Eldest (The Inheritance Cycle 2) - Page 43

Forgoing breakfast, he, Horst, and a group of other men hiked into Narda. Roran knew that he risked being recognized by accompanying them, but their mission was too important for him to neglect. Besides, he was confident that his current appearance was different enough from his portrait on the Empire’s poster that no one would equate one with the other.

They had no difficulty gaining entrance, as a different set of soldiers guarded the town gate, whereupon they went to the docks and delivered the two hundred crowns to Clovis, who was busy overseeing a gang of men as they readied the barges for sea.

“Thank’ee, Stronghammer,” he said, tying the bag of coins to his belt. “There be nothing like yellow gold to brighten a man’s day.” He led them to a worktable and unrolled a chart of the waters surrounding Narda, complete with notations on the strength of various currents; locations of rocks, sandbars, and other hazards; and decades’ worth of sounding measurements. Drawing a line with his finger from Narda to a small cove directly south of it, Clovis said, “Here’s where we’ll meet your livestock. The tides are gentle this time o’ year, but we still don’t want to fight them an’ no bones about it, so we’ll have to be on our way directly after the high tide.”

“High tide?” said Roran. “Wouldn’t it be easier to wait until low tide and let it carry us out?”

Clovis tapped his nose with a twinkle in his eye. “Aye, it would, an’ so I’ve begun many a cruise. What I don’t want, though, is to be slung up on the beach, loading your animals, when the tide comes a-rushing back in and pushes us farther inland. There be no danger of that this way, but we’ll have to move smart so as we’re not left high an’ dry when the waters recede. Assuming we do, the sea’ll work for us, eh?”

Roran nodded. He trusted Clovis’s experience. “And how many men will you need to fill out your crews?”

“Well, I managed to dig up seven lads—strong, true, an’ good seamen all—who have agreed to this venture, odd as it is. Mind you, most of the boys were at the bottom of their tankards when I cornered them last night, drinking off the pay from their last voyage, but they’ll be sober as spinsters come morn; that I promise you. Seeing as seven were all I could find, I’d like four more.”

“Four it is,” said Roran. “My men don’t know much about sailing, but they’re able-bodied and willing to learn.”

Clovis grunted. “I usually take on a brace of new lads each trip anyway. So long as they follow orders, they’ll do fine; otherwise, they’ll get a belaying pin upsides the head, mark my words. As for guards, I’d like to have nine—three per boat. An’ they’d better not be as green as your sailors, or I won’t budge from the dock, not for all the whisky in the world.”

Roran allowed himself a grim smile. “Every man who rides with me has proved himself in battle many times over.”

“An’ they all answer to you, eh, young Stronghammer?” said Clovis. He scratched his chin, eyeing Gedric, Delwin, and the others who were new to Narda. “How many are with you?”


“Enough, you say. I wonder.” He waved a hand. “Never you mind me; my tongue runs a league before my own common sense, or so my father used to tell me. My first mate, Torson, is at the chandler’s now, overseeing the purchase of goods and equipment. I understand you have feed for your livestock?”

“Among other things.”

“Then you’d best fetch them. We can load them into the holds once the masts are up.”

Throughout the rest of the morning and afternoon, Roran and the villagers with him labored to ferry the supplies—which Loring’s sons had procured—from the warehouse where it was stored into the sheds with the barges.

As Roran trudged across the gangplank to the Edeline and lowered his bag of flour to the sailor waiting in the hold, Clovis observed, “Most of this t’aint feed, Stronghammer.”

“No,” said Roran. “But it’s needed.” He was pleased that Clovis had the sense not to inquire further.

When the last item had been stored away, Clovis beckoned to Roran. “You might as well go. Me and the boys will handle the rest. Just you remember to be at the docks three hours after dawn with every man jack you promised me, or we’ll lose the tide.”

“We’ll be there.”

Back in the foothills, Roran helped Elain and the others prepare for departure. It did not take long, as they were accustomed to breaking camp each morning. Then he picked twelve men to accompany him to Narda the next day. They were all good fighters, but he asked the best, like Horst and Delwin, to remain with the rest of the villagers in case soldiers found them or the Ra’zac returned.

