Main The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm

The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm

Year: 2018
Edition: Original retail
Language: english
ISBN 10: 1984894862
ISBN 13: 978-1984894861
File: EPUB, 906 KB
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ALSO BY CHRISTOPHER PAOLINI


			The Inheritance Cycle:


			Eragon

			Eldest

			Brisingr

			Inheritance





			 			THIS IS A BORZOI BOOK PUBLISHED BY ALFRED A. KNOPF

			This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

			Text copyright © 2018 by Christopher Paolini

			Cover art copyright © 2018 by John Jude Palencar

			Interior illustrations copyright © 2018 by Christopher Paolini

			All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

			Knopf, Borzoi Books, and the colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

			Map colorization by Immanuela Meijer

			Visit us on the Web! GetUnderlined.com

			Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at RHTeachersLibrarians.com

			Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available upon request.

			ISBN 9781984894861 (trade) — ISBN 9781984894878 (lib. bdg.) — ebook ISBN 9781984894885

			Random House Children’s Books supports the First Amendment and celebrates the right to read.

			v5.4

			ep





			As always, this is for my family.

			And also for the readers who made this possible.





Contents


			 				Cover

				Also by Christopher Paolini

				Title Page

				Copyright

				Dedication



			 				Part One: The Fork

				 					Chapter I: Mount Arngor



				 					Chapter II: A Fork in the Road



				 					Chapter III: The Hall of Colors





			 				Part Two: The Witch

				 					Chapter IV: Rhymes and Riddles



				 					Chapter V: On the Nature of Stars



				 					Chapter VI: Questions and Answers





			 				Part Three: The Worm

				 					Chapter VII: Deadfall



				 					Chapter VIII: The Worm of Kulkaras



				 					Chapter IX: New Beginnings





			 				Names and Languages

				Afterword

				About the Author





CHAPTER I


			Mount Arngor





The day had not gone well.

			Eragon leaned back in his chair and took a long drink of blackberry mead from the mug by his hand. Sweet warmth blossomed in his throat, and with it memories of summer afternoons spent picking berries in Palancar Valley.

			A pang of homesickness struck him.

			The mead had been the best thing to come out of his meeting with Hruthmund, the dwarven representative. A gift to strengthen the bonds of friendly association between dwarves and Riders—or so Hruthmund had claimed.

			 			Eragon snorted. Some friendship. He’d spent the whole meeting arguing with Hruthmund over when the dwarves would deliver the supplies they’d promised. Hruthmund seemed to believe once every three to four months was more than sufficient, which was absurd considering the dwarves lived closer to the Academy than any of the other races. Even Nasuada had managed to send monthly shipments from the other side of the Hadarac Desert, far to the west.

			I’ll have to arrange a talk with Orik and sort it out with him directly. Just one more thing to do amid a seemingly endless sea of tasks.

			Eragon eyed the mounds of scrolls, books, maps, and loose pieces of parchment that covered the desk in front of him, all of which required his attention. He sighed, finding the sight depressing.

			 			He shifted his gaze out the large, rough-hewn windows that fronted the eyrie. Rays of evening light streamed across the windswept plains that lay below, surrounding Mount Arngor. To the north and west, the Edda River gleamed like a ribbon of beaten silver draped across the landscape. A pair of ships lay docked along the nearest bend, and from that docking, a trail led south to the foothills piled about the base of Arngor.

			The mountain had been Eragon’s choice—in consultation with Saphira and their traveling companions—for the Dragon Riders’ new home. It was more than that too: a safeguard for the Eldunarí and, hopefully, a nesting ground for the next generation of dragons.

			The high, slab-sided peak was a trailing remnant of the Beor Mountains, shorter than those towering giants but still many times bigger than the mountains of the Spine Eragon had grown up with. It stood alone in the green expanse of the eastern reaches, two weeks of slow sailing beyond the bounds of Alagaësia proper.

			 			South of Arngor the land was rumpled like a blanket and ruffled with trees whose leaves shone silver in the wind, bright as the scales of a fish. Farther to the east stood scarps and cliffs and huge, flat-topped pillars of stone crested with piles of vegetation. Among them lived groups of wandering tribes: strange, half-wild humans the likes of which Eragon had never encountered before. So far they had proven no trouble, but he remained wary.

			Such was his responsibility now.

			The mountain bore many names. Arngor was Dwarvish for White Mountain, and indeed, the upper thirds were clad in snow and ice and—from a distance—the peak glowed with a startling brilliance amid the verdant plains. But it also had an older, secret name in Dwarvish. For as the expedition Eragon led had begun to settle among the foothills of the mountain, they had discovered tunnels burrowed into the stone beneath, and there in runes inscribed Gor Narrveln, which meant Mountain of Gems. Some ancient clan or tribe of dwarves had sunk mines deep into the roots of the peak.

			 			The dwarves who had joined Eragon’s group had been excited by the discovery, and they spent much time debating who had made the mines and what gems might still be found.

			In the ancient language, the mountain was known as Fell Thindarë, which meant Mountain of Night. The elves could not tell Eragon where the name came from—nor the reason for it—so he rarely used it. But he also heard them refer to the peak as Vaeta, or Hope. He found this fitting, as the Dragon Riders were a hope for all the races of Alagaësia.

			The Urgals had their own name for the peak: Ungvek. When Eragon asked them what it meant, they claimed it was Strong-Headed. But he wasn’t so sure.

			 			Then too there were the humans. Eragon had heard them use all of the names interchangeably, as well as refer to the mountain as Hoarspike, a term he suspected the traders often used in jest.

			Personally, Eragon preferred the sound of Arngor, but he gave each of the names the respect they were due. The confusion surrounding them embodied the situation at the Academy: the place was a mix of races and cultures and conflicting agendas, and all of them still unsettled….

			He took another sip of the Mûnnvlorss mead; that was how Hruthmund had named the bottle. Mûnnvlorss. Eragon turned the name over on his tongue, feeling the shape of it as he attempted to pick out the meaning.

			There had been other problems throughout the day, not just the meeting with Hruthmund. The Urgals had been belligerent as always. The humans fractious. The dragons in their Eldunarí enigmatic. And the elves…the elves were elegant and efficient and polite to a fault, but once they made a decision, they would not or could not change their minds. Dealing with them had proven far more frustrating than Eragon had anticipated, and the more time he spent around them, the more he’d begun to agree with Orik’s opinion of elves. They were best admired from a distance.

			 			In addition to the interpersonal difficulties, there were also ongoing concerns regarding the construction of the stronghold, the acquisition of food and other provisions for the upcoming winter, and the myriad of other details that attended the governance of a large town.

			Which was, in essence, what their expedition had become. A settlement, soon to be a permanent one.

			Eragon drained the last of the mead. He could feel a faint tilt to the floor underneath him as it took effect. Half the morning he’d spent devoting himself to assisting in the actual construction of the hold, and it had consumed far more of his strength and Saphira’s than he’d anticipated. No matter how much he ate, it never seemed enough to replace the energy expended. In the last two weeks, he’d lost a matching two notches on his belt, and that was on top of the notch he’d taken in over the prior weeks.

			 			He scowled as he eyed the parchment on the desk.

			Restoring the race of dragons, leading the Riders, and protecting the Eldunarí were all responsibilities he wanted, welcomed, and took seriously. And yet…Eragon had never expected that he would spend so much of his life doing this. Sitting at a desk laboring over facts and figures until his vision blurred from the strain. As ridiculously stressful as fighting the Empire and facing Galbatorix had been—and Eragon never, ever wanted to experience anything similar—it had been exciting too.

			 			At times he dreamed of strapping on his sword, Brisingr, getting on Saphira, and setting out to see what adventure they could find. It was just that, though: a dream. They couldn’t leave the dragons or the Riders to fend for themselves, not for a long while yet.

			“Barzûl,” Eragon muttered. His scowl deepened as he considered a whole host of curses he could cast on the scraps of parchment: fire, frost, lightning, wind, obliteration by disintegration, and more besides.

			He let out his breath, straightened up, and again reached for a quill.

			Stop, said Saphira. Across the chamber, she stirred in the padded hollow that was sunk into the floor: a nest big enough for a dragon. The same nest where, each night, he slept curled up beneath one of her wings.

			 			As she rose, flecks of blue refracted from her gemlike scales and spun across the walls in a dazzling display.

			“I can’t,” Eragon said. “I wish I could, but I can’t. These manifests have to be checked by morning, and—”

			Always there will be work, she said, walking over to the desk. The tips of her gleaming claws tapped against the stone. Always there will be those who need something of us, but you have to take care of yourself, little one. You’ve done enough for the day. Put aside your pen and let go of your worries. There is still light in the sky. Go spar with Blödhgarm or butt heads with Skarghaz or do something other than sit and smolder.

			“No,” said Eragon, fixing his gaze on the rows of runes covering the parchment. “It has to be done, and there isn’t anyone else who can do it but me. If I don’t—”

			He jumped as Saphira’s left foreclaw stabbed through the pile of parchment, pinning it to the desk and spilling the bottle of ink across the floor.

			 			Enough, she said. She whuffed, blowing her hot breath over him. Then she extended her neck and peered at him with one of her glittering, bottomless eyes. No more for today. You are not yourself at the moment. Go.

			“You can’t—”

			Go! Her lip curled, and a deep rumble emanated from within her chest.

			Eragon bit back his words, frustrated. Then he tossed the quill next to her claw. “Fine.” He pushed the chair away from the desk, stood, and held up his hands. “Fine. You win. I’m going.”

			Good. A hint of amusement appeared in her eyes, and she pushed him toward the archway with her snout. Go. And don’t come back until you’re in a better mood.

			“Hmph.”

			 			But he smiled as he walked through the arch and started down the wide, curved ramp of stairs outside. Despite his protestations, Eragon wasn’t sorry to be away from his desk. Somewhat to his annoyance, he knew Saphira was well aware of that, but it wasn’t worth grouching about something so small.

			Sometimes it was easier to fight a battle than to figure out how to deal with the more mundane details of life.

			That was a lesson he was still learning.

			The steps were shallow, but the walls between them were wide enough for Saphira to pass between with ease. Except for personal quarters, everything in the hold was being built for use by all but the very largest dragons, same as the structures on Vroengard Island—the old home of the Dragon Riders. It was a necessary feature of the hold, but it meant that building even a single room was a monumental exercise, and most of the chambers were huge and forbidding, even more so than in the great dwarf city of Tronjheim.

			 			The hold would feel more friendly, Eragon thought, once they had the time and energy to decorate it. Some banners and tapestries hung on the walls and a few rugs before the fireplaces would go a long way toward dampening the echoes, adding color, and generally improving the overall impression of the place. So far, the only real addition had been scores of the dwarves’ flameless lanterns, which had been mounted in brackets at regular intervals along the walls.

