Main Eldest

Eldest

Categories: Fiction
Year: 2008
Language: english
ISBN 13: 9780440238492
Series: The Inheritance Cycle 2
File: MOBI , 902 KB
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Eldest

Christopher Paolini





TABLE OF CONTENTS



ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

ABOUT THEAUTHOR

A TWINDISASTER

THECOUNCIL OFELDERS

TRUTH AMONG FRIENDS

RORAN

THEHUNTEDHUNTERS

REQUIEM

FEALTY

A SORCERESS, ASNAKE,

AND ASCROLL

HAMMER ANDTONGS

RETALIATION

CELBEDEIL

DIAMONDS IN THENIGHT

UNDER ADARKLINGSKY

DOWN THERUSHING

MERE-WASH

DRIFTING

ARYASVIT-KONA

CERIS

WOUNDS OF THEPAST

WOUNDS OF THEPRESENT

ARROW TO THEHEART

THEDAGSHELGRINVOCATION

THEPINEWOODCITY

OUT OF THEPAST

CONVICTION

REPERCUSSIONS

EXODUS

THESECRETLIVES OFANTS

UNDER THEMENOATREE

A MAZE OFOPPOSITION

HANGING BY ATHREAD

ELVA

RESURGENCE

BLACKMORNINGGLORY

THENATURE OFEVIL

IMAGE OFPERFECTION

THEOBLITERATOR

NARDA

THEHAMMERFALLS

THEBEGINNING OFWISDOM

BROKENEGG ANDSCATTEREDNEST

THEGIFT OFDRAGONS

IN ASTARRYGLADE

LANDFALL

TEIRM

JEODLONGSHANKS

ANUNEXPECTEDALLY

ESCAPE

PREMONITION OFWAR

REDBLADE,WHITEBLADE

VISIONSNEAR ANDFAR

GIFTS

THEMAW OF THEOCEAN

TOABERON

THEBURNINGPLAINS

THECLOUDS OFWAR

NARGARZHVOG

THESTORMBREAKS

CONVERGENCE

ELDEST

INHERITANCE

REUNION

END OFBOOKTWO





ACKNOWLEDGMENTS




Kvetha Fricäya.



As with many authors who undertake an epic the length of the Inheritance trilogy, I have found that the creation ofEragon, and nowEldest, has become my own personal quest, one that has proven every bit as transforming as Eragon’s.



When first I conceivedEragon, I was fifteen—not quite a boy and not yet a man—just out of high school, unsure of what path to take in life, and addicted to the potent magic of the fantasy literature that adorned my shelves. The process of writingEragon, marketing it across the world, and now finally completingEldest has swept me into adulthood. I am twenty-one now and, to my continual astonishment, have already published two novels. Stranger things have occurred, I’m sure, but never to me.



Eragon’s journey has been my own: plucked from a sheltered rural upbringing and forced to rove the land in a desperate race against time; enduring intense and arduous training; achieving success against all expectations; dealing with the consequences of fame; and eventually finding a measure of peace.



Just as in fiction when the determined and well-meaning protagonist—who really isn’t all that bright, now is he?—is helped along his way by a host of wiser characters, so too have I been guided by a number of stupendously talented people. They are:





At home: Mom, for listening whenever I need to talk about a problem with the story or characters and for giving me the courage to throw out twelve pages and rewrite Eragon’s entrance into Ellesméra (painful); Dad, as always, for his incisive editing; and my dear sister, Angela, for deigning to reprise her role as a witch and for her contributions to her doppelgänger’s dialogue.





At Writers House: my agent, the great and mighty Comma Master, Simon Lipskar, who makes all things possible (Mervyn Peake!); and his brave assistant Daniel Lazar, who keeps the Comma Master from being buried alive underneath a pile of unsolicited manuscripts, many of which I fear are the result ofEragon.





At Knopf: my editor, Michelle Frey, who has gone above and beyond the call of duty in performing her job and has madeEldest so much better than it would have been otherwise; publicity director Judith Haut, for once again proving that no feat of promotion is beyond her reach (hear her roar!); Isabel Warren-Lynch, art director nonpareil who, withEldest, has exceeded her previous accomplishments; John Jude Palencar, for a cover painting that I like even better than the one forEragon ; copy chief Artie Bennett, who has done a splendiferous job of checking all the obscure words in this trilogy and probably knows more than I do about the ancient language, although his Urgal is a mite weak; Chip Gibson, grand master of the children’s division at Random House; Nancy Hinkel, publishing director extraordinaire; Joan DeMayo, director of sales (much applause, cheers, and bowing!) and her team; Daisy Kline, who with her team designed the wonderful and eye-catching marketing materials; Linda Palladino, Rebecca Price, and Timothy Terhune, production; a bow of thanks to Pam White and her team, who have helped to spreadEragon to the four corners of the world; Melissa Nelson, design; Alison Kolani, copy editing; Michele Burke, Michelle Frey’s dedicated, hardworking assistant; and everyone else at Knopf who has supported me.





At Listening Library: Gerard Doyle, who brings the world of Alagaësia to life; Taro Meyer for getting the pronunciation of my languages just right; Jacob Bronstein for pulling all the threads together; and Tim Ditlow, publisher of Listening Library.





Thank you all.





One more volume to go and we shall reach the end of this tale. One more manuscript of heartache, ecstasy, and perseverance. . . . One more codex of dreams.



Stay with me, if it please you, and let us see where this winding path will carry us, both in this world and in Alagaësia.



Sé onr sverdar sitja hvass!





Christopher Paolini



August 23, 2005





ABOUT THEAUTHOR




Christopher Paolini’s abiding love of fantasy and science fiction inspired him to begin writing his debut novel,Eragon, when he graduated from high school at fifteen after being homeschooled all his life. He became aNew York Times bestselling author at nineteen. Christopher lives in Montana, where the dramatic landscape feeds his visions of Alagaësia. He is at work on the final volume in the Inheritance trilogy.



You can find out more about Christopher,Eldest, and Inheritance atwww.alagaesia.com .





is also available in an unabridged

audio edition from Listening Library



Cassette ISBN 1-4000-9862-9

$45.00 U.S. / $65.00 CAN.





CD ISBN 0-307-28072-1

$55.00 U.S. / $77.00 CAN.





A TWINDISASTER




The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.



So thought Eragon as he stepped over a twisted and hacked Urgal, listening to the keening of women who removed loved ones from the blood-muddied ground of Farthen Dûr. Behind him Saphira delicately skirted the corpse, her glittering blue scales the only color in the gloom that filled the hollow mountain.



It was three days since the Varden and dwarves had fought the Urgals for possession of Tronjheim, the mile-high, conical city nestled in the center of Farthen Dûr, but the battlefield was still strewn with carnage. The sheer number of bodies had stymied their attempts to bury the dead. In the distance, a mountainous fire glowed sullenly by Farthen Dûr’s wall where the Urgals were being burned. No burial or honored resting place for them.



Since waking to find his wound healed by Angela, Eragon had tried three times to assist in the recovery effort. On each occasion he had been racked by terrible pains that seemed to explode from his spine. The healers gave him various potions to drink. Arya and Angela said that he was perfectly sound. Nevertheless, he hurt. Nor could Saphira help, only share his pain as it rebounded across their mental link.



Eragon ran a hand over his face and looked up at the stars showing through Farthen Dûr’s distant top, which were smudged with sooty smoke from the pyre.Three days. Three days since he had killed Durza; three days since people began calling him Shadeslayer; three days since the remnants of the sorcerer’s consciousness had ravaged his mind and he had been saved by the mysterious Togira Ikonoka, the Cripple Who Is Whole. He had told no one about that vision but Saphira. Fighting Durza and the dark spirits that controlled him had transformed Eragon; although for better or for worse he was still unsure. He felt fragile, as if a sudden shock would shatter his reconstructed body and consciousness.



And now he had come to the site of the combat, driven by a morbid desire to see its aftermath. Upon arriving, he found nothing but the uncomfortable presence of death and decay, not the glory that heroic songs had led him to expect.



Before his uncle, Garrow, was slain by the Ra’zac months earlier, the brutality that Eragon had witnessed between the humans, dwarves, and Urgals would have destroyed him. Now it numbed him. He had realized, with Saphira’s help, that the only way to stay rational amid such pain was todo things. Beyond that, he no longer believed that life possessed inherent meaning—not after seeing men torn apart by the Kull, a race of giant Urgals, and the ground a bed of thrashing limbs and the dirt so wet with blood it soaked through the soles of his boots. If any honor existed in war, he concluded, it was in fighting to protect others from harm.



