Principal Inheritance

Inheritance

Año: 2011
Edición: 4
Editorial: Random House Children's Books
Idioma: english
ISBN 10: 0307974189
ISBN 13: 9780307974181
Series: The Inheritance Cycle
File: EPUB, 1.25 MB
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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 © 2011 by Christopher Paolini
Jacket art copyright © 2011 by John Jude Palencar
Illustrations on endpapers, this page, this page copyright © 2002 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 Random House, Inc., New York.
 

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

Visit us on the Web!
Alagaesia.com
randomhouse.com/teens
 

Educators and librarians, for a variety of teaching tools, visit us at randomhouse.com/teachers
 

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

eISBN: 978-0-307-97418-1
 

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

v3.1
 


  


As always, this book is for my family.
And also for the dreamers of dreams:
the many artists, musicians, and storytellers
who have made this journey possible.

 



  

CONTENTS
 


Cover

Map

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication



 


In the Beginning: A History of Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr
 

Into the Breach

Hammerfall

Shadows on the Horizon

King Cat

Aftermath

Memories of the Dead

What Is a Man?

The Price of Power

Rudely into the Light …

A Cradle Song

No Rest for the Weary

Dancing with Swords

No Honor, No Glory, Only Blisters in Unfortunate Places

Mooneater

Rumors and Writing

Aroughs

Dras-Leona

A Toss of the Bones

My Friend, My Enemy

A Flour Made of Flame

Dust and Ashes

Interregnum

Thardsvergûndnzmal

The Way of Knowing

A Heart-to-Heart

Discovery

Decisions

Under Hill and Stone

To Feed a God

Infidels on the Loose

The Tolling of the Bell

Black-Shrike-Thorn-Cave

Hammer and Helm

And the Walls Fell …

By the Banks of Lake Leona

The Word of a Rider

Conclave of Kings

A Maze Without End

Fragments, Half-Seen and Indistinct

Questions Unanswered

Departure

The Torment of Uncertainty

The Hall of the Soothsayer

On the Wings of a Dragon

The Sound of His Voice, the Touch of His Hand

Small Rebellions

A Crown of Ice and Snow

Burrow Grubs

Amid the Ruins

Snalglí for Two

The Rock of Kuthian

And All the World a Dream

A Question of Character

The Vault of Souls

Lacuna, Part the First

Lacuna, Part the Second

Return

The City of Sorrows

War Council

A Matter of Duty

Fire in the Night

Over the Wall and into the Maw

The Storm Breaks

That Which Does Not Kill …

The Heart of the Fray

The Name of All Names

Muscle Against Metal

The Gift of Knowledge

Death Throes

A Sea of Nettles

Heir to the Empire

A Fitting Epitaph

Pieces on a Board

Fírnen

A Man of Conscience

Blood Price

Promises, New and Old

Leave-Taking





Pronunciation Guide and Glossary

Acknowledgments



 
  

IN
THE BEGINNING:
A History of Eragon, Eldest, and Brisingr
 

In the beginning, there were dragons: proud, fierce, and independent. Their scales were like gems, and all who gazed upon them despaired, for their beauty was great and terrible.

And they lived alone in the land of Alagaësia for ages uncounted.

Then the god Helzvog made the stout and sturdy dwarves from the stone of the Hadarac Desert.

And their two races warred much.

Then the elves sailed to Alagaësia from across the silver sea. They too warred with the dragons. But the elves were stronger than the dwarves, and they would have destroyed the dragons, even as the dragons would have destroyed the elves.

And so a truce was struck and a pact was sealed between the dragons and the elves. And by this joining, they created the Dragon Riders, who kept the peace throughout Alagaësia for thousands of years.

Then humans sailed to Alagaësia. And the horned Urgals. And the Ra’zac, who are the hunters in the dark and the eaters of men’s flesh.

And the humans also joined the pact with the dragons.

Then a young Dragon Rider, Galbatorix, rose up against his own kind. He enslaved the black dragon Shruikan and he convinced thirteen other Riders to follow him. And the thirteen were called the Forsworn.

And Galbatorix and the Forsworn cast down the Riders and burnt their city on the isle of Vroengard and slew every dragon not their own, save for three eggs: one red, one blue, one green. And from each dragon they could, they took the heart of hearts—the Eldunarí—that holds the might and mind of the dragons, apart from their flesh.

And for two-and-eighty years, Galbatorix reigned supreme among the humans. The Forsworn died, but not he, for his strength was that of all the dragons, and none could hope to strike him down.

In the eighty-third year of Galbatorix’s rule, a man stole from his castle the blue dragon egg. And the egg passed into the care of those who still fought against Galbatorix, those who are known as the Varden.

The elf Arya carried the egg between the Varden and the elves in search of the human or elf for whom it would hatch. And in this manner, five-and-twenty years passed.

Then, as Arya traveled to the elven city of Osilon, a group of Urgals attacked her and her guards. With the Urgals was the Shade Durza: a sorcerer possessed by the spirits he had summoned to do his bidding. After the death of the Forsworn, he had become Galbatorix’s most feared servant. The Urgals slew Arya’s guards, and before they and the Shade captured her, Arya sent the egg away with magic, toward one who she hoped could protect it.

But her spell went awry.

And so it came to pass that Eragon, an orphan of only five-and-ten years, found the egg within the mountains of the Spine. He took the egg to the farm where he lived with his uncle, Garrow, and his only cousin, Roran. And the egg hatched for Eragon, and he raised the dragon therein. And her name was Saphira.

Then Galbatorix sent two of the Ra’zac to find and retrieve the egg, and they slew Garrow and burnt Eragon’s home. For Galbatorix had enslaved the Ra’zac, and of them only a few remained.

Eragon and Saphira set out to avenge themselves on the Ra’zac. With them went the storyteller Brom, who had once been a Dragon Rider himself, ere the fall of the Riders. It was to Brom that the elf Arya had meant to send the blue egg.

Brom taught Eragon much about swordsmanship, magic, and honor. And he gave to Eragon Zar’roc, that had once been the sword of Morzan, first and most powerful of the Forsworn. But the Ra’zac slew Brom when next they met, and Eragon and Saphira only escaped with the help of a young man, Murtagh, son of Morzan.

During their travels, the Shade Durza captured Eragon in the city of Gil’ead. Eragon managed to free himself, and as he did, he freed Arya from her cell. Arya was poisoned and gravely wounded, so Eragon, Saphira, and Murtagh took her to the Varden, who lived among the dwarves in the Beor Mountains.

There Arya was healed, and there Eragon blessed a squalling infant by the name of Elva, blessed her to be shielded from misfortune. But Eragon spoke badly, and without realizing it, he cursed her, and his curse forced her to instead become a shield for others’ misfortune.

Soon thereafter, Galbatorix sent a great army of Urgals to attack the dwarves and the Varden. And it was in the battle that followed that Eragon slew the Shade Durza. But Durza gave Eragon a grievous wound across his back, and Eragon suffered terrible pain because of it, despite the spells of the Varden’s healers.

And in his pain, he heard a voice. And the voice said, Come to me, Eragon. Come to me, for I have answers to all you ask.

Three days after, the leader of the Varden, Ajihad, was ambushed and killed by Urgals under the command of a pair of magicians, twins, who betrayed the Varden to Galbatorix. The twins also abducted Murtagh and spirited him away to Galbatorix. But to Eragon and everyone in the Varden, it looked as if Murtagh had died, and Eragon was much saddened.

And Ajihad’s daughter, Nasuada, became leader of the Varden.

From Tronjheim, the seat of the dwarves’ power, Eragon, Saphira, and Arya traveled to the northern forest of Du Weldenvarden, where live the elves. With them went the dwarf Orik, nephew of the dwarf king, Hrothgar.

In Du Weldenvarden, Eragon and Saphira met with Oromis and Glaedr: the last free Rider and dragon, who had lived in hiding all the past century, waiting to instruct the next generation of Dragon Riders. And Eragon and Saphira also met with Queen Islanzadí, ruler of the elves and mother to Arya.

While Oromis and Glaedr trained Eragon and Saphira, Galbatorix sent the Ra’zac and a group of soldiers to Eragon’s home village of Carvahall, this time to capture his cousin, Roran. But Roran hid, and they would not have found him if not for the hatred of the butcher Sloan. For Sloan murdered a watchman so as to let the Ra’zac into the village, where they might take Roran unawares.

Roran fought his way free, but the Ra’zac stole from him Katrina: Roran’s beloved and Sloan’s daughter. Then Roran convinced the villagers to leave with him, and they journeyed through the mountains of the Spine, down the coast of Alagaësia, and to the southern country of Surda, which yet existed independent of Galbatorix.

The wound upon Eragon’s back continued to torment him. But during the elves’ Blood-oath Celebration, wherein they celebrate the pact between the Riders and the dragons, his wound was healed by the spectral dragon the elves invoke upon the conclusion of the festival. Moreover, the apparition gave Eragon strength and speed equal to those of the elves themselves.

Then Eragon and Saphira flew to Surda, where Nasuada had taken the Varden to launch an attack against Galbatorix’s Empire. There the Urgals allied themselves with the Varden, for they claimed that Galbatorix had clouded their minds, and they would have their revenge against him. With the Varden, Eragon met again the girl Elva, who had grown with prodigious speed because of his spell. From a squalling infant to a girl of three or four she had become, and her gaze was dire indeed, for she knew the pain of all those around her.

And not far from the border of Surda, upon the blackness of the Burning Plains, Eragon, Saphira, and the Varden fought a great and bloody battle against Galbatorix’s army.

In the midst of the battle, Roran and the villagers joined the Varden, as did the dwarves, who had marched after them from the Beor Mountains.

But out of the east rose a figure clad in polished armor. And he rode upon a glittering red dragon. And with a spell, he slew King Hrothgar.

Then Eragon and Saphira fought the Rider and his red dragon. And they discovered the Rider was Murtagh, now bound to Galbatorix with oaths unbreakable. And the dragon was Thorn, second of the three eggs to hatch.

Murtagh defeated Eragon and Saphira with the strength of the Eldunarí that Galbatorix had given him. But Murtagh allowed Eragon and Saphira to go free, for Murtagh still bore friendship for Eragon. And because, as he told Eragon, they were brothers, both born of Morzan’s favored consort, Selena.

Then Murtagh took Zar’roc, their father’s sword, from Eragon, and he and Thorn withdrew from the Burning Plains, as did the rest of Galbatorix’s forces.

Upon completion of the battle, Eragon, Saphira, and Roran flew to the dark tower of stone, Helgrind, that served as the Ra’zac’s hiding place. They slew one of the Ra’zac—and the Ra’zac’s foul parents, the Lethrblaka—and from Helgrind rescued Katrina. And in one of the cells, Eragon discovered Katrina’s father, blind and half-dead.

