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Baldor grunted, rubbing his face. “Dad and Loring met with the Ra’zac today and managed to convince them to release the body. The soldiers, however, won’t face any consequences.” He paused. “I was about to leave when Quimby was handed over. You know what his wife got? Bones.”
“Every one of them was nibbled clean—you could see the bite marks—and most had been cracked open for the marrow.”
Disgust gripped Roran, as well as profound horror for Quimby’s fate. It was well known that a person’s spirit could never rest until his body was given a proper burial. Revolted by the desecration, he asked, “What,who, ate him then?”
“The soldiers were just as appalled. It must have been the Ra’zac.”
“Why? To what end?”
“I don’t think,” said Baldor, “that the Ra’zac are human. You’ve never seen them up close, but their breath is foul, and they always cover their faces with black scarves. Their backs are humped and twisted, and they speak to each other with clicks. Even their men seem to fear them.”
“If they aren’t human, then what kind of creatures can they be?” demanded Roran. “They’re not Urgals.”
Fear now joined Roran’s revulsion—fear of the supernatural. He saw it echoed on Baldor’s face as the young man clasped his hands. For all the stories of Galbatorix’s misdeeds, it was still a shock to have the king’s evil roosted among their homes. A sense of history settled on Roran as he realized he was involved with forces he had previously been acquainted with only through songs and stories. “Something should be done,” he muttered.
The air grew warmer through the night, until by afternoon Palancar Valley shimmered and sweltered with the unexpected spring heat. Carvahall looked peaceful under the bald blue sky, yet Roran could feel the sour resentment that clenched its inhabitants with malicious intensity. The calm was like a sheet stretched taut in the wind.
Despite the aura of expectation, the day proved to be utterly boring; Roran spent most of his time brushing Horst’s mare. At last he lay to sleep, looking up past the towering pines at the haze of stars that adorned the night sky. They seemed so close, it felt as if he hurtled among them, falling toward the blackest void.
The moon was setting when Roran woke, his throat raw from smoke. He coughed and rolled upright, blinking as his eyes burned and watered. The noxious fumes made it difficult to breathe.
Roran grabbed his blankets and saddled the frightened mare, then spurred her farther up the mountain, hoping to find clear air. It quickly became apparent that the smoke was ascending with him, so he turned and cut sideways through the forest.
After several minutes spent maneuvering in the dark, they finally broke free and rode onto a ledge swept clean by a breeze. Purging his lungs with long breaths, Roran scanned the valley for the fire. He spotted it in an instant.
Carvahall’s hay barn glowed white in a cyclone of flames, transforming its precious contents into a fountain of amber motes. Roran trembled as he watched the destruction of the town’s feed. He wanted to scream and run through the forest to help with the bucket brigade, yet he could not force himself to abandon his own safety.
Now a molten spark landed on Delwin’s house. Within seconds, the thatched roof exploded in a wave of fire.
Roran cursed and tore his hair, tears streaming down his face. This was why mishandling fire was a hanging offense in Carvahall.Was it an accident? Was it the soldiers? Are the Ra’zac punishing the villagers for shielding me? . . . Am I somehow responsible for this?
Fisk’s house joined the conflagration next. Aghast, Roran could only avert his face, hating himself for his cowardice.
By dawn all the fires had been extinguished or burned out on their own. Only sheer luck and a calm night saved the rest of Carvahall from being consumed.
Roran waited until he was sure of the outcome, then retreated to his old camp and threw himself down to rest. From morning through evening, he was oblivious to the world, except through the lens of his troubled dreams.
Upon his return to awareness, Roran simply waited for the visitor he was sure would appear. This time it was Albriech. He arrived at dusk with a grim, worn expression. “Come with me,” he said.
Roran tensed. “Why?”Have they decided to give me up? If hewas the cause of the fire, he could understand the villagers wanting him gone. He might even agree it was necessary. It was unreasonable to expect everyone in Carvahall to sacrifice themselves for him. Still, that did not mean he would allow them to just hand him over to the Ra’zac. After what the two monsters had done to Quimby, Roran would fight to the death to avoid being their prisoner.
“Because,” said Albriech, clenching his jaw muscles, “it was the soldiers who started the fire. Morn banned them from the Seven Sheaves, but they still got drunk on their own beer. One of them dropped a torch against the hay barn on his way to bed.”
“Was anyone hurt?” asked Roran.
“A few burns. Gertrude was able to handle them. We tried to negotiate with the Ra’zac. They spat on our requests that the Empire replace our losses and the guilty face justice. They even refused to confine the soldiers to the tents.”
“So why should I return?”
Albriech chuckled hollowly. “For hammer and tongs. We need your help to . . .remove the Ra’zac.”
“You would do that for me?”