He bent and plucked a tooth, a molar, from the dirt. Bouncing it on his palm, he and Saphira slowly made a circuit through the trampled plain. They stopped at its edge when they noticed Jörmundur—Ajihad’s second in command in the Varden—hurrying toward them from Tronjheim. When he came near, Jörmundur bowed, a gesture Eragon knew he would never have made just days before.



“I’m glad I found you in time, Eragon.” He clutched a parchment note in one hand. “Ajihad is returning, and he wants you to be there when he arrives. The others are already waiting for him by Tronjheim’s west gate. We’ll have to hurry to get there in time.”



Eragon nodded and headed toward the gate, keeping a hand on Saphira. Ajihad had been gone most of the three days, hunting down Urgals who had managed to escape into the dwarf tunnels that honeycombed the stone beneath the Beor Mountains. The one time Eragon had seen him between expeditions, Ajihad was in a rage over discovering that his daughter, Nasuada, had disobeyed his orders to leave with the other women and children before the battle. Instead, she had secretly fought among the Varden’s archers.



Murtagh and the Twins had accompanied Ajihad: the Twins because it was dangerous work and the Varden’s leader needed the protection of their magical skills, and Murtagh because he was eager to continue proving that he bore the Varden no ill will. It surprised Eragon how much people’s attitudes toward Murtagh had changed, considering that Murtagh’s father was the Dragon Rider Morzan, who had betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix. Even though Murtagh despised his father and was loyal to Eragon, the Varden had not trusted him. But now, no one was willing to waste energy on a petty hate when so much work remained. Eragon missed talking with Murtagh and looked forward to discussing all that had happened, once he returned.



As Eragon and Saphira rounded Tronjheim, a small group became visible in the pool of lantern light before the timber gate. Among them were Orik—the dwarf shifting impatiently on his stout legs—and Arya. The white bandage around her upper arm gleamed in the darkness, reflecting a faint highlight onto the bottom of her hair. Eragon felt a strange thrill, as he always did when he saw the elf. She looked at him and Saphira, green eyes flashing, then continued watching for Ajihad.



By breaking Isidar Mithrim—the great star sapphire that was sixty feet across and carved in the shape of a rose—Arya had allowed Eragon to kill Durza and so win the battle. Still, the dwarves were furious with her for destroying their most prized treasure. They refused to move the sapphire’s remains, leaving them in a massive circle inside Tronjheim’s central chamber. Eragon had walked through the splintered wreckage and shared the dwarves’ sorrow for all the lost beauty.



He and Saphira stopped by Orik and looked out at the empty land that surrounded Tronjheim, extending to Farthen Dûr’s base five miles away in each direction. “Where will Ajihad come from?” asked Eragon.



Orik pointed at a cluster of lanterns staked around a large tunnel opening a couple of miles away. “He should be here soon.”



Eragon waited patiently with the others, answering comments directed at him but preferring to speak with Saphira in the peace of his mind. The quiet that filled Farthen Dûr suited him.



Half an hour passed before motion flickered in the distant tunnel. A group of ten men climbed out onto the ground, then turned and helped up as many dwarves. One of the men—Eragon assumed it was Ajihad—raised a hand, and the warriors assembled behind him in two straight lines. At a signal, the formation marched proudly toward Tronjheim.



Before they went more than five yards, the tunnel behind them swarmed with a flurry of activity as more figures jumped out. Eragon squinted, unable to see clearly from so far away.



Those are Urgals!exclaimed Saphira, her body tensing like a drawn bowstring.



Eragon did not question her. “Urgals!” he cried, and leaped onto Saphira, berating himself for leaving his sword, Zar’roc, in his room. No one had expected an attack now that the Urgal army had been driven away.



His wound twinged as Saphira lifted her azure wings, then drove them down and jumped forward, gaining speed and altitude each second. Below them, Arya ran toward the tunnel, nearly keeping apace with Saphira. Orik trailed her with several men, while Jörmundur sprinted back toward the barracks.



Eragon was forced to watch helplessly as the Urgals fell on the rear of Ajihad’s warriors; he could not work magic over such a distance. The monsters had the advantage of surprise and quickly cut down four men, forcing the rest of the warriors, men and dwarves alike, to cluster around Ajihad in an attempt to protect him. Swords and axes clashed as the groups pressed together. Light flashed from one of the Twins, and an Urgal fell, clutching the stump of his severed arm.



For a minute, it seemed the defenders would be able to resist the Urgals, but then a swirl of motion disturbed the air, like a faint band of mist wrapping itself around the combatants. When it cleared, only four warriors were standing: Ajihad, the Twins, and Murtagh. The Urgals converged on them, blocking Eragon’s view as he stared with rising horror and fear.



No! No! No!



Before Saphira could reach the fight, the knot of Urgals streamed back to the tunnel and scrambled underground, leaving only prone forms behind.



The moment Saphira touched down, Eragon vaulted off, then faltered, overcome by grief and anger.I can’t do this. It reminded him too much of when he had returned to the farm to find his uncle Garrow dying. Fighting back his dread with every step, he began to search for survivors.



The site was eerily similar to the battlefield he had inspected earlier, except that here the blood was fresh.



In the center of the massacre lay Ajihad, his breastplate rent with numerous gashes, surrounded by five Urgals he had slain. His breath still came in ragged gasps. Eragon knelt by him and lowered his face so his tears would not land on the leader’s ruined chest. No one could heal such wounds. Running up to them, Arya paused and stopped, her face transformed with sorrow when she saw that Ajihad could not be saved.



“Eragon.” The name slipped from Ajihad’s lips—no more than a whisper.



“Yes, I am here.”



“Listen to me, Eragon. . . . I have one last command for you.” Eragon leaned closer to catch the dying man’s words. “You must promise me something: promise that you . . . won’t let the Varden fall into chaos. They are the only hope for resisting the Empire. . . . They must be kept strong. You must promise me.”



“I promise.”



“Then peace be with you, Eragon Shadeslayer. . . .” With his last breath, Ajihad closed his eyes, setting his noble face in repose, and died.



Eragon bowed his head. He had trouble breathing past the lump in his throat, which was so hard it hurt. Arya blessed Ajihad in a ripple of the ancient language, then said in her musical voice, “Alas, his death will cause much strife. He is right, you must do all you can to avert a struggle for power. I will assist where possible.”



Unwilling to speak, Eragon gazed at the rest of the bodies. He would have given anything to be elsewhere. Saphira nosed one of the Urgals and said,This should not have happened. It is an evil doing, and all the worse for coming when we should be safe and victorious . She examined another body, then swung her head around.Where are the Twins and Murtagh? They’re not among the dead.



Eragon scanned the corpses.You’re right! Elation surged within him as he hurried to the tunnel’s mouth. There pools of thickening blood filled the hollows in the worn marble steps like a series of black mirrors, glossy and oval, as if several torn bodies had been dragged down them.The Urgals must have taken them! But why? They don’t keep prisoners or hostages. Despair instantly returned.It doesn’t matter. We can’t pursue them without reinforcements; you wouldn’t even fit through the opening.



They may still be alive. Would you abandon them?



What do you expect me to do? The dwarf tunnels are an endless maze! I would only get lost. And I couldn’t catch Urgals on foot, though Arya might be able to.



Then ask her to.



Arya!Eragon hesitated, torn between his desire for action and his loathing to put her in danger. Still, if any one person in the Varden could handle the Urgals, it was she. With a groan, he explained what they had found.



Arya’s slanted eyebrows met in a frown. “It makes no sense.”



“Will you pursue them?”



She stared at him for a heavy moment. “Wiol ono.” For you. Then she bounded forward, sword flashing in her hand as she dove into the earth’s belly.



Burning with frustration, Eragon settled cross-legged by Ajihad, keeping watch over the body. He could barely assimilate the fact that Ajihad was dead and Murtagh missing.Murtagh . Son of one of the Forsworn—the thirteen Riders who had helped Galbatorix destroy their order and anoint himself king of Alagaësia—and Eragon’s friend. At times Eragon had wished Murtagh gone, but now that he had been forcibly removed, the loss left an unexpected void. He sat motionless as Orik approached with the men.



When Orik saw Ajihad, he stamped his feet and swore in Dwarvish, swinging his ax into the body of an Urgal. The men only stood in shock. Rubbing a pinch of dirt between his callused hands, the dwarf growled, “Ah, now a hornet’s nest has broken; we’ll have no peace among the Varden after this.Barzûln, but this makes things complicated. Were you in time to hear his last words?”