Eragon considered killing Sloan for his betrayal, but rejected the idea. Instead, he put Sloan into a deep sleep and told Roran and Katrina that her father was dead. Then he asked Saphira to take Roran and Katrina back to the Varden while he hunted down the final Ra’zac.

Alone, Eragon slew the last remaining Ra’zac. Then he took Sloan away from Helgrind. After much thought, Eragon discovered Sloan’s true name in the ancient language, the language of power and magic. And Eragon bound Sloan with his name and forced the butcher to swear that he would never see his daughter again. Then Eragon sent him to live among the elves. But what Eragon did not tell the butcher was that the elves would repair his eyes if he repented of his treason and murder.

Arya met Eragon halfway to the Varden, and together they returned, on foot and through enemy territory.

At the Varden, Eragon learned that Queen Islanzadí had sent twelve elven spellcasters, led by an elf named Blödhgarm, to protect him and Saphira. Eragon then removed as much of his curse as he could from the girl Elva, but she retained her ability to feel the pain of others, though she no longer felt the compulsion to save them from their misery.

And Roran married Katrina, who was pregnant, and for the first time in a long while, Eragon was happy.

Then Murtagh, Thorn, and a group of Galbatorix’s men attacked the Varden. With the help of the elves, Eragon and Saphira were able to hold them off, but neither Eragon nor Murtagh could defeat the other. It was a difficult battle, for Galbatorix had enchanted the soldiers so that they felt no pain, and the Varden suffered many casualties.

Afterward, Nasuada sent Eragon to represent the Varden among the dwarves while they chose their new king. Eragon was loath to go, for Saphira had to stay and protect the Varden’s camp. But go he did.

And Roran served alongside the Varden, and he rose through their ranks, for he proved himself a skilled warrior and a leader of men.

While Eragon was among the dwarves, seven of them tried to assassinate him. An investigation revealed that the clan Az Sweldn rak Anhûin was behind the attack. The clanmeet continued, however, and Orik was chosen to succeed his uncle. Saphira joined Eragon for the coronation. And during it, she fulfilled her promise to repair the dwarves’ cherished star sapphire, which she had broken during Eragon’s battle with the Shade Durza.

Then Eragon and Saphira returned to Du Weldenvarden. There Oromis revealed the truth about Eragon’s heritage: that he was not, in fact, Morzan’s son but Brom’s, though he and Murtagh did share the same mother, Selena. Oromis and Glaedr also explained the concept of the Eldunarí, which a dragon may choose to disgorge while living, though this must be done with great care, for whosoever owns the Eldunarí may use it to control the dragon it came from.

While in the forest, Eragon decided that he needed a sword to replace Zar’roc. Remembering the advice he had gotten from the werecat Solembum during his journeys with Brom, Eragon went to the sentient Menoa tree in Du Weldenvarden. He spoke with the tree, and the tree agreed to give up the brightsteel beneath its roots in exchange for an unnamed price.

Then the elf smith Rhunön—who had forged all of the Riders’ swords—worked with Eragon to make a new blade for him. The sword was blue, and Eragon named it Brisingr—“fire.” And the blade burst into flame whenever he spoke its name.

Then Glaedr gave trust of his heart of hearts to Eragon and Saphira, and they made their way back to the Varden, while Glaedr and Oromis joined the rest of their kind as they attacked the northern part of the Empire.

At the siege of Feinster, Eragon and Arya encountered three enemy magicians, one of whom was transformed into the Shade Varaug. And with Eragon’s help, Arya slew Varaug.

As they did, Oromis and Glaedr fought Murtagh and Thorn. And Galbatorix reached out and took command of Murtagh’s mind. And with Murtagh’s arm, Galbatorix struck down Oromis, and Thorn slew Glaedr’s body.

And though the Varden were victorious at Feinster, Eragon and Saphira mourned the loss of their teacher, Oromis. But still the Varden continued, and even now they march deeper into the Empire, toward the capital, Urû’baen, wherein sits Galbatorix, proud, confident, and disdainful, for his is the strength of the dragons.
  

INTO THE BREACH
 

[image: ]he dragon Saphira roared, and the soldiers before her quailed.

“With me!” shouted Eragon. He lifted Brisingr over his head, holding it aloft for all to see. The blue sword flashed bright and iridescent, stark against the wall of black clouds building in the west. “For the Varden!”

An arrow whizzed past him; he paid it no mind.

The warriors gathered at the base of the slope of rubble Eragon and Saphira were standing upon answered him with a single, full-throated bellow: “The Varden!” They brandished their own weapons and charged forward, scrambling up the tumbled blocks of stone.

Eragon turned his back to the men. On the other side of the mound lay a wide courtyard. Two hundred or so of the Empire’s soldiers stood huddled within. Behind them rose a tall, dark keep with narrow slits for windows and several square towers, the tallest of which had a lantern shining in its upper rooms. Somewhere within the keep, Eragon knew, was Lord Bradburn, governor of Belatona—the city the Varden had been fighting to capture for several long hours.

With a cry, Eragon leaped off the rubble toward the soldiers. The men shuffled backward, although they kept their spears and pikes trained on the ragged hole Saphira had torn in the castle’s outer wall.

Eragon’s right ankle twisted as he landed. He fell to his knee and caught himself on the ground with his sword hand.

One of the soldiers seized the opportunity to dart out of formation and stab his spear at Eragon’s exposed throat.

Eragon parried the thrust with a flick of his wrist, swinging Brisingr faster than either a human or an elf could follow. The soldier’s face grew slack with fear as he realized his mistake. He tried to flee, but before he could move more than a few inches, Eragon lunged forward and took him in the gut.

With a pennant of blue and yellow flame streaming from her maw, Saphira jumped into the courtyard after Eragon. He crouched and tensed his legs as she struck the paved ground. The impact shook the entire courtyard. Many of the chips of glass that formed a large, colorful mosaic in front of the keep popped loose and flew spinning upward like coins bounced off a drum. Above, a pair of shutters banged open and closed in a window of the building.

The elf Arya accompanied Saphira. Her long black hair billowed wildly around her angular face as she sprang off the pile of rubble. Lines of splattered blood striped her arms and neck; gore smeared the blade of her sword. She alit with a soft scuff of leather against stone.

Her presence heartened Eragon. There was no one else whom he would rather have fighting alongside him and Saphira. She was, he thought, the perfect shield mate.

He loosed a quick smile at her, and Arya responded in kind, her expression fierce and joyous. In battle, her reserved demeanor vanished, replaced by an openness that she rarely displayed elsewhere.

Eragon ducked behind his shield as a rippling sheet of blue fire appeared between them. From beneath the rim of his helm, he watched as Saphira bathed the cowering soldiers in a torrent of flames that flowed around them, yet caused them no harm.

A line of archers on the battlements of the castle keep let fly a volley of arrows at Saphira. The heat above her was so intense that a handful of the arrows burst into fire in midair and crumbled to ash, while the magical wards Eragon had placed around Saphira deflected the rest. One of the stray arrows rebounded off Eragon’s shield with a hollow thud, denting it.

The plume of flame suddenly enveloped three of the soldiers, killing them so quickly, they did not even have time to scream. The other soldiers clustered in the center of the inferno, the blades of their spears and pikes reflecting flashes of bright blue light.

Try though she might, Saphira could not so much as singe the survivors. At last she abandoned her efforts and closed her jaws with a definitive snap. The fire’s absence left the courtyard startlingly quiet.

It occurred to Eragon, as it had several times before, that whoever had given the soldiers their wards must have been a skilled and powerful magician. Was it Murtagh? he wondered. If so, why aren’t he and Thorn here to defend Belatona? Doesn’t Galbatorix care to keep control of his cities?

Eragon ran forward and, with a single stroke of Brisingr, lopped off the tops of a dozen polearms as easily as he had flicked off the seed heads of barley stalks when he was younger. He slashed the nearest soldier across the chest, slicing through his mail as if it were the flimsiest of cloth. A fountain of blood arose. Then Eragon stabbed the next soldier in line and struck the soldier to his left with his shield, knocking the man into three of his companions and bowling them over.

The soldiers’ reactions seemed slow and clumsy to Eragon as he danced through their ranks, cutting them down with impunity. Saphira waded into the fray to his left—batting the soldiers into the air with her enormous paws, lashing them with her spiked tail, and biting and killing them with a shake of her head—while, to his right, Arya was a blur of motion, every swing of her sword signaling death for another servant of the Empire. When Eragon spun around to evade a pair of spears, he saw the fur-covered elf Blödhgarm close behind, as well as the eleven other elves whose task it was to guard him and Saphira.

Farther back, the Varden poured into the courtyard through the gap in the castle’s outer wall, but the men refrained from attacking; it was too dangerous to go anywhere near Saphira. Neither she nor Eragon nor the elves required assistance in disposing of the soldiers.

The battle soon swept Eragon and Saphira apart, carrying them to opposite ends of the courtyard. Eragon was not concerned. Even without her wards, Saphira was more than capable of defeating a large group of twenty or thirty humans by herself.

A spear thudded against Eragon’s shield, bruising his shoulder. He whirled toward the thrower, a big, scarred man missing his lower front teeth, and sprinted at him. The man struggled to draw a dagger from his belt. At the last moment, Eragon twisted, tensed his arms and chest, and rammed his sore shoulder into the man’s sternum.

The force of the impact drove the soldier backward several yards, whereupon he collapsed, clutching at his heart.

Then a hail of black-fletched arrows fell, killing or injuring many of the soldiers. Eragon shied away from the missiles and covered himself with his shield, even though he was confident his magic would protect him. It would not do to become careless; he never knew when an enemy spellcaster might fire an enchanted arrow that could breach his wards.

A bitter smile twisted Eragon’s lips. The archers above had realized that their only hope of victory lay in somehow killing Eragon and the elves, no matter how many of their own they had to sacrifice to do so.

You’re too late, thought Eragon with grim satisfaction. You should have left the Empire while you still had the chance.

The onslaught of clattering arrows gave him the chance to rest for a moment, which he welcomed. The attack on the city had begun at daybreak, and he and Saphira had been at its forefront the whole while.

Once the arrows ceased, Eragon transferred Brisingr to his left hand, picked up one of the soldiers’ spears, and heaved it at the archers forty feet above. As Eragon had discovered, spears were difficult to throw accurately without substantial practice. It did not surprise him, then, when he missed the man he was aiming for, but he was surprised when he missed the entire line of archers on the battlements. The spear sailed over them and shattered against the castle wall overhead. The archers laughed and jeered, making rude gestures.

A swift movement at the periphery of his vision caught Eragon’s attention. He looked just in time to see Arya launch her own spear at the archers; it impaled two who were standing close together. Then Arya pointed at the men with her sword and said, “Brisingr!” and the spear burst into emerald-green fire.

The archers shrank from the burning corpses and, as one, fled from the battlements, crowding through the doorways that led to the upper levels of the castle.