			Not that there was much to the hold at the moment. A handful of storerooms; a few walls; the eyrie where he and Saphira slept, high upon a finger of rock overlooking the rest of the planned citadel. Far more needed to be built and excavated before the complex would begin to resemble anything close to what Eragon envisioned.

			He wandered down to the main courtyard, which was nothing more than a square of rough stone littered with tools, ropes, and tents. The Urgals were wrestling around their fire, as they often did, and though Eragon watched for a while, he felt no inclination to join in.

			 			Two of the elves—Ästrith and Rílven—who were standing guard along the battlements overlooking the foothills below, nodded as he approached. Eragon returned the gesture and stood some distance away from them, his hands clasped behind his back while he scented the evening air.

			Then he went to inspect the construction of the main hall. The dwarves had designed it according to his general plan, and then the elves had refined the details. That had occasioned more than a little argument between the two groups.

			From the hall, Eragon went to the storerooms and began to catalog the crates and barrels of supplies that had arrived the previous day. Despite Saphira’s admonishments, he couldn’t bring himself to let go of his work.

			 			So much yet needed doing, and he never had enough time or energy to accomplish even a fraction of his goals.

			In the back of his head, he could feel Saphira’s faint disapproval that he wasn’t out carousing with the dwarves or sparring with the elves or doing something, anything, other than work. Yet none of those things appealed to Eragon. He didn’t feel like fighting. Didn’t feel like reading. Didn’t feel like devoting energy to activities that wouldn’t help him resolve the problems facing them.

			For it was all resting on him. Him and Saphira. Every choice they made affected not only the future of the Riders but the very survival of the dragons, and if they chose badly, both might end.

			Thoughts like that made it difficult to relax.

			Driven by his discontent, Eragon climbed back up the stairs toward the eyrie. Only he turned aside before reaching the top and, through a small side tunnel, entered the chamber they’d dug out—with spells and pickaxes—directly below.

			 			It was a large, disk-shaped chamber. In the center, upon several tiered daises, sat an assortment of glittering Eldunarí. Mostly those he and Saphira had fetched from the Vault of Souls on Vroengard, but also a few of the hearts of hearts that Galbatorix had kept slaved to his will.

			The rest of the Eldunarí—those Galbatorix had driven mad with his spells and mental tortures—were kept stored in a cave deep within the side of Mount Arngor. There they could not hurt anyone with the lashings of their unhinged thoughts, and Eragon hoped, in time, he might be able to heal them with help from the other dragons. But it would be the work of years, if not decades.

			Had it been up to him, he would have placed all the Eldunarí in such caves, along with the many dragon eggs. It was the best way to protect them, the safest sort of strongbox. Eragon was acutely aware of the risk of theft, despite the many wards he’d set on the chamber.

			 			However, Glaedr, Umaroth, and the other dragons still in full possession of their minds had refused to live underground. As Umaroth said, We spent over a hundred years locked in the Vault of Souls. Perhaps someday we shall spend another hundred years waiting in darkness. In the meantime, we would feel the light upon our facets.

			So it was.

			The larger Eldunarí rested upon the central dais, while the smaller ones had been arranged in rings about them. Piercing the circular wall of the chamber were dozens of narrow lancet windows, which the elves had fitted with pieces of crystal that split the incoming light into flecks of rainbow. No matter the time of day, the north-facing room was always bright and strewn with multi-hued shards, both from the windows and the Eldunarí themselves.

			 			The dwarves and the elves had taken to calling the room the Hall of Colors, and Eragon was inclined to agree with the choice. It was a fitting description indeed.

			He made his way to the center and knelt in front of the sparkling, gold-hued gem that was Glaedr’s heart of hearts. The dragon’s mind touched his own, and Eragon felt a vast vista of thought and feeling open up before him. As always, it was a humbling experience.

			What troubles you, Eragon-finiarel?

			Still restless, Eragon pursed his lips and looked past the Eldunarí at the semi-transparent crystal filling the windows. Too much work. I can’t get ahead of it, and because of that, I can’t bring myself to do anything else. It’s wearing on me.

			 			You must learn to center yourself, said Glaedr. Then these lesser concerns will not bother you.

			I know….And I know there are many, many things I can’t control. Eragon allowed himself a brief, grim smile. But knowing and doing are two different things.

			Then another mind joined theirs, that of Umaroth, one of the oldest Eldunarí. Out of reflex, Eragon glanced toward the white heart of hearts that contained the dragon’s consciousness.

			Umaroth said, What you need is a distraction, that your mind might rest and reset.

			That I do, said Eragon.

			Then perhaps we can help, Argetlam. Remember you how my wingmates and I kept watch upon Alagaësia from within the Vault of Souls?

			…Yes, said Eragon, already having an inkling of what the dragon was hinting at.

			He was right. We have continued the practice, Argetlam, as a means of whiling away the days, but also that we might stay abreast of events and not be surprised by the rise of some new enemy.

			 			More minds joined Umaroth’s: the rest of the Eldunarí, pressing in around Eragon’s consciousness like a sea of growling voices. As always, it took a concentrated effort to ward them off and keep hold of his own thoughts. Why am I not surprised?

			If you wish, said Glaedr, we can show you some of what we see. A vision of elsewhere that might provide you with a new perspective.

			Eragon hesitated as he considered the offer. How long will it take?

			As long as is required, youngling, said Umaroth. Worrying about the time is exactly what you need curing of. Does the eagle worry about the length of the day? Does the bear or the deer or the fish in the sea? No. So why should you? Chew what you can and leave the rest for tomorrow.

			 			All right, said Eragon. He lifted his chest and took a deep breath as he prepared himself. Show me, then.

			Inexorable as the onrushing tide, the dragons’ minds washed over his own. They swept Eragon out of his body, out of the Hall of Colors and away from snow-clad Mount Arngor and all his cares and worries, carrying him toward the familiar yet distant lands of Alagaësia.

			Images blossomed before him, and within them Eragon saw and felt far more than he’d expected….





CHAPTER II


			A Fork in the Road





It was two days past Maddentide, and the first flakes of snow were drifting from the starry sky onto the city of Ceunon.

			Essie didn’t notice. She stomped down the cobblestone alley behind the Yarstead house, her mouth set in a hard line and her cheeks burning as she struggled not to cry. She hated stupid, mean Hjordis, with her fake smile and her pretty bows and all her nasty little insults. Hated her.

			And then there was poor Carth. Essie couldn’t stop thinking about his reaction. He had looked so betrayed when she’d pushed him into the trough. He hadn’t even said anything, just sat where he had fallen and gaped at her while his eyes went big and round.

			 			Her dress sleeve was still wet from where the muddy water had splashed her.

			The familiar sound of waves slapping against the underside of the wharves grew louder as she approached the docks. She kept to the alleys—kept to the narrow ways that the adults rarely used. Overhead, a rook with fluffed-out feathers sat perched on the eaves of the Sorting House. It cocked its head and opened its beak to utter a mournful cry.

			Essie shivered, though not from the cold, and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. A dog had howled during the night, the candle on the little shelf where they left offerings of milk and bread for the Svartlings had gone out, and now a lone rook had called. Bad omens all. Was there more ill fortune coming her way? She didn’t think she could bear anything worse….

			 			She slipped between the smelly drying racks by the edge of the fish market and came into the street. Ahead of her, music and conversation sounded, and warm light spilled out of the front of the Fulsome Feast. The windows of the inn were crystal, specially made by the dwarves, and they gleamed like diamond in the flickering light. It was a point of pride for Essie every time she saw the windows, even now. No other building on the street had anything so pretty.

			Inside, the common room was as loud and busy as ever. Essie ignored the guests and went to the bar. Papa was there pouring beer, washing out mugs, and serving dishes of smoked herring. He glanced at her as she ducked under the half door at the end of the bar.

			“You’re late,” he said.

			“Sorry, Papa.” Essie got a plate and loaded it with a heel of bread, a wedge of hard Sartos cheese, and a half-dried apple—all taken from the shelf under the bar. She was still too small to help with the serving, but she would help with the cleaning up later.

			 			And then later still, once everyone had gone to bed, she would sneak down to the cellar, gather the supplies she needed….

			She carried the plate to an empty chair in front of the great stone fireplace. Next to the chair was a small table, and on the other side of it, a second chair—this one with a man sitting in it. He was lean and dark-eyed, with a neat beard and a long black travel cloak bunched around him. A plate balanced on his knee, and he was slowly eating a serving of Mama’s roasted turnips and mutton, stabbing at the pieces with one of the inn’s iron forks.

			Essie didn’t care. He was just another traveler, like so many who came to the Fulsome Feast.

			She plopped down in the free chair and tore off part of the heel of bread, imagining that it was Hjordis’s head she was tearing off….She continued to rip at the food with her fingers and teeth, and she chewed with a ferocity that was oddly satisfying.

			 			She still felt as if she was about to cry, which just made her more angry. Crying was for little children. Crying was for weaklings who got pushed around and told what to do. That wasn’t her!

			She made a noise of frustration as she bit into the apple and the stem got stuck in the gap between her front teeth.

			“You seem upset,” the man next to her said in a mild tone.

			Essie scowled. She plucked the stem from between her teeth and flung it into the fireplace. “It’s all Hjordis’s fault!” Papa didn’t like her talking to the guests too much, but she had never minded him. The visitors always had interesting stories, and many of them would ruffle her hair and comment on how adorable she was and give her candied nuts or syrup twists (in the winter, at least).

			 			“Oh?” said the man. He put down his fork and turned in his seat to better look at her. “And who is this Hjordis?”

			“She’s the daughter of Jarek. He’s the earl’s chief mason,” said Essie, sullen.

			“I see. Does that make her important?”

			Essie shook her head. “It makes her think she’s important.”

			“What did she do to upset you, then?”

			“Everything!” Essie took a savage bite out of the apple and chewed so hard and quick she bit the inside of her mouth. She winced and swallowed, trying to ignore the pain.

			The man drank from the mug by his hand. “Most interesting,” he said, and used a napkin to dab a fleck of foam off his mustache. “Well then, is it a tale you feel like telling? Perhaps talking about it will make you feel better.”

			Essie looked at him, slightly suspicious. He had an open face, but there was an intensity to his dark eyes, and a slight hardness too, that she wasn’t sure about. “Papa wouldn’t want me to bother you.”

			 			“I have some time,” said the man easily. “I’m just waiting for a certain associate of mine who, alas, happens to be habitually late. If you wish to share your tale of woe, then please, consider me your devoted audience.”

