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Eldest: Chapter 30

REPERCUSSIONS

The morning after his speech, Roran looked out his window and saw twelve men leaving Carvahall, heading toward Igualda Falls. He yawned and limped downstairs to the kitchen.

Horst sat alone at the table, twisting a mug of ale in his hands. “Morning,” he said.

Roran grunted, tore a heel of bread off the loaf on the counter, then seated himself at the opposite end of the table. As he ate, he noted Horst’s bloodshot eyes and unkempt beard. Roran guessed that the smith had been awake the entire night. “Do you know why a group is going up—”

“Have to talk with their families,” said Horst abruptly. “They’ve been running into the Spine since dawn.” He put the mug down with a crack. “You have no idea what you did, Roran, by asking us to leave. The whole village is in turmoil. You backed us into a corner with only one way out: your way. Some people hate you for it. Of course a fair number of them already hated you for bringing this upon us.”

The bread in Roran’s mouth tasted like sawdust as resentment flared inside him. Eragon was the one who brought back the stone, not me. “And the others?”

Horst sipped his ale and grimaced. “The others adore you. I never thought I would see the day when Garrow’s son would stir my heart with words, but you did it, boy, you did it.” He swung a gnarled hand over his head. “All this? I built it for Elain and my sons. It took me seven years to finish! See that beam over the door right there? I broke three toes getting that into place. And you know what? I’m going to give it up because of what you said last night.”

Roran remained silent; it was what he wanted. Leaving Carvahall was the right thing to do, and since he had committed himself to that course, he saw no reason to torment himself with guilt and regret. The decision is made. I will accept the outcome without complaint, no matter how dire, for this is our only escape from the Empire.

“But,” said Horst, and leaned forward on one elbow, his black eyes burning beneath his brow, “just you remember that if reality falls short of the airy dreams you conjured, there’ll be debts to pay. Give people a hope and then take it away, and they’ll destroy you.”

The prospect was of no concern to Roran. If we make it to Surda, we will be greeted as heroes by the rebels. If we don’t, our deaths will fulfill all debts. When it was clear that the smith had finished, Roran asked, “Where is Elain?”

Horst scowled at the change of topic. “Out back.” He stood and straightened his tunic over his heavy shoulders. “I have to go clear out the smithy and decide what tools I’m going to take. I’ll hide or destroy the rest. The Empire won’t benefit from my work.”

“I’ll help.” Roran pushed back his chair.

“No,” said Horst roughly. “This is a task I can only do with Albriech and Baldor. That forge has been my entire life, and theirs.… You wouldn’t be much help with that arm of yours anyway. Stay here. Elain can use you.”

After the smith left, Roran opened the side door and found Elain talking with Gertrude by the large pile of firewood Horst maintained year-round. The healer went up to Roran and put a hand on his forehead. “Ah, I was afraid that you might have a fever after yesterday’s excitement. Your family heals at the most extraordinary rate. I could barely believe my eyes when Eragon started walking about after having his legs skinned and spending two days in bed.” Roran stiffened at the mention of his cousin, but she did not seem to notice. “Let’s see how your shoulder is doing, shall we?”

Roran bowed his neck so that Gertrude could reach behind him and untie the knot to the wool sling. When it was undone, he carefully lowered his right forearm—which was immobilized in a splint—until his arm was straight. Gertrude slid her fingers under the poultice packed on his wound and peeled it off.

“Oh my,” she said.

A thick, rancid smell clogged the air. Roran clenched his teeth as his gorge rose, then looked down. The skin under the poultice had turned white and spongy, like a giant birthmark of maggot flesh. The bite itself had been stitched up while he was unconscious, so all he saw was a jagged pink line caked with blood on the front of his shoulder. Swelling and inflammation had forced the twisted catgut threads to cut deep into his flesh, while beads of clear liquid oozed from the wound.

Gertrude clucked her tongue as she inspected him, then refastened the bandages and looked Roran in the eye. “You’re doing well enough, but the tissue may become diseased. I can’t tell yet. If it does, we’ll have to cauterize your shoulder.”

Roran nodded. “Will my arm work once it heals?”

“As long as the muscle knits together properly. It also depends on how you want to use it. You—”

“Will I be able to fight?”

“If you want to fight,” said Gertrude slowly, “I suggest that you learn to use your left hand.” She patted his cheek, then hurried back toward her hut.

My arm. Roran stared at his bound limb as if it no longer belonged to him. Until that moment, he had not realized how closely his sense of identity was linked to the condition of his body. Injuring his flesh caused injury to his psyche, as well as the other way around. Roran was proud of his body, and seeing it mutilated sent a jolt of panic through him, especially since the damage was permanent. Even if he regained the use of his arm, he would always bear a thick scar as a memento of his injury.