“That’s not fair,” Eragon said. “I can’t use that spell, not without my sword flaring up like a bonfire.”

Arya gazed at him with a faint hint of amusement.

The fighting continued for another few minutes, whereupon the remaining soldiers either surrendered or tried to flee.

Eragon allowed the five men in front of him to run away; he knew they would not get far. After a quick examination of the bodies that lay sprawled around him to confirm that they were indeed dead, he looked back across the courtyard. Some of the Varden had opened the gates in the outer wall and were carrying a battering ram through the street leading to the castle. Others were assembling in ragged lines next to the keep door, ready to enter the castle and confront the soldiers within. Among them stood Eragon’s cousin, Roran, gesturing with his ever-present hammer while he issued orders to the detachment under his command. At the far end of the courtyard, Saphira crouched over the corpses of her kills, the area around her a shambles. Beads of blood clung to her gemlike scales, the spots of red in startling contrast to the blue of her body. She threw back her spiky head and roared her triumph, drowning out the clamor of the city with the ferocity of her cry.

Then, from inside the castle, Eragon heard the rattle of gears and chains, followed by the scrape of heavy wooden beams being drawn back. The sounds attracted everyone’s gaze to the doors of the keep.

With a hollow boom, the doors parted and swung open. A thick cloud of smoke from the torches within billowed outward, causing the nearest of the Varden to cough and cover their faces. From somewhere in the depths of the gloom came the drumming of ironclad hooves against the paving stones; then a horse and rider burst forth from the center of the smoke. In his left hand, the rider held what Eragon first took to be a common lance, but he soon noticed that it was made of a strange green material and had a barbed blade forged in an unfamiliar pattern. A faint glow surrounded the head of the lance, the unnatural light betraying the presence of magic.

The rider tugged on the reins and angled his horse toward Saphira, who began to rear onto her hind legs, in preparation for delivering a terrible, killing blow with her right front paw.

Concern clutched at Eragon. The rider was too sure of himself, the lance too different, too eerie. Though her wards ought to protect her, Eragon was certain Saphira was in mortal danger.

I won’t be able to reach her in time, he realized. He cast his mind toward the rider, but the man was so focused on his task that he did not even notice Eragon’s presence, and his unwavering concentration prevented Eragon from gaining more than superficial access to his consciousness. Withdrawing into himself, Eragon reviewed a half-dozen words from the ancient language and composed a simple spell to stop the galloping war-horse in his tracks. It was a desperate act—for Eragon knew not if the rider was a magician himself or what precautions he might have taken against being attacked with magic—but Eragon was not about to stand by idly when Saphira’s life was at risk.

Eragon filled his lungs. He reminded himself of the correct pronunciation of several difficult sounds in the ancient language. Then he opened his mouth to deliver the spell.

Fast as he was, the elves were faster still. Before he could utter a single word, a frenzy of low chanting erupted behind him, the overlapping voices forming a discordant and unsettling melody.

“Mäe—” he managed to say, and then the elves’ magic took effect.

The mosaic in front of the horse stirred and shifted, and the chips of glass flowed like water. A long rift opened up in the ground, a gaping crevice of uncertain depth. With a loud scream, the horse plunged into the hole and pitched forward, breaking both of its front legs.

As horse and rider fell, the man in the saddle drew back his arm and threw the glowing lance toward Saphira.

Saphira could not run. She could not dodge. So she swung a paw at the dart, hoping to knock it aside. She missed, however—by a matter of inches—and Eragon watched with horror as the lance sank a yard or more into her chest, just under her collarbone.

A pulsing veil of rage descended over Eragon’s vision. He drew upon every store of energy available to him—his body; the sapphire set in the pommel of his sword; the twelve diamonds hidden in the belt of Beloth the Wise wrapped round his waist; and the massive store within Aren, the elf ring that graced his right hand—as he prepared to obliterate the rider, heedless of the risk.

Eragon stopped himself, however, when Blödhgarm appeared, leaping over Saphira’s left foreleg. The elf landed on the rider like a panther pouncing on a deer, and knocked the man onto his side. With a savage twist of his head, Blödhgarm tore open the man’s throat with his long white teeth.

A shriek of all-consuming despair emanated from a window high above the open entrance to the keep, followed by a fiery explosion that ejected blocks of stone from within the building, blocks that landed amid the assembled Varden, crushing limbs and torsos like dry twigs.

Eragon ignored the stones raining on the courtyard and ran to Saphira, barely aware of Arya and his guards accompanying him. Other elves, who had been closer, were already clustering around her, examining the lance that projected from her chest.

“How badly—Is she—” Eragon said, too upset to complete his sentences. He yearned to speak to Saphira with his mind, but as long as enemy spellcasters might be in the area, he dared not expose his consciousness to her, lest his foes spy on his thoughts or assume command over his body.

After a seemingly interminable wait, Wyrden, one of the male elves, said, “You may thank fate, Shadeslayer; the lance missed the major veins and arteries in her neck. It hit only muscle, and muscle we can mend.”

“Can you remove it? Does it have any spells that would keep it from being—”

“We shall attend to it, Shadeslayer.”

Grave as priests gathered before an altar, all the elves, save Blödhgarm, placed the palms of their hands on Saphira’s breast and, like a whisper of wind ghosting through a stand of willow trees, they sang. Of warmth and growth they sang, of muscle and sinew and pulsing blood they sang, and of other, more arcane subjects. With what must have been an enormous effort of will, Saphira held her position throughout the incantation, though fits of tremors shook her body every few seconds. A thread of blood rolled down her chest from the shaft embedded within.

As Blödhgarm moved to stand next to him, Eragon spared a glance for the elf. Gore matted the fur on his chin and neck, darkening its shade from midnight blue to solid black.

“What was that?” Eragon asked, indicating the flames still dancing in the window high above the courtyard.

Blödhgarm licked his lips, baring his catlike fangs, before answering. “In the moment before he died, I was able to enter the soldier’s mind, and through it, the mind of the magician who was assisting him.”

“You killed the magician?”

“In a manner of speaking; I forced him to kill himself. I would not normally resort to such an extravagant display of theatrics, but I was … aggravated.”

Eragon started forward, then checked himself when Saphira uttered a long, low moan as, without anyone touching it, the lance began to slide out of her chest. Her eyelids fluttered and she took a series of quick, shallow breaths while the last six inches of the lance emerged from her body. The barbed blade, with its faint nimbus of emerald light, fell to the ground and bounced against the paving stones, sounding more like pottery than metal.

When the elves stopped singing and lifted their hands from Saphira, Eragon rushed to her side and touched her neck. He wanted to comfort her, to tell her how frightened he had been, to join his consciousness with hers. Instead, he settled for looking up into one of her brilliant blue eyes and asking, “Are you all right?” The words seemed paltry when compared with the depth of his emotion.

Saphira replied with a single blink, then lowered her head and caressed his face with a gentle puff of warm air from her nostrils.

Eragon smiled. Then he turned to the elves and said, “Eka elrun ono, älfya, wiol förn thornessa,” thanking them in the ancient language for their help. The elves who had participated in the healing, including Arya, bowed and twisted their right hands over the center of their chests in the gesture of respect peculiar to their race. Eragon noticed that more than half of the elves assigned to protect him and Saphira were pale, weak, and unsteady on their feet.

“Fall back and rest,” he told them. “You’ll only get yourselves killed if you stay. Go on, that’s an order!”

Though Eragon was sure they hated to leave, the seven elves responded with, “As you wish, Shadeslayer,” and withdrew from the courtyard, striding over the corpses and rubble. They appeared noble and dignified, even when at the limits of their endurance.

Then Eragon joined Arya and Blödhgarm, who were studying the lance, a strange expression on both their faces, as if they were uncertain how they ought to react. Eragon squatted next to them, careful not to allow any part of his body to brush against the weapon. He stared at the delicate lines carved around the base of the blade, lines that seemed familiar to him, although he was not sure why; at the greenish haft, which was made of a material neither wood nor metal; and again at the smooth glow that reminded him of the flameless lanterns that the elves and the dwarves used to light their halls.

“Is it Galbatorix’s handiwork, do you think?” Eragon asked. “Maybe he’s decided he would rather kill Saphira and me instead of capturing us. Maybe he believes we’ve actually become a threat to him.”

Blödhgarm smiled an unpleasant smile. “I would not deceive myself with such fantasies, Shadeslayer. We are no more than a minor annoyance to Galbatorix. If ever he truly wanted you or any of us dead, he only needs to fly forth from Urû’baen and engage us directly in battle, and we would fall before him like dry leaves before a winter storm. The strength of the dragons is with him, and none can withstand his might. Besides, Galbatorix is not so easily turned from his course. Mad he may be, but cunning also, and above all else, determined. If he desires your enslavement, then he shall pursue that goal to the point of obsession, and nothing save the instinct of self-preservation shall deter him.”

“In any event,” said Arya, “this is not Galbatorix’s handiwork; it is ours.”

Eragon frowned. “Ours? This wasn’t made by the Varden.”

“Not by the Varden, but by an elf.”

“But—” He stopped, trying to find a rational explanation. “But no elf would agree to work for Galbatorix. They would rather die than—”

“Galbatorix had nothing to do with this, and even if he did, he would hardly give such a rare and powerful weapon to a man who could not better guard it. Of all the instruments of war scattered throughout Alagaësia, this is the one Galbatorix would least want us to have.”

“Why?”

With a hint of a purr in his low, rich voice, Blödhgarm said, “Because, Eragon Shadeslayer, this is a Dauthdaert.”

“And its name is Niernen, the Orchid,” said Arya. She pointed at the lines carved into the blade, lines that Eragon then realized were actually stylized glyphs from the elves’ unique system of writing—curving, intertwined shapes that terminated in long, thornlike points.

“A Dauthdaert?” When both Arya and Blödhgarm looked at him with incredulity, Eragon shrugged, embarrassed by his lack of education. It frustrated him that, while growing up, the elves had enjoyed decades upon decades of study with the finest scholars of their race, and yet his own uncle, Garrow, had not even taught him his letters, deeming it unimportant. “I could only do so much reading in Ellesméra. What is it? Was it forged during the fall of the Riders, to use against Galbatorix and the Forsworn?”

Blödhgarm shook his head. “Niernen is far, far older than that.”

“The Dauthdaertya,” said Arya, “were born out of the fear and the hate that marked the final years of our war with the dragons. Our most skilled smiths and spellcasters crafted them out of materials we no longer understand, imbued them with enchantments whose wordings we no longer remember, and named them, all twelve of them, after the most beautiful of flowers—as ugly a mismatch as ever there was—for we made them with but one purpose in mind: we made them to kill dragons.”

Revulsion overtook Eragon as he gazed at the glowing lance. “And did they?”

“Those who were present say that the dragons’ blood rained from the sky like a summer downpour.”

