Brisingr (The Inheritance Cycle 3) - Page 55


Then the soldiers were upon them, and for a span Roran heard nothing but the thud of swords bouncing off his shield and the clang of his hammer as he struck the soldiers’ helms and the cries of the soldiers as they crumpled underneath his blows. The soldiers threw themselves against him with desperate strength, but they were no match for him or his men. When he vanquished the last of the attacking soldiers, Roran burst out laughing, exhilarated. What a joy it was to crush those who would harm his wife and his unborn child!

He was pleased to see that none of his warriors had been seriously injured. He also noticed that during the fray, several of the archers had descended from the roofs to fight on horseback with them. Roran grinned at the newcomers and said, “Welcome to the battle!”

“A warm welcome indeed!” one of them replied.

Pointing with his gore-covered hammer toward the right side of the street, Roran said, “You, you, and you, pile the bodies over there. Make a funnel out of them and the wagon, so that only two or three soldiers can get to us at once.”

“Yes, sir!” the warriors answered, swinging down from their horses.

A quarrel whizzed toward Roran. He ignored it and focused on the main body of soldiers, where a group, perhaps a hundred strong, was massing in preparation for a second onslaught. “Hurry!” he shouted to the men shifting the corpses. “They’re almost upon us. Harald, go help.”

Roran wet his lips, nervous, as he watched his men labor while the soldiers advanced. To his relief, the four Varden dragged the last body into place and clambered back onto their steeds moments before the wave of soldiers struck.

The houses on either side of the street, as well as the overturned wagon and the gruesome barricade of human remains, slowed and compressed the flow of soldiers, until they were nearly at a standstill when they reached Roran. The soldiers were packed so tightly, they were helpless to escape the arrows that streaked toward them from above.

The first two ranks of soldiers carried spears, with which they menaced Roran and the other Varden. Roran parried three separate thrusts, cursing the whole while as he realized that he could not reach past the spears with his hammer. Then a soldier stabbed Snowfire in the shoulder, and Roran leaned forward to keep from being thrown as the stallion squealed and reared.

As Snowfire landed on all fours, Roran slid out of the saddle, keeping the stallion between him and the hedge of spear-wielding soldiers. Snowfire bucked as another spear pierced his hide. Before the soldiers could wound him again, Roran pulled on Snowfire’s reins and forced him to prance backward until there was enough room among the other horses for the stallion to turn around. “Yah!” he shouted, and slapped Snowfire on the rump, sending him galloping out of the village.

“Make way!” Roran bellowed, waving at the Varden. They cleared a path for him between their steeds, and he bounded to the forefront of the fight again, sticking his hammer through his belt as he did.

A soldier jabbed a spear at Roran’s chest. He blocked it with his wrist, bruising himself on the hard wooden shaft, and then yanked the spear out of the soldier’s hands. The man fell flat on his face. Twirling the weapon, Roran stabbed the man, then lunged forward and lanced two more soldiers. Roran took a wide stance, planting his feet firmly in the rich soil where once he would have sought to raise crops, and shook the spear at his foes, shouting, “Come, you misbegotten bastards! Kill me if you can! I am Roran Stronghammer, and I fear no man alive!”

The soldiers shuffled forward, three men stepping over the bodies of their former comrades to exchange blows with Roran. Dancing to the side, Roran drove his spear into the jaw of the rightmost soldier, shattering his teeth. A pennant of blood trailed the blade as Roran withdrew the weapon and, dropping to one knee, impaled the central soldier through an armpit.

An impact jarred Roran’s left shoulder. His shield seemed to double in weight. Rising, he saw a spear buried in the oak planks of his shield and the remaining soldier of the trio rushing at him with a drawn sword. Roran lifted his spear above his head as if he were about to throw it and, when the soldier faltered, kicked him between the fork of his legs. He dispatched the man with a single blow. During the momentary lull in combat that followed, Roran disengaged his arm from the useless shield and cast it and the attached spear under the feet of his enemies, hoping to tangle their legs.

