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“If they didn’t get what they needed from Garrow, and Eragon fled with Brom, then they must want you.” Baldor paused, letting the words sink in. “We have to get back and warn everyone. Then you have to hide. The strangers are the only ones with horses. We can get there first if we run.”
Roran stared through the brush at the oblivious soldiers. His heart pounded fiercely for revenge, clamoring to attack and fight, to see those two agents of misfortune pierced with arrows and brought to their own justice. It mattered not that he would die as long as he could wash clean his pain and sorrow in one fell moment. All he had to do was break cover. The rest would take care of itself.
Just one small step.
With a choked sob, he clenched his fist and dropped his head.I can’t leave Katrina . He remained rigid—eyes squeezed shut—then with agonizing slowness dragged himself back. “Home then.”
Without waiting for Baldor’s reaction, Roran slipped through the trees as fast as he dared. Once the camp was out of sight, he broke out onto the road and ran down the dirt track, channeling his frustration, anger, and even fear into speed.
Baldor scrambled behind him, gaining on the open stretches. Roran slowed to a comfortable trot and waited for him to draw level before saying, “You spread the word. I’ll talk with Horst.” Baldor nodded, and they pushed on.
After two miles, they stopped to drink and rest briefly. When their panting subsided, they continued through the low hills preceding Carvahall. The rolling ground slowed them considerably, but even so, the village soon burst into view.
Roran immediately broke for the forge, leaving Baldor to make his way to the center of town. As he pounded past the houses, Roran wildly considered schemes to evade or kill the strangers without incurring the wrath of the Empire.
He burst into the forge to catch Horst tapping a peg into the side of Quimby’s wagon, singing:
. . . hey O!
And a ringing and a dinging
Rang from old iron! Wily old iron.
With a beat and a bang on the bones of the land,
I conquered wily old iron!
Horst stopped his mallet in midblow when he saw Roran. “What’s the matter, lad? Is Baldor hurt?”
Roran shook his head and leaned over, gasping for air. In short bursts, he reiterated all they had seen and its possible implications, most importantly that it was now clear the strangers were agents of the Empire.
Horst fingered his beard. “You have to leave Carvahall. Fetch some food from the house, then take my mare—Ivor’s pulling stumps with her—and ride into the foothills. Once we know what the soldiers want, I’ll send Albriech or Baldor with word.”
“What will you say if they ask for me?”
“That you’re out hunting and we don’t know when you’ll return. It’s true enough, and I doubt they’ll chance blundering around in the trees for fear of missing you. Assuming it’s you they’re really after.”
Roran nodded, then turned and ran to Horst’s house. Inside, he grabbed the mare’s tack and bags from the wall, quickly tied turnips, beets, jerky, and a loaf of bread in a knot of blankets, snatched up a tin pot, and dashed out, pausing only long enough to explain the situation to Elain.
The supplies were an awkward bundle in his arms as he jogged east from Carvahall to Ivor’s farm. Ivor himself stood behind the farmhouse, flicking the mare with a willow wand as she strained to tear the hairy roots of an elm tree from the ground.
“Come on now!” shouted the farmer. “Put your back into it!” The horse shuddered with effort, her bit lathered, then with a final surge tilted the stump on its side so the roots reached toward the sky like a cluster of gnarled fingers. Ivor stopped her exertion with a twitch of the reins and patted her good-naturedly. “All right. . . . There we go.”
Roran hailed him from a distance and, when they were close, pointed to the horse. “I need to borrow her.” He gave his reasons.
Ivor swore and began unhitching the mare, grumbling, “Always the moment I get a bit of work done, that’s when the interruption comes. Never before.” He crossed his arms and frowned as Roran cinched the saddle, intent on his work.
When he was ready, Roran swung onto the horse, bow in hand. “I am sorry for the trouble, but it can’t be helped.”
“Well, don’t worry about it. Just make sure you aren’t caught.”
“I’ll do that.”
As he set heels to the mare’s sides, Roran heard Ivor call, “And don’t be hiding up my creek!”
Roran grinned and shook his head, bending low over the horse’s neck. He soon reached the foothills of the Spine and worked his way up to the mountains that formed the north end of Palancar Valley. From there he climbed to a point on the mountainside where he could observe Carvahall without being seen. Then he picketed his steed and settled down to wait.
Roran shivered, eyeing the dark pines. He disliked being this close to the Spine. Hardly anyone from Carvahall dared set foot in the mountain range, and those who did often failed to return.
Before long Roran saw the soldiers march up the road in a double line, two ominous black figures at their head. They were stopped at the edge of Carvahall by a ragged group of men, some of them with picks in hand. The two sides spoke, then simply faced each other, like growling dogs waiting to see who would strike first. After a long moment, the men of Carvahall moved aside and let the intruders pass.