			He used a lot of big words, and his accent wasn’t one Essie was familiar with. It seemed overly careful, as if he were sculpting the air with his tongue. Despite that, and despite the hardness of his eyes, she decided he seemed like a nice person.

			She bounced her feet off the legs of the chair. “Well…I’d like to tell you, but I can’t possibly unless we’re friends.”

			“Is that so? And how do we become friends?”

			“You have to tell me your name! Silly.”

			The man smiled. He had pretty teeth. “Of course. How foolish of me. In that case, my name is Tornac.” And he held out his hand. His fingers were long and pale, but strong-looking. His nails were trimmed square.

			 			“Essie Siglingsdaughter.” She could feel a row of calluses on his palm as they shook hands.

			“Very nice to meet you, Essie. Now then, what seems to be bothering you?”

			Essie stared at the partially eaten apple in her hand. She sighed and put it back on the plate. “It’s all Hjordis’s fault.”

			“So you said.”

			“She’s always being mean to me and making her friends tease me.”

			Tornac’s expression grew serious. “That’s not good at all.”

			Encouraged, Essie shook her head, allowing her outrage to shine forth. “No! I mean…sometimes they tease me anyway, but, um, Hjordis—when she’s there, it gets really bad.”

			“Is that what happened today?”

			“Yes. Sort of.” She broke off a piece of cheese and nibbled on it while she thought back over the past few weeks. Tornac waited patiently. She liked that about him. He reminded her of a cat. Finally, she gathered the courage to say, “Before harvest, Hjordis started being nicer to me. I thought—I thought maybe things were going to be better. She even invited me to her house.” Essie glanced at Tornac. “It’s right by the castle.”

			 			“Impressive.”

			Essie nodded, glad he understood. “She gave me one of her ribbons, a yellow one, and said that I could come to her Maddentide party.”

			“And did you?”

			Another bob of her head. “It—it was today.” Hot tears filled her eyes, and she blinked furiously, disappointed with herself.

			“Here now,” said Tornac, looking concerned. He held out a square of soft white cloth.

			At first Essie was reluctant to accept. The cloth was so clean! But then the tears started running down her cheeks, and she grabbed the kerchief and wiped her eyes. “Thank you, mister.”

			 			Another small smile appeared on the man’s face. “It’s been a long time since I’ve been called mister, but you’re very welcome. I take it the party didn’t go well?”

			Essie scowled and pushed the kerchief back toward him. She wasn’t going to cry anymore. Not her. “The party was fine. It was Hjordis. She got mean again, after, and…and”—Essie took a deep breath, as if to fill her stomach with courage—“and she said that if I didn’t do what she wanted, she would tell her father not to use our inn during the solstice celebration.” She peered at Tornac, wondering if he knew why that was so important. “All the masons come here to drink and”—she hiccupped, despite herself—“they drink a lot, and it means they spend stacks and stacks of coppers.”

			Tornac put his plate on the table and leaned toward her. His cloak rustled like wind in the thatching. His face was very serious. “What did she want you to do?”

			 			Ashamed, Essie stared at her muddy shoes. “She wanted me to push Carth into a horse trough,” she said, tripping over the words in her rush to get them out.

			“Carth is a friend of yours?”

			Essie nodded, miserable. They’d known each other since she was three. “He lives on the docks. His father is a fisher.”

			“So he wouldn’t get invited to a party like this.”

			“No, but Hjordis sent her handmaid to bring him to the house and…” Essie stared at Tornac, her expression fierce. “I didn’t have no choice! If I hadn’t pushed him, then she would have told her father not to come to the Fulsome Feast.”

			“I understand,” said Tornac in a soothing tone. “So you pushed your friend. Were you able to apologize to him?”

			“No,” Essie said, feeling even worse. “I—I ran. But everyone saw. He won’t want to be friends with me anymore. No one will. Hjordis just meant to trick me, and I hate her.” Essie grabbed the apple and took another quick bite. Her teeth clacked together.

			 			Tornac opened his mouth to say something, but at that moment, Papa came by on his way to deliver a pair of mugs to a table by the wall. He gave her a disapproving look. “My daughter isn’t making a nuisance of herself, is she, Master Tornac? She has a bad habit of pestering guests when they’re trying to eat.”

			“Not at all,” said Tornac, smiling. “I’ve been on the road for far too long with nothing but the sun and the moon for company. A bit of conversation is exactly what I need. In fact—” His fingers dipped under his belt, and Essie saw a flash of silver as he reached out to her father. “Perhaps you can see to it that the tables next to us remain clear. I’m expecting an associate of mine, and we have some, ah, business to discuss.”

			 			The coins disappeared into his apron, and Papa bobbed his head. “Of course, Master Tornac.” He glanced at her again, his expression slightly concerned, and then continued on his way.

			Essie felt a sudden pang of remorse. Papa was going to be so sad when she was gone. But there was no other choice. She had to leave.

			“Now then,” said Tornac, stretching his long legs out toward the fire. “You were telling me your tale of woe, Essie Siglingsdaughter. Was that the full accounting?”

			“That was it,” Essie said in a small voice.

			Tornac picked up the fork from his plate and began to twirl it between his fingers. She found the sight vaguely entrancing. “Things can’t be as bad as you think. I’m sure if you explain to your friend—”

			“No,” she said, firm. She knew Carth. He wouldn’t forgive her for what she’d done. None of her friends along the docks would. They’d think she’d turned against them to join Hjordis and the other children by the castle. And in a way, she had. “He won’t understand. He won’t trust me again. They’ll hate me for it.”

			 			A cutting edge entered Tornac’s voice. “Then maybe they weren’t really your friends.”

			Essie couldn’t bear the thought. “They were. You don’t understand!” And she brought her fist down on the arm of the chair in an impatient stamp. “Carth is…He’s really nice. Everyone likes him, and now they won’t like me. You wouldn’t know. You’re all big and…and old.”

			Tornac’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. “You might be surprised what I know. So they won’t like you. What are you going to do about it?”

			Essie didn’t mean to say, but the words slipped out of her before she thought better of it: “I’m going to run away.” The moment she realized what she’d done, she gave Tornac a panicked look. “Don’t tell Papa, please!”

			Tornac took another sip from his mug and then smoothed his beard. He didn’t seem upset by her plan, not the way Essie knew Papa would be. Rather, he seemed to be taking her seriously, which Essie liked.

			 			“And where would you go?” he asked.

			Essie had already been thinking about that. “South, where it’s warm. There’s a caravan leaving tomorrow. The foreman comes here. He’s nice. I can sneak out, and then ride with them to Gil’ead.”

			Tornac picked at his fork with the tip of a fingernail. “And then?”

			After that, things got a bit hazy in Essie’s mind, but she knew what her ultimate goal would be. “I want to visit the Beor Mountains and see the dwarves!” she said. The thought excited her. “They made our windows. Aren’t they pretty?” She pointed.

			“They certainly are,” said Tornac.

			“Have you ever visited the Beor Mountains?”

			 			“I have,” said Tornac. “Once, long ago.”

			Impressed, Essie looked at him with renewed interest. “Really? Are they as tall as everyone says?”

			“So tall the peaks aren’t even visible.”

			She leaned back in her chair as she tried to picture that. The effort made her dizzy. “How wonderful.”

			A snort escaped Tornac. “If you don’t count being shot at with arrows, then yes….You do realize, Essie Siglingsdaughter, that running away won’t solve your problems here.”

			“Of course not,” she said. His statement seemed very obvious to her. “But if I leave, then Hjordis can’t bother me anymore.” Essie made a face.

			Tornac almost looked as if he were going to laugh, but then he took another sip from his mug, and afterward he seemed more solemn. “Or, and this is just a suggestion, you could try to fix the problem instead of running away.”

			“It can’t be fixed,” she said, stubborn.

			 			“What about your parents? I’m sure they would miss you terribly. Do you really want to make them suffer like that?”

			Essie crossed her arms. This wasn’t going the way she wanted. Tornac had been agreeable so far. Why was he arguing with her now? “They have my brother and my sister and Olfa. He’s only two.” She pouted. “They wouldn’t miss me.”

			“I very much doubt that,” said Tornac. “Besides, think what you did with Hjordis. You helped protect the Fulsome Feast. If your parents understood the sacrifice you made, I’m sure they would be very proud.”

			“Uh-huh,” said Essie, unconvinced. “There wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t for me. I’m the problem. If I go away, everything will be all right.” Feeling determined, she picked up the apple core and threw it into the great fireplace.

			A whirl of sparks flew up the chimney, and she heard the sizzle of water exploding into steam.

			 			In an overly casual tone, Tornac said, “What is that?”

			“What?” she said.

			“There, on your arm.”

			Essie looked down and saw her sleeve had ridden up, exposing the twisted red scar on her left wrist. Ashamed, she tugged the cuff down. “Nothing,” she mumbled.

			“May I?” said Tornac, and held out his hand toward her. At first Essie hesitated, but he seemed so polite and so assured that at last she relented and let him take her arm.

			As gently as her mother would, Tornac pulled back the cuff of her sleeve. Essie turned her head away. She didn’t need to see the scar again—didn’t need to look to know how it crawled up her forearm all the way to her elbow.

			She hoped no one else in the common room would notice.

			After a moment, she felt Tornac pull her sleeve back down, and he said, “That…is a very impressive scar. You should be proud of it.”

			 			Confused, she looked back at him. “Why? It’s ugly, and I hate it.”

			A faint smile played around the corners of his lips. “Because a scar means you survived. It means you’re tough and hard to kill. It means you lived. A scar is something to admire.”

			“You’re wrong,” said Essie. She pointed at the pot with the painted bluebells on the mantel—the one Auntie Helna had given them last winter, the one Essie had knocked onto the floor a few moons back. A long crack ran from the lip of the pot to the base. “It just means you’re broken.”

			“Ah,” said Tornac in a soft voice. “But sometimes, if you work very hard, you can mend a break so that it’s stronger than before.”

			Essie wasn’t liking their conversation as much as she had earlier. She crossed her arms, tucking her left hand into her armpit. “Hjordis and the others always make fun of me for it,” she mumbled. “They say my arm is as red as a snapper, and that I’ll never get a husband because of it.”

			 			“And what do your parents say?”

			Essie made a face. “That it doesn’t matter. But that’s not true, is it?”

			Tornac inclined his head. “No. I suppose it isn’t. Your parents are doing their best to protect you, though.”

			“Well, they can’t,” she said, and huffed. She glanced at him; the darkness had returned to his face, but it didn’t seem to be directed at her. “Do you have any scars?” she asked.

			A humorless laugh escaped him. “Oh yes.” He pointed at a small white mark on his chin. “This one is only a few months old. A friend of mine gave it to me by accident while we were playing around, the big oaf.” A hint of affection lightened Tornac’s expression. Then he said, “What happened to your arm?”

