“Every day you ask me, and every day I tell you, ‘Better.’ Be patient; I will recover, but it will take time…. The best remedy for what ails me is being with you here under the sun. It does me more good than I can tell you.”
“That was not all I was asking.”
Crimson spots appeared on Katrina’s cheeks, and she tilted her head back, her lips curving in a mischievous smile. “My, you are bold, dear sir. Most bold indeed. I’m not sure I should be alone with you, for fear you might take liberties with me.”
The spirit of her reply set his concern to rest. “Liberties, eh? Well, since you already consider me a scoundrel, I might as well enjoy some of these liberties.” And he kissed her until she broke the contact, although she remained in his embrace.
“Oh,” she said, out of breath. “You’re a hard man to argue with, Roran Stronghammer.”
“That I am.” Nodding toward the tent behind her, he lowered his voice and asked, “Does Elain know?”
“She would if she weren’t so preoccupied with her pregnancy. I think the stress of the trip from Carvahall may cause her to lose the child. She’s sick a good part of the day, and she has pains that… well, of an unfortunate nature. Gertrude has been tending her, but she can’t do much to ease her discomfort. All the same, the sooner Eragon returns, the better. I’m not sure how long I can keep this secret.”
“You’ll do fine, I’m sure.” He released her then and tugged on the hem of his tunic to smooth out the wrinkles. “How do I look?”
Katrina studied him with a critical eye and then wet the tips of her fingers and ran them through his hair, pushing it back off his forehead. Spotting the knot at his collar, she began to pick at it, saying, “You ought to pay closer attention to your clothes.”
“Clothes haven’t been trying to kill me.”
“Well, things are different now. You’re the cousin of a Dragon Rider, and you should look the part. People expect it of you.”
He allowed her to continue fussing with him until she was pleased with his appearance. Kissing her goodbye, he walked the half mile to the center of the Varden’s massive camp, where Nasuada’s red command pavilion stood. The pennant mounted on the top bore a black shield and two parallel swords slanting underneath, and it whipped and snapped in a warm wind from the east.
The six guards outside the pavilion—two humans, two dwarves, and two Urgals—lowered their weapons as Roran approached, and one of the Urgals, a thickset brute with yellow teeth, challenged him, saying, “Who goes there?” His accent was nearly unintelligible.
“Roran Stronghammer, son of Garrow. Nasuada sent for me.”
Pounding his breastplate with one fist, which produced a loud crash, the Urgal announced, “Roran Stronghammer requests an audience with you, Lady Nightstalker.”
“You may admit him,” came the answer from inside.
The warriors lifted their blades, and Roran carefully made his way past. They watched him, and he them, with the detached air of men who might have to fight each other at a moment’s notice.
Inside the pavilion, Roran was alarmed to see that most of the furniture was broken and overturned. The only pieces that seemed unharmed were a mirror mounted on a pole and the grand chair in which Nasuada was sitting. Ignoring their surroundings, he knelt and bowed to her.
Nasuada’s features and bearing were so different from those of the women Roran had grown up with, he was not sure how to act. She appeared strange and imperious, with her embroidered dress and the gold chains in her hair and her dusky skin, which at the moment had a reddish cast, due to the color of the fabric walls. In stark contrast to the rest of her apparel, linen bandages encased her forearms, a testament to her astounding courage during the Trial of the Long Knives. Her feat had been a topic of constant discussion among the Varden ever since Roran had returned with Katrina. It was the one aspect of her he felt as if he understood, for he too would make any sacrifice in order to protect those he cared about. It just so happened that she cared about a group of thousands, while he was committed to his family and his village.
“Please, rise,” said Nasuada. He did as he was instructed and rested a hand on the head of his hammer, then waited while she inspected him. “My position rarely allows me the luxury of clear, direct speech, Roran, but I will be blunt with you today. You seem to be a man who appreciates candor, and we have much to discuss in a small amount of time.”
