With another battle-cry, Roran rode up to the closest of the three soldiers Ulhart was fighting and felled him with a single swipe of his hammer. The next man evaded Roran’s subsequent attack, then turned his horse and galloped away.
“Get him!” Ulhart shouted, but Roran was already in pursuit.
The fleeing soldier dug his spurs into the belly of his horse until the animal bled, but despite his desperate cruelty, his steed could not outrun Snowfire. Roran bent low over Snowfire’s neck as the stallion extended himself, flying over the ground with incredible speed. Realizing flight was hopeless, the soldier reined in his mount, wheeled about, and slashed at Roran with a saber. Roran lifted his hammer and barely managed to deflect the razor-sharp blade. He immediately retaliated with a looping overhead attack, but the soldier parried and then slashed at Roran’s arms and legs twice more. In his mind, Roran cursed. The soldier was obviously more experienced with swordplay than he was; if he could not win the engagement in the next few seconds, the soldier would kill him.
The soldier must have sensed his advantage, for he pressed the attack, forcing Snowfire to prance backward. On three occasions, Roran was sure the soldier was about to wound him, but the man’s saber twisted at the last moment and missed Roran, diverted by an unseen force. Roran was thankful for Eragon’s wards then.
Having no other recourse, Roran resorted to the unexpected: he stuck his head and neck out and shouted, “Bah!” just as he would if he were trying to scare someone in a dark hallway. The soldier flinched, and as he flinched, Roran leaned over and brought his hammer down on the man’s left knee. The man’s face went white with pain. Before he could recover, Roran struck him in the small of his back, and then as the soldier screamed and arched his spine, Roran ended his misery with a quick blow to the head.
Roran sat panting for a moment, then tugged on Snowfire’s reins and spurred him into a canter as they returned to the convoy. His eyes darting from place to place, drawn by any flicker of motion, Roran took stock of the battle. Most of the soldiers were already dead, as were the men who had been driving the wagons. By the lead wagon, Carn stood facing a tall man in robes, the two of them rigid except for occasional twitches, the only sign of their invisible duel. Even as Roran watched, Carn’s opponent pitched forward and lay motionless on the ground.
By the middle of the convoy, however, five enterprising soldiers had cut the oxen loose from three wagons and had pulled the wagons into a triangle, from within which they were able to hold off Martland Redbeard and ten other Varden. Four of the soldiers poked spears between the wagons, while the fifth fired arrows at the Varden, forcing them to retreat behind the nearest wagon for cover. The archer had already wounded several of the Varden, some of whom had fallen off their horses, others of whom had kept their saddles long enough to find cover.
Roran frowned. They could not afford to linger out in the open on one of the Empire’s main roads while they slowly picked off the entrenched soldiers. Time was against them.
All the soldiers were facing west, the direction from which the Varden had attacked. Aside from Roran, none of the Varden had crossed to the other side of the convoy. Thus, the soldiers were unaware that he was bearing down on them from the east.
A plan occurred to Roran. In any other circumstances, he would have dismissed it as ludicrous and impractical, but as it was, he accepted the plan as the only course of action that could resolve the standoff without further delay. He did not bother to consider the danger to himself; he had abandoned all fear of death and injury the moment their charge had begun.
Roran urged Snowfire into a full gallop. He placed his left hand on the front of his saddle, edged his boots almost out of the stirrups, and gathered his muscles in preparation. When Snowfire was fifty feet away from the triangle of wagons, he pressed downward with his hand and, lifting himself, placed his feet on the saddle and stood crouched on Snowfire. It took all his skill and concentration to maintain his balance. As Roran had expected, Snowfire lessened his speed and started to veer to the side as the cluster of wagons loomed large before them.
Roran released the reins just as Snowfire turned, and jumped off the horse’s back, leaping high over the east-facing wagon of the triangle. His stomach lurched. He caught a glimpse of the archer’s upturned face, the soldier’s eyes round and edged with white, then slammed into the man, and they both crashed to the ground. Roran landed on top, the soldier’s body cushioning his fall. Pushing himself onto his knees, Roran raised his shield and drove its rim through the gap between the soldier’s helm and his tunic, breaking his neck. Then Roran shoved himself upright.
