Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle 4) - Page 19

The barges were moving so fast by then, Roran only had time to utter a single pungent curse before the current swept them into the cool darkness of the passageway, and the vaulted ceiling cut off his view of the soldier.

The barges struck the gate.

The force of the impact threw Roran forward against the wall of slate he squatted behind. His head bounced off the stone, and though he wore a helm and arming cap, his ears rang. The deck shuddered and reared, and even through the noise in his ears, he heard wood cracking and breaking, and the shriek of twisting metal.

One of the slate slabs slipped backward and fell onto him, bruising his arms and shoulders. He grabbed the slab by the edges and, with a burst of furious strength, threw it overboard, where it shattered against the side of the passageway.

In the gloom that surrounded them, it was difficult to see what was happening; all was shifting confusion and echoing clamor. Water poured over his feet, and he realized that the barge was awash, though whether it would sink, he could not tell.

“Give me an ax!” he shouted, holding a hand out behind him. “An ax, give me an ax!”

He staggered as the barge lurched forward half a foot, nearly knocking him over. The gate had caved inward somewhat, but it was still holding firm. In time, the continued pressure of the water might push the barge through the gate, but he could not wait for nature to take its course.

As someone pressed the smooth haft of an ax into his outstretched hand, six glowing rectangles appeared in the ceiling as covers were drawn back from murder holes. The rectangles flickered, and crossbow bolts hissed down upon the barges, adding loud thumps to the tumult wherever they struck wood.

Somewhere a man screamed.

“Carn!” shouted Roran. “Do something!”

Leaving the magician to his devices, Roran started to crawl up the heaving deck and over the piles of slate toward the prow of the barge. And the barge lurched forward several more inches. Another deafening groan emanated from the center of the gate, and light shone through cracks in the oaken planks.

A quarrel skipped off the slate next to Roran’s right hand, leaving a smear of iron on the stone.

He redoubled his speed.

Just as he reached the very front of the barge, a piercing, grating, tearing sound forced him to clap his hands over his ears and pull back.

A heavy wave washed over him, blinding him for a moment. Blinking to clear his vision, he saw that part of the gate had collapsed into the canal; there was now enough space for the barge to gain access to the city. Above the prow of the vessel, however, jagged spars of wood stuck out from the remnants of the gate at the same height as a man’s chest, neck, or head.

Without hesitation, Roran rolled backward and dropped behind the breastwork of slate. “Heads down!” he roared, covering himself with his shield.

The barges glided forward, out of the hail of deadly crossbow bolts and into an enormous stone room lit by torches mounted on the walls.

At the far end of the room, the water in the canal flowed through another lowered gate, this one a portcullis from top to bottom. Through the latticework of wood and metal, Roran could see buildings within the city proper.

Extending from both sides of the room were stone quays for loading and unloading cargo. Pulleys, ropes, and empty nets hung from the ceiling, and a crane was mounted upon a high stone platform in the middle of each artificial shore. At the front of the room and at the back, stairs and walkways protruding from the mold-covered walls would allow a person to cross over the water without getting wet. The rear walkway also granted access to the guardrooms above the tunnel the barges had entered through, as well as, Roran assumed, to the upper part of the city’s defenses, such as the parapet where he had seen the soldier.

Frustration welled up inside of Roran as he beheld the lowered gate. He had hoped to be able to sail straight into the main body of the city and avoid getting trapped on the water by the guards.

Well, it can’t be helped now, he thought.

Behind them, crimson-clad soldiers poured out of the guardrooms onto the walkway, where they knelt and began to crank on their crossbows, readying them for another volley.

“Over!” Roran shouted, waving his arm toward the docks on the left. The warriors grabbed their poles once more and pushed the interlocked barges toward the edge of the canal. The dozens and dozens of bolts that protruded from their shields gave the company the appearance of a hedgehog.

As the barge neared the docks, twenty of the defending soldiers drew their swords and ran down the stairs off the walkway to intercept the Varden before they could land.

“Hurry!” he shouted.

A bolt buried itself in his shield, the diamond-shaped tip boring through the inch-and-a-half-thick wood to protrude over his forearm. He stumbled and caught himself, knowing that he had only moments before more archers fired on him.

Then Roran jumped for the dock, arms spread wide for balance. He landed heavily, one knee striking the floor, and only just had time to pull his hammer from his belt before the soldiers were upon him.

It was with a sense of relief and savage joy that Roran met them. He was sick of plotting and planning and worrying about what might be. Here at last were honest foes—not creeping assassins—that he could fight and kill.

The encounter was short, fierce, and bloody. Roran slew or incapacitated three of the soldiers within the first few seconds. Then Baldor, Delwin, Hamund, Mandel, and others joined him to force the soldiers away from the water.

Roran was no swordsman, so he made no attempt to fence with his opponents. Instead, he let them hit his shield all they wanted, while he used his hammer to break their bones in return. Occasionally, he had to parry a cut or a stab, but he tried to avoid exchanging more than a few blows with any one person, because he knew his lack of experience would soon prove fatal. The most useful trick of fighting, he had discovered, was not some fancy twirl of the sword or some complicated feint that took years to master, but rather seizing the initiative and doing whatever his enemy least expected.

