“Four times now. Don’t stop moving or you’ll freeze.”
Clinging to the slimy piles underneath the wharf, they swam back up the way they had come until they reached the stone pier that led to the Dragon Wing, and then turned right. Uthar put his lips to Roran’s ear. “I’ll take the starboard anchor.” Roran nodded his agreement.
They both dove under the black water, and there they separated. Uthar swam like a frog under the bow of the ship, while Roran went straight to the port anchor and clung to its thick chain. He untied the club from his waist and fit it between his teeth—as much to stop them from chattering as to free his hands—and prepared to wait. The rough metal sapped the warmth from his arms as fast as ice.
Not three minutes later, Roran heard the scuff of Birgit’s boots above him as she walked to the end of the pier, opposite the middle of the Dragon Wing, and then the faint sound of her voice as she engaged the sentries in conversation. Hopefully, she would keep their attention away from the bow.
Roran pulled himself hand over hand along the chain. His right shoulder burned where the Ra’zac had bit him, but he pressed on. From the porthole where the anchor chain entered the ship, he clambered up the ridges that supported the painted figurehead, over the railing, and onto the deck. Uthar was already there, dripping and panting.
Clubs in hand, they padded toward the aft of the ship, using whatever cover they could find. They stopped not ten feet behind the sentries. The two men leaned on the railing, bandying words with Birgit.
In a flash, Roran and Uthar burst into the open and struck the sentries on the head before they could draw their sabers. Below, Birgit waved for Jeod and the rest of their group, and between them they raised the gangway and slid one end across to the ship, where Uthar lashed it to the railing.
As Nolfavrell ran aboard, Roran tossed his rope to the boy and said, “Tie and gag these two.”
Then everyone but Gertrude descended belowdecks to hunt for the remaining sentries. They found four additional men—the purser, the bosun, the ship’s cook, and the ship’s cook’s assistant—all of whom were trundled out of bed, knocked on the head if they resisted, and then securely trussed. In this, Birgit again proved her worth, capturing two men herself.
Jeod had the unhappy prisoners placed in a line on the deck so they could be watched at all times, then declared, “We have much to do, and little time. Roran, Uthar is captain on the Dragon Wing. You and the others will take your orders from him.”
For the next two hours, the ship was a frenzy of activity. The sailors tended to the rigging and sails, while Roran and those from Carvahall worked to empty the hold of extraneous supplies, such as bales of raw wool. These they lowered overboard to prevent anyone on the wharf from hearing a splash. If the entire village was to fit on the Dragon Wing, they needed to clear as much space as possible.
Roran was in the midst of fitting a cable around a barrel when he heard the hoarse cry, “Someone’s coming!” Everyone on deck, except Jeod and Uthar, dropped to their bellies and reached for their weapons. The two men who remained standing paced the ship as if they were sentries. Roran’s heart pounded while he lay motionless, wondering what was about to happen. He held his breath as Jeod addressed the intruder…then footsteps echoed on the gangway.
It was Helen.
She wore a plain dress, her hair was bound under a kerchief, and she carried a burlap sack over one shoulder. She spoke not a word, but stowed her gear in the main cabin and returned to stand by Jeod. Roran thought he had never seen a happier man.
The sky above the distant mountains of the Spine had just begun to brighten when one of the sailors in the rigging pointed north and whistled to indicate he had spotted the villagers.
Roran moved even faster. What time they had was now gone. He rushed up on deck and peered at the dark line of people advancing down the coast. This part of their plan depended on the fact that, unlike other coastal cities, Teirm’s outer wall had not been left open to the sea, but rather completely enclosed the bulk of the city in order to ward off frequent pirate attacks. This meant that the buildings skirting the harbor were left exposed—and that the villagers could walk right up to the Dragon Wing.
“Hurry now, hurry!” said Jeod.
At Uthar’s command, the sailors brought out armfuls of javelins for the great bows on deck, as well as casks of foul-smelling tar, which they knocked open and used to paint the upper half of the javelins. They then drew and loaded the ballistae on the starboard side; it took two men per bow to pull out the sinew cord until it caught on its hook.
