Eldest (The Inheritance Cycle 2) - Page 19

“As I said from the beginning,” declared Tara.

Then Baldor spoke: “Roran is right. We can’t allow ourselves to be blinded by fear. Most of us have climbed to the top of the falls at one time or another. It’s safe enough.”

“I too,” Birgit finally added, “must agree.”

Horst nodded. “I would rather not do it, but considering the circumstances…. I don’t think we have any other choice.” After a minute, the various men and women began to reluctantly acquiesce to the proposal.

“Nonsense!” exploded Sloan. He stood and stabbed an accusing finger at Roran. “How will they get enough food to wait for weeks on end? They can’t carry it. How will they stay warm? If they light fires, they’ll be seen! How, how, how? If they don’t starve, they’ll freeze. If they don’t freeze, they’ll be eaten. If they’re not eaten…Who knows? They may fall!”

Roran spread his hands. “If we all help, they will have plenty of food. Fire won’t be a problem if they move farther back into the forest, which they must anyway, since there isn’t room to camp right by the falls.”

“Excuses! Justifications!”

“What would you have us do, Sloan?” asked Morn, eyeing him with curiosity.

Sloan laughed bitterly. “Not this.”

“Then what?”

“It doesn’t matter. Only this is the wrong choice.”

“You don’t have to participate,” pointed out Horst.

“Nor will I,” said the butcher. “Proceed if you want, but neither I nor my blood shall enter the Spine while I still have marrow in my bones.” He grabbed his cap and left with a venomous glare at Roran, who returned the scowl in kind.

As Roran saw it, Sloan was endangering Katrina through his own pigheaded stubbornness. If he can’t bring himself to accept the Spine as a place of refuge, decided Roran, then he’s become my enemy and I have to take matters into my own hands.

Horst leaned forward on his elbows and interlaced his thick fingers. “So…If we are going to use Roran’s plan, what preparations will be needed?” The group exchanged wary glances, then gradually began to discuss the topic.

Roran waited until he was convinced that he had achieved his goal before slipping out of the dining room. Loping through the dusky village, he searched for Sloan along the inner perimeter of the tree wall. Eventually, he spotted the butcher hunched underneath a torch, his shield clasped around his knees. Roran spun around on one foot and ran to Sloan’s shop, where he hurried to the kitchen in the back.

Katrina paused in the middle of setting their table and stared at him with amazement. “Roran! Why are you here? Did you tell Father?”

“No.” He came forward and took her arm, savoring the touch. Just being in the same room with her filled him with joy. “I have a great favor to ask of you. It’s been decided to send the children and a few others into the Spine above Igualda Falls.” Katrina gasped. “I want you to accompany them.”

With a shocked expression, Katrina pulled free of his grasp and turned to the open fireplace, where she hugged herself and stared at the bed of throbbing embers. For a long time, she said nothing. Then: “Father forbade me to go near the falls after Mother died. Albem’s farm is the closest I’ve been to the Spine in over ten years.” She shivered, and her voice grew accusing. “How can you suggest that I abandon both you and my father? This is my home as much as yours. And why should I leave when Elain, Tara, and Birgit will remain?”

“Katrina, please.” He tentatively put his hands on her shoulders. “The Ra’zac are here for me, and I would not have you harmed because of that. As long as you’re in danger, I can’t concentrate on what has to be done: defending Carvahall.”

“Who would respect me for fleeing like a coward?” She lifted her chin. “I would be ashamed to stand before the women of Carvahall and call myself your wife.”

“Coward? There is no cowardice in guarding and protecting the children in the Spine. If anything, it requires greater courage to enter the mountains than to stay.”

“What horror is this?” whispered Katrina. She twisted in his arms, eyes shining and mouth set firmly. “The man who would be my husband no longer wants me by his side.”

He shook his head. “That’s not true. I—”

“It is true! What if you are killed while I’m gone?”

