Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle 4) - Page 18

Off to the side, Delwin and Hamund stood staring. They appeared a bit wide-eyed, though he doubted anyone else would have noticed.

“Take yourselves to bed,” he said, and waved. “We’ll be leaving in a few hours, and I need you to be alert.”

“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” Delwin asked.

“Yes, yes,” he lied. “Thank you for your help, but go now. How am I supposed to rest with the two of you hovering over me like mother hens?”

After they had departed, Roran rubbed his face and then sat looking at his trembling, bloodstained hands. He felt wrung out. Empty. As if he had done an entire week’s worth of work in just a few minutes.

“Will you still be able to fight?” he asked Carn.

The magician shrugged. “Not so well as before. … It was a price that had to be paid, though. We can’t go into battle without you to lead us.”

Roran did not bother to argue. “You should get some rest. Dawn isn’t far off.”

“What of you?”

“I’m going to wash, find a tunic, and then check with Baldor and see if he’s ferreted out any more of Galbatorix’s killers.”

“Aren’t you going to lie down?”

“No.” Without meaning to, he scratched at his chest. He stopped himself when he realized what he was doing. “I couldn’t sleep before, and now …”

“I understand.” Carn slowly rose from the stool. “I’ll be in my tent if you need me.”

Roran watched him stumble heavy-footed into the darkness. When he was no longer visible, Roran closed his eyes and thought of Katrina, in an attempt to calm himself. Summoning what little remained of his strength, he went over to his collapsed tent and dug through it until he located his clothes, weapons, armor, and a waterskin. The whole while, he studiously avoided looking at the body of the assassin, though he sometimes caught a glimpse as he moved about the pool of tangled cloth.

Finally, Roran knelt and, with eyes averted, yanked his dagger out of the corpse. The blade came free with the slithery sound of metal scraping against bone. He gave the dagger a hard shake, to remove any loose blood, and heard the splatter of several droplets striking the ground.

In the cold silence of the night, Roran slowly prepared himself for battle. Then he sought out Baldor—who assured him that no one else had gotten past the sentinels—and walked the perimeter of the camp, reviewing every aspect of their upcoming assault on Aroughs. Afterward, he found half a cold chicken left uneaten from dinner and sat gnawing on it and gazing at the stars.

Yet, no matter what he did, his mind returned again and again to the sight of the young man lying dead outside his tent. Who is it who decides that one man should live and another should die? My life wasn’t worth any more than his, but he’s the one who’s buried, while I get to enjoy at least a few more hours above the ground. Is it chance, random and cruel, or is there some purpose or pattern to all this, even if it lies beyond our ken?


“HOW DO YOU like having a sister?” Roran asked Baldor as they rode side by side toward the nearest set of mills in the gray half-light that precedes dawn.

“There’s not much to like, is there? I mean, there’s not much of her yet, if you take my meaning. She’s as small as a kitten.” Baldor tugged on his reins as his horse tried to veer toward a patch of particularly lush grass next to the trail. “It’s strange to have another sibling—brother or sister—after so long.”

Roran nodded. Twisting in the saddle, he glanced back over his shoulder, checking to make sure that the column of six hundred and fifty men who were following them on foot were keeping pace. At the mills, Roran dismounted and tethered his horse to a hitching post before the lowest of the three buildings. One warrior stayed behind to escort the animals back to camp.

Roran walked over to the canal and descended the wooden steps set within the muddy bank, which brought him to the edge of the water. Then he stepped out onto the rearmost of the four barges that were floating together in a line.

The barges were more like crude rafts than the flat-bottomed boats the villagers had ridden down the coast from Narda to Teirm, for which Roran was grateful, because it meant that they did not have pointed prows. This had made it relatively easy to fasten the four barges end to end with boards, nails, and ropes, thus creating a single rigid structure almost five hundred feet long.

The slabs of cut slate that the men had, at Roran’s direction, hauled in wagons from the mine lay piled at the front of the lead barge, as well as along the sides of both the first and second barges. On top of the slate, they had heaped sacks of flour—which they had found stored within the mills—until they had built a wall level with their waists. Where the slate ended on the second barge, the wall continued on, composed entirely of the sacks: two deep and five high.

The immense weight of the slate and the densely packed flour, combined with that of the barges themselves, served to transform the entire floating structure into a massive, waterborne battering ram, which Roran hoped would be capable of plowing through the gate at the far end of the canal as if it were made of so many rotted sticks. Even if the gate was enchanted—though Carn did not believe it was—Roran didn’t think any one magician, save Galbatorix, would be strong enough to negate the forward momentum of the barges once they began to move downstream.

Also, the mounds of stone and flour would provide a measure of protection from spears, arrows, and other projectiles.

Roran carefully made his way across the shifting decks to the head of the barges. He wedged his spear and his shield against a pile of slate, then turned to watch as the warriors filed into the corridor between the walls.

Every man who boarded pushed the heavily laden barges deeper and deeper into the water, until they rode only a few inches above the surface.

Carn, Baldor, Hamund, Delwin, and Mandel joined Roran where he stood. They had all, by unspoken consent, elected to take for themselves the most dangerous position on the floating ram. If the Varden were to force their way into Aroughs, it would require a high degree of luck and skill, and none of them were willing to trust the attempt to anyone else.