Breaking free of the brawl, Roran sprinted toward the stairs that led to the walkway where the archers knelt, firing at the men scrambling off the barges.

Roran bounded up the stairs three at a time and, swinging his hammer, caught the first archer full in the face. The next soldier in line had already fired his crossbow, so he dropped it and reached for the hilt of his short sword, retreating backward as he did.

The soldier only managed to pull his blade partway out of its sheath before Roran struck him in the chest, breaking his ribs.

One of the things Roran liked about fighting with a hammer was that he did not have to pay much attention to what kind of armor his opponents were wearing. A hammer, like any blunt weapon, inflicted injuries by the strength of its impact, not by the cutting or piercing of flesh. The simplicity of the approach appealed to him.

The third soldier on the walkway managed to shoot a bolt at him before he took another step. This time the shaft of the quarrel made it halfway through his shield and almost poked him in the chest. Keeping the deadly point well away from his body, Roran charged the man and swung at his shoulder. The soldier used his crossbow to block the attack, so Roran immediately followed with a backhand blow of his shield, which knocked the soldier screaming and flailing over the railing of the walkway.

The maneuver left Roran wholly exposed, however, and as he returned his attention to the five soldiers who remained on the walkway, he saw three of them aiming straight at his heart.

The soldiers fired.

Just before the bolts tore through him, they veered to the right and skittered across the blackened walls, like giant angry wasps.

Roran knew it was Carn who had saved him, and he resolved to find some way to thank the magician once they were no longer in mortal danger.

He charged the remaining soldiers and dispatched them with a furious volley of strikes, as if they were so many bent nails he was hammering down.

Then he broke off the crossbow bolt that was sticking through his shield and turned to see how the battle below was progressing.

The last soldier on the docks crumpled to the blood-streaked floor at that very moment, and his head rolled away from his body and dropped into the canal, where it sank beneath a plume of bubbles.

Roughly two-thirds of the Varden had disembarked and were gathering in orderly ranks along the edge of the water.

Roran opened his mouth, intending to order them to move back from the canal—so that the men still on the barges had more room to get off—when the doors set into the left wall burst open and a horde of soldiers poured into the room.

Blast it! Where are they coming from? And how many are there?

Just as Roran started toward the stairs to help his men fend off the newcomers, Carn—who still stood at the head of the listing barges—raised his arms, pointed at the onrushing soldiers, and shouted a series of harsh, twisted words in the ancient language.

At his eldritch command, two sacks of flour and a single slab of slate flew off the barges and into the ranks of closely packed soldiers, cutting down over a dozen. The sacks burst open after the third or fourth impact, and clouds of ivory flour billowed out over the soldiers, blinding and choking them.

A second later, there was a flare of light next to the wall behind the soldiers, and a huge roiling fireball, orange and sooty, raced through the clouds of flour, devouring the fine powder with rapacious greed and producing a sound like a hundred flags flapping in a high wind.

Roran ducked behind his shield and felt searing heat against his legs and the bare skin of his cheeks as the fireball burned itself out only yards away from the walkway, glowing motes becoming ash that drifted downward: a black, charnel rain fitting only for a funeral.

Once the sullen glare had faded, he cautiously raised his head. A tendril of hot, foul-smelling smoke tickled his nostrils and stung his eyes, and with a start, he realized that his beard was on fire. He cursed and dropped his hammer and batted at the tiny grasping flames until he had extinguished them.

“Oi!” he shouted down at Carn. “You singed my beard! Be more careful, or I’ll have your head on a pike!”

Most of the soldiers lay curled on the ground, cupping their burned faces. Others were thrashing about with their clothes on fire or were flailing blindly in circles with their weapons, in an attempt to fend off any attacks by the Varden. Roran’s own men appeared to have escaped with only minor burns—most had been standing outside the radius of the fireball—although the unexpected conflagration had left them disoriented and unsteady.

“Stop gaping like fools and get after those groping rascals before they regain their senses!” he ordered, banging his hammer against the railing to ensure that he had their attention.

The Varden heavily outnumbered the soldiers, and by the time Roran reached the bottom of the stairs, they had already put to death fully three-quarters of the defending force.

Leaving the disposal of the few remaining soldiers to his more-than-able warriors, Roran made his way toward the large double doors to the left of the canal—doors wide enough for two wagons to drive through abreast. As he did, he came upon Carn, who was sitting at the base of the crane’s platform, eating out of a leather pouch he always carried. The pouch, Roran knew, contained a mixture of lard, honey, powdered beef liver, lamb’s heart, and berries. The one time Carn had given him a piece, he had gagged—but even a few bites could keep a man on his feet for a whole day’s worth of hard work.

To Roran’s concern, the magician looked utterly exhausted. “Can you continue?” Roran asked, pausing by him.

Carn nodded. “I just need a moment. … The bolts in the tunnel, and then the sacks of flour and the piece of slate …” He pushed another morsel of food in his mouth. “It was a bit much all at once.”

Reassured, Roran started to move away, but Carn caught him by the arm. “I didn’t do it,” he said, and his eyes crinkled with amusement. “Singe your beard, that is. The torches must have started the fire.”

