Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle 4) - Page 16

Baldor, Carn, and Brigman ran up, weapons in hand. As Carn hastily donned a mail shirt, Baldor said, “What do we do?”

“There’s nothing we can do,” said Brigman. “You’ve doomed this whole expedition with your foolishness, Stronghammer. We have to flee—now—before those cursed riders are upon us.”

Roran spat on the ground. “Retreat? We’ll not retreat. The men can’t escape on foot, and even if they could, I won’t abandon our wounded.”

“Don’t you understand? We’ve lost here. If we stay, we’ll be killed—or worse, taken prisoner!”

“Leave it, Brigman! I’m not about to turn tail and run!”

“Why not? So you don’t have to admit you failed? Because you hope to salvage something of your honor in one final, pointless battle? Is that it? Can’t you see that you’ll only be causing the Varden even greater harm?”

By the base of the city, the horsemen raised their swords and spears over their heads and—with a chorus of whoops and shouts that were audible even over the distance—dug their spurs into their steeds and began to thunder across the sloping plain toward the Varden’s encampment.

Brigman resumed his tirade: “I won’t let you squander our lives merely to assuage your pride. Stay if you must, but—”

“Quiet!” Roran bellowed. “Keep your muzzle shut, or I’ll shut it for you! Baldor, watch him. If he does anything you don’t like, let him feel the point of your sword.” Brigman swelled with anger, but he held his tongue as Baldor raised his sword and aimed it at Brigman’s breast.

Roran guessed that he had maybe five minutes to decide upon a course of action. Five minutes in which so much hung in the balance.

He tried to imagine how they could kill or maim enough of the horsemen to drive them away, but almost immediately he discounted the possibility. There was nowhere to herd the onrushing cavalry where his men might have the advantage. The land was too flat, too empty, for any such maneuvers.

We can’t win if we fight, so—What if we scare them? But how? Fire? Fire might prove as deadly to friend as to foe. Besides, the damp grass would only smolder. Smoke? No, that’s of no help.

He glanced over at Carn. “Can you conjure up an image of Saphira and have her roar and breathe fire, as if she were really here?”

The spellcaster’s thin cheeks drained of color. He shook his head, his expression panicky. “Maybe. I don’t know, I’ve never tried before. I’d be creating an image of her from memory. It might not even look like a living creature.” He nodded toward the line of galloping horsemen. “They’d know something was wrong.”

Roran dug his nails into his palm. Four minutes remained, if that.

“It might be worth a try,” he muttered. “We just need to distract them, confuse them. …” He glanced at the sky, hoping to see a curtain of rain sweeping toward the camp, but alas, a pair of attenuated clouds drifting high above was the only formation visible. Confusion, uncertainty, doubt … What is it people fear? The unknown, the things they don’t understand, that’s what.

In an instant, Roran thought of a half-dozen schemes to undermine the confidence of their foes, each more outlandish than the last, until he struck upon an idea that was so simple and so daring, it seemed perfect. Besides, unlike the others, it appealed to his ego, for it required the participation of only one other person: Carn.

“Order the men to hide in their tents!” he shouted, already beginning to move. “And tell them to keep quiet; I don’t want to hear so much as a peep from them unless we’re attacked!”

Going to the nearest tent, which was empty, Roran jammed his hammer back under his belt and grabbed a dirty woolen blanket from one of the piles of bedding on the ground. Then he ran to a cookfire and scooped up a wide, stumplike section of log the warriors had been using as a stool.

With the log under one arm and the blanket thrown over the opposite shoulder, Roran sprinted out of the camp toward a slight mound perhaps a hundred feet in front of the tents. “Someone get me a set of knucklebones and a horn of mead!” he called. “And fetch me the table my maps are on. Now, blast it, now!”

Behind him, he heard a tumult of footsteps and jangling equipment as the men rushed to conceal themselves inside their tents. An eerie silence fell over the camp a few seconds later, save for the noise created by the men collecting the items he had requested.