Toward the rear of the barges, Roran glimpsed Brigman standing among the men he had once commanded. After Brigman’s near insubordination the previous day, Roran had stripped him of all remaining authority and confined him to his tent. However, Brigman had begged to be allowed to join the final attack on Aroughs, and Roran had reluctantly agreed; Brigman was handy with a blade, and every sword would make a difference in the upcoming fight.

Roran still wondered if he had made the right decision. He was fairly confident that the men were now loyal to him, not to Brigman, but Brigman had been their captain for many months, and such bonds were not easily forgotten. Even if Brigman did not try to cause trouble in the ranks, he had proved willing and able to ignore orders, at least when they came from Roran.

If he gives me any reason to distrust him, I’ll strike him down on the spot, Roran thought. But the resolution was a futile one. If Brigman did turn on him, it would most likely be in the midst of such confusion that Roran would not even notice until it was too late.

When all but six of the men were packed onto the barges, Roran cupped his hands around his mouth and shouted, “Pry them loose!”

Two men stood upon the berm at the very top of the hill—the berm that slowed and held back the flow of water down the canal from the marshes to the north. Twenty feet below them lay the first waterwheel and the pool beneath it. At the front of that pool was the second berm, whereon stood two more men. Another twenty feet below them was the second waterwheel and the second deep, still pool. At the far end of the pool was the final berm and the final pair of men. And at the base of the final berm was the third and last waterwheel. From it, the current then flowed smoothly over the land until it arrived at Aroughs.

Built into the berms were the three sluice gates Roran had insisted upon closing, with Baldor’s help, during his first visit t

o the mills. Over the course of the past two days, teams of men wielding shovels and pickaxes had dived under the rising water and cut away at the berms from the backsides until the layers of packed earth were nearly ready to give way. Then they had driven long, stout beams into the dirt on either side of the sluice gates.

The men on the middle and topmost berms now grasped those beams—which protruded several feet from the embankments—and began to work them back and forth with a steady rhythm. In accordance with their plan, the duo stationed on the lowest berm waited several moments before they, too, joined in the effort.

Roran gripped a flour sack as he watched. If their timing was off by even a few seconds, disaster would ensue.

For almost a minute, nothing happened.

Then, with an ominous rumble, the topmost sluice gate was pried free. The berm bulged outward, the earth cracking and crumbling, and a huge tongue of muddy water poured over the waterwheel below, spinning it faster than it was ever intended to turn.

As the berm collapsed, the men standing on top of it jumped to shore, landing with only inches to spare.

Spray shot up thirty feet or more as the tongue of water plunged into the smooth black pool underneath the waterwheel. The impact sent a frothing wave several feet high rushing toward the next berm.

Seeing it coming, the middlemost pair of warriors abandoned their posts, also leaping for the safety of solid ground.

It was well they did. When the wave struck, needle-thin jets erupted around the frame of the next sluice gate, which then flew out of its setting as if a dragon had kicked it, and the churning contents of the pool swept away what remained of the berm.

The raging torrent crashed against the second waterwheel with even more force than it had the previous one. The timbers groaned and creaked under the onslaught, and for the first time, it occurred to Roran that one or more of the wheels might break loose. If that happened, it would pose a serious danger to his men, as well as to the barges, and could very well end the attack on Aroughs before it had even begun.

“Cut us loose!” he shouted.

One of the men chopped through the rope that tethered them to the bank, while others bent to pick up ten-foot-long poles, which they stuck into the canal and pushed on with all their might.

The heavily laden barges inched forward, gaining speed far slower than Roran would have liked.

Even as the avalanche of water bore down upon them, the two men standing on the lowest berm continued to pull on the beams embedded within the weakened rampart. Less than a second before the avalanche washed over them, the berm shuddered and sagged, and the men threw themselves off of it.

The water punched a hole in the earthen dam as easily as if it were made of sodden bread and slammed into the final waterwheel. Wood shattered—the sound as loud and sharp as breaking ice—and the wheel canted outward several degrees, but to Roran’s relief, it held. Then, with a thunderous roar, the pillar of water dashed itself against the base of the terraced hill with an explosion of mist.

A gust of cold wind slapped Roran in the face, more than two hundred yards downstream.

“Faster!” he shouted to the men poling the barge, as a turbulent mass of water emerged from within the folds of mist and hurtled down the canal.

The flood overtook them with incredible speed. When it collided with the back of the four conjoined barges, the entire craft jolted forward, throwing Roran and the warriors toward the stern and knocking a number of them off their feet. Some sacks of flour dropped into the canal or rolled inward, against the men.

As the surging water lifted the rearmost barge several feet above the rest, the nearly five-hundred-foot-long vessel began to slue sideways. If the trend continued, Roran knew they would soon become wedged between the banks of the canal, and that, moments later, the force of the current would tear the barges apart.

“Keep us straight!” he bellowed, pushing himself off the sacks of flour he had fallen on. “Don’t let us turn!”

