Wednesday, 19 January 2011

The Return of the Exiles

Chapter 24

Edward stared at Lisa not able at first to take in what she was trying to tell him. His mind was blank as though all thought had fled. Then with shattering clarity, the full force of what she was telling him hit home and he was listening to her words. 
“ We did all we could. We tried every medicine and salve we knew.” Lisa took Edward’s hand and held it. “I am not blaming you or your friends for what happened. I know it was not your fault he got wounded. All I am trying to say is that it would have been better if he had been treated many days before he arrived here. I am very sorry. We have requested that our people lay his body out for the funeral.”
“ He was not only my best friend but also the brother of my wife,” Edward said more to himself than the healer. “ It might seem stupid to you but we felt we could not leave him behind in some alien place. Kitty made me promise before we left that I would do all in my power to keep him safe. I will have to tell her when I get back that i failed.”
A picture of Kitty with tears running down her cheeks came into his mind and he blanched at the thought of telling her what had happened to her brother.
“ Ah, the funeral did you say,” he said coming back into her room. “ As I understand things, his people believe in the cremation of the body so that the soul can rise to heaven with the smoke. Can that be arranged here?”
“ You will have to discuss that with Alain,” she told him looking concerned. “ As you must know, if you are Rombuli, we have burials in our funeral rituals. I don’t know how the people of the valley will take to the idea of cremation.”
“ I will go and see Alain as soon as I can. Were is the body laid out?” Edward asked.
“ I will take you to there if you like,” she answered indicating for him to follow her.
Edward followed Lisa into the depth of the building until she opened a door. The room they entered was cut out of the rock under the house and felt cool when Edward walked through the door.
They had laid Boric’s body out on a table with some flowers at its head. He was dressed in the uniform jacket they had found in his bag and his boots were shining in the faint light of the torches. At the foot of the table somebody had placed a large white candle in a golden holder.
“ Thank you Lisa though that is really the Rombuli way. He should be dressed in his breastplate with his helmet on his head. His sword should be laid on his chest with the point towards his feet and his hands grasping the hilt. That is how they lay out the bodies of dead officers in the Imperial Army. I will get his gear and place it properly.”
Edward walked to side of his friend Boric and said. “ Farewell Boric. You have been a good friend to me. I am sorry I could not save you or deliver you back to you homeland. I do not know how I will tell your wife and son if I ever get home. Or how I will tell Kitty that I did not bring you safely back. Though you fell in this foreign place, we should take you to Alskar and have a funeral which befits an officer who fell defending the Empire. When all this is over maybe we will return and carry your body back to your estate in Parison.”
He stepped back and stood at the foot of the bed. “ I know this is not a Parison goodbye but it is the best I can come up with for now.”
Taking a taper from near one of the torches on the wall, Edward lit the candle and bowed his head for a few minutes. “ Boric Borovic I entrust you to the care of our Maker. May you live in peace in the Maker's protective presence.”
 With one last bow he left the room followed by Lisa. Once outside, he stopped and breathed deeply of the cool evening air. It was getting dusk now and the shadows from the mountains covered the whole of the valley.
“ Will you come back to my house and have a meal?” Lisa asked quietly, smiling faintly. “All your friends are out of the guest house and you should not be alone.”
Edward gladly accepted her invitation and followed her through the gathering dusk until she stopped at a small house on the outskirts of the village.
“ My home,” Lisa told him. “ I live on my own so the meal will take a while to prepare though the stew is simmering on the fire all ready.”
Edward silently followed her into the living room which was entered straight from the street. The room was square with windows along the wall away from the street though it was dark by now and Edward could not see what was outside the window. There was a fire in the middle the wall to the right of the door and a cauldron of stew was simmering over the coals. A table and stools were placed beside the fire and some benches with cushions in the other part of the room. A door in the other wall led Edward supposed into a bedroom.
“ I think it is comfortable and it suits me,” Lisa said waving Edward towards one of the benches. “ While I am preparing our meal, you can tell me all about the outside world and how a Rombuli speaker came here to the valley.”
Edward sat back against the cushions and talked as she laid bread and beer on the table along with two bowls and spoons. It was he found good to talk. It took his thoughts away from the terrible fact of Boric’s death.
He talked about Alskar Province and the forge, describing his life and his family as it had been before the coming of the Emperor. At first as he talked he avoided mentioning his abilities but when he talked about the Empire and his dealings with the Covenent it was hard not to tell her about his power. He had to describe the events in the square at Alskar and how in defence of his friend he had confronted the Covenenter. Then he found he had to explain who the Covenenters were and where they came from. He describe the failed attempt at getting back the symbols of nationhood and how his family was killed. She was upset when he told her of his sister and how he had been banished while she was taken away.
At that point in his story, Lisa laid the bowls of stew on the table and asked him to join her. 
“ This is all strange to me,” she observed frowning. “ We obviously knew there was an outside but most of us left that to people like Claude to go out and find out what was happening. I am content to help people who are ill and need me. Now you have opened my eyes to what is happening over the mountains. I will never be able to shut that out of my mind again.”
Before they started to eat, Edward bowed over the meal and said the Rombuli prayer, “ Maker, I thank you for guiding me through this day, for the food which I will eat and I ask for the strength to endure what is to come.”
Lisa stared wide eyed across the table. “ Do you always say that before the evening meal?” 
Edward smiled. “ Whenever I have a chance. My father always insisted that we say that prayer every evening when he was alive. He would proudly say that it was part of the Rombuli heritage and should be preserved. Besides, he would add, we owe it to our Maker to thank him for our day.”
“ When I lived with my parents, we used to say that on special occasion like birthdays and at harvest and planting times,” Lisa told him in a voice full of wonder. “ Traditionally, after the seeds are planted we have a holiday and all the family members get together. The same goes for the few days after all the crops are gathered in. At those times when all the generations of a family are gathered together, we say that prayer at the evening meal.”
As they ate their meal, briefly he told her about the war, the crumbling of the Empire and his mission to Walloonia.  He described the battle at Bryents Ridge and his fight with the man on the creatures back. Then he talked about their flight through the land in an attempt to get home. It was easy now to talk of the Elves, the fight at the Citadel and their meeting with Claude. Then about how they came here with the injured Boric.
When he had finished talking about his life and his journey to the valley, Lisa asked more questions and Edward answered as best he could. He found it was pleasant sitting in a house and it kept him from dwelling on his friend’s death. 
After the meal, they sat by the fire and talked, Lisa now having an insatiable curiosity about the outside world. Before he prepared to leave, it became obvious to Edward that the coming of his friends was going to have a profound effect on this community. It is a cliche, he thought, but for the lost Rombuli nothing will ever be the same. Though they did not want it, they were about to be pulled into the outside world. 
As he was getting ready to leave, Lisa said. “ If you could take Boric’s body back to your home would you think that was the best thing. I say this because I think Alain Fraser will not give you permission for a cremation in the valley.”
Edward looked at her, his eyes hard trying to gauge the intent behind her words. “ Of course it would be best if Boric could be returned to Alskar Province and given a full military funeral with his wife, children and sister there to observe. But it is not possible and we will have to leave him here.”
Lisa took his arm. “ If you are willing to let me accompany you, I can by my power keep the body preserved until we get to your home.”
Edward sat down once again and held Lisa’s hand. “ I would not ask this of you but it would be good for Boric’s family. Do you really want to come away from this valley? You might never come back.”
Lisa let go of his hand and pulled him close, her blonde hair shining in the light from the fire. “ I am afraid you have opened a window into my mind and it will only be closed when I have travelled through the window to see if everything outside is as it appears from your description. I feel I have to go and see if the outside world is how you describe it. I am twenty six years old and not married. In the valley that means I have lost the chance of ever marrying. Oh, that does not matter so much to me because I have my healing powers. Now I want to get over the other side of the mountains and see what it is like.”
“ I will have to ask the others but as far as I am concerned you can come with me even if we have to leave Boric’s body behind,” Edward said squeezing her shoulders. “ All you will find is war and death but you will be outside. You never know, I will introduce you to other Rombuli and you might find a husband. Besides, we could do with all the help that you could give in the healing of the wounded. Well, I had better go now before it gets too late.”
Lisa looked at him her expression unreadable and then said in a quiet voice. “ Will you stay with me for the night? I would like to talk some more.”
Edward once more tried to gauge the rationale behind her invitation but could only detect loneliness and agreed to stay.  They talked long into the night and then went to bed together. Lisa clung to Edward begging to be satisfied and they fell asleep happy to have been together.
