Page 11

 Christopher Paolini

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“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 forwhat 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.