormrood of the Imperial Ranger Troop but there again they might not. They will definitely never have heard of, let alone seen, Edward Eastland of Rombuli. No doubt you will show them what you can do if they try to stand in your way, but people might get hurt in the process. We only have so many men to fight this war and to lose some in the process of you proving who you are and why you are there will be a shame. No, I will be known or at least my name will be known and that should enable us to get to the main headquarters in the camp. After that it will be up to you."
" It sounds logical," Edward said grinning. " And I am pleased to have you along really."
" Hypocrite," Tag muttered.
They rode away from the camp early in the morning before most of the soldiers had risen from their slumbers, past the outlying sentries and off across the two miles separating them from the rim of the bowl in which sat the Rock. Wrapped in their heavy cloaks, they rode right into the teeth of an east wind, only the communications people, their escorts, Edward, Tag and Boric. When they reached the rim, they entered a copse but this only lasted for a few miles and they were soon once more crossing the waving grassland of most of Sandaria. By midday they were once more approaching a wood and once in the shelter of the trees they were out of the East wind and settled for a rest and some food. Late that afternoon, they came down from a ridge out of the trees and into the Army camp above the Maldale Ford.
They dropped off their communications people and then set out northwards beside the Lirense River. At first the river ran through shallow banks but after a while the banks became steeper, the river bed more rocky and the speed of the current faster until the roar of the river was a constant sound accompanying their ride. They climbed steadily until the river disappeared between steep banks covered in trees and Edward realised the importance of Maldale Ford to any invading army. It was the only place between the Lake and the Bridge where a large army had any chance of winning through to attack the Rock. 
That night they camped in a clearing in the woods backed up against a rocky outcrop not far from the track they were following. Once again Edward was impressed with the speed with which the irregular Ranger troops had the camp set up. It might not have been with the preciseness of the regular army but it was accomplished quickly and efficiently in a very defensible place. Before the camp was set up, a few Rangers had slipped away from the site out on patrol to secure the surrounding area.
They set out the next morning at dawn, riding through a rocky landscape the only vegetation being small shrubs with long thorns. A constant reminder of the river flowing through a gorge was the roar of fast flowing water in a canyon off to their right. In the distance on the other side of the canyon they could just make out a line of hills equally as bare and shrub covered. They pulled their cloaks close about their bodies in an attempt to keep out the biting east wind. It was with relief at mid day when they made contact with a patrol from the army camp at the Bridge of Sighs.
They camped that evening in the lee of a ridge sheltering from the east wind close to the army camp. Tag made ready their supplies and made sure the horses were in good order before settling down for the evening meal with Edward, Margaret and her escort. After eating the meal, Tag and Margaret went for a walk to be alone together leaving Edward with Bork and his men.
Edward poured another beer and passed the flagon round the men, looking off in the direction that Tag and Margaret had taken.  "Bork. Look after Margaret for me please. She has been my friend since we were little children and I would not like to think that I have put her into too much danger. If I find that something has happened which you could have avoided, you will have me to answer to."
Bork threw back his head and laughed. " You! I am more afraid of what Tag will do if we do not get her back to him at the end of this war. If anything happens to her, I will have to take off but I am sure he will follow. Eastland, I have never seen him this struck on a woman before. No, it is Tag I will worry about not you."
" I would not be too sure about that," Boric remarked as he came to take his place by the fire. " I know Tag is the most resourceful man I have ever met and the toughest. I would never take him on in a fight even though he has taught me a great deal about fighting and staying hidden in enemy country. Bork, I would beware of this seeming innocent and weak man. He has stood up to Covenenters on at least at three occasions that I know of and done so successfully. I doubt if either you or Tag could do that. Make sure you look after Margaret Fox or you might have two of the toughest men in the Empire after you."
Bork look at Edward with renewed respect. "Is that true that you have defied the Covenent? I have never seen anybody do that."
Edward shrugged. "I do have certain advantages which you do not have. Let us leave the subject now but you will promise to look after Margaret won't you?"
