Roran heard the roar of the Igualda Falls long before they came into sight. The falls appeared for all the world like a great snowy mane that billowed and drifted off Narnmor’s craggy head to the valley floor a half mile below. The massive stream curved in several directions as it fell, the result of different layers of wind.
Past the slate ledge where the Anora River became airborne, down a glen filled with thimbleberries, and then finally into a large clearing guarded on one side by a pile of boulders, Roran found that those at the head of the procession had already begun setting up camp. The forest rang with the children’s shouts and cries.
Removing his pack, Roran untied an ax from the top, then set about clearing the underbrush from the site along with several other men. When they finished, they began chopping down enough trees to encircle the camp. The aroma of pine sap filled the air. Roran worked quickly, the wood chips flying in unison with his rhythmic swings.
By the time the fortifications were complete, the camp had already been erected with seventeen wool tents, four small cookfires, and glum expressions from people and donkeys alike. No one wanted to leave, and no one wanted to stay.
Roran surveyed the assortment of boys and old men clutching spears, and thought, Too much experience and too little. The grandfathers know how to deal with bears and the like, but will the grandsons have the strength to actually do it? Then he noticed the hard glint in the women’s eyes and realized that while they might hold a babe or be busy tending a scraped arm, their own shields and spears were never far from reach. Roran smiled. Perhaps…perhaps we still have hope.
He saw Nolfavrell sitting alone on a log—staring back toward Palancar Valley—and joined the boy, who looked at him seriously. “Are you leaving soon?” asked Nolfavrell. Roran nodded, impressed by his poise and determination. “You will do your best, won’t you, to kill the Ra’zac and avenge my father? I would do it, except that Mama says I must guard my brothers and sisters.”
“I’ll bring you their heads myself, if I can,” promised Roran.
The boy’s chin trembled. “That is good!”
“Nolfavrell…” Roran paused as he searched for the right words. “You are the only one here, besides me, who has killed a man. It doesn’t mean that we are better or worse than anyone else, but it means that I can trust you to fight well if you are attacked. When Katrina comes here tomorrow, will you make sure that she’s well protected?”
Nolfavrell’s chest swelled with pride. “I’ll guard her wherever she goes!” Then he looked regretful. “That is…when I don’t have to look after—”
Roran understood. “Oh, your family comes first. But maybe Katrina can stay in the tent with your brothers and sisters.”
“Yes,” said Nolfavrell slowly. “Yes, I think that would work. You can rely on me.”
“Thank you.” Roran clapped him on the shoulder. He could have asked an older and more capable person, but the adults were too busy with their own responsibilities to defend Katrina as he hoped. Nolfavrell, however, would have the opportunity and inclination to assure that she remained safe. He can hold my place while we are apart. Roran stood as Birgit approached.
Eyeing him flatly, she said, “Come, it is time.” Then she hugged her son and continued toward the falls with Roran and the other villagers who were returning to Carvahall. Behind them, everyone in the small camp clustered against the felled trees and stared forlornly out through their wooden bars.
HIS ENEMY’S FACE
As Roran proceeded about his work throughout the rest of the day, he felt Carvahall’s emptiness deep inside. It was as if part of himself had been extracted and hidden in the Spine. And with the children gone, the village now felt like an armed camp. The change seemed to have made everyone grim and grave.
When the sun finally sank into the waiting teeth of the Spine, Roran climbed the hill to Horst’s house. He stopped before the front door and placed a hand on the knob, but remained there, unable to enter. Why does this frighten me as much as fighting?
In the end, he forsook the front door entirely and went to the side of the house, where he slipped into the kitchen and, to his dismay, saw Elain knitting on one side of the table, speaking to Katrina, who was opposite her. They both turned toward him, and Roran blurted, “Are…are you all right?”
Katrina came to his side. “I’m fine.” She smiled softly. “It just was a terrible shock when Father…when…” She ducked her head for a moment. “Elain has been wonderfully kind to me. She agreed to lend me Baldor’s room for the night.”
“I’m glad you are better,” said Roran. He hugged her, trying to convey all of his love and adoration through that simple touch.