“Don’t say—”

“No! Carvahall has little hope of survival, and if we must die, I would rather die together than huddle in the Spine without life or heart. Let those with children tend to their own. As will I.” A tear rolled down her cheek.

Gratitude and wonder surged through Roran at the strength of her devotion. He looked deep into her eyes. “It is for that love that I would have you go. I know how you feel. I know that this is the hardest sacrifice either of us could make, and I ask it of you now.”

Katrina shuddered, her entire body rigid, her white hands clenched around her muslin sash. “If I do this,” she said with a shaking voice, “you must promise me, here and now, that you will never make such a request again. You must promise that even if we faced Galbatorix himself and only one of us could escape, you would not ask me to leave.”

Roran looked at her helplessly. “I can’t.”

“Then how can you expect me to do what you won’t!” she cried. “That is my price, and neither gold nor jewels nor pretty words can replace your oath. If you don’t care enough for me to make your own sacrifice, Roran Stronghammer, then be gone and I never wish to see your face again!”

I cannot lose her. Though it pained him almost beyond endurance, he bowed his head and said, “You have my word.”

Katrina nodded and sank into a chair—her back stiff and upright—and blotted her tears on the cuff of her sleeve. In a quiet voice, she said, “Father will hate me for going.”

“How will you tell him?”

“I won’t,” she said defiantly. “He would never let me enter the Spine, but he has to realize that this is my decision. Anyway, he won’t dare pursue me into the mountains; he fears them more than death itself.”

“He may fear losing you even more.”

“We shall see. If—when—the time comes to return, I expect you to have already spoken to him about our engagement. That should give him enough time to reconcile himself to the fact.”

Roran found himself nodding in agreement, all the while thinking that they would be lucky if events worked out so well.


When dawn arrived, Roran woke and lay staring at the whitewashed ceiling while he listened to the slow rasp of his own breathing. After a minute, he rolled off the bed, dressed, and proceeded to the kitchen, where he procured a chunk of bread, smeared it with soft cheese, then stepped out onto the front porch to eat and admire the sunrise.

His tranquility was soon disrupted when a herd of unruly children dashed through the garden of a nearby house, shrieking with delight at their game of Catch-the-Cat, followed by a number of adults intent on snaring their respective charges. Roran watched the cacophonous parade vanish around a corner, then placed the last of the bread in his mouth and returned to the kitchen, which had filled with the rest of the household.

Elain greeted him. “Good morning, Roran.” She pushed open the window shutters and gazed up at the sky. “It looks like it may rain again.”

“The more the better,” asserted Horst. “It’ll help keep us hidden while we climb Narnmor Mountain.”

“Us?” inquired Roran. He sat at the table beside Albriech, who was rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Horst nodded. “Sloan was right about the food and supplies; we have to help carry them up the falls, or else there won’t be enough.”

“Will there still be men to defend Carvahall?”

“Of course, of course.”

Once they all had breakfast, Roran helped Baldor and Albriech wrap spare food, blankets, and supplies into three large bundles that they slung across their shoulders and hauled to the north end of the village. Rora

n’s calf pained him, but not unbearably. Along the way, they met the three brothers Darmmen, Larne, and Hamund, who were similarly burdened.

Just inside the trench that circumnavigated the houses, Roran and his companions found a large gathering of children, parents, and grandparents all busy organizing for the expedition. Several families had volunteered their donkeys to carry goods and the younger children; the animals were picketed in an impatient, braying line that added to the overall confusion.

Roran set his bundle on the ground and scanned the group. He saw Svart—Ivor’s uncle and, at nearly sixty, the oldest man in Carvahall—seated on a bale of clothes, teasing a baby with the tip of his long white beard; Nolfavrell, who was guarded over by Birgit; Felda, Nolla, Calitha, and a number of other mothers with worried expressions; and a great many reluctant people, both men and women. Roran also saw Katrina among the crowd. She glanced up from a knot she was tying on a pack and smiled at him, then returned to her task.

