Roran advanced toward the last two soldiers, but before he reached them, there was a blur of steel, and then their heads dropped to the cobblestones, surprised expressions on their faces. The bodies collapsed, and behind them Roran saw the herbalist Angela, garbed in her green and black armor and carrying her sword-staff. Close by her side were a pair of werecats, one in the shape of a brindle-haired girl with sharp, bloodstained teeth and a long dagger, the other in the shape of an animal. He thought it might have been Solembum, but he was not sure.
“Roran! How nice to see you,” said the herbalist with a smile that seemed altogether too cheery considering the circumstances. “Imagine meeting here!”
“Better here than in the grave!” he shouted, picking up an extra spear and heaving it at a man farther down the street.
“I thought you went with Eragon?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t ask me, and I wouldn’t have gone if he had. I’m no match for Galbatorix. Besides, Eragon has the Eldunarí to help him.”
“You know?” he asked, shocked.
She winked at him from under the lip of her helm. “I know lots of things.”
He grunted and tucked his shoulder behind his shield as he rammed into another group of soldiers. The herbalist and the werecats joined him, as did Horst, Mandel, and several others.
“Where’s your hammer?” shouted Angela as she spun her bladed staff, blocking and cutting at the same time.
“Lost! I dropped it.”
Someone howled with pain behind him. As soon as he dared, Roran looked back and saw Baldor clutching the stump of his right arm. On the ground, his hand lay twitching.
Roran ran back to him, leaping over several corpses along the way. Horst was already by his son’s side, fending off the soldier who had severed Baldor’s hand.
Drawing his dagger, Roran cut a strip of cloth from the tunic of a fallen soldier, then said, “Here!” and tied it around the stump of Baldor’s arm, stanching the bleeding.
The herbalist knelt next to them, and Roran said, “Can you help him?”
She shook her head. “Not here. If I use magic, it might end up killing him. If you can get him out of the city, though, the elves can probably save his hand.”
Roran hesitated. He was not sure he dared spare anyone to escort Baldor safely out of Urû’baen. However, without a hand, Baldor would face a hard life, and Roran had no desire to condemn him to that.
“If you won’t take him, I will,” bellowed Horst.
Roran ducked as a stone the size of a hog flew past overhead and glanced off the front of a house, scattering pieces of masonry through the air. Inside the building, someone screamed.
“No. We need you.” Turning, Roran whistled and picked two warriors: the old cobbler Loring and an Urgal. “Get him to the elves’ healers as fast as you can,” he said, pushing Baldor toward them. As he went, Baldor picked up his hand and tucked it under his hauberk.
The Urgal snarled and said in a thick accent that Roran barely understood, “No! I stay. I fight!” He struck his sword against his shield.
Roran stepped over, grabbed one of the creature’s horns, and pulled on it until he had twisted the Urgal’s head halfway around. “You’ll do as I say,” Roran growled. “Besides, it’s not an easy task. Protect him and you’ll win much glory for you and your tribe.”
The Urgal’s eyes seemed to brighten. “Much glory?” he said, mashing the words between his heavy teeth.
“Much glory!” Roran confirmed.
“I do it, Stronghammer!”
With a sense of relief, Roran watched the three of them depart, heading toward the outer wall, so that they might skirt most of the fighting. He was also pleased to see the human-shaped werecat follow after them, the feral, brindle-haired girl swinging her head from side to side as she scented the air.
Then another group of soldiers attacked, and all thoughts of Baldor left Roran’s mind. He hated fighting with a spear instead of a hammer, but he made do, and after a time, the street again grew calm. He knew the respite would be short.
He took the opportunity to sit on the front doorstep of a house and try to regain his breath. The soldiers seemed as fresh as ever, but he could feel exhaustion dragging on his limbs. He doubted he could keep going for much longer without making a fatal mistake.