Once night fell, the two groups parted. Roran crouched on a boulder and watched Horst lead the column of people down through the foothills toward the cove where they would wait for the barges.

Orval came up beside him and crossed his arms. “Do you think they’ll be safe, Stronghammer?” Anxiety ran through his voice like a taut bowstring.

Though he too was worried, Roran said, “I do. I’d bet you a barrel of cider that they’ll still be asleep when we put ashore tomorrow. You can have the pleasure of waking up Nolla. How does that sound?” Orval smiled at the mention of his wife and nodded, appearing reassured.

I hope I’m right. Roran remained on the boulder, hunched like a bleak gargoyle, until the dark line of villagers vanished from his sight.

They woke an hour before sunrise, when the sky had just begun to brighten with pale green and the damp night air numbed their fingers. Roran splashed his face with water and then outfitted himself with his bow and quiver, his ever-present hammer, one of Fisk’s shields, and one of Horst’s spears. The others did likewise, with the addition of swords obtained during the skirmishes in Carvahall.

Running as fast as they dared down the hummocky hills, the thirteen men soon arrived at the road to Narda and, shortly after that, the town’s main gate. To Roran’s dismay, the same two soldiers who had troubled them earlier stood guard by the entrance. As before, the soldiers lowered their poleaxes to block the way.

“There be quite a bit more of you this time,” observed the white-haired man. “And not all the same ones either. Except for you.” He focused on Roran. “I suppose you expect me to believe that the spear and shield be for pottery as well?”

“No. We’ve been hired by Clovis to protect his barges from attack on the way to Teirm.”

“You? Mercenaries?” The soldiers burst out laughing. “You said you were tradesmen.”

“This pays better.”

The white-haired man scowled. “You lie. I tried my hand at being a gentleman of fortune once. I spent more nights hungry than not. How large be your company of tradesmen anyway? Seven yesterday and twelve today—thirteen counting you. It seems too large for an expedition from a bunch of shopkeepers.” His eyes narrowed as he scrutinized Roran’s face. “You look familiar. What’d be your name, eh?”


“It wouldn’t happen to be Roran, would—”

Roran jabbed forward with his spear, catching the white-haired soldier in the throat. Scarlet blood fountained. Releasing the spear, Roran drew his hammer and twisted round as he blocked the second soldier’s poleax with his shield. Swinging his hammer up and around, Roran crushed the man’s helm.

He stood panting between the two corpses. Now I have killed ten.

Orval and the other men stared at Roran with shock. Unable to bear their gazes, Roran turned his back on them and gestured at the culvert that ran beneath the road. “Hide the bodies before anyone sees,” he ordered, brusque and harsh. As they hurried to obey, he examined the parapet on top of the wall for sentries. Fortunately, no one was visible there or in the street through the gate. He bent and pulled his spear free, wiping the blade clean on a tuft of grass.

“Done,” said Mandel, clambering out of the ditch. Despite his beard, the young man appeared pale.

Roran nodded and, steeling himself, faced his band. “Listen. We will walk to the docks at a quick

but reasonable pace. We will not run. When the alarm is sounded—and someone may have heard the clash just now—act surprised and interested but not afraid. Whatever you do, give people no reason to suspect us. The lives of your families and friends depend on it. If we are attacked, your only duty is to see the barges launched. Nothing else matters. Am I clear?”

“Aye, Stronghammer,” they answered.

“Then follow me.”

As he strode through Narda, Roran felt so tense, he feared he might snap and explode into a thousand pieces. What have I made of myself? he wondered. He glanced from man to woman, child to man, man to dog in an effort to identify potential enemies. Everything around him appeared unnaturally bright and filled with detail; it seemed as if he could see the individual threads in people’s clothing.

They reached the docks without incident, whereupon Clovis said, “You be early, Stronghammer. I like that in a man. It’ll give us the opportunity to put things nice an’ shipshape before we head out.”

“Can we leave now?” asked Roran.