Roran did not waste time looking back. At the crest of the mound, he set the log upright on its thicker end and twisted it back and forth several times to ensure that it would not wobble beneath him. When he was satisfied it was stable, he sat on it and looked out over the sloping field toward the charging horsemen.

Three minutes or less remained until they would arrive. Through the wood beneath him, he could feel the drumming of the horses’ hooves—the sensation growing stronger every second.

“Where are the knucklebones and mead?!” he shouted without taking his eyes off the cavalry.

He smoothed his beard with a quick pass of his hand and tugged on the hem of his tunic. Fear made him wish that he were wearing his mail hauberk, but the colder, more cunning part of his mind reasoned that it would cause his enemies even greater apprehension to see him sitting there with no armor, as if he were totally at his ease. The same part of his mind also convinced him to leave his hammer tucked in his belt, so it would appear he felt safe in the presence of the soldiers.

“Sorry,” Carn said breathlessly as he ran up to Roran, along with a man who was carrying the small folding table from Roran’s tent. They placed the table before him and spread the blanket over it, whereupon Carn handed Roran a horn half-full of mead, as well as a leather cup containing the usual five knucklebones.

“Go on, get out of here,” he said. Carn turned to leave, but Roran caught him by the arm. “Can you make the air shimmer on either side of me, as it does above a fire on a cold winter’s day?”

Carn’s eyes narrowed. “Possibly, but what good—”

“Just do it if you can. Now go, hide yourself!”

As the lanky magician sprinted back toward the camp, Roran shook the knucklebones in the cup, then poured them out onto the table and began to play by himself, tossing the bones into the air—first one, then two, then three, and so forth—and catching them on the back of his hand. His father, Garrow, had often amused himself in a like manner while smoking his pipe and sitting in a rickety old chair on the porch of their house during the long summer evenings of Palancar Valley. Sometimes Roran had played with him, and when he did, he usually lost, but mostly Garrow had preferred to compete against himself.

Though his heart was thumping hard and fast and his palms were slick with sweat, Roran strove to maintain a calm demeanor. If his gambit was to have the slightest chance of success, he had to comport himself with an air of unbreakable confidence, regardless of his actual emotions.

He kept his gaze focused on the knucklebones and refused to look up even as the horsemen drew closer and closer. The sound of the galloping animals swelled until he became convinced that they were going to ride right over him.

What a strange way to die, he thought, and smiled grimly. Then he thought of Katrina and of their unborn child, and he took comfort in the knowledge that, should he die, his bloodline would continue. It was not immortality such as Eragon possessed, but it was an immortality of a sort, and it would have to suffice.

At the last moment, when the cavalry was only a few yards away from the table, someone shouted, “Whoa! Whoa there! Rein in your horses. I say, rein in your horses!” And, with a clatter of buckles and creaking leather, the champing line of animals reluctantly slowed to a halt.

And still, Roran kept his eyes angled downward.

He sipped the pungent mead, then tossed the bones again and caught two of them on the back of his hand, where they lay rocking on the ridges of his tendons.

The aroma of freshly overturned soil wafted over him, warm and comforting, along with the distinctly less pleasant smell of lathered horseflesh.


bsp; “Ho there, my fine fellow!” said the same man who had ordered the soldiers to halt. “Ho there, I say! Who are you to sit here this splendid morning, drinking and enjoying a merry game of chance, as if you hadn’t a care in the world? Do we not merit the courtesy of being met with drawn swords? Who are you, I say?”

Slowly, as if he had just noticed the presence of the soldiers and considered it to be of little importance, Roran raised his gaze from the table to regard a small bearded man with a flamboyantly plumed helm who sat before him on an enormous black war-horse, which was heaving like a pair of bellows.

“I’m nobody’s fine fellow, and certainly not yours,” Roran said, making no effort to conceal his dislike at being addressed in such a familiar manner. “Who are you, I might ask, to interrupt my game so rudely?”