As he sat panting, he listened to the shouts and screams coming from the direction of Urû’baen’s ruined front gate. It was difficult to tell what was happening from the general clamor, but he suspected the Varden were getting pushed back, for the noise seemed to be receding slightly. Amid the commotion, he could hear the regular crack of Lord Barst’s mace striking warrior after warrior, and then the increase in cries that invariably followed.
Roran made himself stand. If he sat for much longer, his muscles would start to stiffen. A moment after he moved away from the doorstep, the contents of a chamber pot splashed across the spot where he had just been.
“Murderers!” shouted a woman above him, and then a pair of shutters banged shut.
Roran snorted and picked his way around bodies as he led his remaining warriors over to the nearest cross street.
They paused, wary, when a soldier raced past, panic upon his face. Close behind, a pack of yowling housecats chased after him, blood dripping from the fur around their mouths.
Roran smiled and started forward again.
He stopped a second later when a group of dwarves with red beards ran toward them from deeper within the city. “Ready yourself!” one shouted. “We have a whole pack of soldiers nipping at our heels, a few hundred of them, at least.”
Roran looked back up the empty cross street. “Perhaps you lost—” he began to say, and then stopped when a line of crimson tunics appeared around the corner of a building a few hundred feet away. More and more soldiers followed, pouring into the street like a swarm of red ants.
“Back!” Roran shouted. “Back!” We have to find somewhere defensible. The outer wall was too far away, and none of the houses were large enough to have enclosed courtyards.
As Roran ran down the street with his warriors, a dozen or so arrows landed around them.
Roran stumbled and fell, writhing, as a bolt of pain shot up his spine from the small of his back. It felt as if someone had jabbed him with a large iron bar.
A second later, the herbalist was by his side. She tugged at something behind him, and Roran screamed. Then the pain decreased, and he found himself able to see clearly again.
The herbalist showed him an arrow with a bloody tip before throwing it away. “Your mail stopped most of it,” she said as she helped him to his feet.
Gritting his teeth, Roran ran with her to rejoin their group. Every step pained him now, and if he bent at the waist too far, his back spasmed and he found it almost impossible to move.
He saw no good places to make a stand, and the soldiers were getting closer, so at last he shouted, “Stop! Form up! Elves to the sides! Urgals front and center!”
Roran took his place near the front, along with Darmmen, Albriech, the Urgals, and one of the red-bearded dwarves.
“So you are the one they call Stronghammer,” said the dwarf as they watched the advance of the soldiers. “I fought alongside your hearth-brother in Farthen Dûr. It is mine honor to fight with you as well.”
Roran grunted. He just hoped he could stay on his feet.
Then the soldiers crashed into them, shoving them back through sheer weight. Roran set his shoulder against his shield and pushed with all his might. Swords and spears stuck through the gaps in the wall of overlapping shields; he felt one scrape against his side, but his hauberk protected him.
The elves and the Urgals proved invaluable. They broke the soldiers’ lines and earned Roran and the other warriors room to swing their weapons. At the edge of his vision, Roran saw the dwarf stabbing the soldiers in the legs, feet, and groin, causing many to fall.
The supply of soldiers seemed endless, however
, and Roran found himself forced backward step by step. Not even the elves could stem the tide of men, try though they might. Othíara, the elf woman Roran had spoken to outside the city wall, died from an arrow in the neck, and the remaining elves received many wounds.
Roran was injured several more times himself: a cut on the upper part of his right calf, which would have hamstrung him if it had been a little bit higher; another cut on the thigh of the same leg, where a sword had slipped under the edge of his hauberk; a nasty scrape on his neck, where he hit himself with his own shield; a stab wound on the inner part of his right leg that fortunately missed the major arteries; and more bruises than he could count. He felt as if every part of himself had been beaten soundly with a wooden mallet and then a pair of clumsy men had used him as a target for knife throwing.
He dropped back from the front line a few times to rest his arms and catch his breath, but he always rejoined the fight soon afterward.