Eragon glanced at Saphira. “They must wait for the right person before I’ll repeat them.”



“I see. And where’d be Arya?”



Eragon pointed.



Orik swore again, then shook his head and sat on his heels.



Jörmundur soon arrived with twelve ranks of six warriors each. He motioned for them to wait outside the radius of bodies while he proceeded onward alone. He bent and touched Ajihad on the shoulder. “How can fate be this cruel, my old friend? I would have been here sooner if not for the size of this cursed mountain, and then you might have been saved. Instead, we are wounded at the height of our triumph.”



Eragon softly told him about Arya and the disappearance of the Twins and Murtagh.



“She should not have gone,” said Jörmundur, straightening, “but we can do naught about it now. Guards will be posted here, but it will be at least an hour before dwarf guides can be found for another expedition into the tunnels.”



“I’d be willing to lead it,” offered Orik.



Jörmundur looked back at Tronjheim, his gaze distant. “No, Hrothgar will need you now; someone else will have to go. I’m sorry, Eragon, but everyone importantmust stay here until Ajihad’s successor is chosen. Arya will have to fend for herself. . . . We could not overtake her anyway.”



Eragon nodded, accepting the inevitable.



Jörmundur swept his gaze around before saying so all could hear, “Ajihad has died a warrior’s death! Look, he slew five Urgals where a lesser man might have been overwhelmed by one. We will give him every honor and hope his spirit pleases the gods. Bear him and our companions back to Tronjheim on your shields . . . and do not be ashamed to let your tears be seen, for this is a day of sorrow that all will remember. May we soon have the privilege of sheathing our blades in the monsters who have slain our leader!”



As one, the warriors knelt, baring their heads in homage to Ajihad. Then they stood and reverently lifted him on their shields so he lay between their shoulders. Already many of the Varden wept, tears flowing into beards, yet they did not disgrace their duty and allow Ajihad to fall. With solemn steps, they marched back to Tronjheim, Saphira and Eragon in the middle of the procession.





THECOUNCIL OFELDERS




Eragon roused himself and rolled to the edge of the bed, looking about the room, which was suffused with the dim glow of a shuttered lantern. He sat and watched Saphira sleep. Her muscled sides expanded and contracted as the great bellows of her lungs forced air through her scaled nostrils. Eragon thought of the raging inferno that she could now summon at will and send roaring out of her maw. It was an awesome sight when flames hot enough to melt metal rushed past her tongue and ivory teeth without harming them. Since she first breathed fire during his fight with Durza—while plunging toward them from the top of Tronjheim—Saphira had been insufferably proud of her new talent. She was constantly releasing little jets of flame, and she took every opportunity to light objects ablaze.



Because Isidar Mithrim was shattered, Eragon and Saphira had been unable to remain in the dragonhold above it. The dwarves had given them quarters in an old guardroom on Tronjheim’s bottom level. It was a large room, but with a low ceiling and dark walls.



Anguish gripped Eragon as he remembered the events of the previous day. Tears filled his eyes, spilling over, and he caught one on his hand. They had heard nothing from Arya until late that evening, when she emerged from the tunnel, weary and footsore. Despite her best efforts—and all her magic—the Urgals had escaped her. “I found these,” she said. Then she revealed one of the Twins’ purple robes, torn and bloodied, and Murtagh’s tunic and both his leather gauntlets. “They were strewn along the edge of a black chasm, the bottom of which no tunnel reaches. The Urgals must have stolen their armor and weapons and thrown the bodies into the pit. I scryed both Murtagh and the Twins, and saw naught but the shadows of the abyss.” Her eyes met Eragon’s. “I’m sorry; they are gone.”



Now, in the confines of his mind, Eragon mourned Murtagh. It was a dreadful, creeping feeling of loss and horror made worse by the fact that he had grown ever more familiar with it in past months.



As he stared at the tear in his hand—a small, glistening dome—he decided to scry the three men himself. He knew it was a desperate and futile prospect, but he had to try in order to convince himself that Murtagh was really gone. Even so, he was uncertain if he wanted to succeed where Arya had failed, if it would make him feel any better to catch a glimpse of Murtagh lying broken at the base of a cliff deep below Farthen Dûr.



He whispered, “Draumr kópa.” Darkness enveloped the liquid, turning it into a small dot of night on his silver palm. Movement flickered through it, like the swish of a bird across a clouded moon . . . then nothing.



Another tear joined the first.



Eragon took a deep breath, leaned back, and let calm settle over him. Since recovering from Durza’s wound, he had realized—humbling as it was—that he had prevailed only through sheer luck.If I ever face another Shade, or the Ra’zac, or Galbatorix, I mustbe stronger if I expect to win. Brom could have taught me more, I know he could have. But without him, I have but one choice: the elves.



Saphira’s breathing quickened, and she opened her eyes, yawning expansively.Good morning, little one.



Is it?He looked down and leaned on his hands, compressing the mattress.It’s terrible . . . Murtagh and Ajihad . . . Why didn’t sentries in the tunnels warn us of the Urgals? They shouldn’t have been able to trail Ajihad’s group without being noticed. . . . Arya was right, it doesn’t make sense.



We may never know the truth,said Saphira gently. She stood, wings brushing the ceiling.You need to eat, then we must discover what the Varden are planning. We can’t waste time; a new leader could be chosen within hours.



Eragon agreed, thinking of how they had left everyone yesterday: Orik rushing off to give King Hrothgar the tidings, Jörmundur taking Ajihad’s body to a place where it would rest until the funeral, and Arya, who stood alone and watched the goings-on.



Eragon rose and strapped on Zar’roc and his bow, then bent and lifted Snowfire’s saddle. A line of pain sheared through his torso, driving him to the floor, where he writhed, scrabbling at his back. It felt like he was being sawed in half. Saphira growled as the ripping sensation reached her. She tried to soothe him with her own mind but was unable to alleviate his suffering. Her tail instinctually lifted, as if to fight.



It took minutes before the fit subsided and the last throb faded away, leaving Eragon gasping. Sweat drenched his face, making his hair stick and his eyes sting. He reached back and gingerly fingered the top of his scar. It was hot and inflamed and sensitive to touch. Saphira lowered her nose and touched him on the arm.Oh, little one. . . .



It was worse this time,he said, staggering upright. She let him lean against her as he wiped off the sweat with a rag, then he tentatively stepped toward the door.



Are you strong enough to go?



We have to. We’re obliged as dragon and Rider to make a public choice regarding the next head of the Varden, and perhaps even influence the selection. I won’t ignore the strength of our position; we now wield great authority within the Varden. At least the Twins aren’t here to grab the position for themselves. That’s the only good in the situation.



Very well, but Durza should suffer a thousand years of torture for what he did to you.



He grunted.Just stay close to me.



Together they made their way through Tronjheim, toward the nearest kitchen. In the corridors and hallways, people stopped and bowed to them, murmuring “Argetlam” or “Shadeslayer.” Even dwarves made the motions, though not as often. Eragon was struck by the somber, haunted expressions of the humans and the dark clothing they wore to display their sadness. Many women were dressed entirely in black, lace veils covering their faces.



In the kitchen, Eragon brought a stone platter of food to a low table. Saphira watched him carefully in case he should have another attack. Several people tried to approach him, but she lifted a lip and growled, sending them scurrying away. Eragon picked at his food and pretended to ignore the disturbances. Finally, trying to divert his thoughts from Murtagh, he asked,Who do you think has the means to take control of the Varden now that Ajihad and the Twins are gone?



She hesitated.It’s possible you could, if Ajihad’s last words were interpreted as a blessing to secure the leadership. Almost no one would oppose you. However, that does not seem a wise path to take. I see only trouble in that direction.



I agree. Besides, Arya wouldn’t approve, and she could be a dangerous enemy. Elves can’t lie in the ancient language, but they have no such inhibition in ours—she could deny that Ajihad ever uttered those words if it served her purposes. No, I don’t want the position. . . . What about Jörmundur?



Ajihad called him his right-hand man. Unfortunately, we know little about him or the Varden’s other leaders. Such a short time has passed since we came here. We will have to make our judgment on our feelings and impressions, without the benefit of history.



Eragon pushed his fish around a lump of mashed tubers.Don’t forget Hrothgar and the dwarf clans; they won’t be quiet in this. Except for Arya, the elves have no say in the succession—a decision will be made before word of this even reaches them. But the dwarves can’t be—won’t be—ignored. Hrothgar favors the Varden, but if enough clans oppose him, he might be maneuvered into backing someone unsuited for the command.



And who might that be?



