“Then we better hope Halstead doesn’t have another magician hidden away somewhere,” Delwin muttered.
When the Varden were all in place, Roran shouted, “Forward march!” and the warriors tramped across the remainder of the courtyard.
Whether because their leadership was less effective than the Varden’s or because the blast had dealt them a more severe blow, the Empire soldiers had failed to recover as quickly and so were still disorganized when the Varden drove into their midst.
Roran grunted and staggered back a step as a spear embedded itself in his shield, numbing his arm and dragging it down through sheer weight. Reaching around, he swept his hammer across the face of the shield. It bounced off the haft of the spear, which refused to budge.
A soldier in front of him, perhaps the very one who had thrown the spear, seized the opportunity to run at him and swing his sword at Roran’s neck. Roran started to lift his shield, along with the spear lodged in it, but it was too heavy and cumbersome for him to protect himself with. So he used his hammer instead, lashing out at the descending sword.
On edge, however, the blade was almost impossible for him to see, and he timed his parry badly and missed the sword with his hammer. He would have died then, except that his knuckles clipped the flat of the blade, deflecting it several inches to the side.
A line of fire cut through Roran’s right shoulder. Jagged bolts of lightning shot down his side, and his vision flashed bright yellow. His right knee buckled and he fell forward.
Stone underneath him. Feet and legs around him, hemming him in so he could not roll away to safety. His whole body sluggish and unresponsive, as if he were trapped in honey.
Too slow, too slow, he thought as he struggled to free his arm from the shield and get his feet back under him. If he stayed on the ground, he would be either stabbed or trampled. Too slow!
Then he saw the soldier collapse in front of him, clutching at his belly, and a second later, someone pulled Roran up by the collar of his hauberk and held him upright while he regained his footing. It was Baldor.
Twisting his neck, Roran looked at where the soldier had struck him. Five links in his mail shirt had split open, but other than that, the armor had held. Despite the blood oozing out of the rent, and the pain that racked his neck and arm, he did not think the wound was life-threatening, nor was he about to stop and find out. His right arm still worked—at least enough to continue fighting—and that was all he cared about at the moment.
Someone passed him a replacement shield. He grimly shouldered it and pressed onward with his men, forcing the soldiers to retreat along the wide street that led from the square.
The soldiers soon broke and ran in the face of the Varden’s overwhelming strength, fleeing down the myriad side streets and alleys that branched off the thoroughfare.
Roran paused then and sent fifty of his men back to close the portcullis and sally port and to guard them against any foes who might seek to follow the Varden into the heart of Aroughs. Most of the soldiers in the city would be stationed close to the outer wall to repel besiegers, and Roran had no desire to face them in open battle. To do so would be suicidal, given the size of Halstead’s forces.
The Varden met little resistance thereafter as they progressed through the inner city to the large, well-appointed palace where Lord Halstead ruled.
A spacious courtyard with an artificial pond—wherein swam geese and white swans—lay before the palace, which towered several stories above the rest of Aroughs. The palace was a beautiful, ornate structure of open arches, colonnades, and wide balconies intended for dancing and parties. Unlike the castle in the heart of Belatona, it had obviously been built with pleasure in mind, not defense.
They must have assumed no one could get past their walls, thought Roran.
Several dozen guards and soldiers in the courtyard charged haphazardly at the Varden when they caught sight of them, shouting war cries the whole while.
“Stay in formation!” Roran ordered as the men rushed toward them.
For a minute or two, the sound of clashing arms filled the courtyard. The geese and the swans honked with alarm at the commotion and beat the water with their wings, but none of them dared leave the confines of their pond.
It did not take long for the Varden to rout the soldiers and guards. Then they stormed the entryway of the palace, which was so richly decorated with paintings on the walls and ceilings—as well as gilt moldings, carved furniture, and a patterned floor—that Roran found it difficult to take in all at once. The wealth required to build and maintain such an edifice was more than he could comprehend. The entire farm where he had grown up had not been equal the worth of a single chair in that grand hall.
Through an open doorway, he saw three servingwomen running down another long corridor as fast as their skirts would allow.
“Don’t let them get away!” he exclaimed.
Five swordsmen broke off from the main body of the Varden and dashed after the women, catching them before they reached the end of the passageway. The women uttered piercing screams and struggled ferociously, clawing at their captors, as the men dragged them back to where Roran was waiting.
“Enough!” shouted Roran when they were in front of him, and the women ceased fighting, although they continued to whimper and moan. The oldest of the three, a stout matron who had her silver hair pulled back in an untidy bun and who carried a ring of keys at her waist, appeared the most reasonable, so Roran asked her, “Where is Lord Halstead?”
The woman stiffened and lifted her chin. “Do with me what you will, sir, but I’ll not betray my master.”
Roran moved toward her until they were only a foot apart. “Listen to me, and listen well,” he growled. “Aroughs has fallen, and you and everyone else in this city are at my mercy. Nothing you can do will change that. Tell me where Halstead is, and we’ll let you and your companions go. You can’t save him from his doom, but you can save yourselves.” His torn lips were so swollen, he was barely able to make himself understood, and with every word, flecks of blood flew from his mouth.