Bork grinned. " Oh, we will look after her don't you worry."
It was still dark when Tag shook Edward awake the next morning. " We have to get up and make ready to go. There is something in the air this morning and I think the attack will come today."
Edward rubbed his eyes and got out of bed, shivering in the cool air which came in through the open flap of his tent.  "It just seems cold to me. I can't feel a thing."
Tag grinned, the white of his teeth flashing in the light of the candle he had placed on the floor of the tent. "It is a feeling one gets after a lot of experience of wars and raids. Now get dressed and meet me for breakfast. The others are already up and Margaret has gone to the command tent. That tells me they are preparing for something."
After he had dressed and splashed water on his face, Edward joined Tag and Boric at the fire. While he ate his breakfast, Tag stowed away the tents in the saddlebags of the pack horses.
" All is ready Boric," Tag reported as he sat down by the fire, rubbing his hands in front of the flames to get them warm. " We can leave as soon as you are ready."
Boric sat back and looked away to the northeast in the direction of the bridge. " I think we will stay and see what transpires here before we get away. It will be best to wait until it is light anyway before we venture into the hills. Neither of us knows the lay of the land and it will be better if we can see where we are going. Picket the pack horses ready and lets go and have a look at the bridge before we go."
They rode through the streams of troops marching into position as the sky to the east lightened as dawn approached. In the gathering light, Edward could make out the positions of the various groups of troops on either side of the valley guarding the road that led from the bridge. Boric led them up a slope until they could look along the valley to the bridge.
What he saw took Edward's breath away. The bridge spanned a gorge that cut deeply through the hills. The sound of rushing water was faint as though coming from a great depth below where they sat on their horses. It was the bridge which caused awe. He could not tell whether it was natural or man made. It rose in a graceful arc across the gorge, solid rock, wide enough for four horses abreast. All ready in the brightening light he could make out shadowy figures drawn up in ranks on the other side. Looking round, he made out the ranks of bowmen just down the slope and the lines of pike men ready to move into position across the road leading to the bridge. Near their position were a troop of horse ready to charge.
" How are the enemy going to get across the bridge without being decimated?" Edward whispered to Boric. " By my Maker, it is wide open on the bridge. I know the long bow and these men will sweep the horses off the bridge before they can get to this side."
" That puzzles me though we do not have many long bows here. They have been reserved for the defence at Alskar," Boric whispered back shaking his head vigorously. " There is a considerable force guarding all the paths out of the hills which is the obvious way to attack our position. It will be suicide on that bridge if they do attempt to ride across. They must have some other plan."
The light grew steadily until the sun rose above the hills to the east. There was the sound of a trumpet from across the gorge and Edward watched as the troops on the other side moved forward, their war banners flapping in the breeze. At their head rode a figure in a plumed helmet. The troops moved onto the bridge four abreast, slowly crossing at a walk, for all the world confident of their safety.
" Give me some long bows of my people and they would not get any farther," Edward whispered to Boric. " Even with the less range of the bows these troops have, they will not get passed the centre of the bridge. They will be sitting targets."
" That's what worries me," Boric whispered back. " Our troops tested the range of our bows a few days ago and they have the distance fixed. As soon as the troops reach that point, our men will open fire and there will be mayhem on the bridge. They must have something up their sleeve."
" What is that?" Tag exclaimed pointing to a spot in the hills behind the enemy troops. A gasp went up from the waiting army and horses skittered in apprehension.
Edward stared, the hairs at his neck seeming to rise and shivers travelled the length of his spine. Rising into the air behind the enemy was something he had never seen or even imagined before. 
The creature rose into the air, triangular face ending in a large snout with large jaws and gleaming teeth visible even in the dawn light, long body and tail like a lizard but with wings spreading out from its back which rose and fell rhythmically as it gained height. From a distance its hide looked like leather, grey and solid. As it gained height, Edward saw a figure riding on its back holding a strap with one hand and sitting on a kind of saddle attached by a harness round the creatures body.  The figure had a black helmet, black breastplate and black metal grieves on its legs. Its long hair after it came loose from the bottom of its helmet streamed behind it in the wind. While the army waiting around Edward was silent, the creature flew towards the soldiers, above the heads of the advancing enemy.