Saphira hissed, loud and sharp.

Eragon glanced back at her for a moment and saw out of the corner of his eye that the Varden were still holding their position before the keep, waiting for him and Saphira to retake the lead in the offensive.

“All of the Dauthdaertya were thought to have been destroyed or lost beyond recovery,” said Blödhgarm. “Obviously, we were mistaken. Niernen must have passed into the hands of the Waldgrave family, and they must have kept it hidden here in Belatona. I would guess that when we breached the city walls, Lord Bradburn’s courage failed him and he ordered Niernen brought from his armory in an attempt to stop you and Saphira. No doubt Galbatorix would be angry beyond reason if he knew that Bradburn had tried to kill you.”

Although he was aware of the need for haste, Eragon’s curiosity would not let him leave just yet. “Dauthdaert or not, you still haven’t explained why Galbatorix wouldn’t want us to have this.” He motioned toward the lance. “What makes Niernen any more dangerous than that spear over there, or even Bris—” he caught himself before he uttered the entire name, “or my own sword?”

It was Arya who answered. “It cannot be broken by any normal means, cannot be harmed by fire, and is almost completely impervious to magic, as you yourself saw. The Dauthdaertya were designed to be unaffected by whatever spells the dragons might work and to protect their wielder from the same—a daunting prospect, given the strength, complexity, and unexpected nature of dragons’ magic. Galbatorix may have wrapped Shruikan and himself in more wards than anyone else in Alagaësia, but it is possible that Niernen could pass through their defenses as if they don’t even exist.”

Eragon understood, and elation filled him. “We have to—”

A squeal interrupted him.

The sound was stabbing, slicing, shivering, like metal scraping against stone. Eragon’s teeth vibrated in sympathy and he covered his ears with his hands, grimacing as he twisted around, trying to locate the source of the noise. Saphira tossed her head, and even through the din, he heard her whine in distress.

Eragon swept his gaze over the courtyard two separate times before he noticed a faint puff of dust rising up the wall of the keep from a foot-wide crack that had appeared beneath the blackened, partially destroyed window where Blödhgarm had killed the magician. As the squeal increased in intensity, Eragon risked lifting one of his hands off his ears to point at the crack.

“Look!” he shouted to Arya, who nodded in acknowledgment. He replaced his hand over his ear.

Without warning or preamble, the sound stopped.

Eragon waited for a moment, then slowly lowered his hands, for once wishing that his hearing were not quite so sensitive.

Just as he did, the crack jerked open wider—spreading until it was several feet across—and raced down the wall of the keep. Like a bolt of lightning, the crack struck and shattered the keystone above the doors to the building, showering the floor below with pebbles. The whole castle groaned, and from the damaged window to the broken keystone, the front of the keep began to lean outward.

“Run!” Eragon shouted at the Varden, though the men were already scattering to either side of the courtyard, desperate to get out from under the precarious wall. Eragon took a single step forward, every muscle in his body tense as he searched for a glimpse of Roran somewhere in the throng of warriors.

At last Eragon spotted him, trapped behind the last group of men by the doorway, bellowing madly at them, his words lost in the commotion. Then the wall shifted and dropped several inches—leaning even farther away from the rest of the building—pelting Roran with rocks, knocking him off balance, and forcing him to stumble backward under the overhang of the doorway.

As Roran straightened from a crouch, his eyes met Eragon’s, and in his gaze Eragon saw a flash of fear and helplessness, quickly followed by resignation, as if Roran knew that, no matter how fast he ran, he could not possibly reach safety in time.

A wry smile touched Roran’s lips.

And the wall fell.
  

HAMMERFALL
 

[image: ]o!” shouted Eragon as the wall of the keep tumbled down with a thunderous crash, burying Roran and five other men beneath a mound of stone twenty feet high and flooding the courtyard with a dark cloud of dust.

Eragon’s shout was so loud, his voice broke, and slick, copper-tasting blood coated the back of his throat. He inhaled and doubled over, coughing.

“Vaetna,” he gasped, and waved his hand. With a sound like rustling silk, the thick gray dust parted, leaving the center of the courtyard clear. Concerned as he was for Roran, Eragon barely noticed the strength the spell took from him.

“No, no, no, no,” Eragon muttered. He can’t be dead. He can’t, he can’t, he can’t.… As if repetition might make it true, Eragon continued to think the phrase. But with every repetition, it became less a statement of fact or hope and more a prayer to the world at large.

Before him, Arya and the other warriors of the Varden stood coughing and rubbing their eyes with the palms of their hands. Many were hunched over, as if expecting a blow; others gaped at the front of the damaged keep. The rubble from the building spilled into the middle of the courtyard, obscuring the mosaic. Two and a half rooms on the second story of the keep, and one on the third—the room where the magician had expired so violently—stood exposed to the elements. The chambers and their furnishings seemed dirty and rather shabby in the full light of the sun. Within, a half-dozen soldiers armed with crossbows were scrambling back from the drop they now found themselves standing by. With much pushing and shoving, they hurried through the doors at the far ends of the rooms and vanished into the depths of the keep.

Eragon tried to guess the weight of a block in the pile of rubble; it must have been many hundreds of pounds. If he, Saphira, and the elves all worked together, he was sure that they could shift the stones with magic, but the effort would leave them weak and vulnerable. Moreover, it would take an impractically long time. For a moment, Eragon thought of Glaedr—the golden dragon was more than strong enough to lift the whole pile at once—but haste was of the essence, and Glaedr’s Eldunarí would take too long to retrieve. In any case, Eragon knew that he might not even be able to convince Glaedr to talk with him, much less to help rescue Roran and the other men.

Then Eragon pictured Roran as he had appeared just before the deluge of stones and dust had hidden him from view, standing underneath the eaves of the doorway to the keep, and with a start, he realized what to do.

“Saphira, help them!” Eragon shouted as he cast aside his shield and bounded forward.

Behind him, he heard Arya say something in the ancient language—a short phrase that might have been “Hide this!” Then she had caught up to him, running with her sword in hand, ready to fight.

When he reached the base of the rubble, Eragon leaped as high as he could. He alit with a single foot upon the slanting face of a block and then jumped again, bounding from point to point like a mountain goat scaling the side of a gorge. He hated to risk disturbing the blocks, but climbing the pile was the fastest way to reach his destination.

With one last lunge, Eragon cleared the edge of the second story, then raced across the room. He shoved the door in front of him with such force that he broke the latch and hinges and sent the door flying into the wall of the corridor beyond, splitting the heavy oak planks.

Eragon sprinted down the corridor. His footsteps and his breathing sounded strangely muted to him, as if his ears were filled with water.

He slowed as he drew near an open doorway. Through it, he saw a study with five armed men pointing at a map and arguing. None of them noticed Eragon.

He kept running.

He sped around a corner and collided with a soldier walking in the opposite direction. Eragon’s vision flashed red and yellow as his forehead struck the rim of the man’s shield. He clung to the soldier, and the two of them staggered back and forth across the corridor like a pair of drunk dancers.

The soldier uttered an oath as he struggled to regain his balance. “What’s wrong with you, you thrice-blasted—” he said, and then he saw Eragon’s face, and his eyes widened. “You!”

Eragon balled his right hand and punched the man in the belly, directly underneath his rib cage. The blow lifted the man off his feet and smashed him into the ceiling. “Me,” Eragon agreed as the man dropped to the floor, lifeless.

Eragon continued down the corridor. His already rapid pulse seemed to have doubled since he entered the keep; he felt as if his heart were about to burst out of his chest.

Where is it? he thought, frantic as he glanced through yet another doorway and saw nothing but an empty room.

At last, at the end of a dingy side passage, he caught sight of a winding staircase. He took the stairs five at a time, heedless of his own safety as he descended toward the first story, pausing only to push a startled archer out of his way.

The stairs ended, and he emerged into a high-vaulted chamber reminiscent of the cathedral in Dras-Leona. He spun around, gathering quick impressions: shields and arms and red pennants hung on the walls; narrow windows close under the ceiling; torches mounted in wrought-iron brackets; empty fireplaces; long, dark trestle tables stacked along both sides of the hall; and a dais at the head of the room, where a robed and bearded man stood before a high-backed chair. Eragon was in the main hall of the castle. To his right, between him and the doors that led to the entrance of the keep, was a contingent of fifty or more soldiers. The gold thread in their tunics glittered as they stirred with surprise.

“Kill him!” the robed man ordered, sounding more frightened than lordly. “Whosoever kills him shall have a third of my treasure! So I promise!”

A terrible frustration welled up inside Eragon at being delayed once again. He tore his sword from its scabbard, lifted it over his head, and shouted:

“Brisingr!”

With a rush of air, a cocoon of wraithlike blue flames sprang into existence around the blade, running up toward the tip. The heat from the fire warmed Eragon’s hand, arm, and the side of his face.

Then Eragon lowered his gaze to the soldiers. “Move,” he growled.

The soldiers hesitated a moment more, then turned and fled.

Eragon charged forward, ignoring the panicked laggards within reach of his burning sword. One man tripped and fell before him; Eragon jumped completely over the soldier, not even touching the tassel on his helm.

The wind from Eragon’s passage tore at the flames on the blade, stretching them out behind the sword like the mane of a galloping horse.

Hunching his shoulders, Eragon bulled past the double doors that guarded the entrance to the main hall. He dashed through a long, wide chamber edged with rooms full of soldiers—as well as gears, pulleys, and other mechanisms used for raising and lowering the gates of the keep—and then ran full tilt into the portcullis that blocked the way to where Roran had been standing when the keep wall collapsed.

The iron grating bent as Eragon slammed into it, but not enough to break the metal.

He staggered back a step.

He again channeled energy stored within the diamonds of his belt—the belt of Beloth the Wise—and into Brisingr, emptying the gemstones of their precious store as he stoked the sword’s fire to an almost unbearable intensity. A wordless shout escaped him as he drew back his arm and struck at the portcullis. Orange and yellow sparks sprayed him, pitting his gloves and tunic and stinging his exposed flesh. A drop of molten iron fell sizzling onto the tip of his boot. With a twitch of his ankle, he shook it off.

Three cuts he made, and a man-sized section of the portcullis fell inward. The severed ends of the grating glowed white-hot, lighting the area with their soft radiance.

Eragon allowed the flames rising from Brisingr to die out as he proceeded through the opening he had created.

First to the left, then to the right, and then to the left again he ran as the passage alternated directions, the convoluted path designed to slow the advance of troops if they managed to gain access to the keep.

When he rounded the last corner, Eragon saw his destination: the debris-choked vestibule. Even with his elflike vision, he could make out only the largest shapes in the darkness, for the falling stones had extinguished the torches on the walls. He heard an odd huffing and scuffling, as if some sort of clumsy beast were rooting through the rubble.

“Naina,” said Eragon.

