When the merchant fell silent, Roran gathered at the far end of the study with Loring, Birgit, and Nolfavrell and asked their thoughts. Lowering his voice, Loring said, “I can’t tell whether he’s lying or not, but any man who can weave a yarn like that at knifepoint deserves to live. A new Rider! And Eragon to boot!” He shook his head.
“Birgit?” asked Roran.
“I don’t know. It’s so outlandish….” She hesitated. “But it must be true. Another Rider is the only thing that would spur the Empire to pursue us so fiercely.”
“Aye,” agreed Loring. His eyes were bright with excitement. “We’ve been entangled in far more momentous events than we realized. A new Rider. Just think about it! The old order is about to be washed away, I tell you…. You were right all along, Roran.”
The boy looked solemn at being asked. He bit his lip, then said, “Jeod seems honest enough. I think we can trust him.”
“Right, then,” said Roran. He strode back to Jeod, planted his knuckles on the edge of the desk, and said, “Two last questions, Longshanks. What do Brom and Eragon look like? And how did you recognize Gertrude’s name?”
“I knew of Gertrude because Brom mentioned that he left a letter for you in her care. As for what they looked like: Brom stood a bit shorter than me. He had a thick beard, a hooked nose, and he carried a carved staff with him. And I dare say he was rather irritable at times.” Roran nodded; that was Brom. “Eragon was…young. Brown hair, brown eyes, with a scar on his wrist, and he never stopped asking questions.” Roran nodded again; that was his cousin.
Roran stuck his hammer back under his belt. Birgit, Loring, and Nolfavrell sheathed their blades. Then Roran pulled his chair away from the door, and the four of them resumed their seats like civilized beings. “What now, Jeod?” asked Roran. “Can you help us? I know you’re in a difficult situation, but we…we are desperate and have no one else to turn to. As an agent of the Varden, can you guarantee us the Varden’s protection? We are willing to serve them if they’ll shield us from Galbatorix’s wrath.”
“The Varden,” said Jeod, “would be more than happy to have you. More than happy. I suspect you already guessed that. As for help…” He ran a hand down his long face and stared past Loring at the rows of books on the shelves. “I’ve been aware for almost a year that my true identity—as well as that of many other merchants here and elsewhere who have assisted the Varden—was betrayed to the Empire. Because of that, I haven’t dared flee to Surda. If I tried, the Empire would arrest me, and then who knows what horrors I’d be in for? I’ve had to watch the gradual destruction of my business without being able to take any action to oppose or escape it. What’s worse, now that I cannot ship anything to the Varden and they dare not send envoys to me, I feared that Lord Risthart would have me clapped in irons and dragged off to the dungeons, since I’m of no further interest to the Empire. I’ve expected it every day since I declared bankruptcy.”
“Perhaps,” suggested Birgit, “they want you to flee so they can capture whoever else you bring with you.”
Jeod smiled. “Perhaps. But now that you are here, I have a means to leave that they never anticipated.”
“Then you have a plan?” asked Loring.
Glee crossed Jeod’s face. “Oh yes, I have a plan. Did the four of you see the ship Dragon Wing moored at port?”
Roran thought back to the vessel. “Aye.”
“The Dragon Wing is owned by the Blackmoor Shipping Company, a front for the Empire. They handle supplies for the army, which has mobilized to an alarming degree recently, conscripting soldiers among the peasants and commandeering horses, asses, and oxen.” Jeod raised an eyebrow. “I’m not sure what it indicates, but it’s possible Galbatorix means to march on Surda. In any case, the Dragon Wing is to sail for Feinster within the week. She’s the finest ship ever built, from a new design by master shipwright Kinnell.”
“And you want to pirate her,” concluded Roran.
“I do. Not only to spite the Empire or because the Dragon Wing is reputed to be the fastest square-rigged ship of her tonnage, but because she’s already fully provisioned for a long voyage. And since her cargo is food, we’d have enough for the whole village.”
