One morning, three weeks after leaving Nimmar, Edward and Tag sat in the common room of the Grey Dog Inn in Alskar waiting for all the people with the talent they had contacted and who had agreed to become part of the communications network, to join them. Since leaving the Grey Dog three weeks before, they had spent the time criss-crossing Alskar Province through good and bad weather. They had spent the time following the leads given them by each those with the talent who had agreed to join them. From one place to another, one contact to the next, as though following a trail with no defined path or destination, blown about by the winds of circumstances. During their travels, they had met confident ones who needed no second encouragement to join their group and timid ones who had taken a great deal of persuading to leave home. There had been many who had refused to come. These had cited various reasons from being needed to plant the fields to the need to look after relatives. Edward had not condemned these people, just smiled and asked them to stay in touch in case they were needed in the future. Some. who Edward knew beyond a shadow of doubt possessed some talent, had shut their minds to Edward's probing and figuratively turned their backs on the whole enterprise.
Edward, Tag and Margaret had been to small villages, hamlets and isolated farms even venturing into the mountains to the west and in amongst the trappers and miners. A few nights they had failed to find accommodation and had had to use the tent Tag had packed. In total, Edward had managed to persuade twelve people with the talent to accompany them to Nimmar. He ahd now way of testing what type of power they held. All he was able to establish was that they could all communicate with their minds. It was, he reasoned, up to Nelvask to determine how useful they all would be to the task of supplying the army with communications networks.
When the time came for him to return to Nelvask, he had arranged for all those who had agreed to join him to meet him in Alskar. Now, later in the morning at Alskar Meeting House, Tag and Edward would meet these twelve others who had agreed to come with them to Nimmar. Once their army escort arrived, they would start the journey to Nimmar. At this time, Edward felt elated at what he had managed to accomplish but exhausted by the constant travelling. He did understand this was only the beginning of what Tag described as their adventure.
" Well, we managed to achieve what we set out to do," Tag remarked, sitting back in a padded chair with a tankard of beer in his hand. " After breakfast, I will go to the Fort and collect the horses we will need and our escort. I understand Boric will be leading the escort troops. He arrived at the Fort last evening ready to set out for Nimmar today. On another subject, what is it like hearing all these voices in your head?"
Edward smiled from his place by the fire. " Confusing, though we have the ability to close our mind to the babble if we want. I can leave a small part of my mind open to anybody who wants to specifically contact me. I have to go and look over my property so I'll see you at the Meeting House about eleven o'clock."
The first snows of winter were dusting the square outside the Meeting House when Edward arrived later that morning. As he passed by, some young men in one corner of the square were enacting weapons drill under the watchful eyes of two Imperial Army instructors in, churning the snow to a dirty grey. This, thought Edward, is a sure indication that the mobilisation of the Rombuli had truly started. The proclamation had been posted on the Meeting House door the day after he ahd left for Fox’s farm. Things had happened quickly after that with the arrival of Boric with the army trainers. Very soon enough young men had volunteered for the training to commence. Soon most eligible men were undergoing training. Just as Edward had promised at the Governor’s Council meeting in Nimmar, once the Rombuli had been convinced that they were free, most men had grasped the gravity of the situation and volunteered.
Inside the Meeting House building, the young people contacted by Edward were waiting along with Mark Fox and seven other men and women.
" Hello Edward," Mark Fox greeted him as he shook the snow from his hair. " I did what Nelvask asked and contacted all the people I could with the talent. The ones who admitted they had the talent are over there talking together. We are going to have a meeting of those with the talent today after you have left. Hopefully we can come up with a plan on how we can use our talent to help the Empire in this situation. We will also plan the elections of representatives to sit on the Council in a few weeks. I see you and Margaret successfully collected a number of younger people to take back to Nimmar with you."
" Hello Mr. Fox," Edward answered, smiling slightly at the memory of how Mr. Fox had been so antagonistic towards the Empire three years before. " Yes. I think we were as successful as we hoped when we started. Once Tag gets here with the Army escort, we will be on our way."
" Once you have left, I will start my meeting," Mark Fox remarked looking round the room. " I will go and say goodbye to my daughter now. Try to look after her Edward. Her mother will never forgive me if anything happens to Margaret."