“You should know better’n that. Have to wait till the tide’s finished coming in, so we do.” Clovis paused then, taking his first good look at the thirteen of them, and said, “Why, what’d be the matter, Stronghammer? The lot of you look as if you saw the ghost of old Galbatorix himself.”

“Nothing a few hours of sea air won’t cure,” said Roran. In his current state, he could not smile, but he did let his features assume a more pleasant expression in order to reassure the captain.

With a whistle, Clovis summoned two sailors from the boats. Both men were tanned the color of hazelnuts. “This’d be Torson, my first mate,” said Clovis, indicating the man to his right. Torson’s bare shoulder was decorated with a coiled tattoo of a flying dragon. “He’ll be skipper of the Merrybell. And this black dog is Flint. He’s in command of the Edeline. While you are on board, their word is law, as is mine on the Red Boar. You’ll answer to them and me, not Stronghammer…. Well, give me a proper aye, aye if you heard me.”

“Aye, aye,” said the men.

“Now, which of you be my hands and which be my men-at-arms? For the life of me, I can’t tell you apart.”

Ignoring Clovis’s admonishment that he was their commander, not Roran, the villagers looked at Roran to see if they should obey. He nodded his approval, and they divided into two factions, which Clovis proceeded to partition into even smaller groups as he assigned a certain number of villagers to each barge.

For the next half hour, Roran worked alongside the sailors to finish preparing the Red Boar for departure, ears open for the first hint of alarm. We’re going to be captured or killed if we stay much longer, he thought, checking the height of the water against the piers. He mopped sweat from his brow.

Roran started as Clovis gripped his forearm.

Before he could stop himself, Roran pulled his hammer halfway out of his belt. The thick air clogged his throat.

Clovis raised an eyebrow at his reaction. “I’ve been watching you, Stronghammer, and I’d be interested to know how you won such loyalty from your men. I’ve served with more captains than I care to recall, an’ not one commanded the level of obedience you do without raising his pipes.”

Roran could not help it; he laughed. “I’ll tell you how I did it; I saved them from slavery and from being eaten.”

Clovis’s eyebrows rose almost to his hairline. “Did you now? There’s a story I’d like to hear.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

After a minute, Clovis said, “No, maybe I wouldn’t at that.” He glanced overboard. “Why, I’ll be hanged. I do believe we can be on our way. Ah, and here’s my little Galina, punctual as ever.”

The burly man sprang onto the gangplank and, from there, onto the docks, where he embraced a dark-haired girl of perhaps thirteen and a woman who Roran guessed was her mother. Clovis ruffled the girl’s hair and said, “Now, you’ll be good while I’m gone, won’t you, Galina?”

“Yes, Father.”

As he watched Clovis bid his family farewell, Roran thought of the two soldiers dead by the gate. They might have had families as well. Wives and children who loved them and a home they returned to each day… He tasted bile and had to wrench his thoughts back to the pier to avoid being sick.

On the barges, the men appeared anxious. Afraid that they might lose their nerve, Roran made a show of walking about the deck, stretching, and doing whatever he could to seem relaxed. At last Clovis jumped back onto the Red Boar and cried, “Cast off, me lads! It’s the briny deep for us.”

In short order, the gangplanks were pulled aboard, the mooring ropes untied, and the sails raised on the three barges. The air rang with shouted orders and chants of heave-ho as the sailors pulled on ropes.

Behind them, Galina and her mother remained watching as the barges drew away, still and silent, hooded and grave.

“We’re lucky, Stronghammer,” said Clovis, clapping him on the shoulder. “We’ve a bit o’ wind to push us along today. We may not have to row in order to reach the cove before the tide changes, eh!”

When the Red Boar was in the middle of Narda’s bay and still ten minutes from the freedom of the open sea, that which Roran dreaded occurred: the sound of bells and trumpets floated across the water from among the stone buildings.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I don’t rightly know,” said Clovis. He frowned as he stared at the town, his hands planted on his hips. “It could be a fire, but no smoke is in the air. Maybe some Urgals were discovered in the area….” Concern grew upon his face. “Did you perchance spy anyone on the road this morning?”

Roran shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.

