Roran had just pulled the shirt over his head when Katrina pushed her way into the tent. As he beheld her, an equal measure of joy and dread filled Roran.
Katrina glanced between him and Trianna, then curtsied to the sorceress. “May I please speak with my husband alone?”
“Of course. I shall wait outside.”
Once Trianna had departed, Katrina rushed to Roran and threw her arms around him. He hugged her just as fiercely as she hugged him, for he had not seen her since he had returned to the Varden.
“Oh, how I’ve missed you,” Katrina whispered in his right ear.
“And I you,” he murmured.
They drew apart just far enough so that they could gaze into each other’s eyes, and then Katrina scowled. “This is wrong! I went to Nasuada, and I begged her to pardon you, or at least to reduce the number of lashes, but she refused to grant my request.”
Running his hands up and down Katrina’s back, Roran said, “I wish that you hadn’t.”
“Because I said that I would remain with the Varden, and I will not go back on my word.”
“But this is wrong!” said Katrina, gripping him by his shoulders. “Carn told me what you did, Roran: you slew almost two hundred soldiers by yourself, and if not for your heroism, none of the men with you would have survived. Nasuada ought to be plying you with gifts and praise, not having you whipped like a common criminal!”
“It does not matter whether this is right or wrong,” he told her. “It is necessary. If I were in Nasuada’s position, I would have given the same order myself.”
Katrina shuddered. “Fifty lashes, though…. Why does it have to be so many? Men have died from being whipped that many times.”
“Only if they had weak hearts. Don’t be so worried; it will take more than that to kill me.”
A false smile flickered across Katrina’s lips, and then a sob escaped her and she pressed her face against his chest. He cradled her in his arms, stroking her hair and reassuring her as best he could, even though he felt no better than she. After several minutes, Roran heard a horn being winded outside the tent, and he knew that their time together was drawing to a close. Extricating himself from Katrina’s embrace, he said, “There is something I want you to do for me.”
“What?” she asked, dabbing at her eyes.
“Go back to our tent and do not leave it until after my flogging.”
Katrina appeared shocked by his request. “No! I shall not leave you … not now.”
“Please,” he said, “you should not have to see this.”
“And you should not have to endure it,” she retorted.
“Leave that. I know you wish to stay by my side, but I can bear this better if I know that you aren’t here watching me…. I brought this upon myself, Katrina, and I do not want you to suffer because of it as well.”
Her expression became strained. “The knowledge of your fate shall pain me regardless of where I am standing. However … I shall do as you ask, but only because it will help you through this ordeal…. You know that I would have the whip fall upon my own body instead of yours, if I could.”
“And you know,” he said, kissing her on both cheeks, “that I would refuse to let you take my place.”
Tears welled up in her eyes again, and she pulled him closer, hugging him so tightly, he had difficulty breathing.
They were still wrapped in each other’s arms when the entrance flap to the tent was swept back and Jörmundur entered, along with two of the Nighthawks. Katrina disengaged herself from Roran, curtsied to Jörmundur, and then, without a word, slipped out of the tent.
Jörmundur extended a hand toward Roran. “It’s time.”
Nodding, Roran rose and allowed Jörmundur and the guards to escort him to the whipping post outside. Row after row of the Varden boxed in the area around the post, every man, woman, dwarf, and Urgal standing with stiff spines and squared shoulders. After his initial glimpse of the assembled army, Roran gazed off toward the horizon and did his best to ignore the onlookers.
The two guards lifted Roran’s arms above his head and secured his wrists to the crossbeam of the whipping post. While they did, Jörmundur walked around in front of the post and held up a leather-wrapped dowel. “Here, bite down on this,” he said in a low voice. “It will keep you from hurting yourself.” Grateful, Roran opened his mouth and allowed Jörmundur to fit the dowel between his teeth. The tanned leather tasted bitter, like green acorns.
Then a horn and a drumroll sounded, and Jörmundur read out the charges against Roran, and the guards cut off Roran’s sackcloth shirt.
