Inheritance (The Inheritance Cycle 4) - Page 22

Nasuada frowned. “Who succeeds Halstead as the earl of Fenmark?”

“Tharos the Quick.”

“The same who led the charge against you yesterday?”

“The same.”

It had been midafternoon when his men had brought Tharos before him. The small, bearded man had appeared dazed, though uninjured, and he had been missing his helm with its flamboyant plumes. To him, Roran—who was lying belly-down on a padded couch to save his back—had said, “I believe you owe me a bottle of wine.”

“How have you done this?!” Tharos had demanded in response, the sound of despair ringing in his voice. “The city was impregnable. None but a dragon could have broken our walls. And yet look what you wrought. You are something other than human, something other than …” And he had fallen silent, unable to speak any longer.

“How did he react to the deaths of his father and sister?” Nasuada asked.

Roran leaned his head against his hand. His brow was slick with sweat, so he wiped it dry with his sleeve. He shivered. Despite the perspiration, he felt cold all over, especially in his hands and feet. “He didn’t seem to much care about his father. His sister, though …” Roran winced as he remembered the torrent of abuse Tharos had directed at him after learning that Galiana was dead.

“If ever I get the chance, I’ll kill you for this,” Tharos had said. “I swear it.”

“You had best move quickly, then,” Roran had retorted. “Another has already claimed my life, and if anyone is going to kill me, my guess is that it’ll be her.”

“… Roran? … Roran!”

With a faint sense of surprise, he realized that Nasuada was calling his name. He looked at her again, framed in the mirror like a portrait, and struggled to find his tongue. At last he said, “Tharos isn’t really the earl of Fenmark. He’s the youngest of Halstead’s seven sons, but all of his brothers have fled or are hiding. So, for the time being, Tharos is the only one left to claim the title. He makes a good envoy between us and the elders of the city. Without Carn, though, there’s no way for me to tell who is sworn to Galbatorix and who isn’t. Most of the lords and ladies are, I assume, and the soldiers, of course, but it’s impossible to know who else.”

Nasuada pursed her lips. “I see. … Dauth is the closest city to you. I’ll ask Lady Alarice—whom I believe you’ve met—to send someone to Aroughs who is skilled in the art of reading minds. Most nobles keep one such person in their retinue, so it should be easy enough for Alarice to fulfill our request. However, when we marched for the Burning Plains, King Orrin brought with him every spellcaster of note from Surda, which means that whoever Alarice sends will most likely have no other skill with magic besides the ability to hear others’ thoughts. And without the proper spells, it will be difficult to prevent those who are loyal to Galbatorix from opposing us at every turn.”

While she spoke, Roran allowed his gaze to drift across the desk until it came to rest on the dark bottle of wine. I wonder if Tharos poisoned it? The thought failed to alarm him.

Then Nasuada was speaking to him again: “… hope that you have kept tight rein over your men and not let them run wild in Aroughs, burning, plundering, and taking liberties with its people?”

Roran was so tired, he found it difficult to marshal a coherent response, but at last he managed to say, “There are too few of us for the men to make mischief. They know as well as I do that the soldiers could retake the city if we gave them even the slightest opportunity.”

“A mixed blessing, I suppose. … How many casualties did you suffer during the attack?”


For a while, silence lay between them. Then Nasuada said, “Did Carn have any family?”

Roran shrugged, a slight inward motion of his left shoulder. “I don’t know. He was from somewhere in the north, I think, but neither of us really talked about our lives before … before all of this. … It never seemed that important.”

A sudden itch in Roran’s throat forced him to cough again and again, and he curled over the table until his forehead touched the wood, grimacing as waves of pain assailed him from his back, his shoulder, and his mangled mouth. His convulsions were so violent, the wine in the goblet slopped over the rim and spilled onto his hand and wrist.

As he slowly recovered, Nasuada said, “Roran, you have to summon a healer to examine you. You’re unwell, and you ought to be in bed.”