“My own fate doesn’t matter, sir,” said the woman, her expression as determined as any warrior’s.
Roran cursed and slapped his hammer against his shield, producing a harsh crash that echoed loudly in the cavernous hall. The women flinched at the sound. “Have you taken leave of your senses? Is Halstead worth your life? Is the Empire? Is Galbatorix?”
“I don’t know about Galbatorix or the Empire, sir, but Halstead has always been kind enough to us serving folk, and I’ll not see him strung up by the likes of you. Filthy, ungrateful muck, that’s what you are.”
“Is that so?” He stared at her fiercely. “How long do you think you can hold your tongue if I decide to let my men wring the truth out of you?”
“You’ll never make me talk,” she declared, and he believed her.
“What about them?” He nodded toward the other women, the youngest of whom could not have been more than seventeen. “Are you willing to let them be cut into pieces just to save your master?”
The woman sniffed disdainfully, then said, “Lord Halstead is in the east wing of the palace. Take the corridor over there, go through the Yellow Room and Lady Galiana’s flower garden, and you’ll find him sure as rain.”
Roran listened with suspicion. Her capitulation seemed too quick and too easy given her earlier resistance. Also, while she spoke, he noticed that the other two women reacted with surprise and some other emotion he could not identify. Confusion? he wondered. In any event, they did not react the way he would have expected if the silver-haired woman had just delivered their lord into the arms of their enemies. They were too quiet, too subdued, as if they were hiding something.
Of the two, the girl was the less skilled at masking her feelings, so Roran turned on her with all the savagery he could muster. “You there, she’s lying, isn’t she? Where is Halstead? Tell me!”
The girl opened her mouth and shook her head, speechless
. She tried to back away from him, but one of the warriors held her in place.
Roran stomped over to her, jammed his shield flat against her chest, knocking the air out of her, and leaned his weight against it, pinning her between him and the man behind her. Lifting his hammer, Roran touched it to the side of her cheek. “You’re rather pretty, but you’ll have a hard time finding anyone but old men to court you if I knock out your front teeth. I lost a tooth myself today, but I managed to put it back in. See?” And he spread his lips in what he was sure was a gruesome approximation of a smile. “I’ll keep your teeth, though, so you won’t be able to do the same. They’ll make a fine trophy, eh?” And he made a threatening motion with the hammer.
The girl cringed and cried, “No! Please, sir, I don’t know. Please! He was in his quarters, meeting with his captains, but then he and Lady Galiana were going to go to the tunnel to the docks, and—”
“Thara, you fool!” exclaimed the matron.
“There’s a ship waiting for them, there is, and I don’t know where he is now, but please don’t hit me, I don’t know anything else, sir, and—”
“His quarters,” barked Roran. “Where are they?”
Sobbing, the girl told him.
“Let them go,” he said when she finished, and the three women darted out of the entryway, the hard heels of their shoes clattering against the polished floor.
Roran led the Varden through the enormous building in accordance with the girl’s instructions. Scores of half-dressed men and women crossed their paths, but none paused to fight. The palace rang with shouts and screams to the point where he wanted to plug his ears with his fingers.
Partway to their destination, they came upon an atrium with a statue of a huge black dragon in the middle. Roran wondered if it was supposed to be Galbatorix’s dragon, Shruikan. As they trooped past the statue, Roran heard a twang, and then something struck him in the back.
He fell against a stone bench next to the path and clutched at it.
Agonizing, thought-destroying pain, the likes of which he had never experienced before. Pain so intense, he would have cut off his own hand to make it stop. It felt as if a red-hot poker were being pressed into his back.
He could not move. …
He could not breathe. …
Even the smallest shift in position caused him unbearable torment.
Shadows fell across him, and he heard Baldor and Delwin shouting, then Brigman, of all people, was saying something as well, although Roran could not make sense of it.
The pain suddenly increased tenfold, and he bellowed, which only made it worse. With a supreme effort of will, he forced himself to remain absolutely still. Tears ran from the corners of his clenched eyes.
Then Brigman was talking to him. “Roran, you have an arrow in your back. We tried to catch the archer, but he escaped.”
“Hurts … ,” Roran gasped.
“That’s because the arrow hit one of your ribs. It would have gone right through you, otherwise. You’re lucky it wasn’t an inch higher or lower and that it missed your spine and your shoulder blade.”
“Pull it out,” he said between gritted teeth.
“We can’t; the arrow has a barbed head. And we can’t push it through to the other side. It has to be cut out. I have some experience with this, Roran. If you trust me to wield the knife, I can do it here and now. Or, if you prefer, we can wait until we find you a healer. There must be one or two somewhere in the palace.”
Though he hated to put himself in Brigman’s power, Roran could bear the pain no longer, so he said, “Do it here. … Baldor …”
“Take fifty men and find Halstead. Whatever happens, he can’t escape. Delwin … stay with me.”
A brief discussion ensued between Baldor, Delwin, and Brigman, of which Roran heard but a few scattered words. Then a large portion of the Varden departed the atrium, which was noticeably quieter afterward.