After breakfast the next morning, Edward said goodbye to Lisa and walked slowly through the awakening streets of Providence back to the guest house. People he passed greeted him shyly but he did not stop. He was thinking about how it looked as though the end of his journey was in sight. If the bridge had been established, it would not be long before they could get through the mountains and be back in Alskar. Hopefully the army will have been able to defend the province and he would get back to find some of his friends waiting. He had no doubt in the ability of Megor to find a way through the mountains where the valley Rombuli had failed. What he would do if they arrived in Alskar province and found the army defeated and the Sea Elves in control? Set out to rescue Nelvask if I could find him, he thought.
When he arrived back at the guest house he found Karlan, Prince Ahkiem and his men having breakfast. They waved him to a seat at the table.
“ I thought you were in Bycavern trying to get across the canyon,” Karlan remarked. “ We did not expect to see you until later today when you are supposed to meet Alain Fraser and the other heads of family.”
“ I had to return early,” Edward answered. “ They sent a message for me to get back because Boric had died.”
There was a stunned silence from the others sitting round the table. They all looked at Edward as though he was speaking nonsense.
Karlan was the first to speak. “ When did this happen?”
“ Yesterday morning,” Edward replied sadly. “ Lisa Sharpe told me that they did everything they could. She more or less blamed me for not getting him to a healer sooner.”
“  What arrangements have been made for his funeral?” Prince Ahkiem asked, for once being practical. “ Where I come from it is very important to give somebody of his rank a proper funeral.”
“ That might be a problem,” Edward rubbed his chin. “ In the valley they do not believe in cremations. Their rituals involve burial. They have been an enclosed society for so long, they are very inflexible when it comes to beliefs.  Lisa thinks they might object if we ask for a cremation. We will find out when I go to see Alain Fraser this morning.”
“ We could hold a proper funeral no matter what they say,” Prince Ahkiem looked grim. “ We are strong enough as a group to keep them at bay while it lasts. Then it would be too late for them to object.”
“ There are rather a lot of them,” Edward remarked, grinning. “ Even with our fighting qualities, you would be hard put to hold off a whole nation while we had the funeral.”
“ We would only need an hour and besides you have your power,” the Prince was emphatic. “ Look I know we got off on the wrong foot but I think I have earned your friendship now.  I am willing to make sure Boric has a proper funeral.”
“ I will not use my power against my own people even if it is vital,” Edward was equally emphatic. “ Besides there is an alternative. Lisa Sharpe, who is one of the healers who met us when we arrived and looked after Boric while he was alive, has offered to use her power to preserve the body until we can get it back to Alskar province. She will accompany us if we wish. I told her that I would have to ask you first but agreed in principle.”
Karlan looked at Edward for a while as though weighing his words carefully. Then he asked, “ Is this possible and when did she make this offer?”
Edward tried to keep his expression neutral. “ Last night after she had cook me dinner. I am to tell Alain Fraser about her offer if he refuses to give permission for a cremation.”
“ I must tell Tag what you have been up to when he comes back,” Karlan was laughing. “ All through our journey he has moaned on and on about how, without any effort, every place you stopped, you managed to find a woman.”
“ What's this?” the Prince asked frowning.
“ You had better ask Tag but if I am right Edward found that information out while he was staying the night with this healer called Lisa.” Karlan grinned at the surprised expression on the Prince’s face. “ Am I right Edward?”
“ Its none of your business!” Edward grunted but had to grin in return to Karlan. “ I had dinner with her and she offered to help us. That is all you need to know.”
“ We are off to the mountains again today. “ Karlan said. “ We will be back for dinner and if need be to get ready to leave tomorrow. See you this evening.”
It was after lunch when Edward was summoned from the guest house to a meeting with Alain Fraser and the heads of families. He was taken back to Alain’s house but this time into a room with a large table. Round the walls were crests and Edward assumed these were the family crests of the valley Rombuli. Sitting around the table were five men and Alain.
Alain indicated an empty seat at the end of the table furthest away from where he was sitting. Once Edward was comfortable, Alain began.
“ I would like to formally welcome Edward Eastland to the Valley,” he began. “ Edward claims he is from over the mountains and descendent of the Rombuli who fled the Lake Umburti at the time of the upheaval. I will let him answer any of your questions. That he is Rombuli is obvious from the way he speaks the language, though with a funny accent, to the way he talks about our shared history.”
“ Edward, I would like to introduce you to those around the table,” Alain said their names in turn while indicating one of the men. “ Norman Thatcher, Nigel Waters, Brian Peacock, Roger Gate and Frederick Weaver. They are here to welcome you to our land and to ask you some questions if you do not mind answering whatever they ask.”
“ I am quite happy to answer any of their questions, Alain,” Edward smiled.
For the next two hours Edward answered all their questions as best he could. They were really curious about the Rombuli who had left the Lake and set out to find a place of peace. Edward spent a long time describing the life in Alskar where he grew up and about the Gathering and Coming of Age Ceremony. They were less interested in the coming of the Empire or what happened when the Emperor visited. They were curious about Edward’s power, telling him that apart from the healing most of the power which Edward could muster had died out in the valley from lack of use.
Norman Thatcher, a grey haired man with a skin colour that spoke volumes of a life spent outside in all weathers and at all seasons, asked when the questions had seemed to be exhausted. “ What do you plan now?”
“ I expect Alain told you all that one of our group died yesterday,” Edward started. “ We hope to hold his funeral tomorrow and then set out to get through the mountains and home.”
” What do you mean by hope to hold his funeral?” Brian Peacock asked bluntly. “ Will there be anything which will upset the people of the valley in this funeral?”
“ This is not easy,” Edward answered slowly. “ Boric comes from a place called Parison way to the East on the edge of the sea. It is the religious rite in his country that the funeral consists of a cremation. They believe that the soul of a person rises to heaven with the smoke of the burning.”
“ Not here you won’t!” Roger Gate snapped. “ It is against the principles laid down in the Rombuli Book of our Maker!”
“ I am not aware that you have that correct from my reading of Rombuli history and customs,” Edward was on his feet, his fist banged the table to emphasise his words. “ If you refuse a Parison funeral for Boric, then we will have to take the body with us and give him a proper funeral when we get back to my homeland. May our Maker forgive you for turning another person away without help. I have always been taught that the Maker welcomes everybody and will not have His people stand in the way of another’s sincerely held beliefs.”
“ How are you going to leave?” Norman asked. “ We can summon all our men and stop you.”
“ This has gone far enough, “ Edward said harshly, his expression like thunder. “ We will be leaving in the morning with your help or without your help. I doubt that any of your men has had to fight in a proper war. Tag is a Ranger in the Imperial Army and has spent years fighting in small bands behind enemy lines. Prince Ahkiem is a trained soldier with experience of warfare in his homeland and he has his two bodyguards. Karlan and Megor are trained in weapons to a higher standard than any of your men. Then there is me. I may not be as skilled as the others in the arts of fighting but I have my power. Would you like a demonstration?”
Alain thump the table. “ Gentlemen, please! This is not the time and place for argument. Roger and Norman, I believe Edward when he tells you we will have difficulty in stopping his friends from leaving. No, do not protest. I have had a long talk with Claude and he has described to me what power Edward has. We have nobody with his power. Do you want many of our men killed?”
Norman scowled. “ No, but he was being insulting to our traditions and beliefs.”
Alain shook his head. “ You are a fool. His beliefs are founded on our beliefs or come from the same source. As I understand things he has been taught to hold onto his beliefs while at the same time being tolerant to others. Edward, I am afraid a cremation is out of the question. It will cause too much of a rift between us.”
Edward smiled sadly. “ Alain I hear you. We will have to take Lisa Sharpe and Mary Goodland with us to help preserve the body until we get it home. It means you will lose two of your best healers but that cannot be helped. They have expressed a desire to help us in any way they can and besides they wish to see the world outside of this valley.”
Nigel Waters asked. “ How do you intend to get through the rest of the mountains. Our men have never found a way to the east no matter how many times they have tried.”
Edward shrugged. “ Yesterday Prince Megor and I  climbed down into the canyon, crossed over and climbed out the other side where there is a tunnel entrance which Alain told us about. We managed to fix two ropes across the canyon at that point but I was summoned back to Providence by Lisa before there was a chance to make the bridge better. Megor and Tag are still down there arranging for a more easily travelled rope bridge to be constructed. I have no idea of their progress but I have confidence that when the rest of us get there tomorrow, we will be able to cross the canyon.”
Nigel Waters looked serious. “ I must insist that you undergo the truth suppressing ritual all except Claude and his men have to submit to before they leave our valley.”
Edward laughed out loud. “ When I was in the Forest of the Elves, they put me through a mind melding with one of their lore masters. She wanted to show my memories to all the other Elves. When you are connected to that other person, they can leech all the thoughts out of your mind. If they are good, they can replace those thoughts with some of their own. That is what you propose for us is it not?”
