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Eldest: Chapter 4


Roran trudged up the hill.

He stopped and squinted at the sun through his shaggy hair. Five hours till sunset. I won’t be able to stay long. With a sigh, he continued along the row of elm trees, each of which stood in a pool of uncut grass.

This was his first visit to the farm since he, Horst, and six other men from Carvahall had removed everything worth salvaging from the destroyed house and burned barn. It had been nearly five months before he could consider returning.

Once on the hilltop, Roran halted and crossed his arms. Before him lay the remains of his childhood home. A corner of the house still stood—crumbling and charred—but the rest had been flattened and was already covered with grass and weeds. Nothing could be seen of the barn. The few acres they had managed to cultivate each year were now filled with dandelions, wild mustard, and more grass. Here and there, stray beets or turnips had survived, but that was all. Just beyond the farm, a thick belt of trees obscured the Anora River.

Roran clenched a fist, jaw muscles knotting painfully as he fought back a combination of rage and grief. He stayed rooted to the spot for many long minutes, trembling whenever a pleasant memory rushed through him. This place had been his entire life and more. It had been his past … and his future. His father, Garrow, once said, “The land is a special thing. Care for it, and it’ll care for you. Not many things will do that.” Roran had intended to do exactly that up until the moment his world was ruptured by a quiet message from Baldor.

With a groan, he spun away and stalked back toward the road. The shock of that moment still resonated within him. Having everyone he loved torn away in an instant was a soul-changing event from which he would never recover. It had seeped into every aspect of his behavior and outlook.

It also forced Roran to think more than ever before. It was as if bands had been cinched around his mind, and those bands had snapped, allowing him to ponder ideas that were previously unimaginable. Such as the fact that he might not become a farmer, or that justice—the greatest standby in songs and legends—had little hold in reality. At times these thoughts filled his consciousness to the point where he could barely rise in the morning, feeling bloated with their heaviness.

Turning on the road, he headed north through Palancar Valley, back to Carvahall. The notched mountains on either side were laden with snow, despite the spring greenery that had crept over the valley floor in past weeks. Overhead, a single gray cloud drifted toward the peaks.

Roran ran a hand across his chin, feeling the stubble. Eragon caused all this—him and his blasted curiosity—by bringing that stone out of the Spine. It had taken Roran weeks to reach that conclusion. He had listened to everyone’s accounts. Several times he had Gertrude, the town healer, read aloud the letter Brom had left him. And there was no other explanation. Whatever that stone was, it must have attracted the strangers. For that alone, he blamed Garrow’s death on Eragon, though not in anger; he knew that Eragon had intended no harm. No, what roused his fury was that Eragon had left Garrow unburied and fled Palancar Valley, abandoning his responsibilities to gallop off with the old storyteller on some harebrained journey. How could Eragon have so little regard for those left behind? Did he run because he felt guilty? Afraid? Did Brom mislead him with wild tales of adventure? And why would Eragon listen to such things at a time like that? … I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive right now.

Roran scowled and rolled his shoulders, trying to clear his mind. Brom’s letter … Bah! He had never heard a more ridiculous collection of insinuations and ominous hints. The only thing it made clear was to avoid the strangers, which was common sense to begin with. The old man was crazy, he decided.

A flicker of movement caused Roran to turn, and he saw twelve deer—including a young buck with velvet horns—trotting back into the trees. He made sure to note their location so he could find them tomorrow. He was proud that he could hunt well enough to support himself in Horst’s house, though he had never been as skilled as Eragon.

As he walked, he continued to order his thoughts. After Garrow’s death, Roran had abandoned his job at Dempton’s mill in Therinsford and returned to Carvahall. Horst had agreed to house him and, in the following months, had provided him with work in the forge. Grief had delayed Roran’s decisions about the future until two days ago, when he finally settled upon a course of action.

He wanted to marry Katrina, the butcher’s daughter. The reason he went to Therinsford in the first place was to earn money to ensure a smooth beginning to their life together. But now, without a farm, a home, or means to support her, Roran could not in good conscience ask for Katrina’s hand. His pride would not allow it. Nor did Roran think Sloan, her father, would tolerate a suitor with such poor prospects. Even under the best of circumstances, Roran had expected to have a hard time convincing Sloan to give up Katrina; the two of them had never been friendly. And it was impossible for Roran to wed Katrina without her father’s consent, not unless they wished to divide her family, anger the village by defying tradition, and, most likely, start a blood feud with Sloan.

Considering the situation, it seemed to Roran that the only option available to him was to rebuild his farm, even if he had to raise the house and barn himself. It would be hard, starting from nothing, but once his position was secured, he could approach Sloan with his head held high. Next spring is the soonest we might talk, thought Roran, grimacing.

He knew Katrina would wait—for a time, at least.