“No.” He wiped the spittle from the corner of his mouth, then looked up at her. “They’ve done all they can, and I’m no child to be fussed over.”

Nasuada hesitated, then dipped her head. “As you wish.”

“Now what happens?” he asked. “Am I finished here?”

“It was my intention to have you return as soon as we captured Aroughs—however that was accomplished—but you’re in no condition to ride all the way to Dras-Leona. You’ll have to wait until—”

“I won’t wait,” Roran growled. He grabbed the mirror and pulled it toward him until it was only a few inches from his face. “Don’t you coddle me, Nasuada. I can ride, and I can ride fast. The only reason I came here is because Aroughs was a threat to the Varden. That threat is gone now—I removed it—and I’m not about to stay here, injuries or no injuries, while my wife and unborn child sit camped less than a mile away from Murtagh and his dragon!”

Nasuada’s voice hardened for a moment. “You went to Aroughs because I sent you.” Then, in a more relaxed tone, she said, “However, your point is well taken. You may return at once, if you are able. There’s no reason for you to ride night and day, as you did during the journey there, but neither should you dawdle. Be sensible about it. I don’t want to have to explain to Katrina that you killed yourself traveling. … Whom do you think I should select as your replacement when you leave Aroughs?”

“Captain Brigman.”

“Brigman? Why? Didn’t you have some difficulties with him?”

“He helped keep the men in line after I was shot. My head wasn’t very clear at the time—”

“I imagine not.”

“—and he saw to it that they didn’t panic or lose their nerve. Also, he led them on my behalf while I was stuck in this miserable music box of a castle. He was the only one who had the experience for it. Without him, we wouldn’t have been able to extend our control over the whole of Aroughs. The men like him, and he’s skilled at planning and organizing. He’ll do well at governing the city.”

“Brigman it is, then.” Nasuada looked away from the mirror and murmured something to a person he could not see. Turning back to him, she said, “I must admit, I never thought you would actually capture Aroughs. It seemed impossible that anyone could breach the city’s defenses in so little time, with so few men, and without the aid of either a dragon or Rider.”

“Then why send me here?”

“Because I had to try something before letting Eragon and Saphira fly so far away, and because you have made a habit of confounding expectations and prevailing where others would have faltered or given up. If the impossible were to happen, it seemed most likely that it would occur under your watch, as indeed it did.”

Roran snorted softly. And how long can I keep tempting fate before I end up dead like Carn?

“Sneer if you want, but you cannot deny your own success. You have won a great victory for us today, Stronghammer. Or rather, Captain Stronghammer, I ought to say. You have more than earned the right to that title. I am immensely grateful for what you have done. By capturing Aroughs, you have freed us from the prospect of fighting a war on two fronts, which would have almost certainly meant our destruction. All of the Varden are in your debt, and I promise you, the sacrifices you and your men have made will not be forgotten.”

Roran tried to say something, failed, tried again, and failed a second time before he finally managed to say: “I … I will be sure to let the men know how you feel. It will mean a lot to them.”

“Please do. And now I must bid you farewell. It is late, yo

u are sick, and I have kept you far too long as it is.”

“Wait …” He reached toward her and struck the tips of his fingers against the mirror. “Wait. You haven’t told me: How goes the siege of Dras-Leona?”

She stared at him, her expression flat. “Badly. And it shows no signs of improving. We could use you here, Stronghammer. If we don’t find a way to bring this situation to an end, and soon, everything we have fought for will be lost.”


“YOU’RE FINE,” SAID Eragon, exasperated. “Stop worrying. There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.”

Saphira growled and continued to study her image in the lake. She turned her head from side to side, then exhaled heavily, releasing a cloud of smoke that drifted out over the water like a small, lost thundercloud.

Are you sure? she asked, and looked toward him. What if it doesn’t grow back?

“Dragons grow new scales all the time. You know that.”

Yes, but I’ve never lost one before!