			 			It took Essie a while to answer. All she could see in her head was the inn’s kitchen that morning three years ago, and all she could hear were Mama’s frantic cries….“It was an accident,” she mumbled. “A pot with hot water fell onto my arm.”

			Tornac’s eyes narrowed. “It just fell on you?”

			Essie nodded. She didn’t want to mention that it had been Papa who bumped her. But it hadn’t been his fault! She’d been running around the kitchen, and he hadn’t seen her, and Essie knew he felt terrible about what had happened.

			“Mmm.” Tornac was staring at the fire, the sparks and embers reflecting in his eyes.

			Essie looked at him, curious. “Where are you from?” she asked.

			“A long, long way from here.”

			“In the south?”

			“Yes, in the south.”

			She kicked her feet against the chair. “What’s it like there?” If she was going to run away, she ought to know what to expect.

			 			Tornac inhaled slowly and tilted his head back so he was gazing at the ceiling. “It depends where you go. There are hot places and cold places, and places where the wind never stops blowing. Forests seemingly without end. Caves that burrow into the deepest parts of the earth, and plains full of vast herds of red deer.”

			“Are there monsters?” she asked.

			“Of course,” he said, returning his gaze to her. “There are always monsters. Some of them even look like humans….I ran away from home myself, you know.”

			“You did?”

			He nodded. “I was older than you, but yes. I ran, but I didn’t escape what I was running from….Listen to me, Essie. I know you think leaving will make everything better, but—”

			“There you are, Tornac of the Road,” said a sly, slithering voice that made the hair on the back of Essie’s neck prickle. A man stepped forward between the tables. He was thin and stooped, with a patched cloak draped over his shoulders and ragged clothes underneath. Rings glittered on his fingers.

			 			Essie took an instant dislike to the man. He smelled of wet fur, and something about the way he moved and looked gave her a warning feeling in her gut.

			“Sarros,” said Tornac, a flicker of distaste on his face. “I’ve been waiting for you.”

			“The reaches are dangerous these days,” said Sarros. He picked up an empty chair and placed it between Essie and Tornac, and then sat facing both of them.

			Essie noticed several more men had entered the common room from the street. Six of them. They were rough-looking, but not like the fishermen; they wore furs and leathers and had a wild appearance similar to the trappers who came in during spring. Papa often had to throw them out because they made too much trouble.

			 			Over by the bar, Papa watched the newcomers, wary. He pulled out his leather-wrapped truncheon and laid it next to his washcloth as a silent warning. The sight comforted Essie; she had seen him settle even the meanest drunks with a few well-placed blows.

			Sarros pointed at her with one long, grimy forefinger. “We have business to discuss. Send the youngling away.”

			“I have nothing to hide,” said Tornac smoothly. “She can stay.” He glanced at her. “If you’re interested. You might learn something useful of the world by it.”

			Essie shrank back in her seat, but she didn’t leave. Tornac’s words tickled her curiosity. Also, for some reason, she couldn’t help but remember the bad omens from earlier, and she felt that if she did leave, something horrible would happen to Tornac.

			 			A long hiss sounded between Sarros’s teeth as he shook his head. “Foolish, Wanderer. Do as you wish, then. I’ll not argue, even if you put your foot crosswise.”

			A glint of steel appeared in Tornac’s gaze. “No, you won’t. Tell me, then, what have you found? It’s been three months, and—”

			Sarros waved a hand. “Yes, yes. Three months. I told you; the reaches are dangerous. But I found word of what you seek. Better than word, I found this—” From the leather wallet on his belt, he produced a fist-sized chunk of black something that he thumped down on the table.

			Essie leaned forward, as did Tornac.

			The something was a piece of rock, but there was a deep shine to it unlike any rock Essie had seen, as if a smoldering coal were buried in the center. She sniffed and then wrinkled her nose. Yuck! It smelled as bad as a rotten egg.

			 			Tornac looked at the rock as if he wasn’t sure he believed it existed. “What exactly is that?”

			Sarros lifted his shoulders, shrugging like the herons along the docks. “Suspicions of shadows are all I have, but you sought the unusual, the out-of-place, and that there doesn’t fit in the normal frame.”

			“Were there more, or…?”

			Sarros nodded. “I am told. A whole field scattered with stones.”

			“Black and burnt?”

			“As if seared by fire, but with no sign of flame or smoke.”

			Essie said, “Where is it from?”

			Sarros smiled unpleasantly. His teeth, she noticed, had been sharpened to points. The sight disgusted her more than it frightened her. “Well now, that there is the nub of it, youngling. Yes indeed.”

			Tornac reached for the rock, and Sarros dropped a hand over the shiny chunk, caging it behind his fingers. “No,” he said. “Coin first, Wanderer.”

			 			Tornac pressed his lips together and then produced a small leather pouch from under his heavy cloak. The clink of metal sounded as he put it on the table.

			Sarros’s smile widened. He tugged loose the pouch’s drawstring, and Essie glimpsed a yellow gleam inside. She took a sharp breath. Gold! She’d never even seen a whole crown before.

			“Half now,” said Tornac. “And the rest when you tell me where you found that.” He poked the rock with the tip of a finger.

			A strange choking sound came from Sarros. It took Essie a second to realize that the man was laughing. Then he said, “Oh no, Wanderer. No indeed. I think instead you should give us the rest of your coin, and perhaps then we’ll let you keep your head.”

			Across the common room, the fur-clad men slipped hands under their cloaks, and Essie saw the hilts of swords, half hidden beneath.

			 			She stiffened and, panicked, looked to her father. A guest had distracted him: one of the laborers from the docks stood leaning against the bar, chattering away. She opened her mouth and was about to cry out a warning when Sarros drew a thin-bladed knife and pressed it against her throat.

			“Ah-ah,” he said. “Not a peep from you, youngling, or I’ll open your throat from stem to stern.”

			Fear froze Essie in place. She could barely breathe, she was so scared of the razor edge touching her skin, cold and deadly. Suddenly all of her previous worries didn’t seem important in the slightest. Papa could save her—she felt sure he could—but only if he knew she was in trouble. She kept glancing toward the bar, hoping Papa would somehow sense her thoughts.

			The hardness in Tornac’s eyes grew even more flinty, but otherwise he remained as calm as ever. “Why the turn of face, Sarros? I’m paying you good money.”

			 			“Yesss. That’s the point.” Sarros leaned in closer, lips pulled wide. His breath stank of rotting meat. “If you are willing to pay thiswise-much for hints and rumors, then you must have more coin than sense. Much more coin.”

			Essie considered kicking him in the shin, but she was too scared of the knife to try.

			A frown formed on Tornac’s brow, and she heard him mutter a bad word under his breath. Then he said, “This isn’t a fight you want. Tell me the location, take the gold you’re owed, and no one has to get hurt.”

			“What fight?” said Sarros, and cackled. “You have no sword on you. We are six, and you are one. The coin is ours whether you wish it or not.” Essie stiffened as the steel bit into her neck, a bright little slice of pain. “See?” said Sarros. “I make the choice easy for you, Wanderer. Hand over the rest of your gold, or the youngling here will pay with blood.”

			 			Essie held her breath as she watched Tornac. Part of her expected him to pull out a hidden dagger and do something dangerous and heroic. He seemed like that kind of person. Part of her hoped he would rescue her.

			Instead, all Tornac did was utter a sentence of strange words.

			The air in front of him seemed to shiver, but nothing else happened. Essie didn’t know what he was trying to do, but it wasn’t helping.

			Sarros chuckled again. “Foolish. Very foolish.” With his free hand, he pulled out a bird-skull amulet from under his jerkin. “Do you see this, Wanderer? The witch-woman Bachel charmed a necklace for each of us. Your weirding ways won’t help you now. We’re protected against all evilness.”

			“Is that so?” said Tornac. And then he spoke a Word, and such a word it was. It rang like a bell, and in the sound, Essie thought she heard all possible meanings, and yet when she tried to recall the Word itself, no memory of it remained.

			 			A dull silence followed. Everyone in the common room looked at Tornac, many of the guests with a dazed expression, as if they’d just woken from a dream.

			Magic! Essie stared wide-eyed, so amazed she nearly forgot her fear. No one was supposed to use magic these days, not unless they had the approval of the queen’s spellcasters, the Du Vrangr Gata. But Essie had always wanted to see the sort of magic the old stories talked about.

			Despite the ringing Word, Sarros appeared unharmed, and for the first time, Tornac seemed perturbed.

			“Essie!” said Papa. He grabbed his truncheon and sprang over the bar. “You let her go now!” Before he could take more than a step, two of the fur-clad men charged him and knocked him to the floor. A dull thunk sounded as one of them struck Papa on the head with the pommel of a sword.

			 			He moaned and dropped the truncheon.

			No one else dared move.

			“Papa!” Essie cried. If not for the knife at her throat, she would have rushed to his side. She’d never seen her father lose a fight before, and the sight of him on the floor removed any last sense of safety.

			Again, Sarros chuckled, louder than before. “Your tricks will not help you, Wanderer. No enchantments are as strong as Bachel’s. No magic is deeper.”

			“Perhaps you’re right,” said Tornac. He seemed calm again, which Essie couldn’t understand. He picked up the fork and began to fiddle with it. “Well then. It appears I have no choice in the matter.”

			“None whatsoever,” said Sarros, smug.

			Mama appeared in the doorway to the kitchen, wiping her hands on her apron. “What is all this—” she started to say, and then saw Sarros holding the knife and Papa lying on the floor, and her face went pale.

			 			“Don’t cause no trouble, or your man gets stuck,” said one of the fur-clad ruffians, pointing his blade at Papa.

			While everyone else was distracted by Mama, Essie saw Tornac’s lips twitch as he spoke without voice, and a flame-like ripple ran the length of the fork.

			If she’d blinked, she would have missed it.

			Sarros slapped the table. “Enough with the yapping. Your coin, now.”

			Tornac tipped his head and—with his left hand—again reached under his cloak. One moment he was sitting, seemingly relaxed. Then he moved faster than Essie could follow. His cloak swung through the air, sending a rush of wind into her face, and his fork flashed across the table, and she heard a ting! as it knocked the knife free of Sarros’s grip and sent the weapon flying into the log wall.

			 			Tornac sat with his arm extended, holding the tines of the fork against the underside of Sarros’s chin, tickling him with the points. The sharp-toothed man swallowed. A sheen of sweat had broken out on his face.

			Essie still didn’t dare move; Sarros’s hand was next to her neck, fingers spread wide as if to tear out her throat.