A person easily manipulated.He closed his eyes and leaned back.It could be anyone in Farthen Dûr, anyone at all.



For a long while, they both considered the issues facing them. Then Saphira said,Eragon, there is someone here to see you. I can’t scare him away.



Eh?He cracked his eyes open, squinting as they adjusted to the light. A pale-looking youth stood by the table. The boy eyed Saphira like he was afraid she would try to eat him. “What is it?” asked Eragon, not unkindly.



The boy started, flustered, then bowed. “You have been summoned, Argetlam, to speak before the Council of Elders.”



“Who are they?”



The question confused the boy even more. “The—the council is . . . are . . . people we—that is, the Varden—choose to speak on our behalf to Ajihad. They were his trusted advisers, and now they wish to see you. It is a great honor!” He finished with a quick smile.



“Are you to lead me to them?”



“Yes, I am.”



Saphira looked at Eragon questioningly. He shrugged and left the uneaten food, motioning for the boy to show the way. As they walked, the boy admired Zar’roc with bright eyes, then looked down shyly.



“What are you called?” asked Eragon.



“Jarsha, sir.”



“That’s a good name. You carried your message well; you should be proud.” Jarsha beamed and bounced forward.



They reached a convex stone door, which Jarsha pushed open. The room inside was circular, with a sky blue dome decorated with constellations. A round marble table, inlaid with the crest of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum—an upright hammer ringed by twelve stars—stood in the center of the chamber. Seated there were Jörmundur and two other men, one tall and one broad; a woman with pinched lips, close-set eyes, and elaborately painted cheeks; and a second woman with an immense pile of gray hair above a matronly face, belied by a dagger hilt peeking out of the vast hills of her bodice.



“You may go,” said Jörmundur to Jarsha, who quickly bowed and left.



Conscious that he was being watched, Eragon surveyed the room, then seated himself in the middle of a swath of empty chairs, so that the council members were forced to turn in their seats in order to look at him. Saphira hunkered directly behind him; he could feel her hot breath on the top of his head.



Jörmundur got halfway up to make a slight bow, then reseated himself. “Thank you for coming, Eragon, even though you have suffered your own loss. This is Umérth,” the tall man; “Falberd,” the broad one; “and Sabrae and Elessari,” the two women.



Eragon inclined his head, then asked, “And what of the Twins, were they part of this council?”



Sabrae shook her head sharply and tapped a long fingernail on the table. “They had naught to do with us. They were slime—worse than slime—leeches that worked only for their own benefit. They had no desire to serve the Varden. Thus, they had no place in this council.” Eragon could smell her perfume all the way on the other side of the table; it was thick and oily, like a rotting flower. He hid a smile at the thought.



“Enough. We’re not here to discuss the Twins,” said Jörmundur. “We face a crisis that must be dealt with quickly and effectively. If we don’t choose Ajihad’s successor, someone else will. Hrothgar has already contacted us to convey his condolences. While he was more than courteous, he is sure to be forming his own plans even as we speak. We must also consider Du Vrangr Gata, the magic users. Most of them are loyal to the Varden, but it’s difficult to predict their actions even in the best of times. They might decide to oppose our authority for their own advantage. That is why we need your assistance, Eragon, to provide the legitimacy required by whoever is to take Ajihad’s place.”



Falberd heaved himself up, planting his meaty hands on the table. “The five of us have already decided whom to support. There is no doubt among us that it is the right person. But,” he raised a thick finger, “before we reveal who it is, you must give us your word of honor that whether you agree or disagree with us, nothing of our discussion will leave this room.”



Why would they want that?Eragon asked Saphira.



I don’t know,she said, snorting.It might be a trap. . . . It’s a gamble you’ll have to take. Remember, though, they haven’t asked meto pledge anything. I can always tell Arya what they say, if needed. Silly of them, forgetting that I’m as intelligent as any human.



Pleased with the thought, Eragon said, “Very well, you have my word. Now, who do you want to lead the Varden?”



“Nasuada.”



Surprised, Eragon dropped his gaze, thinking quickly. He had not considered Nasuada for the succession because of her youth—she was just a few years older than Eragon. No real reason existed, of course, for her not to lead, but why would the Council of Elders want her to? How would they benefit? He remembered Brom’s advice and tried to examine the issue from every angle, knowing that he had to decide swiftly.



Nasuada has steel in her,observed Saphira.She would be like her father.



Maybe, but what’s their reason for picking her?



To gain time, Eragon asked, “Why not you, Jörmundur? Ajihad called you his right-hand man. Doesn’t that mean you should take his place now that he’s gone?”



A current of unease ran through the council: Sabrae sat even straighter, hands clasped before her; Umérth and Falberd glanced at each other darkly, while Elessari just smiled, the dagger hilt jiggling on her chest.



“Because,” said Jörmundur, selecting his words with care, “Ajihad was speaking of military matters then, nothing more. Also, I am a member of this council, which only has power because we support one another. It would be foolish and dangerous for one of us to raise himself above the rest.” The council relaxed as he finished, and Elessari patted Jörmundur on the forearm.



Ha!exclaimed Saphira.He probably would have taken power if it were possible to force the others to back him. Just look how they eye him. He’s like a wolf in their midst.



A wolf in a pack of jackals, perhaps.



“Does Nasuada have enough experience?” inquired Eragon.



Elessari pressed herself against the table’s edge as she leaned forward. “I had already been here for seven years when Ajihad joined the Varden. I’ve watched Nasuada grow up from a darling girl to the woman she is. A trifle light-headed occasionally, but a good figure to lead the Varden. The people will love her. Now I,” she patted herself affectionately on the bosom, “and my friends will be here to guide her through these troubled times. She will never be without someone to show her the way. Inexperience should be no barrier to her taking her rightful position.”



Understanding flooded Eragon.They want a puppet!



“Ajihad’s funeral will be held in two days,” broke in Umérth. “Directly afterward, we plan to appoint Nasuada as our new leader. We have yet to ask her, but she will surely agree. We want you to be present at the appointing—no one, not even Hrothgar, can complain about it then—and to swear fealty to the Varden. That will give back the confidence Ajihad’s death has stolen from the people, and prevent anyone from trying to splinter this organization.”



Fealty!



Saphira quickly touched Eragon’s mind.Notice, they don’t want you to swear to Nasuada—just to the Varden.



Yes, and they want to be the ones to appoint Nasuada, which would indicate that the council is more powerful than she. They could have asked Arya or us to appoint her, but that would mean acknowledging whoever did it as above everyone in the Varden. This way, they assert their superiority over Nasuada, gain control over us through fealty, and also get the benefit of having a Rider endorse Nasuada in public.



“What happens,” he asked, “if I decide not to accept your offer?”



“Offer?” Falberd asked, seeming puzzled. “Why, nothing, of course. Only it would be a terrible slight if you’re not present when Nasuada is chosen. If the hero of the battle of Farthen Dûr ignores her, what can she think but that a Rider has spited her and found the Varden unworthy to serve? Who could bear such a shame?”



The message could have been no clearer. Eragon clenched Zar’roc’s pommel under the table, yearning to scream that it was unnecessary to force him to support the Varden, that he would have done it anyway. Now, however, he instinctively wanted to rebel, to elude the shackles they were trying to place on him. “Since Riders are so highly thought of, I could decide that my efforts would be best spent guiding the Varden myself.”



The mood in the room hardened. “That would be unwise,” stated Sabrae.



Eragon combed his mind for a way to escape the situation.With Ajihad gone, said Saphira,it may be impossible to remain independent of every group, as he wanted us to. We cannot anger the Varden, and if this council is to control it once Nasuada is in place, then we must appease them. Remember, they act as much out of self-preservation as we do.



But what will they want us to do once we are in their grasp? Will they respect the Varden’s pact with the elves and send us to Ellesméra for training, or command otherwise? Jörmundur strikes me as an honorable man, but the rest of the council? I can’t tell.



Saphira brushed the top of his head with her jaw.Agree to be at this ceremony with Nasuada; that much I think we must do. As for swearing fealty, see if you can avoid acquiescing. Perhaps something will occur between now and then that will change our position . . . Arya may have a solution.



Without warning, Eragon nodded and said, “As you wish; I shall attend Nasuada’s appointment.”



Jörmundur looked relieved. “Good, good. Then we have only one more matter to deal with before you go: Nasuada’s acceptance. There’s no reason to delay, with all of us here. I’ll send for her immediately. And Arya too—we need the elves’ approval before making this decision public. It shouldn’t be difficult to procure; Arya cannot go against our counciland you, Eragon. She will have to agree with our judgment.”



