“Maybe, maybe not.”
A pause grew between them; then Baldor said, “How far we have come.”
Again, the only sound was that of the water and of the turning wheels. Finally, Baldor said, “The snowmelt must not be as great here as it is at home. Otherwise, the wheels would be half underwater come springtime.”
Roran shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how much snow or rain they get. The sluice gates can be used to limit the amount of water that runs over the wheels, so they don’t turn too fast.”
“But once the water rises to the top of the gates?”
“Hopefully, the day’s grinding is finished by then, but in any case, you uncouple the gears, raise the gates, and …” Roran trailed off as a series of images flashed through his mind, and his whole body flushed with warmth, as if he had drunk an entire tankard of mead in a single gulp.
Could I? he thought wildly. Would it really work, or … It doesn’t matter; we have to try. What else can we do?
He strode out to the center of the berm that held back the middlemost pond and grasped the spokes that stuck out from the tall wooden screw used to raise and lower the sluice gate. The screw was stiff and hard to move, even though he set his shoulder against it and pushed with all his weight.
“Help me,” he said to Baldor, who had remained on the bank, watching with puzzled interest.
Baldor carefully made his way to where Roran stood. Together they managed to close the sluice gate. Then, refusing to answer any questions, Roran insisted that they do the same with both the uppermost and the lowermost gates.
When all three were firmly shut, Roran walked back to Carn, Brigman, and the others and motioned for them to climb off their horses and gather around him. He tapped the head of his hammer while he waited, suddenly feeling unreasonably impatient.
“Well?” Brigman demanded once they were in place.
Roran looked each of them in the eyes, to make sure that he had their undivided attention, then he said, “Right, this is what we’re going to do—” And he began to talk, quickly and intensely, for a full half hour, explaining everything that had occurred to him in that one, revelatory instant. As he spoke, Mandel began to grin, and though they remained more serious, Baldor, Delwin, and Hamund also appeared excited by the audacious nature of the scheme he outlined.
Their response gratified Roran. He had done much to earn their trust, and he was pleased to know that he could still count on their support. His only fear was that he might let them down; of all the fates he could imagine, only losing Katrina seemed worse.
Carn, on the other hand, appeared somewhat doubtful. This Roran had expected, but the magician’s doubt was slight compared with Brigman’s incredulity.
“You’re mad!” he exclaimed once Roran had finished. “It’ll never succeed.”
“You take that back!” said Mandel, and jumped forward, his fists clenched. “Why, Roran’s won more battles than you’ve ever fought in, and he did it without all the warriors you’ve had to order around!”
Brigman snarled, his bare upper lip curling like a snake. “You little whelp! I’ll teach you a lesson in respect you’ll never forget.”
Roran pushed Mandel back before the younger man could attack Brigman. “Oi!” growled Roran. “Behave yourself.” With a surly look, Mandel ceased resisting, but he continued to glower at Brigman, who sneered at him in return.
“It’s an outlandish plan, to be sure,” said Delwin, “but then, your outlandish plans have served us well in the past.” The other men from Carvahall made sounds of agreement.
Carn nodded and said, “Maybe it will work and maybe it won’t. I don’t know. In any event, it’s certain to catch our enemies by surprise, and I have to admit, I’m rather curious to see what will happen. Nothing like this has ever been tried before.”
Roran smiled slightly. Addressing Brigman, he said, “To continue as before, now that would be mad. We have only two and a half days to seize Aroughs. Ordinary methods won’t suffice, so we must hazard the extraordinary.”
“That may be,” muttered Brigman, “but this is a ridiculous venture that will kill many a good man, and for no reason other than to demonstrate your supposed cleverness.”
His smile widening, Roran moved toward Brigman until only a few inches separated them. “You don’t have to agree with me, Brigman; you only have to do what you’re told. Now, will you follow my orders or not?”
The air between them grew warm from their breath and from the heat radiating off their skin. Brigman gritted his teeth and twisted his spear even more vigorously than before, but then his gaze wavered and he backed away. “Blast you,” he said. “I’ll be your dog for the while, Stronghammer, but there’ll be a reckoning on this soon enough, just you watch, and then you’ll have to answer for your decisions.”
