“Charge!” shouted Roran, and dug his heels into Snowfire’s sides. He ducked behind his shield as Snowfire carried him through the net of branches, then lowered it again when they were in the open, flying down the side of the hill, with the thunder of hoofbeats surrounding them. Desperate to save the woman and the boy, Roran urged Snowfire to the limit of his speed. Looking back, he was heartened to see that his contingent of men had separated from the rest of the Varden without too much trouble; aside from a few stragglers, the majority were in a single bunch not thirty feet behind him.
Roran glimpsed Carn riding at the vanguard of Edric’s men, his gray cloak flapping in the wind. Once again, Roran wished Edric had allowed them to remain in the same group.
As were his orders, Roran did not enter the village head-on, but rather veered to the left and rode around the buildings, so as to flank the soldiers and attack them from another direction. Sand did the same on the right, while Edric and his warriors drove straight into the village.
A line of houses concealed the initial clash from Roran, but he heard a chorus of frantic shouts, then a series of strange, metallic twangs, and then the screams of men and horses.
Worry knotted Roran’s gut. What was that noise? Could it be metal bows? Do they exist? Regardless of the cause, he knew there should not have been so many horses crying out in agony. Roran’s limbs went cold as he realized with utter certainty that the attack had somehow gone wrong and that the battle might already be lost.
He pulled hard on Snowfire’s reins as they passed the last house, steering him toward the center of the village. Behind him, his men did the same. Two hundred yards ahead, Roran saw a triple line of soldiers positioned between two houses, so as to block their way. The soldiers seemed unafraid of the horses racing toward them.
Roran hesitated. His orders were clear: he and his men were to charge the western flank and cut their way through Galbatorix’s troops until they rejoined Sand and Edric. However, Edric had not told Roran what he should do if riding straight up to the soldiers no longer seemed a good idea once he and his men were in position. And Roran knew that if he deviated from his orders, even if it was to prevent his men from being massacred, he would be guilty of insubordination and Edric could punish him accordingly.
Then the soldiers swept aside their voluminous cloaks and raised drawn crossbows to their shoulders.
In that instant, Roran decided that he would do whatever was necessary in order to ensure the Varden won the battle. He was not about to let the soldiers destroy his force with a single volley of arrows just because he wished to avoid the unpleasant consequences of defying his captain.
“Take cover!” shouted Roran, and wrenched Snowfire’s head to the right, forcing the animal to swerve behind a house. A dozen quarrels buried themselves in the side of the building a second later. Turning around, Roran saw that all but one of his warriors had managed to duck behind nearby houses before the soldiers fired. The man who had been too slow lay bleeding in the dirt, a pair of quarrels projecting from his chest. The bolts had torn through his mail hauberk as if it were no thicker than a sheet of tissue. Frightened by the smell of blood, his horse kicked up its heels and fled the village, leaving a plume of dust rising in its wake.
Roran reached over and grasped the edge of a beam in the side of the house, holding Snowfire in place while he desperately tried to figure out how to proceed. The soldiers had him and his men pinned down; they could not step back out into the open without being shot so full of quarrels, they would resemble hedgehogs.
A group of Roran’s warriors rode up to him from a house that his own building partially shielded from the soldiers’ line of sight. “What should we do, Stronghammer?” they asked him. They did not seem bothered by the fact that he had disobeyed his orders; to the contrary, they looked at him with expressions of newfound trust.
Thinking as fast as he could, Roran cast his gaze around. By chance, his eyes alighted upon the bow and quiver strapped behind one of the men’s saddles. Roran smiled. Only a few of the warriors fought as archers, but they all carried a bow and arrows so they could hunt for food and help feed the company when they were alone in the wilderness, without support from the rest of the Varden.
Roran pointed toward the house he was leaning against and said, “Take your bows and climb onto the roof, as many of you as will fit, but if you value your lives, stay out of sight until I say otherwise. When I tell you to, start shooting and keep shooting until you run out of arrows or until every last soldier is dead. Understood?”