“Wait,” commanded Elessari, a steely glint in her eyes. “Your word, though, Rider. Will you give it in fealty at the ceremony?”



“Yes, you must do that,” agreed Falberd. “The Varden would be disgraced if we couldn’t provide you every protection.”



A nice way to put it!



It was worth a try,said Saphira.I fear you have no choice now.



They wouldn’t dare harm us if I refused.



No, but they could cause us no end of grief. It is not for my own sake that I say accept, but for yours. Many dangers exist that I cannot protect you from, Eragon. With Galbatorix set against us, you need allies, not enemies, around you. We cannot afford to contend with both the Empire and the Varden.



Finally, “I’ll give it.” All around the table were signs of relaxation—even a poorly concealed sigh from Umérth.They’re afraid of us!



As well they should be,sniped Saphira.



Jörmundur called for Jarsha, and with a few words sent the boy scampering off for Nasuada and Arya. While he was gone, the conversation fell into an uncomfortable silence. Eragon ignored the council, focusing instead on working a way out of his dilemma. None sprang to mind.



When the door opened again, everyone turned expectantly. First came Nasuada, chin held high and eyes steady. Her embroidered gown was the deepest shade of black, deeper even than her skin, broken only by a slash of royal purple that stretched from shoulder to hip. Behind her was Arya, her stride as lithe and smooth as a cat’s, and an openly awestruck Jarsha.



The boy was dismissed, then Jörmundur helped Nasuada into a seat. Eragon hastened to do the same for Arya, but she ignored the proffered chair and stood at a distance from the table.Saphira, he said,let her know all that’s happened. I have a feeling the council won’t inform her that they’ve compelled me to give the Varden my loyalty.



“Arya,” acknowledged Jörmundur with a nod, then concentrated on Nasuada. “Nasuada, Daughter of Ajihad, the Council of Elders wishes to formally extend its deepest condolences for the loss you, more than anyone else, have suffered. . . .” In a lower voice, he added, “You have our personal sympathies as well. We all know what it is like to have a family member killed by the Empire.”



“Thank you,” murmured Nasuada, lowering her almond eyes. She sat, shy and demure, and with an air of vulnerability that made Eragon want to comfort her. Her demeanor was tragically different from that of the energetic young woman who had visited him and Saphira in the dragonhold before the battle.



“Although this is your time of mourning, a quandary exists that you must resolve. This council cannot lead the Varden. And someone must replace your father after the funeral. We ask that you receive the position. As his heir, it is rightfully yours—the Varden expect it of you.”



Nasuada bowed her head with shining eyes. Grief was plain in her voice when she said, “I never thought I would be called upon to take my father’s place so young. Yet . . . if you insist it is my duty . . . I will embrace the office.”





TRUTH AMONG FRIENDS




The Council of Elders beamed with triumph, pleased that Nasuada had done what they wanted. “We do insist,” said Jörmundur, “for your own good and the good of the Varden.” The rest of the elders added their expressions of support, which Nasuada accepted with sad smiles. Sabrae threw an angry glance at Eragon when he did not join in.



Throughout the exchange, Eragon watched Arya for any reaction to either his news or the council’s announcement. Neither revelation caused her inscrutable expression to change. However, Saphira told him,She wishes to talk with us afterward.



Before Eragon could reply, Falberd turned to Arya. “Will the elves find this agreeable?”



She stared at Falberd until the man fidgeted under her piercing gaze, then lifted an eyebrow. “I cannot speak for my queen, but I find nothing objectionable to it. Nasuada has my blessing.”



How could she find it otherwise, knowing what we’ve told her?thought Eragon bitterly.We’re all backed into corners.



Arya’s remark obviously pleased the council. Nasuada thanked her and asked Jörmundur, “Is there anything else that must be discussed? For I am weary.”



Jörmundur shook his head. “We will make all the arrangements. I promise you won’t be troubled until the funeral.”



“Again, thank you. Would you leave me now? I need time to consider how best to honor my father and serve the Varden. You have given me much to ponder.” Nasuada splayed her delicate fingers on the dark cloth on her lap.



Umérth looked like he was going to protest at the council being dismissed, but Falberd waved a hand, silencing him. “Of course, whatever will give you peace. If you need help, we are ready and willing to serve.” Gesturing for the rest of them to follow, he swept past Arya to the door.



“Eragon, will you please stay?”



Startled, Eragon lowered himself back into his chair, ignoring alert looks from the councilors. Falberd lingered by the door, suddenly reluctant to depart, then slowly went out. Arya was the last to go. Before she closed the door, she looked at Eragon, her eyes revealing worry and apprehension that had been concealed before.



Nasuada sat partially turned away from Eragon and Saphira. “So we meet again, Rider. You haven’t greeted me. Have I offended you?”



“No, Nasuada; I was reluctant to speak for fear of being rude or foolish. Current circumstances are unkind to hasty statements.” Paranoia that they might be eavesdropped on gripped him. Reaching through the barrier in his mind, he delved into the magic and intoned: “Atra nosu waíse vardo fra eld hórnya. . . . There, now we may speak without being overheard by man, dwarf, or elf.”



Nasuada’s posture softened. “Thank you, Eragon. You don’t know what a gift that is.” Her words were stronger and more self-assured than before.



Behind Eragon’s chair, Saphira stirred, then carefully made her way around the table to stand before Nasuada. She lowered her great head until one sapphire eye met Nasuada’s black ones. The dragon stared at her for a full minute before snorting softly and straightening.Tell her, said Saphira,that I grieve for her and her loss. Also that her strength must become the Varden’s when she assumes Ajihad’s mantle. They will need a sure guide.



Eragon repeated the words, adding, “Ajihad was a great man—his name will always be remembered. . . . There is something I must tell you. Before Ajihad died, he charged me, commanded me, to keep the Varden from falling into chaos. Those were his last words. Arya heard them as well.



“I was going to keep what he said a secret because of the implications, but you have a right to know. I’m not sure what Ajihad meant, nor exactly what he wanted, but I am certain of this: I will always defend the Varden with my powers. I wanted you to understand that, and that I’ve no desire to usurp the Varden’s leadership.”



Nasuada laughed brittlely. “But that leadership isn’t to be me, is it?” Her reserve had vanished, leaving behind only composure and determination. “I know why you were here before me and what the council is trying to do. Do you think that in the years I served my father, we never planned for this eventuality? I expected the council to do exactly what it did. And now everything is in place for me to take command of the Varden.”



“You have no intention of letting them rule you,” said Eragon with wonder.



“No. Continue to keep Ajihad’s instruction secret. It would be unwise to bandy it about, as people might take it to mean that he wanted you to succeed him, and that would undermine my authority and destabilize the Varden. He said what he thought he had to in order to protect the Varden. I would have done the same. My father . . .” She faltered briefly. “My father’s work will not go unfinished, even if it takes me to the grave. That is whatI want you, as a Rider, to understand. All of Ajihad’s plans, all his strategies and goals, they are mine now. I will not fail him by being weak. The Empirewill be brought down, Galbatorixwill be dethroned, and the rightful governmentwill be raised.”



By the time she finished, a tear ran down her cheek. Eragon stared, appreciating how difficult her position was and recognizing a depth of character he had not perceived before. “And what of me, Nasuada? What shall I do in the Varden?”



She looked directly into his eyes. “You can do whatever you want. The council members are fools if they think to control you. You are a hero to the Varden and the dwarves, and even the elves will hail your victory over Durza when they hear of it. If you go against the council or me, we will be forced to yield, for the people will support you wholeheartedly. Right now, you are the most powerful person in the Varden. However, if you accept my leadership, I will continue the path laid down by Ajihad: you will go with Arya to the elves, be instructed there, then return to the Varden.”



Why is she so honest with us?wondered Eragon.If she’s right, could we have refused the council’s demands?



Saphira took a moment to answer.Either way, it’s too late. You have already agreed to their requests. I think Nasuada is honest because your spell lets her be, and also because she hopes to win our loyalty from the elders.



An idea suddenly came to Eragon, but before sharing it, he asked,Can we trust her to hold to what she’s said? This is very important.



Yes,said Saphira.She spoke with her heart.



Then Eragon shared his proposal with Saphira. She consented, so he drew Zar’roc and walked to Nasuada. He saw a flash of fear as he approached; her gaze darted toward the door, and she slipped a hand into a fold in her dress and grasped something. Eragon stopped before her, then knelt, Zar’roc flat in his hands.



“Nasuada, Saphira and I have been here for only a short while. But in that time we came to respect Ajihad, and now, in turn, you. You fought under Farthen Dûr when others fled, including the two women of the council, and have treated us openly instead of with deception. Therefore, I offer you my blade . . . and my fealty as a Rider.”