Loring uttered a strained cackle. “I ’ope you can sail her yourself, Longshanks, ’cause not one of us knows how to handle anything larger than a barge.”
“A few men from the crews of my ships are still in Teirm. They’re in the same position I am, unable to fight or flee. I’m confident they’ll jump at a chance to get to Surda. They can teach you what to do on the Dragon Wing. It won’t be easy, but I don’t see much choice in the matter.”
Roran grinned. The plan was to his liking: swift, decisive, and unexpected.
“You mentioned,” said Birgit, “that in the past year none of your ships—nor those from other merchants who serve the Varden—have reached their destination. Why, then, should this mission succeed when so many have failed?”
Jeod was quick to answer: “Because surprise is on our side. The law requires merchant ships to submit their itinerary for approval with the port authority at least two weeks before departure. It takes a great deal of time to prepare a ship for launch, so if we leave without warning, it could be a week or more before Galbatorix can launch intercept vessels. If luck is with us, we won’t see so much as the topmast of our pursuers. So,” continued Jeod, “if you are willing to attempt this enterprise, this is what we must do….”
After they considered Jeod’s proposal from every possible angle and agreed to abide by it—with a few modifications—Roran sent Nolfavrell to fetch Gertrude and Mandel from the Green Chestnut, for Jeod had offered their entire party his hospitality.
“Now, if you will excuse me,” said Jeod, rising, “I must go reveal to my wife that which I should never have hidden from her and ask if she’ll accompany me to Surda. You may take your pick of rooms on the second floor. Rolf will summon you when supper is ready.” With long, slow steps, he departed the study.
“Is it wise to let him tell that ogress?” asked Loring.
Roran shrugged. “Wise or not, we can’t stop him. And I don’t think he’ll be at peace until he does.”
Instead of going to a room, Roran wandered through the mansion, unconsciously evading the servants as he pondered the things Jeod had said. He stopped at a bay window open to the stables at the rear of the house and filled his lungs with the brisk and smoky air, heavy with the familiar smell of manure.
“Do you hate him?”
He started and turned to see Birgit silhouetted in the doorway. She pulled her shawl tight around her shoulders as she approached.
“Who?” he asked, knowing full well.
“Eragon. Do you hate him?”
Roran looked at the darkening sky. “I don’t know. I hate him for causing the death of my father, but he’s still family and for that I love him…. I suppose that if I didn’t need Eragon to save Katrina, I would have nothing to do with him for a long while yet.”
“As I need and hate you, Stronghammer.”
He snorted with grim amusement. “Aye, we’re joined at the hip, aren’t we? You have to help me find Eragon in order to avenge Quimby on the Ra’zac.”
“And to have my vengeance on you afterward.”
“That too.” Roran stared into her unwavering eyes for a moment, acknowledging the bond between them. He found it strangely comforting to know that they shared the same drive, the same angry fire that quickened their steps when others faltered. In her, he recognized a kindred spirit.
Returning through the house, Roran stopped by the dining room as he heard the cadence of Jeod’s voice. Curious, he fit his eye to a crack by the middle door hinge. Jeod stood opposite a slight, blond woman, who Roran assumed was Helen.
“If what you say is true, how can you expect me to trust you?”
“I cannot,” answered Jeod.
“Yet you ask me to become a fugit
ive for you?”
“You once offered to leave your family and wander the land with me. You begged me to spirit you away from Teirm.”
“Once. I thought you were terribly dashing then, what with your sword and your scar.”
“I still have those,” he said softly. “I made many mistakes with you, Helen; I understand that now. But I still love you and want you to be safe. I have no future here. If I stay, I’ll only bring grief to your family. You can return to your father or you can come with me. Do what will make you the happiest. However, I beg you to give me a second chance, to have the courage to leave this place and shed the bitter memories of our life here. We can start anew in Surda.”
She was quiet for a long time. “That young man who was here, is he really a Rider?”