He did not bother to hide his smile; he knew she would sense his amusement. “You shouldn’t be so upset. It wasn’t very big.” Reaching out, he traced the diamond-shaped hole on the left side of her snout, where the object of her consternation had so recently been ensconced. The gap in her sparkling armor was no larger than the end of his thumb and about an inch deep. At the bottom of it, her leathery blue hide was visible.

Curious, he touched her skin with the tip of his index finger. It felt warm and smooth, like the belly of a calf.

Saphira snorted and pulled her head away from him. Stop that; it tickles.

He chuckled and kicked at the water by the base of the rock he was sitting on, enjoying the sensation against the bottom of his bare feet.

It may not have been very big, she said, but everyone will notice that it’s missing. How could they not? One might as well overlook a bare patch of earth on the crest of a snow-covered mountain. And her eyes rolled forward as she tried to peer down her long snout at the small, dark hole above her nostril.

Eragon laughed and splashed a handful of water at her. Then, to soothe her injured pride, he said, “No one will notice, Saphira. Trust me. Besides, even if they do, they’ll take it for a battle wound and consider you all the more fearsome because of it.”

You think so? She returned to examining herself in the lake. The water and her scales reflected off each other in a dazzling array of rainbow-hued flecks. What if a soldier stabs me there? The blade would go right through me. Perhaps I should ask the dwarves to make a metal plate to cover the area until the scale regrows.

“That would look exceedingly ridiculous.”

It would?

“Mm-hmm.” He nodded, on the verge of laughing again.

She sniffed. There’s no need to make fun of me. How would you like it if the fur on your head started falling out, or you lost one of those silly little nubs you call teeth? I would end up having to comfort you, no doubt.

“No doubt,” he agreed easily. “But then, teeth don’t grow back.” He pushed himself off the rock and made his way up the shore to where he had left his boots, stepping carefully to avoid hurting his feet on the stones and branches that littered the water’s edge. Saphira followed him, the soft earth squishing between her talons.

You could cast a spell to protect just that spot, she said as he pulled on his boots.

“I could. Do you want me to?”

I do.

He worked out the enchantment in his head while he laced up his boots, then placed the palm of his right hand over the pit in her snout and murmured the necessary words in the ancient language. A faint azure glow emanated from underneath his hand as he bound the ward to her body.

“There,” he said when he finished. “Now you have nothing to worry about.”

Except that I’m still missing a scale.

He gave her a push on the jaw. “Come on, you. Let’s go back to camp.”

Together they left the lake and climbed the steep, crumbling bank behind them, Eragon using the exposed tree roots as handholds.

At the top of the rise, they had an unobstructed view of the Varden’s camp a half mile to the east, as well as, somewhat north of the camp, the sprawling mess of Dras-Leona. The only signs of life within the city were the tendrils of smoke that rose from the chimneys of many a house. As always, Thorn lay draped across the battlements above the southern gate, basking in the bright afternoon light. The red dragon looked asleep, but Eragon knew from experience that he was keeping a close eye on the Varden, and the moment anyone began to approach the city, he would rouse himself and issue a warning to Murtagh and the others inside.

Eragon hopped onto Saphira’s back, and she carried him to the camp at a leisurely pace.

When they arrived, he slid to the ground and took the lead as they moved between the tents. The camp was quiet, and everything about it felt slow and sleepy, from the low, drawling tones of the warriors’ conversations to the pennants that hung motionless in the thick air. The only creatures who appeared immune to the general lethargy were the lean, half-feral dogs that ranged through the camp, constantly sniffing as they searched for discarded scraps of food. A number of the dogs bore scratches on their muzzles and flanks, the result of making the foolish, if understandable, mistake of thinking they could chase and torment a green-eyed werecat as they would any other cat. When it had happened, their yelps of pain had attracted the attention of the entire camp, and the men had laughed to see the dogs running away from the werecat with their tails between their legs.

Conscious of the many looks he and Saphira attracted, Eragon kept his chin high and his shoulders square and adopted a vigorous stride in an attempt to convey an impression of purpose and energy. The men needed to see that he was still full of confidence, and that he had not allowed the tedium of their present predicament to weigh him down.

