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“And that’s why you were up so early.” It was no question.
In fact, Roran had been too worried to sleep at all. He had spent the entire night thinking about Katrina, trying to find a solution to their predicament. “I can’t bear to lose her. But I don’t think Sloan will give us his blessing, what with my position and all.”
“No, I don’t think he would,” agreed Baldor. He glanced at Roran out of the corner of his eye. “What is it you want my advice on, though?”
A snort of laughter escaped Roran. “How can I convince Sloan otherwise? How can I resolve this dilemma without starting a blood feud?” He threw his hands up. “What should I do?”
“Have you no ideas?”
“I do, but not of a sort I find pleasing. It occurred to me that Katrina and I could simply announce we were engaged—not that we are yet—and hang the consequences. That would force Sloan to accept our betrothal.”
A frown creased Baldor’s brow. He said carefully, “Maybe, but it would also create a slew of bad feelings throughout Carvahall. Few would approve of your actions. Nor would it be wise to force Katrina to choose between you or her family; she might resent you for it in years to come.”
“I know, but what alternative do I have?”
“Before you take such a drastic step, I recommend you try to win Sloan over as an ally. There’s a chance you might succeed, after all, if it’s made clear to him that no one else will want to marry an angry Katrina. Especially when you’re around to cuckold the husband.” Roran grimaced and kept his gaze on the ground. Baldor laughed. “If you fail, well then, you can proceed with confidence, knowing that you have indeed exhausted all other routes. And people will be less likely to spit upon you for breaking tradition and more likely to say Sloan’s bullheaded ways brought it upon himself.”
“Neither course is easy.”
“You knew that to begin with.” Baldor grew somber again. “No doubt there’ll be harsh words if you challenge Sloan, but things will settle down in the end—perhaps not comfortably, but at least bearably. Aside from Sloan, the only people you’ll really offend are prudes like Quimby, though how Quimby can brew such a hale drink yet be so starched and bitter himself is beyond me.”
Roran nodded, understanding. Grudges could simmer for years in Carvahall. “I’m glad we could talk. It’s been . . .” He faltered, thinking of all the discussions he and Eragon used to share. They had been, as Eragon once said, brothers in all but blood. It had been deeply comforting to know that someone existed who would listen to him, no matter the time or circumstances. And to know that person would always help him, no matter the cost.
The absence of such a bond left Roran feeling empty.
Baldor did not press him to finish his sentence, but instead stopped to drink from his waterskin. Roran continued for a few yards, then halted as a scent intruded on his thoughts.
It was the heavy odor of seared meat and charred pine boughs.Who would be here besides us? Breathing deeply, he turned in a circle, trying to determine the source of the fire. A slight gust brushed past him from farther down the road, carrying a hot, smoky wave. The aroma of food was intense enough to make his mouth water.
He beckoned to Baldor, who hurried to his side. “Smell that?”
Baldor nodded. Together they returned to the road and followed it south. About a hundred feet away, it bent around a copse of cottonwoods and curved out of view. As they approached the turn, the rise and fall of voices reached them, muffled by the thick layer of morning fog over the valley.
At the copse’s fringe, Roran slowed to a stop. It was foolish to surprise people when they too might be out hunting. Still, something bothered him. Perhaps it was the number of voices; the group seemed bigger than any family in the valley. Without thinking, he stepped off the road and slipped behind the underbrush lining the copse.
“What are you doing?” whispered Baldor.
Roran put a finger to his lips, then crept along, parallel to the road, keeping his footsteps as quiet as possible. As they rounded the bend, he froze.
On the grass by the road was a camp of soldiers. Thirty helmets gleamed in a shaft of morning light as their owners devoured fowl and stew cooked over several fires. The men were mud splattered and travel stained, but Galbatorix’s symbol was still visible on their red tunics, a twisting flame outlined in gold thread. Underneath the tunics, they wore leather brigandines—heavy with riveted squares of steel—mail shirts, and then padded gambesons. Most of the soldiers bore broadswords, though half a dozen were archers and another half-dozen carried wicked-looking halberds.
And hunched in their midst were two twisted black forms that Roran recognized from the numerous descriptions the villagers provided upon his return from Therinsford: the strangers who had destroyed his farm. His blood chilled.They’re servants of the Empire! He began to step forward, fingers already reaching for an arrow, when Baldor grabbed his jerkin and dragged him to the ground.
“Don’t. You’ll get us both killed.”
Roran glared at him, then snarled. “That’s . . . they’re the bastards . . .” He stopped, noticing that his hands were shaking.“They’ve returned!”
“Roran,” whispered Baldor intently, “you can’t do anything. Look, they work for the king. Even if you managed to escape, you’d be an outlaw everywhere, and you’d bring disaster on Carvahall.”