“He is. The winds of change are blowing, Helen. The Varden are about to attack, the dwarves are gathering, and even the elves stir in their ancient haunts. War approaches, and if we’re fortunate, so does Galbatorix’s downfall.”
“Are you important among the Varden?”
“They owe me some consideration for my part in acquiring Saphira’s egg.”
“Then you would have a position with them in Surda?”
“I imagine so.” He put his hands on her shoulders, and she did not draw away.
She whispered, “Jeod, Jeod, don’t press me. I cannot decide yet.”
“Will you think about it?”
She shivered. “Oh yes. I’ll think about it.”
Roran’s heart pained him as he left.
That night at dinner, Roran noticed Helen’s eyes were often upon him, studying and measuring—comparing him, he was sure, to Eragon.
After the meal, Roran beckoned to Mandel and led him out into the courtyard behind the house.
“What is it, sir?” asked Mandel.
“I wished to talk with you in private.”
Roran fingered the pitted blade of his hammer and reflected on how much he felt like Garrow when his father gave a lecture on responsibility; Roran could even feel the same phrases rising in his throat. And so one generation passes to the next, he thought. “You’ve become quite friendly with the sailors as of late.”
“They’re not our enemies,” objected Mandel.
“Everyone is an enemy at this point. Clovis and his men could turn on us in an instant. It wouldn’t be a problem, though, if being with them hadn’t caused you to neglect your duties.” Mandel stiffened and color bloomed in his cheeks, but he did not lower himself in Roran’s esteem by denying the charge. Pleased, Roran asked, “What is the most important thing we can do right now, Mandel?”
“Protect our families.”
“Aye. And what else?”
Mandel hesitated, uncertain, then confessed, “I don’t know.”
“Help one another. It’s the only way any of us are going to survive. I was especially disappointed to learn that you’ve gambled food with the sailors, since that endangers the entire village. Your time would be far better spent hunting than playing games of dice or learning to throw knives. With your father gone, it’s fallen upon you to care for your mother and siblings. They rely on you. Am I clear?”
“Very clear, sir,” replied Mandel with a choked voice.
“Will this ever happen again?”
“Never again, sir.”
“Good. Now I didn’t bring you here just to chastise you. You show promise, which is why I’m giving you a task that I would trust to no one else but myself.”
“Tomorrow morning I need you to return to camp and deliver a message to Horst. Jeod believes the Empire has spies watching this house, so it’s vital that you make sure you aren’t followed. Wait until you’re out of the city, then lose whoever is trailing you in the countryside. Kill him if you have to. When you find Horst, tell him to…” As Roran outlined his instructions, he watched Mandel’s expression change from surprise, to shock, and then to awe.
“What if Clovis objects?” asked Mandel.
“That night, break the tillers on the barges so they can’t be steered. It’s a dirty trick, but it could be disastrous if Clovis or any of his men arrive at Teirm before you.”
“I won’t let that happen,” vowed Mandel.
Roran smiled. “Good.” Satisfied that he had resolved the matter of Mandel’s behavior and that the young man would do everything possible to get the message to Horst, Roran went back inside and bade their host good night before heading off to sleep.
With the exception of Mandel, Roran and his companions confined themselves to the mansion throughout the following day, taking advantage of the delay to rest, hone their weapons, and review their stratagems.
From dawn till dusk, they saw some of Helen as she bustled from one room to the next, more of Rolf with his teeth like varnished pearls, and none of Jeod, for the gray-pated merchant had left to walk the city and—seemingly by accident—meet with the few men of the sea whom he trusted for their expedition.
Upon his return, he told Roran, “We can count on five more hands. I only hope it’s enough.” Jeod remained in his study for the rest of the evening, drawing up various legal documents and otherwise tending to his affairs.