The long, striped feathers mounted atop the man’s helm bobbed and fluttered as he looked Roran over, as if Roran were an unfamiliar creature he had encountered while hunting. “Tharos the Quick is my name, Captain of the Guard. Rude as you are, I must tell you, it would grieve me mightily to kill a man as bold as yourself without knowing his name.” As if to emphasize his words, Tharos lowered the spear he held until it was pointing at Roran.

Three rows of riders were clustered close behind Tharos. Among their numbers, Roran spied a slim, hook-nosed man with the emaciated face and arms—which were bare to the shoulders—that Roran had come to associate with the spellcasters of the Varden. Very suddenly, he found himself hoping that Carn had succeeded in making the air shimmer. However, he dared not turn his head to look.

“Stronghammer is my name,” he said. With a single deft movement, he gathered up the knucklebones, tossed them skyward, and caught three on his hand. “Roran Stronghammer, and Eragon Shadeslayer is my cousin. You might have heard mention of him, if not of me.”

A rustle of unease spread among the line of horsemen, and Roran thought he saw Tharos’s eyes widen for an instant. “An impressive claim, that, but how can we be sure of its veracity? Any man might say he is another if it served his purpose.”

Roran drew his hammer and slammed it down on the table with a muffled thump. Then, ignoring the soldiers, he resumed his game. He uttered a noise of disgust as two of the bones fell from the back of his hand, costing him the round.

“Ah,” said Tharos, and coughed, clearing his throat. “You have a most illustrious reputation, Stronghammer, although some argue that it has been exaggerated beyond all reason. Is it true, for example, that you single-handedly felled nigh on three hundred men in the village of Deldarad in Surda?”

“I never learned what the place was called, but if Deldarad it was, then yes, I slew many a soldier there. It was only a hundred ninety-three, however, and I was well guarded by my own men while I fought.”

“Only a hundred ninety-three?” Tharos said in a wondering tone. “You are too modest, Stronghammer. Such a feat might earn a man a place in many a song and story.”

Roran shrugged and lifted the horn to his mouth, feigning the action of swallowing, for he could not afford to have his mind clouded by the potent dwarf brew. “I fight to win, not to lose. … Let me offer you a drink, as one warrior to another,” he said, and extended the horn toward Tharos.

The short warrior hesitated, and his eyes darted toward the spellcaster behind him for a second. Then he wet his lips and said, “Perhaps I will at that.” Dismounting his charger, Tharos handed his spear to one of the other soldiers, pulled off his gauntlets, and walked over to the table, where he cautiously accepted the horn from Roran.

Tharos sniffed at the mead, then downed a hearty quaff. The feathers on his helm quivered as he grimaced.

“It’s not to your liking?” Roran asked, amused.

“I confess, these mountain drinks are too harsh for my tongue,” Tharos said, returning the horn to Roran. “I much prefer the wines of our fields; they are warm and mellow and less likely to strip a man of his senses.”

“’Tis sweet as mother’s milk to me,” Roran lied. “I drink it morning, noon, and night.”

Donning his gloves once again, Tharos returned to the side of his horse, hauled himself into the saddle, and took back his spear from the soldier who had been holding it for him. He directed another glance toward the hook-nosed spellcaster behind him, whose complexion, Roran noticed, had acquired a deathly cast in the brief span since Tharos had set foot on the ground. Tharos must have noticed the change in his magician as well, for his own expression became strained.

“My thanks for your hospitality, Roran Stronghammer,” he said, raising his voice so that his entire troop could hear. “Mayhap I will soon have the honor of entertaining you within the walls of Aroughs. If so, I promise to serve you the finest wines from my family’s estate, and perhaps with them I will be able to wean you off such barbaric milk as you have there. I think you will find our wine has much to recommend it. We let it age in oaken casks for months or sometimes even years. It would be a pity if all that work were wasted and the casks were knocked open and the wine were allowed to run out into the streets and paint them red with the blood of our grapes.”

“That would indeed be a shame,” Roran replied, “but sometimes you cannot avoid spilling a bit of wine when cleaning your table.” Holding the horn out to one side, he tipped it over and poured what little mead remained onto the grass below.