He continued at a steady pace until evening, when the village came into view. Within the small huddle of buildings, wash hung on lines strung from window to window. Men filed back toward the houses from surrounding fields thick with winter wheat. Behind Carvahall, the half-mile-high Igualda Falls gleamed in the sunset as it tumbled down the Spine into the Anora. The sight warmed Roran because it was so ordinary. Nothing was more comforting than having everything where it should be.

Leaving the road, he made his way up the rise to where Horst’s house sat with a view of the Spine. The door was already open. Roran tromped inside, following the sounds of conversation into the kitchen.

Horst was there, leaning on the rough table pushed into one corner of the room, his arms bare to the elbow. Next to him was his wife, Elain, who was nearly five months pregnant and smiling with quiet contentment. Their sons, Albriech and Baldor, faced them.

As Roran entered, Albriech said, “… and I still hadn’t left the forge yet! Thane swears he saw me, but I was on the other side of town.”

“What’s going on?” asked Roran, slipping off his pack.

Elain exchanged a glance with Horst. “Here, let me get you something to eat.” She set bread and a bowl of cold stew before him. Then she looked him in the eye, as if searching for a particular expression. “How was it?”

Roran shrugged. “All of the wood is either burnt or rotting—nothing worth using. The well is still intact, and that’s something to be grateful for, I suppose. I’ll have to cut timber for the house as soon as possible if I’m going to have a roof over my head by planting season. Now tell me, what’s happened?”

“Ha!” exclaimed Horst. “There’s been quite a row, there has. Thane is missing a scythe and he thinks Albriech took it.”

“He probably dropped it in the grass and forgot where he left it,” snorted Albriech.

“Probably,” agreed Horst, smiling.

Roran bit into the bread. “It doesn’t make much sense, accusing you. If you needed a scythe, you could just forge one.”

“I know,” said Albriech, dropping into a chair, “but instead of looking for his, he starts grousing that he saw someone leaving his field and that it looked a bit like me … and since no one else looks like me, I must have stolen the scythe.”

It was true that no one looked like him. Albriech had inherited both his father’s size and Elain’s honey-blond hair, which made him an oddity in Carvahall, where brown was the predominant hair color. In contrast, Baldor was both thinner and dark-haired.

“I’m sure it’ll turn up,” said Baldor quietly. “Try not to get too angry over it in the meantime.”

“Easy for you to say.”

As Roran finished the last of the bread and started on the stew, he asked Horst, “Do you need me for anything tomorrow?”

“Not especially. I’ll just be working on Quimby’s wagon. The blasted frame still won’t sit square.”

Roran nodded, pleased. “Good. Then I’ll take the day and go hunting. There are a few deer farther down the valley that don’t look too scrawny. Their ribs weren’t showing, at least.”

Baldor suddenly brightened. “Do you want some company?”

“Sure. We can leave at dawn.”

When he finished eating, Roran scrubbed his face and hands clean, then wandered outside to clear his head. Stretching leisurely, he strolled toward the center of town.

Halfway there, the chatter of excited voices outside the Seven Sheaves caught his attention. He turned, curious, and made his way to the tavern, where an odd sight met him. Sitting on the porch was a middle-aged man draped in a patchwork leather coat. Beside him was a pack festooned with the steel jaws of the trappers’ trade. Several dozen villagers listened as he gestured expansively and said, “So when I arrived at Therinsford, I went to this man, Neil. Good, honest man; I help in his fields during the spring and summer.”

Roran nodded. Trappers spent the winter squirreled away in the mountains, returning in the spring to sell their skins to tanners like Gedric and then to take up work, usually as farmhands. Since Carvahall was the northernmost village in the Spine, many trappers passed through it, which was one of the reasons Carvahall had its own tavern, blacksmith, and tanner.

“After a few steins of ale—to lubricate my speaking, you understand, after a ’alf year with nary a word uttered, except perhaps for blaspheming the world and all beyond when losing a bear-biter—I come to Neil, the froth still fresh on my beard, and start exchanging gossip. As our transaction proceeds, I ask him all gregarious-like, what news of the Empire or the king—may he rot with gangrene and trench mouth. Was anyone born or died or banished that I should know of? And then guess what? Neil leaned forward, going all serious ’bout the mouth, and said that word is going around, there is, from Dras-Leona and Gil’ead of strange happenings here, there, and everywhere in Alagaësia. The Urgals have fair disappeared from civilized lands, and good riddance, but not one man can tell why or where. ’Alf the trade in the Empire has dried up as a result of raids and attacks and, from what I heard, it isn’t the work of mere brigands, for the attacks are too widespread, too calculated. No goods are stolen, only burned or soiled. But that’s not the end of it, oh no, not by the tip of your blessed grandmother’s whiskers.”