Eragon uttered the pronouncement with a sense of finality, knowing he would never have mouthed it before the battle. Seeing so many men fall and die around him had altered his perspective. Resisting the Empire was no longer something he did for himself, but for the Varden and all the people still trapped under Galbatorix’s rule. However long it would take, he had dedicated himself to that task. For the time being, the best thing he could do was serve.



Still, he and Saphira were taking a terrible risk in pledging themselves to Nasuada. The council could not object because all Eragon had said was that he would swear fealty, but not to whom. Even so, he and Saphira had no guarantee that Nasuada would make a good leader.It’s better to be sworn to an honest fool than to a lying scholar, decided Eragon.



Surprise flitted across Nasuada’s face. She grasped Zar’roc’s hilt and lifted it—staring at its crimson blade—then placed the tip on Eragon’s head. “I do accept your fealty with honor, Rider, as you accept all the responsibilities accompanying the station. Rise as my vassal and take your sword.”



Eragon did as he was bidden. He said, “Now I can tell you openly as my master, the council made me agree to swear to the Varden once you were appointed. This was the only way Saphira and I could circumvent them.”



Nasuada laughed with genuine delight. “Ah, I see you have already learned how to play our game. Very well, as my newest and only vassal, will you agree to give your fealty to me again—in public, when the council expects your vow?”



“Of course.”



“Good, that will take care of the council. Now, until then, leave me. I have much planning to do, and I must prepare for the funeral. . . . Remember, Eragon, the bond we have just created is equally binding; I am as responsible for your actions as you are required to serve me. Do not dishonor me.”



“Nor you I.”



Nasuada paused, then gazed into his eyes and added in a gentler tone: “You have my condolences, Eragon. I realize that others beside myself have cause for sorrow; while I have lost my father, you have also lost a friend. I liked Murtagh a great deal and it saddens me that he is gone. . . . Goodbye, Eragon.”



Eragon nodded, a bitter taste in his mouth, and left the room with Saphira. The hallway outside was empty along its gray length. Eragon put his hands on his hips, tilted back his head, and exhaled. The day had barely begun, yet he was already exhausted by all the emotions that had flooded through him.



Saphira nosed him and said,This way. Without further explanation, she headed down the right side of the tunnel. Her polished claws clicked on the hard floor.



Eragon frowned, but followed her.Where are we going? No answer.Saphira, please. She just flicked her tail. Resigned to wait, he said instead,Things have certainly changed for us. I never know what to expect from one day to the next—except sorrow and bloodshed.



All is not bad,she reproached.We havewon a great victory. It should be celebrated, not mourned.



It doesn’t help, having to deal with this other nonsense.



She snorted angrily. A thin line of fire shot from her nostrils, singeing Eragon’s shoulder. He jumped back with a yelp, biting back a string of curses.Oops, said Saphira, shaking her head to clear the smoke.



Oops! You nearly roasted my side!



I didn’t expect it to happen. I keep forgetting that fire will come out if I’m not careful. Imagine that every time you raised your arm, lightning struck the ground. It would be easy to make a careless motion and destroy something unintentionally.



You’re right. . . . Sorry I growled at you.



Her bony eyelid clicked as she winked at him.No matter. The point I was trying to make is that even Nasuada can’t force you to do anything.



But I gave my word as a Rider!



Maybe so, but if I must break it to keep you safe, or to do the right thing, I will not hesitate. It is a burden I could easily carry. Because I’m joined to you, my honor is inherent in your pledge, but as an individual, I’m not bound by it. If I must, I will kidnap you. Any disobedience then would be no fault of your own.



It should never come to that. If we have to use such tricks to do what’s right, then Nasuada and the Varden will have lost all integrity.



Saphira stopped. They stood before the carved archway of Tronjheim’s library. The vast, silent room seemed empty, though the ranks of back-to-back bookshelves interspersed with columns could conceal many people. Lanterns poured soft light across the scroll-covered walls, illuminating the reading alcoves along their bases.



Weaving through the shelves, Saphira led him to one alcove, where Arya sat. Eragon paused as he studied her. She seemed more agitated than he had ever seen her, though it manifested itself only in the tension of her movements. Unlike before, she wore her sword with the graceful crossguard. One hand rested on the hilt.



Eragon sat at the opposite side of the marble table. Saphira positioned herself between them, where neither could escape her gaze.



“What have you done?” asked Arya with unexpected hostility.



“How so?”



She lifted her chin. “What have you promised the Varden?What have you done? ”



The last part even reached Eragon mentally. He realized just how close the elf was to losing control. A bit of fear touched him. “We only did what we had to. I’m ignorant of elves’ customs, so if our actions upset you, I apologize. There’s no cause to be angry.”



“Fool! You know nothing about me. I have spent seven decades representing my queen here—fifteen years of which I bore Saphira’s egg between the Varden and the elves. In all that time, I struggled to ensure the Varden had wise, strong leaders who could resist Galbatorix and respect our wishes. Brom helped me by forging the agreement concerning the new Rider—you. Ajihad was committed to your remaining independent so that the balance of power would not be upset. Now I see you siding with the Council of Elders, willingly or not, to control Nasuada! You have overturned a lifetime of work!What have you done? ”



Dismayed, Eragon dropped all pretenses. With short, clear words, he explained why he had agreed to the council’s demands and how he and Saphira had attempted to undermine them.



When he finished, Arya stated, “So.”



“So.”Seventy years. Though he knew elves’ lives were extraordinarily long, he had never suspected that Arya was that old, and older, for she appeared to be a woman in her early twenties. The only sign of age on her unlined face was her emerald eyes—deep, knowing, and most often solemn.



Arya leaned back, studying him. “Your position is not what I would wish, but better than I had hoped. I was impolite; Saphira . . . and you . . . understand more than I thought. Your compromise will be accepted by the elves, though you must never forget your debt to us for Saphira. There would be no Riders without our efforts.”



“The debt is burned into my blood and my palm,” said Eragon. In the silence that followed, he cast about for a new topic, eager to prolong their conversation and perhaps learn more about her. “You have been gone for such a long time; do you miss Ellesméra? Or did you live elsewhere?”



“Ellesméra was, and always shall be, my home,” she said, looking beyond him. “I have not lived in my family’s house since I left for the Varden, when the walls and windows were draped with spring’s first flowers. The times I’ve returned were only fleeting stays, vanishing flecks of memory by our measurement.”



He noticed, once again, that she smelled like crushed pine needles. It was a faint, spicy odor that opened his senses and refreshed his mind. “It must be hard to live among all these dwarves and humans without any of your kind.”



She cocked her head. “You speak of humans as if you weren’t one.”



“Perhaps . . . ,” he hesitated, “perhaps I am something else—a mixture of two races. Saphira lives inside me as much as I live in her. We share feelings, senses, thoughts, even to the point where we are more one mind than two.” Saphira dipped her head in agreement, nearly bumping the table with her snout.



“That is how it should be,” said Arya. “A pact more ancient and powerful than you can imagine links you. You won’t truly understand what it means to be a Rider until your training is completed. But that must wait until after the funeral. In the meantime, may the stars watch over you.”



With that she departed, slipping into the library’s shadowed depths. Eragon blinked.Is it me, or is everyone on edge today? Like Arya—one moment she’s angry, the next she’s giving me a blessing!



No one will be comfortable until things return to normal.



Define normal.





RORAN




Roran trudged up the hill.



He stopped and squinted at the sun through his shaggy hair.Five hours till sunset. I won’t be able to stay long. With a sigh, he continued along the row of elm trees, each of which stood in a pool of uncut grass.



This was his first visit to the farm since he, Horst, and six other men from Carvahall had removed everything worth salvaging from the destroyed house and burned barn. It had been nearly five months before he could consider returning.



Once on the hilltop, Roran halted and crossed his arms. Before him lay the remains of his childhood home. A corner of the house still stood—crumbling and charred—but the rest had been flattened and was already covered with grass and weeds. Nothing could be seen of the barn. The few acres they had managed to cultivate each year were now filled with dandelions, wild mustard, and more grass. Here and there, stray beets or turnips had survived, but that was all. Just beyond the farm, a thick belt of trees obscured the Anora River.



Roran clenched a fist, jaw muscles knotting painfully as he fought back a combination of rage and grief. He stayed rooted to the spot for many long minutes, trembling whenever a pleasant memory rushed through him. This place had been his entire life and more. It had been his past . . . and his future. His father, Garrow, once said, “The land is a special thing. Care for it, and it’ll care for you. Not many things will do that.” Roran had intended to do exactly that up until the moment his world was ruptured by a quiet message from Baldor.