The other four soldiers were slow to react. The one to Roran’s left made the mistake of trying to pull his spear inside the triangle of wagons, but in his haste, he wedged the spear between the rear of one wagon and the front wheel of another, and the shaft splintered in his hands. Roran lunged toward him. The soldier tried to retreat, but the wagons blocked his way. Swinging the hammer in an underhand blow, Roran caught the soldier beneath his chin.
The second soldier was smarter. He let go of his spear and reached for the sword at his belt but only succeeded in drawing the blade halfway out of the sheath before Roran staved in his chest.
The third and fourth soldiers were ready for Roran by then. They converged on him, naked blades outstretched, snarls on their faces. Roran tried to sidestep them, but his torn leg failed him, and he stumbled and fell to one knee. The closest soldier slashed downward. With his shield, Roran blocked the blow, then dove forward and crushed the soldier’s foot with the flat end of his hammer. Cursing, the soldier toppled to the ground. Roran promptly smashed the soldier’s face, then flipped onto his back, knowing that the last soldier was directly behind him.
Roran froze, his arms and legs splayed to either side.
The soldier stood over him, holding his sword extended, the tip of the gleaming blade less than an inch away from Roran’s throat.
So this is how it ends, thought Roran.
Then a thick arm appeared around the soldier’s neck, yanking him backward, and the soldier uttered a choked cry as a sword blade sprouted from the middle of his chest, along with a spray of blood. The soldier collapsed into a limp pile, and in his place, there stood Martland Redbeard. The earl was breathing heavily, and his beard and chest were splattered with gore.
Martland stuck his sword in the dirt, leaned on the pommel, and surveyed the carnage within the triangle of wagons. He nodded. “You’ll do, I think.”
Roran sat on the end of a wagon, biting his tongue as Carn cut off the rest of his boot. Trying to ignore the stabs of agony from his leg, Roran gazed up at the vultures circling overhead and concentrated on memories of his home in Palancar Valley.
He grunted as Carn probed especially deep into the gash.
“Sorry,” said Carn. “I have to inspect the wound.”
Roran kept staring at the vultures and did not answer. After a minute, Carn uttered a number of words in the ancient language, and a few seconds later, the pain in Roran’s leg subsided to a dull ache. Looking down, Roran saw his leg was whole once more.
The effort of healing Roran and the two other men before him had left Carn gray-faced and shaking. The magician slumped against the wagon, wrapping his arms around his middle, his expression queasy.
“Are you all right?” Roran asked.
Carn lifted his shoulders in a minuscule shrug. “I just need a moment to recover…. The ox scratched the outer bone of your lower leg. I repaired the scratch, but I didn’t have the strength to completely heal the rest of your injury. I stitched together your skin and muscle, so it won’t bleed or pain you overmuch, but only lightly. The flesh there won’t hold much more than your weight, not until it mends on its own, that is.”
“How long will that take?”
“A week, perhaps two.”
Roran pulled on the remains of his boot. “Eragon cast wards around me to protect me from injury. They saved my life several times today
. Why didn’t they protect me from the ox’s horn, though?”
“I don’t know, Roran,” Carn said, sighing. “No one can prepare for every eventuality. That’s one reason magic is so perilous. If you overlook a single facet of a spell, it may do nothing but weaken you, or worse, it may do some horrible thing you never intended. It happens to even the best magicians. There must be a flaw in your cousin’s wards—a misplaced word or a poorly reasoned statement—that allowed the ox to gore you.”
Easing himself off the wagon, Roran limped toward the head of the convoy, assessing the result of the battle. Five of the Varden had been wounded during the fighting, including himself, and two others had died: one a man Roran had barely met, the other Ferth, whom he had spoken with on several occasions. Of the soldiers and the men who steered the wagons, none remained alive.