A directionless blue light illuminated the space. And there before him, covered in dirt, blood, ash, and sweat, with his teeth bared in a fearsome snarl, appeared Roran, grappling with a soldier over the corpses of two others.

The soldier winced at the sudden brightness, and Roran took advantage of the man’s distraction to twist and push him to his knees, whereupon he grabbed the soldier’s dagger from his belt and drove it up under the corner of his jaw.

The soldier kicked twice and then was still.

Panting for breath, Roran rose from the body, blood dripping from his fingers. He looked over at Eragon with a curiously glazed expression.

“About time you—” he said, and then his eyes rolled back into his head as he fainted.
  

SHADOWS ON THE HORIZON
 

[image: ]n order to catch Roran before he struck the floor, Eragon had to drop Brisingr, which he was reluctant to do. Nevertheless, he opened his hand, and the sword clattered against the stones even as Roran’s weight settled into his arms.

“Is he badly hurt?” Arya asked.

Eragon flinched, surprised to find her and Blödhgarm standing next to him. “I don’t think so.” He patted Roran’s cheeks several times, smearing the dust on his skin. In the flat, ice-blue glare of Eragon’s spell, Roran appeared gaunt, his eyes surrounded by bruised shadows, and his lips a purplish color, as if stained with the juice from berries. “Come on, wake up.”

After a few seconds, Roran’s eyelids twitched; then he opened them and looked at Eragon, obviously confused. Relief washed over Eragon, so strong he could taste it. “You blacked out for a moment,” he explained.

“Ah.”

He’s alive! Eragon said to Saphira, risking a brief moment of contact.

Her pleasure was obvious. Good. I will stay here and help the elves move the stones away from the building. If you need me, shout, and I’ll find a way to reach you.

Roran’s mail tinkled as Eragon helped him onto his feet. “What of the others?” Eragon asked, and gestured toward the mound of rubble.

Roran shook his head.

“Are you sure?”

“No one could have survived under there. I only escaped because … because I was partially sheltered by the eaves.”

“And you? You’re all right?” Eragon asked.

“What?” Roran frowned, seeming distracted, as if the thought had not even occurred to him. “I’m fine.… Wrist might be broken. It’s not bad.”

Eragon cast a meaningful glance at Blödhgarm. The elf’s features tightened with a faint display of displeasure, but he went over to Roran and, in a smooth voice, said, “If I may.…” He extended a hand toward Roran’s injured arm.

While Blödhgarm labored over Roran, Eragon picked up Brisingr, then stood guard with Arya at the entrance in case any soldiers were so foolhardy as to launch an attack.

“There, all done,” Blödhgarm said. He moved away from Roran, who rolled his wrist in a circle, testing the joint.

Satisfied, Roran thanked Blödhgarm, then lowered his hand and cast about the rubble-strewn floor until he found his hammer. He readjusted the position of his armor and looked out the entrance. “I’ve about had my fill of this Lord Bradburn,” he said in a deceptively calm tone. “He has held his seat overlong, I think, and ought to be relieved of his responsibilities. Wouldn’t you agree, Arya?”

“I would,” she said.

“Well then, let’s find the soft-bellied old fool; I would give him a few gentle taps from my hammer in memory of everyone we have lost today.”

“He was in the main hall a few minutes ago,” Eragon said, “but I doubt he stayed to await our return.”

Roran nodded. “Then we’ll have to hunt him down.” And with that, he strode forward.

Eragon extinguished his illuminating spell and hurried after his cousin, holding Brisingr at the ready. Arya and Blödhgarm stayed as close beside him as the convoluted passageway would allow.

The chamber that the passageway led to was abandoned, as was the main hall of the castle, where the only evidence of the dozens of soldiers and officials who had populated it was a helmet that lay on the floor, rocking back and forth in ever-decreasing arcs.

Eragon and Roran ran past the marble dais, Eragon restricting his speed so as not to leave Roran behind. They kicked down a door just to the left of the platform and rushed up the stairs beyond.

At each story, they paused so that Blödhgarm could search with his mind for any trace of Lord Bradburn and his retinue, but he found none.

As they reached the third level, Eragon heard a stampede of footsteps and saw a thicket of jabbing spears fill the curved archway in front of Roran. The spears cut Roran on the cheek and on his right thigh, coating his knee with blood. He bellowed like a wounded bear and rammed into the spears with his shield, trying to push his way up the last few steps and out of the stairwell. Men shouted frantically.

Behind Roran, Eragon switched Brisingr to his left hand, then reached around his cousin, grabbed one of the spears by the haft, and yanked it out of the grip of whoever was holding it. He flipped the spear around and threw it into the center of the men packed in the archway. Someone screamed, and a gap appeared in the wall of bodies. Eragon repeated the process, and his throws soon reduced the number of soldiers enough that, step by step, Roran was able to force the mass of men back.

As soon as Roran won clear of the stairs, the twelve remaining soldiers scattered across a wide landing fringed with balustrades, each man seeking room to swing his weapon without obstruction. Roran bellowed again and leaped after the nearest soldier. He parried the man’s sword, then stepped past his guard and struck the man on his helm, which rang like an iron pot.

Eragon sprinted across the landing and tackled a pair of soldiers who were standing close together. He knocked them to the ground, then dispatched each of them with a single thrust of Brisingr. An ax hurtled toward him, whirling end over end. He ducked and pushed a man over a balustrade before engaging two others who were trying to disembowel him with billed pikes.

Then Arya and Blödhgarm were moving among the men, silent and deadly, the elves’ inherent grace making the violence appear more like an artfully staged performance than the sordid struggle most fights were.

In a rush of clanging metal, broken bones, and severed limbs, the four of them killed the rest of the soldiers. As always, the combat exhilarated Eragon; it felt to him like being shocked with a bucket of cold water, and it left him with a sense of clarity unequaled by any other activity.

Roran bent over and rested his hands on his knees, gasping for air as if he had just finished a race.

“Shall I?” asked Eragon, gesturing at the cuts on Roran’s face and thigh.

Roran tested his weight on the wounded leg a few times. “I can wait. Let’s find Bradburn first.”

Eragon took the lead as they filed back into the stairwell and resumed their climb. At last, after another five minutes of searching, they found Lord Bradburn barricaded within the highest room of the keep’s westernmost tower. With a series of spells, Eragon, Arya, and Blödhgarm disassembled the doors and the tower of furniture piled behind them. As they and Roran entered the chambers, the high-ranking retainers and castle guards who had gathered in front of Lord Bradburn blanched, and many began to shake. To Eragon’s relief, he only had to kill three of the guards before the rest of the group placed their weapons and shields on the floor in surrender.

Then Arya marched over to Lord Bradburn, who had remained silent throughout, and said, “Now, will you order your forces to stand down? Only a few remain, but you can still save their lives.”

“I would not even if I could,” said Bradburn in a voice of such hate and sneering derision, Eragon almost struck him. “You’ll have no concessions from me, elf. I’ll not give up my men to filthy, unnatural creatures such as you. Death would be preferable. And do not think you can beguile me with honeyed words. I know of your alliance with the Urgals, and I would sooner trust a snake than a person who breaks bread with those monsters.”

Arya nodded and placed her hand over Bradburn’s face. She closed her eyes, and for a time, both she and Bradburn were motionless. Eragon reached out with his mind, and he felt the battle of wills that was raging between them as Arya worked her way past Bradburn’s defenses and into his consciousness. It took a minute, but at last she gained control of the man’s mind, whereupon she set about calling up and examining his memories until she discovered the nature of his wards.

Then she spoke in the ancient language and cast a complex spell designed to circumvent those wards and to put Bradburn to sleep. When she finished, Bradburn’s eyes closed and, with a sigh, he collapsed into her arms.

“She killed him!” shouted one of the guards, and cries of fear and outrage spread among the men.

As Eragon attempted to convince them otherwise, he heard one of the Varden’s trumpets being winded far off in the distance. Soon another trumpet sounded, this one much closer, then another, and then he caught snatches of what he would have sworn were faint, scattered cheers rising from the courtyard below.

Puzzled, he exchanged glances with Arya; then they turned in a circle, looking out each of the windows set within the walls of the chamber.

To the west and south lay Belatona. It was a large, prosperous city, one of the largest in the Empire. Close to the castle, the buildings were imposing structures made of stone, with pitched roofs and oriel windows, while farther away they were constructed of wood and plaster. Several of the half-timbered buildings had caught fire during the fighting. The smoke filled the air with a layer of brown haze that stung eyes and throats.

To the southwest, a mile beyond the city, was the Varden’s camp: long rows of gray woolen tents ringed by stake-lined trenches, a few brightly colored pavilions sporting flags and pennants, and stretched out on the bare ground, hundreds of wounded men. The healers’ tents were already filled to capacity.

To the north, past the docks and warehouses, was Leona Lake, a vast expanse of water dotted with the occasional whitecap.

Above, the wall of black clouds that was advancing from the west loomed high over the city, threatening to envelop it within the folds of rain that fell skirtlike from its underside. Blue light flickered here and there in the depths of the storm, and thunder rumbled like an angry beast.

But nowhere did Eragon see an explanation for the commotion that had attracted his attention.

He and Arya hurried over to the window directly above the courtyard. Saphira and the men and elves working with her had just finished clearing away the stones in front of the keep. Eragon whistled, and when Saphira looked up, he waved. Her long jaws parted in a toothy grin, and she blew a streamer of smoke toward him.

“Ho! What news?” Eragon shouted.

One of the Varden standing on the castle walls raised an arm and pointed eastward. “Shadeslayer! Look! The werecats are coming! The werecats are coming!”

A cold tingle crawled down Eragon’s spine. He followed the line of the man’s arm eastward, and this time he saw a host of small, shadowy figures emerging from a fold in the land several miles away, on the other side of the Jiet River. Some of the figures went on four legs and some on two, but they were too far away for him to be sure if they were werecats.

“Could it be?” asked Arya, sounding amazed.

“I don’t know.… Whatever they are, we’ll find out soon enough.”
  

KING CAT
 

[image: ]ragon stood on the dais in the main hall of the keep, directly to the right of Lord Bradburn’s throne, his left hand on the pommel of Brisingr, which was sheathed. On the other side of the throne stood Jörmundur—senior commander of the Varden—holding his helmet in the crook of his arm. The hair at his temples was streaked with gray; the rest was brown, and all of it was pulled back into a long braid. His lean face bore the studiously blank expression of a person who had extensive experience waiting on others. Eragon noticed a thin line of red running along the underside of Jörmundur’s right bracer, but Jörmundur showed no sign of pain.

Between them sat their leader, Nasuada, resplendent in a dress of green and yellow, which she had donned just moments before, exchanging the raiment of war for garb more suited to the practice of statecraft. She too had been marked during the fighting, as was evidenced by the linen bandage wrapped around her left hand.