" I will do my best Mister Fox but we are in the hands of our Maker now," Edward answered, with a sad expression on his face. " Goodbye. Hopefully I will see you again in the future."
A man who Edward did not recognise came through the door and caught his eye. " Are you Edward Eastland? There is an Imperial Master outside asking for you."
" Thank you," Edward answered. Calling for his group to go outside, Edward left the building to join Boric.
When Edward emerged into the light snow, he found Boric with Tag watching the Rombuli drilling in the square. There appeared to be a great many horses being held by one of the soldiers but then Edward realised there were a great many riders to be accommodated.
" Hello Edward," Boric smiled at his friend. " I am on the way back to Nimmar after getting the volunteers and training under way in Alskar Province. I thought my troops could act as your escort for your journey to Nimmar. Are your people ready?"
" Hello Boric, you have been busy," Edward answered nodding at the Rombuli men. " My people, as you call them, are coming out in a few minutes after saying goodbye to their friends and family. Remember Boric, some are not very good horse riders so it might take longer to get to Nimmar than you might have hoped. I see Tag has the horses for my people."
It was a large group that left Alskar for Nimmar, Edward, Tag and the twelve Rombuli escorted by Boric and his troop. There was no particular hurry and they camped the night sheltered by a grove of oaks half way to Nimmar. Luckily the snow had stopped falling and the fires kept out most of the chill but it was an uncomfortable night for many.
It was early afternoon when once again Edward topped the hill and looked down over Nimmar. The Rombuli with Edward all looked down on the town for the first time and exclaimed at its size in comparison to Alskar. Like that first time when he had been accompanied by Grand Master Borovic, Boric told his men to smarten up and form ranks.
Edward opened his mind and contacted Nelvask to inform him that his group were approaching the Island. Nelvask replied to say that he would be at the Mansion to meet them.
Once through the town, the group followed Boric's soldiers across the river to the Island. After crossing the bridge, the escort left Boric and took the path to the Barracks. When they arrived at the front door, they all handed the horses reins to grooms outside the Mansion. Carrying their bundles and keeping close together their eyes looking round at their surroundings, they followed Edward down the hill to meet Nelvask.
He found Nelvask waiting on the lawn in front of the Meeting House well wrapped up against the cold. He greeted Edward enthusiastically as the group approached.
" Welcome back Edward," Nelvask called. " I see you have succeeded in finding some young people to help us form a communications team. I have managed to find fifteen talented people in the rest of Rombuli. That means we now have a total of twenty-seven. Lets get them into the dormitories and then I can get to know them in the morning."
" Hello Nelvask," Edward shook his mentor's hand. " I will leave them with you and go and clean up before dinner. I expect Kitty is waiting for me."
Turning to Margaret who was talking quietly to Tag, Edward said, " This is Nelvask and he will look after you all for now. I'll leave you in his hands and see you in the morning. If you need to contact me, you know what to do now."
As the activity in preparation for war increased, the old year passed into the new on the shortest day and the snow piled up across Rombuli. During this time, Edward felt that he was on the periphery of the activity. As the other people with the talent who he and Nelvask had brought to Nimmar learnt more about their abilities and formed their groups, Edward was not included as part of their teams. Even though he joined in some of their mental exercises and showed them the extent of his own power, he always felt like an outsider. They were forming groups of three, one of them to travel with the army and two staying in Nimmar to take their messages. He was not part of that system.
Tag was set the task of furnishing escorts for those providing the communications between the armies in the field and the base on the island. For weeks Edward did not see Tag as he searched for the right people to look after those with the talent among the Rangers. Once he had assembled the right people, he spent all his time training them and introducing them to their charges. He did not seem to have any time to spend with Edward.
Boric immersed himself in the planning of the Rombuli training and deployment. He spent days away from Nimmar and when he was there he hardly had any time for Edward.
Even Kitty was busy organising the women to form healing groups to look after the wounded once the war had started. She spent a great deal of time in Nimmar with her friendsarriving back often just in time to dress for dinner.