With a groan, he spun away and stalked back toward the road. The shock of that moment still resonated within him. Having everyone he loved torn away in an instant was a soul-changing event from which he would never recover. It had seeped into every aspect of his behavior and outlook.



It also forced Roran to think more than ever before. It was as if bands had been cinched around his mind, and those bands had snapped, allowing him to ponder ideas that were previously unimaginable. Such as the fact that he might not become a farmer, or that justice—the greatest standby in songs and legends—had little hold in reality. At times these thoughts filled his consciousness to the point where he could barely rise in the morning, feeling bloated with their heaviness.



Turning on the road, he headed north through Palancar Valley, back to Carvahall. The notched mountains on either side were laden with snow, despite the spring greenery that had crept over the valley floor in past weeks. Overhead, a single gray cloud drifted toward the peaks.



Roran ran a hand across his chin, feeling the stubble.Eragon caused all this—him and his blasted curiosity—by bringing that stone out of the Spine. It had taken Roran weeks to reach that conclusion. He had listened to everyone’s accounts. Several times he had Gertrude, the town healer, read aloud the letter Brom had left him. And there was no other explanation.Whatever that stone was, it must have attracted the strangers. For that alone, he blamed Garrow’s death on Eragon, though not in anger; he knew that Eragon had intended no harm. No, what roused his fury was that Eragon had left Garrow unburied and fled Palancar Valley, abandoning his responsibilities to gallop off with the old storyteller on some harebrained journey.How could Eragon have so little regard for those left behind? Did he run because he felt guilty? Afraid? Did Brom mislead him with wild tales of adventure?And why would Eragon listen to such things at a time like that? . . . I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive right now.



Roran scowled and rolled his shoulders, trying to clear his mind.Brom’s letter . . . Bah! He had never heard a more ridiculous collection of insinuations and ominous hints. The only thing it made clear was to avoid the strangers, which was common sense to begin with.The old man was crazy, he decided.



A flicker of movement caused Roran to turn, and he saw twelve deer—including a young buck with velvet horns—trotting back into the trees. He made sure to note their location so he could find them tomorrow. He was proud that he could hunt well enough to support himself in Horst’s house, though he had never been as skilled as Eragon.



As he walked, he continued to order his thoughts. After Garrow’s death, Roran had abandoned his job at Dempton’s mill in Therinsford and returned to Carvahall. Horst had agreed to house him and, in the following months, had provided him with work in the forge. Grief had delayed Roran’s decisions about the future until two days ago, when he finally settled upon a course of action.



He wanted to marry Katrina, the butcher’s daughter. The reason he went to Therinsford in the first place was to earn money to ensure a smooth beginning to their life together. But now, without a farm, a home, or means to support her, Roran could not in good conscience ask for Katrina’s hand. His pride would not allow it. Nor did Roran think Sloan, her father, would tolerate a suitor with such poor prospects. Even under the best of circumstances, Roran had expected to have a hard time convincing Sloan to give up Katrina; the two of them had never been friendly. And it was impossible for Roran to wed Katrina without her father’s consent, not unless they wished to divide her family, anger the village by defying tradition, and, most likely, start a blood feud with Sloan.



Considering the situation, it seemed to Roran that the only option available to him was to rebuild his farm, even if he had to raise the house and barn himself. It would be hard, starting from nothing, but once his position was secured, he could approach Sloan with his head held high.Next spring is the soonest we might talk, thought Roran, grimacing.



He knew Katrina would wait—for a time, at least.



He continued at a steady pace until evening, when the village came into view. Within the small huddle of buildings, wash hung on lines strung from window to window. Men filed back toward the houses from surrounding fields thick with winter wheat. Behind Carvahall, the half-mile-high Igualda Falls gleamed in the sunset as it tumbled down the Spine into the Anora. The sight warmed Roran because it was so ordinary. Nothing was more comforting than having everything where it should be.



Leaving the road, he made his way up the rise to where Horst’s house sat with a view of the Spine. The door was already open. Roran tromped inside, following the sounds of conversation into the kitchen.



Horst was there, leaning on the rough table pushed into one corner of the room, his arms bare to the elbow. Next to him was his wife, Elain, who was nearly five months pregnant and smiling with quiet contentment. Their sons, Albriech and Baldor, faced them.



As Roran entered, Albriech said, “. . . and I still hadn’t left the forge yet! Thane swears he saw me, but I was on the other side of town.”



“What’s going on?” asked Roran, slipping off his pack.



Elain exchanged a glance with Horst. “Here, let me get you something to eat.” She set bread and a bowl of cold stew before him. Then she looked him in the eye, as if searching for a particular expression. “How was it?”



Roran shrugged. “All of the wood is either burnt or rotting—nothing worth using. The well is still intact, and that’s something to be grateful for, I suppose. I’ll have to cut timber for the house as soon as possible if I’m going to have a roof over my head by planting season. Now tell me, what’s happened?”



“Ha!” exclaimed Horst. “There’s been quite a row, there has. Thane is missing a scythe and he thinks Albriech took it.”



“He probably dropped it in the grass and forgot where he left it,” snorted Albriech.



“Probably,” agreed Horst, smiling.



Roran bit into the bread. “It doesn’t make much sense, accusing you. If you needed a scythe, you could just forge one.”



“I know,” said Albriech, dropping into a chair, “but instead of looking for his, he starts grousing that he saw someone leaving his field and that it looked a bit like me . . . and since no one else looks like me, I must have stolen the scythe.”



It was true that no one looked like him. Albriech had inherited both his father’s size and Elain’s honey-blond hair, which made him an oddity in Carvahall, where brown was the predominant hair color. In contrast, Baldor was both thinner and dark-haired.



“I’m sure it’ll turn up,” said Baldor quietly. “Try not to get too angry over it in the meantime.”



“Easy for you to say.”



As Roran finished the last of the bread and started on the stew, he asked Horst, “Do you need me for anything tomorrow?”



“Not especially. I’ll just be working on Quimby’s wagon. The blasted frame still won’t sit square.”



Roran nodded, pleased. “Good. Then I’ll take the day and go hunting. There are a few deer farther down the valley that don’t look too scrawny. Their ribs weren’t showing, at least.”



Baldor suddenly brightened. “Do you want some company?”



“Sure. We can leave at dawn.”





When he finished eating, Roran scrubbed his face and hands clean, then wandered outside to clear his head. Stretching leisurely, he strolled toward the center of town.



Halfway there, the chatter of excited voices outside the Seven Sheaves caught his attention. He turned, curious, and made his way to the tavern, where an odd sight met him. Sitting on the porch was a middle-aged man draped in a patchwork leather coat. Beside him was a pack festooned with the steel jaws of the trappers’ trade. Several dozen villagers listened as he gestured expansively and said, “So when I arrived at Therinsford, I went to this man, Neil. Good, honest man; I help in his fields during the spring and summer.”



Roran nodded. Trappers spent the winter squirreled away in the mountains, returning in the spring to sell their skins to tanners like Gedric and then to take up work, usually as farmhands. Since Carvahall was the northernmost village in the Spine, many trappers passed through it, which was one of the reasons Carvahall had its own tavern, blacksmith, and tanner.



“After a few steins of ale—to lubricate my speaking, you understand, after a ’alf year with nary a word uttered, except perhaps for blaspheming the world and all beyond when losing a bear-biter—I come to Neil, the froth still fresh on my beard, and start exchanging gossip. As our transaction proceeds, I ask him all gregarious-like, what news of the Empire or the king—may he rot with gangrene and trench mouth. Was anyone born or died or banished that I should know of? And then guess what? Neil leaned forward, going all serious ’bout the mouth, and said that word is going around, there is, from Dras-Leona and Gil’ead of strange happenings here, there, and everywhere in Alagaësia. The Urgals have fair disappeared from civilized lands, and good riddance, but not one man can tell why or where. ’Alf the trade in the Empire has dried up as a result of raids and attacks and, from what I heard, it isn’t the work of mere brigands, for the attacks are too widespread, too calculated. No goods are stolen, only burned or soiled. But that’s not the end of it, oh no, not by the tip of your blessed grandmother’s whiskers.”



