Main Inheritance Cycle (Eragon; Eldest; Brisingr)

Inheritance Cycle (Eragon; Eldest; Brisingr)

Categories: Fiction
Language: english
ISBN 13: 978-0-307-97417-4
Series: Inheritance 1-03
File: EPUB, 9.46 MB
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PRONUNCIATION


Ajihad—AH-zhi-hod

Alagaësia—al-uh-GAY-zee-uh

Arya—AR-ee-uh

Carvahall—CAR-vuh-hall

Dras-Leona—DRAHS-lee-OH-nuh

Du Weldenvarden—doo WELL-den-VAR-den

Eragon—EHR-uh-gahn

Farthen Dûr—FAR-then DURE (dure rhymes with lure)

Galbatorix—gal-buh-TOR-icks

Gil’ead—GILL-ee-id

Jeod—JODE (rhymes with load)

Murtagh—MUR-tag (mur rhymes with purr)

Ra’zac—RAA-zack

Saphira—suh-FEAR-uh

Shruikan—SHREW-kin

Teirm—TEERM

Tronjheim—TRONJ-heem

Vrael—VRAIL

Yazuac—YA-zoo-ack

Zar’roc—ZAR-rock



THE ANCIENT LANGUAGE

Note: As Eragon is not yet a master of the ancient language, his words and remarks were not translated literally, so as to save readers from his atrocious grammar. Quotations from other characters, however, have been left untouched.


Aí varden abr du Shur’tugalar gata vanta.—A warden of the Riders lacks passage.

Aiedail—the morning star

arget—silver

Argetlam—Silver Hand

Atra guliä un ilian tauthr ono un atra ono waíse skölir fra rauthr.—Let luck and happiness follow you and may you be shielded from misfortune.

breoal—family; house

brisingr—fire

Deloi moi!—Earth, change!

delois—a green-leafed plant with purple flowers

Domia abr Wyrda—Dominance of Fate (book)

dras—city

draumr kópa—dream stare

Du grind huildr!—Hold the gate!

“Du Silbena Datia”—“The Sighing Mists” (a poem song)

Du Sundavar Freohr—Death of the Shadows

Du Vrangr Gata—The Wandering Path

Du Weldenvarden—The Guarding Forest

Edoc’sil—Unconquerable

eitha—go; leave

Eka aí fricai un Shur’tugal!—I am a Rider and friend!

ethgrí—invoke

Fethrblaka, eka weohnata néiat haina ono. Blaka eom iet lam.—Bird, I will not harm you. Flap to my hand.

garjzla—light

Gath un reisa du rakr!—Unite and raise the mist!

gedwëy ignasia—shining palm

Gëuloth du knífr!—Dull the knife!

Helgrind—The Gates of Death

iet—my (informal)

Istalrí boetk!—Broad fire!

jierda—break; hit

Jierda theirra kalfis!—Break their calves!

Manin! Wyrda! Hugin!—Memory! Fate! Thought!

Moi stenr!—Stone, change!

Nagz reisa!—Blanket, rise!

Osthato Chetowä—the Mourning Sage

pömnuria—my (formal)

Ristvak’baen—Place of Sorrow (baen—used here and in Urû’baen, the capital of the Empire—is always pronounced bane and is an expression of great sadness/grief)

seithr—witch

Shur’tugal—Dragon Rider

Skulblaka, eka celöbra ono un mulabra ono un onr Shur’tugal né haina. Atra nosu waíse fricai.—Dragon, I honor you and mean you and your Rider no harm. Let us be friends.

slytha—sleep

Stenr reisa!—Raise stone!

thrysta—thrust; compress

Thrysta deloi.—Compress the earth.

Thverr stenr un atra eka hórna!—Traverse stone and let me hear!

Togira Ikonoka—the Cripple Who Is Whole

tuatha du orothrim—tempering the fool’s wisdom (level in Riders’ training)

Varden—the Warders

vöndr—a thin, straight stick

Waíse heill!—Be healed!

Wiol pömnuria ilian.—For my happiness.

wyrda—fate

yawë—a bond of trust



THE DWARF LANGUAGE


Akh Guntéraz dorzâda!—For Guntéra’s adoration!

Âz knurl deimi lanok.—Beware, the rock changes.

barzûl—a curse (ill fate)

Carkna bragha!—Great danger!

dûrgrimst—clan (literally, our hall/home)

Egraz Carn—Bald One

Farthen Dûr—Our Father

hírna—likeness; statue

Ilf carnz orodûm.—It is one’s obligation/fate.

Ingietum—metalworkers; smiths

Isidar Mithrim—Star Sapphire

knurl—stone; rock

knurla—dwarf (literally, one of stone)

Kóstha-mérna—Foot Pool (a lake)

oeí—yes; affirmative

otho—faith

sheilven—cowards

Tronjheim—Helm of Giants

Vol Turin—The Endless Staircase



THE URGAL LANGUAGE


drajl—spawn of maggots

Ithrö Zhâda (Orthíad)—Rebel Doom

Kaz jtierl trazhid! Otrag bagh.—Do not attack! Circle him.

ushnark—father




DU SUNDAVAR FREOHR

[image: ]he first things Eragon noticed were that he was warm and dry, his cheek was pressed against rough fabric, and his hands were unbound. He stirred, but it was minutes before he was able to push himself upright and examine his surroundings.

He was sitting in a cell on a narrow, bumpy cot. A barred window was set high in the wall. The iron-bound door with a small window in its top half, barred like the one in the wall, was shut securely.

Dried blood cracked on Eragon’s face when he moved. It took him a moment to remember that it was not his. His head hurt horribly—which was to be expected, considering the blow he had taken—and his mind was strangely fuzzy. He tried to use magic, but could not concentrate well enough to remember any of the ancient words. They must have drugged me, he finally decided.

With a groan he got up, missing the familiar weight of Zar’roc on his hip, and lurched to the window in the wall. He managed to see out of it by standing on his toes. It took a minute for his eyes to adjust to the bright light outside. The window was level with the ground. A street full of busy people ran past the side of his cell, beyond which were rows of identical log houses.

Feeling weak, Eragon slid to the floor and stared at it blankly. What he had seen outside disturbed him, but he was unsure why. Cursing his sluggish thinking, he leaned back his head and tried to clear his mind. A man entered the room and set a tray of food and a pitcher of water on the cot. Wasn’t that nice of him? thought Eragon, smiling pleasantly. He took a couple of bites of the thin cabbage soup and stale bread, but was barely able to stomach it. I wish he had brought me something better, he complained, dropping the spoon.

He suddenly realized what was wrong. I was captured by Urgals, not men! How did I end up here? His befuddled brain grappled with the paradox unsuccessfully. With a mental shrug he filed the discovery away for a time when he would know what to do with it.

He sat on the cot and gazed into the distance. Hours later more food was brought in. And I was just getting hungry, he thought thickly. This time he was able to eat without feeling sick. When he finished, he decided it was time for a nap. After all, he was on a bed; what else was he going to do?

His mind drifted off; sleep began to envelop him. Then a gate clanged open somewhere, and the din of steel-shod boots marching on a stone floor filled the air. The noise grew louder and louder until it sounded like someone banging a pot inside Eragon’s head. He grumbled to himself. Can’t they let me rest in peace? Fuzzy curiosity slowly overcame his exhaustion, so he dragged himself to the door, blinking like an owl.

Through the window he saw a wide hallway nearly ten yards across. The opposing wall was lined with cells similar to his own. A column of soldiers marched through the hall, their swords drawn and ready. Every man was dressed in matching armor; their faces bore the same hard expression, and their feet came down on the floor with mechanical precision, never missing a beat. The sound was hypnotic. It was an impressive display of force.

Eragon watched the soldiers until he grew bored. Just then he noticed a break in the middle of the column. Carried between two burly men was an unconscious woman.

Her long midnight-black hair obscured her face, despite a leather strip bound around her head to hold the tresses back. She was dressed in dark leather pants and shirt. Wrapped around her slim waist was a shiny belt, from which hung an empty sheath on her right hip. Knee-high boots covered her calves and small feet.

Her head lolled to the side. Eragon gasped, feeling like he had been struck in the stomach. She was the woman from his dreams. Her sculpted face was as perfect as a painting. Her round chin, high cheekbones, and long eyelashes gave her an exotic look. The only mar in her beauty was a scrape along her jaw; nevertheless, she was the fairest woman he had ever seen.

Eragon’s blood burned as he looked at her. Something awoke in him—something he had never felt before. It was like an obsession, except stronger, almost a fevered madness. Then the woman’s hair shifted, revealing pointed ears. A chill crept over him. She was an elf.

The soldiers continued marching, taking her from his sight. Next strode a tall, proud man, a sable cape billowing behind him. His face was deathly white; his hair was red. Red like blood.

As he walked by Eragon’s cell, the man turned his head and looked squarely at him with maroon eyes. His upper lip pulled back in a feral smile, revealing teeth filed to points. Eragon shrank back. He knew what the man was. A Shade. So help me … a Shade. The procession continued, and the Shade vanished from view.

Eragon sank to the floor, hugging himself. Even in his bewildered state, he knew that the presence of a Shade meant that evil was loose in the land. Whenever they appeared, rivers of blood were sure to follow. What is a Shade doing here? The soldiers should have killed him on sight! Then his thoughts returned to the elf-woman, and he was grasped by strange emotions again.

I have to escape. But with his mind clouded, his determination quickly faded. He returned to the cot. By the time the hallway fell silent, he was fast asleep.

As soon as Eragon opened his eyes, he knew something was different. It was easier for him to think; he realized that he was in Gil’ead. They made a mistake; the drug’s wearing off! Hopeful, he tried to contact Saphira and use magic, but both activities were still beyond his reach. A pit of worry twisted inside him as he wondered if she and Murtagh had managed to escape. He stretched his arms and looked out the window. The city was just awakening; the street was empty except for two beggars.

He reached for the water pitcher, ruminating about the elf and Shade. As he started to drink, he noticed that the water had a faint odor, as if it contained a few drops of rancid perfume. Grimacing, he set the pitcher down. The drug must be in there and maybe in the food as well! He remembered that when the Ra’zac had drugged him, it had taken hours to wear off. If I can keep from drinking and eating for long enough, I should be able to use magic. Then I can rescue the elf.… The thought made him smile. He sat in a corner, dreaming about how it could be done.

The portly jailer entered the cell an hour later with a tray of food. Eragon waited until he departed, then carried the tray to the window. The meal was composed only of bread, cheese, and an onion, but the smell made his stomach grumble hungrily. Resigning himself to a miserable day, he shoved the food out the window and onto the street, hoping that no one would notice.

Eragon devoted himself to overcoming the drug’s effects. He had difficulty concentrating for any length of time, but as the day progressed, his mental acuity increased. He began to remember several of the ancient words, though nothing happened when he uttered them. He wanted to scream with frustration.

