“Come,” he growled, lurching past.
With a worried expression, Baldor stepped out of a doorway. “Roran, you shouldn’t be walking around. You lost too much blood. I’ll help—”
Roran heard them follow as he descended the curved stairs toward the entrance of the house, where Horst and Albriech stood talking. They looked up with astonishment.
He ignored the babble of questions, opened the front door, and stepped into the evening’s faded light. Above, an imposing plume of clouds was laced with gold and purple.
Leading the small group, Roran stomped to the edge of Carvahall—repeating his monosyllabic message whenever he passed a man or woman—pulled a torch mounted on a pole from the grasping mud, wheeled about, and retraced his path to the center of town. There he stabbed the pole between his feet, then raised his left arm and roared, “COME!”
The village rang with his voice. He continued the summons as people drifted from the houses and shadowed alleyways and began to gather around him. Many were curious, others sympathetic, some awed, and some angry. Again and again, Roran’s chant echoed in the valley. Loring arrived with his sons in tow. From the opposite direction came Birgit, Delwin, and Fisk with his wife, Isold. Morn and Tara left the tavern together and joined the crush of spectators.
When most of Carvahall stood before him, Roran fell silent, tightening his left fist until his fingernails cut into his palm. Katrina. Raising his hand, he opened it and showed everyone the crimson tears that dripped down his arm. “This,” he said, “is my pain. Look well, for it will be yours unless we defeat the curse wanton fate has set upon us. Your friends and family will be bound in chains, destined for slavery in foreign lands, or slain before your eyes, hewn open by soldiers’ merciless blades. Galbatorix will sow our land with salt so that it lies forever fallow. This I have seen. This I know.” He paced like a caged wolf, glowering and swinging his head. He had their attention. Now he had to stoke them into a frenzy to match his own.
“My father was killed by the desecrators. My cousin has fled. My farm was razed. And my bride-to-be was kidnapped by her own father, who murdered Byrd and betrayed us all! Quimby eaten, the hay barn burned along with Fisk’s and Delwin’s houses. Parr, Wyglif, Ged, Bardrick, Farold, Hale, Garner, Kelby, Melkolf, Albem, and Elmund: all slain. Many of you have been injured, like me, so that you can no longer support your family. Isn’t it enough that we toil every day of our lives to eke a living from the earth, subjected to the whims of nature? Isn’t it enough that we are forced to pay Galbatorix’s iron taxes, without also having to endure these senseless torments?” Roran laughed maniacally, howling at the sky and hearing the madness in his own voice. No one stirred in the crowd.
“I know now the true nature of the Empire and of Galbatorix; they are evil. Galbatorix is an unnatural blight on the world. He destroyed the Riders and the greatest peace and prosperity we ever had. His servants are foul demons birthed in some ancient pit. But is Galbatorix content to grind us beneath his heel? No! He seeks to poison all of Alagaësia, to suffocate us with his cloak of misery. Our children and their descendants shall live in the shadow of his darkness until the end of time, reduced to slaves, worms, vermin for him to torture at his pleasure. Unless…”
Roran stared into the villagers’ wide eyes, conscious of his control over them. No one had ever dared say what he was about to. He let his voice rasp low in his throat: “Unless we have the courage to resist evil.
“We’ve fought the soldiers and the Ra’zac, but it means nothing if we die alone and forgotten—or are carted away as chattel. We cannot stay here, and I won’t allow Galbatorix to obliterate everything that’s worth living for. I would rather have my eyes plucked out and my hands chopped off than see him triumph! I choose to fight! I choose to step from my grave and let my enemies bury themselves in it!
“I choose to leave Carvahall.
“I will cross the Spine and take a ship from Narda down to Surda, where I will join the Varden, who have struggled for decades to free us of this oppression.” The villagers looked shocked at the idea. “But I do not wish to go alone. Come with me. Come with me and seize this chance to forge a better life for yourselves. Throw off the shackles that bind you here.” Roran pointed at his listeners, moving his finger from one target to the next. “A hundred years from now, what names shall drop from the bards’ lips? Horst…Birgit…Kiselt…Thane; they will recite our sagas. They will sing “The Epic of Carvahall,” for we were the only village brave enough to defy the Empire.”