The trapper shook his head and took a sip from his wineskin before continuing: “There be mutterings of a Shade haunting the northern territories. He’s been seen along the edge of Du Weldenvarden and near Gil’ead. They say his teeth are filed to points, his eyes are as red as wine, and his hair is as red as the blood he drinks. Worse, something seems to have gotten our fine, mad monarch’s dander up, so it has. Five days past, a juggler from the south stopped in Therinsford on his lonesome way to Ceunon, and he said that troops have been moving and gathering, though forwhat was beyond him.” He shrugged. “As my pap taught me when I was a suckling babe, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. Perhaps it’s the Varden. They’ve caused old Iron Bones enough pain in the arse over the years. Or perhaps Galbatorix finally decided he’s had enough of tolerating Surda. At least he knows where to find it, unlike those rebels. He’ll crush Surda like a bear crushes an ant, he will.”



Roran blinked as a babble of questions exploded around the trapper. He was inclined to doubt the report of a Shade—it sounded too much like a story a drunk woodsman might invent—but the rest of it all sounded bad enough to be true.Surda . . . Little information reached Carvahall about that distant country, but Roran at least knew that, although Surda and the Empire were ostensibly at peace, Surdans lived in constant fear that their more powerful neighbor to the north would invade them. For that reason, it was said that Orrin, their king, supported the Varden.



If the trapper was right about Galbatorix, then it could mean ugly war crouched in the future, accompanied by the hardships of increased taxes and forced conscription.I would rather live in an age devoid of momentous events. Upheaval makes already difficult lives, such as ours, nigh impossible.



“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.





THEHUNTEDHUNTERS




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.”



“Aye.”



“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.”



“What do they want? Whatcan they want?”The king. Why did Galbatorix countenance my father’s torture?



“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.



What happens now?wondered Roran, rocking back on his heels.





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.”





SAPHIRA’SPROMISE



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?”



“A little.”



“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.”



How much can we tell him?Eragon asked Saphira, thinking quickly.



He’s always treated us fairly, but we can’t know what he may have promised other people. We’d best be cautious until Nasuada actually takes power.



Very well.



“Saphira and I have agreed to help her. We won’t oppose her ascension. And”—Eragon wondered if he was going too far—“I plead that you do the same; the Varden can’t afford to fight among themselves. They need unity.”



“Oeí,” said Hrothgar, leaning back, “you speak with new authority. Your suggestion is a good one, but it will cost a question: Do you think Nasuada will be a wise leader, or are there other motives in choosing her?”



It’s a test,warned Saphira.He wants to know whywe’ve backed her.



Eragon felt his lips twitch in a half-smile. “I think her wise and canny beyond her years. She will be good for the Varden.”



“And that is why you support her?”



“Yes.”



Hrothgar nodded, dipping his long, snowy beard. “That relieves me. There has been too little concern lately with what is right and good, and more about what will bring individual power. It is hard to watch such idiocy and not be angry.”



An uncomfortable silence fell between them, stifling in the long throne room. To break it, Eragon asked, “What will be done with the dragonhold? Will a new floor be laid down?”



For the first time, the king’s eyes grew mournful, deepening the surrounding lines that splayed like spokes on a wagon wheel. It was the closest Eragon had ever seen a dwarf come to weeping. “Much talk is needed before that step can be taken. It was a terrible deed, what Saphira and Arya did. Maybe necessary, but terrible. Ah, it might have been better if the Urgals had overrun us before Isidar Mithrim was ever broken. The heart of Tronjheim has been shattered, and so has ours.” Hrothgar placed his fist over his breast, then slowly unclenched his hand and reached down to grasp Volund’s leather-wrapped handle.



Saphira touched Eragon’s mind. He sensed several emotions in her, but what surprised him the most was her remorse and guilt. She truly regretted the Star Rose’s demise, despite the fact that it had been required.Little one, she said,help me. I need to speak with Hrothgar. Ask him: Do the dwarves have the ability to reconstruct Isidar Mithrim out of the shards?



As he repeated the words, Hrothgar muttered something in his own language, then said, “The skill we have, but what of it? The task would take months or years, and the end result would be a ruined mockery of the beauty that once graced Tronjheim! It is an abomination I will not sanction.”



Saphira continued to stare unblinkingly at the king.Now tell him: If Isidar Mithrim were put together again, with not one piece missing, I believe I could make it whole once more.



Eragon gaped at her, forgetting Hrothgar in his astonishment.Saphira! The energy that would require! You told me yourself that you can’t use magic at will, so what makes you sure you can do this?



I can do it if the need is great enough. It will be my gift to the dwarves. Remember Brom’s tomb; let that wash your doubt away. And close your mouth—it’s unbecoming and the king is watching.



When Eragon conveyed Saphira’s offer, Hrothgar straightened with an exclamation. “Is it possible? Not even the elves might attempt such a feat.”



“She is confident in her abilities.”



“Then we will rebuild Isidar Mithrim, no matter if it takes a hundred years. We will assemble a frame for the gem and set each piece into its original place. Not a single chip will be forgotten. Even if we must break the larger pieces to move them, it will be done with all our skill in working stone, so that no dust or flecks are lost. You will come then, when we are finished, and heal the Star Rose.”



“We will come,” agreed Eragon, bowing.



Hrothgar smiled, and it was like the cracking of a granite wall. “Such joy you have given me, Saphira. I feel once more a reason to rule and live. If you do this, dwarves everywhere will honor your name for uncounted generations. Go now with my blessings while I spread the tidings among the clans. And do not feel bound to wait upon my announcement, for no dwarf should be denied this news; convey it to all whom you meet. May the halls echo with the jubilation of our race.”



With one more bow, Eragon and Saphira departed, leaving the dwarf king still smiling on his throne. Out of the hall, Eragon told Orik what had transpired. The dwarf immediately bent and kissed the floor before Saphira. He rose with a grin and clasped Eragon’s arm, saying, “A wonder indeed. You have given us exactly the hope we needed to combat recent events. There will be drinking tonight, I wager!”



“And tomorrow is the funeral.”



Orik sobered for a moment. “Tomorrow, yes. But until then we shall not let unhappy thoughts disturb us! Come!”



Taking Eragon’s hand, the dwarf pulled him through Tronjheim to a great feast hall where many dwarves sat at stone tables. Orik leaped onto one, scattering dishes across the floor, and in a booming voice proclaimed the news of Isidar Mithrim. Eragon was nearly deafened by the cheers and shouts that followed. Each of the dwarves insisted on coming to Saphira and kissing the floor as Orik had. When that was finished, they abandoned their food and filled their stone tankards with beer and mead.



Eragon joined the revelry with an abandon that surprised him. It helped to ease the melancholy gathered in his heart. However, he did try to resist complete debauchery, for he was conscious of the duties that awaited them the following day and he wanted to have a clear head.



Even Saphira took a sip of mead, and finding that she liked it, the dwarves rolled out a whole barrel for her. Delicately lowering her mighty jaws through the cask’s open end, she drained it with three long draughts, then tilted her head toward the ceiling and belched a giant tongue of flame. It took several minutes for Eragon to convince the dwarves that it was safe to approach her again, but once he did, they brought her another barrel—overriding the cook’s protests—and watched with amazement as she emptied it as well.



As Saphira became increasingly inebriated, her emotions and thoughts washed through Eragon with more and more force. It became difficult for him to rely upon the input of his own senses: her vision began to slip over his own, blurring movement and changing colors. Even the odors he smelled shifted at times, becoming sharper, more pungent.



The dwarves began to sing together. Weaving as she stood, Saphira hummed along, punctuating each line with a roar. Eragon opened his mouth to join in and was shocked when, instead of words, out came the snarling rasp of a dragon’s voice.That, he thought, shaking his head,is going too far. . . . Or am I just drunk? He decided it did not matter and proceeded to sing boisterously, dragon’s voice or not.



Dwarves continued to stream into the hall as word of Isidar Mithrim spread. Hundreds soon packed the tables, with a thick ring around Eragon and Saphira. Orik called in musicians who arranged themselves in a corner, where they pulled slipcovers of green velvet off their instruments. Soon harps, lutes, and silver flutes floated their gilded melodies over the throng.



Many hours passed before the noise and excitement began to calm. When it did, Orik once more climbed onto the table. He stood there, legs spread wide for balance, tankard in hand, iron-bound cap awry, and cried, “Hear, hear! At last we have celebrated as is proper. The Urgals are gone, the Shade is dead, and we have won!” The dwarves all pounded their tables in approval. It was a good speech—short and to the point. But Orik was not finished. “To Eragon and Saphira!” he roared, lifting the tankard. This too was well received.



Eragon stood and bowed, which brought more cheers. Beside him, Saphira reared and swung a foreleg across her chest, attempting to duplicate his move. She tottered, and the dwarve