In a low voice that only Eragon and Jörmundur could hear, Nasuada said, “If we can but gain their support …”

“What will they want in return, though?” asked Jörmundur. “Our coffers are near empty, and our future uncertain.”

Her lips barely moving, she said, “Perhaps they wish nothing more of us than a chance to strike back at Galbatorix.” She paused. “But if not, we shall have to find means other than gold to persuade them to join our ranks.”

“You could offer them barrels of cream,” said Eragon, which elicited a chortle from Jörmundur and a soft laugh from Nasuada.

Their murmured conversation came to an end as three trumpets sounded outside the main hall. Then a flaxen-haired page dressed in a tunic stitched with the Varden’s standard—a white dragon holding a rose above a sword pointing downward on a purple field—marched through the open doorway at the far end of the hall, struck the floor with his ceremonial staff, and, in a thin, warbling voice, announced, “His Most Exalted Royal Highness, Grimrr Halfpaw, King of the Werecats, Lord of the Lonely Places, Ruler of the Night Reaches, and He Who Walks Alone.”

A strange title, that: He Who Walks Alone, Eragon observed to Saphira.

But well deserved, I would guess, she replied, and he could sense her amusement, even though he could not see her where she lay coiled in the castle keep.

The page stepped aside, and through the doorway strode Grimrr Halfpaw in the shape of a human, trailed by four other werecats, who padded close behind him on large, shaggy paws. The four resembled Solembum, the one other werecat Eragon had seen in the guise of an animal: heavy-shouldered and long-limbed, with short, dark ruffs upon their necks and withers; tasseled ears; and black-tipped tails, which they waved gracefully from side to side.

Grimrr Halfpaw, however, looked unlike any person or creature Eragon had ever seen. At roughly four feet tall, he was the same height as a dwarf, but no one could have mistaken him for a dwarf, or even for a human. He had a small pointed chin, wide cheekbones, and, underneath upswept brows, slanted green eyes fringed with winglike eyelashes. His ragged black hair hung low over his forehead, while on the sides and back it fell to his shoulders, where it lay smooth and lustrous, much like the manes of his companions. His age was impossible for Eragon to guess.

The only clothes Grimrr wore were a rough leather vest and a rabbit-skin loincloth. The skulls of a dozen or so animals—birds, mice, and other small game—were tied to the front of the vest, and they rattled against one another as he moved. A sheathed dagger protruded at an angle from under the belt of his loincloth. Numerous scars, thin and white, marked his nut-brown skin, like scratches on a well-used table. And, as his name indicated, he was missing two fingers on his left hand; they looked to have been bitten off.

Despite the delicacy of his features, there was no doubt that Grimrr was male, given the hard, sinewy muscles of his arms and chest, the narrowness of his hips, and the coiled power of his stride as he sauntered down the length of the hall toward Nasuada.

None of the werecats seemed to notice the people lined up on either side of their path watching them until Grimrr came level with the herbalist Angela, who stood next to Roran, knitting a striped tube sock with six needles.

Grimrr’s eyes narrowed as he beheld the herbalist, and his hair rippled and spiked, as did that of his four guards. His lips drew back to reveal a pair of curved white fangs, and to Eragon’s astonishment, he uttered a short, loud hiss.

Angela looked up from the sock, her expression languid and insolent. “Cheep cheep,” she said.

For a moment, Eragon thought the werecat was going to attack her. A dark flush mottled Grimrr’s neck and face, his nostrils flared, and he snarled silently at her. The other werecats settled into low crouches, ready to pounce, their ears pressed flat against their heads.

Throughout the hall, Eragon heard the slither of blades being partially drawn from their scabbards.

Grimrr hissed once more, then turned away from the herbalist and continued walking. As the last werecat in line passed Angela, he lifted a paw and took a surreptitious swipe at the strand of yarn that drooped from Angela’s needles, just like a playful house cat might.

Saphira’s bewilderment was equal to Eragon’s own. Cheep cheep? she asked.

He shrugged, forgetting that she could not see him. Who knows why Angela does or says anything?

At last Grimrr arrived before Nasuada. He inclined his head ever so slightly, displaying with his bearing the supreme confidence, even arrogance, that was the sole province of cats, dragons, and certain highborn women.

“Lady Nasuada,” he said. His voice was surprisingly deep, more akin to the low, coughing roar of a wildcat than the high-pitched tones of the boy he resembled.

Nasuada inclined her head in turn. “King Halfpaw. You are most welcome to the Varden, you and all your race. I must apologize for the absence of our ally, King Orrin of Surda; he could not be here to greet you, as he wished, for he and his horsemen are even now busy defending our westward flank from a contingent of Galbatorix’s troops.”

“Of course, Lady Nasuada,” said Grimrr. His sharp teeth flashed as he spoke. “You must never turn your back on your enemies.”

“Even so … And to what do we owe the unexpected pleasure of this visit, Your Highness? Werecats have always been noted for their secrecy and their solitude, and for remaining apart from the conflicts of the age, especially since the fall of the Riders. One might even say that your kind has become more myth than fact over the past century. Why, then, do you now choose to reveal yourselves?”

Grimrr lifted his right arm and pointed at Eragon with a crooked finger topped by a clawlike nail.

“Because of him,” growled the werecat. “One does not attack another hunter until he has shown his weakness, and Galbatorix has shown his: he will not kill Eragon Shadeslayer or Saphira Bjartskular. Long have we waited for this opportunity, and seize it we will. Galbatorix will learn to fear and hate us, and at the last, he will realize the extent of his mistake and know that we were the ones responsible for his undoing. And how sweet that revenge will taste, as sweet as the marrow of a tender young boar.

“Time has come, human, for every race, even werecats, to stand together and prove to Galbatorix that he has not broken our will to fight. We would join your army, Lady Nasuada, as free allies, and help you achieve this.”

What Nasuada was thinking, Eragon could not tell, but he and Saphira were impressed by the werecat’s speech.

After a brief pause, Nasuada said, “Your words fall most pleasantly upon my ears, Your Highness. But before I can accept your offer, there are answers I must have of you, if you are willing.”

With an air of unshakable indifference, Grimrr waved a hand. “I am.”

“Your race has been so secretive and so elusive, I must confess, I had not heard tell of Your Highness until this very day. As a point of fact, I did not even know that your race had a ruler.”

“I am not a king like your kings,” said Grimrr. “Werecats prefer to walk alone, but even we must choose a leader when to war we go.”

“I see. Do you speak for your whole race, then, or only for those who travel with you?”

Grimrr’s chest swelled, and his expression became, if possible, even more self-satisfied. “I speak for all of my kind, Lady Nasuada,” he purred. “Every able-bodied werecat in Alagaësia, save those who are nursing, has come here to fight. There are few of us, but none can equal our ferocity in battle. And I can also command the one-shapes, although I cannot speak for them, for they are as dumb as other animals. Still, they will do what we ask of them.”

“One-shapes?” Nasuada inquired.

“Those you know as cats. Those who cannot change their skins, as we do.”

“And you command their loyalty?”

“Aye. They admire us … as is only natural.”

If what he says is true, Eragon commented to Saphira, the werecats could prove to be incredibly valuable.

Then Nasuada said, “And what is it you desire of us in exchange for your assistance, King Halfpaw?” She glanced at Eragon and smiled, then added, “We can offer you as much cream as you want, but beyond that, our resources are limited. If your warriors expect to be paid for their troubles, I fear they will be sorely disappointed.”

“Cream is for kittens, and gold holds no interest for us,” said Grimrr. As he spoke, he lifted his right hand and inspected his nails with a heavy-lidded gaze. “Our terms are thus: Each of us will be given a dagger to fight with, if we do not already have one. Each of us shall have two suits of armor made to fit, one for when on two legs we stand, and one for when on four. We need no other equipment than that—no tents, no blankets, no plates, no spoons. Each of us will be promised a single duck, grouse, chicken, or similar bird per day, and every second day, a bowl of freshly chopped liver. Even if we do not choose to eat it, the food will be set aside for us. Also, should you win this war, then whoever becomes your next king or queen—and all who claim that title thereafter—will keep a padded cushion next to their throne, in a place of honor, for one of us to sit on, if we so wish.”

“You bargain like a dwarven lawgiver,” said Nasuada in a dry tone. She leaned over to Jörmundur, and Eragon heard her whisper, “Do we have enough liver to feed them all?”

“I think so,” Jörmundur replied in an equally hushed voice. “But it depends on the size of the bowl.”

Nasuada straightened in her seat. “Two sets of armor is one too many, King Halfpaw. Your warriors will have to decide whether they want to fight as cats or as humans and then abide by the decision. I cannot afford to outfit them for both.”

If Grimrr had had a tail, Eragon was sure it would have twitched back and forth. As it was, the werecat merely shifted his position. “Very well, Lady Nasuada.”

“There is one more thing. Galbatorix has spies and killers hidden everywhere. Therefore, as a condition of joining the Varden, you must consent to allow one of our spellcasters to examine your memories, so we may assure ourselves that Galbatorix has no claim on you.”

Grimrr sniffed. “You would be foolish not to. If anyone is brave enough to read our thoughts, let them. But not her”—and he twisted to point at Angela. “Never her.”

Nasuada hesitated, and Eragon could see that she wanted to ask why but restrained herself. “So be it. I will send for magicians at once, that we may settle this matter without delay. Depending on what they find—and it will be nothing untoward, I’m sure—I am honored to form an alliance between you and the Varden, King Halfpaw.”

At her words, all of the humans in the hall broke out cheering and began to clap, including Angela. Even the elves appeared pleased.

The werecats, however, did not react, except to tilt their ears backward in annoyance at the noise.
  

AFTERMATH
 

[image: ]ragon groaned and leaned back against Saphira. Bracing his hands on his knees, he slid down over her bumpy scales until he was sitting on the ground, then stretched out his legs in front of him.

“I’m hungry!” he exclaimed.

He and Saphira were in the courtyard of the castle, away from the men who were laboring to clear it—piling stones and bodies alike into carts—and from the people streaming in and out of the damaged building, many of whom had been present at Nasuada’s audience with King Halfpaw and were now leaving to attend to other duties. Blödhgarm and four elves stood nearby, watching for danger.

“Oi!” someone shouted.

Eragon looked up to see Roran walking toward him from the keep. Angela trailed a few steps behind, yarn flapping in the air as she half ran to keep up with his longer stride.

“Where are you off to now?” Eragon asked as Roran stopped before him.

“To help secure the city and organize the prisoners.”

“Ah …” Eragon’s gaze wondered across the busy courtyard before returning to Roran’s bruised face. “You fought well.”

“You too.”

Eragon shifted his attention to Angela, who was once again knitting, her fingers moving so quickly, he could not follow what she was doing. “Cheep cheep?” he asked.

An impish expression overtook her face, and she shook her head, her voluminous curls bouncing. “A story for another time.”

