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By evening the soldiers had set up camp in a field adjacent to the village. Their tents formed a low gray block that flickered with weird shadows as sentries patrolled the perimeter. In the center of the block, a large fire sent billows of smoke into the air.
Roran had made his own camp, and now he simply watched and thought. He always assumed that when the strangers destroyed his home, they got what they wanted, which was the stone Eragon brought from the Spine.They must not have found it, he decided.Perhaps Eragon managed to escape with the stone. . . . Perhaps he felt that he had to leave in order to protect it. He frowned. That would go a long way toward explaining why Eragon fled, but it still seemed far-fetched to Roran.Whatever the reason, that stone must be a fantastic treasure for the king to send so many men to retrieve it. I can’t understand what would make it so valuable. Maybe it’s magic.
He breathed deeply of the cool air, listening to the hoot of an owl. A flicker of movement caught his attention. Glancing down the mountain, he saw a man approaching in the forest below. Roran ducked behind a boulder, bow drawn. He waited until he was sure it was Albriech, then whistled softly.
Albriech soon arrived at the boulder. On his back was an overfull pack, which he dropped to the ground with a grunt. “I thought I’d never find you.”
“I’m surprised you did.”
“Can’t say I enjoyed wandering through the forest after sundown. I kept expecting to walk into a bear, or worse. The Spine isn’t a fit place for men, if you ask me.”
Roran looked back out at Carvahall. “So why are they here?”
“To take you into custody. They’re willing to wait as long as they have to for you to return from ‘hunting.’ ”
Roran sat with a hard thump, his gut clenched with cold anticipation. “Did they give a reason? Did they mention the stone?”
Albriech shook his head. “All they would say is that it’s the king’s business. The whole day they’ve been asking questions about you and Eragon—it’s all they’re interested in.” He hesitated. “I’d stay, but they’ll notice if I am missing tomorrow. I brought plenty of food and blankets, plus some of Gertrude’s salves in case you injure yourself. You should be fine up here.”
Summoning his energy, Roran smiled. “Thanks for the help.”
“Anyone would do it,” said Albriech with an embarrassed shrug. He started to leave, then tossed over his shoulder, “By the way, the two strangers . . . they’re called the Ra’zac.”
The morning after meeting with the Council of Elders, Eragon was cleaning and oiling Saphira’s saddle—careful not to overexert himself—when Orik came to visit. The dwarf waited until Eragon finished with a strap, then asked, “Are you better today?”
“Good, we all need our strength. I came partly to see to your health and also because Hrothgar wishes to speak with you, if you are free.”
Eragon gave the dwarf a wry smile. “I’m always free for him. He must know that.”
Orik laughed. “Ah, but it’s polite to ask nicely.” As Eragon put down the saddle, Saphira uncoiled from her padded corner and greeted Orik with a friendly growl. “Morning to you as well,” he said with a bow.
Orik led them through one of Tronjheim’s four main corridors, toward its central chamber and the two mirroring staircases that curved underground to the dwarf king’s throne room. Before they reached the chamber, however, he turned down a small flight of stairs. It took Eragon a moment to realize that Orik had taken a side passageway to avoid seeing the wreckage of Isidar Mithrim.
They came to a stop before the granite doors engraved with a seven-pointed crown. Seven armored dwarves on each side of the entrance pounded the floor simultaneously with the hafts of their mattocks. With the echoing thud of wood on stone, the doors swung inward.
Eragon nodded to Orik, then entered the dim room with Saphira. They advanced toward the distant throne, passing the rigid statues, hírna, of past dwarf kings. At the foot of the heavy black throne, Eragon bowed. The dwarf king inclined his silver-maned head in return, the rubies wrought into his golden helm glowing dully in the light like flecks of hot iron. Volund, the war hammer, lay across his mail-sheathed legs.
Hrothgar spoke: “Shadeslayer, welcome to my hall. You have done much since last we met. And, so it seems, I have been proved wrong about Zar’roc. Morzan’s blade will be welcome in Tronjheim so long as you bear it.”
“Thank you,” said Eragon, rising.
“Also,” rumbled the dwarf, “we wish you to keep the armor you wore in the battle of Farthen Dûr. Even now our most skilled smiths are repairing it. The dragon armor is being treated likewise, and when it is restored, Saphira may use it as long as she wishes, or until she outgrows it. This is the least we can do to show our gratitude. If it weren’t for the war with Galbatorix, there would be feasts and celebrations in your name . . . but those must wait until a more appropriate time.”
Voicing both his and Saphira’s sentiment, Eragon said, “You are generous beyond all expectations. We will cherish such noble gifts.”
Clearly pleased, Hrothgar nevertheless scowled, bringing his snarled eyebrows together. “We cannot linger on pleasantries, though. I am besieged by the clans with demands that I do one thing or another about Ajihad’s successor. When the Council of Elders proclaimed yesterday that they would support Nasuada, it created an uproar the likes of which I haven’t seen since I ascended to the throne. The chiefs had to decide whether to accept Nasuada or look for another candidate. Most have concluded that Nasuada should lead the Varden, but I wish to know where you stand on this, Eragon, before I lend my word to either side. The worst thing a king can do is look foolish.”