“Get going, then. The rest of you, find buildings of your own where you can pick off the soldiers. Harald, spread the word to everyone else, and find ten of our best spearmen and ten of our best swordsmen and bring them here as fast as you can.”
With a flurry of motion, the warriors hurried to obey. Those who were closest to Roran retrieved their bows and quivers from behind their saddles and then, standing upon the backs of their horses, pulled themselves onto the thatched roof of the house. Four minutes later, the majority of Roran’s men were in place on the roofs of seven different houses—with about eight men per roof—and Harald had returned with the requested swordsmen and spearmen in tow.
To the warriors gathered around him, Roran said, “Right, now listen. When I give the order, the men up there will start shooting. As soon as the first flight of arrows strikes the soldiers, we’re going to ride out and attempt to rescue Captain Edric. If we can’t, we’ll have to settle for giving the red-tunics a taste of good cold steel. The archers should provide enough confusion for us to close with the soldiers before they can use their crossbows. Am I understood?”
“Then fire!” Roran shouted.
With full-throated yells, the men stationed on the houses rose up above the ridges of the roofs and, as one, fired their bows at the soldiers below. The swarm of arrows whistled through the air like bloodthirsty shrikes diving toward their prey.
An instant later, when soldiers began to howl with agony at their wounds, Roran said, “Now ride!” and jabbed his heels into Snowfire.
Together, he and his men galloped around the side of the house, pulling their steeds into such a tight turn that they nearly fell over. Relying on his speed and the skill of the archers for protection, Roran skirted the soldiers, who were flailing in disarray, until he came upon the site of Edric’s disastrous charge. There the ground was slick with blood, and the corpses of many good men and fine horses littered the space between the houses. Edric’s remaining forces were engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the soldiers. To Roran’s surprise, Edric was still alive, fighting back to back with five of his men.
“Stay with me!” Roran shouted to his companions as they raced into the battle.
Lashing out with his hooves, Snowfire knocked two soldiers to the ground, breaking their sword arms and staving in their rib cages. Pleased with the stallion, Roran laid about himself with his hammer, snarling with the fierce joy of battle as he felled soldier after soldier, none of whom could withstand the ferocity of his assault. “To me!” he shouted as he drew abreast of Edric and the other survivors. “To me!” In front of him, arrows continued to rain down upon the mass of soldiers, forcing them to cover themselves with their shields while at the same time trying to fend off the Varden’s swords and spears.
Once he and his warriors had surrounded the Varden who were on foot, Roran shouted, “Back! Back! To the houses!” Step by step, the lot of them withdrew until they were out of reach of the soldiers’ blades, and then they turned and ran toward the nearest house. The soldiers shot and killed three of the Varden along the way, but the rest arrived at the building unharmed.
Edric slumped against the side of the house, gasping for breath. When again he was able to speak, he gestured at Roran’s men and said, “Your intervention is most timely and welcome, Stronghammer, but why do I see you here, and not riding out from among the
soldiers, as I expected?”
Then Roran explained what he had done and pointed out the archers on the roofs.
A dark scowl appeared on Edric’s brow as he listened to Roran’s account. However, he did not chastise Roran for his disobedience but merely said, “Have those men come down at once. They have succeeded in breaking the soldiers’ discipline. Now we must rely upon honest blade-work to dispose of them.”
“There are too few of us left to attack the soldiers directly!” protested Roran. “They outnumber us better than three to one.”
“Then we shall make up in valor what we lack in numbers!” Edric bellowed. “I was told you had courage, Stronghammer, but obviously rumor is mistaken and you are as timid as a frightened rabbit. Now do as you’re told, and do not question me again!” The captain indicated one of Roran’s warriors. “You there, lend me your steed.” After the man dismounted, Edric pulled himself into the saddle and said, “Half of you on horse, follow me; I go to reinforce Sand. Everyone else, remain with Roran.” Kicking his mount in the sides, Edric galloped away with the men who chose to follow him, racing from building to building as they worked their way around the soldiers clumped in the center of the village.