Nigel nodded. “ That is what we have in mind.”
Edward spread his hands wide. “ When she entered my mind and started to project my thoughts so that all the others could see, I kept a part of my mind sealed off from her. I could control what she was seeing and hide all of my emotions. During that process she unknowingly transferred her language to me. I was in control through out the process. Do you think you could rip out of my mind all knowledge of this place? No, you will have to start joining the rest of the world, I am afraid.”
Nigel looked scared. “ But our valley will become known and other people will find their way here. They will corrupt our people and the Rombuli as a nation will fade and disappear.”
Edward laughed. “ You could look on this in a more positive light. If we find a way through the mountains, you could join the rest of the Rombuli as many have wanted to for the last four hundred years.”
Alain smiled sadly. “ It will come as a shock to many people that there are more Rombuli out there than in the valley. It will be an even bigger shock to find that these Rombuli have kept to the ancient traditions even under the yoke of the Empire. I have a feeling that our days of isolation are coming to an end. Whether this is a good or bad thing only time will tell.”
Alain changed the subject, “ Enough of what will happen tomorrow. I have sent word to Bycavern that Megor and Tag are to return by this evening. Even though we had our differences this afternoon, we the heads of families have arranged for a dinner for you and your friends this evening. I will expect you all at eight.”
Soon after Edward had returned to the guest house, Tag and Megor joined him. They were upset to hear about Boric and intrigued to hear that two of the healers would help them get Boric’s body back to Alskar for a proper funeral.
Edward asked, once they had heard about Boric. “ How is the bridge progressing?”
Tag looked proud. “ After you left to get back here, Dorrick turned as many of the villagers onto the job as he could find. They are marvellous these Rombuli when told what to do. In no time, it seemed, they had another two ropes securely fixed across the canyon. Then they started to tie wooden slats between the two lower ropes to form a walk way. Others fixed smaller rope between the lower ropes and the upper ropes to form a safety net to guard against people falling when they walk across the bridge. When we left this afternoon, they were half way across with the wood.”
Megor frowned. “ It is strange thought. None of the village men would go very far into the tunnel. They kept talking about the Rigante though there was no sign of anything. When I walked into the tunnel for about a hundred yards, there was definitely a feeling that something was trying to stop me.”
“ Did you see anything?” Edward asked anxiously.
“ No it was not physical. There was nobody there to confront and I did not get the sense of anybody watching me. No it was more like your power. As though there was somebody exerting a force in the tunnel to stop anybody getting very far.” Megor looked puzzled.
“ Will we be able to leave via the bridge tomorrow afternoon?” Edward asked Tag.
Tag shrugged. “ We could have left yesterday though crossing with only one rope as a foothold would have been hard. Tomorrow, they will have most of the crude bridge completed and it should be easier.”
“ Right Tag. We will be leaving in the morning. I want you to make sure all is ready including enough horses to carry us to Bycavern. The others will be back later. We are all invited to have dinner with the heads of family at eight. Megor can you help me get us all through this power you talk of?” Edward asked turning to his friend.
Megor considered for a moment. “ I could not detect the source of the power or any physical effect. I have a feeling that it is there to put dread into anybody trying to get too far down the tunnel. If that is the case, I think we will be able to counteract the effect it will have on our party. Whether there are any more surprises further into the mountains is beyond my power to detect.”
“ All right, we will have to face that when we are all going through the tunnel. Lets get ready for tonight.”
The dinner actually passed of rather well. Prince Ahkiem, even though he did not speak the language, was his best urbane self. He entertained everybody around the table, with Edward translating, by telling about his growing up and how his father had tried to restrain him. Tag talked about the Empire and his travels with the Rangers and the army. He described the battle of Bryents Ridge emphasising to gasps from the Rombuli how Edward had used his power to kill the man on the creature. Karlan talked about the Golden City and the life of the Elves. Nigel spoke of life in the valley and how calm and peaceful it was most of the time.
They were all happy when they left to go back to the guest house. Tag raised an eyebrow when Edward excused himself and set off in the other direction. Karlan grinned and ushered Tag in the direction of the guest house.
Knocking on Lisa’s front door, Edward waited patiently.
When the door opened, he said softly. “ I am sorry it is late. I hope I did not wake you.”
Lisa smiled shyly and indicated that he should enter. When he was sitting on one of the benches with a glass of wine in his hand, Lisa said, “ No it is not late. I have only just returned from getting everything ready for the morning. Alain Fraser sent word that he had agreed that Mary and I can accompany you when you leave in the morning.”
“ Good,” Edward said. “ That is what I came to see you about. I suddenly had a feeling that we had all assumed you would be ready but nobody had told you. So I came to tell you.”
Lisa laughed softly. “ Is that all you came for, Edward Eastland?”
Edward took her hand. “ No. I have to admit that the thought of seeing you was all the incentive I needed.”
Early the next morning before the sun was above the mountains, Edward walked back to the guest house. Tag was in the yard seeing to some horses and he greeted his friend with a smile.
“ Good morning, Edward. Have you enough energy left to undertake a journey? I have no idea how you do it. We have only been here for a couple of days and you have already been invited to spend the night with one of the girls. The more I try the less likely it becomes,” Tag shook his head. “ The horses are ready and all the gear is in the common room except yours. The others are having breakfast.”
They left the guest house as the sun came up over the mountains to the east. Alain Fraser was there to see them off. Mary and Lisa arrived already mounted leading another horse. There was a set of straps on this horse and Boric's body wrapped in a canvas shroud was carried on this horse. Waving to the onlookers, they set out for Bycavern.
Around lunch time, they arrived at the canyon entrance to find Dorrick and some of the other villagers there to meet them. Claude greeted Dorrick enthusiastically and Dorrick nodded to all the others.
After dismounting and getting his back pack from his horse, Claude turned to Edward. “ Dorrick has asked if he can accompany us all the way to Alskar. I have told him that it will be all right.”
Edward shook his head. “ This will not be a stroll in the mountains but could be very dangerous. Are you certain he knows what he is letting himself in for?”
Tag looked from one to the other. “ What does he say?”
Edward answered truthfully. “ He wants Dorrick to come with us. I can see both advantages and disadvantages. What do you think?”
They were both interrupted by Lisa. “ Has this been going on for a long time?”
“ What?” Edward asked.
“ This having to translate every time somebody wants to talk to somebody else,” Lisa answered.
Edward looked at her in surprise. “ Well Tag, Ahkiem, Megor and Karlan talk Parison and understand each other. Claude speaks Lorka the language of the land beyond the mountains as does Megor and Ahkiem. I speak Rombuli and Parison. I thought between us we were doing all right.”
“ But what happens in an emergency?” Lisa asked. “ If it was me, I would start shouting in the language I am most familiar with. That is usually the language anybody learnt as a child.”
“ You are right there,” Edward said thinking of Claude and his first encounter in Ambleton. “ When I first met Claude  in Ambleton he shouted at me in Rombuli not to use my power on Prince Nahran when Boric was injured and he and Tag arrested. I can’t think of anything we can do quickly. With time we might all learn each others language but we do not have time.”
“ There is a way,” Lisa stated bluntly. “ I am surprised with all your power you have not done this.”
“ Ah but my power is not all that over reaching,” Edward told her even though she looked sceptical. “ There are things that you can do that I have no idea how you do them. Megor can see what is ahead even though he has not been somewhere before. He can warn me of dangers that lie in our path even though I am not aware of those dangers. My sister is a bit like you. She can tell a person what is wrong with them and how to fix it if that is possible. You see our power as you call it has many facets. What did you have in mind?”
“ I can join with each of them and they will all understand Rombuli,” she answered.
“ Do you mean they will be able to speak the language that quickly?” Edward was now sceptical.
“ I have no idea how it works,” Lisa shrugged eloquently. “ All I know is that it does. It maybe that I implant a translator in their brains or I may transfer the ability to learn the language quickly. Are you willing to give it a try?”
“ I will give it a try but you will have to ask the others first.” Edward turned to the others. “ Lisa has asked me to ask you if you are willing to take part in an experiment. She reckons by joining her mind to yours, she will be able to give you the ability to understand Rombuli. Will you be willing to try.”
Tag was the first to respond. “ Will she have to invade my mind?”
Edward answered truthfully. “ Of course she will have to get inside your mind with her mind.”
Tag looked scared. “ You told us what would have happened to you if you had not been able to hold back some of your power during the mind meld in the Golden City of the Elves. Corlina could have leeched everything from your mind. I am not going to let her into my mind thank you.”