The villagers were two-thirds of the way to the ship before the soldiers patrolling the battlements of Teirm spotted them and trumpeted the alarm. Even before that first note faded, Uthar bellowed, “Light and fire ’em!”
Dashing open Jeod’s lantern, Nolfavrell ran from one ballista to the next, holding the flame to the javelins until the tar ignited. The instant a missile caught, the man behind the bow pulled the release line and the javelin vanished with a heavy thunk. In all, twelve blazing bolts shot from the Dragon Wing and pierced the ships and buildings along the bay like roaring, red-hot meteors from the heavens above.
“Draw and reload!” shouted Uthar.
The creak of bending wood filled the air as every man hauled back on the twisted cords. Javelins were slotted in place. Once again, Nolfavrell made his run. Roran could feel the vibration in his feet as the ballista in front of him sent its deadly projectile winging on its way.
The fire quickly spread along the waterfront, forming an impenetrable barrier that prevented soldiers from reaching the Dragon Wing though Teirm’s east gate. Roran had counted on the pillar of smoke to hide the ship from the archers on the battlements, but it was a near thing; a flight of arrows tugged at the rigging, and one dart embedded itself in the deck by Gertrude before the soldiers lost sight of the ship.
From the bow, Uthar shouted, “Pick your targets at will!”
The villagers were running pell-mell down the beach now. They reached the north end of the wharf, and a handful of them stumbled and fell as the soldiers in Teirm redirected their aim. Children screamed in terror. Then the villagers regained momentum. They pounded down the planks, past a warehouse engulfed in flame and along the pier. The panting mob charged onto the ship in a confused mass of jostling bodies.
Birgit and Gertrude guided the stream of people to the fore and aft hatches. In a few minutes, the various levels of the ship were packed to their limit, from the cargo hold to the captain’s cabin. Those who could not fit below remained huddled on deck, holding Fisk’s shields over their heads.
As Roran had asked in his message, all able-bodied men from Carvahall clustered around the mainmast, waiting for instructions. Roran saw Mandel among them and tossed him a proud salute.
Then Uthar pointed at a sailor and barked, “You there, Bonden! Get those swabs to the capstans and weigh anchors, then down to the oars. Double time!” To the rest of the men at the ballistae, he ordered, “Half of you leave off and take the port ballistae. Drive away any boarding parties.”
Roran was one of those who switched sides. As he prepared the ballistae, a few laggards staggered out of the acrid smoke and onto the ship. Beside him, Jeod and Helen hoisted the six prisoners one by one onto the gangway and rolled them onto the pier.
Before Roran quite knew it, anchors had been raised, the gangway was cut loose, and a drum pounded beneath his feet, setting the tempo for the oarsmen. Ever so slowly, the Dragon Wing turned to starboard—toward the open sea—and then, with gathering speed, pulled away from the dock.
Roran accompanied Jeod to the quarterdeck, where they watched the crimson inferno devour everything flammable between Teirm and the ocean. Through the filter of smoke, the sun appeared a flat, bloated, bloody orange disk as it rose over the city.
How many have I killed now? wondered Roran.
Echoing his thoughts, Jeod observed, “This will harm a great many innocent people
Guilt made Roran respond with more force than he intended: “Would you rather be in Lord Risthart’s prisons? I doubt many will be injured in the blaze, and those that aren’t won’t face death, like we will if the Empire catches us.”
“You needn’t lecture me, Roran. I know the arguments well enough. We did what we had to. Just don’t ask me to take pleasure in the suffering we’ve caused to ensure our own safety.”
By noon the oars had been stowed and the Dragon Wing sailed under her own power, propelled by favorable winds from the north. The gusts of air caused the rigging overhead to emit a low hum.
The ship was miserably overcrowded, but Roran was confident that with some careful planning they could make it to Surda with a minimum of discomfort. The worst inconvenience was that of limited rations; if they were to avoid starvation, food would have to be dispensed in miserly portions. And in such cramped quarters, disease was an all too likely possibility.