Roran shook with fury as he watched them depart. Never before had he allowed anyone to question his courage without answering his critic with words or blows. So long as the battle persisted, however, it would be inappropriate for him to confront Edric. Very well, Roran thought, I shall demonstrate to Edric the courage he thinks I lack. But that is all he shall have from me. I will not send the archers to fight the soldiers face to face when they are safer and more effective where they are.
Roran turned and inspected the men Edric had left to him. Among those they had rescued, Roran was delighted to see Carn, who was scratched and bloody but, on the whole, unharmed. They nodded to each other, and then Roran addressed the group: “You have heard what Edric said. I disagree. If we do as he wishes, all of us will end up piled in a cairn before sunset. We can still win this battle, but not by marching to our own deaths! What we lack in numbers, we can make up with cunning. You know how I came to join the Varden. You know I have fought and defeated the Empire before, and in just such a village! This I can do, I swear to you. But I cannot do it alone. Will you follow me? Think carefully. I will claim responsibility for ignoring Edric’s orders, but he and Nasuada may still punish everyone who was involved.”
“Then they would be fools,” growled Carn. “Would they prefer that we died here? No, I think not. You may count on me, Roran.”
As Carn made his declaration, Roran saw how the other men squared their shoulders and set their jaws and how their eyes burned with renewed determination, and he knew they had decided to cast their lot with him, if only because they would not want to be parted from the only magician in their company. Many was the warrior of the Varden who owed his life to a member of Du Vrangr Gata, and the men-at-arms Roran had met would sooner stab themselves in a foot than go into battle without a spellcaster close at hand.
“Aye,” said Harald. “You may count on us as well, Stronghammer.”
“Then follow me!” said Roran. Reaching down, he pulled Carn up onto Snowfire behind himself, then hurried with his group back around the village to where the bowmen on the roofs continued to fire arrows at the soldiers. As Roran and the men with him dashed from house to house, quarrels buzzed past them—sounding like giant, angry insects—and one even buried itself halfway through Harald’s shield.
Once they were safely behind cover, Roran had the men who were still mounted give their bows and arrows to the men on foot, whom he then sent to climb the houses and join the other archers. As they scrambled to obey him, Roran beckoned to Carn, who had jumped off Snowfire the moment they ceased moving, and said, “I need a spell of you. Can you shield me and ten others from these bolts?”
Carn hesitated. “For how long?”
“A minute? An hour? Who knows?”
“Shielding that many people from more than a handful of bolts would soon exceed the bounds of my strength…. Although, if you don’t care if I stop the bolts in their tracks, I could deflect them from you, which—”
“That would be fine.”
“Who exactly do you want me to protect?”
Roran pointed at the men he had picked to join him, and Carn asked each of them their names. Standing with his shoulders hunched inward, Carn began to mutter in the ancient language, his face pale and strained. Three times he tried to cast the spell, and three times he failed. “I’m sorry,” he said, and released an unsteady breath. “I can’t seem to concentrate.”
“Blast it, don’t apologize,” growled Roran. “Just do it!” Leaping down from Snowfire, he grasped Carn on either side of his head, holding him in place. “Look at me! Look into the center of my eyes. That’s it. Keep staring at me…. Good. Now place the ward around us.”
Carn’s features cleared and his shoulders loosened, and then, in a confident voice, he recited the incantation. As he uttered the last word, he sagged slightly in Roran’s grip before recovering. “It is done,” he said.
Roran patted him on the shoulder, then clambered into Snowfire’s saddle again. Sweeping his gaze over the ten horsemen, he said, “Guard my sides and my back, but otherwise keep behind me so long as I am able to swing my hammer.”
“Remember, the bolts cannot harm you now. Carn, you stay here. Don’t move too much; conserve your strength. If you feel like you can’t maintain the spell any longer, signal us before you end it. Agreed?”
Carn sat on the front step of the house and nodded. “Agreed.”
Renewing his grip on his shield and hammer, Roran took a deep breath, attempting to calm himself. “Brace yourselves,” he said, and clucked his tongue to Snowfire.