As long as we capture Aroughs, thought Roran, I don’t care. “Mount up!” he shouted. “We have work to do, and little time to do it in! Hurry, hurry, hurry!”
THE SUN WAS climbing into the sky, as was Saphira, when from his place on her back, Eragon spotted Helgrind on the edge of the northern horizon. He felt a surge of loathing as he beheld the distant spike of rock, which rose from the surrounding landscape like a single jagged tooth. So many of his most unpleasant memories were associated with Helgrind, he wished he could destroy it and see its bare gray spires fall crashing to the ground. Saphira was more indifferent to the dark tower of stone, but he could tell that she too disliked being near it.
By the time evening arrived, Helgrind lay behind them, while Dras-Leona lay before them, next to Leona Lake, where dozens of ships and boats bobbed at anchor. The low, broad city was as densely built and inhospitable as Eragon remembered, with its narrow, crooked streets, the filthy hovels packed close together against the yellow mud wall that ringed the center of the city, and behind the wall, the towering shape of Dras-Leona’s immense cathedral, black and barbed, where the priests of Helgrind conducted their gruesome rituals.
A stream of refugees trailed along the road to the north—people fleeing the soon-to-be-besieged city for Teirm or Urû’baen, where they might find at least temporary safety from the Varden’s inexorable advance.
Dras-Leona seemed as foul and evil to Eragon as when he had first visited it, and it aroused in him a lust for destruction such as he had not felt at either Feinster or Belatona. Here he wanted to lay waste with fire and sword; to lash out with all of the terrible, unnatural energies that were at his disposal; and to indulge in every savage urge and leave behind him nothing but a pit of smoking, blood-soaked ashes. For the poor and the crippled and the enslaved who lived within the confines of Dras-Leona, he had some sympathy. But he was wholly convinced of the city’s corruption and believed that the best thing would be to raze it and rebuild it without the taint of perversity the religion of Helgrind had infected it with.
As he fantasized about tearing down the cathedral with Saphira’s help, it occurred to him to wonder if the religion of the priests who practiced self-mutilation had a name. His study of the ancient language had taught him to appreciate the importance of names—names were power, names were understanding—and until he knew the name of the religion, he would not be able to fully apprehend its true nature.
In the waning light, the Varden settled on a series of cultivated fields just southeast of Dras-Leona, where the land rose up to a slight plateau, which would provide them with a modicum of protection should the enemy charge their position. The men were weary from marching, but Nasuada put them to work fortifying the camp, as well as assembling the mighty engines of war they had brought with them all the long way from Surda.
Eragon threw himself into the work with a will. First, he joined a team of men who were flattening the fields of wheat and barley, using planks with long loops of rope attached. It would have been faster to scythe the grain, either with steel or magic, but the stubble that remained would be dangerous and uncomfortable to walk over, much les
s to sleep upon. As it was, the compacted stalks formed a soft, springy surface as fine as any mattress, and one far preferable to the bare ground they were accustomed to.
Eragon labored alongside the other men for almost an hour, at which point they had cleared enough space for the tents of the Varden.
Then he helped in the construction of a siege tower. His greater-than-normal strength allowed him to shift beams that otherwise would have taken several warriors to move; thus, he was able to speed the process. A few of the dwarves who were still with the Varden oversaw the raising of the tower, for the engines were of their design.
Saphira helped as well. With her teeth and claws, she gouged deep trenches in the ground and piled the removed earth into embankments around the camp, accomplishing more in a few minutes than a hundred men could have in a whole day. And, with the fire from her maw and mighty sweeps of her tail, she leveled trees, fences, walls, houses, and everything else around the Varden that might give their foes cover. In all, she presented a picture of fearsome devastation sufficient to inspire trepidation in even the bravest of souls.
It was late at night when the Varden finally finished their preparations and Nasuada ordered the men, dwarves, and Urgals to bed.