When lunch was delivered, he pushed it out the window after his breakfast. His hunger was distracting, but it was the lack of water that taxed him most. The back of his throat was parched. Thoughts of drinking cool water tortured him as each breath dried his mouth and throat a bit more. Even so, he forced himself to ignore the pitcher.

He was diverted from his discomfort by a commotion in the hall. A man argued in a loud voice, “You can’t go in there! The orders were clear: no one is to see him!”

“Really? Will you be the one to die stopping me, Captain?” cut in a smooth voice.

There was a subdued, “No … but the king—”

“I will handle the king,” interrupted the second person. “Now, unlock the door.”

After a pause, keys jangled outside Eragon’s cell. He tried to adopt a languorous expression. I have to act like I don’t understand what’s going on. I can’t show surprise, no matter what this person says.

The door opened. His breath caught as he looked into the Shade’s face. It was like gazing at a death mask or a polished skull with skin pulled over it to give the appearance of life. “Greetings,” said the Shade with a cold smile, showing his filed teeth. “I’ve waited a long time to meet you.”

“Who—who’re you?” asked Eragon, slurring his words.

“No one of consequence,” answered the Shade, his maroon eyes alight with controlled menace. He sat with a flourish of his cloak. “My name does not matter to one in your position. It wouldn’t mean a thing to you anyway. It’s you that I’m interested in. Who are you?”

The question was posed innocently enough, but Eragon knew there had to be a catch or trap in it, though it eluded him. He pretended to struggle over the question for a while, then slowly said, frowning, “I’m not sure.… M’name’s Eragon, but that’s not all I am, is it?”

The Shade’s narrow lips stretched tautly over his mouth as he laughed sharply. “No, it isn’t. You have an interesting mind, my young Rider.” He leaned forward. The skin on his forehead was thin and translucent. “It seems I must be more direct. What is your name?”

“Era—”

“No! Not that one.” The Shade cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Don’t you have another one, one that you use only rarely?”

He wants my true name so he can control me! realized Eragon. But I can’t tell him. I don’t even know it myself. He thought quickly, trying to invent a deception that would conceal his ignorance. What if I made up a name? He hesitated—it could easily give him away—then raced to create a name that would withstand scrutiny. As he was about to utter it, he decided to take a chance and try to scare the Shade. He deftly switched a few letters, then nodded foolishly and said, “Brom told it to me once. It was …” The pause stretched for a few seconds, then his face brightened as he appeared to remember. “It was Du Sundavar Freohr.” Which meant almost literally “death of the shadows.”

A grim chill settled over the cell as the Shade sat motionless, eyes veiled. He seemed to be deep in thought, pondering what he had learned. Eragon wondered if he had dared too much. He waited until the Shade stirred before asking ingenuously, “Why are you here?”

The Shade looked at him with contempt in his red eyes and smiled. “To gloat, of course. What use is a victory if one cannot enjoy it?” There was confidence in his voice, but he seemed uneasy, as if his plans had been disrupted. He stood suddenly. “I must attend to certain matters, but while I am gone you would do well to think on who you would rather serve: a Rider who betrayed your own order or a fellow man like me, though one skilled in arcane arts. When the time comes to choose, there will be no middle ground.” He turned to leave, then glanced at Eragon’s water pitcher and stopped, his face granite hard. “Captain!” he snapped.

A broad-shouldered man rushed into the cell, sword in hand. “What is it, my lord?” he asked, alarmed.

“Put that toy away,” instructed the Shade. He turned to Eragon and said in a deadly quiet voice, “The boy hasn’t been drinking his water. Why is that?”

“I talked with the jailer earlier. Every bowl and plate was scraped clean.”

“Very well,” said the Shade, mollified. “But make sure that he starts drinking again.” He leaned toward the captain and murmured into his ear. Eragon caught the last few words, “… extra dose, just in case.” The captain nodded. The Shade returned his attention to Eragon. “We will talk again tomorrow when I am not so pressed for time. You should know, I have an endless fascination for names. I will greatly enjoy discussing yours in much greater detail.”

The way he said it gave Eragon a sinking feeling.

Once they left, he lay on the cot and closed his eyes. Brom’s lessons proved their worth now; he relied on them to keep himself from panicking and to reassure himself. Everything has been provided for me; I only have to take advantage of it. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of approaching soldiers.

Apprehensive, he went to the door and saw two soldiers dragging the elf down the hallway. When he could see her no more, Eragon slumped to the floor and tried to touch the magic again. Oaths flew from his lips when it eluded his grasp.

He looked out at the city and ground his teeth. It was only midafternoon. Taking a calming breath, he tried to wait patiently.


MAN AND WIFE

Four hours later, Eragon stood on the crest of a low hill dotted with yellow wildflowers.

Surrounding the hill was a lush meadow that bordered the Jiet River, which rushed past a hundred feet to Eragon’s right. The sky was bright and clear; sunshine bathed the land with a soft radiance. The air was cool and calm and smelled fresh, as if it had just rained.

Gathered in front of the hill were the villagers from Carvahall, none of whom had been injured during the fighting, and what seemed to be half of the men of the Varden. Many of the warriors held long spears mounted with embroidered pennants of every color. Various horses, including Snowfire, were picketed at the far end of the meadow. Despite Nasuada’s best efforts, organizing the assembly had taken longer than anyone had reckoned.

Wind tousled Eragon’s hair, which was still wet from washing, as Saphira glided over the congregation and alighted next to him, fanning her wings. He smiled and touched her on the shoulder.

Little one.

Under normal circumstances, Eragon would have been nervous about speaking in front of so many people and performing such a solemn and important ceremony, but after the earlier fighting, everything had assumed an air of unreality, as if it were no more than a particularly vivid dream.

At the base of the hill stood Nasuada, Arya, Narheim, Jörmundur, Angela, Elva, and others of importance. King Orrin was absent, as his wounds had proved to be more serious than they had first appeared and his healers were still laboring over him in his pavilion. The king’s prime minister, Irwin, was attending in his stead.

The only Urgals present were the two in Nasuada’s private guard. Eragon had been there when Nasuada had invited Nar Garzhvog to the event, and he had been relieved when Garzhvog had had the good sense to decline. The villagers would never have tolerated a large group of Urgals at the wedding. As it was, Nasuada had difficulty convincing them to allow her guards to remain.

With a rustle of cloth, the villagers and the Varden parted, forming a long, open path from the hill to the edge of the crowd. Then, joining their voices, the villagers began to sing the ancient wedding songs of Palancar Valley. The well-worn verses spoke of the cycle of the seasons, of the warm earth that gave birth to a new crop each year, of the spring calving, of nesting robins and spawning fish, and of how it was the destiny of the young to replace the old. One of Blödhgarm’s spellcasters, a female elf with silver hair, withdrew a small gold harp from a velvet case and accompanied the villagers with notes of her own, embellishing upon the simple themes of their melodies, lending the familiar music a wistful mood.

With slow, steady steps, Roran and Katrina emerged from either side of the crowd at the far end of the path, turned toward the hill, and, without touching, began to advance toward Eragon. Roran wore a new tunic he had borrowed from one of the Varden. His hair was brushed, his beard was trimmed, and his boots were clean. His face beamed with inexpressible joy. All in all, he seemed very handsome and distinguished to Eragon. However, it was Katrina who commanded Eragon’s attention. Her dress was light blue, as befitted a bride at her first wedding, of a simple cut but with a lace train that was twenty feet long and carried by two girls. Against the pale fabric, her free-flowing locks glowed like polished copper. In her hands was a posy of wildflowers. She was proud, serene, and beautiful.

Eragon heard gasps from some of the women as they beheld Katrina’s train. He resolved to thank Nasuada for having Du Vrangr Gata make the dress for Katrina, for he assumed it was she who was responsible for the gift.

Three paces behind Roran walked Horst. And at a similar distance behind Katrina walked Birgit, careful to avoid stepping on the train.

When Roran and Katrina were halfway to the hill, a pair of white doves flew out from the willow trees lining the Jiet River. The doves carried a circlet of yellow daffodils clutched in their feet. Katrina slowed and stopped as they approached her. The birds circled her three times, north to east, and then dipped down and laid the circlet upon the crown of her head before returning to the river.

“Did you arrange that?” Eragon murmured to Arya.

She smiled.

At the top of the hill, Roran and Katrina stood motionless before Eragon while they waited for the villagers to finish singing. As the final refrain faded into oblivion, Eragon raised his hands and said, “Welcome, one and all. Today we have come together to celebrate the union between the families of Roran Garrowsson and Katrina Ismirasdaughter. They are both of good reputation, and to the best of my knowledge, no one else has a claim upon their hands. If that not be the case, however, or if any other reason exists that they should not become man and wife, then make your objections known before these witnesses, that we may judge the merit of your arguments.” Eragon paused for an appropriate interval, then continued. “Who here speaks for Roran Garrowsson?”

Horst stepped forward. “Roran has neither father nor uncle, so I, Horst Ostrecsson, speak for him as my blood.”

“And who here speaks for Katrina Ismirasdaughter?”

Birgit stepped forward. “Katrina has neither mother nor aunt, so I, Birgit Mardrasdaughter, speak for her as my blood.” Despite her vendetta against Roran, by tradition it was Birgit’s right and responsibility to represent Katrina, as she had been a close friend of Katrina’s mother.

“It is right and proper. What, then, does Roran Garrowsson bring to this marriage, that both he and his wife may prosper?”

“He brings his name,” said Horst. “He brings his hammer. He brings the strength of his hands. And he brings the promise of a farm in Carvahall, where they may both live in peace.”

Astonishment rippled through the crowd as people realized what Roran was doing: he was declaring in the most public and binding way possible that the Empire would not stop him from returning home with Katrina and providing her with the life she would have had if not for Galbatorix’s murderous interference. Roran was staking his honor, as a man and a husband, on the downfall of the Empire.

“Do you accept this offer, Birgit Mardrasdaughter?” Eragon asked.

Birgit nodded. “I do.”

“And what does Katrina Ismirasdaughter bring to this marriage, that both she and her husband may prosper?”

“She brings her love and devotion, with which she shall serve Roran Garrowsson. She brings her skills at running a household. And she brings a dowry.” Surprised, Eragon watched as Birgit motioned and two men who were standing next to Nasuada came forward, carrying a metal casket between them. Birgit undid the clasp to the casket, then lifted open the lid and showed Eragon the contents. He gaped as he beheld the mound of jewelry inside. “She brings with her a gold necklace studded with diamonds. She brings a brooch set with red coral from the Southern Sea and a pearl net to hold her hair. She brings five rings of gold and electrum. The first ring—” As Birgit described each item, she lifted it from the casket so all might see she spoke the truth.

Bewildered, Eragon glanced at Nasuada and noted the pleased smile she wore.

After Birgit had finished her litany and closed the casket and fastened the lock again, Eragon asked, “Do you accept this offer, Horst Ostrecsson?”

“I do.”