The trapper shook his head and took a sip from his wineskin before continuing: “There be mutterings of a Shade haunting the northern territories. He’s been seen along the edge of Du Weldenvarden and near Gil’ead. They say his teeth are filed to points, his eyes are as red as wine, and his hair is as red as the blood he drinks. Worse, something seems to have gotten our fine, mad monarch’s dander up, so it has. Five days past, a juggler from the south stopped in Therinsford on his lonesome way to Ceunon, and he said that troops have been moving and gathering, though for what was beyond him.” He shrugged. “As my pap taught me when I was a suckling babe, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Perhaps it’s the Varden. They’ve caused old Iron Bones enough pain in the arse over the years. Or perhaps Galbatorix finally decided he’s had enough of tolerating Surda. At least he knows where to find it, unlike those rebels. He’ll crush Surda like a bear crushes an ant, he will.”

Roran blinked as a babble of questions exploded around the trapper. He was inclined to doubt the report of a Shade—it sounded too much like a story a drunk woodsman might invent—but the rest of it all sounded bad enough to be true. Surda … Little information reached Carvahall about that distant country, but Roran at least knew that, although Surda and the Empire were ostensibly at peace, Surdans lived in constant fear that their more powerful neighbor to the north would invade them. For that reason, it was said that Orrin, their king, supported the Varden.

If the trapper was right about Galbatorix, then it could mean ugly war crouched in the future, accompanied by the hardships of increased taxes and forced conscription. I would rather live in an age devoid of momentous events. Upheaval makes already difficult lives, such as ours, nigh impossible.

“What’s more, there have even been tales of …” Here the trapper paused and, with a knowing expression, tapped the side of his nose with his forefinger. “Tales of a new Rider in Alagaësia.” He laughed then, a big, hearty laugh, slapping his belly as he rocked back on the porch.

Roran laughed as well. Stories of Riders appeared every few years. They had excited his interest the first two or three times, but he soon learned not to trust such accounts, for they all came to naught. The rumors were nothing more than wishful thinking on the part of those who longed for a brighter future.

He was about to head off when he noticed Katrina standing by the corner of the tavern, garbed in a long russet dress decorated with green ribbon. She gazed at him with the same intensity with which he gazed at her. Going over, he touched her on the shoulder and, together, they slipped away.

They walked to the edge of Carvahall, where they stood looking at the stars. The heavens were brilliant, shimmering with thousands of celestial fires. And arching above them, from north to south, was the glorious pearly band that streamed from horizon to horizon, like diamond dust tossed from a pitcher.

Without looking at him, Katrina rested her head on Roran’s shoulder and asked, “How was your day?”

“I returned home.” He felt her stiffen against him.

“What was it like?”

“Terrible.” His voice caught and he fell silent, holding her tightly. The scent of her copper hair on his cheek was like an elixir of wine and spice and perfume. It seeped deep inside him, warm and comforting. “The house, the barn, the fields, they’re all being overrun.… I wouldn’t have found them if I didn’t know where to look.”

She finally turned to face him, stars flashing in her eyes, sorrow on her face. “Oh, Roran.” She kissed him, lips brushing his for a brief moment. “You have endured so much loss, and yet your strength has never failed you. Will you return to your farm now?”

“Aye. Farming is all I know.”

“And what shall become of me?”

He hesitated. From the moment he began to court her, an unspoken assumption that they would marry had existed between them. There had been no need to discuss his intentions; they were as plain as the day was long, and so her question unsettled him. It also felt improper to address the issue in such an open manner when he was not ready to tender an offer. It was his place to make the overtures—first to Sloan and then to Katrina—not hers. Still, he had to deal with her concern now that it had been expressed. “Katrina … I cannot approach your father as I had planned. He would laugh at me, and rightly so. We have to wait. Once I have a place for us to live and I’ve collected my first harvest, then he will listen to me.”

She faced the sky once more and whispered something so faint, he could not make it out. “What?”

“I said, are you afraid of him?”

“Of course not! I—”

“Then you must get his permission, tomorrow, and set the engagement. Make him understand that, though you have nothing now, you will give me a good home and be a son-in-law he can be proud of. There’s no reason we should waste our years living apart when we feel like this.”

“I can’t do that,” he said with a note of despair, willing her to understand. “I can’t provide for you, I can’t—”

“Don’t you understand?” She stepped away, her voice strained with urgency. “I love you, Roran, and I want to be with you, but Father has other plans for me. There are far more eligible men than you, and the longer you delay, the more he presses me to consent to a match of which he approves. He fears I will become an old maid, and I fear that too. I have only so much time or choice in Carvahall.… If I must take another, I will.” Tears glistened in her eyes as she gave him a searching glance, waiting for his response, then gathered up her dress and rushed back to the houses.

Roran stood there, motionless with shock. Her absence was as acute for him as losing the farm—the world suddenly gone cold and unfriendly. It was as if part of himself had been torn away.

It was hours before he could return to Horst’s and slip into bed.


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