			“Then again,” said Tornac, “there’s nothing in your charm to stop me from using magic on something else. Like this fork, for example.” A feral gleam appeared in his eyes as he pressed the tines deeper into Sarros’s flesh. “Do you really think I need a sword to defeat you, you tumorous sack of filth?”

			Sarros hissed. Then he shoved Essie into Tornac’s lap and sprang backward, knocking his chair over.

			Essie fell to the floor. Terrified, she scrambled on hands and feet between the tables until she reached Mama’s side. Around her, the common room erupted into a commotion, with shouts and crashes and breaking mugs.

			 			Her mother didn’t say anything, just pulled Essie behind her skirts and grabbed a chair, which she held out in front of them, like a weapon or a shield.

			The room had become a sea of thrashing bodies as the guests struggled to escape. The six fur-clad men had drawn their blades and were attempting to box in Tornac by the fireplace, but Tornac was having none of that. He had thrown off his cloak and was moving about the room, like a prowling cat. Sarros had retreated to a corner and was shouting, “Slice him crosswise! Kill him! Cut open his belly and spill his guts.”

			The nearest swordsman charged Tornac, swinging his blade. Tornac knocked the blow aside with his fork, and then he darted forward and buried the fork in the man’s chest.

			 			Essie had seen plenty end-of-harvest brawls, but this was nothing like a drunken fight between laborers. It was far worse: sober men trying to kill each other in open combat, and it frightened her many times more because of it.

			She looked for her father and spotted him crawling toward the cover of the bar, blood dripping from a cut on his temple. “Papa!” she cried, but he didn’t hear.

			Three more of Sarros’s men attacked Tornac. All three jabbed and slashed with their swords, not waiting for the others to take their turn.

			Tornac grabbed a chair and, one-handed, smashed it over the man to his left. At the same time, he used the fork to parry the attacks from the other two brutes. He matched each of their blows, fencing with amazing skill as they tried to get past his guard. The men had the advantage of reach with their swords, but Tornac sidestepped their blades and slipped into striking range. His hand was a blur as he stabbed with the fork: one, two, three, four hard impacts that dropped the men to the floor, where they lay groaning.

			 			Across the room, Papa reached the bar and pulled himself to his feet. He still held the truncheon in his hand, but the leather-wrapped stick seemed useless compared to the flashing swords.

			“Essie,” said Mama, her voice tight. “Olfa is in the kitchen. I want you to go—”

			Before she could finish, one of Sarros’s guards ran up to them. In his off hand, he held a mace, which he swung at the chair Mama was holding.

			The impact knocked the chair out of Mama’s hands, breaking it.

			Essie had never felt so small or helpless as she did in that moment. Papa was too far away to help, and there was nothing Mama could do to stop the fur-clad man as he drew back the sword in his other hand—

			Thud.

			 			The man’s eyes rolled until they showed white, and then he collapsed, and Essie saw the fork sticking out from the back of his head.

			Tornac had thrown it from across the common room.

			Sarros and his last remaining companion attempted to flank the now-weaponless Tornac. Before they could get close, Tornac kicked a table into the swordsman’s stomach and—when he stumbled—jumped on him and knocked his head against the floor.

			Sarros cursed and fled toward the door. As he turned, he threw a handful of glittering crystals at Tornac.

			Again, Tornac spoke a Word, and at his command, the crystals swerved in midair and flew into the flames of the fire. A series of loud pops! sounded, and a fountain of embers sprayed the stone hearth.

			Before Sarros could reach the door, Tornac caught up with him. He grabbed the back of Sarros’s jerkin and—in a stunning display of strength—lifted Sarros off the floor and over his head, and then slammed him back down onto the wooden boards.

			 			Sarros let out a bellow of pain and clutched at his left elbow, which was bent at an unnatural angle.

			“Essie,” said Mama. “Stay behind me.”

			Essie had no intention of doing otherwise.

			The few remaining guests edged away from Tornac as he planted a foot on Sarros’s chest. “Now then, you bastard,” he growled. “Where did you find that stone?”

			Papa left the bar and staggered across the room to where Mama and Essie stood. They didn’t say anything, but Mama put an arm around Papa, and he did the same to her.

			A burbling laugh escaped Sarros. There was a wild note to his voice that reminded Essie of Waeric, the madman who lived under the bridge by the mill. Sarros licked his sharpened teeth and said, “You do not know what you seek, Wanderer. You’re moon-addled and nose-blind. The sleeper stirs, and you and me—we’re all ants waiting to be crushed.”

			 			“The stone,” said Tornac between clenched teeth. “Where?”

			Sarros’s voice grew even higher, a mad shriek that pierced the night air. “You don’t understand. The Dreamers! The Dreamers! They get inside your head, and they twist your thoughts. Ahh! They twist them all out of joint.” He started to thrash, drumming his heels against the floor. Yellow foam bubbled at the corners of his mouth. “They’ll come for you, Wanderer, and then you’ll see. They’ll…” His voice trailed off into a hoarse croak, and then with one final jerk, he fell still.

			For a moment, no one in the common room stirred.

			All eyes remained on Tornac as he yanked the amulet off Sarros’s neck, retrieved his cloak, and walked back to the table by the fire. He pocketed the stone with the inner shine, picked up his pouch of coins, and then paused, considering.

			 			Bouncing the pouch in his hand, he came over to where Papa and Mama stood shielding Essie.

			“Please…,” said Papa. Essie had never heard him sound so desperate, and it gave her a sickening ache in her stomach. More than anything, his fear made her realize that the world was far scarier than she had originally thought. Their home had always felt like a safe place to Essie, but no longer. Neither her father nor her mother could protect her, not in the face of swords, and certainly not against magic.

			“My apologies for the trouble,” said Tornac. He stank of sweat, and the front of his linen shirt was splattered with blood. Nevertheless, he seemed calm again. “Here, this should make up for the mess.” He held out the pouch, and after a moment’s hesitation, Papa accepted it.

			 			Papa licked his lips. “The Watch will be here any minute. If you leave out the back…you can make it to the gate before they see you.”

			Tornac nodded. Then he knelt and yanked the fork out of the head of the ruffian lying on the nearby boards. Essie shrank back as Tornac looked straight at her. “Sometimes,” he said, “you have to stand and fight. Sometimes running away isn’t an option. Now do you understand?”

			“Yes,” Essie whispered.

			Tornac shifted his attention to her parents. “One last question: Do you need the patronage of the masons’ guild to keep this inn open?”

			Confusion furrowed Papa’s brow. “No, not if it came to such. Why?”

			“That’s what I thought,” said Tornac. Then he presented Essie with the fork. It looked perfectly clean, without so much as a drop of blood on it. “I’m giving this to you. It has a spell on it to keep it from breaking. If Hjordis bothers you again, give her a good poke, and she’ll leave you alone.”

			 			“Essie,” Mama said in a low, warning voice.

			But Essie had already made her decision. Tornac was right: running away wasn’t always an option. That wasn’t her only reason either. While their home might be safer than elsewhere, she couldn’t count on her parents to ward off danger. The fight in the common room had proven that. Her only real choice was to learn how to defend herself and her family.

			She took the fork. “Thank you,” she said, solemn.

			“All good weapons deserve a name,” said Tornac. “Especially magical ones. What would you call this one?”

			Essie thought for a second and then said, “Mister Stabby!”

			 			A broad smile spread across Tornac’s face, and all hints of shadow vanished from his expression. He laughed, a loud, hearty laugh. “Mister Stabby. I like it. Very apt. May Mister Stabby always bring you good fortune.”

			And Essie smiled as well. The world was big and scary, but now she had a magical weapon. Now she had Mister Stabby! Maybe if she did poke Hjordis, Carth would forgive her. Essie could just see the expression of outrage on Hjordis’s face….

			Then Mama said, “Who…who are you, really?”

			“Just another person looking for answers,” said Tornac. Essie thought he was going to leave then, but instead he surprised her by putting a hand on her arm. He spoke words she didn’t understand, and she felt them deep inside herself, as if he had plucked a string attached to her bones.

			“Leave her be!” said Papa, and pulled her away, but Tornac was already moving past them, his cloak spreading like a dark wing behind him. As his footsteps faded out the back, both Mama and Papa ran their hands over her head and arms, checking for injuries. “Are you hurt?” said Mama. “What did he do to you? Are—”

			 			“I’m okay,” Essie said, although she wasn’t sure at all. “I, ah!” A burning, tingling feeling swept through her left arm, and she cried out with pain. It felt like hundreds of ants were biting her.

			She tore at the cuff of her sleeve, pulled it back, and saw—

			—the top of her forearm crawling with a life of its own as the long, puckered scar smoothed over and began to fade into normal, healthy skin. The scar shrank and shrank, until only a small red S-shape was left. But it didn’t vanish entirely: a remembrance of past pain. Of survival.

			Essie stared, hardly able to believe. She touched the new skin, and then looked at her parents. This time, she made no effort to stop the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

			 			“Oh, Essie,” Papa said, his voice thick with emotion, and he and Mama folded her into a warm embrace.



* * *





			Outside the Fulsome Feast, Murtagh lifted his head and took a deep breath of the night air. Soft petals of snow fell around him, and the whole city felt still and quiet, muffled beneath a low layer of clouds.

			His heart was pounding; it had yet to slow after the fight in the tavern. Stupid. He should have realized that spending so much gold might cause a problem. It wasn’t a mistake he would make again.

			How long had it been since he’d last killed a man? Over a year. A pair of bandits had jumped him as he was heading back to camp one evening—foolish, uneducated louts who hadn’t the slightest chance of taking him down. He’d fought back out of reflex, and by the time he knew what was happening, the two unfortunates were already lying on the ground. He still remembered the whimpers the one kid had made as he died….

			 			Murtagh grimaced. Some people went their whole lives without killing. He wondered what that was like.

			A drop of blood—not his own—trickled down the back of his hand. Disgusted, Murtagh scraped it off against the side of the building. The splinters bothered him less than the gore.

			Even though he hadn’t gotten a location from Sarros, at least he now knew that the place he was looking for existed. The knowledge left him feeling uneasy. He would have far preferred disappointment. Whatever truth lay hidden beneath the field of blackened earth, he doubted it would herald anything good or pleasant. Life was never so simple. And who were the Dreamers Sarros had mentioned? Always more mysteries…

			 			A questioning thought reached him from outside Ceunon: Thorn worried for his safety.

			I’m fine, Murtagh told him. Just a bit of trouble.

			Do I need to come?

			I don’t think so, but stand by in any case.

			Always.

			Thorn subsided with a sense of cautious watchfulness, but Murtagh felt the ever-present thread of connection that joined them: a comforting closeness that had become the one unchanging reality in their lives.

			He started through the alley. Time to go. It wouldn’t be long before the city Watch arrived to investigate the disturbance in the tavern, and he’d lingered long enough.