“Thus your families become one, in accordance with the law of the land.” Then, for the first time, Eragon addressed Roran and Katrina directly: “Those who speak for you have agreed upon the terms of your marriage. Roran, are you pleased with how Horst Ostrecsson has negotiated on your behalf?”

“I am.”

“And, Katrina, are you pleased with how Birgit Mardrasdaughter has negotiated on your behalf?”

“I am.”

“Roran Stronghammer, son of Garrow, do you swear then, by your name and by your lineage, that you shall protect and provide for Katrina Ismirasdaughter while you both yet live?”

“I, Roran Stronghammer, son of Garrow, do swear, by my name and by my lineage, that I shall protect and provide for Katrina Ismirasdaughter while we both yet live.”

“Do you swear to uphold her honor, to remain steadfast and faithful to her in the years to come, and to treat her with the proper respect, dignity, and gentleness?”

“I swear I shall uphold her honor, remain steadfast and faithful to her in the years to come, and treat her with the proper respect, dignity, and gentleness.”

“And do you swear to give her the keys to your holdings, such as they may be, and to your strongbox where you keep your coin, by sunset tomorrow, so she may tend to your affairs as a wife should?”

Roran swore he would.

“Katrina, daughter of Ismira, do you swear, by your name and by your lineage, that you shall serve and provide for Roran Garrowsson while you both yet live?”

“I, Katrina, daughter of Ismira, do swear, by my name and by my lineage, that I shall serve and provide for Roran Garrowsson while we both yet live.”

“Do you swear to uphold his honor, to remain steadfast and faithful to him in the years to come, to bear his children while you may, and to be a caring mother for them?”

“I swear I shall uphold his honor, remain steadfast and faithful to him in the years to come, bear his children while I may, and be a caring mother for them.”

“And do you swear to assume charge of his wealth and his possessions, and to manage them responsibly, so he may concentrate upon those duties that are his alone?”

Katrina swore she would.

Smiling, Eragon drew a red ribbon from his sleeve and said, “Cross your wrists.” Roran and Katrina extended their left and right arms, respectively, and did as he instructed. Laying the middle of the ribbon across their wrists, Eragon wound the strip of satin three times around and then tied the ends together with a bowknot. “As is my right as a Dragon Rider, I now declare you man and wife!”

The crowd erupted into cheers. Leaning toward each other, Roran and Katrina kissed, and the crowd redoubled their cheering.

Saphira dipped her head toward the beaming couple and, as Roran and Katrina separated, she touched each of them on the brow with the tip of her snout. Live long, and may your love deepen with every passing year, she said.

Roran and Katrina turned toward the crowd and raised their joined arms skyward. “Let the feast begin!” Roran declared.

Eragon followed the pair as they descended from the hill and walked through the press of shouting people toward two chairs that had been set at the forefront of a row of tables. There Roran and Katrina sat, as the king and queen of their wedding.

Then the guests lined up to offer their congratulations and present gifts. Eragon was first. His grin as large as theirs, he shook Roran’s free hand and inclined his head toward Katrina.

“Thank you, Eragon,” Katrina said.

“Yes, thank you,” Roran added.

“The honor was mine.” He looked at both of them, then burst out laughing.

“What?” demanded Roran.

“You! The two of you are as happy as fools.”

Eyes sparkling, Katrina laughed and hugged Roran. “That we are!”

Growing sober, Eragon said, “You must know how fortunate you are to be here today, together. Roran, if you had not been able to rally everyone and travel to the Burning Plains, and if the Ra’zac had taken you, Katrina, to Urû’baen, neither of you would have—”

“Yes, but I did, and they didn’t,” interrupted Roran. “Let us not darken this day with unpleasant thoughts about what might have been.”

“That is not why I mention it.” Eragon glanced at the line of people waiting behind him, making sure they were not close enough to eavesdrop. “All three of us are enemies of the Empire. And as today has demonstrated, we are not safe, even here among the Varden. If Galbatorix can, he will strike at any one of us, including you, Katrina, in order to hurt the others. So I made these for you.” From the pouch at his belt, Eragon withdrew two plain gold rings, polished until they shone. The previous night, he had molded them out of the last of the gold orbs he had extracted from the earth. He handed the larger one to Roran and the smaller one to Katrina.

Roran turned his ring, examining it, then held it up against the sky, squinting at the glyphs in the ancient language carved into the inside of the band. “It’s very nice, but how can these help protect us?”

“I enchanted them to do three things,” said Eragon. “If you ever need my help, or Saphira’s, twist the ring once around your finger and say, ‘Help me, Shadeslayer; help me, Brightscales,’ and we will hear you, and we will come as fast as we can. Also, if either of you is close to death, your ring will alert us and you, Roran, or you, Katrina, depending on who is in peril. And so long as the rings are touching your skin, you will always know how to find each other, no matter how far apart you may be.” He hesitated, then added, “I hope you will agree to wear them.”

“Of course we will,” said Katrina.

Roran’s chest swelled, and his voice became husky. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you. I wish we had had these before she and I were separated in Carvahall.”

Since they only had one free hand apiece, Katrina slid Roran’s ring on for him, placing it on the third finger of his right hand, and he slid Katrina’s on for her, placing it on the third finger of her left hand.

“I have another gift for you as well,” said Eragon. Turning, he whistled and waved. Pushing his way through the crowd, a groom hurried toward them, leading Snowfire by the bridle. The groom handed Eragon the reins to the stallion, then bowed and withdrew. Eragon said, “Roran, you will need a good steed. This is Snowfire. He was Brom’s to begin with, then mine, and now I am giving him to you.”

Roran ran his eyes over Snowfire. “He’s a magnificent beast.”

“The finest. Will you accept him?”

“With pleasure.”

Eragon summoned back the groom and returned Snowfire to his care, instructing him that Roran was the stallion’s new owner. As the man and horse left, Eragon looked at the people in line who were carrying presents for Roran and Katrina. Laughing, he said, “The two of you may have been poor this morning, but you’ll be rich by this evening. If Saphira and I ever have a chance to settle down, we’ll have to come live with you in the giant hall you will build for all of your children.”

“Whatever we build, it will hardly be large enough for Saphira, I think,” said Roran.

“But you will always be welcome with us,” said Katrina. “Both of you.”

After congratulating them once more, Eragon ensconced himself at the end of a table and amused himself by throwing scraps of roast chicken toward Saphira and watching her snap them out of the air. He remained there until Nasuada had spoken with Roran and Katrina, handing them something small he could not see. Then he intercepted Nasuada as she was departing the festivities.

“What is it, Eragon?” she asked. “I cannot linger.”

“Was it you who gave Katrina her dress and her dowry?”

“Aye. Do you disapprove?”

“I am grateful you were so kind to my family, but I wonder …”

“Yes?”

“Isn’t the Varden desperate for gold?”

“We are,” Nasuada said, “but not so desperate as before. Since my scheme with the lace, and since I triumphed in the Trial of the Long Knives and the wandering tribes swore absolute fealty to me and granted me access to their riches, we are less likely to starve to death and more likely to die because we don’t have a shield or a spear.” Her lips twitched in a smile. “What I gave Katrina is insignificant compared with the vast sums this army requires to function. And I do not believe I have squandered my gold. Rather, I believe I have made a valuable purchase. I have purchased prestige and self-respect for Katrina, and by extension, I have purchased Roran’s goodwill. I may be overly optimistic, but I suspect his loyalty will prove far more valuable than a hundred shields or a hundred spears.”

“You are always seeking to improve the Varden’s prospects, aren’t you?” Eragon said.

“Always. As you should be.” Nasuada started to walk away from him, then returned and said, “Sometime before sunset, come to my pavilion, and we will visit the men who were wounded today. There are many we cannot heal, you know. It will do them good to see that we care about their welfare and that we appreciate their sacrifice.”

Eragon nodded. “I will be there.”

“Good.”

Hours passed as Eragon laughed and ate and drank and traded stories with old friends. Mead flowed like water, and the wedding feast became ever more boisterous. Clearing a space between the tables, the men tested their prowess against one another with feats of wrestling and archery and bouts with quarterstaves. Two of the elves, a man and a woman, demonstrated their skill with swordplay—awing the onlookers with the speed and grace of their dancing blades—and even Arya consented to perform a song, which sent shivers down Eragon’s spine.

Throughout, Roran and Katrina said little, preferring to sit and gaze at each other, oblivious to their surroundings.

When the bottom of the orange sun touched the distant horizon, however, Eragon reluctantly excused himself. With Saphira by his side, he left the sounds of revelry behind and walked to Nasuada’s pavilion, breathing deeply of the cool evening air to clear his head. Nasuada was waiting for him in front of her red command tent, the Nighthawks gathered close around. Without saying a word, she, Eragon, and Saphira made their way across the camp to the tents of the healers, where the injured warriors lay.

For over an hour, Nasuada and Eragon visited with the men who had lost their limbs or their eyes or had contracted an incurable infection in the course of fighting the Empire. Some of the warriors had been injured that morning. Others, as Eragon discovered, had been wounded on the Burning Plains and had yet to recover, despite all the herbs and spells lavished upon them. Before they had set forth among the rows of blanket-covered men, Nasuada had warned Eragon not to tire himself further by attempting to heal everyone he met, but he could not help muttering a spell here and there to ease pain or to drain an abscess or to reshape a broken bone or to remove an unsightly scar.

One of the men Eragon met had lost his left leg below the knee, as well as two fingers on his right hand. His beard was short and gray, and his eyes were covered with a strip of black cloth. When Eragon greeted him and asked how he fared, the man reached out and grasped Eragon by the elbow with the three fingers of his right hand. In a hoarse voice, the man said, “Ah, Shadeslayer. I knew you would come. I have been waiting for you ever since the light.”

“What do you mean?”

“The light that illuminated the flesh of the world. In a single instant, I saw every living thing around me, from the largest to the smallest. I saw my bones shining through my arms. I saw the worms in the earth and the gore-crows in the sky and the mites on the wings of the crows. The gods have touched me, Shadeslayer. They gave me this vision for a reason. I saw you on the field of battle, you and your dragon, and you were like a blazing sun among a forest of dim candles. And I saw your brother, your brother and his dragon, and they too were like a sun.”

The nape of Eragon’s neck prickled as he listened. “I have no brother,” he said.

The maimed swordsman cackled. “You cannot fool me, Shadeslayer. I know better. The world burns around me, and from the fire, I hear the whisper of minds, and I learn things from the whispers. You hide yourself from me now, but I can still see you, a man of yellow flame with twelve stars floating around your waist and another star, brighter than the others, upon your right hand.”

Eragon pressed his palm against the belt of Beloth the Wise, checking that the twelve diamonds sewn within were still concealed. They were.

“Listen to me, Shadeslayer,” whispered the man, pulling Eragon toward his lined face. “I saw your brother, and he burned. But he did not burn like you. Oh no. The light from his soul shone through him, as if it came from somewhere else. He, he was a void, a shape of a man. And through that shape came the brilliance that burned. Do you understand? Others illuminated him.”