Karlan spoke. “ He speaks for the rest of us.”
Edward translated for Lisa. “ They are scared of your ability and think you might want to steal their minds if they let you into their minds.”
Lisa protested. “ I do not have the power to alter their minds other than to give them the ability to communicate to each other. I would have thought they would have been pleased to get that capacity.”
Edward thought for a moment and then said. “ I have a suggestion. If you attached your mind to mine, you would be able to do this thing while I gave them protection. How does that sound. “
Lisa frowned. “ I do not like the fact that they do not trust me.”
Edward sighed. “ Stubborn, that's what you all are. You will do this thing and suppress your feelings.”
Turning to the others, he said. “ Look, you might not trust Lisa, though she tells me, and I believe her, that she does not have the power to do more than help you all to understand each other. I have agreed that I will stay attached to her mind all the time which will give you some protection.”
Tag grinned. “ It would be a great advantage if we could all understand each other. I will go first.”
Lisa stepped up to Tag and reached up to place her fingers on either side of his temple. Edward took her hand and opened his mind to hers. He never gained any insight into what she did even though he went from one to the other attached to her mind. All he could recall was that she said words softly each time she used her power. She did not try to attempt to control anybody’s mind either.
When it came to the Prince’s men, Ahkeim stopped her. “ There is no need to do this to my men,” he stated bluntly.
Lisa started to protest but Edward intervened. “ After all this time you are still playing the arrogant aristocrat. Don’t you ever learn? Lisa is going to give your men this ability like the rest of us whether you protest or not.”
The Prince scowled but stepped aside. Lisa held the men’s temples and muttered her spell. 
Stepping back, she said to the men, “ What shall I call you?”
With wide eyes, one stepped forward and bowed. “ I am called Grog madam.”
He stepped back and the other stepped forward and bowed deeply. “ I am called Alig madam. Thank you for giving us this ability. The others might have thought us dense because we did not speak but we could not understand what was going on. We took our orders from Prince Ahkiem as was proper because we were pledge to his service by our King. Now we can talk and we would like to pledge our service to you and Mary. We will carry Boric Borovic’s body under your instructions.”
Ahkiem started to protest but one look from both Edward and Megor and he kept his council. 
Edward shouldered his pack and long bow. “ Right. Let us go and see what a job they have made of this bridge. Megor, I think we should lead this time and they can share out the duties of helping Alig and Grog carry the body and help Lisa and Mary.”
Karlan stepped in front of Edward. “ I will lead as before with Ahkiem.”
Edward sighed. “ Megor can sense what is happening ahead of us. I have the power to protect the group. You and Ahkiem are good at fighting. Until we know what we are up against, I think it is best if Megor and I lead.”
Karlan stepped aside with a florid bow. Edward ignored Karlan and led the party into the cavern. 
There were men standing guard over the rope bridge and they greeted Dorrick with a wave. The bridge with widely spaced wooden runners stretched away into the gloom. The men guarding the bridge handed out bundles of torches to each of the men who attached these to their packs. Lighting one of his torches, Edward led the way out onto the bridge. 
As he left the solid ground of the ledge, the bridge started to sway alarmingly but he carried on. The first half was relatively straight forward but the second half was hard. The bridge sloped up very steeply and Edward panting for breath when he reached the tunnel mouth. Soon they were all across including Grog and Alig with the stretcher. Actually it was not a stretcher but a long pole attached to the shroud which the two men carried on their shoulders.
“ Can you feel anything Megor?” Edward asked when they were all across.
“ Not here but it is as though there is something waiting for us down the tunnel,” Megor replied. “ I don’t know what it is. It does not feel substantial, more like a spirit.”
“ Do you mean like the illusions that your Loremaster conjure to try to get travellers in your wood scared?” Edward asked remembering the monsters he had dissipated.
“ A bit like that though I am not sure,” Megor answered honestly. “ All I can suggest is that we go ahead and see what we are up against.”
“ Right,” said Edward to the others. “ I will lead with Megor followed by Tag and Dorrick. Lisa, Mary, Grog and Alig will come next with Claude, Ahkiem and Karlan bringing up the rear. Have your weapons ready though I have a feeling we will have to face whatever it is down there when we get much further into the tunnel.”
Edward led the way between the rough walls and along the rock strewn floor of the tunnel. Unlike the passages they had traversed when getting into the valley from the west, this passage felt like it had been formed naturally without the hand of humans. At one stage the passage narrowed until they had to go single file and duck to get through.
 When they reached the end of this narrow passage, the tunnel had collapsed and they had to manhandle the stretcher over a jumble of rocks. Shortly after that, the passage widened out and they caught glimpses of water and shallow caverns stretching away from the path down side tunnels. Megor kept them heading in his chosen direction even when they had to wind round a fissure that crossed their path.  
Suddenly the path went down in a series of rough steps whether man made or natural Edward could not tell. When they reached the bottom, they found themselves in a round cavern with many passages leading off. Edward floated a light ball towards the ceiling and the light revealed that these passages had smooth floors as though they had been constructed by man’s hand. 
“ It looks as though we have joined up with the tunnel from the west of the mountains where we entered the system the other day,” Claude remarked looking around. “ What now?”
They could all feel it. A malevolence which made each of them want to turn and go back. To Lisa with her heightened senses which help her heal people, it felt as though she was walking into a syrup making her movements slow and laboured. They could all hear the echoing sound of movement from all the passages.
Dorrick shuddered with fear. “ What is making those noises and causing me to want to turn back?” he asked.
“ I have no idea but we will have to find out if we are to get through the mountains,” Edward said. “ Which passageway Megor?”
While the others were talking, Megor had been studying the passageways leading away to the right of the stairs down which they had entered the cavern.
“ My instincts tell me it is that one,” he said pointing to what he believed to be the way ahead. “ The only problem is that passageway seems to be the place where the sounds are coming from. Whatever it is we will have to face appears to be waiting for us down there.”
“ Let us go and face it,” Edward said.
Indicating for them all to follow, Edward with Megor by his side, led the way into the tunnel. It was as though they were pushing against a hidden force, so hard was it to walk forward. Try as he might, Edward could not sense the source of the power and could not stop its force. He was coming to the conclusion that it was an illusion, just as he had encountered in the Forest but, with out an idea of the source, there was no way he could  burst the illusion. He fought on and then the force was diminishing and they were coming out into a round cavern.  Many tunnels led away from the cavern and on their left was a flight of rough stairs.
“ We have been here before!” Karlan exclaimed as he joined Edward and Megor in the centre of the cavern.
“ I know that cousin. I am not stupid,” Megor angrily shouted back. “ My senses told me we were going in a more or less straight line east.”
“ Your senses must be wrong then,” stated Ahkiem bluntly. “ We have gone round in a complete circle.”
“ I tell you my power was telling me we were going east all the time,” Megor replied hesitantly, his voice sounding worried. “ I have never been wrong before.”
“ Stop!” Edward ordered. “ Before we get into an argument about whether Megor has got it wrong, let us consider what has happened.”
“ I think that is a good idea, “ Karlan put in. “ I have never known Megor to be wrong.”
They all gathered round Edward, Grog and Alig reverently placing Boric’s shroud covered body on the floor. 
“ Right. Listen to what I have to say and then question what I am guessing at. First Megor thought we were going in the right direction but we ended up back here. Either Megor has lost his sense of direction on which we rely or there is another force at work. None of you detected that we were going round in a circle. But many of you have good instincts when it comes to knowing in which direction you are going. Therefore, and this is a big jump in logic, the force we have all been feeling turned us around somewhere and we ended back here. What do you make of my argument?”
Tag spoke first. “ I have placed my trust in you since we set out on this project, Edward. I can see nothing wrong with your reasoning.”
Karlan agreed with a nod. “ Right, what can we do?”
Megor looked glum. “ If I cannot point the way, we will have to turn back.”
Edward grunted. “ Not if I have anything to do with it. What we will do is try to find out where the passageway turns back on itself. For now most of you can stay here. Take the opportunity to have some food and a drink. Tag, you will come with me. Megor will you open your mind to mine? I will walk down the passageway until your mind is invisible. Then I will try to figure out what is stopping us going forward.”
Tag raised his eyes to the heavens but, drawing his sword, he followed Edward’s torch into the passageway. He could feel the force pushing at him, hear the sound of grunting and heavy bodies moving about but he loyally followed Edward as he had all of their journey together. 
Edward suddenly stopped and Tag had difficulty not barging into him.
“Megor’s thoughts have gone,” Edward told Tag.
Tag looked round but all he could see was the sides of the passage for as far as the torch light stretched in front and behind. 
“ Nothing has happened to them has it?” Tag asked, mindful of the noises he had heard.