Retiring to his tent, Eragon meditated until his mind was clear, as had become his habit. Instead of practicing his penmanship afterward, he spent the next few hours reviewing the spells he thought he might need the following day, as well as inventing new ones to address the specific challenges Dras-Leona presented.
When he felt ready for the battle to come, he abandoned himself to his waking dreams, which were more varied and energetic than usual, for despite his meditation, the prospect of the approaching action stirred his blood and would not allow him to relax. As always, the waiting and the uncertainty were the most difficult parts for him to bear, and he wished he were already in the midst of the fray, where he would have no time to worry about what might happen.
Saphira was equally restless. From her, he caught snatches of dreams that involved biting and tearing, and he could tell that she was looking forward to the fierce pleasure of battle. Her mood influenced his to a certain degree, but not enough to make him entirely forget his apprehension.
All too soon, morning arrived, and the Varden assembled before the exposed outskirts of Dras-Leona. The army was an imposing sight, but Eragon’s admiration was tempered by his observation of the warriors’ notched swords, dented helms, and battered shields, as well as the poorly repaired rents in their padded tunics and mail hauberks. If they succeeded in capturing Dras-Leona, they would be able to replace some of their equipment—as they had at Belatona, and before that, Feinster—but there was no replacing the men who bore them.
The longer this drags on, he said to Saphira, the easier it will be for Galbatorix to defeat us when we arrive at Urû’baen.
Then we must not delay, she replied.
Eragon sat astride her, next to Nasuada, who was garbed in full armor and mounted upon her fiery black charger, Battle-storm. Arrayed around them were his twelve elven guards, as well as an equal number of Nasuada’s guards, the Nighthawks, increased from her normal allotment of six for the duration of the battle. The elves were on foot—for they refused to ride any steeds but those they had raised and trained themselves—while all of the Nighthawks were mounted, including the Urgals. Ten yards to the right were King Orrin and his hand-picked retinue of warriors, each of whom had a colorful plume attached to the crest of his helm. Narheim, the commander of the dwarves, and Garzhvog were both with their respective troops.
After exchanging nods, Nasuada and King Orrin spurred their mounts forward and trotted away from the main body of the Varden, toward the city. With his left hand, Eragon clutched the neck spike in front of him as Saphira followed.
Nasuada and King Orrin drew to a halt before they passed among the ramshackle buildings. At their signal, two heralds—one carrying the Varden’s standard, the other Surda’s—rode forth up the narrow street that ran through the maze of hovels to Dras-Leona’s southern gate.
Eragon frowned as he watched the heralds advance. The city seemed unnaturally empty and quiet. No one was visible in the whole of Dras-Leona, not even upon the battlements of the thick yellow wall, where hundreds of Galbatorix’s soldiers ought to be stationed.
The air smells wrong, said Saphira, and she growled ever so slightly, drawing Nasuada’s attention.
At the base of the wall, the Varden’s herald called forth in a voice that carried all the way back to Eragon and Saphira: “Hail! In the name of Lady Nasuada of the Varden and King Orrin of Surda, as well as all free peoples of Alagaësia, we bid you open your gates so we may deliver a message of import unto your lord and master, Marcus Tábor. By it, he may hope to profit greatly, as may every man, woman, and child within Dras-Leona.”
From behind the wall, a man who could not be seen replied: “These gates shall not open. State your message where you stand.”
“Speak you for Lord Tábor?”
“Then we charge you to remind him that discussions of statesmanship are more properly pursued in the privacy of one’s own chambers rather than in the open, where any might hear.”
“I take no orders from you, lackey! Deliver your message—and quickly, too!—ere I lose patience and fill you with arrows.”
Eragon was impressed; the herald did not appear flustered or cowed by the threat but continued without hesitation. “As you wish. Our liegelords offer peace and friendship to Lord Tábor and all the people of Dras-Leona. We have no argument with you, only with Galbatorix, and we would not fight you if we had the choice. Have we not a common cause? Many of us once lived in the Empire, and we left only because Galbatorix’s cruel reign drove us from our lands. We are your kin, in blood and in spirit. Join forces with us, and we may yet free ourselves of the usurper who now sits in Urû’baen.