“Where were these others? Did you see them as well?”

The warrior hesitated. “I could feel them close at hand, raging at the world as if they hated everything in it, but their bodies were hidden from my sight. They were there and not there. I cannot explain better than that.… I would not want to get any closer to those creatures, Shadeslayer. They aren’t human, of that I’m sure, and their hate, it was like the largest thunderstorm you’ve ever seen crammed into a tiny glass bottle.”

“And when the bottle breaks …,” Eragon murmured.

“Exactly, Shadeslayer. Sometimes I wonder if Galbatorix has managed to capture the gods themselves and make them his slaves, but then I laugh and call myself a fool.”

“Whose gods, though? The dwarves’? Those of the wandering tribes?”

“Does it matter, Shadeslayer? A god is a god, regardless of where he comes from.”

Eragon grunted. “Perhaps you’re right.”

As he left the man’s pallet, one of the healers pulled Eragon aside. She said, “Forgive him, my Lord. The shock of his wounds has driven him quite mad. He’s always ranting about suns and stars and glowing lights he claims to see. Sometimes it seems as if he knows things he shouldn’t, but don’t you be deceived, he gets them from the other patients. They gossip all the time, you know. It’s all they have to do, poor things.”

“I am not a lord,” Eragon said, “and he is not mad. I’m not sure what he is, but he has an uncommon ability. If he gets better or worse, please inform one of Du Vrangr Gata.”

The healer curtsied. “As you wish, Shadeslayer. I’m sorry for my mistake, Shadeslayer.”

“How was he hurt?”

“A soldier cut off his fingers when he tried to block a sword with his hand. Later, one of the missiles from the Empire’s catapults landed upon his leg, crushing it beyond repair. We had to amputate. The men who were beside him said that when the missile struck, he immediately began screaming about the light, and when they picked him up, they noticed that his eyes had turned pure white. Even his pupils have disappeared.”

“Ah. You have been most helpful. Thank you.”

It was dark when Eragon and Nasuada finally left the healers’ tents. Nasuada sighed and said, “Now I could use a mug of mead.” Eragon nodded, staring down between his feet. They started back to her pavilion, and after a while, she asked, “What are you thinking, Eragon?”

“That we live in a strange world, and I’ll be lucky if I ever understand more than a small portion of it.” Then he recounted his conversation with the man, which she found as interesting as he had.

“You should tell Arya about this,” said Nasuada. “She might know what these ‘others’ could be.”

They parted at her pavilion, Nasuada going inside to finish reading a report, while Eragon and Saphira continued on to Eragon’s tent. There Saphira curled up on the ground and prepared to sleep as Eragon sat next to her and gazed at the stars, a parade of wounded men marching before his eyes.

What many of them had told him continued to reverberate through his mind: We fought for you, Shadeslayer.

[image: ]


WOUNDS OF THE PRESENT

[image: ]hen dawn arrived, Roran woke and lay staring at the whitewashed ceiling while he listened to the slow rasp of his own breathing. After a minute, he rolled off the bed, dressed, and proceeded to the kitchen, where he procured a chunk of bread, smeared it with soft cheese, then stepped out onto the front porch to eat and admire the sunrise.

His tranquility was soon disrupted when a herd of unruly children dashed through the garden of a nearby house, shrieking with delight at their game of Catch-the-Cat, followed by a number of adults intent on snaring their respective charges. Roran watched the cacophonous parade vanish around a corner, then placed the last of the bread in his mouth and returned to the kitchen, which had filled with the rest of the household.

Elain greeted him. “Good morning, Roran.” She pushed open the window shutters and gazed up at the sky. “It looks like it may rain again.”

“The more the better,” asserted Horst. “It’ll help keep us hidden while we climb Narnmor Mountain.”

“Us?” inquired Roran. He sat at the table beside Albriech, who was rubbing the sleep from his eyes.

Horst nodded. “Sloan was right about the food and supplies; we have to help carry them up the falls, or else there won’t be enough.”

“Will there still be men to defend Carvahall?”

“Of course, of course.”

[image: ]

Once they all had breakfast, Roran helped Baldor and Albriech wrap spare food, blankets, and supplies into three large bundles that they slung across their shoulders and hauled to the north end of the village. Roran’s calf pained him, but not unbearably. Along the way, they met the three brothers Darmmen, Larne, and Hamund, who were similarly burdened.

Just inside the trench that circumnavigated the houses, Roran and his companions found a large gathering of children, parents, and grandparents all busy organizing for the expedition. Several families had volunteered their donkeys to carry goods and the younger children; the animals were picketed in an impatient, braying line that added to the overall confusion.

Roran set his bundle on the ground and scanned the group. He saw Svart—Ivor’s uncle and, at nearly sixty, the oldest man in Carvahall—seated on a bale of clothes, teasing a baby with the tip of his long white beard; Nolfavrell, who was guarded over by Birgit; Felda, Nolla, Calitha, and a number of other mothers with worried expressions; and a great many reluctant people, both men and women. Roran also saw Katrina among the crowd. She glanced up from a knot she was tying on a pack and smiled at him, then returned to her task.

Since no one seemed to be in charge, Roran did his best to sort out the chaos by overseeing the arranging and packaging of the various supplies. He discovered a shortage of waterskins, but when he asked for more, he ended up with thirteen too many. Delays such as those consumed the early-morning hours.

In the middle of discussing with Loring the possible need for extra shoes, Roran stopped as he noticed Sloan standing at the entrance to an alleyway.

The butcher surveyed the mass of activity before him. Contempt cut into the lines along his downturned mouth. His sneer hardened into enraged incredulity as he spotted Katrina, who had shouldered her pack, removing any possibility that she was there only to help. A vein throbbed down the middle of Sloan’s forehead.

Roran hurried toward Katrina, but Sloan reached her first. He grabbed the top of the pack and shook it violently, shouting, “Who made you do this?” Katrina said something about the children and tried to pull free, but Sloan yanked at the pack—twisting her arms as the straps slid off her shoulders—and threw it on the ground so that the contents scattered. Still shouting, Sloan grabbed Katrina’s arm and began to drag her away. She dug in her heels and fought, her copper hair swirling over her face like a dust storm.

Furious, Roran threw himself at Sloan and tore him from Katrina, shoving the butcher in the chest so that he stumbled backward several yards. “Stop! I’m the one who wanted her to go.”

Sloan glared at Roran and snarled, “You have no right!”

“I have every right.” Roran looked at the ring of spectators who had gathered around and then declared so that all could hear: “Katrina and I are engaged to be married, and I would not have my future wife treated so!” For the first time that day, the villagers fell completely silent; even the donkeys were quiet.

Surprise and a deep, inconsolable pain sprang onto Sloan’s vulnerable face, along with the glimmer of tears. For a moment, Roran felt sympathy for him, then a series of contortions distorted Sloan’s visage, each more extreme than the last, until his skin turned beet red. He cursed and said, “You two-faced coward! How could you look me in the eye and speak to me like an honest man while, at the same time, courting my daughter without permission? I dealt with you in good faith, and here I find you plundering my house while my back is turned.”

“I had hoped to do this properly,” said Roran, “but events have conspired against me. It was never my intention to cause you grief. Even though this hasn’t gone the way either of us wanted, I still want your blessing, if you are willing.”

“I would rather have a maggot-riddled pig for a son than you! You have no farm. You have no family. And you will have naught to do with my daughter!” The butcher cursed again. “And she’ll have naught to do with the Spine!”

Sloan reached for Katrina, but Roran blocked the way, his face as hard as his clenched fists. Only a handsbreadth apart, they stared directly at each other, trembling from the strength of their emotions. Sloan’s red-rimmed eyes shone with manic intensity.

“Katrina, come here,” Sloan commanded.

Roran withdrew from Sloan—so that the three of them formed a triangle—and looked at Katrina. Tears streamed down her face as she glanced between him and her father. She stepped forward, hesitated, then with a long, anguished cry, tore at her hair in a frenzy of indecision.

“Katrina!” exclaimed Sloan with a burr of fear.

“Katrina,” murmured Roran.

At the sound of his voice, Katrina’s tears ceased and she stood straight and tall with a calm expression. She said, “I’m sorry, Father, but I have decided to marry Roran,” and stepped to his side.

Sloan turned bone white. He bit his lip so hard that a bead of ruby blood appeared. “You can’t leave me! You’re my daughter!” He lunged at her with crooked hands. In that instant, Roran bellowed and struck the butcher with all his strength, knocking him sprawling in the dirt before the entire village.

Sloan rose slowly, his face and neck flushed with humiliation. When he saw Katrina again, the butcher seemed to crumple inward, losing height and stature until Roran felt as if he were looking at a specter of the original man. In a low whisper, he said, “It is always so; those closest to the heart cause the most pain. Thou will have no dowry from me, snake, nor your mother’s inheritance.” Weeping bitterly, Sloan turned and fled toward his shop.

Katrina leaned against Roran, and he put an arm around her. Together they clung to each other as people crowded against them offering condolences, advice, congratulations, and disapproval. Despite the commotion, Roran was aware of nothing but the woman whom he held, and who held him.

Just then, Elain bustled up as fast as her pregnancy would allow. “Oh, you poor dear!” she cried, and embraced Katrina, drawing her from Roran’s arms. “Is it true you are engaged?” Katrina nodded and smiled, then erupted into hysterical tears against Elain’s shoulder. “There now, there now.” Elain cradled Katrina gently, petting her and trying to soothe her, but without avail—every time Roran thought she was about to recover, Katrina began to cry with renewed intensity. Finally, Elain peered over Katrina’s quaking shoulder and said, “I’m taking her back to the house.”

“I’ll come.”

“No, you won’t,” retorted Elain. “She needs time to calm down, and you have work to do. Do you want my advice?” Roran nodded dumbly. “Stay away until evening. I guarantee that she will be as right as rain by then. She can join the others tomorrow.” Without waiting for his response, Elain escorted the sobbing Katrina away from the wall of sharpened trees.

Roran stood with his hands hanging limply by his sides, feeling dazed and helpless. What have we done? He regretted that he had not revealed their engagement to Sloan sooner. He regretted that he and Sloan could not work together to shield Katrina from the Empire. And he regretted that Katrina had been forced to relinquish her only family for him. He was now doubly responsible for her welfare. They had no choice but to get married. I’ve made a terrible mess of this. He sighed and clenched his fist, wincing as his bruised knuckles stretched.

“How are you?” asked Baldor, coming alongside him.

Roran forced a smile. “It didn’t turn out quite how I hoped. Sloan’s beyond reason when it comes to the Spine.”

“And Katrina.”

“That too. I—” Roran fell silent as Loring stopped before them.

“That was a blasted fool thing to do!” growled the shoemaker, wrinkling his nose. Then he stuck out his chin, grinned, and bared his stumps of teeth. “But I ’ope you and the girl have the best of luck.” He shook his head. “Heh, you’re going to need it, Stronghammer!”

“We’re all going to need it,” snapped Thane as he walked past.