At Brigman’s insistence, a team of warriors fetched chairs from a nearby room, broke them into pieces, and built a fire on the gravel-lined path next to the statue. Into the fire was placed the tip of a dagger, which Roran knew Brigman would use to cauterize the wound in his back after removing the arrow, lest he bleed to death.
As he lay on the bench, stiff and trembling, Roran focused on controlling his breathing, taking slow, shallow breaths to minimize the pain. Difficult as it was, he purged his mind of all other thoughts. What had been and what might be did not matter, only the steady inflow and outflow of air through his nostrils.
He almost passed out when four men lifted him from the bench and lowered him facedown to the ground. Someone stuffed a leather glove into his mouth, aggravating the ache from his torn lips, while at the same time, rough hands grasped each of his legs and arms, stretching them out to their fullest extent and pinning them in place.
Roran glanced backward to see Brigman kneeling over him, holding a curved hunting knife in one hand. The knife began to descend, and Roran closed his eyes again and bit down hard on the glove.
He breathed in.
He breathed out.
And then time and memory ceased for him.
RORAN SAT HUNCHED over the edge of the table, toying with a jewel-encrusted goblet that he stared at without interest.
Night had fallen, and the only light in the lavish bedchamber came from the two candles on the desk and the small fire glowing on the hearth by the empty four-poster bed. All was quiet, save for an occasional crackle of burning wood.
A faint salty breeze wafted through the windows, parting the thin white curtains. He turned his face to catch the draft, welcoming the touch of cool air against his fevered skin.
Through the windows, he could see Aroughs laid out before him. Watchfires dotted the streets at intersections here and there, but otherwise the city was dark and motionless—unusually so, for everyone who could was hiding in their homes.
When the breeze ceased, he took another sip from the goblet, pouring the wine directly down his throat to avoid having to swallow. A drop fell onto the split in his lower lip, and he tensed and sucked in his breath while he waited for the spike of pain to vanish.
He set the goblet on the desk, next to the plate of bread and lamb and the half-empty bottle of wine, then glanced at the mirror propped upright between the two candles. It still reflected nothing but his own haggard face, bruised, bloodied, and missing a goodly portion of his beard on the right-hand side.
He looked away. She would contact him when she did. In the meantime he would wait. It was all he could do; he hurt too much to sleep.
He picked up the goblet again and rolled it between his fingers.
Late that night, the mirror shimmered like a rippling pool of quicksilver, causing Roran to blink and gaze at it through bleary, half-closed eyes.
The teardrop shape of Nasuada’s face took form before him, her expression as serious as ever. “Roran,” she said by way of greeting, her voice clear and strong.
“Lady Nasuada.” He straightened off the table as far as he dared, which was only a few inches.
“Have you been captured?”
“Then I take it that Carn is either dead or wounded.”
“He died while fighting another magician.”
“I’m sorry to hear it. … He seemed a decent man, and we can ill afford to lose any of our spellcasters.” She paused for a moment. “And what of Aroughs?”
“The city is ours.”
Nasuada’s eyebrows rose. “Truly? I am most impressed. Tell me, how went the battle? Did everything go according to plan?”
Opening his jaw as little as he could, so as to minimize the discomfort of talking, Roran mumbled his way through an account of the past several days, from his arrival at Aroughs to the one-eyed man who had attacked him in his tent to the breaking of the dams at the mills to how the Varden had fought their wa
y through Aroughs to the palace of Lord Halstead, including Carn’s duel with the enemy magician.
Then Roran related how he had been shot in the back, and how Brigman had cut the arrow out of him. “I’m lucky he was there; he did a good job of it. If not for him, I would have been next to useless until we found a healer.” He cringed inwardly as, for a second, the memory of his wounds being cauterized jumped to the forefront of his mind, and he again felt the touch of hot metal against his flesh.
“I hope you did find a healer to look at you.”
“Aye, later, but he was no spellcaster.”
Nasuada leaned back in her chair and studied him for a while. “I’m astonished you still have the strength to talk to me. The people of Carvahall are indeed made of stern stuff.”
“Afterward, we secured the palace, as well as the rest of Aroughs, although there are still a few places where our grip is weak. It was fairly easy to convince the soldiers to surrender once they realized we had slipped behind their lines and captured the center of the city.”
“And what of Lord Halstead? Did you capture him as well?”
“He was attempting to escape the palace when some of my men chanced upon him. Halstead had only a small number of guards with him, not enough to fight off our warriors, so he and his retainers fled into a wine cellar and barricaded themselves inside. …” Roran rubbed his thumb over a ruby set in the goblet before him. “They wouldn’t surrender, and I didn’t dare storm the room; it would have been too costly. So … I ordered the men to fetch pots of oil from the kitchens, light them on fire, and throw them against the door.”
“Were you trying to smoke them out?” Nasuada asked.
He nodded slowly. “A few of the soldiers ran out once the door burned down, but Halstead waited too long. We found him on the floor, suffocated.”
“That is unfortunate.”
“Also … his daughter, Lady Galiana.” In his mind, he could still see her: tiny, delicate, garbed in a beautiful lavender dress covered with frills and ribbons.