If only Murtagh and Thorn would leave, thought Eragon. They wouldn’t have to be gone for more than a day for us to capture the city.

So far, the siege of Dras-Leona had proven to be singularly uneventful. Nasuada refused to attack the city, for as she had said to Eragon, “You barely managed to best Murtagh the last time you met—do you forget how he stabbed you in the hip?—and he promised that he would be stronger still when you next crossed paths. Murtagh may be many things, but I am not inclined to believe he is a liar.”

“Strength isn’t everything when it comes to a fight between magicians,” Eragon had pointed out.

“No, but it’s not unimportant either. Also, he now has the support of the priests of Helgrind, more than a few of whom I suspect are magicians. I won’t risk letting you face them and Murtagh head-on in battle, not even with Blödhgarm’s spellcasters by your side. Until we can contrive to lure Murtagh and Thorn away, or trap them, or otherwise gain an advantage over them, we stay here, and we don’t move against Dras-Leona.”

Eragon had protested, arguing that it was impractical to stall their invasion, and that if he could not defeat Murtagh, what hope did she think he would have against Galbatorix? But Nasuada had remained unconvinced.

They—along with Arya, Blödhgarm, and all the spellcasters of Du Vrangr Gata—had planned and plotted and searched for ways to gain the advantage Nasuada had spoken of. But every strategy they considered was flawed because it required more time and resources than were at the Varden’s disposal, or else because it ultimately failed to resolve the question of how to kill, capture, or drive off Murtagh and Thorn.

Nasuada had even gone to Elva and asked her if she would use her ability—which allowed her to sense other people’s pain, as well as any pain they were about to suffer in the immediate future—to overcome Murtagh or to surreptitiously gain entrance to the city. The silver-browed girl had laughed at Nasuada and sent her away with gibes and insults, saying, “I owe no bond of allegiance to you or anyone else, Nasuada. Find some other child to win your battles for you; I’ll not do it.”

And so, the Varden waited


As day inexorably followed day, Eragon had watched the men grow sullen and discontent, and Nasuada had become increasingly worried. An army, Eragon had learned, was a ravenous, insatiable beast that would soon die and separate into its constituent elements unless massive amounts of food were shoveled into its many thousands of stomachs upon a regular basis. When marching into new territory, obtaining supplies for an army was a simple matter of confiscating food and other essentials from the people they conquered, and stripping resources from the surrounding countryside. Like a plague of locusts, the Varden left a barren swath of land in their wake, a swath devoid of most everything needed to support life.

Once they stopped moving, they soon exhausted the stores of food close at hand and were forced to subsist entirely on provisions brought to them from Surda and the several cities they had captured. Generous as the inhabitants of Surda were, and rich as the vanquished cities were, the regular deliveries of goods were not enough to sustain the Varden for much longer.

Though Eragon knew the warriors were devoted to their cause, he had no doubt that, when faced with the prospect of a slow, agonizing death by starvation that would accomplish nothing besides giving Galbatorix the satisfaction of gloating over their defeat, most men would elect to flee to some distant corner of Alagaësia, where they could live out the rest of their lives in safety from the Empire.

That moment had not yet arrived, but it was fast approaching.

Fear of that fate, Eragon was sure, was what had been keeping Nasuada up at night, so that she appeared increasingly haggard each morning, the bags under her eyes like small, sad smiles.

The difficulties they had faced at Dras-Leona made Eragon grateful that Roran had avoided becoming similarly bogged down at Aroughs and heightened his admiration and appreciation for what his cousin had accomplished at the southern city. He’s a braver man than I. Nasuada would disapprove, but Eragon was determined that once Roran returned—which, if all went well, would be in just a few days—Eragon would once again provide him with a full set of wards. Eragon had already lost too many members of his family to the Empire and Galbatorix, and he was not about to let the same doom befall Roran.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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