Three hours before dawn, Roran, Loring, Birgit, Gertrude, and Nolfavrell roused themselves and, fighting back prodigious yawns, congregated in the mansion’s entryway, where they muffled themselves in long cloaks to obscure their faces. A rapier hung at Jeod’s side when he joined them, and Roran thought the narrow sword somehow completed the rangy man, as if it reminded Jeod who he really was.
Jeod lit an oil lantern and held it up before them. “Are we ready?” he asked. They nodded. Then Jeod unlatched the door and they filed outside to the empty cobblestone street. Behind them, Jeod lingered in the entryway, casting a longing gaze toward the stairs on the right, but Helen did not appear. With a shudder, Jeod left his home and closed the door.
Roran put a hand on his arm. “What’s done is done.”
They trotted through the dark city, slowing to a quick walk whenever they encountered watchmen or a fellow creature of the night, most of whom darted away at the sight of them. Once they heard footsteps on top of a nearby building. “The design of the city,” explained Jeod, “makes it easy for thieves to climb from one roof to another.”
They slowed to a walk again when they arrived at Teirm’s eastern gate. Because the gate opened to the harbor, it was closed only four hours each night in order to minimize the disruption to commerce. Indeed, despite the time, several men were already moving through the gate.
Even though Jeod had warned them it might happen, Roran still felt a surge of fear when the guards lowered their pikes and asked what their business was. He wet his mouth and tried not to fidget while the elder soldier examined a scroll that Jeod handed to him. After a long minute, the guard nodded and returned the parchment. “You can pass.”
Once they were on the wharf and out of earshot of the city wall, Jeod said, “It’s a good thing he couldn’t read.”
The six of them waited on the damp planking until, one by one, Jeod’s men emerged from the gray mist that lay upon the shore. They were grim and silent, with braided hair that hung to the middle of their backs, tar-smeared hands, and an assortment of scars even Roran respected. He liked what he saw, and he could tell they approved of him as well. They did not, however, take to Birgit.
One of the sailors, a large brute of a man, jerked a thumb at her and accused Jeod, “You didn’t say there’d be a woman along for the fightin’. How am I supposed to concentrate with some backwoods tramp getting in m’ way?”
“Don’t talk about her like that,” said Nolfavrell between clenched teeth.
“An’ her runt too?”
In a calm voice, Jeod said, “Birgit has fought the Ra’zac. And her son has already killed one of Galbatorix’s best soldiers. Can you claim as much, Uthar?”
; “It’s not proper,” said another man. “I wouldn’t feel safe with a woman at my side; they do naught but bring bad luck. A lady shouldn’t—”
Whatever he was going to say was lost, for at that instant, Birgit did a very unladylike thing. Stepping forward, she kicked Uthar between his legs and then grabbed the second man and pressed her knife against his throat. She held him for a moment, so everyone could see what she had done, then released her captive. Uthar rolled on the boards by her feet, holding himself and muttering a stream of curses.
“Does anyone else have an objection?” demanded Birgit. Beside her, Nolfavrell stared with openmouthed amazement at his mother.
Roran pulled his hood lower to conceal his grin. Good thing they haven’t noticed Gertrude, he thought.
When no one else challenged Birgit, Jeod asked, “Did you bring what I wanted?” Each sailor reached inside his vest and divulged a weighted club and several lengths of rope.
Thus armed, they worked their way down the harbor toward the Dragon Wing, doing their best to escape detection. Jeod kept his lantern shuttered the whole while. Near the dock, they hid behind a warehouse and watched the two lights carried by sentries bob around the deck of the ship. The gangway had been pulled away for the night.
“Remember,” whispered Jeod, “the most important thing is to keep the alarm from being sounded until we’re ready to leave.”
“Two men above, two men below, right?” asked Roran.
Uthar replied, “That be the custom.”
Roran and Uthar stripped to their breeches, tied the rope and clubs around their waists—Roran left his hammer behind—and then ran farther down the wharf, out of the sentries’ sight, where they lowered themselves into the frigid water.
“Garr, I hate when I have to do this,” said Uthar.
“You’ve done it before?”