Elain wrapped up her knitting. “Come now. The sun has set, and it’s time you were off to bed, Katrina.”
Roran reluctantly let go of Katrina, who kissed him on the cheek and said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
He started to follow her out, but stopped when Elain said with a barbed tone, “Roran.” Her delicate face was hard and stern.
Elain waited until they heard the creak of stairs that indicated Katrina was out of earshot. “I hope that you meant every promise you gave that girl, because if you didn’t, I’ll call an assembly and have you exiled within a week.”
Roran was dumbfounded. “Of course I meant them. I love her.”
“Katrina just surrendered everything she owned or cared about for you.” Elain stared up at him with unwavering eyes. “I’ve seen men who throw their affection at young maids, like grain tossed at chickens. The maids sigh and weep and believe that they are special, yet for the man, it’s only a trifling amusement. You have always been honorable, Roran, but one’s loins can turn even the most sensible person into a prancing booby or a sly, wicked fox. Are you one? For Katrina requires neither a fool, a trickster, nor even love; what she requires above all else is a man who will provide for her. If you abandon her, she will be the meanest person in Carvahall, forced to live off her friends, our first and only beggar. By the blood in my veins, I won’t let that happen.”
“Nor would I,” protested Roran. “I would have to be heartless, or worse, to do so.”
Elain jerked her chin. “Exactly. Don’t forget that you intend to marry a woman who has lost both her dowry and her mother’s inheritance. Do you understand what it means for Katrina to lose her inheritance? She has no silver, no linens, no lace, nor any of the things needed for a well-run home. Such items are all we own, passed from mother to daughter since the day we first settled Alagaësia. They determine our worth. A woman without her inheritance is like…is like—”
“Is like a man without a farm or a trade,” said Roran.
“Just so. It was cruel of Sloan to deny Katrina her inheritance, but that can’t be helped now. Both you and she have no money or resources. Life is difficult enough without that added hardship. You’ll be starting from nothing and with nothing. Does the prospect frighten you or seem unbearable? So I ask you once again—and don’t lie or the two of you will regret it for the rest of your lives—will you care for her without grudge or resentment?”
Elain sighed and filled two earthen cups with cider from a jug hanging among the rafters. She handed one to Roran as she seated herself back at the table. “Then I suggest that you devote yourself to replacing Katrina’s home and inheritance so that she and any daughters you may have can stand without shame among the wives of Carvahall.”
Roran sipped the cool cider. “If we live that long.”
“Aye.” She brushed back a strand of her blond hair and shook her head. “You’ve chosen a hard path, Roran.”
“I had to make sure that Katrina would leave Carvahall.”
Elain lifted an eyebrow. “So that was it. Well, I won’t argue about it, but why on earth didn’t you speak to Sloan about your engagement before this morning? When Horst asked my father, he gave our family twelve sheep, a sow, and eight pairs of wrought-iron candlesticks
before he even knew if my parents would agree. That’s how it should be done. Surely you could have thought of a better strategy than striking your father-in-law-to-be.”
A painful laugh escaped Roran. “I could have, but it never seemed the right time with all the attacks.”
“The Ra’zac haven’t attacked for almost six days now.”
He scowled. “No, but…it was…Oh, I don’t know!” He banged his fist on the table with frustration.
Elain put down her cup and wrapped her tiny hands around his. “If you can mend this rift between you and Sloan now, before years of resentment accumulate, your life with Katrina will be much, much easier. Tomorrow morning you should go to his house and beg his forgiveness.”
“I won’t beg! Not to him.”
“Roran, listen to me. It’s worth a month of begging to have peace in your family. I know from experience; strife does naught but make you miserable.”
“Sloan hates the Spine. He’ll have nothing to do with me.”
“You have to try, though,” said Elain earnestly. “Even if he spurns your apology, at least you can’t be blamed for not making the effort. If you love Katrina, then swallow your pride and do what’s right for her. Don’t make her suffer for your mistake.” She finished her cider, used a tin hat to snuff the candles, and left Roran sitting alone in the dark.