“Thank you, my Lady. I have never enjoyed playing word games.”
“Excellent. To be blunt, then, you have presented me with two difficulties, neither of which I can easily resolve.”
He frowned. “What sort of difficulties?”
“One of character, and one of politics. Your deeds in Palancar Valley and during your flight thence with your fellow villagers are nigh on incredible. They tell me that you have a daring mind and that you are skilled at combat, strategy, and inspiring people to follow you with unquestioning loyalty.”
“They may have followed me, but they certainly never stopped questioning me.”
A smile touched her lips. “Perhaps. But you still got them here, didn’t you? You possess valuable talents, Roran, and the Varden could use you. I assume you wish to be of service?”
“As you know, Galbatorix has divided his army and sent troops south to reinforce the city of Aroughs, west toward Feinster, and north toward Belatona. He hopes to drag out this fight, to bleed us dry through slow attrition. Jörmundur and I cannot be in a dozen locations at once. We need captains whom we can trust to deal with the myriad conflicts springing up around us. In this, you could prove your worth to us. But…” Her voice faded.
“But you do not yet know if you can rely upon me.”
“Indeed. Protecting one’s friends and family stiffens a person’s spine, but I wonder how you will fare without them. Will your nerve hold? And while you can lead, can you also obey orders? I cast no aspersions on your character, Roran, but the fate of Alagaësia is at stake, and I cannot risk putting someone incompetent in charge of my men. This war does not forgive such errors. Nor would it be fair to the men already with the Varden to place you over them without just cause. You must earn your responsibilities with us.”
“I understand. What would you have me do, then?”
“Ah, but it’s not that easy, for you and Eragon are practically brothers, and that complicates things immeasurably. As I’m sure you are aware, Eragon is the keystone of our hopes. It is important, then, to shelter him from distractions so he may concentrate upon the task before him. If I send you into battle and you die as a result, grief and anger might very well unbalance him. I’ve seen it happen before. Moreover, I must take great care with whom I allow you to serve, for there are those who will seek to influence you because of your relation to Eragon. So now you have a fair idea of the scope of my concerns. What have you to say about them?”
“If the land itself is at stake and this war is as hotly contested as you imply, then I say you cannot afford to let me sit idle. Employing me as a common swordsman would be just as much a waste. But I think you know that already. As for politics…” He shrugged. “I don’t care one whit whom you put me with. No one shall get to Eragon through me. My only concern is breaking the Empire so that my kith and kin can return to our home and live in peace.”
“You are determined.”
“Very. Could you not allow me to remain in charge of the men from Carvahall? We are as close as family, and we work well together. Test me that way. The Varden would not suffer, then, if I failed.”
She shook her head. “No. Perhaps in the future, but not yet. They require proper instruction, and I cannot judge your performance when you are surrounded by a group of people who are so loyal that at your urging they abandoned their homes and traversed the width of Alagaësia.”
She considers me a threat, he realized. My ability to influence the villagers makes her wary of me. In an attempt to disarm her, he said, “They had their own sense to
guide them. They knew it was folly to stay in the valley.”
“You cannot explain away their behavior, Roran.”
“What do you want of me, Lady? Will you let me serve or not? And if so, how?”
“Here is my offer. This morning, my magicians detected a patrol of twenty-three of Galbatorix’s soldiers due east. I am sending out a contingent under the command of Martland Redbeard, the Earl of Thun, to destroy them and to do some scouting besides. If you are agreeable, you will serve under Martland. You will listen to and obey him and hopefully learn from him. He, in turn, will watch you and report to me whether he believes you are suitable for advancement. Martland is very experienced, and I have every confidence in his opinion. Does this strike you as fair, Roran Stronghammer?”
“It does. Only, when would I leave, and how long would I be gone?”
“You would leave today and return within a fortnight.”
“Then I must ask, could you wait and send me on a different expedition, in a few days? I would like to be here when Eragon returns.”