When the enemy army reached the centre of the bridge it stopped just out of range of the bowmen's reach. The creature continued to fly slowly towards the waiting troops.
Bows fired from the slope in front of Edward, the arrows flying in a cloud towards the creature. There seemed no escape. The figure on its back raised his hand and a white light streamed out, catching the arrows and sending them into the gorge in a shower of sparks. A groan went up from the army and the enemy troops started forward once more. The bowmen fired again but the figure on the creature once more sent out its bright light and all the arrows were consumed.
Edward sat on his horse watching. His mind had become focused completely on the creature. It was as though the two armies had faded away and there was only him, the creature and the figure on its back on the battlefield. Deep inside, he was angry at the way magic was being used to tip the balance between the armies. He knew he had to act. Drawing on a strength he did not know existed in him, he loosed his sword in its scabbard and urged his horse forward. The horse stopped suddenly. Coming back to the present, Edward found Tag holding his horses bridle and stopping him from going out to confront the creature.
" What the hell do you think you are doing?" Tag shouted his voice distorted by his fear. " We need you when we find Nomal. I will not let you go out there to challenge that creature. All that will happen is you will get yourself killed. We have to go."
" Somebody has to make a stand against that creature," Edward shouted back trying to wrench the reins of his horse from Tags hand. " I am the only one who can do anything to confront it! Let my horse go!"
Boric pushed his horse against Edward’s. " No Edward!" he shouted above the roar of fear from the army. " Your time might come later but now we need you. The army will retreat as they planned, half going one side of the marshes, the other straight back towards the Rock. The whole idea is to hold the enemy up for as long as possible while the defensive position in Rombuli is set up. Come on. We have to go."
For a moment Edward stared at Boric defiantly and then reluctantly, with a last glance at the creature, he turned his horse and followed Tag back towards the camp.
They loaded their spare horses with their gear, travelling northwest towards the foothills of the mountains. Behind they heard the roar as the enemy attacked their positions but Tag ignored the noise and rode on into the hills.
" We will have to get higher," Tag said. " Too low and we will run into enemy patrols."
With Tag leading, they spent the morning angling up the slope taking valleys that led ever higher while moving in the direction they intended to go. Tag choose paths which kept them hidden as much as possible from prying eyes both above and below. It was approaching noon, with the sun became hidden behind a veil of cloud and drizzle starting to wet their cloaks, when Tag called a halt. They ate a hurried cold lunch and then continued.
Soon after lunch, Tag raised his arm, indicating for them to stop and listen. Edward heard voices and horses approaching lower down the slope. Tag led them off the track they were following and into the trees, finding a hiding place behind some brambles growing close to an outcrop of rock. Leaving Boric and Edward to tend the horses, Tag retraced their steps disappearing down the trail. Shortly he returned.
" I have wiped away our evidence of passage so we should be safe." Was all he whispered when he rejoined Edward and Boric. " I will go and have a look at who is coming."
It seemed like an age while they waited trying to keep the horses quiet and to remain hidden. Then Tag appeared silently pushing his way into their hiding place.
" They have gone now," he whispered. " It was a patrol of the enemy. From what they were saying they are scouts for a troop which is coming this way. Come on but try to keep as silent as possible."
Tag once more took the lead, heading through a valley that started to descend. Again, after a time, Tag raised his arm and they stopped. Listening, Edward could make out the sound of horses tackle and movement from the valley below. He could not see anything.
Dismounting, Boric passed his horses reins to Tag. " Look after the horses," Boric ordered. " Come on Edward, lets creep up ahead and have a look."