Edward smiled. “ No. I think we have turned a corner and the rock is blocking his thoughts.”
Turning Edward retraced his steps. 
Suddenly he heard Megor’s fearful mental call. “ Are you all right Edward. I have lost contact with your mind. Please answer if you can hear.
Edward answered quickly to stop the panic that he could sense from the tone of Megor’s voice was building. “ Its all right Megor. The passageway turned a corner and your thoughts could not reach me. Neither Tag nor I detected the sharp turn in the passageway, though. He swears that the tunnel goes more or less straight ahead. Bring the others here and we will try to figure out what is going on.”
Edward stood and looked down the passageway. It appeared to his eyes to go straight ahead. Turning to his left, he looked at the wall. If the passageway turned to the right but seemed to go straight on then, he reasoned something wanted them not to look at the passageway wall just about here. Edward concentrated his mind on the wall, trying like he had at his first visit to the meeting house on the Island to attune his mind to any magic. Nothing happened. The wall remained just rock.
Megor joined him and Edward told him what he was trying to do. Looking at the rock, Megor concentrated all his powers but nothing happened. The wall remained rock.
The others settled themselves by sitting along the wall in a line and waited. Prince Ahkiem was trying to come to terms with the fact that Alig and Grog now not only carried Boric’s body but talked all the time to Mary and Lisa. Not only that but they formed a protective shield around the two ladies every time they stopped and put down the body. It was not right, he thought, that his servants, pledge to his service and to obey all his commands, should act as they were now. They should be making sure he had his food and drink whenever they stopped. Then he looked at Edward and realised he would have to follow the strange customs of this young man with all the power. He had heard about power before but until he had knelt in the sand of the Citadel and watched Edward and Nahran fight, he had never seen it in practice. Suddenly Ahkiem sat bolt upright, unable to believe the evidence of his eyes. Edward had walked through the solid wall and disappeared.
While the others had sat lost in their own thoughts, Edward had used all his power to try to detect what it was that was misleading his mind. Then the wall began to waver and the faint outline of an opening appeared. With that vision, he understood. Stepping forward, he pushed his way through the magic barrier and stepped into a lighted passageway on the other side.
A passageway stretched away from him, straight into the distance. The walls glowed with a silver light giving the impression that he had stepped into  moonlight. On either side of the corridor as it stretched away ahead were openings spaced at regular intervals. Beside each opening was an enormous statue depicting a man in full steel armour, the design and decoration of which Edward had never encountered. The statues held swords carved out of stone but so big Edward wondered how any man could have lifted them. He could not see into the alcoves. Ahead at the end of the corridor was a large door made of thick planks bound by broad iron straps. Before he had a chance to look in any of the alcoves, a figure appeared out of nowhere blocking his path.
Edward stood his ground and looked at the figure. It appeared to be a man who towered above Edward in height. On closer inspection, Edward realised that the body was vague, like a mist through which an outline of the door was just visible. The figure glided towards Edward and when it was a few yards away stopped.
It spoke in a deep voice which echoed around the alcoves. Edward was surprised that he could understand. 
“ You have arrived at last! I have waited here for aeons of time until I thought you would never come. The only puzzle is that you came by the back door. I was told you would come in by the front.”
Edward held up his hand. “ Slow down. Who are you and who told you I would come?”
The apparition looked even more puzzled. “ I was told you would know. Anybody who got through the guard would know. You must have the power or you would not be able to figure out how to get in here. There are many mysteries concerning you. Maybe you are not the one. If not, I am instructed to kill you.”
Edward smiled and shook his head. “ Have you the power to kill me, apparition? I had the power to get here so how are you going to overcome me?”
The apparition seemed to smile though to Edward it looked like a grimace. “ You must be the one though you are small. I was asked to give you the key to the Mountain Hall of the Kings.”
The apparition held out an intricately carved golden sceptre with a gem encrusted ball at one end. Edward grasped the staff and his mind  went blank. A voice seemed to come out of the void. 
It said in a whisper. “ Relax. You must have had the power to get through the defences of the Mountain Hall of the Kings. I was Allerant, magician to Polarium, the last King of the Mountains. I do not know how long has passed since I put the guard on the doors or set Septimus to look out for you. I do not know how much he has told you. All I know is that he has given you the sceptre of the King’s Magician and that as you are hearing this, you have the power to understand me. You are in the Hall of the Mountain Kings who ruled over this land in times gone by. They were a giant of a people and there were never many of them. This is the place where the people came to crown their Kings, to hold their debates and to bury their Kings. In each of the alcoves in the mausoleum behind the throne, are the tombs of all the dead Kings. At the end near the door is Polarium the last King of the Mountain people. I laid him there after the great plague had killed all his people. He was the last to die and he had to bury his wife and family. When I buried him here, I was dying myself of this plague. By accepting the sceptre, you have taken up the magic of the King’s Magicians. May you use it wisely to help your people as I did. All I ask now is that you keep alive the memory of the Kings. You will find their history in a casket at the foot of the throne. Our magic unlike many in the land does not need words. All you have to do is to hold the staff and will something to happen. As long as you do not try to change time or alter the past, the magic is yours to use as you see fit. It will not work if you alter the passage of time or your history. May your Gods travel at your side.”
Saying that the voice stopped. Septimus smiled. “ I have fulfilled my destiny and can now go to the blessed fields and rest in peace. Farewell. Use the power wisely and keep the memory of my people alive.” 
With those parting words, he started to fade and then vanished.
Edward turned and pointed the sceptre at the wall. An opening outlined by carved pillars appeared where solid wall seemed to be. Tag, sword held ready and hugging the pillar on one side of the door, moved cautiously into the corridor. On seeing Edward standing waiting, he stopped.
“ What happened?” he demanded. “ You were standing looking at the solid wall and then you just walked through as though it was not there. Megor and I tried to follow but we were both stopped by solid rock.”
Edward smiled faintly. “ Am I glad to see you. Call the others and I will tell you what happened.”
Tag disappeared back though the entrance and soon came back followed by the others. As they came into the light, they all looked around wide eyed in wonder.
“ What is this place?” Megor asked.
“ As far as I can make out from what the protector told me, it is the burial place of the Mountain Kings.” Edward said and then told them what had happened when he had disappeared through the wall. He showed them the sceptre.
“ What is causing this light?” Karlan asked.
“ It seems to be part of the rock of the walls but how it is controlled I have no idea.” Edward replied. “ Right, Megor are we going in the right direction if we go through that door at the end of the hall?”
Megor looked in the direction of the door. “ I think that is the right direction though I cannot be sure after what happened out in the tunnel leading here.”
Edward laughed and patted his shoulder. “ I think the thing which was influencing your judgement out there has been overcome by me accepting this staff. Right everybody. We go down the hall and through the corridor. I suggest that we do not touch anything on the way.”
They formed up with Tag and Karlan in the lead, Megor and Edward next followed by Mary, Lisa, Grog, Alig and the body. Ahkiem, Claude and Dorrick brought up the rear. As they walked down the hall, they could see into the alcoves. Each alcove contained a tomb topped by a carved figure. Guarding the entrance to the tombs were carved rock soldiers with hands resting on the hilts of enormous swords. Twenty on one side and eighteen on the other. Two alcoves on their right were empty.
They came to the doorway which towered above them at least thirty feet in height at its apex. The doors were made of a black wood which nobody recognised and bound by shiny iron bands. Tag pushed in an attempt to open the doors. They did not budge. Seeing this, Edward came forward to join Tag. Taking up the sceptre he knock on the door with the end. The metal globe shone dully and the doors noiselessly swung open.
Tag and Karlan led the others through the door, one on each side crouched and ready for a fight. A golden light greeted them and it was soon obvious that there were no enemies waiting in the place they were entering. Once through the door, Edward stared round in disbelief.
Towering above him, a dais with steps leading up to the platform. On the platform all he could see were what he took to be the carved stone legs of the most enormous chair he had ever seen. The steps were four feet in height. Walking forward he came passed the end of the dais and once more stopped.
Stretching away from him was a vast hall with no pillars to hold up the roof. The walls were carved with intricate designs of swirling patterns and in niches were placed the busts of people. The walls seemed to glow golden lighting the hall in a golden glow. Across the floor of the hall were spaced benches in rows. The seat of each bench was on a level with Edward’s eyes. Walking between the benches, he turned and could now plainly see the chair, or in reality a tall throne, the arms of which were carved in the shape a lions paws.
“ I have heard of this place.” Megor said to Edward. “ It is a legend which Elves sometimes tell round the fire in our halls. Long before we came to this land it was inhabited by a race of giants. It was told that when they crowned a new King or buried the old one, the giants came to their meeting hall under the mountains. The hall it was said was lined with gold. They disappeared completely from the earth. Many Elves contend that it is a myth and its meaning lost in the mists of time.”