More soldiers shuffled forward, quailing before Roran’s feral grin and stabbing spear. A mound of bodies grew before him. When it reached the height of his waist, Roran bounded to the top of the blood-soaked berm, and there he remained, despite the treacherous footing, for the height gave him an advantage. Since the soldiers were forced to climb up a ramp of corpses to reach him, he was able to kill many of them when they stumbled over an arm or a leg or stepped upon the soft neck of one of their predecessors or slipped on a slanting shield.

From his elevated position, Roran could see that the rest of the soldiers had chosen to join the assault, save for a score across the village who were still battling Sand’s and Edric’s warriors. He realized he would have no more rest until the battle had concluded.

Roran acquired dozens of wounds as the day wore on. Many of his injuries were minor—a cut on the inside of a forearm, a broken finger, a scratch across his ribs where a dagger had shorn through his mail—but others were not. From where he lay on the pile of bodies, a soldier stabbed Roran through his right calf muscle, hobbling him. Soon afterward, a heavyset man smelling of onions and cheese fell against Roran and, with his dying breath, shoved the bolt of a crossbow into Roran’s left shoulder, which thereafter prevented Roran from lifting his arm overhead. Roran left the bolt embedded in his flesh, for he knew he might bleed to death if he pulled it out. Pain became Roran’s ruling sensation; every movement caused him fresh agony, but to stand still was to die, and so he kept dealing death-blows, regardless of his wounds and regardless of his weariness.

Roran was sometimes aware of the Varden behind or beside him, such as when they threw a spear past him, or when the blade of a sword would dart around his shoulder to fell a soldier who was about to brain him, but for the most part Roran faced the soldiers alone, because of the pile of bodies he stood on and the restricted amount of space between the overturned wagon and the sides of the houses. Above, the archers who still had arrows maintained their lethal barrage, their gray-goose shafts penetrating bone and sinew alike.

Late in the battle, Roran thrust his spear at a soldier, and as the tip struck the man’s armor, the haft cracked and split along its length. That he was still alive seemed to catch the soldier by surprise, for he hesitated before swinging his sword in retaliation. His imprudent delay allowed Roran to duck underneath the length of singing steel and seize another spear from the ground, with which he slew the soldier. To Roran’s dismay and disgust, the second spear lasted less than a minute before it too shattered in his grip. Throwing the splintered remains at the soldiers, Roran took a shield from a corpse and drew his hammer from his belt. His hammer, at least, had never failed him.

Exhaustion proved to be Roran’s greatest adversary as the last of the soldiers gradually approached, each man waiting his turn to duel him. Roran’s limbs felt heavy and lifeless, his vision flickered, and he could not seem to get enough air, and yet he somehow always managed to summon the energy to defeat his next opponent. As his reflexes slowed, the soldiers dealt him numerous cuts and bruises that he could have easily avoided earlier.

When gaps appeared between the soldiers, and through them Roran could see open space, he knew his ordeal was nearly at an end. He did not offer the final twelve men mercy, nor did they ask it of him, even though they could not have hoped to battle their way past him as well as the Varden beyond. Nor did they attempt to flee. Instead, they rushed at him, snarling, cursing, desiring only to kill the man who had slain so many of their comrades before they too passed into the void.

In a way, Roran admired their courage.

Arrows sprouted from the chests of four o

f the men, downing them. A spear thrown from somewhere behind Roran took a fifth man under the collarbone, and he too toppled onto a bed of corpses. Two more spears claimed their victims, and then the men reached Roran. The lead soldier hewed at Roran with a spiked ax. Although Roran could feel the head of the crossbow bolt grating against his bone, he threw up his left arm and blocked the ax with his shield. Howling with pain and anger, as well as an overwhelming desire for the battle to end, Roran whipped his hammer around and slew the soldier with a blow to the head. Without pause, Roran hopped forward on his good leg and struck the next soldier twice in the chest before he could defend himself, cracking his ribs. The third man parried two of Roran’s attacks, but then Roran deceived him with a feint and slew him as well. The final two soldiers converged on Roran from either side, swinging at his ankles as they climbed to the summit of the piled corpses. His strength flagging, Roran sparred with them for a long and wearisome while, both giving and receiving wounds, until at last he killed one man by caving in his helm and the other by breaking his neck with a well-placed blow.