  Dismounting, Edward gave his horses reins to Tag and followed Boric through the trees. Coming out of the trees they crawled through the bracken to the crest of a hill. Parting the bracken very carefully, Edward found he was looking down into a wide valley with a brook tumbling over a boulder strewn bed running down its centre.
Riding in formation along a path beside the brook was a troop of soldiers heading towards Sandaria. There were about five hundred soldiers and a supply train of pack horses. 
" Let us get back to Tag," Boric whispered. " We have to find a way of warning Section Master Tolbert's forces of this threat."
" That's easy," Edward whispered as they scrambled back to Tag. " I will contact Margaret."
" Will you be able to get through from here?" Boric asked. "There are a lot of hills about."
" We will see when we get back." Edward replied.
Once back with Tag, Edward sat with his back to a tree and concentrated on opening his mind to Margaret. Suddenly he was overwhelmed with the noise of people shouting in his mind. At first all he could hear was the sound like the buzz of angry bees but by concentrating further he was able to make out what was being passed from mind to mind. There was a lot of panic about creatures flying above the enemy, preventing any real attack or defence by the armies of Rombuli and Sandaria.
Pushing the noise into the background, he concentrated on Margaret. 
"Margaret are you there? " Edward projected his thoughts.
After a while Margaret replied. " Edward is that you? It is hard to hear you above the noise of all the others. Where are you? "
" We are climbing out of Sandaria and about to descend to the Walloonian Plain." Edward told her. " We have just observed a troop of about five hundred soldiers approaching your flank. They should come out into Sandaria by tomorrow morning. Boric wanted you to warn Section Master Tolbert so that you can take measures to combat this force."
" I will tell him straight away,"  Margaret's anxious voice sounded in his head.  " We have split the army into two and our half are riding west along the north shore of the swamp. Is Tag OK? "
"Yes Margaret. He sends his love. Make sure you look after yourself. I must go now or we will be caught by the scouts of the troop riding through the valley below."  Edward shut his mind to the noise and went back to Tag and Boric.
" Margaret says she will tell Section Master Tolbert straight away. We will hope he has a plan to minimise the threat from those soldiers," Edward told them when he left Margaret's mind. " Oh Margaret sends her love and tells you to be careful."
Tag actually blushed but after frowning at Boric as though to say don't you make any comment, he mounted his horse and ordered them down the path towards the Walloonian Plain.
For the next day and a half they rode northwest through a country of gentle slopes, small coppices of trees and well tended fields. The mountains loomed ever higher to the south, cutting off all communication with Sardonia and Rombuli. They were on their own in an alien country. Because they were not certain who was in control of the land around, they avoided all habitation, detouring round villages and staying hidden from isolated farm steads. Edward marvelled at how peaceful it appeared, a scene of rural tranquillity.
Shortly after lunch, they came to a belt of trees and Tag ordered them to dismount while he went ahead to spy out the land. He was soon back.
" Half a mile ahead is a large road," Tag said as he drank from his water bottle. " I think it is the main highway from Ashurst to Bolivant, the two main towns in Walloonia. Bolivant is down on the border with Pregaon where the road forks, one fork leading off towards Lomant, the capital of Bergia, the other south towards Parison. If I am right, Bryents Ridge is to the east of here and that is where we will find Nomal and the defenders of Walloonia. I suggest we follow the road until we encounter some soldiers. Then Boric, it is up to you."
" All right, we will follow the road as long as Edward agrees," Boric answered looking at Edward.
" Don't ask me," Edward shrugged his shoulders. " I have no idea where we are or how we are going to get to the army to be let through to Nomal. I will follow your lead."
" Cheer up Edward," Boric laughed at Edward's sad expression. "I will try to convince any soldiers we come across that we are not the enemy. Besides, if I am right, we will be coming from the right direction so they will let us through. All you will have to do is convince Nomal."
They rode out onto the road and turned in the direction of what Tag thought to be Bryents Ridge. It was not long before they came across carts moving in the opposite direction filled with household goods of people fleeing the fighting. Then they caught up with a line of wagons slowly wending their way towards the front. The soldiers escorting the wagons looked suspiciously at Boric when he approached but waved in the direction they were going after a short conversation. That night they camped in a grove of trees and had a hot meal for the first time for days.