“ They must have been tall to sit on those benches,” Edward remarked to Megor. “ How far do you think we have to go?”
Megor looked along the hall to the double doors guarding the entrance at the other end from the one that they had entered. His eyes narrowed and then he smiled. “ There is a large tunnel the other side of the door which was  man made. It goes on for one hundred or so paces and then out onto the mountain side. If we leave now we should be outside in a few minutes.”
Collecting everybody together, Edward then said. “ Megor thinks we are almost through the mountains. We go through the door at the end of the hall, the proper entrance according to my informant. Then a short tunnel and we will be out on the mountain side. Lets go then.”
Once more Tag led the way and once more the door would not budge at his push. Edward used the sceptre again and the door swung open. Just as Megor had said, a tunnel smooth sided and with a smooth floor stretched away to stop at a rock face. Edward walked down the tunnel, touched the rock with the sceptre and an entrance appeared. Tag had to push aside a thick layer of brambles but soon they were all standing outside the cave system. It was dark without moon light. They had been in the caves for the best part of a couple of  days.
“ I will go and see if I can find a safe place for us to camp for the rest of the night,” Tag said and he slipped away into the night.
He was soon back. “ I have found a sheltered spot a little down the track which runs just below here. There is dried bracken for beds, running water near by and wood for a fire. I suggest you follow me.”
Once everybody was settled in for the night and the watch set, Tag said to Edward. “ As soon as it is light, I will go and explore. I’ll wake you before I leave and you can get everybody up and having their breakfast by the time I get back. We can leave then. The sooner we get through the mountains and out onto the Alskar Province farmland, the sooner we will know if this is Empire controlled or has been captured. Oh don’t look so surprised. I know you have been worried about that all through the journey. Now you get some sleep. I think we will need your power in the morning.”
The sun was just rising when Edward awoke the next morning. Most of the others were already stirring and Lisa had prepared a cold meal. Tag and Karlan were nowhere to be seen.
“ Where are Karlan and Tag?” he asked Grog.
“ Prince Karlan is keeping watch down by the track. Tag went off before it was light to find out where we are in relation to any road out of the mountains into Alskar Province, I think he said.” Grog was repeating what Tag had told him. 
“ Thank you,” Edward answered. He went and joined Megor who was sitting under a tree eating some bread and cheese.
“ I hope we soon get somewhere where we can get supplies because we did not bring much with us on this part of the trip,” Megor remarked as Edward sat by his side and started rummaging in his pack. 
“ If I read the signs right, about ten miles north along the side of the mountain we will come to a town called Ironton,” Edward frowned. “ I worked there for a while when I was exiled in Alskar by the Governor. It is rough going down the mountain but once passed Ironton there is a road that joins the main road from Minto to Alskar. All the iron bar shipments travel that road to be placed on barges at Alskar town and shipped down the river to Shardlaw. Before we decide what to do, we will have to wait for Tag to report back.”
They had all packed away their belongings and were ready to travel when Tag came back into the camp.
“ I have found a way down,” he told them. “ It is a bit steep and rough at first but it joins a more well used track which is easy to follow. When we join the track, we can see the land to the east. As far as I can see we have to go about ten miles north before we can safely get down into Alskar Province. With a bit of luck we will join the iron wagon road to Minto there. After that it is up to Edward which way we go.”
Edward stood thinking and then said, “ We have to go down to the iron  wagon road through the town of Ironton and on down the mountains towards Minto. Before we get to Minto, though, there is a track leading south through the fertile fields of that part of Alskar. We will turn off the main road there and camp for the night. We should make it to there walking by the evening. Then the next day, we can follow out of the way tracks south and east through the sparsely populated country towards Pinaar. I know where you can all hide outside Pinaar while Tag and I investigate what has been happening since we left.”
“ Why all the caution?” Karlan asked genuinely puzzled. “ Is this not your home? Will you not get a welcome from the people?”
Tag shook his head. “ Karlan, we have no idea who is charge down there. Until we find out, it is better if we avoided all contact with the people. I will lead us down the mountain. Karlan will you come with me?”
Once more they formed into their line, Tag and Karlan in the lead, Edward and Megor behind. Mary and Lisa accompanied Grog and Alig who carried Boric’s body with Dorrick acting as guard. Claude and Ahkiem brought up the rear, one or the other dropping back every so often to make sure they were not followed. 
The sun rose up into a clear sky and it was soon hot when they were out of the shelter of the trees. About mid day they emerged from the trees onto a bare mountainside and found a well used path running across the slope of the mountain. 
Away to the east though disappearing into a heat haze was the green rolling hills of Alskar Province. To the south east was the start of the swamp which disappeared into a mist so that no details could be seen. The group stopped and Tag came back to speak to Edward.
“ You know this place better than the rest of us from the time you worked here a few years ago,” Tag said.  “ We have come about ten miles since breakfast. I suggest we stop here on this grass bank under the trees and have some lunch. Then you can tell me what you know about what lies ahead.”
They had lunch sitting under the shade of the trees. 
Edward explained to Tag that not far in the distance was Ironton, the main mining town in the area. “ There is no law in Ironton so we had better be careful when we pass through. When I worked here, the town was in the control of a gang under the leadership of a man called Ample Tom. Don’t ask me where he got that name. He demands, on pain of a beating or worse, that everybody in his town gives him a percentage of their earnings. It is no surprise to find out that he also owns the bars and hotel. He keeps his control through fear and nobody stands against him.”
“ You seem to know a great deal about this town and Ample Tom,” Tag said grinning.  “ What happened when you worked here? We won’t have to defend you will we?”
“ He might not remember me after this time but as the only person who has stood up to him and refused to pay his protection money, he might,” Edward grinned. “ When we meet him if he confronts us as we pass through the town, you might notice that one of his fingers is missing on his right hand.  For some reason the knife he threw at me slipped and sliced off his own finger. While I was defending myself, I also threw one of his henchmen in the horse trough without actually catching hold of him. After that they paid me my money for any work I did for them and gave me a wide berth. I have no idea why they did not like me.”
“ So we will have to lead the way through the town and keep you out of sight as much as possible,” Tag remarked shaking his head. “ For somebody who is always giving the impression of avoiding trouble, you do seem to attract it.”
“ All you have to do is get us through the town without calling too much attention to the group,” Edward said smiling.
They soon realised that they were entering the mining area of Alskar Province. Many of the trees had been hewn down to provide charcoal for smelting. Up the slopes leading away from the track, the earth was scarred by diggings. 
The town appeared clinging to the side of the mountains on a kind of flat field running back into the hills. All around the town the ground was disturbed and looked as though it was suffering from some skin disease.
They walked in file through the town, passed the first crude houses, then the inn and hotel. Five evil looking men lounged on the veranda of the bar looking curiously at the group as they approached. A large man dressed in chain mail detached himself from the group and confronted Tag as he came level with the inn.
In a guttural voice that sounded like a file scraping over metal, he asked, “What are you doing in this town, stranger?”
Tag stopped and smiled mildly. “ Just passing through.”
The man looked less than pleased. “ And where did you come from?”
Tag smiled in return. “ That is none of your business.”
The man scowled. “ Everything that happens in this town is Ample Tom’s business.”
Tag adjusted his pack, bowed to the man and started forward, waving for the others to follow. The rest of the men left the veranda. Ahkiem and Karlan moved closer to Lisa and Mary. Grog and Alig loosened their swords. 
Megor spoke quietly to Edward. “ There are two men on the roof of the building with bows and arrows.”
Edward looked and soon spotted the men. “ Let Tag handle this. If it comes to a fight, leave the men on the roof to me. You warn Tag if anybody else looks like joining in.”
Megor grinned. “ They already have. There are another ten men coming round from behind the inn.”
The men that Megor had detected appeared from a side alley and spread out to face the strangers leaving a very large man dressed in shiny leather in the centre of the road. The man from the inn walked across and spoke to the big man gesturing towards Tag.
Looking up, the man said in a reasonable voice, “ I am Ample Tom and I own this town. Everybody who passes through or who settles here has to have my permission first. There is a charge for your protection which helps me maintain order. If there was no charge, there would be anarchy and you would get hurt. Now I am prepared to offer you a discount but before you go anywhere, that will be twenty gold pieces.”
Tag frowned. “ And if we refuse to pay?”
Ample Tom shrugged. “ You are out numbered and there are hidden bowmen. I do not think you can win a fight.”
