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