It was not long after they set out the next morning, they found their way blocked by a check point manned by soldiers inspecting the papers of everybody who came along the road.
" Leave this to me," Boric instructed and he led them to the checkpoint. 
" Good morning," he greeted the soldiers as he dismounted. " I am looking for the army head quarters and have a message for the Commander from Grand Master Silker of the Rombuli province."
Boric produced some papers from his saddlebag and presented these to the soldiers.
The sergeant in charge looked through the papers and then said. " You will have to wait for an escort to come through. I do not have enough men to escort you to the Commander. Wait over there." The sergeant indicated a wooden hut by the road.
Tag dismounted and indicated for Edward to do likewise. Leading the horses over to the hut, he tethered them and sat on a bench. Edward and Boric joined him.
" What now?" Edward asked nervously eying the soldiers at the barrier.
" We wait," Boric answered calmly. " Our papers were not what they were expecting so they will pass us on to higher authority. I expect a patrol will come along shortly and be asked to escort us to the head quarters of the army. Take this chance to rest. You never know when we will get the chance again."
They sat on the bench, Boric and Tag with their eyes closed. Edward idly watching the soldiers manning the barricade and the traffic passing along the road. There were a number of wagons most of which they had passed on their way  and a number of soldiers rushing towards the front or back towards what Edward understood to be Ashurst. They had been sitting there for about thirty minutes when Edward heard the clatter of hoofs as a number of horses approached. A patrol came into view and stopped by the barricade. After consulting with the sergeant, the officer dismounted and walked towards Edward.
Edward had a strange feeling that he knew the man, the upright carriage, the expensive and well cared for uniform and the air of superiority should have given him the clue. Edward felt Tag and Boric stir at his side.
The officer stopped in front of the group, raised his eyebrows and then saluted.
" Over Master Borovic!" the officer said. " What brings you here?"
" Master Cannoc," Boric said with a bow. " I will not return the salute because we are not in uniform. I thought you were with my father."
" I was posted to Grand Master Boman's head quarters in Walloonia to gain experience. Since then, as you must know, we have been cut off from Parison." Cannoc replied and then in that superior voice which Edward knew from experience went on. " As I was asking, what are you doing here?"
Boric laughed. " Same old Cannoc! Don't you ever forget your status? Enough of this. I am here to deliver a message to The Commander of the Army here in Walloonia from Grand Master Silker in Rombuli. I don't think I know Grand Master Boman. Tag is here to get us through the enemy if need be. He is the best irregular in the whole of the Empire. You know Edward Eastland. He is here to deliver a message to Nomal the Covenenter, from Latask."
Cannoc's eyes narrowed when he looked at Edward but then his expression softened. " Hello Eastland. Did you ever get over having to escort Kitty Borovic around?"
" Hello Cannoc."  Edward grinned back. " I did actually. I married her last year."
Cannoc tried to hide his surprise but failed. " You surprise me. Anyway, I have been asked by the sergeant to escort you to the main camp and deliver you to Grand Master Boman. Shall we go?"
Tag collected the horses and they mounted, joining Cannoc and his men by the barricade. The troops formed up around Edward, Tag and Boric, heading on down the road towards the camp. More and more Edward became aware of the preparations for war. There were more troops about, soon they passed store dumps and after an hour they entered a village. In the centre was a large house, in front of which Cannoc dismounted, indicating for Boric, Tag and Edward to do likewise. His men took charge of the horses and led them away.
After walking up the steps in front of the house, they were confronted by guards before the doors. Cannoc said a brief word with the guards and they were told to go in.
" I will have to ask you to leave your weapons here,"  Cannoc said indicating a place by the wall where various swords, daggers and other weapons had propped up against a bench. " It is an order from Grand Master Boman that all strangers must leave their weapons outside when they go into the operations room."