			 			A flicker of motion high above caught his attention.

			Murtagh stopped to look. At first he wasn’t sure what he was seeing.

			Sailing down from the underside of the firelit clouds was a small ship of grass, no more than a hand or two in length. The hull and sail were made of woven blades, and the mast and spars built from lengths of stem.

			No crew—if however diminutive—was to be seen; the ship moved of its own accord, driven and sustained by an invisible force. It circled him twice, and he saw a tiny pennant fluttering above the equally tiny crow’s nest.

			Then the ship turned westward and vanished within the veil of descending snow, leaving behind no trace of its existence.

			Murtagh smiled. He couldn’t help it. He didn’t know who had made the ship or what it signified, but the fact that something so whimsical, so singular, could exist filled him with an unaccustomed sense of joy.

			 			He thought back to what he’d told the girl, Essie. Perhaps he should take his own advice. Perhaps it was time to stop running and return to old friends.

			The prospect filled Murtagh with a mess of conflicting emotions. Wherever he’d gone, he had heard the venom in people’s voices when they spoke his name. No matter how vigorously Eragon or Nasuada might defend him in public, few there were who would trust him after his actions in service to Galbatorix. It was a bitter, unfair truth—one that circumstances had long ago forced him to accept.

			Because of it, he had hidden his face, changed his name, and kept to the fringes of settled land, never walking where others might know him. And while the time alone had done both him and Thorn good, it was no way to live the rest of their lives. So again he wondered if perhaps the time had come to turn and face his past.

			 			But first…Murtagh looked down at the object he was holding: the bird-skull amulet he’d taken off Sarros’s neck.

			What sort of enchantment had been placed on it that could withstand the Name of Names? Magic without words was a wild, dangerous thing, and rare was the spellcaster brave or foolish enough to tamper with it. He had not even dared use it himself in the Fulsome Feast, not with so many innocent bystanders nearby.

			No, before anything else, Murtagh decided he would like to find the witch-woman Bachel and ask her a few questions. The answers, he suspected, would be most interesting.





CHAPTER III


			The Hall of Colors





It was night when Eragon returned to himself, and the only illumination in the Hall of Colors came from the flameless lanterns on the walls and the inner radiance of the Eldunarí themselves.

			He sat staring at the floor while he regrouped and recovered. A smile spread across his face. Murtagh! Eragon hadn’t heard anything from his half brother since they’d parted outside of Urû’baen, now Ilirea, after the death of Galbatorix. Rumors of a red dragon seen flying here or there throughout Alagaësia had been the only clues that Murtagh was still alive. It was good to know he was doing well—or at least better than before.

			 			He deserves to be happy, Eragon thought.

			Then he paused to consider the subject of Murtagh’s search, as well as the witch-woman Bachel. Both concerned him, for they reminded Eragon of how much he still didn’t know about Alagaësia and its denizens. Ignorance wasn’t a flaw he could afford anymore; it could too easily prove fatal for those he and Saphira had sworn to protect.

			He hoped Murtagh would be careful. Wherever he was going, Eragon felt sure it would be dangerous in the extreme. Murtagh was plenty capable, but he wasn’t invulnerable. No one was.

			Again, Eragon heard Murtagh’s advice to Essie: “Sometimes you have to stand and fight. Sometimes running away isn’t an option.” And Eragon knew then why the dragons had shown him that particular vision.

			 			His smile returned, and he let out his breath. If a girl like Essie could stand her ground and face the difficulties of her life, so too could he—and with good grace. He was a Dragon Rider, after all. It was what he was supposed to do.

			Besides, none of the problems he was wrestling with were half so unpleasant or daunting as that nasty Hjordis. Eragon chuckled and shook his head, glad he wasn’t the one having to deal with the spoiled girl.

			Did that help? Glaedr asked.

			Eragon nodded, although the dragon couldn’t see, and stood, stretching his sore legs. Yes. It did. Thank you, Ebrithil….All of you, thank you.

			A chorus of answering thoughts was his reply: You are welcome, youngling.

			One day the dragons would no longer consider him an unseasoned whelp, but today was not that day. A wry expression on his face, Eragon took his leave and climbed back up the ramp of stairs to the eyrie.

			 			Outside, cold stars shone down upon Mount Arngor and the lands below. The sight reminded Eragon of the grass ship Murtagh had seen—the same ship Arya had made one night by a fire, when she’d come to help him escape on foot from the Empire. That had also been the night when a group of wilding spirits had emerged from the dark and, during a visitation, transformed a lily into a flower of living gold.

			Arya had imbued the ship with a spell to draw energy from the plants beneath so that it might always stay aloft and the grass would remain fresh and green forevermore. It gladdened Eragon to know the ship was still out there, sailing around Alagaësia upon waves of wind, and he wondered at everything it had seen in its wanderings. Just another mystery among so many others.

			 			Saphira was waiting for him, curled in her nest. She opened an eye as Eragon undressed and crawled under her near wing. So? she said.

			“You were right,” Eragon said, settling against the warmth of her belly. “I needed a break.”

			A low humming formed in her chest. You’re much nicer when you’re not snapping like an angry fox.

			He chuckled. “True.” Then he shared with her the vision from the Eldunarí.

			Afterward, she said, I would like it if Murtagh and Thorn came to stay with us.

			“So would I.”

			Do you think we have another enemy hidden in Alagaësia?

			“I don’t know. If we do, they’re just one more added to the lot. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

			No….She took a deep breath and shuffled her wings as she readjusted her position. No more worries for tonight. Leave them for the morning.

			 			“No more worries,” Eragon agreed with a smile. He closed his eyes and snuggled closer, and for the first time since they’d arrived at Mount Arngor, he put aside his concerns and slept without anxiety or interruption.





CHAPTER IV


			Rhymes and Riddles





Eragon stared across his desk at Angela the herbalist, studying her.

			She was sitting in the dark pinewood chair the elves had sung for him, still clad in her furs and travel cloak. Flakes of melted snow beaded the tips of the rabbit-hair trim, bright and shiny by the light of the lanterns.

			On the floor next to the herbalist lay the werecat, Solembum, in his feline form, licking himself dry. His tongue rasped loudly against his shaggy coat.

			 			Billows of snow swirled past the open windows of the eyrie, blocking the view. Some slipped in and dusted the sills, but for the most part, the wards Eragon had set kept out the snow and cold.

			The storm had settled on Mount Arngor two days past, and it still showed no signs of letting up. Nor was it the first. Winter on the eastern plains had been far harsher than Eragon expected. Something to do with the effects of the Beor Mountains on the weather, he suspected.

			Angela and Solembum had arrived with the latest batch of traders: a group of bedraggled humans, travel-worn and half frozen to death. Accompanying the herbalist had also been the dragon-marked child Elva—she who carried the curse of self-sacrifice Eragon had inadvertently laid upon her. A curse instead of a blessing, and every time he saw her, he still felt a sense of responsibility.

			 			They’d left the girl on the lower levels, eating with the dwarves. She’d grown since Eragon had last seen her, and now she looked to be nearly ten, which was at least six years in advance of her actual age.

			“Now then, where’s the clutch of bouncing baby dragons I was expecting?” said Angela. She pulled off her mittens and then folded her hands over her knee and matched his gaze. “Or have they still not hatched?”

			Eragon resisted the urge to grimace. “No. The main part of the hold is far from finished—as you’ve seen—and stores are tight. To quote Glaedr, the eggs have already waited for a hundred years; they can wait one more winter.”

			“Mmm, he might be right. Be careful of waiting too long, though, Argetlam. The future belongs to those who seize it. What about Saphira, then?”

			“What about her?”

			“Has she laid any eggs?”

			 			Eragon shifted, uncomfortable. The truth was Saphira hadn’t, not yet, but he didn’t want to admit as much. The information felt too personal to share. “If you’re so interested, you should ask her yourself.”

			The herbalist cocked her head. “Oh, touchy, are we? I suppose I will, then.”

			“What brings you here, and in the middle of winter, no less?”

			She produced a small copper flask from under her cloak and took a sip before offering it to Eragon. He shook his head. “Now, now, Kingslayer, you almost sound as if you’re not happy to see us.”

			“You are always welcome at our hearth,” said Eragon, choosing his words with care. The last thing he wanted to do was offend this quicksilver-like woman. “But you can’t deny it’s odd, venturing out across the plains in the dead months of the year. I’m just curious. You of all people should understand that.”

			 			“My, how far we’ve come from that day in Teirm,” Angela murmured. Then she raised her voice again: “Two reasons. First, because I’m currently on a take-around with Elva. I thought it would do both her and me some good to leave the human parts of Alagaësia for a time. Especially seeing as how Nasuada’s pet spellcasters in Du Vrangr Gata are making life difficult for harmless, innocent hedge witches such as myself.”

			“Harmless? Innocent?” Eragon raised an eyebrow.

			“Well,” said Angela, and her lips quirked with a smile, “perhaps not so harmless as all that. In any case, we’ve been to Du Weldenvarden. We’ve been to the dream well in Mani’s Caves, and we’ve stopped over in Tronjheim. Fell Thindarë seemed the next natural destination. Besides…” She fiddled with the trim of her cloak. “It occurred to me that Elva might be able to help you soothe the minds of some of the Eldunarí.”

			 			Eragon nodded, reading the meaning between her lines. “That she might. And…were I to venture a guess, I would say she might learn something by it also.”

			“Exactly,” said Angela with unexpected force. She wiped the water off the fur of her hood, not meeting his eyes. “Exactly.”

			A deeper concern began to form in Eragon. Of all the people and creatures he had met since discovering Saphira’s egg in the Spine so long ago, Elva was perhaps the most dangerous. His badly worded blessing had forced her to become something more than human: a living shield against the misfortune of others. As a result, Elva had gained the ability to foresee and thus forestall impending hurts. Nor was that the end to her powers. She could perceive the most painful thoughts in those around her, which was an intimidating—even frightening—prospect. And for a young child to bear that burden: overwhelming.

			 			It never ceased to amaze Eragon that, despite his spell, Elva had retained her sanity. She was still young, though, and risks remained.

			“What are you not saying, Angela?” he said, narrowing his eyes and leaning forward. “Has something gone amiss with Elva?”

			“Amiss?” The herbalist laughed, bright and merry. “No, nothing amiss. You have an overly suspicious mind, Shadeslayer.”

			“Hmm.” He wasn’t convinced.

			The rasping of Solembum’s tongue continued unabated.

			Then the herbalist reached under her cloak and removed a thin, flat packet wrapped in oilskin. “Second: my other reason for coming.” She handed Eragon the packet. “In light of my impending dotage, I decided to put pen to paper and write an account of my life. An autobiography of sorts, if you will.”