Loring waved a hand. “Bah, sourpuss. Listen, Roran; I’ve lived in Carvahall for many, many years, and in my experience, it’s better that this happened now, instead of when we’re all warm and cozy.”

Baldor nodded, but Roran asked, “Why so?”

“Isn’t it obvious? Normally, you and Katrina would be the meat of gossip for the next nine months.” Loring put a finger on the side of his nose. “Ah, but this way, you’ll soon be forgotten amid everything else that’s going on, and then the two of you might even have some peace.”

Roran frowned. “I’d rather be talked about than have those desecrators camped on the road.”

“So would we all. Still, it’s something to be grateful for, and we all need something to be grateful for—’specially once you’re married!” Loring cackled and pointed at Roran. “Your face just turned purple, boy!”

Roran grunted and set about gathering Katrina’s possessions off the ground. As he did, he was interrupted by comments from whoever happened to be nearby, none of which helped to settle his nerves. “Rotgut,” he muttered to himself after a particularly invidious remark.

Although the expedition into the Spine was delayed by the unusual scene the villagers had just witnessed, it was only slightly after midmorning when the caravan of people and donkeys began to ascend the bare trail scratched into the side of Narnmor Mountain to the crest of the Igualda Falls. It was a steep climb and had to be taken slowly, on account of the children and the size of the burdens everyone carried.

Roran spent most of his time caught behind Calitha—Thane’s wife—and her five children. He did not mind, as it gave him an opportunity to indulge his injured calf and to consider recent events at length. He was disturbed by his confrontation with Sloan. At least, he consoled himself, Katrina won’t remain in Carvahall much longer. For Roran was convinced, in his heart of hearts, that the village would soon be defeated. It was a sobering, yet unavoidable, realization.

He paused to rest three-quarters of the way up the mountain and leaned against a tree as he admired the elevated view of Palancar Valley. He tried to spot the Ra’zac’s camp—which he knew was just to the left of the Anora River and the road south—but was unable to discern even a wisp of smoke.

Roran heard the roar of the Igualda Falls long before they came into sight. The falls appeared for all the world like a great snowy mane that billowed and drifted off Narnmor’s craggy head to the valley floor a half mile below. The massive stream curved in several directions as it fell, the result of different layers of wind.

Past the slate ledge where the Anora River became airborne, down a glen filled with thimbleberries, and then finally into a large clearing guarded on one side by a pile of boulders, Roran found that those at the head of the procession had already begun setting up camp. The forest rang with the children’s shouts and cries.

Removing his pack, Roran untied an ax from the top, then set about clearing the underbrush from the site along with several other men. When they finished, they began chopping down enough trees to encircle the camp. The aroma of pine sap filled the air. Roran worked quickly, the wood chips flying in unison with his rhythmic swings.

By the time the fortifications were complete, the camp had already been erected with seventeen wool tents, four small cookfires, and glum expressions from people and donkeys alike. No one wanted to leave, and no one wanted to stay.

Roran surveyed the assortment of boys and old men clutching spears, and thought, Too much experience and too little. The grandfathers know how to deal with bears and the like, but will the grandsons have the strength to actually do it? Then he noticed the hard glint in the women’s eyes and realized that while they might hold a babe or be busy tending a scraped arm, their own shields and spears were never far from reach. Roran smiled. Perhaps … perhaps we still have hope.

He saw Nolfavrell sitting alone on a log—staring back toward Palancar Valley—and joined the boy, who looked at him seriously. “Are you leaving soon?” asked Nolfavrell. Roran nodded, impressed by his poise and determination. “You will do your best, won’t you, to kill the Ra’zac and avenge my father? I would do it, except that Mama says I must guard my brothers and sisters.”

“I’ll bring you their heads myself, if I can,” promised Roran.

The boy’s chin trembled. “That is good!”

“Nolfavrell …” Roran paused as he searched for the right words. “You are the only one here, besides me, who has killed a man. It doesn’t mean that we are better or worse than anyone else, but it means that I can trust you to fight well if you are attacked. When Katrina comes here tomorrow, will you make sure that she’s well protected?”

Nolfavrell’s chest swelled with pride. “I’ll guard her wherever she goes!” Then he looked regretful. “That is … when I don’t have to look after—”

Roran understood. “Oh, your family comes first. But maybe Katrina can stay in the tent with your brothers and sisters.”

“Yes,” said Nolfavrell slowly. “Yes, I think that would work. You can rely on me.”

“Thank you.” Roran clapped him on the shoulder. He could have asked an older and more capable person, but the adults were too busy with their own responsibilities to defend Katrina as he hoped. Nolfavrell, however, would have the opportunity and inclination to assure that she remained safe. He can hold my place while we are apart. Roran stood as Birgit approached.

Eyeing him flatly, she said, “Come, it is time.” Then she hugged her son and continued toward the falls with Roran and the other villagers who were returning to Carvahall. Behind them, everyone in the small camp clustered against the felled trees and stared forlornly out through their wooden bars.


THUNDER ROAR AND LIGHTNING CRACKLE

[image: ]he next morning Eragon avoided bringing to mind any of the recent events; they were too painful for him to consider. Instead, he focused his energies on figuring out how to find and kill the Ra’zac. I’ll do it with my bow, he decided, imagining how the cloaked figures would look with arrows sticking out of them.

He had difficulty even standing up. His muscles cramped with the slightest movement, and one of his fingers was hot and swollen. When they were ready to leave, he mounted Cadoc and said acidly, “If this keeps up, you’re going to batter me to pieces.”

“I wouldn’t push you so hard if I didn’t think you were strong enough.”

“For once, I wouldn’t mind being thought less of,” muttered Eragon.

Cadoc pranced nervously as Saphira approached. Saphira eyed the horse with something close to disgust and said, There’s nowhere to hide on the plains, so I’m not going to bother trying to stay out of sight. I’ll just fly above you from now on.

She took off, and they began the steep descent. In many places the trail all but disappeared, leaving them to find their own way down. At times they had to dismount and lead the horses on foot, holding on to trees to keep from falling down the slope. The ground was scattered with loose rocks, which made the footing treacherous. The ordeal left them hot and irritable, despite the cold.

They stopped to rest when they reached the bottom near midday. The Anora River veered to their left and flowed northward. A biting wind scoured the land, whipping them unmercifully. The soil was parched, and dirt flew into their eyes.

It unnerved Eragon how flat everything was; the plains were unbroken by hummocks or mounds. He had lived his entire life surrounded by mountains and hills. Without them he felt exposed and vulnerable, like a mouse under an eagle’s keen eye.

The trail split in three once it reached the plains. The first branch turned north, toward Ceunon, one of the greatest northern cities; the second one led straight across the plains; and the last went south. They examined all three for traces of the Ra’zac and eventually found their tracks, heading directly into the grasslands.

“It seems they’ve gone to Yazuac,” said Brom with a perplexed air.

“Where’s that?”

“Due east and four days away, if all goes well. It’s a small village situated by the Ninor River.” He gestured at the Anora, which streamed away from them to the north. “Our only supply of water is here. We’ll have to replenish our waterskins before attempting to cross the plains. There isn’t another pool or stream between here and Yazuac.”

The excitement of the hunt began to rise within Eragon. In a few days, maybe less than a week, he would use his arrows to avenge Garrow’s death. And then … He refused to think about what might happen afterward.

They filled the waterskins, watered the horses, and drank as much as they could from the river. Saphira joined them and took several gulps of water. Fortified, they turned eastward and started across the plains.

Eragon decided that it would be the wind that drove him crazy first. Everything that made him miserable—his chapped lips, parched tongue, and burning eyes—stemmed from it. The ceaseless gusting followed them throughout the day. Evening only strengthened the wind, instead of subduing it.

Since there was no shelter, they were forced to camp in the open. Eragon found some scrub brush, a short tough plant that thrived on harsh conditions, and pulled it up. He made a careful pile and tried to light it, but the woody stems only smoked and gave off a pungent smell. Frustrated, he tossed the tinderbox to Brom. “I can’t make it burn, especially with this blasted wind. See if you can get it going: otherwise dinner will be cold.”

Brom knelt by the brush and looked at it critically. He rearranged a couple of branches, then struck the tinderbox, sending a cascade of sparks onto the plants. There was smoke, but nothing else. Brom scowled and tried again, but his luck was no better than Eragon’s. “Brisingr!” he swore angrily, striking the flint again. Flames suddenly appeared, and he stepped back with a pleased expression. “There we go. It must have been smoldering inside.”

They sparred with mock swords while the food cooked. Fatigue made it hard on both of them, so they kept the session short. After they had eaten, they lay next to Saphira and slept, grateful for her shelter.

The same cold wind greeted them in the morning, sweeping over the dreadful flatness. Eragon’s lips had cracked during the night; every time he smiled or talked, beads of blood covered them. Licking them only made it worse. It was the same for Brom. They let the horses drink sparingly from their supply of water before mounting them. The day was a monotonous trek of endless plodding.

On the third day, Eragon woke well rested. That, coupled with the fact that the wind had stopped, put him in a cheery humor. His high spirits were dampened, however, when he saw the sky ahead of them was dark with thunderheads.

Brom looked at the clouds and grimaced. “Normally I wouldn’t go into a storm like that, but we’re in for a battering no matter what we do, so we might as well get some distance covered.”

It was still calm when they reached the storm front. As they entered its shadow, Eragon looked up. The thundercloud had an exotic structure, forming a natural cathedral with a massive arched roof. With some imagination he could see pillars, windows, soaring tiers, and snarling gargoyles. It was a wild beauty.

As Eragon lowered his gaze, a giant ripple raced toward them through the grass, flattening it. It took him a second to realize that the wave was a tremendous blast of wind. Brom saw it too, and they hunched their shoulders, preparing for the storm.

The gale was almost upon them when Eragon had a horrible thought and twisted in his saddle, yelling, both with his voice and mind, “Saphira! Land!” Brom’s face grew pale. Overhead, they saw her dive toward the ground. She’s not going to make it!

Saphira angled back the way they had come, to gain time. As they watched, the tempest’s wrath struck them like a hammer blow. Eragon gasped for breath and clenched the saddle as a frenzied howling filled his ears. Cadoc swayed and dug his hooves into the ground, mane snapping in the air. The wind tore at their clothes with invisible fingers while the air darkened with billowing clouds of dust.

Eragon squinted, searching for Saphira. He saw her land heavily and then crouch, clenching the ground with her talons. The wind reached her just as she started to fold her wings. With an angry yank, it unfurled them and dragged her into the air. For a moment she hung there, suspended by the storm’s force. Then it slammed her down on her back.

With a savage wrench, Eragon yanked Cadoc around and galloped back up the trail, goading the horse with both heels and mind. Saphira! he shouted. Try to stay on the ground. I’m coming! He felt a grim acknowledgment from her. As they neared Saphira, Cadoc balked, so Eragon leapt down and ran toward her.