He shivered as the cold air washed across his bare torso.
An instant before it struck, Roran heard the whip whistling through the air.
It felt as if a rod of hot metal had been laid across his flesh. Roran arched his back and bit down on the dowel. An involuntary groan escaped him, although the dowel muffled the sound so he thought no one else heard.
“One,” said the man wielding the whip.
The shock of the second blow caused Roran to groan again, but thereafter he remained silent, determined not to appear weak before the whole of the Varden.
The whipping was as painful as any of the numerous wounds Roran had suffered over the past few months, but after a dozen or so blows, he gave up trying to fight the pain and, surrendering to it, entered a bleary trance. His field of vision narrowed until the only thing he saw was the worn wood in front of him; at times, his sight flickered and went blank as he drifted into brief spates of unconsciousness.
After an interminable time, he heard the dim and faraway voice intone, “Thirty,” and despair gripped him as he wondered, How can I possibly withstand another twenty lashes? Then he thought of Katrina and their unborn child, and the thought gave him strength.
Roran woke to find himself lying on his stomach on the cot inside the tent he and Katrina shared. Katrina was kneeling next to him, stroking his hair and murmuring in his ear, while someone daubed a cold, sticky substance over the stripes on his back. He winced and stiffened as the anonymous person poked a particularly sensitive spot.
“That is not how I would treat a patient of mine,” he heard Trianna say in a haughty tone.
“If you treat all of your patients as you were treating Roran,” another woman replied, “I’m amazed that any survived your attentions.” After a moment, Roran recognized the second voice as belonging to the strange, bright-eyed herbalist Angela.
“I beg your pardon!” said Trianna. “I will not stand here and be insulted by a lowly fortuneteller who struggles to cast even the most basic spell.”
“Sit, then, if it pleases you, but whether you sit or stand, I will continue to insult you until you admit that his back muscle attaches here and not there.” Roran felt a finger touch him in two different places, each a half inch apart.
“Oh!” said Trianna, and left the tent.
Katrina smiled at Roran, and for the first time, he noticed the tears streaking her face. “Roran, do you understand me?” she asked. “Are you awake?”
“I … I think so,” he said, his voice raspy. His jaw ached from biting the dowel so hard for so long. He coughed, then grimaced as every one of the fifty stripes on his back throbbed in unison.
“There we go,” said Angela. “All finished.”
“It’s amazing. I didn’t expect you and Trianna to do so much,” said Katrina.
“On Nasuada’s orders.”
“Nasuada?… Why would—”
“You’ll have to ask her yourself. Tell him to stay off his back if he can help it. And he ought to be careful twisting from side to side, or he might tear open the scabs.”
“Thank you,” Roran mumbled.
Behind him, Angela laughed. “Think nothing of it, Roran. Or rather, think something of it, but do not consider it overly important. Besides, it amuses me to have tended injuries on both your back and Eragon’s. Right, then, I’ll be off. Watch out for ferrets!” When the herbalist had gone, Roran closed his eyes again. Katrina’s smooth fingers stroked his forehead. “You were very brave,” she said.
“Aye. Jörmundur and everyone else I spoke to said that you never cried out or begged for the flogging to stop.”
“Good.” He wanted to know how serious his wounds were, but he was reluctant to force her to describe the damage to his back.
Katrina seemed to sense his desire, however, for she said, “Angela believes that with a bit of luck, you won’t scar too badly. In either case, once you’re completely healed, Eragon or another magician can remove the scars from your back and it will be as if you were never whipped in the first place.”
“Would you like something to drink?” she asked. “I have a pot of yarrow tea steeping.”
As Katrina rose, Roran heard another person enter the tent. He opened one eye and was surprised to see Nasuada standing next to the pole at the front of the tent.
“My Lady,” Katrina said, her voice razor-sharp.
In spite of the lances of pain from his back, Roran pushed himself partially up and, with Katrina’s help, swung himself into a sitting position. Leaning on Katrina, he started to stand, but Nasuada lifted a hand. “Please don’t. I do not wish to cause you any more distress than I already have.”