Nobody seemed to know what Edward's task would be, so he wandered from group to group, offering help here and there without any focus for his efforts or his life. It was in some ways a lonely time without purpose or focus.
He did notice on many occasions that Tag and Margaret were spending a great deal of their leisure time in each others company. Margaret more and more explored the countryside north of Nimmar with Tag and some of his men. This area had been designated as the place from which she would lead a group harassing the advancing Enemy army as the Rombuli and Sandaria armies retreated towards Alskar. When he complained to Nelvask that he was not doing much to help, Nelvask would only say that his time would come later.
After the new year had begun, groups of Rombuli started to gather in Nimmar before moving on to their designated places on the battle front. A meeting of the Rombuli Council took place in the historic Meeting House on the Island and Edward welcomed Mark Fox to Nimmar. Still as the time passed, nobody told him what his role was going to be.
As the snows started to melt, Edward was summoned to the office of Rulask the Governor. In the office next to what had become known as the operations room, were Rulask, Nelvask and Latask.
" Ha, Edward come on in, " Rulask said from his comfortable arm chair by the fire. " Sit down."
When Edward was seated, Nelvask said. " You must have been feeling rather left out of what has been happening since you came back from Alskar. Well, we now have a job for you and Tag. As you know, we have chosen the Rombuli who are to join the front line as observers and communications people. They have also been given the task of harassing the enemy after we retreat back towards Alskar. Each one has been provided with an escort and a territory. How they will overcome the need to communicate from behind the lines, we have not worked out yet but Latask is working on that. Now it will be your and Tag's task to escort these groups to their places on the front line in time for the campaign. Boric Borovic and his troop will accompany you. The details will be given to you later. Once all the Rombuli are in place, you and Tag are to go on to Walloonia and find Nomal and Rembert, the only other two Covenenters who we believe are still free."
Edward frowned. " How will I know where to look?"
Latask smiled grimly. " At least you have accepted the task without question. My advice would be for you to find out as much as you can about Walloonia from the information I have in my room and that in the Governor's office. Tag will know a little as he has travelled in Walloonia. Edward, we need those Covenenters to know what is happening here and to provide them with the chance to join us if their task fails in Walloonia."
" What do they look like?" Edward asked. “ If I am to contact them, I will have to know what they look like.”
Latask laughed. " If you get through the mountains to their camp, you will not need to know what they look like. They will be the ones looking after the army and will soon know who you are. It will come as a surprise for them to find somebody who is not of the Circle but who has the power you do. Still, sit there and I will show you what they look like."
Turning to the fire burning in one corner of the room, Latask waved his hands. The flames at first seemed to die and then sprang up again in a fierce solid light. The light wavered, went silver and then figures appeared. Rulask gasped. Two men, one tall and thin with a short cropped beard, long nose and thick lips set in a grim expression, the other, shorter, broad around the girth with a shaven face and black curly hair. The second was grinning, his blue eyes sparkling.
" The tall thin serious one is Rembert, the happy one is Nomal." The silver light died and in its place was the fire.
" How did you do that?" Edward asked.
Nelvask laughed. " Not many people can conjure pictures in smoke so Latask, even at his age, likes to show off. I must admit it is a good way of showing things to a group of people. The usual way is to project a picture into somebody's mind, which is how I would do it. With a lot of people, doing it my way would take a long time."
For the first time since Edward had known him, Latask looked rather sheepish.
" I suppose it is showing off but it impressed the Governor. Nomal and Rembert will not leave their chosen people until all is lost. If I am right, your pleading with them to come to join us here will not alter their minds. What you will have to do is convince them that if things go badly, and they lose Walloonia, the best chance they have for stemming the tide of the invasion is for them to join us here."
Edward looked sceptical. " How am I to convince them of that? They do not even know me and they will not be able to get in touch with you."
" Edward, I have no idea how you can convince them but you are going to try," Latask shrugged.
Edward looked to Rulask. " Is this one of your orders?" he asked knowing the answer before Rulask replied.