His bow banged against his head. A strong gust pushed him off balance and he flew forward, landing on his chest. He skidded, then got back up with a snarl, ignoring the deep scrapes in his skin.

Saphira was only three yards away, but he could get no closer because of her flailing wings. She struggled to fold them against the overpowering gale. He rushed at her right wing, intending to hold it down, but the wind caught her and she somersaulted over him. The spines on her back missed his head by inches. Saphira clawed at the ground, trying to stay down.

Her wings began to lift again, but before they could flip her, Eragon threw himself at the left one. The wing crumpled in at the joints and Saphira tucked it firmly against her body. Eragon vaulted over her back and tumbled onto the other wing. Without warning it was blown upward, sending him sliding to ground. He broke his fall with a roll, then jumped up and grabbed the wing again. Saphira started to fold it, and he pushed with all of his strength. The wind battled with them for a second, but with one last surge they overcame it.

Eragon leaned against Saphira, panting. Are you all right? He could feel her trembling.

She took a moment to answer. I … I think so. She sounded shaken. Nothing’s broken—I couldn’t do anything; the wind wouldn’t let me go. I was helpless. With a shudder, she fell silent.

He looked at her, concerned. Don’t worry, you’re safe now. He spotted Cadoc a ways off, standing with his back to the wind. With his mind, Eragon instructed the horse to return to Brom. He then got onto Saphira. She crept up the road, fighting the gale while he clung to her back and kept his head down.

When they reached Brom, he shouted over the storm, “Is she hurt?”

Eragon shook his head and dismounted. Cadoc trotted over to him, nickering. As he stroked the horse’s long cheek, Brom pointed at a dark curtain of rain sweeping toward them in rippling gray sheets. “What else?” cried Eragon, pulling his clothes tighter. He winced as the torrent reached them. The stinging rain was cold as ice; before long they were drenched and shivering.

Lightning lanced through the sky, flickering in and out of existence. Mile-high blue bolts streaked across the horizon, followed by peals of thunder that shook the ground below. It was beautiful, but dangerously so. Here and there, grass fires were ignited by strikes, only to be extinguished by the rain.

The wild elements were slow to abate, but as the day passed, they wandered elsewhere. Once again the sky was revealed, and the setting sun glowed with brilliance. As beams of light tinted the clouds with blazing colors, everything gained a sharp contrast: brightly lit on one side, deeply shadowed on the other. Objects had a unique sense of mass; grass stalks seemed sturdy as marble pillars. Ordinary things took on an unearthly beauty; Eragon felt as if he were sitting inside a painting.

The rejuvenated earth smelled fresh, clearing their minds and raising their spirits. Saphira stretched, craning her neck, and roared happily. The horses skittered away from her, but Eragon and Brom smiled at her exuberance.

Before the light faded, they stopped for the night in a shallow depression. Too exhausted to spar, they went straight to sleep.


FOUR STROKES UPON THE DRUM

Eragon leaned forward, every muscle in his body tense, as the white-haired dwarf woman Hadfala, chief of Dûrgrimst Ebardac, rose from the table where the clanmeet was gathered and uttered a short line in her native language.

Murmuring into Eragon’s left ear, Hûndfast translated: “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Orik as our new king.”

Eragon released his pent-up breath. One. In order to become ruler of the dwarves, a clan chief had to win a majority of the votes from the other chiefs. If none achieved that feat, then according to Dwarvish law, the clan chief with the least votes would be eliminated from the competition and the meet could adjourn for up to three days before voting again. The process would continue as needed until a clan chief had achieved the necessary majority, at which point, the meet would swear fealty to him or her as their new monarch. Considering how pressed for time the Varden were, Eragon fervently hoped that the voting would not require more than one round, and if it did, that the dwarves would not insist upon taking a recess of more than a few hours. If that happened, he thought he might break the stone table in the center of the room out of frustration.

That Hadfala, the first clan chief to vote, had cast her lot with Orik boded well. Hadfala, as Eragon knew, had been backing Gannel of Dûrgrimst Quan before the attempt on Eragon’s life. If Hadfala’s allegiances had shifted, then it was also possible that the other member of Gannel’s cohort—namely, Grimstborith Ûndin—might also give his vote to Orik.

Next, Gáldhiem of Dûrgrimst Feldûnost rose from the table, although he was so short, he was taller sitting than he was standing. “On behalf of mine clan,” he declared, “I vote for Grimstborith Nado as our new king.”

Turning his head to one side, Orik looked back at Eragon and said to him in an undertone, “Well, that was as we expected.”

Eragon nodded and glanced over at Nado. The round-faced dwarf was stroking the end of his yellow beard, appearing pleased with himself.

Then Manndrâth of Dûrgrimst Ledwonnû said, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Orik as our new king.” Orik nodded toward him in thanks, and Manndrâth nodded in return, the tip of his long nose bobbing.

As Manndrâth sat, Eragon and everyone else looked at Gannel, and the room became so quiet, Eragon could not even hear the dwarves breathing. As chief of the religious clan, the Quan, and the high priest of Gûntera, king of the dwarf gods, Gannel carried enormous influence among his race; however he chose, so the crown was likely to go.

“On behalf of mine clan,” Gannel said, “I vote for Grimstborith Nado as our new king.”

A wave of soft exclamations broke out among the dwarves watching from the perimeter of the circular room, and Nado’s pleased expression broadened. Clenching his interlaced hands, Eragon silently cursed.

“Don’t give up hope yet, lad,” Orik muttered. “We may yet pull through. It’s happened before that the grimstborith of the Quan has lost the vote.”

“How often does it happen, though?” whispered Eragon.

“Often enough.”

“When did it last happen?”

Orik shifted and glanced away. “Eight hundred and twenty-four years ago, when Queen—”

He fell silent as Ûndin of Dûrgrimst Ragni Hefthyn proclaimed, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Nado as our new king.”

Orik crossed his arms. Eragon could only see his face from the side, but it was obvious that Orik was scowling.

Biting the inside of his cheek, Eragon stared at the patterned floor, counting the votes that had been cast, as well as those that remained, trying to determine if Orik could still win the election. Even in the best of circumstances, it would be a close thing. Eragon tightened his grip, his fingernails digging into the back of his hands.

Thordris of Dûrgrimst Nagra stood and draped her long, thick braid over one arm. “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Orik as our new king.”

“That makes three to three,” Eragon said in a low voice. Orik nodded.

It was Nado’s turn to speak then. Smoothing his beard with the flat of a hand, the chief of Dûrgrimst Knurlcarathn smiled at the assembly, a predatory gleam in his eyes. “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for myself as our new king. If you will have me, I promise to rid our country of the outlanders who have polluted it, and I promise to devote our gold and warriors to protecting our own people, and not the necks of elves, humans, and Urgals. This I swear upon mine family’s honor.”

“Four to three,” Eragon noted.

“Aye,” said Orik. “I suppose it would have been too much to ask for Nado to vote for anyone but himself.”

Setting aside his knife and wood, Freowin of Dûrgrimst Gedthrall heaved his bulk halfway out of his chair and, keeping his gaze angled downward, said in his whispering baritone, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Nado as our new king.” Then he lowered himself back into his seat and resumed carving his raven, ignoring the stir of astonishment that swept through the room.

Nado’s expression changed from pleased to smug.

“Barzûl,” growled Orik, his scowl deepening. His chair creaked as he pressed his forearms down against the armrests, the tendons in his hands rigid with strain. “That false-faced traitor. He promised his vote to me!”

Eragon’s stomach sank. “Why would he betray you?”

“He visits Sindri’s temple twice a day. I should have known he would not go against Gannel’s wishes. Bah! Gannel’s been playing me this whole time. I—” At that moment, the attention of the clanmeet turned to Orik. Concealing his anger, Orik got to his feet and looked around the table at each of the other clan chiefs, and in his own language, he said, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for myself as our new king. If you will have me, I promise to bring our people gold and glory and the freedom to live above the ground without fear of Galbatorix destroying our homes. This I swear upon mine family’s honor.”

“Five to four,” Eragon said to Orik as he returned to his seat. “And not in our favor.”

Orik grunted. “I can count, Eragon.”

Eragon rested his elbows on his knees, his eyes darting from one dwarf to another. The desire to act gnawed at him. How, he knew not, but with so much at stake, he felt that he ought to find a way to ensure Orik would become king and, thus, that the dwarves would continue to aid the Varden in their struggle against the Empire. For all he tried, however, Eragon could think of nothing to do but sit and wait.

The next dwarf to rise was Havard of Dûrgrimst Fanghur. With his chin tucked against his breastbone, Havard pushed out his lips and tapped the table with the two fingers he still had on his right hand, appearing thoughtful. Eragon inched forward on his seat, his heart pounding. Will he uphold his bargain with Orik? Eragon wondered.

Havard tapped the table once more, then slapped the stone with the flat of his hand. Lifting his chin, he said, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Orik as our new king.”

It gave Eragon immense satisfaction to watch as Nado’s eyes widened, and then the dwarf gnashed his teeth together, a muscle in his cheek twitching. “Ha!” muttered Orik. “That put a burr in his beard.”

The only two clan chiefs who had yet to vote were Hreidamar and Íorûnn. Hreidamar, the compact, muscular grimstborith of the Urzhad, appeared uneasy with the situation, while Íorûnn—she of Dûrgrimst Vrenshrrgn, the War Wolves—traced the crescent-shaped scar on her left cheekbone with the tip of a pointed fingernail and smiled like a self-satisfied cat.

Eragon held his breath as he waited to hear what the two of them would say. If Íorûnn votes for herself, he thought, and if Hreidamar is still loyal to her, then the election will have to proceed to a second round. There’s no reason for her to do that, however, other than to delay events, and so far as I know, she would not profit from a delay. She cannot hope to become queen at this point; her name would be eliminated from consideration before the beginning of the second round, and I doubt she would be so foolish as to squander the power she has now merely so she can boast to her grandchildren that she was once a candidate for the throne. But if Hreidamar does part ways with her, then the vote will remain tied and we will continue on to a second round regardless.…

Argh! If only I could scry into the future! What if Orik loses? Should I seize control of the clanmeet then? I could seal the chamber so no one could enter or leave, and then … But no, that would be—

Îorûnn interrupted Eragon’s thoughts by nodding at Hreidamar and then directing her heavy-lidded gaze toward Eragon, which made him feel as if he were a prize ox she was examining. The rings of his mail hauberk clinking, Hreidamar stood upright and said, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Orik as our new king.”

Eragon’s throat constricted.