Several minutes elapsed before Roran could bring himself to stir. He stretched out an arm and traced along the counter’s edge until he felt the doorway, then proceeded upstairs, all the while running the tips of his fingers over the carved walls to keep his balance. In his room, he disrobed and threw himself lengthwise on the bed.
Wrapping his arms around his wool-stuffed pillow, Roran listened to the faint sounds that drifted through the house at night: the scrabble of a mouse in the attic and its intermittent squeaks, the groan of wood beams cooling in the night, the whisper and caress of wind at the lintel of his window, and…and the rustle of slippers in the hall outside his room.
He watched as the latch above the doorknob was pulled free of its hook, then the door inched forward with a rasp of protest. It paused. A dark form slipped inside, the door closed, and Roran felt a curtain of hair brush his face along with lips like rose petals. He sighed.
A thunderclap tore Roran from sleep.
Light flared on his face as he struggled to regain awareness, like a diver desperate to reach the surface. He opened his eyes and saw a jagged hole blasted through his door. Six soldiers rushed through the yawning cleft, followed by the two Ra’zac, who seemed to fill the room with their ghastly presence. A sword was pressed against Roran’s neck. Beside him, Katrina screamed and pulled the blankets around her.
“Up,” ordered the Ra’zac. Roran cautiously got to his feet. His heart felt like it was about to explode in his chest. “Tie his handsss and bring him.”
As a soldier approached Roran with rope, Katrina screamed again and jumped on the men, biting and clawing furiously. Her sharp nails furrowed their faces, drawing streams of blood that blinded the cursing soldiers.
Roran dropped to one knee and grabbed his hammer from the floor, then planted his feet, swinging the hammer over his head and roaring like a bear. The soldiers threw themselves at him in an attempt to subdue him through sheer numbers, but to no avail: Katrina was in danger, and he was invincible. Shields crumpled beneath his blows, brigandines and mail split under his merciless weapon, and helmets caved in. Two men were wounded, and three fell to rise no more.
The clang and clamor had roused the household; Roran dimly heard Horst and his sons shouting in the hall. The Ra’zac hissed to one another, then scuttled forward and grasped Katrina with inhuman strength, lifting her off the floor as they fled the room.
“Roran!” she shrieked.
Summoning his energy, Roran bowled past the two remaining men. He stumbled into the hall and saw the Ra’zac climbing out a window. Roran dashed toward them and struck at the last Ra’zac, just as it was about to descend below the windowsill. Jerking upward, the Ra’zac caught Roran’s wrist in midair and chittered with delight, blowing its fetid breath onto his face. “Yesss! You are the one we want!”
Roran tried to twist free, but the Ra’zac did not budge. With his free hand, Roran buffeted the creature’s head and shoulders—which were as hard as iron. Desperate and enraged, he seized the edge of the Ra’zac’s hood and wrenched it back, exposing its features.
A hideous, tortured face screamed at him. The skin was shiny black, like a beetle carapace. The head was bald. Each lidless eye was the size of his fist and gleamed like an orb of polished hematite; no iris or pupil existed. In place of a nose, mouth, and chin, a thick beak hooked to a sharp point that clacked over a barbed purple tongue.
Roran yelled and jammed his heels against the sides of the window frame, struggling to free himself from the monstrosity, but the Ra’zac inexorably drew him out of the house. He could see Katrina on the ground, still screaming and fighting.
Just as Roran’s knees buckled, Horst appeared by his side and wrapped a knotted arm around his chest, locking him in place. “Someone get a spear!” shouted the smith. He snarled, veins bulging on his neck from the strain of holding Roran. “It’ll take more than this demon spawn to best us!”
The Ra’zac gave a final yank, then, when it failed to dislodge Roran, cocked its head and said, “You are oursss!” It lunged forward with blinding speed, and Roran howled as he felt the Ra’zac’s beak close on his right shoulder, snipping through the front of the muscle. His wrist cracked at the same time. With a malicious cackle, the Ra’zac released him and fell backward into the night.