Tears of pride flooded Roran’s eyes. “What could be more noble than cleansing Galbatorix’s stain from Alagaësia? No more would we live in fear of having our farms destroyed, or being killed and eaten. The grain we harvest would be ours to keep, save for any extra that we might send as a gift to the rightful king. The rivers and streams would run thick with gold. We would be safe and happy and fat!
“It is our destiny.”
Roran held his hand before his face and slowly closed his fingers over the bleeding wounds. He stood hunched over his injured arm—crucified by the scores of gazes—and waited for a response to his speech. None came. At last he realized that they wanted him to continue; they wanted to hear more about the cause and the future he had portrayed.
Then as darkness gathered around the radius of his torch, Roran drew himself upright and resumed speaking. He hid nothing, only labored to make them understand his thoughts and feelings, so they too could share the sense of purpose that drove him. “Our age is at an end. We must step forward and cast our lot with the Varden if we and our children are to live free.” He spoke with rage and honeyed tones in equal amount, but always with a fervid conviction that kept his audience entranced.
When his store of images was exhausted, Roran looked into the faces of his friends and neighbors and said, “I march in two days. Accompany me if you wish, but I go regardless.” He bowed his head and stepped out of the light.
Overhead, the waning moon glowed behind a lens of clouds. A slight breeze wafted through Carvahall. An iron weather vane creaked on a roof as it swung in the direction of the current.
From within the crowd, Birgit picked her way into the light, clutching the folds of her dress to avoid tripping. With a subdued expression, she adjusted her shawl. “Today we saw an…” She stopped, shook her head, and laughed in an embarrassed way. “I find it hard to speak after Roran. I don’t like his plan, but I believe that it’s necessary, although for a different reason: I would hunt down the Ra’zac and avenge my husband’s death. I will go with him. And I will take my children.” She too stepped away from the torch.
A silent minute passed, then Delwin and his wife, Lenna, advanced with their arms around each other. Lenna looked at Birgit and said, “I understand your need, Sister. We want our vengeance as well, but more than that, we want the rest of our children to be safe. For that reason, we too will go.” Several women whose husbands had been slain came forward and agreed with her.
The villagers murmured among themselves, then fell silent and motionless. No one else seemed willing to address the subject; it was too momentous. Roran understood. He was still trying to digest the implications himself.
Finally, Horst strode to the torch and stared with a drawn face into the flame. “It’s no good talking any more…. We need time to think. Every man must decide for himself. Tomorrow…tomorrow will be another day. Perhaps things will be clearer then.” He shook his head and lifted the torch, then inverted it and extinguished it against the ground, leaving everyone to find their way home in the moonlight.
Roran joined Albriech and Baldor, who walked behind their parents at a discreet distance, giving them privacy to talk. Neither of the brothers would look at Roran. Unsettled by their lack of expression, Roran asked, “Do you think anyone else will go? Was I good enough?”
Albriech emitted a bark of laughter. “Good enough!”
,” said Baldor in an odd voice, “you could have convinced an Urgal to become a farmer tonight.”
“When you finished, I was ready to grab my spear and dash into the Spine after you. I wouldn’t have been alone either. The question isn’t who will leave, it’s who won’t. What you said…I’ve never heard anything like it before.”
Roran frowned. His goal had been to persuade people to accept his plan, not to get them to follow him personally. If that’s what it takes, he thought with a shrug. Still, the prospect had caught him unawares. At an earlier time, it would have disturbed him, but now he was just thankful for anything that could help him to rescue Katrina and save the villagers.
Baldor leaned toward his brother. “Father would lose most of his tools.” Albriech nodded solemnly.
Roran knew that smiths made whatever implement was required by the task at hand, and that these custom tools formed a legacy that was bequeathed from father to son, or from master to journeyman. One measure of a smith’s wealth and skill was the number of tools he owned. For Horst to surrender his would be…Would be no harder than what anyone else has to do, thought Roran. He only regretted that it would entail depriving Albriech and Baldor of their rightful inheritance.