" Edward, I am the symbol of the Empire but I have not the power to order you to do anything. I am relying on these two old magicians as much as I am on you." Rulask replied truthfully. " They have the only source of power here which might be able to stem the tide of the enemy's power. Silker and the other Army Officers will plan the military response to any invasion but even they will rely on these two for help if the enemy use any forces of magic. If all is not to be lost, we have to hold a line at Alskar River to give us time to figure out how to combat these forces ranged against us. The odds against us holding the line are rather poor, as you well know. Latask assures me that without Nomal and Rembert, the odds might be overwhelming. Therefore, they need you to contact these two Covenenters. It is not an order but will you do this thing for me?"
Edward stared out of the window at the melting snow before answering. " All right, I will try to do what you ask. I have no idea how to go about this task but I will have a few days to think about it. I suppose the first thing is to go and find Tag and plan what we are going to do."
" Thank you Edward," Rulask said.
" Don't thank me in too much of a hurry. It is you who is going to have to explain to Kitty why I am being sent away again," Edward said with a grin. " I will leave you to the rest of your planning and go to find Tag."
Edward left the meeting and walked through the snow across the river to the barracks. He asked a passing soldier where he could find the Rangers and was directed to a building in the centre of the barracks.
The building was a vast hall where some of the most disreputable men Edward had ever seen were practising with weapons and hand too hand fighting. Tag, stripped to the waist, moved between the groups, offering advice here and admonishing some of the men there. Edward stood and watched for a while until he caught Tag's eye, bringing Tag over to greet him.
" Hello Edward. What brings you here?" Tag greeted him cheerfully, wiping his chest with a towel. " Want to try your hand at this?"
" I came to talk to you," Edward said. " Who are these men?"
" These are my men, " Tag answered proudly, looking round the hall at the men. " These are the men who are going to look after the communications teams that we gathered to help the army. They come from all the races of the Empire and they have been chosen individually by me."
" They look most untrustworthy to me," Edward remarked thinking of Margaret and Tony Newton who he knew had volunteered to accompany the Army in the field.
Tag laughed loudly. " In a way they are but they are the best when it comes to unorthodox methods. None of them would fit into the army, as such. Indeed, many of them have been disciplined by the army at one time or another but they are the best suited for the job of keeping the people you convinced to help us alive in the heat of battle and what comes after. Come on over here and I will introduce you to the team who are designated to look after Margaret."
Tag led Edward around the hall to a group of men who were lounging in one corner away from the others. The men stood at the approach of Edward and Tag. There were six men, all dressed in worn nondescript clothes and looking like a band of bandits. The leader was a large man with a patch over one eye whose hand made Edward's disappear when he shook it.
Edward looked from one to the other and could not help remarking. "Do you trust Margaret with this bunch of thugs?"
The men all laughed cheerfully at Edward’s implied criticism.
Tag was very serious when he replied. " Yes, Edward. I would trust these men with my life. They are the best I have ever known. They may not look much when compared to the smart uniformed soldiers but they know what they are doing. They will keep Margaret alive if it is at all possible. And they know if they do not, and are still alive when I get to them, they will have to deal with me."
Bork, the leader with the patch over one eye, grinned even more. " Don't fret yourself, Edward Eastland. Oh yes, we all know who you are. Tag has told us that Margaret is here because of you. We will keep your friend alive and help her to achieve whatever she is asked to do. Even if only for professional pride, we will keep her alive. I may be tough, but Tag is the best and I would not like to have to face him if anything happens to Margaret."
Tag waved to his men and they resumed their seats. " All right Edward Eastland, what do you want from me?"
" Can we go some place private?" Edward asked.
Tag nodded and indicated a door at the end of the hall.
" My room," he said.
Once in Tag's room, which proved to be an equipment store, Tag sat in a chair and waved Edward into another. Reaching behind his shoulder, Tag retrieved a bottle of wine and two goblets from a shelf, pouring the wine for them to share. Grinning broadly, he raised his goblet as though in a toast, saying with a world weary air, " Speak my friend and tell me what brings you away from the luxury of the Mansion to the sweaty depths of the barracks. It must be serious or you would have called for me to come to you so that you would not have to soil your delicate hands."
Edward sipped from his drink while collecting his thoughts. " You may not like this but I have agreed, on your behalf with the full approval of Boric Borovic, a mission to accompany me into Walloonia."