Tag, Boric and Edward lent their swords and daggers against the wall and followed Cannoc through the house. Guards barred their way outside a door, but a brief word from Cannoc and they stood aside, one knocking on the door. At a shout of enter, he opened the door and they went into the room.
The room was big, the ceiling held up by oak beams and there was a large table dominating the space in the centre. A cheerful fire burnt in the grate to one side and light streamed in through large, uncurtained windows. A group of men, all in the uniform of the Imperial Army, were leaning over the table consulting some maps and it was obvious to Edward that they were in the middle of a discussion.
A man with closely cropped grey hair, short but with powerful shoulders and a lined careworn face looked up when they were inside the room.
" Well," was all he said in a voice that seemed to be dragged over gravel.
Cannoc saluted, banging his fist on his chest. The grey haired man waited patiently, his brown eyes hard, his stare direct. "This is Over Master Borovic,"  Cannoc said indicating Boric. " He has a message for you from Grand Master Silker in Rombuli."
" Welcome Borovic. How is your father?" Boman grated.
" Good afternoon Grand Master. I have not heard from my father for over two years. I assume he was caught up in what ever happened in Parison. I have been in Rombuli since the troubles began." Boric answered. Taking the papers from his pouch, he walked round the table and handed these to Boman.
Boman looked through the papers, shook his head at what he read and laughed weakly. " Well that is a comfort. What a strategy he is proposing. It is suicide but I suppose it is all we can do. Who are the others with you?"
" This is Over Master Ormrood of the Rangers. By his side looking all lost and out of place is Edward Eastland a Rombuli." Boric answered.
Boman frowned. "I have heard of you Ormrood. Everybody calls you Tag if I remember right. Many soldiers especially those who have had anything to do with the Rangers tell me you are the best. We could do with your help in the morning when the fighting starts. But what is a Rombuli civilian doing in my camp?"
Boric looked at Edward and indicated for him to speak. " I have a message for the Covenenters Nomal and Rembert from Latask who might now be their leader," he replied.
" Make yourselves comfortable gentlemen. I will send for our Covenenter friends. There is food and drink on that table over there." Turning away in dismissal, he went back to his conversation with his officers.
They sat at the table and waited. At least, thought Edward, we have managed to get through to the army head quarters though our future is uncertain.  Boman was not very happy with the instructions contained in Boric's papers.
Later Boman came over to where they sat and poured himself a drink, leaving his officers leaning over the maps spread on the table. Wiping his brow with a large white handkerchief, he sat down next to Boric.
" Well Borovic, what will you do when Eastland here has delivered his message?" he asked stretching his legs out before him.
" We have not planned that far ahead," Boric answered honestly. " Getting through to you was enough of a problem to deal with without looking further ahead. We are under instructions to try to return to Rombuli and help with the defence but how I am not certain. Edward Eastland knows more about that than I do."
Boman turned to Edward. " Well?"
" I have been asked to deliver instructions from Latask, Nomal's superior and then help them in any way we can," Edward replied. " As far as I can see, the Empire has disintegrated and only your army here and Silker's in Rombuli stand any chance of keeping the Empire alive. The Rombuli and Sandari army is out numbered by at least three to one, I am told, though I am not a soldier. I do not know how you stand on that score. What we have to do is hold onto some territory while what is left of the Covenent decide how to attack the power which seems to hold sway over the rest of the Empire. Latask and Nelvask want to retreat deep into Rombuli and make a stand in Alskar Province by holding the line at Alskar River. There they hope to be able to concentrate their magic and hold off the magic of the enemy. It seems a long odds strategy to me but I have no way of judging whether it will be successful or not. I am an innocent when it comes to military strategy. So we will help all we can but if you fail to hold the enemy here, we will retreat and try to make our way back to Rombuli through the mountains with Nomal, Rembert and any of your army that can be saved."
Boric laughed. " Well Edward that is the most I have ever heard you say in one go about the military situation. You are much more astute than you appear on the surface."