After Uthar gave a brief speech about the importance of discipline on a ship, the villagers applied themselves to the tasks that required their immediate attention, such as tending to their wounded, unpacking their meager belongings, and deciding upon the most efficient sleeping arrangement for each deck. They also had to choose people to fill the various positions on the Dragon Wing: who would cook, who would train as sailors under Uthar’s men, and so forth.
Roran was helping Elain hang a hammock when he became embroiled in a heated dispute between Odele, her family, and Frewin, who had apparently deserted Torson’s crew to stay with Odele. The two of them wanted to marry, which Odele’s parents vehemently opposed on the grounds that the young sailor lacked a family of his own, a respectable profession, and the means to provide even a modicum of comfort for their daughter. Roran thought it best if the enamored couple remained together—it seemed impractical to try and separate them while they remained confined to the same ship—but Odele’s parents refused to give his arguments credence.
Frustrated, Roran said, “What would you do, then? You can’t lock her away, and I believe Frewin has proved his devotion more than—”
The cry came from the crow’s nest.
Without a second thought, Roran yanked his hammer from his belt, whirled about, and scrambled up the ladder through the fore hatchway, barking his shin on the way. He sprinted toward the knot of people on the quarterdeck, coming to a halt beside Horst.
The smith pointed.
One of the Ra’zac’s dread steeds drifted like a tattered shadow above the edge of the coastline, a Ra’zac on its back. Seeing the two monsters exposed in daylight in no way diminished the creeping horror they inspired in Roran. He shuddered as the winged creature uttered its terrifying shriek, and then the Ra’zac’s insectile voice drifted across the water, faint but distinct: “You shall not essscape!”
Roran looked at the ballistae, but they could not turn far enough to aim at the Ra’zac or its mount. “Does anyone have a bow?”
“I do,” said Baldor. He dropped to one knee and began to string his weapon. “Don’t let them see me.” Everyone on the quarterdeck gathered in a tight circle around Baldor, shielding him with their bodies from the Ra’zac’s malevolent gaze.
“Why don’t they attack?” growled Horst.
Puzzled, Roran searched for an explanation but found none. It was Jeod who suggested, “Perhaps it’s too bright for them. The Ra’zac hunt at night, and so far as I know they do not willingly venture forth from their lairs while the sun is yet in the sky.”
“It’s not just that,” said Gertrude slowly. “I think they’re afraid of the ocean.”
“Afraid of the ocean?” scoffed Horst.
“Watch them; they don’t fly more than a yard over the water at any given time.”
“She’s right,” said Roran. At last, a weakness I can use against them!
A few seconds later, Baldor said, “Ready!”
At his word, the ranks of people who stood before him jumped aside, clearing the path for his arrow. Baldor sprang to his feet and, in a single motion, pulled the feather to his cheek and loosed the reed shaft.
It was a heroic shot. The Ra’zac was at the extreme edge of a longbow’s range—far beyond any mark Roran had seen an archer hit—and yet Baldor’s aim was true. His arrow struck the flying creature on the right flank, and the beast gave a scream of pain so great that the glass on the deck was shattered and the stones on the shore were riven in shards. Roran clapped his hands over his ears to protect them from the hideous blast. Still screaming, the monster veered inland and dropped behind a line of misty hills.
“Did you kill it?” asked Jeod, his face pale.
“I fear not,” replied Baldor. “It was naught but a flesh wound.”
Loring, who had just arrived, observed with satisfaction, “Aye. But at least you hurt him, and I’d wager they’ll think twice about bothering us again.”
Gloom settled over Roran. “Save your triumph for later, Loring. This was no victory.”
“Why not?” demanded Horst.
“Because now the Empire knows exactly where we are.” The quarterdeck fell silent as they grasped the implications of what he had said.
“And this,” said Trianna, “is the latest pattern we’ve invented.”