Tag stared hard at Edward and then growled. " I suppose I have no choice but to go along with you. I was hoping to help keep Margaret alive."
Edward shrugged his shoulders. " I don't pretend to understand the way the army works or who can give orders to whom. Rulask, the Governor, gave me the order and Silker as the Chief of the Army then approved. Boric Borovic went along with the scheme. So I suppose the orders came from the top for you to accompany me though I as a civilian was given the choice of whether to go or not."
" I get the picture," Tag's manner was resigned to his fate. " What are we supposed to do?
" Some of what I am about to say you all ready know, " Edward began." We are to accompany the communications teams to their places on the front lines. Two teams to Ishika, two to the Rock, two to the ford and two, including Margaret's, to the canyon crossing so that they are in place before the invasion starts. Once they are all in position, and before the fighting starts, we are to slip across the border between Sardonia and Walloonia and locate the Walloonian front line. Specifically, we are to locate two Covenenters called Nomal and Rembert and deliver a message from Latask. There that's it or as much of it as I know about."
Tag laughed out loud but shook his head. " That's it! By Hades that's it! Have you any idea what you have let us in for?"
Edward shook his head, looking rather lost. " No. I have no idea what I have let us in for, as you put things. I am not a soldier. I have never been out of Rombuli before. I know nothing about sneaking around the land with people trying to kill me. The Governor asked me to do this and I agreed. That is why I was relieved when he suggested I take you along. With your skill at staying hidden, your knowledge of military scouting and my power, we might be able to do what is asked. If Nelvask thinks we should try in an effort to help our cause, I will try to help. If you feel it is not something you want to do or it is too dangerous for you, I will have to find somebody else to help me. I suppose I could call on Bork to help and you could take his place.
Tag leant back and poured himself another wine. " Edward Eastland don't you start even attempting to put words in my mouth. I did not say I would not help you. I was only trying to gauge how much you knew about the dangers. As for Bork, he is a good man but not that good. No we will do this thing together. Now having settled that, where do we start?"
" I was hoping you would be able to suggest what we have to plan for," Edward remarked. " How much do you know of Walloonia?"
" I've been there a few times but I don't have much knowledge of the place." Tag drained his goblet and banged it on the table as he jumped to his feet. " Come on Edward. Let us make a start right now. First we will go to the map room and find out what maps they have of Walloonia, especially the border between Sardonia and Walloonia. We can then plan our strategy."
Like a schoolboy following the headmaster, Edward trailed Tag out of the room and through the now empty hall. They crossed the parade ground and entered a low building on the other side. To Edward's surprise, the soldier on guard duty sprang to attention when the came to the door and ushered them inside. There was an Under Master sitting behind a desk, who looked up when they entered.
" What do you want?" he asked rudely in what sounded like a sneer.
Tag smiled sweetly and then leant over the desk and grasped the Under Master by the front of his tunic. " When you address an Over Master of the Imperial Army, even when he is not in uniform, you say Sir and stand to attention. Now I will overlook that lapse of discipline for now but you had better make sure I find what I came to look for or I will have to report you to my friend Grand Master Silker. We want to consult any maps you have of Walloonia and the border area between Sardonia and Walloonia. Could you call one of your minions to show us where to look?"
" Yes Sir!," the Under Master shouted to the accompanying smile from Tag. " I did not recognise you when you came through the door."
The Under Master rang a bell and another soldier came into the room.
" I know a great many of the maps are in the operations room in the Mansion but will you show Over Master Ormrood and Mr. Eastland any maps we have of Walloonia and the border area with Sardonia?" The Under Master indicated Tag and Edward.
" Come with me sir," the soldier said politely, indicating the door through which he come. " The map room is through here."
" The Under Master knew who you were all the time," Edward whispered to Tag as they left the reception area.
Tag smiled grimly. " He is the product of the Parison system of breeding and feels he is superior to anybody who does not come from the high families of Parison. You must have met people like him?"
Edward nodded as he thought of Cannoc and the superior attitude he had adopted on their first meeting. Then he realised that in many ways Botic Borovic had much the same attitude other people at times.