Boman was about to say something but stopped when the door opened. A tall thin man with a long face walked in accompanied by a shorter, rather plump man with a round head and a smiling face. 
Boman waved his hand in their direction. " Rembert is the tall thin one with the mournful expression. The cheerful one is Nomal."
When the two Covenenters had joined the group round the table, Nomal spoke. " You sent for us, Grand Master?"
" It seems we have received a delegation from Rombuli, Nomal." Boman sat up straight. " This is Imperial Master Borovic from the Rombuli Governor's Guard. Next to him is Tag Ormrood, a leader of the Rangers. Of more importance to them is Edward Eastland a Rombuli civilian who claims he has a message for you two from Latask your superior."
Rembert raised his eyebrows when he looked at Edward. "Eastland? Are you the Rombuli who stood up to Latask that time in Nimmar?"
Edward frowned. " How did you hear about that?"
Nomal laughed.  " All the Covenent were warned about you. It came as a shock to our order to find somebody in the Empire with your power who had not been incorporated into our ranks. Latask was not amused at having to stay in a backwater of the Empire like Rombuli in order to keep an eye on you and find out more about the power possessed by some of the Rombuli. The only one of the Good who knew anything about the Rombuli was Nelvask and we all thought he was mad when he told us he was going to search for this people called the Rombuli who had magical power. Then when the Empire conquered Rombuli, he disappeared."
" Now you turn up here with a message from Latask," Rembert remarked suspiciously. " It seems Latask has finally incorporated you into our order."
Edward growled in a menacing voice. " I am not one of your order. I am a free man but Latask asked me to help."
Nomal raised his hand. " Enough of this suspicion. Where is the message?"
Edward tapped his head.  "In here. Nelvask and Latask thought it was best not to write anything down."
Nomal frowned. "You said Nelvask and Latask? Is Nelvask alive and well?"
" Yes," replied Edward. " He came out of hiding and he and Latask agreed to sink their differences in order to fight the enemy of the Empire. They call it the enemy because the have no information on who is behind the attempt to overthrow the Empire or on what the source of their power is. There was some talk about the Blue but I did not understand that."
Rembert swore. "So it looks like the Blue faction is making a bid to control the Empire. What I don't understand is where they got the power from to control the people and to block all mental communications. The Covenent have power but not of that kind."
" I think Latask has something to say on that," Edward replied conscious all of a sudden of the way in which all the others in the room were listening. He did not like being the centre of such concentrated attention.
" All right Edward,"  Nomal said. "How are you going to deliver this message?"
" As I understand it, this is how Latask would do it," Edward replied as he walked over to the fire.
Edward was not certain if what he was about to undertake would work but he had seen and felt how Latask had shown him Nomal and Rembert. Looking into the fire, he opened his mind in the same way he had seen Latask and projected an image of Latask into the flames. There was a gasp in the room from the watchers as Latask's image appeared in the flames. Then Edward let Latask's image deliver the message to Rembert and Nomal.
When Edward let the image of Latask disappear, he turned back to the two Covenenters.
Nomal was laughing but Rembert was serious. " Well! Well! Well!" Nomal said between chuckles. " That message and the way it was delivered can of only come from Latask. He is the only Covenenter who has ever learnt to do that and he uses his power to impress gullible audiences."
Rembert however was not laughing. " This is suicide! The only strategy we have is to fall back to a defensible position, hold it by magic, if our magic is greater than theirs, and hope to think of a way of getting to the source of power in Parison."
Boric spoke then, his words dropping like stones. " Can you think of a better strategy? We have lost most of the Empire. We do not know what is happening elsewhere in the Empire. We have managed to work out how to combat the power that controls the peoples lives so that somebody with the power like Edward and you can now operate behind the enemy lines. Unless we hold onto some territory, how are we to mount an attack on the source of power?"
Boman swore. " And people think I am always too optimistic! Where is this Wyland Dale both Silker and Latask talk about? I thought there was no way through the mountains to Rombuli this side of Sandaria."