Roran swayed and then collapsed.

He felt himself being lifted up and opened his eyes to see Harald holding a wineskin to his lips. “Drink this,” Harald said. “You’ll feel better.”

His chest heaving, Roran consumed several draughts between gasps. The sun-warmed wine stung the inside of his battered mouth. He felt his legs steady and said, “It’s all right; you can let go of me now.”

Roran leaned against his hammer and surveyed the battleground. For the first time he appreciated how high the mound of bodies had grown; he and his companions stood at least twenty feet in the air, which was nearly level with the tops of the houses on either side. Roran saw that most of the soldiers had died of arrows, but even so, he knew that he had slain a vast number by himself.

“How … how many?” he asked Harald.

The blood-spattered warrior shook his head. “I lost count after thirty-two. Perhaps another can say. What you did, Stronghammer … Never have I seen such a feat before, not by a man of human abilities. The dragon Saphira chose well; the men of your family are fighters like no others. Your prowess is unmatched by any mortal, Stronghammer. However many you slew here today, I—”

“It was one hundred and ninety-three!” cried Carn, clambering toward them from below.

“Are you sure?” asked Roran, unbelieving.

Carn nodded as he reached them. “Aye! I watched, and I kept careful count. One hundred and ninety-three, it was—ninety-four if you count the man you stabbed through the gut before the archers finished him off.”

The tally astounded Roran. He had not suspected the total was quite so large. A hoarse chuckle escaped him. “A pity there are no more of them. Another seven and I would have an even two hundred.”

The other men laughed as well.

His thin face furrowed with concern, Carn reached for the bolt sticking out of Roran’s left shoulder, saying, “Here, let me see to your wounds.”

“No!” said Roran, and brushed him away. “There may be others who are more seriously injured than I am. Tend to them first.”

“Roran, several of those cuts could prove fatal unless I stanch the bleeding. It won’t take but a—”

“I’m fine,” he growled. “Leave me alone.”

“Roran, just look at yourself!”

He did and averted his gaze. “Be quick about it, then.” Roran stared into the featureless sky, his mind empty of thought while Carn pulled the bolt out of his shoulder and muttered various spells. In every spot where the magic took effect, Roran felt his skin itch and crawl, followed by a blessed cessation of pain. When Carn had finished, Roran still hurt, but he did not hurt quite so badly, and his mind was clearer than before.

The healing left Carn gray-faced and shaking. He leaned against his knees until his tremors stopped. “I will go …” He paused for breath. “… go help the rest of the wounded now.” He straightened and picked his way down the mound, lurching from side to side as if he were drunk.

Roran watched him go, concerned. Then it occurred to him to wonder about the fate of the rest of their expedition. He looked toward the far side of the village and saw nothing but scattered bodies, some clad in the red of the Empire, others in the brown wool favored by the Varden. “What of Edric and Sand?” he asked Harald.

“I’m sorry, Stronghammer, but I saw nothing beyond the reach of my sword.”

Calling to the few men who still stood on the roofs of the houses, Roran asked, “What of Edric and Sand?”

“We do not know, Stronghammer!” they replied.

Steadying himself with his hammer, Roran slowly picked his way down the tumbled ramp of bodies and, with Harald and three other men by his side, crossed the clearing in the center of the village, executing every soldier they found still alive. When they arrived at the edge of the clearing, where the number of slain Varden surpassed the number of slain soldiers, Harald banged his sword on his shield and shouted, “Is anyone still alive?”

After a moment, a voice came back at them from among the houses: “Name yourself!”

“Harald and Roran Stronghammer and others of the Varden. If you serve the Empire, then surrender, for your comrades are dead and you cannot defeat us!”