Roran paused by the first two soldiers he had killed and studied their corpses. His saliva turned bitter, and his gut roiled with revulsion. Now I have killed … I don’t know how many. He realized that during the madness of the Battle of the Burning Plains, he had lost count of the number of men he had slain. That he had sent so many to their deaths he could not remember the full number unsettled him. Must I slaughter entire fields of men in order to regain what the Empire stole from me? An even more disconcerting thought occurred to him: And if I do, how could I return to Palancar Valley and live in peace when my soul was stained black with the blood of hundreds?
Closing his eyes, Roran consciously relaxed all the muscles in his body, seeking to calm himself. I kill for my love. I kill for my love of Katrina, and for my love of Eragon and everyone from Carvahall, and also for my love of the Varden, and my love of this land of ours. For my love, I will wade through an ocean of blood, even if it destroys me.
“Never seen the likes o’ that before, Stronghammer,” said Ulhart. Roran opened his eyes to find the grizzled warrior standing in front of him, holding Snowfire by the reins. “No one else crazy enough to try a trick like that, jumping over the wagons, none that lived to tell the tale, nohow. Good job, that. Watch yourself, though. Can’t go around leaping off horses an’ taking on five men yourself an’ expect to see another summer, eh? Bit of caution if you’re wise.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Roran as he accepted Snowfire’s reins from Ulhart.
In the minutes since Roran had disposed of the last of the soldiers, the uninjured warriors had been going to each of the wagons in the convoy, cutting open their bundles of cargo, and reporting the contents to Martland, who recorded what they found so Nasuada could study the information and perhaps gather from it some indication of Galbatorix’s plans. Roran watched as the men examined the last few wagons, which contained bags of wheat and stacks of uniforms. That finished, the men slit the throats of the remaining oxen, soaking the road with blood. Killing the beasts bothered Roran, but he understood the importance of denying them to the Empire and would have wielded the knife himself if asked. They would have taken the oxen back to the Varden, but the animals were too slow and cumbersome. The soldiers’ horses, however, could keep pace as they fled enemy territory, so they captured as many as they could and tied them behind their own steeds.
Then one of the men took a resin-soaked torch from his saddlebags and, after a few seconds of work with his flint and steel, lit it. Riding up and down the convoy, he pressed the torch against each wagon until it caught fire and then tossed the torch into the back of the last wagon.
“Mount up!” shouted Martland.
Roran’s leg throbbed as he pulled himself onto Snowfire. He spurred the stallion over next to Carn as the surviving men assembled on their steeds in a double line behind Martland. The horses snorted and pawed at the ground, impatient to put distance between themselves and the fire.
Martland started forward at a swift trot, and the rest of the group followed, leaving behind them the line of burning wagons, like so many glowing beads strung out upon the lonely road.
A FOREST OF STONE
Acheer went up from the crowd.
Eragon was sitting in the wooden stands that the dwarves had built along the base of the outer ramparts of Bregan Hold. The hold sat on a rounded shoulder of Thardûr mountain, over a mile above the floor of the mist-laden valley, and from it one could see for leagues in either direction, or until the ridged mountains obscured the view. Like Tronjheim and the other dwarf cities Eragon had visited, Bregan Hold was made entirely of quarried stone—in this case, a reddish granite that lent a sense of warmth to the rooms and corridors within. The hold itself was a thick, solid building that rose five stories to an open bell tower, which was topped by a teardrop of glass that was as large around as two dwarves and was held in place by four granite ribs that joined together to form a pointed capstone. The teardrop, as Orik had told Eragon, was a larger version of the dwarves’ flameless lanterns, and during notable occasions or emergencies, it could be used to illuminate the entire valley with a golden light. The dwarves called it Az Sindriznarrvel, or The Gem of Sindri. Clustered around the flanks of the hold were numerous outbuildings, living quarters for the servants and warriors of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, as well as other structures, such as stables, forges, and a church devoted to Morgothal, the dwarves’ god of fire and their patron god of smiths. Below the high, smooth walls of Bregan Hold were dozens of farms scattered about clearings in the forest, coils of smoke drifting up from the stone houses.