Taking his hand, Elain led Roran back into the house, where she crumbled mint into a kettle, then set it on the stove to boil. “You really love her, don’t you?”

“What?” He looked at her, startled.

Elain rested a hand on her belly. “Katrina.” She smiled. “I’m not blind. I know what you’ve done for her, and I’m proud of you. Not every man would go as far.”

“It won’t matter, if I can’t free her.”

The kettle began to whistle stridently. “You will, I’m sure of it—one way or another.” Elain poured the tea. “We had better start preparing for the trip. I’m going to sort through the kitchen first. While I do, can you go upstairs and bring me all the clothes, bedding, and anything else you think might be useful?”

“Where should I put it?” asked Roran.

“The dining room will be fine.”

Since the mountains were too steep—and the forest too dense—for wagons, Roran realized that their supplies were limited to however much they could carry themselves, as well as what they could pile onto Horst’s two horses, although one of those had to be left partially unburdened so that Elain could ride whenever the trail proved too strenuous for her pregnancy.

Compounding the issue was the fact that some families in Carvahall did not have enough steeds for both provisions and the young, old, and infirm who would be unable to keep pace on foot. Everyone would have to share resources. The question, though, was with whom? They still did not know who else was going, besides Birgit and Delwin.

Thus, when Elain finished packing the items she deemed essential—mainly food and shelter—she sent Roran to find out if anyone needed extra storage space and, if not, if she could borrow some in turn, for there were plenty of nonessential items she wanted to bring but would otherwise abandon.

Despite the people hurrying through the streets, Carvahall was heavy with a forced stillness, an unnatural calm that belied the feverish activity hidden within the houses. Almost everyone was silent and walked with downturned faces, engrossed in their own thoughts.

When Roran arrived at Orval’s house, he had to pound on the knocker for almost a minute before the farmer answered the door. “Oh, it’s you, Stronghammer.” Orval stepped out on the porch. “Sorry for the wait, but I was busy. How can I help you?” He tapped a long black pipe against his palm, then began to roll it nervously between his fingers. Inside the house, Roran heard chairs being shoved across the floor and pots and pans banging together.

Roran quickly explained Elain’s offer and request. Orval squinted up at the sky. “I reckon I’ve got enough room for my own stuff. Ask around, an’ if you still need space, I have a pair of oxen that could hold a bit more.”

“So you are going?”

Orval shifted uncomfortably. “Well, I wouldn’t say that. We’re just … getting ready in case of another attack.”

“Ah.” Puzzled, Roran trudged on to Kiselt’s house. He soon discovered that no one was willing to reveal whether they had decided to leave—even when evidence of their preparations was in plain sight.

And they all treated Roran with a deference that he found unsettling. It manifested itself in small gestures: offers of condolences for his misfortune, respectful silence whenever he spoke, and murmurs of assent when he made a statement. It was as if his deeds had inflated his stature and intimidated the people he had known since childhood, distancing him from them.

I am branded, thought Roran, limping through the mud. He stopped at the edge of a puddle and bent to examine his reflection, curious if he could discern what made him so different.

He saw a man in ragged, blood-stained clothes, with a humped back and a crooked arm tied across his chest. His neck and cheeks were scumbled with an impending beard, while his hair was matted into snarled ropes that writhed in a halo around his head. Most frightening of all, though, were his eyes, which had sunk deep into the sockets, giving him a haunted appearance. From within those two morbid caverns, his gaze boiled like molten steel, full of loss, rage, and an obsessive craving.

A lopsided smile crept across Roran’s face, rendering his visage even more shocking. He liked how he looked. It matched his feelings. Now he understood how he had managed to influence the villagers. He bared his teeth. I can use this image. I can use it to destroy the Ra’zac.

Lifting his head, he slouched up the street, pleased with himself. Just then, Thane approached him and grasped his left forearm in a hearty grip. “Stronghammer! You don’t know how glad I am to see you.”

“You are?” Roran wondered if the whole world had been turned inside out during the night.

Thane nodded vigorously. “Ever since we attacked the soldiers, everything has seemed hopeless to me. It pains me to admit it, but so it was. My heart pounded all the time, like I was about to fall down a well; my hands shook; and I felt dreadfully ill. I thought someone had poisoned me! It was worse than death. But what you said yesterday healed me instantly and let me see purpose and meaning in the world again! I … I can’t even explain the horror you saved me from. I am in your debt. If you need or want anything, just ask and I’ll help.”

Moved, Roran gripped the farmer’s forearm in return and said, “Thank you, Thane. Thank you.” Thane bowed his head, tears in his eyes, then released Roran and left him standing alone in the middle of the street.

What have I done?


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