			 			“Your impending dotage, eh?” The curly-haired woman didn’t look any older than her early twenties. Eragon hefted the packet. “And what am I supposed to do with this?”

			“Read it, of course!” said Angela. “Why else would I traipse across the whole of Alagaësia and beyond but to get the informed opinion of a man raised as an illiterate farmer?”

			Eragon eyed her for a long moment. “Very funny.” He unwrapped the packet to find a small collection of rune-covered pages, each written with a different color of ink. Shuffling through them, he saw several chapter titles. The numbers appended to them varied wildly. “There are parts missing,” he said.

			The herbalist fluttered her hand, as if the matter was of no consequence. “That’s because I’m writing them out of order. It’s how my brain works.”

			 			“But how do you know that”—he squinted at a page—“this is supposed to be chapter one hundred twenty-five and not, say, one hundred twenty-three?”

			“Because,” said Angela with a superior expression, “I have faith in the gods, and they reward my devotion.”

			“No, you don’t,” said Eragon. He leaned forward, feeling as if he’d just gained the advantage in a sparring match. “You don’t have faith in anyone but yourself.”

			She made an expression of mock outrage. “Here now! You dare question my conviction, Shur’tugal?!”

			“Not at all. I just question where it’s directed. Even if I took your word at its face, what gods do you have faith in? Those of the dwarves? The Urgals? The wandering tribes?”

			 			Angela’s smile broadened. “Why, all of them, of course. My faith is not so narrow as to be restricted to a single set of deities.”

			“I imagine that would be quite…contradictory.”

			“You’re far too literal-minded for your own good, Bromsson, as I’ve told you before. Expand your conception of what is or isn’t possible.” She eyed him with an aggravating amount of amusement.

			“Perhaps you’re right,” he said, attempting to indulge her. “Still, the gods didn’t write these pages.”

			“No, I did. But now we’re getting distracted by theology, and while it makes for delightful conversation, that’s not my intent….Are you familiar with the puzzle rings the dwarves make?”

			Eragon nodded, remembering the one Orik had given him during their trip from Tronjheim to the elven city of Ellesméra.

			 			“Then you know how, when they’re disassembled, they look like a patternless bunch of twisted bands. But arrange them in the right sequence, and hey ho! there you go—a beautiful, solid ring.” Angela gestured toward the papers in his hand. “Order or disorder: it depends on your perspective.”

			“And what perspective is yours?” he asked softly.

			“That of the ring maker,” she answered in an equally soft tone.

			“I—”

			“Stop asking so many questions and read the manuscript.” She picked up her mittens and stood. “We’ll talk after.”

			As the herbalist left the eyrie, Solembum stopped his licking, stared at Eragon with his slitted eyes, and said, Beware of shadows that walk, human. There are strange forces at work in the world.

			Then the werecat left as well, padding away on silent paws.

			 			Annoyed and a little disquieted, Eragon settled back in his chair and started to read from Angela’s papers. The contrary part of him was tempted to read them out of sequence, just to spite her, but he behaved himself and started as he should, from the beginning….





CHAPTER V


			On the Nature of Stars





PREFACE



Many have deemed me a frivolous person, and that is just as I like it. When I was young (and yes, dear reader, I was once young—disregard the foolish words to the contrary from those followers of the Doctrine of the Residue), I made the error of showing myself to others. And in my youthful enthusiasm, I repeated the mistake a grave many times.

				Do you wish to poke and pry, to see and know, to taste my soul? I am no capering child. No. Now I make mistakes rarely, and do not repeat them, for the mistakes of my profession come with a price measured in blood and flesh and lives.

				 				So.

				The tales contained in this volume are all true, and every one is false. I leave it to the discerning reader to untangle the contrary strands of history, memory, facts, and lies. I will say this: care has been taken to provide an accurate telling of the most well-known—and hence, most misunderstood and ill-reported—events here recounted.

				The truth rarely lies in the middle, somewhere between two opposing viewpoints. In my experience, it is far more likely to be found a good deal above and to the left of the apparent, much-proclaimed “truths.” Look up from the plane of human dealings and you may see a dragon flying overhead—or at least an informative sky that warns you to take cover before the arrival of a storm.

				 				Many will advise you to dig for the truth, but you must never, never do that. I have dug. I have seen what lies below, and I would not wish that upon the worst of you.

				Strive for wisdom! Or at least a decrease in idiocy.

				—Angela of Many Names





CHAPTER 7


				 					The stars move across the night sky.




When I was a child, this was an obvious truth, something not even worth thinking about—like the rise of the sun or the change of the seasons.

				I vividly recall that night spent lying on my back in the high hill pasture, eyes wide open to the celestial show. The burning stars brought a cold glow across the whole clear sky, so far from the smoke of the town-fires and the light of the searchers’ torches.

				 				The stars trace their nightly paths over the land. They move. It is so obvious; how could it not be true? But the obvious is often an illusion.

				The seeding grass and late spring flowers were black silhouettes against the star-bright sky. The greenery was high enough to hide a heifer, thus giving the impression that I was peering up from the bottom of a hole. Even if the searchers came to this pasture, they could not have seen me from mere feet away.

				As hours passed, the stars turned above, night chill drew the heat from my body, and I fell into a curious trance, not asleep—I did not dare close my eyes—but not fully awake. Thinking of it now, it is obvious what natural processes were affecting my body, but for many years, they were mysterious to me.

				 				The world altered.

				In a moment, I felt as if everything—the earth beneath my back, under my outstretched arms and palms pressed flat against the damp ground—became insubstantial. I was falling away from nothing and into nothing. My body had no weight and was both plummeting and floating and yet was still pressed into the ground. My perception of time changed. The stars seemed to speed across the sky, until I suddenly felt as if they were static and I was moving. The ground, the trees and mountains, everything was moving.

				I had no concept of “planet” then, but that was the right word, had I known it.

				Dawn brightened the sky, and still, I had no perception of time passing. Then, with the first rays of sunlight, the trance broke and I returned to myself with a shaken understanding of the world, and a new resolution to face the inevitable troubles…consequences that were soon to strike.





CHAPTER 23


				 					The stars are stationary;

the rotation of the planet

creates the illusion of stellar motion.




With the barest touch of a single finger, the globe silently spun on nearly frictionless dwarven bearings. It was a beautiful, glittering thing of near-microscopic details incised into some unknown pale metal. Even the grandest geographical features of the world were reduced to tiny bumps and dips of cold metal under my fingertips. Doubtless, my careless touch grazed over many a place I have since visited.

				I had felt a powerful fascination with the globe from the time I first set eyes on it. I had longed to study it for hours and days, to compare its features with familiar maps and learn about the different methods of representing a round object on a flat surface.

				 				Though the globe was—I now know—a hopelessly incomplete depiction of our planet, it nevertheless was a captivating work of art, and I regret its destruction. A small price to pay…but still, art should be protected.

				But in that moment, the globe was a mere distraction that stole precious seconds.

				Time was limited. The library could Shift at any moment, and the longer I lingered, the greater the probability that I would be stranded in some unknowable hinterland, some other space, neither here nor there.

				The inner door of the library only coincided with the outer door at particular moments, and I did not yet have the skill to perform the obscure computations required to predict the times of safe passage. It was an ingenious system for protecting the most precious of secrets. Regardless of the dangers, I was determined to take those first steps down the path to true knowledge.

				 				Overstaying the window of time that the library and the tower were connected was not my greatest fear, though. I was preoccupied by the possibility of being discovered in the library by him.

				The Keeper of the Tower had bought my apprenticeship with the promise of education, but the initial trickle of information had slowed to an occasional drip, just enough to wet my lips, and I needed to drink deep, to plunge and swim and drown.

				My disgust at that betrayal and desire for justice outweighed my dread of the consequences of being caught, but just barely. I needed to know, and stolen freedom is still freedom.

				Without the Keeper present, doling out simple books full of concepts I had long since mastered, the library felt far larger than I remembered. The carvings on the towering shelves seemed to move ever so slightly at the edges of my vision, though never when directly observed.

				 				I searched swiftly, without further distraction, but with increasing desperation and lack of attention to my carefully prepared plan. I tipped back book after book: plain and gilded, narrower than a finger and wider than a hand, some improbably heavy for their sizes.

				click

				It was an unremarkable tome that triggered the hidden drawer in a nearby bookcase—along with the thrill that accompanies something unpredictable but much anticipated. I lunged toward the drawer and, in my haste, toppled a flameless lantern from its stand.

				It did not break.

				It did not activate an alarm.

				But it did cost precious seconds as I struggled to right it with excitement-clumsy fingers. My terror of leaving any evidence of my intrusion was poorly weighed against the danger of being trapped.

				 				Would there have been enough time without that error? Without the momentary contemplation of the globe? Or perhaps the venture was doomed from the start by my inexperience.

				All the gold in the world is worthless if you are wandering in an endless desert without a supply of water. What value do the secrets of the universe have if you are lost somewhere beyond the influence of known powers?

				The library Shifted. And it felt like nothing and everything. The library looked exactly as before, but my entire body ached in resonance with the sudden wrongness in the underlying fabric of the universe. I was in the same place and yet vastly elsewhere.

				I was trapped.





CHAPTER 125


				 					All matter in the universe is in motion;

all motion is relative.




“It is time.”

				“It is always a time.”

				I nodded. Elva invariably saw things in such a pleasantly askew way. After the heartbreak with Bilna, the idea of trying to teach another had long repulsed me. But more and more, I had been thinking of Elva’s potential to be my apprentice, and obversely, of what she could become without guidance.

				The walls, ceiling, and floor of her chambers in the citadel of Ilirea were lavishly draped with fabrics, giving the impression of being within a tent, or perhaps the belly of some textile beast. She sat in a nest of pillows, comfortably threatening. She had grown sharper and longer since my last visit.

				“You know why I have come,” I said.

				 				“Of course. You have heard of the latest…intrigues.” She imbued the word with poison.

				I sat opposite her, on the overlapping carpets that covered the entire floor of the chamber. “I heard that Nasuada no longer allows you to go into the city. Perhaps you are banned from parts of the citadel. Perhaps your world is restricted to just these rooms.”

				The girl eyed me with something akin to contempt. “No one can keep me imprisoned. You know that. I stay in my quarters because I prefer it. I can leave whenever I want.”

				“Theoretically, but then you would have the annoyance of constant pursuit. It wouldn’t take much for a member of Du Vrangr Gata to catch you unawares—while you are sleeping, for example—and bring you back.”

				“Bah. You don’t understand. Begone and good riddance to you.” She waved a hand at me and turned away.