All that and more, Orik had shown and explained to Eragon after the three dwarf children had escorted Eragon into the courtyard of Bregan Hold, shouting, “Argetlam!” to everyone within earshot. Orik had greeted Eragon like a brother and then had taken him to the baths and, when he was clean, saw to it that he was garbed in a robe of deep purple, with a gold circlet for his brow.
Afterward, Orik surprised Eragon by introducing him to Hvedra, a bright-eyed, apple-faced dwarf woman with long hair, and proudly announcing that they had been married but two days past. While Eragon expressed his astonishment and congratulations, Orik shifted from foot to foot before replying, “It pained me that you were not able to attend the ceremony, Eragon. I had one of our spellcasters contact Nasuada, and I asked her if she would give you and Saphira my invitation, but she refused to mention it to you; she feared the offer might distract you from the task at hand. I cannot blame her, but I wish that this war would have allowed you to be at our wedding, and us at your cousin’s, for we are all related now, by law if not by blood.”
In her thick accent, Hvedra said, “Please, consider me as your kin now, Shadeslayer. So long as it is within mine power, you shall always be treated as family at Bregan Hold, and you may claim sanctuary of us whenever you need, even if it is Galbatorix who hunts you.”
Eragon bowed, touched by her offer. “You are most kind.” Then he asked, “If you don’t mind my curiosity, why did you and Orik choose to marry now?”
“We had planned to join hands this spring, but …”
“But,” Orik continued in his gruff manner, “the Urgals attacked Farthen Dûr, and then Hrothgar sent me traipsing off with you to Ellesméra. When I returned here and the families of the clan accepted me as their new grimstborith, we thought it the perfect time to consummate our betrothal and become husband and wife. None of us may survive the year, so why tarry?”
“So you did become clan chief,” Eragon said.
“Aye. Choosing the next leader of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum was a contentious business—we were hard at it for over a week—but in the end, most of the families agreed that I should follow in Hrothgar’s footsteps and inherit his position since I was his only named heir.”
Now Eragon sat next to Orik and Hvedra, devouring the bread and mutton the dwarves had brought him and watching the contest taking place in front of the stands. It was customary, Orik had said, for a dwarf family, if they had the gold, to stage games for the entertainment of their wedding guests. Hrothgar’s family was so wealthy, the current games had already lasted for three days and were scheduled to continue for an
other four. The games consisted of many events: wrestling, archery, swordsmanship, feats of strength, and the current event, the Ghastgar.
From opposite ends of a grassy field, two dwarves rode toward each other on white Feldûnost. The horned mountain goats bounded across the sward, each leap over seventy feet long. The dwarf on the right had a small buckler strapped to his left arm but carried no weapons. The dwarf on the left had no shield, but in his right hand, he held a javelin poised to throw.
Eragon held his breath as the distance between the Feldûnost narrowed. When they were less than thirty feet apart, the dwarf with the spear whipped his arm through the air and launched the missile at his opponent. The other dwarf did not cover himself with his shield, but rather reached out and, with amazing dexterity, caught the spear by the shaft. He brandished it over his head. The crowd gathered around the lists let out a resounding cheer, which Eragon joined in, clapping vigorously.
“That was skillfully done!” exclaimed Orik. He laughed and drained his tankard of mead, his polished coat of mail sparkling in the early-evening light. He wore a helm embellished with gold, silver, and rubies and, on his fingers, five large rings. At his waist hung his ever-present ax. Hvedra was attired even more richly, with strips of embroidered cloth upon her sumptuous dress, strands of pearls and twisted gold around her neck, and in her hair, an ivory comb set with an emerald as large as Eragon’s thumb.
A line of dwarves stood and winded a set of curved horns, the brassy notes echoing off the mountains. Then a barrel-chested dwarf stepped forward and, in Dwarvish, announced the winner of the last contest, as well as the names of the next pair to compete in the Ghastgar.
When the master of ceremonies finished speaking, Eragon bent over and asked, “Will you be accompanying us to Farthen Dûr, Hvedra?”
She shook her head and smiled widely. “I cannot. I must stay here and tend to the affairs of the Ingeitum while Orik is gone, so he does not return to find our warriors starving and all our gold spent.”