Since no one seemed to be in charge, Roran did his best to sort out the chaos by overseeing the arranging and packaging of the various supplies. He discovered a shortage of waterskins, but when he asked for more, he ended up with thirteen too many. Delays such as those consumed the early-morning hours.

In the middle of discussing with Loring the possible need for extra shoes, Roran stopped as he noticed Sloan standing at the entrance to an alleyway.

The butcher surveyed the mass of activity before him. Contempt cut into the lines along his downturned mouth. His sneer hardened into enraged incredulity as he spotted Katrina, who had shouldered her pack, removing any possibility that she was there only to help. A vein throbbed down the middle of Sloan’s forehead.

Roran hurried toward Katrina, but Sloan reached her first. He grabbed the top of the pack and shook it violently, shouting, “Who made you do this?” Katrina said something about the children and tried to pull free, but Sloan yanked at the pack—twisting her arms as the straps slid off her shoulders—and threw it on the ground so that the contents scattered. Still shouting, Sloan grabbed Katrina’s arm and began to drag her away. She dug in her heels and fought, her copper hair swirling over her face like a dust storm.

Furious, Roran threw himself at Sloan and tore him from Katrina, shoving the butcher in the chest so that he stumbled backward several yards. “Stop! I’m the one who wanted her to go.”

Sloan glared at Roran and snarled, “You have no right!”

“I have every right.” Roran looked at the ring of spectators who had gathered around and then declared so that all could hear: “Katrina and I are engaged to be married, and I would not have my future wife treated so!” For the first time that day, the villagers fell completely silent; even the donkeys were quiet.

Surprise and a deep, inconsolable pain sprang onto Sloan’s vulnerable face, along with the glimmer of tears. For a moment, Roran felt sympathy for him, then a series of contortions distorted Sloan’s visage, each more extreme than the last, until his skin turned beet red. He cursed and said, “You two-faced coward! How could you look me in the eye and speak to me like an honest man while, at the same time, courting my daughter without permission? I dealt with you in good faith, and here I find you plundering my house while my back is turned.”

“I had hoped to do this properly,” said Roran, “but events have conspired against me. It was never my intention to cause you grief. Even though this hasn’t gone the way either of us wanted, I still want your blessing, if you are willing.”

“I would rather have a maggot-riddled pig for a son than you! You have no farm. You have no family. And you will have naught to do with my daughter!” The butcher cursed again. “And she’ll have naught to do with the Spine!”

Sloan reached for Katrina, but Roran blocked the way, his face as hard as his clenched fists. Only a handsbreadth apart, they stared directly at each other, trembling from the strength of their emotions. Sloan’s red-rimmed eyes shone with manic intensity.

“Katrina, come here,” Sloan commanded.

Roran withdrew from Sloan—so that the three of them formed a triangle—and looked at Katrina. Tears streamed down her face as she glanced between him and her father. She stepped forward, hesitated, then with a long, anguished cry, tore at her hair in a frenzy of indecision.

“Katrina!” exclaimed Sloan with a burr of fear.

“Katrina,” murmured Roran.

At the sound of his voice, Katrina’s tears ceased and she stood straight and tall with a calm expression. She said, “I’m sorry, Father, but I have decided to marry Roran,” and stepped to his side.

Sloan turned bone white. He bit his lip so hard that a bead of ruby blood appeared. “You can’t leave me! You’re my daughter!” He lunged at her with crooked hands. In that instant, Roran bellowed and struck the butcher with all his strength, knocking him sprawling in the dirt before the entire village.

Sloan rose slowly, his face and neck flushed with humiliation. When he saw Katrina again, the butcher seemed to crumple inward, losing height and stature until Roran felt as if he were looking at a specter of the original man. In a low whisper, he said, “It is always so; those closest to the heart cause the most pain. Thou will have no dowry from me, snake, nor your mother’s inheritance.” Weeping bitterly, Sloan turned and fled toward his shop.

Katrina leaned against Roran, and he put an arm around her. Together they clung to each other as people crowded against them offering condolences, advice, congratulations, and disapproval. Despite the commotion, Roran was aware of nothing but the woman whom he held, and who held him.