At the sound of his voice, the warriors scrambled to push the lumbering vessel away from the sloping banks and toward the center of the canal. Springing atop the piles of slate at the prow, Roran shouted directions, and together they successfully steered the barges down the curving channel.

“We did it!” Baldor exclaimed, a stupid grin on his face.

“Don’t crow yet,” Roran warned. “We still have a ways to go.”

The eastern sky had turned straw yellow by the time they were level with their camp, a mile from Aroughs. At the speed they were moving, they would reach the city before the sun peeked over the horizon, and the gray shadows that covered the land would help shroud them from the lookouts stationed on the walls and towers.

Although the leading edge of the water had already outstripped them, the barges were still gathering speed, as the city lay below the mills and there was not a single hill or hummock between to slow their progress.

“Listen,” said Roran, cupping his hands around his mouth and raising his voice so that all the men could hear. “We may fall into the water when we hit the outer gate, so be prepared to swim. Until we can get onto dry land, we’ll make easy targets. Once we’re ashore, we have but one goal: to make our way up to the inner wall before they think to close the gates there, because if they do, we’ll never capture Aroughs. If we can get past that second wall, it should be a simple matter to find Lord Halstead and force his surrender. Failing that, we’ll secure the fortifications at the center of the city, then move outward, street by street, until all of Aroughs is under our control.

“Remember, we’ll be outnumbered by more than two to one, so stay close to your shield mate and be on your guard at all times. Don’t wander off by yourself, and don’t let yourself be separated from the rest of the group. The soldiers know the streets better than we do, and they’ll ambush you when you least expect it. If you do end up alone, head for the center, because that’s where we’ll be.

“Today we strike a mighty blow for the Varden. Today we win honor and glory such as most men dream about. Today … today we grave our mark onto the face of history. What we accomplish in the next few hours, the bards will sing about for a hundred years to come. Think of your friends. Think of your families, of your parents, your wives, your children. Fight well, for we fight for them. We fight for freedom!”

The men roared in response.

Roran let them work themselves into a frenzy; then he lifted a hand and said, “Shields!” And, as one, the men crouched and lifted their shields, covering themselves and their companions so that it looked as if the middle of the makeshift battering ram were clad in scale armor made to fit the limb of a giant.

Satisfied, Roran hopped down from the pile of slate and looked at Carn, Baldor, and the four other men who had traveled with him from Belatona. The youngest, Mandel, appeared apprehensive, but Roran knew his nerves would hold.

“Ready?” he asked, and they each answered in the affirmative.

Then Roran laughed, and when Baldor pressed him for an explanation, he said, “If only my father could see me now!”

And Baldor laughed as well.

Roran kept a keen eye on the main swell of the water. Once it entered the city, the soldiers might notice that something was amiss and raise the alarm. He wanted them to raise the alarm, but not for that reason, and so, when it appeared the swell was about five minutes away from Aroughs, he motioned to Carn and said, “Send the signal.”

The magician nodded and hunched over, his lips moving as they formed the strange shapes of the ancient language. After a few moments, he straightened and said, “It is done.”

Roran looked off to the west. There, on the field before Aroughs, stood the Varden’s catapults, ballistae, and siege towers. The siege towers remained motionless, but the other engines of war stirred into action, casting their darts and stones in high, arcing paths toward the pristine white walls of the city. And he knew that fifty of his men on the far side of the city were even then blowing trumpets, ye

lling war cries, firing flaming arrows, and doing everything they could to draw the attention of the defending soldiers and make it appear as if a far larger force were attempting to storm the city.

A deep calm settled over Roran.

Battle was about to be joined.

Men were about to die.

He might be one of them.

Knowing this gave him a clarity of thought, and every trace of exhaustion vanished, along with the faint tremor that had plagued him since the attempt on his life just hours before. Nothing was so invigorating as fighting—not food, not laughter, not working with his hands, not even love—and though he hated it, he could not deny the power of its attraction. He had never wanted to be a warrior, but a warrior he had become, and he was determined to best all who came before him.

Squatting, Roran peered between two sharp-edged slabs of slate at the rapidly approaching gate that barred their path. To the surface of the water and somewhat below, for the water had risen, the gate was made of solid oak planks, stained dark with age and moisture. Beneath the surface, he knew there was a grid of iron and wood, much like a portcullis, through which the water was free to pass. The upper part would be the most difficult to breach, but he guessed that long periods of immersion had weakened the grid below, and if part of it could be torn away, breaking through the oak boards above would be far easier. Thus, he had ordered two stout logs attached to the underside of the lead barge. Since these were submerged, they would strike the lower half of the gate even as the prow rammed into the upper.

It was a clever plan, but he had no idea if it would really work.

“Steady,” he whispered more to himself than anyone else as the gate drew near.

A few of the warriors near the rear of the craft continued to steer the barges with their poles, but the rest remained hidden beneath the lapped carapace of shields.

The mouth of the archway that led to the gate loomed large before them, like the entrance to a cave. As the tip of the vessel slid underneath the shadowed archway, Roran saw the face of a soldier, as round and white as a full moon, appear over the edge of the wall, more than thirty feet above, and peer down at the barges with an expression of horrified astonishment.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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