Tharos was utterly still for a moment—even the feathers on his helm were motionless—then, with an angry snarl, he yanked his horse around and shouted at his men, “Form up! Form up, I say. … Yah!” And with that final yell, he spurred his horse away from Roran, and the rest of the soldiers followed, urging their steeds to a gallop as they retraced their steps to Aroughs.

Roran maintained his pretense of arrogance and indifference until the soldiers were well away, then he slowly released his breath and rested his elbows on his knees. His hands were trembling slightly.

It worked, he thought, amazed.

He heard men running toward him from the camp, and he looked over his shoulder to see Baldor and Carn approaching, accompanied by at least fifty of the warriors who had been hiding within the tents.

“You did it!” exclaimed Baldor as they drew near. “You did it! I can’t believe it!” He laughed and slapped Roran on the shoulder hard enough to knock him against the table.

The other men crowded around him, also laughing, as well as praising him with extravagant phrases, boasting that under his leadership they would capture Aroughs without so much as a single casualty, and belittling the courage and character of the city’s inhabitants. Someone shoved a warm, half-full wineskin into his hand, which he stared at with unexpected loathing, then passed to the man directly to his left.

“Did you cast any spells?” he asked Carn, his words barely audible over the hubbub of the celebrations.

“What?” Carn leaned closer, and Roran repeated his question, whereupon the magician smiled and nodded vigorously. “Aye. I managed to make the air shimmer as you wanted.”

“And did you attack their enchanter? When they left, he looked as if he was about to faint.”

Carn’s smile broadened. “It was his own doing. He kept trying to break the illusion he thought I had created—to pierce the veil of shimmering air so he could see what lay behind—but there was nothing to break, nothing to pierce, so he expended all his strength in vain.”

Then Roran chuckled, and his chuckle grew into a long, full-bodied laugh that rose above the excited clamor and rolled out over the fields in the direction of Aroughs.

For several minutes, he allowed himself to bask in the admiration of his men, until he heard a loud warning cry from one of the sentries stationed at the edge of the camp.

“Move aside! Let me see!” said Roran, and sprang to his feet. The warriors complied, and he beheld a lone man off to the west—whom he recognized as one of the party he had sent to search the banks of the canals—riding hard over the fields, heading toward the camp. “Have him come here,” instructed Roran, and a

lanky, red-haired swordsman ran off to intercept the rider.

While they waited for the man to arrive, Roran picked up the knucklebones and dropped them, one by one, into the leather cup. The bones made a satisfying clatter as they landed.

As soon as the warrior was within hailing distance, Roran called out, “Ho there! Is all well? Were you attacked?”

To Roran’s annoyance, the man remained silent until he was only a few yards away, whereupon he jumped off his mount and presented himself before Roran, standing as stiff and straight as a sun-starved pine, and, in a loud voice, exclaimed, “Captain, sir!” Upon closer inspection, Roran realized that the man was actually more of a boy—that, in fact, he was the same scraggly youth who had grabbed his reins when he had first ridden into the camp. The realization did nothing to sate Roran’s frustrated curiosity, though.

“Well, what is it? I haven’t got all day.”

“Sir! Hamund sent me to tell you that we found all the barges we need and that he’s building the sleds to transport them across to the other canal.”

Roran nodded. “Good. Does he need any more help to get them there in time?”

“Sir, no sir!”

“And is that all?”

“Sir, yes sir!”

“You don’t have to keep calling me sir. Once is enough. Understood?”

“Sir, yes—Uh, yes s—Uh, I mean, yes, of course.”

Roran suppressed a smile. “You’ve done well. Get yourself something to eat and then ride out to the mine and report back to me. I want to know what they’ve accomplished so far.”

“Yes si—Sorry, sir—That is, I didn’t … I’ll be going at once, Captain.” Two spots of crimson appeared on the youth’s cheeks as he stammered. He ducked his head in a quick bow, then hurried back to his steed and trotted off toward the tents.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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