“Your concern for your cousin is admirable, but events move apace, and we cannot delay. As soon as I know Eragon’s fate, I will have one of Du Vrangr Gata contact you with the tidings, whether they be good or ill.”
Roran rubbed his thumb along the sharp edges of his hammer as he tried to compose a reply that would convince Nasuada to change her mind and yet would not betray the secret he held. At last he abandoned the task as impossible and resigned himself to revealing the truth. “You’re right. I am worried about Eragon, but of all people he can fend for himself. Seeing him safe and sound isn’t why I want to stay.”
“Because Katrina and I wish to be married, and we would like Eragon to perform the ceremony.”
There was a cascade of sharp clicks as Nasuada tapped her fingernails against the arms of her chair. “If you believe I will allow you to loll about when you could be helping the Varden, just so you and Katrina can enjoy your wedding night a few days earlier, then you are sorely mistaken.”
“It is a matter of some urgency, Lady Nightstalker.”
Nasuada’s fingers paused in midair, and her eyes narrowed. “How urgent?”
“The sooner we are wed, the better it will be for Katrina’s honor. If you understand me at all, know that I would never ask favors for myself.”
Light shifted on Nasuada’s skin as she tilted her head. “I see…. Why Eragon? Why do you want him to perform the ceremony? Why not someone else: an elder from your village perhaps?”
“Because he is my cousin and I care for him, and because he is a Rider. Katrina lost nearly everything on my account—her home, her father, and her dowry. I cannot replace those things, but I at least want to give her a wedding worth remembering. Without gold or livestock, I cannot pay for a lavish ceremony, so I must find some other means besides wealth to make our wedding memorable, and it seems to me nothing could be more grand than having a Dragon Rider marry us.”
Nasuada held her peace for so long, Roran began to wonder if she expected him to leave. Then: “It would indeed be an honor to have a Dragon Rider marry you, but it would be a sorry day if Katrina had to accept your hand without a proper dowry. The dwarves furnished me with many presents of gold and jewelry when I lived in Tronjheim. Some I have already sold to fund the Varden, but what I have left would still keep a woman clothed in mink and satin for many years to come. They shall be Katrina’s, if you are amenable.”
Startled, Roran bowed again. “Thank you. Your generosity is overwhelming. I don’t know how I can ever repay you.”
“Repay me by fighting for the Varden as you fought for Carvahall.”
“I will, I swear it. Galbatorix will curse the day he ever sent the Ra’zac after me.”
“I’m sure he already does. Now go. You may remain in camp until Eragon returns and marries you to Katrina, but then I expect you to be in the saddle the following morning.”
What a proud man, thought Nasuada as she watched Roran leave the pavilion. It’s interesting; he and Eragon are alike in so many ways, and yet their personalities are fundamentally different. Eragon may be one of the most deadly warriors in Alagaësia, but he isn’t a hard or cruel person. Roran, however, is made of sterner stuff. I hope that he never crosses me; I would have to destroy him in order to stop him.
She checked her bandages and, satisfied that they were still fresh, rang for Farica and ordered her to bring a meal. After her handmaid delivered the food and then retired from the tent, Nasuada signaled Elva, who emerged from her hiding place behind the false panel at the rear of the pavilion. Together, the two of them shared a mid-morning repast.
Nasuada spent the next few hours reviewing the Varden’s latest inventory reports, calculating the number of wagon trains she would need to move the Varden farther north, and adding and subtracting rows of figures that represented the finances of her army. She sent messages to the dwarves and Urgals, ordered the blade-smiths to increase their production of spearheads, threatened the Council of Elders with dissolution—as she did most every week—and otherwise attended to the Varden’s business. Then, with Elva at her side, Nasuada rode out on her stallion, Battle-storm, and met with Trianna, who had captured and was busy interrogating a member of Galbatorix’s spy network, the Black Hand.