Just then, Elain bustled up as fast as her pregnancy would allow. “Oh, you poor dear!” she cried, and embraced Katrina, drawing her from Roran’s arms. “Is it true you are engaged?” Katrina nodded and smiled, then erupted into hysterical tears against Elain’s shoulder. “There now, there now.” Elain cradled Katrina gently, petting her and trying to soothe her, but without avail—every time Roran thought she was about to recover, Katrina began to cry with renewed intensity. Finally, Elain peered over Katrina’s quaking shoulder and said, “I’m taking her back to the house.”

“I’ll come.”

“No, you won’t,” retorted Elain. “She needs time to calm down, and you have work to do. Do you want my advice?” Roran nodded dumbly. “Stay away until evening. I guarantee that she will be as right as rain by then. She can join the others tomorrow.” Without waiting for his response, Elain escorted the sobbing Katrina away from the wall of sharpened trees.

Roran stood with his hands hanging limply by his sides, feeling dazed and helpless. What have we done? He regretted that he had not revealed their engagement to Sloan sooner. He regretted that he and Sloan could not work together to shield Katrina from the Empire. And he regretted that Katrina had been forced to relinquish her only family for him. He was now doubly responsible for her welfare. They had no choice but to get married. I’ve made a terrible mess of this. He sighed and clenched his fist, wincing as his bruised knuckles stretched.

“How are you?” asked Baldor, coming alongside him.

Roran forced a smile. “It didn’t turn out quite how I hoped. Sloan’s beyond reason when it comes to the Spine.”

“And Katrina.”

“That too. I—” Roran fell silent as Loring stopped before them.

“That was a blasted fool thing to do!” growled the shoemaker, wrinkling his nose. Then he stuck out his chin, grinned, and bared his stumps of teeth. “But I ’ope you and the girl have the best of luck.” He shook his head. “Heh, you’re going to need it, Stronghammer!”

“We’re all going to need it,” snapped Thane as he walked past.

Loring waved a hand. “Bah, sourpuss. Listen, Roran; I’ve lived in Carvahall for many, many years, and in my experience, it’s better that this happened now, instead of when we’re all warm and cozy.”

Baldor nodded, but Roran asked, “Why so?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Normally, you and Katrina would be the meat o

f gossip for the next nine months.” Loring put a finger on the side of his nose. “Ah, but this way, you’ll soon be forgotten amid everything else that’s going on, and then the two of you might even have some peace.”

Roran frowned. “I’d rather be talked about than have those desecrators camped on the road.”

“So would we all. Still, it’s something to be grateful for, and we all need something to be grateful for—’specially once you’re married!” Loring cackled and pointed at Roran. “Your face just turned purple, boy!”

Roran grunted and set about gathering Katrina’s possessions off the ground. As he did, he was interrupted by comments from whoever happened to be nearby, none of which helped to settle his nerves. “Rotgut,” he muttered to himself after a particularly invidious remark.

Although the expedition into the Spine was delayed by the unusual scene the villagers had just witnessed, it was only slightly after midmorning when the caravan of people and donkeys began to ascend the bare trail scratched into the side of Narnmor Mountain to the crest of the Igualda Falls. It was a steep climb and had to be taken slowly, on account of the children and the size of the burdens everyone carried.

Roran spent most of his time caught behind Calitha—Thane’s wife—and her five children. He did not mind, as it gave him an opportunity to indulge his injured calf and to consider recent events at length. He was disturbed by his confrontation with Sloan. At least, he consoled himself, Katrina won’t remain in Carvahall much longer. For Roran was convinced, in his heart of hearts, that the village would soon be defeated. It was a sobering, yet unavoidable, realization.

He paused to rest three-quarters of the way up the mountain and leaned against a tree as he admired the elevated view of Palancar Valley. He tried to spot the Ra’zac’s camp—which he knew was just to the left of the Anora River and the road south—but was unable to discern even a wisp of smoke.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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