“Why have you come, Lady Nasuada?” asked Katrina. “Roran needs to rest and recover, not to spend his time talking when he does not have to.”
Roran placed a hand on Katrina’s left shoulder. “I can talk if I must,” he said.
Moving farther into the tent, Nasuada lifted the hem of her green dress and sat on the small chest of belongings Katrina had brought with her from Carvahall. After arranging the folds of her skirt, she said, “I have another mission for you, Roran: a small raid similar to those you have already participated in.”
“When will I leave?” he asked, puzzled that she would bother to inform him in person of such a simple assignment.
Katrina’s eyes widened. “Are you mad?” she exclaimed.
“Katrina …,” Roran murmured, attempting to placate her, but she shrugged off his hand and said, “The last trip you sent him on nearly killed him, and you’ve just had him whipped within an inch of his life! You can’t order him back into combat so soon; he wouldn’t last more than a minute against Galbatorix’s soldiers!”
“I can, and I must!” said Nasuada with such authority, Katrina held her tongue and waited to hear Nasuada’s explanation, although Roran could tell that her anger had not subsided. Gazing at him intensely, Nasuada said, “Roran, as you may or may not be aware, our alliance with the Urgals is upon the verge of collapse. One of our own murdered three of the Urgals while you were serving under Captain Edric, who, you may be pleased to know, is a captain no more. Anyway, I had the miserable wretch who killed the Urgals hanged, but ever since, our relations with Garzhvog’s rams have become increasingly precarious.”
“What does this have to do with Roran?” Katrina demanded.
Nasuada pressed her lips together, then said, “I need to convince the Varden to accept the presence of the Urgals without further bloodshed, and the best way I can do that is to show the Varden that our two races can work together in peaceful pursuit of a common goal. Toward that end, the group you shall be traveling with will contain equal numbers of both humans and Urgals.”
“But that still doesn’t—” Katrina started to say.
“And I am placing the whole lot of them under your command, Stronghammer.”
“Me?” Roran rasped, astonished. “Why?”
With a wry smile, Nasuada said, “Because you will do whatever you have to in order to protect your friends and family. In this, you are like me, although my family is larger than yours, for I consider the whole of the Varden my kin. Also, because you are Eragon’s cousin, I cannot afford to have you commit insubordination again, for then I will have no choice but to execute you or expel you from the Varden. Neither of which I wish to do.
“Therefore, I am giving you your own command so that there is no one above you to disobey, except me. If you ignore my orders, it had better be to kill Galbatorix; no other reason will save you from far worse than the lashes you earned today. And I am giving you this command, because you have proven that you are able to convince others to follow you, even in the face of the most daunting circumstances. You have as good a chance as any of maintaining control over a group of Urgals and humans. I would send Eragon if I could, but since he is not here, the responsibility falls to you. When the Varden hear that Eragon’s own cousin, Roran Stronghammer—he who slew nigh on two hundred soldiers by himself—went on a mission with Urgals and that the mission was a success, then we may yet keep the Urgals as our allies for the duration of this war. That is why I had Angela and Trianna heal you more than is customary: not to spare you your punishment, but because I need you fit to command. Now, what say you, Stronghammer? Can I count on you?”
Roran looked at Katrina. He knew she desperately wished he would tell Nasuada that he was incapable of leading the raid. Dropping his gaze so he did not have to see her distress, Roran thought of the immense size of the army that opposed the Varden, and then, in a hoarse whisper, he said:
“You may count on me, Lady Nasuada.”
AMONG THE CLOUDS
From Tronjheim, Saphira flew the five miles to Farthen Dûr’s inner wall, then she and Eragon entered the tunnel that burrowed east, miles through Farthen Dûr’s base. Eragon could have run the length of the tunnel in about ten minutes, but since the height of the ceiling prevented Saphira from flying or jumping, she would not have been able to keep up, so he limited himself to a brisk walk.