Eragon accepted her evasion without complaint; he had not expected her to explain herself. She rarely did.

“And you,” said Roran, “where are you going?”

We’re going to get some food, said Saphira, and nudged Eragon with her snout, her breath warm on him as she exhaled.

Roran nodded. “That sounds best. I’ll see you at camp this evening, then.” As he turned to leave, he added, “Give my love to Katrina.”

Angela tucked her knitting into a quilted bag that hung at her waist. “I guess I’ll be off as well. I have a potion brewing in my tent that I must attend to, and there’s a certain werecat I want to track down.”

“Grimrr?”

“No, no—an old friend of mine: Solembum’s mother. If she’s still alive, that is. I hope she is.” She raised her hand to her brow, thumb and forefinger touching in a circle, and, in an overly cheerful voice, said, “Be seeing you!” And with that, she sailed off.

On my back, said Saphira, and rose to her feet, leaving Eragon without support.

He climbed into the saddle at the base of her neck, and Saphira unfolded her massive wings with the soft, dry sound of skin sliding over skin. The motion created a gust of near-silent wind that spread out like ripples in a pond. Throughout the courtyard, people paused to look at her.

As Saphira lifted her wings overhead, Eragon could see the web of purplish veins that pulsed therein, each one becoming a hollow worm track as the flow of blood subsided between the beats of her mighty heart.

Then with a surge and a jolt, the world tilted crazily around Eragon as Saphira jumped from the courtyard to the top of the castle wall, where she balanced for a moment on the merlons, the stones cracking between the points of her claws. He grabbed the neck spike in front of him to steady himself.

The world tilted again as Saphira launched herself off the wall. An acrid taste and smell assaulted Eragon, and his eyes smarted as Saphira passed through the thick layer of smoke that hung over Belatona like a blanket of hurt, anger, and sorrow.

Saphira flapped twice, hard, and then they emerged from the smoke into the sunshine and soared over the fire-dotted streets of the city. Stilling her wings, Saphira glided in circles, allowing the warm air from below to lift her ever higher.

Tired as he was, Eragon savored the magnificence of the view: the growling storm that was about to swallow the whole of Belatona glowed white and brilliant along its leading edge, while farther away, the thunderhead wallowed in inky shadows that betrayed nothing of their contents, save when bolts of lightning shot through them. Elsewhere the gleaming lake and the hundreds of small, verdant farms that were scattered across the landscape also commanded his attention, but none were so impressive as the mountain of clouds.

As always, Eragon felt privileged to be able to look upon the world from so high above, for he was aware of how few people had ever had the chance to fly on a dragon.

With a slight shift of her wings, Saphira began to glide down toward the rows of gray tents that composed the Varden’s camp.

A strong wind sprang up from the west, heralding the imminent arrival of the storm. Eragon hunched over and wrapped his hands even more securely around the spike on her neck. He saw glossy ripples race across the fields below as the stalks bent under the force of the rising gale. The shifting grass reminded him of the fur of a great green beast.

A horse screamed as Saphira swept over the rows of tents to the clearing that was reserved for her. Eragon half stood in the saddle as Saphira flared her wings and slowed to a near standstill over the torn earth. The impact as she struck knocked Eragon forward.

Sorry, she said. I tried to land as softly as I could.

I know.

Even as he dismounted, Eragon saw Katrina hurrying toward him. Her long auburn hair swirled about her face as she walked across the clearing, and the press of the wind exposed the bulge of her growing belly through the layers of her dress.

“What news?” she called, worry etched into every line of her face.

“You heard about the werecats …?”

She nodded.

“There’s no real news other than that. Roran’s fine; he said to give you his love.”

Her expression softened, but her worry did not entirely disappear. “He’s all right, then?” She motioned toward the ring she wore on the third finger of her left hand, one of the two rings Eragon had enchanted for her and Roran so they might know if one or the other was in danger. “I thought I felt something, about an hour ago, and I was afraid that …”

Eragon shook his head. “Roran can tell you about it. He got a few nicks and bruises, but other than that, he’s fine. Scared me half to death, though.”

Katrina’s look of concern intensified. Then, with visible struggle, she smiled. “At least you’re safe. Both of you.”

They parted, and Eragon and Saphira made their way to one of the mess tents close to the Varden’s cookfires. There they gorged themselves on meat and mead while the wind howled around them and bursts of rain pummeled the sides of the flapping tent.

As Eragon bit into a slab of roast pork belly, Saphira said, Is it good? Is it scrumptious?

“Mmm,” said Eragon, rivulets of juice running down his chin.
  

MEMORIES OF THE DEAD
 

[image: ]albatorix is mad and therefore unpredictable, but he also has gaps in his reasoning that an ordinary person would not. If you can find those, Eragon, then perhaps you and Saphira can defeat him.”

Brom lowered his pipe, his face grave. “I hope you do. My greatest desire, Eragon, is that you and Saphira will live long and fruitful lives, free from fear of Galbatorix and the Empire. I wish that I could protect you from all of the dangers that threaten you, but alas, that is not within my ability. All I can do is give you my advice and teach you what I can now while I am still here.… My son. Whatever happens to you, know that I love you, and so did your mother. May the stars watch over you, Eragon Bromsson.”

Eragon opened his eyes as the memory faded. Above him, the ceiling of the tent sagged inward, as loose as an empty waterskin, after the battering it had received during the now-departed storm. A drop of water fell from the belly of a fold, struck his right thigh, and soaked through his leggings, chilling the skin beneath. He knew he would have to go tighten up the tent’s support ropes, but he was reluctant to move from the cot.

And Brom never said anything to you about Murtagh? He never told you that Murtagh and I were half brothers?

Saphira, who was curled up outside the tent, said, Asking again won’t change my answer.

Why wouldn’t he, though? Why didn’t he? He must have known about Murtagh. He couldn’t not have.

Saphira’s response was slow to come. Brom’s reasons were ever his
own, but if I had to guess, I imagine he thought it more important to tell you how he cared for you, and to give you what advice he could, than to spend his time talking about Murtagh.

He could have warned me, though! Just a few words would have sufficed.

I cannot say for certain what drove him, Eragon. You have to accept that there are some questions you will never be able to answer about Brom. Trust in his love for you, and do not allow such concerns to disturb you.

Eragon stared down his chest at his thumbs. He placed them side by side, to better compare them. His left thumb had more wrinkles on its second joint than did his right, while his right had a small, ragged scar that he could not remember getting, although it must have happened since the Agaetí Blödhren, the Blood-oath Celebration.

Thank you, he said to Saphira. Through her, he had watched and listened to Brom’s message three times since the fall of Feinster, and each time he had noticed some detail of Brom’s speech or movement that had previously escaped him. The experience comforted and satisfied him, for it fulfilled a desire that had plagued him his entire life: to know the name of his father and to know that his father cared for him.

Saphira acknowledged his thanks with a warm glow of affection.

Though Eragon had eaten and then rested for perhaps an hour, his weariness had not entirely abated. Nor had he expected it to. He knew from experience that it could take weeks to fully recover from the debilitating effects of a long, drawn-out battle. As the Varden approached Urû’baen, he and everyone else in Nasuada’s army would have less and less time to recover before each new confrontation. The war would wear them down until they were bloody, battered, and barely able to fight, at which point they would still have to face Galbatorix, who would have been waiting for them in ease and comfort.

He tried not to think about it too much.

Another drop of water struck his leg, cold and hard. Irritated, he swung his legs off the edge of the cot and sat upright, then went over to the bare patch of dirt in one corner and knelt next to it.

“Deloi sharjalví!” he said, as well as several other phrases in the ancient language that were necessary to disarm the traps he had set the previous day.

The dirt began to seethe like water coming to a boil, and rising out of the churning fountain of rocks, insects, and worms, there emerged an ironbound chest a foot and a half in length. Reaching out, Eragon took hold of the chest and released his spell. The ground grew calm once more.

He set the chest on the now-solid dirt. “Ládrin,” he whispered, and waved his hand past the lock with no keyhole that secured the hasp. It popped open with a click.

A faint golden glow filled the tent as he lifted the lid of the chest.

Nestled securely within the velvet-lined interior lay Glaedr’s Eldunarí, the dragon’s heart of hearts. The large, jewel-like stone glittered darkly, like a dying ember. Eragon cupped the Eldunarí between his hands, the irregular, sharp-edged facets warm against his palms, and stared into its pulsing depths. A galaxy of tiny stars swirled within the center of the stone, although their movement had slowed and there seemed to be far fewer than when Eragon had first beheld the stone in Ellesméra, when Glaedr had discharged it from his body and into Eragon and Saphira’s care.

As always, the sight fascinated Eragon; he could have sat watching the ever-changing pattern for days.

We should try again, said Saphira, and he agreed.

Together they reached out with their minds toward the distant lights, toward the sea of stars that represented Glaedr’s consciousness. Through cold and darkness they sailed, then heat and despair and indifference so vast and so great, it sapped their will to do anything other than to stop and weep.

Glaedr … Elda, they cried over and over, but there was no answer, no shifting of the indifference.

At last they withdrew, unable to withstand the crushing weight of Glaedr’s misery any longer.

As he returned to himself, Eragon became aware of someone knocking on the front pole of his tent, and then he heard Arya say, “Eragon? May I enter?”

He sniffed and blinked to clear his eyes. “Of course.”

The dim gray light from the cloudy sky fell upon him as Arya pushed aside the entrance flap. He felt a sudden pang as his eyes met hers—green, slanted, and unreadable—and an ache of longing filled him.

“Has there been any change?” she asked, and came to kneel by him. Instead of armor, she was wearing the same black leather shirt, trousers, and thin-soled boots as when he had rescued her in Gil’ead. Her hair was damp from washing and hung down her back in long, heavy ropes. The scent of crushed pine needles attended her, as it so often did, and it occurred to Eragon to wonder whether she used a spell to create the aroma or if that was how she smelled naturally. He would have liked to ask her, but he did not dare.

In answer to her question, he shook his head.

“May I?” She indicated Glaedr’s heart of hearts.

He moved out of the way. “Please.”

Arya placed her hands on either side of the Eldunarí and then closed her eyes. While she sat, he took the opportunity to study her with an openness and intensity that would have been offensive otherwise. In every aspect, she seemed the epitome of beauty, even though he knew that another might say her nose was too long, or her face too angled, or her ears too pointed, or her arms too muscled.

With a sharp intake of breath, Arya jerked her hands away from the heart of hearts, as if it had burned her. Then she bowed her head, and Eragon saw her chin quiver ever so faintly. “He is the most unhappy creature I have ever met.… I would we could help him. I do not think he will be able to find his way out of the darkness on his own.”

“Do you think …” Eragon hesitated, not wanting to give voice to his suspicion, then continued: “Do you think he will go mad?”

