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“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 washis 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 youunderstand ?” 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.
Dirt crunched under Roran’s boots as he led the way down the valley, which was cool and pale in the early hours of the overcast morning. Baldor followed close behind, both of them carrying strung bows. Neither spoke as they studied their surroundings for signs of the deer.
“There,” said Baldor in a low voice, pointing at a set of tracks leading toward a bramble on the edge of the Anora.
Roran nodded and started after the spoor. It looked about a day old, so he risked speaking. “Could I have your advice, Baldor? You seem to have a good understanding of people.”
“Of course. What is it?”
For a long time, the pad of their feet was the only noise. “Sloan wants to marry off Katrina, and not to me. Every day that passes increases the chance he will arrange a union to his liking.”
“What does Katrina say of this?”
Roran shrugged. “He is her father. She cannot continue to defy his will when no one shedoes want has stepped forward to claim her.”
“That is, you.”