An hour later, they emerged in Odred Valley, which ran north to south. Nestled among the foothills at the head of the narrow, fern-filled valley was Fernoth-mérna, a fair-sized lake that was like a drop of dark ink between the towering mountains of the Beor range. From the northern end of Fernoth-mérna flowed the Ragni Darmn, which wound its way up the valley until it joined with the Az Ragni by the flanks of Moldûn the Proud, the northernmost mountain of the Beors.
They had departed Tronjheim well before dawn, and although the tunnel had slowed them, it was still early morning. The ragged strip of sky overhead was barred with rays of pale yellow where sunlight streamed between the peaks of the towering mountains. Within the valley below, ridges of heavy clouds clung to the sides of the mountains like vast gray snakes. Coils of white mist drifted up from the glassy surface of the lake.
Eragon and Saphira stopped at the edge of Fernoth-mérna to drink and to replenish their waterskins for the next leg of their journey. The water came from melted snow and ice high in the mountains. It was so cold, it made Eragon’s teeth hurt. He screwed up his eyes and stamped the ground, groaning as a spike of cold-induced pain shot through his skull.
As the throbbing subsided, he gazed across the lake. Between the curtains of shifting mist, he spotted the ruins of a sprawling castle built upon a bare stone spur on one mountain. Thick ropes of ivy strangled the crumbling walls, but aside from that, the structure appeared lifeless. Eragon shivered. The abandoned building seemed gloomy, ominous, as if it were the decaying carcass of some foul beast.
Ready? Saphira asked.
Ready, he said, and climbed into the saddle.
From Fernoth-mérna, Saphira flew northward, following Odred Valley out of the Beor Mountains. The valley did not lead directly toward Ellesméra, which was farther west, yet they had no choice but to remain in the valley, as the passes between the mountains were over five miles high.
Saphira flew at as lofty an altitude as Eragon could endure because it was easier for her to traverse long distances in the rarefied upper atmosphere than in the thick, moist air near the ground. Eragon protected himself against the freezing temperatures by wearing several layers of clothes and by shielding himself
from the wind with a spell that split the stream of freezing air so it flowed harmlessly to either side.
Riding Saphira was far from restful, but since she flapped in a slow and steady rhythm, Eragon did not have to concentrate upon maintaining his balance as he did when she turned or dove or engaged in other, more elaborate maneuvers. For the most part, he divided his time between talking with Saphira, thinking back upon the events of the past few weeks, and studying the ever-changing vista below them.
You used magic without the ancient language when the dwarves attacked you, said Saphira. That was a dangerous thing to do.
I know, but I didn’t have time to think of the words. Besides, you never use the ancient language when you cast a spell.
That’s different. I’m a dragon. We do not need the ancient language to state our intentions; we know what we want, and we do not change our minds as easily as elves or humans.
The orange sun was a handsbreadth above the horizon when Saphira sailed through the mouth of the valley and out over the flat, empty grasslands that abutted the Beor Mountains. Straightening in the saddle, Eragon gazed around them and shook his head, amazed by how much distance they had covered. If only we could have flown to Ellesméra the first time, he said. We would have had so much more time to spend with Oromis and Glaedr. Saphira indicated her agreement with a silent mental nod.
Saphira flew until the sun had set and the stars covered the sky and the mountains were a dark purple smudge behind them. She would have continued on until morning, but Eragon insisted they stop to rest. You are still tired from your trip to Farthen Dûr. We can fly through the night tomorrow, and the day after as well, if necessary, but tonight you must sleep.
Although Saphira did not like his proposal, she agreed to it and landed by a patch of willow trees growing alongside a stream. As he dismounted, Eragon discovered his legs were so stiff, he had difficulty remaining on his feet. He unsaddled Saphira, then spread his bedroll on the ground next to her and curled up with his back against her warm body. He had no need of a tent, for she sheltered him with a wing, like a mother hawk protecting her brood. The two of them soon sank into their respective dreams, which mingled in strange and wonderful ways, for their minds remained linked even then.