Horst and Roran sprawled against each other in the hallway. “They have Katrina,” groaned Roran. His vision flickered and went black around the edges as he pushed himself upright on his left arm—his right hung useless. Albriech and Baldor emerged from his room, splattered with gore. Only corpses remained behind them. Now I have killed eight. Roran retrieved his hammer and staggered down the hall, finding his way blocked by Elain in her white sleeping shift.
She looked at him with wide eyes, then took his arm and pushed him down onto a wood chest set against the wall. “You have to see Gertrude.”
“You’ll pass out if this bleeding isn’t stopped.”
He looked down at his right side; it was drenched in crimson. “We have to rescue Katrina before”—he clenched his teeth as the pain surged—“before they do anything to her.”
“He’s right; we can’t wait,” said Horst, looming over them. “Bind him up as best you can, then we’ll go.” Elain pursed her lips and hurried to the linen closet. She returned with several rags, which she wrapped tightly around Roran’s torn shoulder and his fractured wrist. Meanwhile, Albriech and Baldor scavenged armor and swords from the soldiers. Horst contented himself with just a spear.
Elain put her hands on Horst’s chest and said, “Be careful.” She looked at her sons. “All of you.”
“We’ll be fine, Mother,” promised Albriech. She forced a smile and kissed them on the cheek.
They left the house and ran to the edge of Carvahall, where they found that the wall of trees had been pulled open and the watchman, Byrd, slain. Baldor knelt and examined the body, then said with a choked voice, “He was stabbed from behind.” Roran barely heard him through the pounding in his ears. Dizzy, he leaned against a house and panted for breath.
“Ho! Who goes?”
From their stations along Carvahall’s perimeter, the other watchmen congregated around their murdered compatriot, forming a huddle of shuttered lanterns. In hushed tones, Horst described the attack and Katrina’s plight. “Who will help us?” he asked. After a quick discussion, five men agreed to accompany them; the rest would remain to guard the breach in the wall and rouse the villagers.
Pushing himself off the house, Roran trotted to the head of the group as it slipped through the fields and down the valley toward the Ra’zac’s camp
. Every step was agony, yet it did not matter; nothing mattered except Katrina. He stumbled once and Horst wordlessly caught him.
Half a mile from Carvahall, Ivor spotted a sentry on a hillock, which compelled them to make a wide detour. A few hundred yards beyond, the ruddy glow of torches became visible. Roran raised his good arm to slow their advance, then began to dodge and crawl through the tangled grass, startling a jackrabbit. The men followed Roran’s lead as he worked his way to the edge of a grove of cattails, where he stopped and parted the curtain of stalks to observe the thirteen remaining soldiers.
Where is she?
In contrast to when they had first arrived, the soldiers appeared sullen and haggard, their weapons nicked and their armor dented. Most of them wore bandages that were rusty with splotches of dried blood. The men were clumped together, facing the two Ra’zac—both of whom were now hooded—across a low fire.
One man was shouting: “…over half of us killed by a bunch of inbred, cockle-brained woodrats that can’t tell a pike from a poleax or find the point of a sword even if it’s lodged in their gut, because you don’t have half the sense my banner boy does! I don’t care if Galbatorix himself licks your boots clean, we won’t do a thing until we have a new commander.” The men nodded. “One who’s human.”
“Really?” demanded the Ra’zac softly.
“We’ve had enough taking orders from hunchbacks like you, with all your clicking and teapot whistling—makes us sick! And I don’t know what you did with Sardson, but if you stay another night, we’ll put steel in you and find out if you bleed like us. You can leave the girl, though, she’ll be—”
The man did not get a chance to continue, for the largest Ra’zac jumped across the fire and landed on his shoulders, like a giant crow. Screaming, the soldier collapsed under the weight. He tried to draw his sword, but the Ra’zac pecked twice at his neck with its hidden beak, and he was still.
“We have to fight that?” muttered Ivor behind Roran.
The soldiers remained frozen with shock as the two Ra’zac lapped from the neck of the corpse. When the black creatures rose, they rubbed their knobby hands together, as if they were washing, and said, “Yesss. We will go. Stay if you wisssh; reinforsssements are only daysss away.” The Ra’zac threw back their heads and began to shriek at the sky, the wail becoming increasingly shrill until it passed from hearing.