Flint drew alongside them and shouted from the deck of the Edeline, “Should we turn back, sir?” Roran gripped the gunwale so hard that he drove splinters under his nails, ready to intercede but afraid to appear too anxious.

Tearing his gaze from Narda, Clovis bellowed in return, “No. We’d miss the tide then.”

“Aye, aye, sir! But I’d give a day’s pay to find out what caused that clamor.”

“So would I,” muttered Clovis.

As the houses and buildings shrank behind them, Roran crouched at the rear port of the barge, wrapped his arms around his knees, and leaned against the cabins. He looked at the sky, struck by its depth, clarity, and color, then into the Red Boar’s roiling green wake, where ribbons of seaweed fluttered. The pitch of the barge lulled him like the rock of a cradle. What a beautiful day it is, he thought, grateful he was there to observe it.

After they escaped the cove—to his relief—Roran climbed the ladder to the poop deck behind the cabins, where Clovis stood with his hand on the tiller, guiding their course. The captain said, “Ah, there’s something exhilarating about the first day of a voyage, before you realize how bad the food is an’ start longing for home.”

Mindful of his need to learn what he could about the barge, Roran asked Clovis the names and functions of various objects on board, at which point he was treated to an enthusiastic lecture on the workings of barges, ships, and the art of sailing in general.

Two hours later, Clovis pointed at a narrow peninsula that lay before them. “The cove be on the far side of that.” Roran straightened off the railing and craned his neck, eager to confirm that the villagers were safe.

As the Red Boar rounded the rocky spit of land, a white beach was revealed at the apex of the cove, upon which were assembled the refugees from Palancar Valley. The crowd cheered and waved as the barges emerged from behind the rocks.

Roran relaxed.

Beside him, Clovis uttered a dreadful oath. “I knew something were amiss the moment I clapped eyes upon you, Stronghammer. Livestock indeed. Bah! You played me like a fool, you did.”

“You wrong me,” replied Roran. “I did not lie; this is my flock and I am their shepherd. Is it not within my right to call them ‘livestock’ if I want?”

“Call them what you will, I

didn’t agree to haul people to Teirm. Why you didn’t tell me the true nature of your cargo, I might wonder, an’ the only answer on the horizon is that whatever venture you’re engaged in means trouble…trouble for you an’ trouble for me. I should toss the lot of you overboard an’ return to Narda.”

“But you won’t,” said Roran, deadly quiet.

“Oh? An’ why not?”

“Because I need these barges, Clovis, and I’ll do anything to keep them. Anything. Honor our bargain and you’ll have a peaceful trip and you’ll get to see Galina again. If not…” The threat sounded worse than it was; Roran had no intention of killing Clovis, though if he had to, he would abandon him somewhere along the coast.

Clovis’s face reddened, but he surprised Roran by grunting and saying, “Fair enough, Stronghammer.” Pleased with himself, Roran returned his attention to the beach.

Behind him, he heard a snick.

Acting on instinct, Roran recoiled, crouching, twisting, and covering his head with his shield. His arm vibrated as a belaying pin broke across the shield. He lowered the shield and gazed at a dismayed Clovis, who retreated across the deck.

Roran shook his head, never taking his eyes off his opponent. “You can’t defeat me, Clovis. I’ll ask you again: Will you honor our bargain? If you don’t, I’ll put you ashore, commandeer the barges, and press your crew into service. I don’t want to ruin your livelihood, but I will if you force me…. Come now. This can be a normal, uneventful voyage if you choose to help us. Remember, you’ve already been paid.”

Drawing himself up with great dignity, Clovis said, “If I agree, then you must do me the courtesy of explaining why this ruse were necessary, an’ why these people are here an’ where they’re from. No matter how much gold you offer me, I won’t assist an undertaking that contradicts my principles; no, I won’t. Are you bandits? Or do you serve the blasted king?”

“The knowledge may place you in greater danger.”

“I insist.”

“Have you heard of Carvahall in Palancar Valley?” asked Roran.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
Source: readsnovelonline.net
readsnovelonline.net Copyright 2016 - 2023