Her red lips curving with amusement, Íorûnn rose from her chair with a sinuous motion and in a low, husky voice said, “It seems it falls to me to decide the outcome of today’s meet. I have listened most carefully to your arguments, Nado, and your arguments, Orik. While you have both made points I agree with upon a wide range of subjects, the most important issue we must decide is whether to commit ourselves to the Varden’s campaign against the Empire. If theirs were merely a war between rival clans, it would not matter to me which side won, and I certainly would not consider sacrificing our warriors for the benefit of outlanders. However, this is not the case. Far from it. If Galbatorix emerges triumphant from this war, not even the Beor Mountains will protect us from his wrath. If our realm is to survive, we must see Galbatorix overthrown. Moreover, it strikes me that hiding in caves and tunnels while others decide the fate of Alagaësia is unbecoming for a race as old and as powerful as ours. When the chronicles of this age are written, shall they say we fought alongside the humans and the elves, as the heroes of old, or that we sat cowering in our halls like frightened peasants while a battle raged outside our doors? I, for one, know mine answer.” Íorûnn tossed back her hair, then said, “On behalf of mine clan, I vote for Grimstborith Orik as our new king!”

The eldest of the five readers-of-law who stood against the circular wall stepped forward and struck the end of his polished staff against the stone floor and proclaimed, “All hail King Orik, the forty-third king of Tronjheim, Farthen Dûr, and every knurla above and below the Beor Mountains!”

“All hail King Orik!” the clanmeet roared, rising to their feet with a loud rustle of clothes and armor. His head swimming, Eragon did likewise, aware that he was now in the presence of royalty. He glanced at Nado, but the dwarf’s face was a dead-eyed mask.

The white-bearded reader-of-law struck his staff against the floor again. “Let the scribes record at once the clanmeet’s decision, and let the news be spread to every person throughout the realm. Heralds! Inform the mages with their scrying mirrors of what has transpired here today, and then seek out the wardens of the mountain and tell them, ‘Four beats upon the drum. Four beats, and swing your mallets as you have never swung them before in all your lives, for we have a new king. Four beats of such strength, Farthen Dûr itself shall ring with the news.’ Tell them this, I charge you. Go!”

After the heralds departed, Orik pushed himself out of his chair and stood looking at the dwarves around him. His expression, to Eragon, seemed somewhat dazed, as if he had not actually expected to win the crown. “For this great responsibility,” he said, “I thank you.” He paused, then continued, “Mine only thought now is for the betterment of our nation, and I shall pursue that goal without faltering until the day I return to the stone.”

Then the clan chiefs came forward, one by one, and they knelt before Orik and swore their fealty to him as his loyal subjects. When the time came for Nado to pledge himself, the dwarf displayed nothing of his sentiments but merely recited the phrases of the oath without inflection, the words dropping from his mouth like bars of lead. A palpable sense of relief rippled through the clanmeet once he had finished.

Upon the conclusion of the oath giving, Orik decreed that his coronation would take place the following morning, and then he and his attendants retired to an adjacent chamber. There Eragon looked at Orik, and Orik looked at Eragon, and neither made a sound until a broad smile appeared on Orik’s face and he broke out laughing, his cheeks turning red. Laughing with him, Eragon grasped him by a forearm and embraced him. Orik’s guards and advisers gathered around them, clapping Orik on the shoulder and congratulating him with hearty exclamations.

Eragon released Orik, saying, “I didn’t think Íorûnn would side with us.”

“Aye. I’m glad she did, but it complicates matters, it does.” Orik grimaced. “I suppose I’ll have to reward her for her assistance with a place within my council, at the very least.”

“It may be for the best!” said Eragon, straining to make himself heard over the commotion. “If the Vrenshrrgn are equal to their name, we shall have great need of them before we reach the gates of Urû’baen.”

Orik started to answer, but then a long, low note of portentous volume reverberated throughout the floor and the ceiling and the air of the room, causing Eragon’s bones to vibrate with its force. “Listen!” cried Orik, and raised a hand. The group fell silent.

Four times in total the bass note sounded, shaking the room with each repetition, as if a giant were pounding against the side of Tronjheim. Afterward, Orik said, “I never thought to hear the Drums of Derva announce mine kingship.”

“How large are the drums?” asked Eragon, awed.

“Close to fifty feet across, if memory serves.”

It occurred to Eragon that although the dwarves were the shortest of the races, they built the biggest structures in Alagaësia, which seemed odd to him. Perhaps, he thought, by making such enormous objects, they do not feel so small themselves. He almost mentioned his theory to Orik but at the last moment decided that it might offend him, so he held his tongue.

Closing ranks around him, Orik’s attendants began to consult with him in Dwarvish, often speaking over one another in a loud tangle of voices, and Eragon, who had been about to ask Orik another question, found himself relegated to a corner. He tried to wait patiently for a lull in the conversation, but after a few minutes, it became plain the dwarves were not about to stop plying Orik with questions and advice, for such, he assumed, was the nature of their discourse.

Therefore, Eragon said, “Orik Könungr,” and he imbued the ancient language word for king with energy, that it would capture the attention of everyone present. The room fell silent, and Orik looked at Eragon and lifted an eyebrow. “Your Majesty, may I have your permission to withdraw? There is a certain … matter I would like to attend to, if it is not already too late.”

Comprehension brightened Orik’s brown eyes. “By all means, make haste! But you need not call me majesty, Eragon, nor sire, nor by any other title. We are friends and foster brothers, after all.”

“We are, Your Majesty,” Eragon replied, “but for the time being, I believe it is only proper I should observe the same courtesies as everyone else. You are the king of your race now, and my own king as well, seeing as how I am a member of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, and that is not something I can ignore.”

Orik studied him for a moment, as if from a great distance, and then nodded and said, “As you wish, Shadeslayer.”

Eragon bowed and left the room. Accompanied by his four guards, he bounded through the tunnels and up the stairs that led to the ground floor of Tronjheim. Once they arrived at the southern branch of the four main hallways that divided the city-mountain, Eragon turned to Thrand, the captain of his guards, and said, “I mean to run the rest of the way. Since you won’t be able to keep pace with me, I suggest you stop when you reach the south gate of Tronjheim and wait there for my return.”

Thrand said, “Argetlam, please, you should not go alone. Cannot I convince you to slow yourself so we can accompany you? We may not be as fleet as the elves, but we can run from sunup to sundown, and in full armor too.”

“I appreciate your concern,” said Eragon, “but I would not tarry a minute longer, even if I knew there were assassins hiding behind every pillar. Farewell!”

And with that, he dashed down the broad hallway, dodging around the dwarves who blocked his way.


GIFTS OF GOLD

Eragon stood next to Saphira, fifty yards from Nasuada’s crimson pavilion. Glad to be free of all the commotion that had surrounded Elva, he gazed up at the clear azure sky and rolled his shoulders, already tired from the events of the day. Saphira intended to fly out to the Jiet River and bathe herself in its deep, slow-moving water, but his own intentions were less definite. He still needed to finish oiling his armor, prepare for Roran and Katrina’s wedding, visit with Jeod, locate a proper sword for himself, and also … He scratched his chin.

How long will you be gone? he asked.

Saphira unfurled her wings in preparation for flight. A few hours. I’m hungry. Once I am clean, I am going to catch two or three of those plump deer I’ve seen nibbling the grass on the western bank of the river. The Varden have shot so many of them, though, I may have to fly a half-dozen leagues toward the Spine before I find any game worth hunting.

Don’t go too far, he cautioned, else you might encounter the Empire.

I won’t, but if I happen upon a lone group of soldiers … She licked her chops. I would enjoy a quick fight. Besides, humans taste just as good as deer.

Saphira, you wouldn’t!

Her eyes sparkled. Maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether they are wearing armor. I hate biting through metal, and scooping my food out of a shell is just as annoying.

I see. He glanced over at the nearest elf, a tall, silver-haired woman. The elves won’t want you to go alone. Will you allow a couple of them to ride on you? Otherwise, it will be impossible for them to keep pace.

Not today. Today, I hunt alone! With a sweep of her wings, she took off, soaring high overhead. As she turned west, toward the Jiet River, her voice sounded in his mind, fainter than before because of the distance between them. When I return, we will fly together, won’t we, Eragon?

Yes, when you return, we will fly together, just the two of us. Her pleasure at that caused him to smile as he watched her arrow away toward the west.

Eragon lowered his gaze as Blödhgarm ran up to him, lithe as a forest cat. The elf asked where Saphira was going and seemed displeased with Eragon’s explanation, but if he had any objections, he kept them to himself.

“Right,” Eragon said to himself as Blödhgarm rejoined his companions. “First things first.”

He strode through the camp until he found a large square of open space where thirty-some Varden were practicing with a wide assortment of weapons. To his relief, they were too busy training to notice his presence. Crouching, he lay his right hand palm-upward on the trampled earth. He chose the words he would need from the ancient language, then murmured, “Kuldr, rïsa lam iet un malthinae unin böllr.”

The soil beside his hand appeared unchanged, although he could feel the spell sifting through the dirt for hundreds of feet in every direction. Not more than five seconds later, the surface of the earth began to boil like a pot of water left to sit for too long over a high flame, and it acquired a bright yellow sheen. Eragon had learned from Oromis that wherever one went, the land was sure to contain minute particles of nearly every element, and while they would be too small and scattered to mine with traditional methods, a knowledgeable magician could, with great effort, extract them.

From the center of the yellow patch, a fountain of sparkling dust arched up and over, landing in the middle of Eragon’s palm. There each glittering mote melded into the next, until three spheres of pure gold, each the size of a large hazelnut, rested on his hand.

“Letta,” said Eragon, and released the magic. He sat back on his heels and braced himself against the ground as a wave of weariness washed over him. His head drooped forward, and his eyelids descended halfway as his vision flickered and dimmed. Taking a deep breath, he admired the mirror-smooth orbs in his hand while he waited for his strength to return. So pretty, he thought. If only I could have done this when we were living in Palancar Valley.… It would almost be easier to mine the gold, though. A spell hasn’t taken so much out of me since I carried Sloan down from the top of Helgrind.

He pocketed the gold and set out again through the camp. He found a cook tent and ate a large lunch, which he needed after casting so many arduous spells, then headed toward the area where the villagers from Carvahall were staying. As he approached, he heard the ring of metal striking metal. Curious, he turned in that direction.

Eragon stepped around a line of three wagons parked across the mouth of the lane and saw Horst standing in a thirty-foot gap between the tents, holding one end of a five-foot-long bar of steel. The other end of the bar was bright cherry red and rested on the face of a massive two-hundred-pound anvil that was staked to the top of a low, wide stump. On either side of the anvil, Horst’s burly sons, Albriech and Baldor, alternated striking the steel with sledgehammers, which they swung over their heads in huge circular blows. A makeshift forge glowed several feet behind the anvil.

The hammering was so loud, Eragon kept his distance until Albriech and Baldor had finished spreading the steel and Horst had returned the bar to the forge. Waving his free arm, Horst said, “Ho, Eragon!” Then he held up a finger, forestalling Eragon’s reply, and pulled a plug of felted wool out of his left ear. “Ah, now I can hear again. What brings you about, Eragon?” While he spoke, his sons scooped more charcoal into the forge from a bucket and set about tidying up the tongs, hammers, dies, and other tools that lay on the ground. All three men gleamed with sweat.

