The elderly dwarf woman, Hadfala, shuffled her sheaf of rune-covered pages and said, “What did you think to accomplish, besides our doom, by killing Eragon? Even if the Varden could unseat Galbatorix without him, what of the sorrow the dragon Saphira would rain down upon us if we slew her Rider? She would fill Farthen Dûr with a sea of our own blood.”
Not a word came from Vermûnd.
Laughter broke the quiet. The sound was so unexpected, at first Eragon did not realize it was coming from Orik. His mirth subsiding, Orik said, “If we move against you or Az Sweldn rak Anhûin, you will consider it an act of war, Vermûnd? Very well, then we shall not move against you, not at all.”
Vermûnd’s brow beetled. “How can this provide you with a source of amusement?”
Orik chuckled again. “Because I have thought of something you have not, Vermûnd. You wish us to leave you and your clan alone? Then I propose to the clanmeet that we do as Vermûnd wishes. If Vermûnd had acted upon his own and not as a grimstborith, he would be banished for his offenses upon pain of death. Therefore, let us treat the clan as we would treat the person; let us banish Az Sweldn rak Anhûin from our hearts and minds until they choose to replace Vermûnd with a grimstborith of a more moderate temperament and until they acknowledge their villainy and repent of it to the clanmeet, even if we must wait a thousand years.”
The wrinkled skin around Vermûnd’s eyes went pale. “You would not dare.”
Orik smiled. “Ah, but we would not lay a finger upon you or your kind. We will simply ignore you and refuse to trade with Az Sweldn rak Anhûin. Will you declare war upon us for doing nothing, Vermûnd? For if the meet agrees with me, that is exactly what we shall do: nothing. Will you force us at swordpoint to buy your honey and your cloth and your amethyst jewelry? You have not the warriors to compel us so.” Turning to the rest of the table, Orik asked, “What say the rest of you?”
The clanmeet did not take long to decide. One by one, the clan chiefs stood and voted to banish Az Sweldn rak Anhûin. Even Nado, Gáldhiem, and Havard—Vermûnd’s erstwhile allies—supported Orik’s proposal. With every vote of affirmation, what skin was visible of Vermûnd’s face grew ever whiter, until he appeared like a ghost dressed in the clothes of his former life.
When the vote was finished, Gannel pointed toward the door and said, “Begone, Vargrimstn Vermûnd. Leave Tronjheim this very day and may none of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin trouble the clanmeet until they have fulfilled the conditions we have set forth. Until such time as that happens, we shall shun every member of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin. Know this, however: while your clan may absolve themselves of their dishonor, you, Vermûnd, shall always remain Vargrimstn, even unto your dying day. Such is the will of the clanmeet.” His declaration concluded, Gannel sat.
Vermûnd remained where he was, his shoulders quivering with an emotion Eragon could not identify. “It is you who have shamed and betrayed our race,” he growled. “The Dragon Riders killed all of our clan, save Anhûin and her guards. You expect us to forget this? You expect us to forgive this? Bah! I spit on the graves of your ancestors. We at least have not lost our beards. We shall not cavort with this puppet of the elves while our dead family members still cry out for vengeance.”
Outrage gripped Eragon when none of the other clan chiefs replied, and he was about to answer Vermûnd’s tirade with harsh words of his own when Orik glanced over at him and shook his head ever so slightly. Difficult as it was, Eragon kept his anger in check, although he wondered why Orik would allow such dire insults to pass uncontested.
It is almost as if … Oh.
Pushing himself away from the table, Vermûnd stood, his hands balled into fists and his shoulders hunched high. He resumed speaking, berating and disparaging the clan chiefs with increasing passion until he was shouting at the top of his lungs.
No matter how vile Vermûnd’s imprecations were, however, the clan chiefs did not respond. They gazed into the distance, as if pondering complex dilemmas, and their eyes slid over Vermûnd without pause. When, in his fury, Vermûnd grasped Hreidamar by the front of his mail hauberk, three of Hreidamar’s guards jumped forward and pulled Vermûnd away, but as they did, Eragon noticed their expressions remained bland and unchanging, as if they were merely helping Hreidamar to straighten his hauberk. Once they released Vermûnd, the guards did not look at him again.