When they reached the house, Roran retreated to Baldor’s room and lay in bed. Through the walls, he could still hear the faint sound of Horst and Elain talking. He fell asleep imagining similar discussions taking place throughout Carvahall, deciding his—and their—fate.
The morning after his speech, Roran looked out his window and saw twelve men leaving Carvahall, heading toward Igualda Falls. He yawned and limped downstairs to the kitchen.
Horst sat alone at the table, twisting a mug of ale in his hands. “Morning,” he said.
Roran grunted, tore a heel of bread off the loaf on the counter, then seated himself at the opposite end of the table. As he ate, he noted Horst’s bloodshot eyes and unkempt beard. Roran guessed that the smith had been awake the entire night. “Do you know why a group is going up—”
“Have to talk with their families,” said Horst abruptly. “They’ve been running into the Spine since dawn.” He put the mug down with a crack. “You have no idea what you did, Roran, by asking us to leave. The whole village is in turmoil. You backed us into a corner with only one way out: your way. Some people hate you for it. Of course a fair number of them already hated you for bringing this upon us.”
The bread in Roran’s mouth tasted like sawdust as resentment flared inside him. Eragon was the one who brought back the stone, not me. “And the others?”
Horst sipped his ale and grimaced. “The others adore you. I never thought I would see the day when Garrow’s son would stir my heart with words, but you did it, boy, you did it.” He swung a gnarled hand over his head. “All this? I built it for Elain and my sons. It took me seven years to finish! See that beam over the door right there? I broke three toes getting that into place. And you know what? I’m going to give it up because of what you said last night.”
Roran remained silent; it was what he wanted. Leaving Carvahall was the right thing to do, and since he had committed himself to that course, he saw no reason to torment himself with guilt and regret. The decision is made. I will accept the outcome without complaint, no matter how dire, for this is our only escape from the Empire.
“But,” said Horst, and leaned forward on one elbow, his black eyes burning beneath his brow, “just you remember that if reality falls short of the airy dreams you conjured, there’ll be debts to pay. Give people a hope and then take it away, and they’ll destroy you.”
The prospect was of no concern to Roran. If we make it to Surda, we will be greeted as heroes by the rebels. If we don’t, our deaths will fulfill all debts. When it was clear that the smith had finished, Roran asked, “Where is Elain?”
Horst scowled at the change of topic. “Out back.” He stood and straightened his tunic over his heavy shoulders. “I have to go clear out the smithy and decide what tools I’m going to take. I’ll hide or destroy the rest. The Empire won’t benefit from my work.”
“I’ll help.” Roran pushed back his chair.
“No,” said Horst roughly. “This is a task I can only do with Albriech and Baldor. That forge has been my entire life, and theirs…. You wouldn’t be much help with that arm of yours anyway. Stay here. Elain can use you.”
After the smith left, Roran opened the side door and found Elain talking with Gertrude by the large pile of firewood Horst maintained year-round. The healer went up to Roran and put a hand on his forehead. “Ah, I was afraid that you might have a fever after yesterday’s excitement. Your family heals at the most extraordinary rate. I could barely believe my eyes when Eragon started walking about after having his legs skinned and spending two days in bed.” Roran stiffened at the mention of his cousin, but she did not seem to notice. “Let’s see how your shoulder is doing, shall we?”
Roran bowed his neck so that Gertrude could reach behind him and untie the knot to the wool sling. When it was undone, he carefully lowered his right forearm—which was immobilized in a splint—until his arm was straight. Gertrude slid her fingers under the poultice packed on his wound and peeled it off.
“Oh my,” she said.
A thick, rancid smell clogged the air. Roran clenched his teeth as his gorge rose, then looked down. The skin under the poultice had turned white and spongy, like a giant birthmark of maggot flesh. The bite itself had been stitched up while he was unconscious, so all he saw was a jagged pink line caked with blood on the front of his shoulder. Swelling and inflammation had forced the twisted catgut threads to cut deep into his flesh, while beads of clear liquid oozed from the wound.