They followed the soldier into a sizeable room the walls lined by shelves and with a large table in the centre. The soldier went to a shelve, selected a number of rolled papers and laid these on the table.
" Will that be all sir?" At Tag's nod, he smiled. " Give me a call if you require anything else."
After the soldier had left the room, Tag looked at the rolls and smoothed two out onto the table.
" Here we are Edward. Take a look at these."
" I know it might sound strange to you but you will have to tell me what I am looking at," Edward said blushing. " I have never seen a proper map before. Only rough sketches of the land around Alskar."
Tag laughed at Edward's embarrassment but squeezed his shoulder before placing his finger on one of the maps.
" We are here in Nimmar. When we leave Nimmar, I expect we will go along this road to Shardlaw, the same way you went to and from the Governor's estate after your wedding. Then we will go down the Stair Road by the Great Falls, here, and out onto the road through Sardonia. I expect we will camp the night about here," his finger stabbed the map at a point half way between the Great Falls and the lake. " As you can see from the symbols on the map, to the south of the road is forest, to the north the start of the Sardonian Plain. We will then go on to Ishika the port on the Lake, just here, drop off two of the communications groups and then take this road to the Rock. We will probably spend the night there. Then it is on to the Ford and finally north along the river to the Bridge. That is where we will drop off Margaret's group. We will spend the night there, provision for our journey and then go through the foothills to Walloonia."
Tag pushed on map aside and pulled the other into place. " This is the Bridge near the bottom of this map. All we have to do is get through these hills and find the Walloonian army. Simple isn't it?"
" How will we know where to look?" Edward asked obviously at a loss to understand.
Tag laughed loudly. " That, dear Edward, is the question. We have had no communications from the Walloonian Army since before the winter so we will have to assume they are under attack and their thoughts are shielded from us by the mountains. We will get some idea of what is happening when we see the patrols that are being mounted in this area, here. If they are enemy patrols, we must go west to avoid them. Looking at the map, if I was going to make an attempt at stopping the advance into Walloonia, I would do it here at Bryents Ridge. If I have my way, that is where we will look for the army."
" You will have your way because that is your part of our mission," Edward remarked tightly. " As I understand things, you have been asked to accompany me for the purpose of getting me to the Walloonian army and the Covenenters. For the journey, I am really baggage.
In a friendly gesture, Tag placed his arm round Edward's shoulder. " Do not say that ever again, Edward, my friend. Your skills will be needed as well as mine if we are to accomplish our mission, as you put things. Come on, lets go and have a drink in my room before we make the final preparations."
In the early dawn a few days later, Edward dressed by the fire in his bedroom. Kitty sat in bed watching him prepare for his journey, her face expressionless but her eyes worried. When he was ready, he kissed her.
" You look after yourself, Kitty. I will hurry back as fast as I can." Edward tried to keep the concern out of his voice but failed.
" It is not me who has to look after themselves but you," she said with a sad smile. " Just as I am getting used to being your wife, off you go again. I know, it is for the good of the Empire but I have had to live with the good of the Empire all my life. I just wish it were somebody else, that's all. I will help Nelvask and Latask all I can. Now you must go before I pull you back into bed and help you make love to me like you did last night."
After kissing her passionately, Edward turned and went out of the bedroom without looking back. The halls of the Mansion were already busy with people rushing about their early morning tasks and many greeted Edward as he strode towards the entrance.
Shivering in the early morning chill as he came out of the building, Edward found a groom waiting with his horse and Boric already mounted, his breath steaming in the cool spring air.
" Good morning Edward," Boric greeted him as Edward mounted. " A trifle cold to be setting out on a journey. Come on lets get going before we freeze. The others will be waiting for us in the barracks."
They rode side by side passed the Temple and over the bridge into the barracks. To one side of the parade ground where Edward had first seen the Rombuli Troop train for the visit of the Emperor all those years before, the troops were waiting for their arrival. Edward was surprised to see Latask talking earnestly to Margaret and her friends. On seeing Edward and Boric approach, Latask broke away from the group and came towards them.
" Good morning Edward, I am pleased that you could join us," Latask remarked sarcastically but hurried on when he saw the thunderous look Edward cast in his direction. " You know what you have to do when you leave here. Try to keep in touch as much as possible.