				 				“I have heard stories—no doubt expanded in the telling—of your little outbursts, your…demonstrations. I cannot blame Nasuada for trying to contain you. Trade negotiations set back by weeks, fights breaking out, the most important food supplier to the army found dishonoring the dwarven chapel—”

				“He was waiting for a friend.”

				“He had forgotten his clothes.”

				“It could happen to anyone.”

				“Making the elven ambassador cry? In front of the Urgals?”

				Elva laughed. “That was fun.”

				“You show them too much, and they will use it against you. I come here with an offer of help, if you want it.”

				Elva just stared, a wise conversational technique that I recommend in a great many situations.

				 				I continued: “If I could take you from this place without anyone knowing, would you come?”

				Her chin lifted. “Why? So you can spy on me for Eragon? So you can treat me like a dangerous animal that needs to be kept on a chain? So you can use me for some petty little plans? I’ve learned so much, so quickly. People are fragile—poke them here or there and watch them crumble. I don’t need your help.”

				“Oh, you wish to be persuaded, is that it?”

				Again, an unblinking stare was her only response.

				“Very well. Eragon removing the compulsion to help did not improve your life as you wished. You are stretching your wings, testing your abilities, and trying to find a place in the world. But with each expansion and experiment, you are reminded again that you will never fit in and just be seen as you.” Not a question, a statement. A needle to prick and provoke. An effective one: Elva’s face hardened, revealing only the tiniest spark of the raging flames behind her eyes.

				 				“Everyone wants things they can’t have, don’t they? Even you?”

				“Oh yes.” I couldn’t help but smile, though it doubtless incensed her further. “Elva…you know the game, but just the opening moves. I can show you so many things and keep you safe until such time as you choose to return to this life. The span and depth of existence is far greater than anyone can know—not even the oldest dragon or the wisest elf. I have seen more than most, but even that is less than a particle of dust, smaller than the smallest thing, and then smaller still.”

				Elva bit her lip, for once looking like a normal child.

				Ah, there it was. The vastness of everything would not persuade her. But it did achieve the first step: reinforce her perception of my mastery. So, time for her real desire.

				 				“I have made myself immune to your ability, so I can offer you a time of peace from all the suffering that constantly impinges on your mind. You can learn who you are and what you want to be. And when you return, you will have a new command over your life. Yes, there will be boundaries and restrictions while you are by my side. But I don’t need the power derived from your curse, Elva. I have no need to break or bend you.”

				She gave me a look, such a look—hope when hope is not allowed, hope poisoned by profound bitterness. “Easy words,” she said.

				“Am I lying?”

				“You know I can’t see when people are lying!”

				“Yes. You must choose with incomplete information, just like everyone else. Do you wish to come with me, Elva? Think carefully. I will not return again with this offer.” Then it was my turn to stare and wait for a response.

				 				In any other child, Elva’s deep scowl would presage a tantrum, but her control did not weaken. “Do you really think the guards would let you take me? Ha! In just the last fortnight, they’ve stopped two attempts to steal me away.” Anger made her usually cool, contemptuous tone waver.

				I made no attempt to hide my unease. “I hadn’t heard. Then your departure is all the more important; I suspect that dangerous groups are determined to have you as a weapon.”

				“Ha!”

				“I know. They have no understanding of your power, though they believe they do. And what people think they understand, they think they can control.”

				“I’m not going to hide who and what I am.”

				“There is great value in stealth; you have already attracted much attention.”

				“Oh! I have guessed your plan. You will have me talk my way past the guards. But it won’t work; they are warded against me. They’re afraid of me.” And there was a deeply worrying touch of pride in Elva’s voice.

				 				“Neither the guards stationed outside nor the heavy wards on the room mean a thing if I want to take you from within these walls,” I said.

				Elva made a scornful noise.

				“Just tell me, do you wish to go?”

				“What I wish has never mattered, not from the moment that Eragon spoke his words.”

				“Do you wish to go?”

				“What is your plan? Invisibility? Addling the guards’ brains? Tunneling through the floor? None of those things will work.”

				“No. I will simply open a door and we will walk away. Nothing more.”

				“Ha!” Proper disgust this time.

				I stood. “For the last time, do you wish to go?”

				“Yes! A thousand curses on you, for making me want things. Yes.”

				 				“Then come.” I held out my hand, but Elva did not accept it.

				Without assistance, she climbed out of her nest of pillows. “Fine. But I still think you are lying. They’ve planned for every possible way out of here.”

				But not, I thought, the impossible ways.

				There was so much work to do with Elva, yet I found myself oddly looking forward to it. She had great potential to understand the incomprehensible. “Gather what you wish to bring, and we will go.”

				Though she was clearly skeptical in the extreme, Elva put a small wooden cask and a miscellany of oddments on a blanket and tied it into a bundle.

				“What of your caretaker, Greta?” I asked.

				“I’ve seen to it she will live in comfort the rest of her years.”

				“That is good of you, but events are often unpredictable. You might never get the chance to see her again. Forestall future regrets by saying a proper farewell now.”

				 				Elva hesitated, but in the end, she did as I recommended. Not wanting to be seen, lest someone later rummage through Greta’s memories, I slipped behind a fold of drapery while the girl rang a bell.

				Greta arrived quickly, ever attentive to the needs of her charge. She was understandably distressed by Elva’s farewells; the old woman was utterly devoted to the girl and had sacrificed much to protect her. I admired the tenacity and determination with which Greta had pursued her purpose. When she spoke of her fears—that Elva was far too young to go unprotected into the world—Elva assured her that she would be safe and thanked her for all she had done.

				But Greta would not be dismissed. She talked in circles, returning to the same points again and again—how she loved, was proud of, and wanted to protect Elva—as she struggled to express the depth of her feelings.

				 				Elva’s responses grew snappish as her caretaker continued. Then she became quiet, and I was concerned. I was about to intercede when Elva said something softly, and Greta shrieked a horrible strangled sound, like some dying animal.

				Whatever fear Elva had given voice to, it struck her caretaker a near mortal blow. But then the girl murmured again, and Greta exclaimed again, but in a very different tone.

				“You monstrous…thing! You can’t break something and mend it a moment later with pretty words. Broken things stay broken. Wounds heal into scars, not skin. I love you. I love you so much. Do you even know what that means? I will love you and worry for you with every breath in my body, so long as I live, but I will never again trust you.”

				 				After brief shuffling sounds, the door moaned closed, and then the room was terribly quiet.

				I stepped out from my hiding place. “Was that really necessary?”

				Elva shrugged, trying to appear unaffected by the consequences of her actions, but she was pale and shaking. Then she looked me in the eye and, in just a few words, spoke my deepest fear.

				Although I live every moment with the knowledge, hearing someone else say it—even without understanding the implication or meaning—felt like being stung by a thousand wasps, countless stabs of fear and surprise and pain.

				I should have been safe from her power, but somehow the curse had circumvented my wards. Again and again, the deep magic of the dragons tried to fulfill its purpose, finding ways around even the strongest protections. I resolved to redouble my wards as soon as possible, to forestall Elva’s prying powers, at least for a time.

				 				She looked up at me, defiant, and said, “Do you really want to travel with me, witch? Can you bear to be around me, knowing that I know?”

				But she could not break my composure. I was not the inquisitive child I once had been, not the foolish apprentice or the sharp-edged postulant. During both the broken days of wandering and the times of pleasant stasis, this fear had controlled me. Those days were past; now I could confront it without flinching. I had pondered for years and learned to admit, if not accept, the truth of the straightness of right angles.

				A strange series of emotions passed over Elva’s face, as my reaction was not what she had expected. Unlike Greta, I had long since mastered my feelings.

				I said, “You cannot turn me from my purpose. I have braved far more dangerous things than you. As you should know…Now, time is pressing. Come.”

				 				Elva hugged the bundle of possessions to her chest. “Can you really take us from here?” And she fixed me with a powerful glare that implied: Now disappoint me, adult….All the others have; why wouldn’t you?

				I once more extended my hand. This time Elva took it. I led her to a wall and pushed aside the layers of fabric to expose the bare stone.

				“What—”

				I traced a line on the wall, reached out, and opened a door that wasn’t there. On the other side—nighttime, a beach by a black ocean lit only by stars, so many, many stars, more stars than there should be.

				Of course, I would not take Elva to my home, not yet. But this was a waypoint, a place to build and learn and grow. A place where she could rest her weary mind, free from the painful distraction of other people’s needs.

				 				She stared into the gap, the impossible portal. No cutting words this time.

				Solembum sauntered into view and peered around the edge of the doorway, into Elva’s chamber. He twitched his tasseled ears and looked up at me.

				I’m hungry. Did you bring food?

				Of course. Rabbit this time. Does that meet with your approval?

				A sniff. It’ll do. He meandered down the beach, out of view.

				“Do you wish to go?” I asked a final time.

				Elva squeezed my hand as tightly as she could. She walked through the door, and I followed a half step behind.





CHAPTER VI


			Questions and Answers





Eragon lowered the sheaf of pages and stared for a long while into the whirling snow outside the eyrie.

			Still holding the papers, he stood and descended the long curve of stairs that led to the common area at the base of the stone finger. The dwarves were there eating, and most of the humans as well, but only a few of the elves and none of the Urgals. In a corner, one of the dwarves was playing a bone flute carved with runes, and the deep, thoughtful melody provided a homely accompaniment to the murmur of conversation.

			 			The herbalist was sitting by herself next to one of the fires, knitting the brim for a woolen cap made of red and green yarn. She looked up as Eragon approached, but the speed of her clicking needles never slowed or faltered.

			“I have questions,” he said.

			“Then you have more wisdom than most.”

			He squatted next to her and tapped the pages. “How much of this is true?”

			Angela laughed a little, and her breath frosted in the cold. “I believe I made that perfectly clear in my preface. It’s as true or not true as you want it to be.”

			“So you made it all up.”

			“No,” she said, giving him a serious look over her flashing needles. “I did not. Even if I had, there are often lessons worth learning in stories. Wouldn’t you agree?”

			Eragon shook his head, bemused and somewhat exasperated. He pulled over a stump they were using for a chair, sat, and stretched his legs out toward the fire. He thought about how Brom would often smoke his pipe in the evenings, and for a moment, Eragon considered getting a pipe of his own. The dwarves would be sure to have one he could use….

			 			In a quiet voice, he said, “Why did you have me read this?”

			“Perhaps because I think there are certain doors you need to walk through.”

			He frowned, frustrated as always with the herbalist’s answers. “The Keeper of the Tower, is he—”

			“I have nothing to say about him.” Eragon opened his mouth again, and Angela interrupted: “No. Ask other questions if you must, but not about him.”

			“As you wish.” But Eragon’s suspicions remained. He looked across the common area.