Then the buildings opened up around them, and Roran realized that the soldiers had succeeded in driving them into the square before Urû’baen’s broken gate, and that there were now enemies behind them as well as before them.
He chanced a look over his shoulder and saw the elves and the Varden retreating before Barst and his soldiers.
“Right!” shouted Roran. “Right! Up against the buildings!” He pointed with his bloody spear.
With some difficulty, the warriors packed behind him edged to the side and onto the steps of a huge stone building fronted with a double row of pillars as tall as any of the trees in the Spine. Between the pillars, Roran glimpsed the dark, yawning shape of an open archway big enough to accommodate Saphira, if not Shruikan.
“Up! Up!” Roran shouted, and the men, dwarves, elves, and Urgals ran with him to the top of the stairs. There they set themselves among the pillars and repelled the wave of soldiers that charged after them. From their vantage point, which was perhaps twenty feet above the level of the streets, Roran saw that the Empire had nearly forced the Varden and the elves back out the gaping hole in the outer wall.
We’re going to lose, he thought with sudden desperation.
The soldiers charged up the steps once again. Roran dodged a spear and kicked its owner in the belly, knocking the soldier and two other men down the stairs.
From one of the ballistae on a nearby wall tower, a javelin streaked down toward Lord Barst. When it was still a few yards from him, the javelin burst into flames, then crumbled into dust, as did every arrow shot at the armored man.
We have to kill him, thought Roran. If Barst fell, then the soldiers would likely break and lose confidence. But given that both the elves and the Kull had failed to stop him, it seemed doubtful that anyone other than Eragon could.
Even as he continued to fight, Roran kept glancing at the large, armored figure, hoping to see something that might provide a way to defeat him. He noticed that Barst walked with a slight hitch in his stride, as if he had once injured his left knee or hip. And the man seemed a hair slower than before.
So he does have his limits, thought Roran. Or rather, the Eldunarí does.
With a shout, he parried the sword of the soldier who had been pressing him. Jerking his shield up, he caught the soldier underneath the jaw, killing the man instantly.
Roran was out of breath and faint from his wounds, so he withdrew behind one of the pillars and leaned against it. He coughed and spat; his spittle contained blood, but he thought that was just from where he had bitten the inside of his mouth and not from a punctured lung. At least he hoped so. His ribs felt sore enough that one of them might be broken.
A great shout rose from the Varden, and Roran looked around the pillar to see Queen Islanzadí and eleven other elves riding through the battle toward Lord Barst. Again upon Islanzadí’s left shoulder sat the white raven, and he cawed and lifted his wings, the better to balance upon his moving perch. In her hand, Islanzadí carried her sword, while the rest of the elves carried spears with banners attached close to their leaf-shaped blades.
Roran leaned against the pillar, hope rising within him. “Kill him,” he growled.
Barst made no move to avoid the elves but stood waiting for them with his feet spread wide and his mace and shield by his sides, as if he had no need to defend himself.
Throughout the streets, the fighting slowed to a standstill as everyone turned to watch what was about to happen.
The two elves in the lead lowered their spears, and their horses sprang forward into a gallop, the muscles beneath their glossy hides flexing and relaxing as they raced across the short distance that separated them from Barst. For a moment, it looked as if Barst would surely fall; it seemed impossible that anyone on foot could withstand such a charge.
The spears never touched Barst. His wards stopped them an arm’s length from his body, and the hafts shattered in the elves’ hands, leaving them holding useless shards of wood. Then Barst lifted his mace and his shield, and with them he struck the horses on the sides of their heads, breaking their necks and killing them.
The horses fell, and the elves upon them jumped free, twisting in the air as they did.
The next two elves did not have time to change course before they reached Barst. Like their predecessors, they split their spears on his wards, and then they too jumped free of their horses as Barst struck the animals down.