“He may have already. If not, then he dances on the very cusp of insanity.”

Sorrow came over Eragon as they both gazed at the golden stone.

When at last he was able to bring himself to speak again, he asked, “Where is the Dauthdaert?”

“Hidden within my tent even as you have hidden Glaedr’s Eldunarí. I can bring it here, if you want, or I can continue to safeguard it until you need it.”

“Keep it. I can’t carry it around with me, or Galbatorix may learn of its existence. Besides, it would be foolish to store so many treasures in one place.”

She nodded.

The ache inside of Eragon intensified. “Arya, I—” He stopped as Saphira saw one of the blacksmith Horst’s sons—Albriech, he thought, although it was difficult to tell him from his brother, Baldor, because of the distortions in Saphira’s vision—running toward the tent. The interruption relieved Eragon, as he had not known what he was going to say.

“Someone’s coming,” he announced, and closed the lid of the chest.

Loud, wet footsteps sounded in the mud outside. Then Albriech, for it was Albriech, shouted, “Eragon! Eragon!”

“What!”

“Mother’s birth pains have just begun! Father sent me to tell you and to ask if you will wait with him, in case anything goes wrong and your skill with magic is needed. Please, if you can—”

Whatever else he said was lost to Eragon as he rushed to lock and bury the chest. Then he cast his cloak over his shoulders and was fumbling with the clasp when Arya touched him on the arm and said, “May I accompany you? I have some experience with this. If your people will let me, I can make the birth easier for her.”

Eragon did not even pause to consider his decision. He motioned toward the entrance of the tent. “After you.”

[image: ]

 
  

WHAT IS A MAN?
 

[image: ]he mud clung to Roran’s boots each time he lifted his feet, slowing his progress and making his already-tired legs burn from the effort. It felt as if the very ground were trying to pull off his shoes. Thick as it was, the mud was also slippery. It gave way under his heels at the worst moments, just when his position was the most precarious. And it was deep, too. The constant passage of men, animals, and wagons had turned the top six inches of earth into a nigh on impassable morass. A few patches of crushed grass remained along the edges of the track—which ran straight through the Varden’s camp—but Roran suspected they would soon vanish as men sought to avoid the center of the lane.

Roran made no attempt to evade the muck; he no longer cared if his clothes stayed clean. Besides, he was so exhausted, it was easier to keep plodding in the same direction than to worry about picking a path from one island of grass to the next.

As he stumbled forward, Roran thought of Belatona. Since Nasuada’s audience with the werecats, he had been setting up a command post in the northwest quarter of the city and doing his best to establish control over the quadrant by assigning men to put out fires, build barricades in the streets, search houses for soldiers, and confiscate weapons. It was an immense task, and he despaired of accomplishing what was needed, fearing that the city might erupt into open battle again. I hope those idiots can make it through the night without getting killed.

His left side throbbed, causing him to bare his teeth and suck in his breath.

Blasted coward.

Someone had shot at him with a crossbow from the roof of a building. Only the sheerest of luck had saved him; one of his men, Mortenson, had stepped in front of him at the exact moment the attacker had fired. The bolt had punched through Mortenson from back to belly and had still retained enough force to give Roran a nasty bruise. Mortenson had died on the spot, and whoever had shot the crossbow had escaped.

Five minutes later, an explosion of some sort, possibly magical, had killed two more of his men when they entered a stable to investigate a noise.

From what Roran understood, such attacks were common throughout the city. No doubt, Galbatorix’s agents were behind many of them, but the inhabitants of Belatona were also responsible—men and women who could not bear to stand by idly while an invading army seized control of their home, no matter how honorable the Varden’s intentions might be. Roran could sympathize with the people who felt they had to defend their families, but at the same time, he cursed them for being so thick-skulled that they could not recognize the Varden were trying to help them, not hurt them.

He scratched at his beard while he waited for a dwarf to pull a heavily laden pony out of his way, then continued slogging forward.

As he drew near their tent, he saw Katrina standing over a tub of hot, soapy water, scrubbing a bloodstained bandage against a washboard. Her sleeves were rolled up past her elbows, her hair tied in a messy bun, and her cheeks flushed from her work, but she had never looked so beautiful to him. She was his comfort—his comfort and his refuge—and just seeing her helped ease the sense of numb dislocation that gripped him.

She noticed him and immediately abandoned her washing and ran toward him, drying her pink hands on the front of her dress. Roran braced himself as she threw herself at him, wrapping her arms around his chest. His side flared with pain, and he uttered a short grunt.

Katrina loosened her hold and leaned away, frowning. “Oh! Did I hurt you?”

“No … no. I’m just sore.”

She did not question him but hugged him again, more gently, and looked up at him, her eyes glistening with tears. Holding her by the waist, he bent and kissed her, inexpressibly grateful for her presence.

Katrina slipped his left arm over her shoulders, and he allowed her to support part of his weight as they returned to their tent. With a sigh, Roran sat on the stump they used for a chair, which Katrina had placed next to the small fire she had built to heat the tub of water and over which a pot of stew was now simmering.

Katrina filled a bowl with stew and handed it to him. Then, from within the tent, she brought him a mug of ale and a plate with a half loaf of bread and a wedge of cheese. “Is there anything else you need?” she asked, her voice unusually hoarse.

Roran did not answer, but cupped her cheek and stroked it twice with his thumb. She smiled tremulously and laid a hand over his, then returned to washing and began to scrub with renewed vigor.

Roran stared at the food for a long time before he took a bite; he was still so tense, he doubted he could stomach it. After a few mouthfuls of bread, however, his appetite returned, and he began to consume the stew with eagerness.

When he was done, he placed the dishes on the ground and then sat warming his hands over the fire while he nursed the last few sips of beer.

“We heard the crash when the gates fell,” said Katrina, wringing a bandage dry. “They didn’t hold for very long.”

“No.… It helps to have a dragon on your side.”

Roran gazed at her belly as she draped the bandage over the makeshift clothesline that ran from the peak of their tent across to a neighboring one. Whenever he thought of the child she was carrying, the child that the two of them had created, he felt an enormous sense of pride, but it was tinged with anxiety, for he did not know how he could hope to provide a safe home for their baby. Also, if the war was not over by the time Katrina gave birth, she intended to leave him and go to Surda, where she might raise their child in relative safety.

I can’t lose her, not again.

Katrina immersed another bandage in the tub. “And the battle in the city?” she asked, churning the water. “How went it?”

“We had to fight for every foot. Even Eragon had a hard time of it.”

“The wounded spoke of ballistae mounted on wheels.”

“Aye.” Roran wet his tongue with ale, then quickly described how the Varden had moved through Belatona and the setbacks they had encountered along the way. “We lost too many men today, but it could have been worse. Much worse. Jörmundur and Captain Martland planned the attack well.”

“Their plan wouldn’t have worked, though, if not for you and Eragon. You acquitted yourself most bravely.”

Roran loosed a single bark of laughter: “Ha! And do you know why that is? I’ll tell you. Not one man in ten is actually willing to attack the enemy. Eragon doesn’t see it; he’s always at the forefront of the battle, driving the soldiers before him, but I see it. Most of the men hang back and don’t fight unless they are cornered. Or they wave their arms about and make a lot of noise but don’t actually do anything.”

Katrina looked appalled. “How can that be? Are they cowards?”

“I don’t know. I think … I think that, perhaps, they just can’t bring themselves to look a man in the face and kill him, although it seems easy enough for them to cut down soldiers whose backs are turned. So they wait for others to do what they cannot. They wait for people like me.”

“Do you think Galbatorix’s men are equally reluctant?”

Roran shrugged. “They might be. But then, they have no choice but to obey Galbatorix. If he orders them to fight, they fight.”

“Nasuada could do the same. She could have her magicians cast spells to ensure that no one shirks their duty.”

“What difference would there be between her and Galbatorix, then? In any case, the Varden wouldn’t stand for it.”

Katrina left her washing to come and kiss him on the forehead. “I’m glad you can do what you do,” she whispered. She returned to the tub and began scrubbing another strip of soiled linen over the washboard. “I felt something earlier, from my ring.… I thought maybe something had happened to you.”

“I was in the middle of a battle. It wouldn’t be surprising if you had felt a twinge every few minutes.”

She paused with her arms in the water. “I never have before.”

He drained the mug of ale, seeking to delay the inevitable. He had hoped to spare her the details of his misadventure in the castle, but it was plain that she would not rest until she knew the truth. Attempting to convince her otherwise would only lead her to imagine calamities far worse than what had actually occurred. Besides, it would be pointless for him to hold back when news of the event would soon be common throughout the Varden.

So he told her. He gave her a brief account and tried to make the collapse of the wall seem more like a minor inconvenience rather than something that had almost killed him. Still, he found it difficult to describe the experience, and he spoke haltingly, searching for the right words. When he finished, he fell silent, troubled by the remembrance.

“At least you weren’t hurt,” said Katrina.

He picked at a crack in the lip of the mug. “No.”

The sound of sloshing water ceased, and he could feel her eyes heavy upon him.

“You’ve faced far greater danger before.”

“Yes … I suppose.”

Her voice softened. “What’s wrong, then?” When he did not answer, she said, “There’s nothing so terrible you can’t tell me, Roran. You know that.”

The edge of his right thumbnail tore as he picked at the mug again. He rubbed the sharp flap against his forefinger several times. “I thought I was going to die when the wall fell.”

“Anyone might have.”

“Yes, but the thing is, I didn’t mind.” Anguished, he looked at her. “Don’t you understand? I gave up. When I realized I couldn’t escape, I accepted it as meekly as a lamb led to slaughter, and I—” Unable to continue, he dropped the mug and hid his face in his hands. The swelling in his throat made it hard to breathe. Then he felt Katrina’s fingers light upon his shoulders. “I gave up,” he growled, furious and disgusted with himself. “I just stopped fighting.… For you … For our child.” He choked on the words.

“Shh, shh,” she murmured.

“I’ve never given up before. Not once.… Not even when the Ra’zac took you.”

“I know you haven’t.”

“This fighting has to end. It can’t go on like this.… I can’t … I—” He raised his head and was horrified to see that she too was on the verge of tears. Standing, he wrapped his arms around her and held her close. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.… It won’t happen again. Never again. I promise.”

“I don’t care about that,” she said, her voice muffled against his shoulder.

Her reply stung him. “I know I was weak, but my word still ought to be worth something to you.”

“That’s not what I meant!” she exclaimed, and drew back to look at him accusingly. “You’re a fool sometimes, Roran.”

He smiled slightly. “I know.”

She clasped her hands behind his neck. “I wouldn’t think any less of you, regardless of what you felt when the wall came down. All that matters is that you’re still alive.… There wasn’t anything you could do when the wall fell, was there?”

He shook his head.

“Then you have nothing to be ashamed of. If you could have stopped it, or if you could