“Should you accept our offer, our liegelords do guarantee the safety of Lord Tábor and his family, as well as whoever else may now be in the service of the Empire, although none will be allowed to maintain their position if they have given oaths that cannot be broken. And if your oaths will not let you aid us, then at least do not hinder us. Raise your gates and lay down your swords, and we promise you will come to no harm. But try to bar us, and we shall sweep you aside like so much chaff, for none can withstand the might of our army, nor that of Eragon Shadeslayer and the dragon Saphira.”
At the sound of her name, Saphira raised her head and loosed a terrifying roar.
Above the gate, Eragon saw a tall, cloaked figure climb onto the battlements and stand between two merlons, staring over the heralds toward Saphira. Eragon squinted, but he could not make out the man’s face. Four other black-robed people joined the man, and those Eragon knew for priests of Helgrind by their truncated forms: one was missing a forearm, two were missing a leg each, and the last of their company was missing an arm and both legs, and was carried by his or her companions on a small padded litter.
The cloaked man threw back his head and uttered a peal of laughter that crashed and boomed with thunderous force. Below him, the heralds struggled to control their mounts as the horses reared and tried to bolt.
Eragon’s stomach sank, and he gripped the hilt of Brisingr, ready to draw it at a moment’s notice.
“None can withstand your might?” said the man, his voice echoing off the buildings. “You have an overly high opinion of yourselves, I think.” And with a gigantic bellow, the glittering red mass of Thorn leaped from the streets below onto the roof of a house, piercing the wooden shingles with his talons. The dragon spread his huge, claw-tipped wings, opened his crimson maw, and raked the sky with a sheet of rippling flame.
In a mocking voice, Murtagh—for it was Murtagh, Eragon realized—added, “Dash yourselves against the walls all you want; you will never take Dras-Leona, not so long as Thorn and I are here to defend it. Send your finest warriors and magicians to fight us, and they will die, ea
ch and every one. That I promise. There isn’t a man among you who can best us. Not even you … Brother. Run back to your hiding places before it is too late, and pray that Galbatorix does not venture forth to deal with you himself. Otherwise, death and sorrow will be your only reward.”
A TOSS OF THE BONES
“SIR, SIR! THE gate’s opening!”
Roran looked up from the map he was studying as one of the camp sentinels burst into the tent, red-faced and panting.
“Which gate?” Roran asked, a deadly calm settling over him. “Be precise.” He put aside the rod he had been using to measure distances.
“The one closest to us, sir … on the road, not the canal.”
Pulling his hammer out from under his belt, Roran left the tent and ran through the camp to its southern edge. There he trained his gaze on Aroughs. To his dismay, he saw several hundred horsemen pouring out of the city, their brightly colored pennants snapping in the wind as they assembled in a broad formation before the black maw of the open gateway.
They’ll cut us to pieces, Roran thought, despairing. Only a hundred fifty or so of his men remained in the camp, and many were wounded and unable to fight. All the rest were at the mills he had visited the previous day, or at the slate mine farther down the coast, or along the banks of the westernmost canal, searching for the barges that were needed if his plan was to succeed. None of the warriors could be recalled in time to fend off the horsemen.
When he sent the men on their missions, Roran had been aware that he was leaving the camp vulnerable to a counterattack. However, he had hoped that the city folk would be too cowed by the recent assaults on their walls to attempt anything so daring—and that the warriors he had kept with him would be sufficient to convince any distant observers that the main body of his force was still stationed among the tents.
The first of those assumptions, it seemed, had most definitely proven to be a mistake. Whether the defenders of Aroughs were aware of his ruse, he was not entirely sure, but he thought it likely, given the rather limited number of horsemen gathering in front of the city. If the soldiers or their commanders had anticipated facing the full strength of Roran’s company, he would have expected them to field twice as many troops. In either event, he still had to figure out a way to stave off their attack and save his men from being slaughtered.