" Can I say something?" Edward asked tentatively. At a nod from Boman, he continued. " You might find this strange but it is a part of our history recorded in the Book of the Rombuli."
Rembert laughed cruelly.  " You bring a message that means suicide unless something turns up and now you expect us to listen to tales and legends of an obscure people who were unknown until the Empire came. This is madness."
Boric banged the table. " You still have not said what you would do to combat the enemy! It would be well for you to listen to what Edward Eastland has to say. If we win a great victory tomorrow, you will not have to follow his advice. By the looks on the faces of all the officers gathered round the table when we came into your strategy meeting, the chance of a victory for you tomorrow is slim. Obviously, as soldiers, we will try to gain an advantage but if the odds are the same as the Sandari and Rombuli armies face, we are in for a long, hard and ultimately unsuccessful battle tomorrow. If that is the case we have to have a fall back position. Edward is trying to help explain Latask's fall back position. Therefore I think you should at least listen without all the cheap comments about obscure and unimportant people."
Nomal smiled and remarked.  " Don't get rubbed up by Rembert's gloomy talk. He is in a relatively cheerful mood for him. What you have to understand is that we have been retreating across the Empire for a year with out much hope of stemming the tide of the enemy advance. Tomorrow's battle could very well be our last chance to save the people we were sent to Walloonia to help. What do you want to say?"
Edward looked around the table. " As I understand things, it is you two Covenenters that Latask needs. Anybody else who can make it through to Alskar Province is a bonus. It is your magic combined with Latask, Nelvask and Surat that might be able to hold a line until we can mount an attack on Parison. Sorry Grand Master but that is the truth. The rest of us are not important."
Boman smiled and said gently. " Tell us about Wyllon Dale. I have known, as all soldiers do from the time they join the army, that we are expandable in the long run. It is something we all have to accept."
Edward shook his head. " Maybe that is why my people do not make very good soldiers. We believe everybody is important though Derrick Gorland paid the ultimate sacrifice for his people because he believed that his sacrifice would save most of his nation. Anyway, enough of this arguing amongst ourselves. It is written in the Book of the Rombuli that, during the great disturbance of flood, drought, hurricanes and upheaval five hundred years or so ago, the two thirds of the Rombuli nation left their lands around Lake Umburti and travelled north in search of land and peace out of the way of the trouble. They came through here from out of the moors to the west and met Nelvask. He led them away from the Walloonian army to a place called Wyllon Dale where they then disappeared into the mountains. After resting in some hidden valleys to gain their strength, Nelvask led them out of the mountains and into what is now Rombuli. What he is asking you to do is get to the head of Wyllon Dale and somehow you will be led through the mountains to join Nelvask and Latask in Alskar Province."
Boman sighed. " I agree that that is the fall back position, vague as it is. Until it is obvious that we need to think about that plan, we have a battle to fight. Though I think it unlikely, from all reports of the strength of their army, we might stop them here at Bryents Ridge. What are your plans?" he asked turning to Boric.
" We were hoping to get back to Rombuli and help there," Boric replied.
" We could do with some help here tomorrow," Boman remarked.  " Will you help us?"
Boric grinned. "Of course we will do all we can but when things look as though they are turning against us, we will have to leave."
Boman took Boric's arm and led him over to join the other officers standing at the map table. " We are short of officers. Over Master Somar and Master Cannoc are the only officers I can spare on our left flank which will be stationed here. Will you be willing to join them and help?"
Boric looked at the map. " Yes we will help." Pointing a finger at the map, he added. " You are vulnerable through the woods here. I know the ground is not ideal for a full assault but you have to guard against small scale intrusions through here. I will get Tag to mount patrols on our left. Are there any other Rangers here?"
" I will give him authority to order as many troops as he needs to guard the woods." Bowman saluted. " Right everybody. We are all aware of what is needed in the morning. Be in place before dawn and wait for the assault. Remember the plan and follow our strategy. May your God be with you all. Nomal and Rembert a word."