Nasuada took the black veil from the sorceress and ran it through her hands, marveling at its quality. No human could throw lace that fine. She gazed with satisfaction at the rows of boxes on her desk, which contained samples of the many designs Du Vrangr Gata now produced. “You’ve done well,” she said. “Far better than I had hoped. Tell your spellcasters how pleased I am with their work. It means much to the Varden.”
Trianna inclined her head at the praise. “I will convey your message to them, Lady Nasuada.”
“Have they yet—”
A disturbance at the doors to her quarters interrupted Nasuada. She heard her guards swear and raise their voices, then a yelp of pain. The sound of metal clashing on metal rang in the hallway. Nasuada backed away from the door in alarm, drawing her dagger from its sheath.
“Run, Lady!” said Trianna. The sorceress placed herself in front of Nasuada and pushed back her sleeves, baring her white arms in preparation to work magic. “Take the servants’ entrance.”
Before Nasuada could move, the doors burst open and a small figure tackled her legs, knocking her to the floor. Even as Nasuada fell, a silvery object flashed through the space she had just occupied, burying itself in the far wall with a dull thud.
Then the four guards entered, and all was confusion as Nasuada felt them drag her assailant off her. When Nasuada managed to stand, she saw Elva hanging in their grip.
“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Nasuada.
The black-haired girl smiled, then doubled over and retched on the braided rug. Afterward, she fixed her violet eyes on Nasuada and—in her terrible, knowing voice—she said, “Have your magician examine the wall, O Daughter of Ajihad, and see if I have not fulfilled my promise to you.”
Nasuada nodded to Trianna, who glided to the splintered hole in the wall and muttered a spell. She returned holding a metal dart. “This was buried in the wood.”
“But where did it come from?” asked Nasuada, bewildered.
Trianna gestured toward the open window overlooking the city of Aberon. “Somewhere out there, I guess.”
Nasuada returned her attention to the waiting child. “What do you know about this, Elva?”
The girl’s horrible smile widened. “It was an assassin.”
“Who sent him?”
“An assassin trained by Galbatorix himself in the dark uses of magic.” Her burning eyes grew half-lidded, as if she were in a trance. “The man hates you. He’s coming for you. He would have killed you if I hadn’t stopped him.” She lurched forward and retched again, spewing half-digested food across the floor. Nasuada gagged with revulsion. “And he’s about to suffer great pain.”
bsp; “Why is that?”
“Because I will tell you he stays in the hostel on Fane Street, in the last room, on the top floor. You had better hurry, or he’ll get away…away.” She groaned like a wounded beast and clutched her belly. “Hurry, before Eragon’s spell forces me to stop you from hurting him. You’ll be sorry, then!”
Trianna was already moving as Nasuada said, “Tell Jörmundur what’s happened, then take your strongest magicians and hunt down this man. Capture him if you can. Kill him if you can’t.” After the sorceress left, Nasuada looked at her men and saw that their legs were bleeding from numerous small cuts. She realized what it must have cost Elva to hurt them. “Go,” she told them. “Find a healer who can mend your injuries.”
The warriors shook their heads, and their captain said, “No, Ma’am. We will stay by your side until we know it’s safe again.”
“As you see fit, Captain.”
The men barricaded the windows—which worsened the already sweltering heat that plagued Borromeo Castle—then everyone retreated to her inner chambers for further protection.
Nasuada paced, her heart pounding with delayed shock as she contemplated how close she had come to being killed. What would become of the Varden if I died? she wondered. Who would succeed me? Dismay gripped her; she had made no arrangements for the Varden in the event of her own demise, an oversight that now seemed a monumental failing. I won’t allow the Varden to be thrown into chaos because I failed to take precautions!
She halted. “I am in your debt, Elva.”
“Now and forever.”
Nasuada faltered, disconcerted as she often was by the girl’s responses, then continued: “I apologize for not ordering my guards to let you pass, night or day. I should have anticipated an event like this.”
“You should have,” agreed Elva in a mocking tone.
Smoothing the front of her dress, Nasuada resumed pacing, as much to escape the sight of Elva’s stone-white, dragon-marked face as to disperse her own nervous energy. “How did you escape your rooms unaccompanied?”