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.