A chill crept up Eragon’s spine. The dwarves acted as if Vermûnd had ceased to exist. So this is what it means to be banished among the dwarves. Eragon thought he would rather be killed than suffer such a fate, and for a moment, he felt a stir of pity for Vermûnd, but his pity vanished an instant later as he remembered Kvîstor’s dying expression.
With a final oath, Vermûnd strode out of the room, followed by those of his clan who had accompanied him to the meet.
The mood among the remaining clan chiefs eased as the doors swung shut behind Vermûnd. Once again the dwarves gazed around without restriction, and they resumed talking in loud voices, discussing what else they would need to do with regard to Az Sweldn rak Anhûin.
Then Orik rapped the pommel of his dagger against the table, and everyone turned to hear what he had to say. “Now that we have dealt with Vermûnd, there is another issue I wish the meet to consider. Our purpose in assembling here is to elect Hrothgar’s successor. We have all had much to say upon the topic, but now I believe the time is ripe to put words behind us and allow our actions to speak for us. So I call upon the meet to decide whether we are ready—and we are more than ready, in mine opinion—to proceed to the final vote three days hence, as is our law. My vote, as I cast it, is aye.”
Freowin looked at Hadfala, who looked at Gannel, who looked at Manndrâth, who tugged on his drooping nose and looked at Nado, sunk low in his chair and biting the inside of his cheek.
“Aye,” said Íorûnn.
“Aye,” said Ûndin.
“… Aye,” said Nado, and so did the eight other clan chiefs.
Hours later, when the clanmeet broke for lunch, Orik and Eragon returned to Orik’s chambers to eat. Neither of them spoke until they entered his rooms, which were proofed against eavesdroppers. There Eragon allowed himself to smile. “You planned all along to banish Az Sweldn rak Anhûin, didn’t you?”
A satisfied expression on his face, Orik smiled as well and slapped his stomach. “That I did. It was the only action I could take that would not inevitably lead to a clan war. We may still have a clan war, but it shall not be of our making. I doubt such a calamity will come to pass, though. As much as they hate you, most of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin will be appalled by what Vermûnd has done in their name. He will not remain grimstborith for long, I think.”
“And now you have ensured that the vote for the new king—”
“—or queen shall take place.” Eragon hesitated, reluctant to tarnish Orik’s enjoyment of his triumph, but then he asked, “Do you really have the support you need to win the throne?”
Orik shrugged. “Before this morning, no one had the support they needed. Now the balance has shifted, and for the time being, sympathies lie with us. We might as well strike while the iron is hot; we shall never have a better opportunity than this. In any case, we cannot allow the clanmeet to drag on any longer. If you do not return to the Varden soon, all may be lost.”
“What shall we do while we wait for the vote?”
“First, we shall celebrate our success with a feast,” Orik declared. “Then, when we are sated, we shall continue as before: attempting to gather additional votes while defending those we have already won.” Orik’s teeth flashed white underneath the fringe of his beard as he smiled again. “But before we consume so much as a single sip of mead, there is something you must attend to, which you have forgotten.”
“What?” asked Eragon, puzzled by Orik’s obvious delight.
“Why, you must summon Saphira to Tronjheim, of course! Whether I become king or not, we shall crown a new monarch in three days’ time. If Saphi
ra is to attend the ceremony, she will need to fly quickly in order to arrive here before then.”
With a wordless exclamation, Eragon ran to find a mirror.
The rich black soil was cool against Roran’s hand.
He picked up a loose clod and crumbled it between his fingers, noting with approval that it was moist and full of decomposing leaves, stems, moss, and other organic matter that would provide excellent food for crops. He pressed it to his lips and tongue. The soil tasted alive, full of hundreds of flavors, from pulverized mountains to beetles and punky wood and the tender tips of grass roots.