From somewhere between the houses came a crash of falling metal, and then in ones and twos, warriors of the Varden emerged from hiding and limped toward the clearing, many of them supporting their wounded comrades. They appeared dazed, and some were stained with so much blood, Roran at first mistook them for captured soldiers. He counted four-and-twenty men. Among the final group of stragglers was Edric, helping along a man who had lost his right arm during the fighting.

Roran motioned, and two of his men hurried to relieve Edric of his burden. The captain straightened from under the weight. With slow steps, he walked over to Roran and looked him straight in the eye, his expression unreadable. Neither he nor Roran moved, and Roran was aware that the clearing had grown exceptionally quiet.

Edric was the first to speak. “How many of your men survived?”

“Most. Not all, but most.”

Edric nodded. “And Carn?”

“He lives…. What of Sand?”

“A soldier shot him during his charge. He died but a few minutes ago.” Edric looked past Roran, then toward the mound of bodies. “You defied my orders, Stronghammer.”

“I did.”

Edric held out an open hand toward him.

“Captain, no!” exclaimed Harald, stepping forward. “If it weren’t for Roran, none of us would be standing here. And you should have seen what he did; he slew nearly two hundred by himself!”

Harald’s pleas made no impression on Edric, who continued to hold out his hand. Roran remained impassive as well.

Turning to him then, Harald said, “Roran, you know the men are yours. Just say the word, and we will—”

Roran silenced him with a glare. “Don’t be a fool.”

Between thin lips, Edric said, “At least you are not completely devoid of sense. Harald, keep your teeth shut unless you want to lead the packhorses the whole way back.”

Lifting his hammer, Roran handed it to Edric. Then he unbuckled his belt, upon which hung his sword and his dagger, and those too he surrendered to Edric. “I have no other weapons,” he said.

Edric nodded, grim, and slung the sword belt over one shoulder. “Roran Stronghammer, I hereby relieve you of command. Have I your word of honor you will not attempt to flee?”

“You do.”

“Then you will make yourself useful where you may, but in all else, you will comport yourself as a prisoner.” Edric looked around and pointed at another warrior. “Fuller, you will assume Roran’s position until we return to the main body of the Varden and Nasuada can decide what is to be done about this.”

“Yes, sir,” said Fuller.

For several hours, Roran bent his back alongside the other warriors as they collected their dead and buried t

hem on the outskirts of the village. During the process, Roran learned that only nine of his eighty-one warriors had died in the battle, while between them, Edric and Sand had lost almost a hundred and fifty men, and Edric would have lost more, except that a handful of his warriors had remained with Roran after he rode to their rescue.

When they finished interring their casualties, the Varden retrieved their arrows, then built a pyre in the center of the village, stripped the soldiers of their gear, dragged them onto the pile of wood, and set it ablaze. The burning bodies filled the sky with a pillar of greasy black smoke that drifted upward for what seemed like miles. Through it, the sun appeared as a flat red disk.

The young woman and the boy the soldiers had captured were nowhere to be found. Since their bodies were not among the dead, Roran guessed the two had fled the village when the fighting broke out, which, he thought, was probably the best thing they could have done. He wished them luck, wherever they had gone.

To Roran’s pleased surprise, Snowfire trotted back into the village minutes before the Varden were to depart. At first the stallion was skittish and standoffish, allowing no one to approach, but by talking to him in a low voice, Roran managed to calm the stallion enough to clean and bandage the wounds in the horse’s shoulder. Since it would be unwise to ride Snowfire until he was fully healed, Roran tied him to the front of the packhorses, which the stallion took an immediate dislike to, flattening his ears, flicking his tail from side to side, and curling his lips to bare his teeth.

“Behave yourself,” said Roran, stroking his neck. Snowfire rolled an eyeball at him and nickered, his ears relaxing slightly.

Then Roran pulled himself onto a gelding that had belonged to one of the dead Varden and took his place at the rear of the line of men assembled between the houses. Roran ignored the many glances they directed at him, although it heartened him when several of the warriors murmured, “Well done.”

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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