Edward smiled then, his breath steaming in the cold air. " I will do my best Latask but will have to rely on Tag to get me through. You and Nelvask make sure there is something here for us to come back to. Tell Nelvask to look after Kitty."
There was a shout from the Sergeant of Boric's troop and everybody mounted and made ready to leave. Seeing Tag, Edward went to join him.
" Edward," Tag grinned. " Good to see you this morning. We will ride with Margaret's company for the present."
" I wonder why?" Edward murmured but softened his sarcasm with a grin in return. " What is the plan?'
Tag shrugged. " You and me are just hangers on to this lot, so we have not been involved in the planning for this trip. That has been up to Boric. As far as I am aware, we ride today to Shardlaw to camp for the night. The next day we descend onto Sardonia and then camp half way to the City of Ishika by the Lake. The next day we go onto the Lake, drop off the two communications people, then onto the Rock for the night. Next to the Ford and finally along the river to the Bridge of Sighs. After spending a night to get our gear in order, we are then on our own. We will disappear into the hills and start our search for the Walloonian Army at Bryents Ridge. Easy isn't it?"
Edward sighed at Tag's attempt to make everything look straight forward and followed Tag to join Margaret's company.
They rode out of the barracks and onto the road leading to Shardlaw, spurs jingling and banners flying in the wind. Everybody was muffled in furs against the chill wind that whistled across the hills to their left from the mountains hidden in the mist. Flurries of wet sleet crossed their path at intervals and everybody rode slumped in their saddles. Late that afternoon they camped in a field to the west of Shardlaw and Edward was once more struck by the efficiency shown by the soldiers in the quickness with which they set up the camp. It was not long before fires were lighted and a hot meal was being prepared. As though they were in awe of Tag, two of Margaret's escort pitched Tag and Edward's tent and invited them for the evening meal with Margaret's group.
As soon as the column had stopped for the night, Edward had noticed a few of Tags men slipping away into the surrounding countryside.
" What are they up to?" he asked Tag as they sat by the fire trying to get warm.
" This maybe friendly countryside, Edward, but they will have to protect their charges during a battle and, if all goes well, behind enemy lines after the main army has retreated towards Alskar. In those circumstances they will have to keep a lookout and now is a good time to get into the habit," Tag replied looking round the camp with a sharp eye. " Boric's soldiers will supply the sentry cover on the outskirts of the camp but my men will look round the area. They will try to sneak back into camp without being seen."
The next morning early they rode through Shardlaw with the sound of the Great Falls in their ears. To Edward, it was like coming to the end of the world when they paused at the top of the escarpment. The ground dropped sheer in front of them and they could see out over the tops of the trees below, out over the beginning of the grasslands disappearing into the mist and murk of the morning.
The road under their feet dropped away, criss crossing the face of the land while the falls rumbled straight down to the plain to one side. Spray wettened the road making the surface slippery. During the descent Edward tried not to look at the sheer drop first on one side and then, after turning a hair-raising bend, on the other. It was with relief that they reached the road at the bottom of the escarpment and started off through the trees.
About mid day, only his stomach gave him a clue as to the time because there was no sign of the sun, the troops rode out of the trees and onto the vast grass plain that made up most of Sandaria. The road did not however venture far into the grasslands but followed the edge of the wood.
That night they made camp off the road in a clearing slightly raised above the road. Once again Edward was struck by the efficiency of setting up the camp and it did not seem all that long before he was sitting by the fire eating a meal of stew given to him by one of Margaret's escort.
As the darkness descended, Edward sat back and thought about what lay ahead, secretly observing Tag and admiring his sense of calm. Edward was far from calm. The way ahead in both time and destination was obscure and he was in the hands of Tag completely.
His thoughts were interrupted by a commotion on the outskirts of the camp. Getting to his feet, he strapped on his sword and with Tag beside him made his way towards Boric's command tent in the middle of the camp. Before he had reached Boric, he could see several figures bent over somebody lying on the ground but he also heard what sounded like fighting off towards the road.