Gertrude clucked her tongue as she inspected him, then refastened the bandages and looked Roran in the eye. “You’re doing well enough, but the tissue may become diseased. I can’t tell yet. If it does, we’ll have to cauterize your shoulder.”
Roran nodded. “Will my arm work once it heals?”
“As long as the muscle knits together properly. It also depends on how you want to use it. You—”
“Will I be able to fight?”
“If you want to fight,” said Gertrude slowly, “I suggest that you learn to use your left hand.” She patted his cheek, then hurried back toward her hut.
My arm. Roran stared at his bound limb as if it no longer belonged to him. Until that moment, he had not realized how closely his sense of identity was linked to the condition of his body. Injuring his flesh caused injury to his psyche, as well as the other way around. Roran was proud of his body, and seeing it mutilated sent a jolt of panic through him, especially since the damage was permanent. Even if he regained the use of his arm, he would always bear a thick scar as a memento of his injury.
Taking his hand, Elain led Roran back into the house, where she crumbled mint into a kettle, then set it on the stove to boil. “You really love her, don’t you?”
“What?” He looked at her, startled.
Elain rested a hand on her belly. “Katrina.” She smiled. “I’m not blind. I know what you’ve done for her, and I’m proud of you. Not every man would go as far.”
“It won’t matter, if I can’t free her.”
The kettle began to whistle stridently. “You will, I’m sure of it—one way or another.” Elain poured the tea. “We had better start preparing for the trip. I’m going to sort through the kitchen first. While I do, can you go upstairs and bring me all the clothes, bedding, and anything else you think might be useful?”
“Where should I put it?” asked Roran.
“The dining room will be fine.”
Since the mountains were too steep—and the forest too dense—for wagons, Roran realized that their supplies were limited to however much they could carry themselves, as well as what they could pile onto Horst’s two horses, although one of those had to be left partially unburdened so that Elain could ride whenever the trail proved too stre
nuous for her pregnancy.
Compounding the issue was the fact that some families in Carvahall did not have enough steeds for both provisions and the young, old, and infirm who would be unable to keep pace on foot. Everyone would have to share resources. The question, though, was with whom? They still did not know who else was going, besides Birgit and Delwin.
Thus, when Elain finished packing the items she deemed essential—mainly food and shelter—she sent Roran to find out if anyone needed extra storage space and, if not, if she could borrow some in turn, for there were plenty of nonessential items she wanted to bring but would otherwise abandon.
Despite the people hurrying through the streets, Carvahall was heavy with a forced stillness, an unnatural calm that belied the feverish activity hidden within the houses. Almost everyone was silent and walked with downturned faces, engrossed in their own thoughts.
When Roran arrived at Orval’s house, he had to pound on the knocker for almost a minute before the farmer answered the door. “Oh, it’s you, Stronghammer.” Orval stepped out on the porch. “Sorry for the wait, but I was busy. How can I help you?” He tapped a long black pipe against his palm, then began to roll it nervously between his fingers. Inside the house, Roran heard chairs being shoved across the floor and pots and pans banging together.
Roran quickly explained Elain’s offer and request. Orval squinted up at the sky. “I reckon I’ve got enough room for my own stuff. Ask around, an’ if you still need space, I have a pair of oxen that could hold a bit more.”
“So you are going?”
Orval shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I wouldn’t say that. We’re just…getting ready in case of another attack.”
“Ah.” Puzzled, Roran trudged on to Kiselt’s house. He soon discovered that no one was willing to reveal whether they had decided to leave—even when evidence of their preparations was in plain sight.
And they all treated Roran with a deference that he found unsettling. It manifested itself in small gestures: offers of condolences for his misfortune, respectful silence whenever he spoke, and murmurs of assent when he made a statement. It was as if his deeds had inflated his stature and intimidated the people he had known since childhood, distancing him from them.