Tag looked at Edward who indicated for them to go on. As the sword of Claude, Dorrick, Ahkiem and Karlan left their scabbards, Edward heard the twang of bow strings. Waving his hand he swept the arrows out of the air, sending them burning harmlessly to the ground. The bowmen came sailing off the roof to land with a sickening thud in the dust at Ample Tom’s feet.
Edward stepped forward, his face grim. “ Tag, make sure we are not molested. You have my permission to kill them all. Grog and Alig, take Lisa and Mary to safety the other end of the town. Kill anybody who tries to stop you. Keep to the left hand side of the street and leave this mob to me.” 
Making sure that Grog and the others were moving, Edward approached Ample Tom. “ Hello Ample Tom, do you remember me?”
Tom’s eyes widened. “ You. I told you last time to be careful if you ever came back to Ironton.”
Edward calmly drew his sword. “ Will you settle it right here?”
Tom swallowed hard and turned to his men. They however were watching the circling expertly wielded swords of Karlan, Tag, Ahkiem, Claude and Megor. Three were standing by the veranda with their hands in the air facing the bow of Dorrick.
Edward laughed. “ It is not so easy to fight with all your men tied up elsewhere, is it Tom? Like all bullies, you are big and brave until anybody stands up to you. Well, we are standing up to you, so draw your sword and stop me getting through the town.”
Tom looked round forlornly and drew his sword. It was as though he had difficulty in raising his sword, as though it was too heavy. The fight was sluggish and soon over. Edward fainted one way and then struck from the other. Tom screamed and fell in the dust. His brave men dropped their swords and ran. Wiping his sword on Tom’s expensive shirt, Edward signalled for the others to follow and walked on through the town. People were emerging from the buildings all round the town but Edward ignored them.
He caught up with Grog and Alig just on the outskirts of the town but did not stop. At a brisk walk, as though he wanted to get away as soon as possible, Edward walked on down the road. Tag caught up with Edward further down the trail and pulled him to a stop beside the path. 
“ By your Maker, you can be ruthless at times,” Tag observed in a strangled voice. “ Where are you going at such a pace? Wait for the others to catch up.”
“ I just wanted to be alone for a while,” Edward answered not looking Tag in the eyes. “ I don’t know what comes over me but if bad people like Ample Tom get in my way, all I can think about is killing them. I shouldn’t be like that. My power is there to help people not to kill them.”
Tag put his arm round his friend’s shoulder and waited for a wagon to pass before speaking. “ None of us like killing other people but sometimes we cannot avoid it. You have rid the world of an evil man who killed other people if they would not do as he said and who terrorised a town. I have never seen you kill anybody without due cause. Look on the bright side. By killing Ample Tom like you did, it saved the rest of us having to fight his men with all the dangers that one of us would have been hurt or even killed. I know we are good but in a situation like we found ourselves in back there, anything could have happened. Come on, let us get going. The others have caught us up.”
Edward looked round to find the others waiting by the road side. “ All right everybody. Tag and Karlan will lead us down the road for about ten miles. We then turn off the road onto a small track leading into a wood. We will stop there for the night. Be watchful and tell me immediately if you feel you are being manipulated in any way. We have no idea whether this part of the Empire has been captured or not. If it is still in our hands, I could reach Nelvask with my mind. However, until I am sure that Alskar Province is still free, I will have to refrain from contacting anybody by my mind. Tomorrow we will cut across country skirting the edge of the farmland along the banks of Questers Stream until we hit a trail leading to Pinaar. You will hide in the woods behind Pinaar while Tag and I visit some friends. Once we have found out what is happening, we can then decide on our course of action. Any dissenting voices?”
Edward took the shaking of heads as agreement and waved Tag on down the trail. It was relatively peaceful with hardly a sight of another human being. They did catch glimpses of men in the woods further up the mountain and passed charcoal fires smelting iron near the road. Most people looked at them curiously for a minute but soon returned to their task. This was not a place where people were overly curious about other people. Every so often a wagon driven by a swearing driver passed, carrying supplies up the slope and iron ingots down. They stopped once for a drink and a rest.
As evening was approaching with the sun starting to disappear behind the mountains at their backs, Tag led them off the road and into a woods. Soon he indicated for them to turn off the trail and led them into a small clearing. A stream flowed swiftly through the trees at one side and low shrub sheltered them from any prying eyes passing on the track.
There, they spent an uneventful night with the lookout rotating. Edward began to believe that Alskar Province was still free.
The next day they set out soon after daybreak, keeping to the banks of the stream as much as possible. The stream skirted the farmland most of the time and they only saw distant figures in the fields. They followed the stream as it turned away from the mountains and headed towards the south east. As the sun was once more setting behind the mountains, now more distant at their backs, Edward left the stream bank and headed directly east. It was getting dark when they saw ahead through a screen of trees and bushes, the twinkling lights of a town.
Turning into the woods, Edward found a sheltered place hidden from prying eyes, “ Karlan. You keep everybody here for a while. We will be about an hour. If after two hours we have not come back, it will be up to you to decide what to do. You will not be effected by the Sea Elves power so lead these people to safety. Come on Tag. Lets go to Tom Baston’s house and see what has happened since we have been away.”
Tag led the way out of the woods and back onto the track they had been following. Silently the two friends glided through the night, pausing at each sound until they were certain they had found out what was causing the noise. They avoided going into the town and left the track to skirt round the edges of the buildings. All they could hear was the normal sounds of a town preparing to go to bed for the night. Laughter from the inn, people arguing and dogs being told to be quiet. Soon they were level with the back of Tom’s forge. Edward and Tag stopped and looked around. All appeared to be normal.
Edward nudged Tag and indicated with his head that he was going to enter the forge. Tag grinned and nodded. They climbed through the hedge and, ducking low, they both ran across the space between the hedge and the buildings. They stopped behind the stable and inched their way forward until they could peer out into the yard. All was quiet and peaceful just as Edward remembered from nights he had stayed here. Looking around the yard and beyond, Edward did notice some new buildings beyond the stables.
Tag nodded and they ran across the yard to the house flattening themselves against the wall each side of the door. Once more they looked around anxiously but still nothing stirred. Signalling for Tag to stay where he was, Edward tiptoed to the door and placed his ear against the wood. All he could hear was the soft, normal sound of voices and the chink of plates being stacked on a shelf. All appeared normal.
Looking towards Tag, Edward shrugged and knocked hard on the door. There was a sudden silence the other side of the door and then the sound of footsteps advancing towards the door.
A voice which Edward recognised shouted through the wood. “ Who is it at this time of night?”
Edward answered. “ Hello Tom. It is Edward Eastland and Tag here. Can we come in?”
There was the sound of bolts being drawn and then the door was flung open flooding the yard in light. Edward stepped into the light as a figure started to block it and was engulfed in a bear hug. “ Edward! Where have you been? The last I heard of you, when Lucy came to stay last week, was that you, Boric and Tag had disappeared after being sent on a secret mission. Derek and June are at home.”
Edward asked anxiously. “ Is that all who are here?”
Tom looked puzzled. “ Yes we are alone.”
Edward signalled for Tag to join them and followed Tom into the house. Derek rushed over and shook Edward’s hand. June stood by the table and looked shy but she returned the kiss when Edward reached her.
June said. “ Hello Edward. Hello Tag. Where have you been and why all this sneaking up here late at night? One person relieved to know you are back will be Kitty. Last time we saw Lucy, she told us that your wife was really worried.”
Edward grimaced. “ Before I tell you all the precise of what has happened to us there are a couple of things I have to ask. First is Alskar Province still holding out?”
Tom again looked puzzled. “ The line has been held at the river though from what I heard it is a struggle.”
“ Good,” Edward said. “ Second can my companions stay the night. Before you answer there are ten people. I thought they could stay above the stable in the hay loft.”
“ Of course they can stay,” June said. “ I might be able to rustle up some food though there is not much. Food is hard to come by these days though we are not too badly off because the farmers pay for their work with food. Who are these people?”
Edward turned to Tag. “ Go and tell the others they can come here.” 
Tag turned and left the room.
“ You will be meeting the Princes Karlan, Megor and Ahkiem. The first two are Elves from what they call the Golden City. Prince Ahkiem is from a place far away to the south by the sea. Claude and Dorrick are Rombuli but from the valley in the mountains. They can tell you their story if there is time Tom. Then there are Lisa and Mary from the valley guarded by Alig and Grog. Lisa and Mary are healers and they are here to help me transport Boric’s body back to his family so that he can have a proper cremation.”
Tom, June and Derek looked thunderstruck. “ Is that Boric, Kitty’s brother? The Imperial Master who abducted you last autumn on the way to the Gathering? How did he die?”
Edward looked from one to the other. “ That is part of our story and we will tell it when we are all here.”