This is good farmland, thought Roran. He cast his mind back to Palancar Valley, and again he saw the autumn sun streaming through the field of barley outside his family’s house—neat rows of golden stalks shifting in the breeze—with the Anora River to the west and the snowcapped mountains rising high on either side of the valley. That is where I should be, plowing the earth and raising a family with Katrina, not watering the ground with the sap of men’s limbs.
“Ho there!” cried Captain Edric, pointing toward Roran from on his horse. “Have an end to your dawdling, Stronghammer, lest I change my mind about you and leave you to stand guard with the archers!”
Dusting his hands on his leggings, Roran rose from a kneeling position. “Yes, sir! As you wish, sir!” he said, suppressing his dislike for Edric. Since he had joined Edric’s company, Roran had attempted to learn what he could of the man’s history. From what he heard, Roran had concluded Edric was a competent commander—Nasuada never would have put him in charge of such an important mission otherwise—but he had an abrasive personality, and he disciplined his warriors for even the slightest deviation from established practice, as Roran had learned to his chagrin upon three separate occasions during his first day with Edric’s company. It was, Roran believed, a style of command that undermined a man’s morale, as well as discouraged creativity and invention from those underneath you. Perhaps Nasuada gave me to him for those very reasons, thought Roran. Or perhaps this is another test of hers. Perhaps she wants to know whether I can swallow my pride long enough to work with a man like Edric.
Getting back onto Snowfire, Roran rode to the front of the column of two hundred and fifty men. Their mission was simple; since Nasuada and King Orrin had withdrawn the bulk of their forces from Surda, Galbatorix had apparently decided to take advantage of their absence and wreak havoc throughout the defenseless country, sacking towns and villages and burning the crops needed to sustain the invasion of the Empire. The easiest way to eliminate the soldiers would have been for Saphira to fly out and tear them to pieces, but unless she was winging her way toward Eragon, everyone agreed it would be too dangerous for the Varden to be without her for so long. So Nasuada had sent Edric’s company to repel the soldiers, whose number her spies had initially estimated to be around three hundred. However, two days ago, Roran and the rest of the warriors had been dismayed when they came across tracks that indicated the size of Galbatorix’s force was closer to seven hundred.
Roran reined in Snowfire next to Carn on his dappled mare and scratched his chin while he studied the lay of the land. Before them was a vast expanse of undulating grass, dotted with occasional stands of willow and cottonwood trees. Hawks hunted above, while below, the grass was full of squeaking mice, rabbits, burrowing rodents, and other wildlife. The only evidence that men had ever visited the place before was the swath of trampled vegetation that led toward the eastern horizon, marking the soldiers’ trail.
Carn glanced up at the noonday sun, the skin pulling tight around his drooping eyes as he squinted. “We should overtake them before our shadows are longer than we are tall.”
“And then we’ll discover whether there are enough of us to drive them away,” muttered Roran, “or whether they will just massacre us. For once I’d like to outnumber our enemies.”
A grim smile appeared on Carn’s face. “It is always thus with the Varden.”
“Form up!” shouted Edric, and spurred his horse down the trail trampled through the grass. Roran clamped his jaw shut and touched his heels to Snowfire’s flanks as the company followed their captain.
Six hours later, Roran sat on Snowfire, hidden within a cluster of beech trees that grew along the edge of a small, flat stream clotted with rushes and strands of floating algae. Through the net of branches that hung before him, Roran gazed upon a crumbling, gray-sided village of no more than twenty houses. Roran had watched with ever-increasing fury as the villagers had spotted the soldiers advancing from the west and then had gathered up a few bundles of possessions and fled south, toward the heart of Surda. If it had been up to him, Roran would have revealed their presence to the villagers and assured them they were not about to lose their houses, not if he and the rest of his companions could prevent it, for he well remembered the pain and desperation and sense of hopelessness that abandoning Carvahall had caused him, and he would have spared them that if he could. Also, he would have asked the men of the village to fight with them. Another ten or twenty sets of arms might mean the difference between victory or defeat, and Roran knew better than most the fervor with which people would fight to defend their homes. However, Edric had rejected the idea and insisted that the Varden remain concealed in the hills southeast of the village.