The man lying by the fire was dressed in a dirty white robe with what looked like bloodstains on the front. The other two men were dressed in breast plates and tattered remnants of a uniform which Edward immediately recognised as being the same as the soldiers escorting the Emperor to Nimmar and must have come from the Army in Parison.
The commotion on the other side of the camp grew louder and more urgent. There was shouting, the clash of weapons and screams as though people were being injured. In the flickering half light, Edward could not make out who was fighting whom.
One of the soldiers who had come with the stranger looked up nervously and then looked round as though checking which way to escape. He threw water over the man lying by the fire and caught him by the shoulders. Edwaward pushed him back. “ He is exhausted. We will have to let him rest.”
" What is happening?" Boric demanded urgently as he dispatched some more men to the source of the disturbance.
" It is these monsters who are coming into the camp," the soldier accompanying the injured man gasped his eyes wide and fearful. " They have followed us all through the Empire as we tried to escape and seek out Latask and Rulask in this obscure place called Rombuli."
" Why are they chasing you?" Boric demanded.
" Surat, this man lying by the fire, has something they want in a pouch at his belt. No matter what we do, they always find us. He is a Covenenter but even his magic will not shake them off. There were ten of us defending Surat when we set out but there are only two of us left. They will be in here amongst us soon."
" My men will capture them before we they get much further," Boric stated confidently.
" No Sir!" the soldier shook his head. " We have not been able to kill any of them even though at first we out numbered them. They will keep on coming, throwing men out of their way until they get him. All you can do is hold them up for a while to give us time to get Surat away.”
Edward looked towards the source of the disturbance and what he saw was a vision from hell. By the flickering light of fires and torches, all he could see was the black outline of figures struggling. It appeared that in the midst of the scrum four huge black figures were hurling soldiers aside as they struggled to get to the Covenenter lying by the fire.
Acting on impulse, Edward gathered the Covenenter into his arms and mentally screamed at Nelvask. " Get out into the garden in front of your house. I am coming through but I will be followed by four black monsters which I do not know very much about. All I know is that the are killing and injuring my soldiers in our camp. Latask get out in the garden with Nelvask and I will come to you. By my Maker make sure you can do something with these monsters or we are all in trouble."
Turning to Boric, Edward shouted, " I am going to get Surat to Nelvask and Latask in Nimmar. Once I am gone just let the monsters through and then they will follow me .That way no more soldiers will get hurt"
" How are you going to get away from them?" Boric shouted back, never taking his eyes off his soldiers who were struggling to stop the monsters.
" I am going to try to translocate myself and Surat to Nimmar," Edward answered, trying to sound confident.
Before Boric had chance to reply, Edward shut his eyes, fixed a picture of the garden in front of the Meeting House on the island near Nimmar in his mind and willed himself there.
It was as though he had disappeared into a mist. Everything went grey and the camp vanished. Then, with a wrench, he was stumbling across the grass outside the Meeting House still clutching Surat in his arms.
He felt tired, so tired, and he collapsed on the steps of the Meeting House breathing heavily. Through the mist in front of his eyes he saw Nelvask standing staring at the spot from which he had appeared and out of the corner of his eye saw Latask hurrying from his house. Then the air in the garden wavered and four figures stepped out of the mist.
They were large and all black. Their faces were shaped like the lizards with large ears. Their bodies were solid, smoothly drawn over heavy muscles and shiny black. They did not carry weapons as far as Edward could see but looking at the size of their hands and the reach of their arms, Edward could see that they did not need to be armed.
Nelvask took all this in at a glance and then reacted. Raising his arms above his head, he muttered some words and a sheet of translucent light appeared between the monsters and Edward. The lead monster moved but was repelled by the barrier.
Still chanting, Nelvask nodded to Latask and brought his hands down while Latask maintained the barrier. Placing his hands before him at full stretch with the palms together, Nelvask started to chanted in a language that Edward did not understand.
Slowly Nelvask moved his palms apart and behind the figures, the air seemed to part as though a curtain was being pulled aside. Edward caught a glimpse of a wide golden staircase rising up towards a palace with many people upon the stairs. Then Nelvask raised his arms high, and brought them chopping down with a shout. The Monsters struggled but were pushed backward onto the stairs and Nelvask closed the rift with a bang.