Roran grunted, and continued on to the doors. “Form up!” he shouted, and slapped his shield with the flat of his hammer. “Baldor, Delwin, you take the lead with me. The rest of you, line up behind us. Shields out, swords drawn, arrows nocked. Halstead probably doesn’t know yet that we’re in the city, so don’t let anyone escape who could warn him. … Ready, then? Right, with me!”

Together he and Baldor—whose cheeks and nose were red from the explosion—unbarred the doors and threw them open, revealing the interior of Aroughs.


DOZENS OF LARGE plaster-sided buildings stood clustered around the portal in the city’s outer wall, where the canal entered Aroughs. All of the buildings—cold and forbidding with the empty stare of their black windows—appeared to be warehouses or storage facilities, which, coupled with the early-morning hour, meant it was unlikely that anyone had noticed the Varden’s clash with the guards.

Roran had no intention of staying around to find out for sure.

Hazy rays of newborn light streaked horizontally across the city, gilding the tops of the towers, the battlements, the cupolas, and the slanted roofs. The streets and alleyways were cloaked in shadows the color of tarnished silver, and the water in its stone-lined channel was dark and dismal and laced with streaks of blood. High above gleamed a lone wandering star, a furtive spark in the brightening blue mantle, where the sun’s growing radiance had obscured all of the other nighttime jewels.

Forward the Varden trotted, their leather boots scuffing against the cobblestone street.

Off in the distance, a cock crowed.

Roran led them through the warren of buildings toward the inner wall of the city, but not always choosing the most obvious or direct route, so as to reduce their chances of encountering someone in the streets. The lanes they followed were narrow and murky, and sometimes he had difficulty seeing where he was placing his feet.

Filth clotted the gutters of the streets. The stench filled him with loathing and made him wish for the open fields he was used to.

How can anyone bear to live in such conditions? he wondered. Even pigs won’t wallow in their own dirt.

Away from the curtain wall, the buildings changed to houses and shops: tall, crossbeamed, with whitewashed walls and wrought-iron fixtures upon the doors. Behind the shuttered windows, Roran sometimes heard the sound of voices, or the clatter of dishes, or the scrape of a chair being pulled across a wooden floor.

We’re running out of time, he thought. Another few minutes and the streets would be teeming with the denizens of Aroughs.

As if to fulfill his prediction, two men stepped out of an alleyway in front of the column of warriors. Both of the city dwellers carried yokes on their shoulders with buckets of fresh milk hanging off the ends.

The men stopped with surprise as they saw the Varden, the milk sloshing out of the buckets. Their eyes widened, and their mouths fell open in preparation of some exclamation.

Roran halted, as did the troop behind him. “If you scream, we’ll kill you,” he said in a soft, friendly voice.

The men shivered and inched away.

Roran stepped forward. “If you run, we’ll kill you.” Without taking his eyes off the two frightened men, he uttered Carn’s name and, when the magician arrived at his side, he said, “Put them to sleep for me, if you would.”

The magician quickly recited a phrase in the ancient language, ending with a word that sounded to Roran something like slytha. The two men collapsed bonelessly to the ground, their buckets tipping over as they struck the cobblestones. Milk sheeted down the lane, forming a delicate web of white veins as it settled into the grooves between the stones of the street.

“Pull them off to the side,” Roran said, “where they can’t be seen.”

As soon as his warriors had dragged the two unconscious men out of the way, he ordered the Varden forward once more, resuming their hurried march toward the inner wall.

>   Before they had gone more than a hundred feet, however, they turned a corner and ran headlong into a group of four soldiers.

This time Roran showed no mercy. He sprinted across the space that separated them and, while the soldiers were still trying to gather their wits, he buried the flat blade of his hammer into the base of the lead soldier’s neck. Likewise, Baldor cut down one of the other soldiers, swinging his sword with a strength few men could match, a strength born of years spent working at his father’s forge.

The last two soldiers squawked with alarm, turned, and ran.

An arrow shot past Roran’s shoulder from somewhere behind him and took one soldier in the back, knocking him to the ground. A moment later, Carn barked, “Jierda!” The neck of the final soldier broke with an audible snap, and he tumbled forward to lie motionless in the center of the street.

The soldier with the arrow in him began to scream: “The Varden are here! The Varden are here! Sound the alarm, the—”

Drawing his dagger, Roran ran over to the man and cut his throat. He wiped the blade clean on the man’s tunic, then stood and said, “Move out, now!”

As one, the Varden charged up the streets toward the inner wall of Aroughs.

When they were only a hundred feet away, Roran stopped in an alley behind a house and raised a hand, signaling his men to wait. Then he crept along the side of the house and peered around the corner at the portcullis set within the tall granite wall.

The gate was closed.

To the left of the gate, however, a small sally port stood wide open. Even as he watched, a soldier ran out through it and headed off toward the western edge of the city.

Roran cursed to himself as he stared at the sally port. He was not about to give up, not when they had made it this far, but their position was growing ever more precarious, and he had no doubt that they had only a few more minutes before curfew lifted and their presence became widely known.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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