“I wanted to know what was causing such a commotion,” said Eragon. “I should have guessed it was you. No one else can create as big an uproar as someone from Carvahall.”

Horst laughed, his thick, spade-shaped beard pointed up toward the sky until his mirth was exhausted. “Ah, that tickles my pride, it does. And aren’t you the living truth of it, eh?”

“We all are,” Eragon replied. “You, me, Roran, everyone from Carvahall. Alagaësia will never be the same once the lot of us are done.” He gestured at the forge and the other equipment. “Why are you here? I thought that all the smiths were—”

“So they are, Eragon. So they are. However, I convinced the captain who’s in charge of this part of the camp to let me work closer to our tent.” Horst tugged at the end of his beard. “It’s on account of Elain, you know. This child, it goes hard with her, and no wonder, considering what we went through to get here. She’s always been delicate, and now I worry that … well …” He shook himself like a bear ridding itself of flies. “Maybe you could look in on her when you get a chance and see if you can ease her discomfort.”

“I’ll do that,” Eragon promised.

With a satisfied grunt, Horst lifted the bar partway out of the coals to better judge the color of the steel. Plunging the bar back into the center of the fire, he jerked his beard toward Albriech. “Here now, give it some air. It’s almost ready.” As Albriech began to pump the leather bellows, Horst grinned at Eragon. “When I told the Varden I was a smith, they were so happy, you would have thought I was another Dragon Rider. They don’t have enough metalworkers, you see. And they gave me what tools I was missing, including that anvil. When we left Carvahall, I wept at the prospect that I would not have the opportunity to practice my craft again. I am no swordsmith, but here, ah, here there is enough work to keep Albriech, Baldor, and me busy for the next fifty years. It doesn’t pay very well, but at least we’re not stretched out on a rack in Galbatorix’s dungeons.”

“Or the Ra’zac could be nibbling on our bones,” observed Baldor.

“Aye, that too.” Horst motioned for his sons to take up the sledgehammers again and then, holding the felt plug beside his left ear, said, “Is there anything else you wish of us, Eragon? The steel is ready, and I cannot leave it in the fire any longer without weakening it.”

“Do you know where Gedric is?”

“Gedric?” The furrow between Horst’s eyebrows deepened. “He should be practicing the sword and spear along with the rest of the men, thataway about a quarter of a mile.” Horst pointed with a thumb.

Eragon thanked him and departed in the direction Horst had indicated. The repetitive ring of metal striking metal resumed, clear as the peals of a bell and as sharp and piercing as a glass needle stabbing the air. Eragon covered his ears and smiled. It comforted him that Horst had retained his strength of purpose and that, despite the loss of his wealth and home, he was still the same person he had been in Carvahall. Somehow the smith’s consistency and resiliency renewed Eragon’s faith that if only they could overthrow Galbatorix, everything would be all right in the end, and his life and those of the villagers from Carvahall would regain a semblance of normalcy.

Eragon soon arrived at the field where the men of Carvahall were drilling with their new weapons. Gedric was there, as Horst had suggested he would be, sparring with Fisk, Darmmen, and Morn. A quick word on the part of Eragon with the one-armed veteran who was leading the drills was sufficient to secure Gedric’s temporary release.

The tanner ran over to Eragon and stood before him, his gaze lowered. He was short and swarthy, with a jaw like a mastiff’s, heavy eyebrows, and arms thick and gnarled from stirring the foul-smelling vats where he had cured his hides. Although he was far from handsome, Eragon knew him to be a kind and honest man.

“What can I do for you, Shadeslayer?” Gedric mumbled.

“You have already done it. And I have come here to thank and repay you.”

“I? How have I helped you, Shadeslayer?” He spoke slowly, cautiously, as if afraid Eragon were setting a trap for him.

“Soon after I ran away from Carvahall, you discovered that someone had stolen three ox hides from the drying hut by the vats. Am I right?”

Gedric’s face darkened with embarrassment, and he shuffled his feet. “Ah, well now, I didn’t lock that hut, you know. Anyone might have snuck in and carried those hides off. Besides, given what’s happened since, I can’t see as it’s much important. I destroyed most of my stock before we trooped into the Spine, to keep the Empire and those filthy Ra’zac from getting their claws on anything of use. Whoever took those hides saved me from having to destroy three more. So let bygones be bygones, I say.”

“Perhaps,” said Eragon, “but I still feel honor-bound to tell you that it was I who stole your hides.”

Gedric met his gaze then, looking at him as if he were an ordinary person, without fear, awe, or undue respect, as if the tanner were reevaluating his opinion of Eragon.

“I stole them, and I’m not proud of it, but I needed the hides. Without them, I doubt I would have survived long enough to reach the elves in Du Weldenvarden. I always preferred to think that I had borrowed the hides, but the truth is, I stole them, for I had no intention of returning them. Therefore, you have my apologies. And since I am keeping the hides, or what is left of them, it seems only right to pay you for them.” From within his belt, Eragon removed one of the spheres of gold—hard, round, and warm from the heat of his flesh—and handed it to Gedric.

Gedric stared at the shiny metal pearl, his massive jaw clamped shut, the lines around his thin-lipped mouth harsh and unyielding. He did not insult Eragon by weighing the gold in his hand, nor by biting it, but when he spoke, he said, “I cannot accept this, Eragon. I was a good tanner, but the leather I made was not worth this much. Your generosity does you credit, but it would bother me to keep this gold. I would feel as if I hadn’t earned it.”

Unsurprised, Eragon said, “You would not deny another man the opportunity to haggle for a fair price, would you?”

“No.”

“Good. Then you cannot deny me this. Most people haggle downward. In this case, I have chosen to haggle upward, but I will still haggle as fiercely as if I were trying to save myself a handful of coins. To me, the hides are worth every ounce of that gold, and I would not pay you a copper less, not even if you held a knife to my throat.”

Gedric’s thick fingers closed around the gold orb. “Since you insist, I will not be so churlish as to keep refusing you. No one can say that Gedric Ostvensson allowed good fortune to pass him by because he was too busy protesting his own unworthiness. My thanks, Shadeslayer.” He placed the orb in a pouch on his belt, wrapping the gold in a patch of wool cloth to protect it from scratches. “Garrow did right by you, Eragon. He did right by both you and Roran. He may have been sharp as vinegar and as hard and dry as a winter rutabaga, but he raised the two of you well. He would be proud of you, I think.”

Unexpected emotion clogged Eragon’s chest.

As Gedric turned to rejoin the other villagers, he paused. “If I may ask, Eragon, why were those hides worth so much to you? What did you use them for?”

Eragon chuckled. “Use them for? Why, with Brom’s help, I made a saddle for Saphira out of them. She doesn’t wear it as often as she used to—not since the elves gave us a proper dragon’s saddle—but it served us well through many a scrape and fight, and even the Battle of Farthen Dûr.”

Astonishment raised Gedric’s eyebrows, exposing pale skin that normally lay hidden in deep folds. Like a split in blue-gray granite, a wide grin spread across his jaw, transforming his features. “A saddle!” he breathed. “Imagine, me tanning the leather for a Rider’s saddle! And without a hint of what I was doing at the time, no less! No, not a Rider, the Rider. He who will finally cast down the black tyrant himself! If only my father could see me now!” Kicking up his heels, Gedric danced an impromptu jig. With his grin undiminished, he bowed to Eragon and trotted back to his place among the villagers, where he began to relate his tale to everyone within earshot.

Eager to escape before the lot of them could descend upon him, Eragon slipped away between the rows of tents, pleased with what he had accomplished. It might take me a while, he thought, but I always settle my debts.

Before long, he arrived at another tent, close to the eastern edge of the camp. He knocked on the pole between the two front flaps.

With a sharp sound, the entrance was yanked aside to reveal Jeod’s wife, Helen, standing in the opening. She regarded Eragon with a cold expression. “You’ve come to talk with him, I suppose.”

“If he’s here.” Which Eragon knew perfectly well he was, for he could sense Jeod’s mind as clearly as Helen’s.

For a moment, Eragon thought Helen might deny the presence of her husband, but then she shrugged and moved aside. “You might as well come in, then.”

Eragon found Jeod sitting on a stool, poring over an assortment of scrolls, books, and sheaves of loose papers that were piled high on a cot bare of blankets. A thin shock of hair hung across Jeod’s forehead, mimicking the curve of the scar that stretched from his scalp to his left temple.

“Eragon!” he cried as he saw him, the lines of concentration on his face clearing. “Welcome, welcome!” He shook Eragon’s hand and then offered him the stool. “Here, I shall sit on the corner of the bed. No, please, you are our guest. Would you care for some food or drink? Nasuada gives us an extra ration, so do not restrain yourself for fear that we will go hungry on your account. It is poor fare compared with what we served you in Teirm, but then no one should go to war and expect to eat well, not even a king.”

“A cup of tea would be nice,” said Eragon.

“Tea and biscuits it is.” Jeod glanced at Helen.

Snatching the kettle off the ground, Helen braced it against her hip, fit the nipple of a waterskin in the end of the spout, and squeezed. The kettle reverberated with a dull roar as a stream of water struck the bottom. Helen’s fingers tightened around the neck of the waterskin, restricting the flow to a languorous trickle. She remained thus, with the detached look of a person performing an unpleasant task, while the water droplets drummed out a maddening beat against the inside of the kettle.

An apologetic smile flickered across Jeod’s face. He stared at a scrap of paper beside his knee as he waited for Helen to finish. Eragon studied a wrinkle in the side of the tent.

The bombastic trickle continued for over three minutes.

When the kettle was finally full, Helen removed the deflated waterskin from the spout, hung it on a hook on the center pole of the tent, and stormed out.

Eragon raised an eyebrow at Jeod.

Jeod spread his hands. “My position with the Varden is not as prominent as she had hoped, and she blames me for the fact. She agreed to flee Teirm with me, expecting, or so I believe, that Nasuada would vault me into the inner circle of her advisers, or grant me lands and riches fit for a lord, or some other extravagant reward for my help stealing Saphira’s egg those many years ago. What Helen did not bargain on was the unglamorous life of a common swordsman: sleeping in a tent, fixing her own food, washing her own clothes, and so on. It’s not that wealth and status are her only concerns, but you have to understand, she was born into one of the richest shipping families of Teirm, and for most of our marriage, I was not unsuccessful in my own ventures. She is unused to such privations as these, and she has yet to reconcile herself to them.” His shoulders rose and fell a fraction of an inch. “My own hope was that this adventure—if it deserves such a romantic term—would narrow the rifts that have opened between us in recent years, but as always, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.”

“Do you feel that the Varden ought to show you greater consideration?” asked Eragon.

“For myself, no. For Helen …” Jeod hesitated. “I want her to be happy. My reward was in escaping from Gil’ead with my life when Brom and I were attacked by Morzan, his dragon, and his men; in the satisfaction of knowing that I had helped strike a crippling blow against Galbatorix; in being able to return to my previous life and yet still help further the Varden’s cause; and in being able to marr