As she and Elva left Trianna’s tent, Nasuada became aware of a commotion to the north. She heard shouts and cheers, then a man appeared from among the tents, sprinting toward her. Without a word, her guards formed a tight circle around her, save for one of the Urgals, who planted himself in the path of the runner and hefted his club. The man slowed to a stop before the Urgal and, gasping, shouted, “Lady Nasuada! The elves are here! The elves have arrived!”
For a wild, improbable moment, Nasuada thought he meant Queen Islanzadí and her army, but then she remembered Islanzadí was near Ceunon; not even the elves could move a host across the width of Alagaësia in less than a week. It must be the twelve spellweavers Islanzadí sent to protect Eragon.
“Quick, my horse,” she said, and snapped her fingers. Her forearms burned as she swung herself onto Battle-storm. She waited only long enough for the nearest Urgal to hand her Elva, then drove her heels into the stallion. His muscles surged beneath her as he sprang into a gallop. Bending low over his neck, she steered him down a crude lane between two rows of tents, dodging men and animals and jumping a rain barrel that barred her way. The men did not seem to take offense; they laughed and scrambled after her so they could see the elves with their own eyes.
When she arrived at the northern entrance to the camp, she and Elva dismounted and scanned the horizon for motion.
“There,” said Elva, and pointed.
Nearly two miles away, twelve long, lean figures emerged from behind a stand of juniper trees, their outlines wavering in the morning heat. The elves ran in unison, so light and fast, their feet raised no dust and they appeared to fly over the countryside. Nasuada’s scalp prickled. Their speed was both beautiful and unnatural. They reminded her of a pack of predators chasing their prey. She felt the same sense of danger as when she had seen a Shrrg, a giant wolf, in the Beor Mountains.
“Awe-inspiring, aren’t they?”
Nasuada started to find Angela next to her. She was annoyed and mystified by how the herbalist had been able to sneak up on her. She wished Elva had warned her of Angela’s approach. “How is it you always manage to be present when something interesting is about to occur?”
“Oh well, I like to know what’s going on, and being there is so much faster than waiting for someone to tell me about it afterward. Besides, people always leave out important pieces of information, like whether someone’s ring finger is longer than their index finger, or whether they have magical shields protecting them, or whether the donkey they are riding happens to have a bald patch in the shape of a rooster’s head. Don’t you agree?”
Nasuada frowned. “You never reveal your secrets, do you
“Now, what good would that do? Everyone would get all excited over some piffle of a spell, and then I’d have to spend hours trying to explain, and in the end, King Orrin would want to chop off my head and I would have to fight off half your spellcasters during my escape. It’s just not worth the effort, if you ask me.”
“Your answer hardly inspires confidence. But—”
“That’s because you are too serious, Lady Nightstalker.”
“But tell me,” Nasuada persisted, “why would you want to know if someone is riding a donkey with a bald patch shaped like a rooster’s head?”
“Ah, that. Well, the man who owns that particular donkey cheated me at a game of knucklebones out of three buttons and a rather interesting shard of enchanted crystal.”
Angela pursed her lips, obviously irked. “The knucklebones were loaded. I switched them on him, but then he replaced them with a set of his own when I was distracted…. I’m still not quite sure how he tricked me.”
“So you were both cheating.”
“It was a valuable crystal! Besides, how can you cheat a cheater?”
Before Nasuada could respond, the six Nighthawks came pounding out of the camp and took up positions around her. She hid her distaste as the heat and smell of their bodies assailed her. The odor of the two Urgals was especially pungent. Then, somewhat to her surprise, the captain of the shift, a burly man with a crooked nose and the name of Garven, accosted her. “My Lady, may I have a word with you in private?” He spoke through close-set teeth, as if struggling to contain a great emotion.
Angela and Elva looked at Nasuada for confirmation that she wanted them to withdraw. She nodded, and they began walking west, toward the Jiet River. Once Nasuada was confident they were out of hearing, she began to speak, but Garven overrode her, exclaiming, “Blast it, Lady Nasuada, you shouldn’t have left us as you did!”