“We’re lucky they’re on foot,” murmured Carn, indicating the red column of soldiers marching toward the village. “We would not have been able to get here first otherwise.”
Roran glanced back at the men gathered behind them. Edric had given him temporary command over eighty-one warriors. They consisted of swordsmen, spearmen, and a half-dozen archers. One of Edric’s familiars, Sand, led another eighty-one of the company, while Edric headed the rest himself. All three groups were pressed against one another among the beech trees, which Roran thought was a mistake; the time it took to organize themselves once they broke from cover would be extra time the soldiers would have to marshal their defenses.
Leaning over toward Carn, Roran said, “I don’t see any of them with missing hands or legs or other injuries of note, but that proves nothing one way or another. Can you tell if any of them are men who cannot feel pain?”
Carn sighed. “I wish I could. Your cousin might be able to, for Murtagh and Galbatorix are the only spellcasters Eragon need fear, but I am a poor magician, and I dare not test the soldiers. If there are any magicians disguised among the soldiers, they would know of my spying, and there is every chance I would not be able to break their minds before they alerted their companions we are here.”
“We seem to have this discussion every time we are about to fight,” Roran observed, studying the soldiers’ armaments and trying to decide how best to deploy his men.
With a laugh, Carn said, “That’s all right. I only hope we keep having it, because if not—”
“One or both of us will be dead—”
“Or Nasuada will have reassigned us to different captains—”
“And then we might as well be dead, because no one else will guard our backs as well,” Roran concluded. A smile touched his lips. It had become an old joke between them. He drew his hammer from his belt and then winced as his right leg twinged where the ox had ripped his flesh with its horn. Scowling, he reached down and massaged the location of the wound.
Carn saw and asked, “Are you well?”
“It won’t kill me,” said Roran, then reconsidered his words. “Well, maybe it will, but I’ll be blasted if I’m going to wait here while you go off and cut those bumbling oafs to pieces.”
When the soldiers reached the village, they marched straight through it, pausing only to break down the door to each house and tramp through the rooms to see if anyone was hiding inside. A dog ran out from behind a rain barrel, his ruff standing on end, and began barking at the soldiers. One of the men stepped forward and threw his spear at the dog, killing it.
As the first of the soldiers reached the far side of the village, Ror
an tightened his hand around the haft of his hammer in preparation for the charge, but then he heard a series of high-pitched screams, and a sense of dread gripped him. A squad of soldiers emerged from the second-to-last house, dragging three struggling people: a lanky, white-haired man, a young woman with a torn blouse, and a boy no older than eleven.
Sweat sprang up on Roran’s brow. In a low, slow monotone, he began to swear, cursing the three captives for not having fled with their neighbors, cursing the soldiers for what they had done and might yet do, cursing Galbatorix, and cursing whatever whim of fate had resulted in the situation as it was. Behind him, he was aware of his men shifting and muttering with anger, eager to punish the soldiers for their brutality.
Having searched all of the houses, the mass of soldiers retraced their steps to the center of the village and formed a rough semicircle around their prisoners.
Yes! crowed Roran to himself as the soldiers turned their backs to the Varden. Edric’s plan had been to wait for them to do just that. In anticipation of the order to charge, Roran rose up several inches above his saddle, his entire body tense. He tried to swallow, but his throat was too dry.
The officer in charge of the soldiers, who was the only man among them on a horse, dismounted his steed and exchanged a few inaudible words with the white-haired villager. Without warning, the officer drew his saber and decapitated the man, then hopped backward to avoid the resulting spray of blood. The young woman screamed even louder than before.
“Charge,” said Edric.
It took Roran a half second to comprehend that the word Edric had uttered so calmly was the command he had been waiting for.
“Charge!” shouted Sand on the other side of Edric, and galloped out of the copse of beech trees along with his men.