With the ten horsemen following, Roran rode out into the middle of the dirt street that ran between the houses and faced the soldiers once more. Five hundred or so of Galbatorix’s troops remained in the center of the village, most of them crouching or kneeling behind their shields while they struggled to reload their crossbows. Occasionally, a soldier would stand and loose a bolt at one of the archers on the roofs before dropping back behind his shield as a flight of arrows sliced through the air where he had just been. Throughout the corpse-strewn clearing, patches of arrows studded the ground, like reeds sprouting from the bloody soil. Several hundred feet away, on the far side of the soldiers, Roran could see a knot of thrashing bodies, and he assumed that was where Sand, Edric, and whatever remained of their forces were fighting the soldiers. If the young woman and the boy were still in the clearing, he did not notice them.
A quarrel buzzed toward Roran. When the bolt was less than a yard from his chest, it abruptly changed direction and hurtled off at an angle, missing him and his men. Roran flinched, but the missile was already past. His throat constricted, and his heartbeat doubled.
Glancing around, Roran spotted a broken wagon leaning against a house off to his left. He pointed at it and said, “Pull that over here and lay it upside down. Block as much of the street as you can.” To the archers, he shouted, “Don’t let the soldiers sneak around and attack us from the sides! When they come at us, thin out their ranks as much as you can. And as soon as you run out of arrows, come join us.”
“Just be careful you don’t shoot us by accident, or I swear I’ll haunt your halls for the rest of time!”
More quarrels flew at Roran and the other horsemen in the street, but in every case, the bolts glanced off Carn’s ward and veered into a wall or the ground or vanished into the sky.
Roran watched his men drag the wagon into the street. When they were nearly finished, he lifted his chin, filled his lungs, and then, projecting his voice toward the soldiers, he roared, “Ho there, you cowering carrion dogs! See how only eleven of us bar your way. Win past us, and you win your freedom. Try your hand if you have the guts. What? You hesita
te? Where is your manhood, you deformed maggots, you bilious, swine-faced murderers? Your fathers were dribbling half-wits who should have been drowned at birth! Aye, and your mothers were poxy trollops and the consorts of Urgals!” Roran smiled with satisfaction as several of the soldiers howled with outrage and began to insult him in return. One of the soldiers, however, seemed to lose his will to continue fighting, for he sprang to his feet and ran northward, covering himself with his shield and darting from side to side in a desperate attempt to avoid the archers. Despite his efforts, the Varden shot him dead before he had gone more than a hundred feet. “Ha!” exclaimed Roran. “Cowards you are, every last one of you, you verminous river rats! If it will give you spine, then know this: Roran Stronghammer is my name, and Eragon Shadeslayer is my cousin! Kill me, and that foul king of yours will reward you with an earldom, or more. But you will have to kill me with a blade; your crossbows are of no use against me. Come now, you slugs; you leeches; you starving, white-bellied ticks! Come and best me if you can!”
With a flurry of battle-cries, a group of thirty soldiers dropped their crossbows, drew their flashing swords, and, with shields held high, ran toward Roran and his men.
From over his right shoulder, Roran heard Harald say, “Sir, there are many more of them than us.”
“Aye,” Roran said, keeping his eyes fixed on the approaching soldiers. Four of them stumbled and then lay motionless on the ground, pierced through by numerous shafts.
“If they all charge us at once, we won’t stand a chance.”
“Yes, but they won’t. Look, they’re confused and disorganized. Their commander must have fallen. As long as we maintain order, they cannot overwhelm us.”
“But, Stronghammer, we cannot kill that many men ourselves!”
Roran glanced back at Harald. “Of course we can! We fight to protect our families and to reclaim our homes and our lands. They fight because Galbatorix forces them to. They have not the heart for this battle. So think of your families, think of your homes, and remember it is they you are defending. A man who fights for something greater than himself may kill a hundred enemies with ease!” As he spoke, Roran saw in his mind an image of Katrina clad in her blue wedding dress, and he smelled the scent of her skin, and he heard the muted tones of her voice from their discussions late at night.