They heard foot steps crossing the yard and Tag appeared at the door. He was followed by all Edward’s companions. Once they were all in the room, it was crowded but June and Tom managed to find enough places for everybody to sit.
Lisa asked Edward before she sat down. “ What can we do with Boric’s body?”
Edward indicated the door. “ Come with me and I will show you.”
Alig and Grog came with them. Edward showed Lisa the forge and they laid the body on the table which Edward had once used for small jobs. When all was well, they returned to the kitchen of the house.
“ Can some of you get torches and form a circle in the yard?” Edward asked when he returned. 
Tag smiled and said. “ You all want to come and see this, if it is what I think Edward is going to do.”
In the end, they all grabbed torches and filed out into the yard. After forming a circle and lighting the area in the middle with their torches, they all waited while Edward composed himself.
Nelvask can you hear me?” he projected his thoughts towards Alskar town. Nothing happened. “ Nelvask can you hear me?
Edward is that you?” the answer came back. “ Where are you? Can I come to join you?
Am I glad to hear your thoughts, Nelvask,” Edward replied. “ I am at Tom Baston’s forge in Pinaar. If I open my mind can you come. I have some sad news to tell you.
What is that?” Nelvask demanded.
Boric was killed in Hambleton,” Edward replied bluntly. “ We have his body here to bring home for his funeral with his family. It is preserved by the work of two Rombuli healers from the mountain valley.
Open your mind and I will join you,” Nelvask said.
Edward opened his mind and felt the familiar wrench and then Nelvask stepped out of thin air into the light of the torches. There was gasps of surprise from all around the circle accompanied by a laugh from Tag. 
“ I told you would get a surprise,” Tag said to nobody in particular.
Nelvask embraced Edward. “ You will have to tell me all the news later. First can I see Boric’s body?”
Edward sent the others back indoors except Lisa. Leading Nelvask across the yard he entered the forge and showed Nelvask where they had laid out Boric’s body. Nelvask touched Boric’s cheek and bowed his head to stand silently by the body.
Turning to Lisa, he asked. “ How do you do this?”
Lisa replied shyly, “ I do not really know. Using my power to encase the body in an energy field seems to give us time to transport the body for a few days. Actually I have never kept it up for this long before.”
Nelvask hugged her shoulders. “ Thank you Lisa Sharpe. Your accent might be different but it is obvious to me that you are a true Rombuli.”
Lisa looked puzzled. “ You remind me of Ullatte, the magician. He stayed with us for a long time but left the valley some years ago. He told us we did not need him any more and there were others out in the wider world who needed his protection. He had a great deal of power though he never used it much while he was in the valley.”
Nelvask was suddenly alert. “ When did this Ullatte come into the valley?”
Lisa frowned. “ I am not too sure because as far as I can remember he was always there. He taught me how to channel my power. He left about five years ago.”
Nelvask smiled at Lisa. “ We will have to talk of him some other time. Let us go back to the others.”
They went back to join the others in the kitchen come living room of June’s. Somehow June had managed to find some food and the others were busily consuming all her  supplies. 
Over the meal and a drink afterwards, they all supplied Nelvask with the answers he wanted. He questioned Karlan and Megor in detail about the Elves, Claude about the other Rombuli but seemed to know about Ironfist and the events near Lake Umburti.
Late in the night, he said. “ Thank you Tom and June. I think we all ought to get some sleep now. I have arranged for an escort of soldiers for the morning. They will be here early with a carriage for the body, Boric’s ceremonial uniform and horses for the rest of you. We will then accompany the body to Coombe Bridge. That is where the Army Head Quarters has been established. Between there and the Gathering fields there is a flat topped hill and that is where all the cremations take place. Once we get to Combe Bridge we will be joined by Boric’s family and go straight to the funeral.”
Edward could hardly sleep and long before the dawn he was up and dressed. He was sitting on the steps at the bottom of the stairs leading to the hay loft when the soldiers rode into the yard. The carriage proved to be a flat bed wagon without the sides. Seeing Edward, the Undermaster in charge of the troop approached after dismounting.
He saluted Edward by banging his fist against his chest. “ Good morning. Where can I find Nelvask, the magician?”
Edward smiled in return. “ I will fetch him for you.”
When he walked into the kitchen, Edward found Nelvask sitting at the kitchen table drinking from a tankard of water. “ The soldiers have arrived. What now?”
Nelvask stood and said. “ Lets go and get the body loaded onto the wagon and then we can rouse the others. I want to be on the road as soon as possible.”
The soldiers had dismounted when Nelvask came out of the house and, after a word with the Under Master, he led four soldiers into the forge. They carried a pack with Boric’s dress uniform. After dressing the body in the uniform, the soldiers carried Boric’s body out into the yard and respectfully laid it on the wagon. The Under Master cover it with an Imperial flag and erected a lance with the flag of the Borovics by the headboard. While they were doing this under the watchful eye of Nelvask, Edward roused the others. It was not long before they were all assembled in the yard mounted on the horses that the soldiers had brought.
Edward said goodbye to June, Tom and Derek before mounting his horse and taking his place in the escort. The Under Master gave the order and they all took up their allotted places. The Under Master and six soldiers in ranks of three led carrying the Imperial flag. Behind came Edward, Tag and  Megor in the next rank. Claude, Karlan and Ahkiem came next followed by the wagon. Behind the wagon rode Mary, Lisa and with Dorrick, Alig and Grog following. Last came the other six soldiers . Nelvask waited until they were on their way and then disappeared back to Coombe bridge.
It took them all day to travel from Pinaar to Coombe Bridge. The dusk was falling when they came to the house which had been commandeered for the headquarters of the army. 
As they rode into the courtyard of the house, they found Gloria Borovic waiting beside Nelvask on the steps for them to arrive. When the procession came to a halt, she walked slowly down the steps and approached the wagon. Bowing, she stroked Boric’s face.
Turning to the Under Master, she said in a calm voice. “ Lay him out in the conference room. We have arranged for the funeral first thing in the morning.” 
When the body had gone, she turned to Edward and said still in a calm voice, “ Hello Edward. Thank you for bringing him home to me.”
Edward dismounted and handed the reins of his horse to a soldier. He put his arms round Gloria and hugged her.  
“ Hello Gloria. I am sorry I did not bring him home safely. I will tell you the whole story once I have had a bath and a change of clothes,” he said. “ Is Kitty here?”
“ She told me to tell you she will be here as soon as she can, Edward,” Gloria smiled faintly. “ Your wife has changed Edward. She has taken on the task of organising the healing stations and is very busy all the time.”
Nelvask took Edward’s arm. “ I will show you to the place she is staying. We will leave you, Gloria for now but we will be here in the morning.”
Nelvask led Edward back through the entrance to the courtyard and round the side of the house. Taking a path through some trees and shrubs, rather neglected Edward thought, they came to a row of small cottages.
Knocking on the door to the end cottage, Nelvask said with a wave of his hand, “ This is your home for the present, Edward.” 
As though to emphasis the point, the door opened to reveal Tulla. She rushed out and embraced Edward, only to step back blushing.
“ Welcome home Mister Eastland. We have missed you since you went away,” she remarked trying to regain her composure. “ Come on in and I will get you some warm water in which to wash and something to eat. I am alone at the moment. Your wife and Zita are away nearer to Alskar tending the wounded. They are always complaining that there are not enough healers.”
Edward sat on a rickety cane chair. “ I might be able to help there. I brought two healers back with me. Which reminds me. I hope Nelvask has managed to find places for them to stay.”
Tula did not have a chance to answer because the door burst open and Kitty was in his arms. They held each other close for a long time, no words being necessary to express their thoughts. 
Then Kitty sat back and said. “ Are you all right? I heard about Boric yesterday and shed my tears for him last night. There are so many people with  dead relations to mourn and so many injured to look after that I have no time to dwell on these things. Maybe it will hit me later but for now I am content to have you back.”
They talked late into the night but were up very early ready for the funeral. When they arrived in the courtyard, the body was ready on the wagon and the escort assembled. All of Edward’s companions from the trip through the caves were there along with Nelvask and the Governor. They formed up in ranks behind the wagon and walked the two miles to the cremation grounds.
Gathering round the bier, they bowed and prayed as the body was placed on the wood. Gloria took a burning brand from Rulask and started the fire. Soon the body disappeared in flames and the priest of the Temple of the Sun sang a prayer as the smoke lifted heavenward. 
When it was all over, they walked back through the grounds of the army head quarters towards the house. 

( Thus ends 

The Return of the Exiles 

Book One of the Rombuli Saga.)

Book Two: 

 The Prisoner of Parison

is to follow.