By then, the eight other elves, including Islanzadí, had managed to turn and rein in their steeds. They trotted in a circle around Barst, keeping their weapons pointed at him, while the four elves on the ground drew their swords and cautiously advanced toward Barst.
The man laughed and hefted his shield as he prepared for their attack. The light caught his face under his helm, and even from a distance Roran could see that it was broad and heavy-browed, with prominent cheekbones. In some ways, it reminded him of the face of an Urgal.
The four elves ran at Barst, each from a different direction, and they cut and stabbed at him in unison. Barst caught one of the swords on his shield, deflected another with his mace, and let his wards stop the blades of the two elves behind him. He laughed again and swung his weapon.
A silver-haired elf threw himself to the side, and the mace flew past harmlessly.
Twice more Barst swung, and twice more the elves evaded him. Barst showed no signs of frustration, but hunched behind his shield and bided his time, like a cave bear waiting for whosoever might be foolish enough to venture into his lair.
Outside the ring of elves, a block of halberd-wielding soldiers took it upon themselves to run screaming toward Queen Islanzadí and her companions. Without pause, the queen lifted her sword over her head, and at her signal, a swarm of buzzing arrows shot out from the ranks of the Varden and felled the soldiers.
Roran shouted with excitement, along with many of the Varden.
Barst had been edging ever closer to the bodies of the four horses he had slain, and now he stepped into their midst so that the bodies formed a low, tumbled wall on either side of him. The elves to his left and his right would have no choice but to leap over the horses if they wished to attack him.
Clever, Roran thought, frowning.
The elf in front of Barst darted forward, shouting something in the ancient language. Barst seemed to hesitate, and his hesitation encouraged the elf to come closer. Then Barst lunged forward, his mace came crashing down, and the elf crumpled to the ground, broken.
A groan went up from the elves.
The three remaining elves on foot were more cautious thereafter. They continued to circle Barst, running in to attack him on occasion, but mostly keeping their distance.
“Surrender!” exclaimed Islanzadí, and her voice could be heard throughout the streets. “There are more of us than you. No matter how strong you are, in time you will tire and your wards will fail. You cannot win, human.”
“No?” said Barst. He straightened and dropped his shield with a loud clatter.
Sudden dread filled Roran. Run, he thought. “Run!” h
e shouted a half second later.
He was too late.
Bending at the knees, Barst grabbed the neck of one of the horses and, with his left arm alone, threw the horse at Queen Islanzadí.
If she spoke in the ancient language, Roran did not hear it, but she lifted her hand—and the body of the horse stopped in midair, then dropped to the cobblestones, where it landed with an unpleasant sound. On her shoulder, the raven screeched.
Barst was not looking, however. As soon as the carcass left his hand, he scooped up his shield and sprinted toward the nearest of the mounted elven riders. One of the three remaining elves on foot—a woman with a red sash tied around her upper arm—ran toward him and slashed at his back. Barst ignored her.
Over a flat stretch of land, the elves’ horses might have been able to outdistance Barst, but in the limited space between the buildings and the closely packed warriors, Barst was both faster and more nimble. He rammed his shoulder into the ribs of one of the horses, toppling it over, and then swung his mace at an elf upon another horse, knocking the elf from his seat. A horse screamed.
The circle of elven riders disintegrated, each turning in a different direction as they tried to calm their mounts and address the threat before them.
A half-dozen elves ran out from the nearby press of warriors and surrounded Barst, all hacking at him with frenzied speed. Barst disappeared behind them for a moment; then his mace rose up, and three of the elves flew tumbling away. Then another two, and Barst strode forward, blood and gore clinging to the flanges of his black weapon.
“Now!” roared Barst, and throughout the square, hundreds of soldiers ran forward and assailed the elves, forcing them to defend themselves.
“No,” Roran growled, agonized. He would have gone with his warriors to help, but too many bodies—both living and dead—separated them from Barst and the elves. He glanced over at the herbalist, who looked as worried as he felt, and said, “Can’t you do something?”