“Then can you teach me to use magic?” When Eragon hesitated, Roran added, “Not now, of course. We don’t have the time, and I don’t expect one can become a magician overnight anyway. But in general, why not? You and I are cousins. We share much the same blood. And it would be a valuable skill to have.”
“I don’t know how someone who’s not a Rider learns to use magic,” confessed Eragon. “It’s not something I studied.” Glancing around, he plucked a flat, round stone from the ground and tossed it to Roran, who caught it backhand. “Here, try this: concentrate on lifting the rock a foot or so into the air and say, ‘Stenr rïsa.’”
Roran frowned at the stone resting on his palm in a pose so reminiscent of Eragon’s own training that Eragon could not help feeling a flash of nostalgia for the days he spent being drilled by Brom. Roran’s eyebrows met, his lips tightened into a snarl, and he growled, “Stenr rïsa!” with enough intensity, Eragon half expected the stone to fly out of sight.
Scowling even harder, Roran repeated his command: “Stenr rïsa!”
The stone exhibited a profound lack of movement.
“Well,” said Eragon, “keep trying. That’s the only advice I can give you. But”—and here he raised a finger—“if you should happen to succeed, make sure you immediately come to me or, if I’m not around, another magician. You could kill yourself and others if you start experimenting with magic without understanding the rules. If nothing else, remember this: if you cast a spell that requires too much energy, you will die. Don’t take on projects that are beyond your abilities, don’t try to bring back the dead, and don’t try to unmake anything.”
Roran nodded, still looking at the stone.
“Magic aside, I just realized there’s something far more important that you need to learn.”
“Yes, you need to be able to hide your thoughts from the Black Hand, Du Vrangr Gata, and others like them. You know a lot of things now that could harm the Varden. It’s crucial, then, that you master this skill as soon as we return. Until you can defend yourself from spies, neither Nasuada nor I nor anyone else can trust you with information that might help our enemies.”
“I understand. But why did you include Du Vrangr Gata in that list? They serve you and Nasuada.”
“They do, but even among our allies there are more than a few people who would give their right arm”—he grimaced at the appropriateness of the phrase—“to ferret out our plans and secrets. And yours too, no less. You have become a somebody, Roran. Partly because of your deeds, and partly because we are related.”
“I know. It is strange to be recognized by those you have not met.”
“That it is.” Several other, related observations leaped to the tip of Eragon’s tongue, but he resisted the urge to pursue the topic; it was a subject to explore another time. “Now that you know what it feels like when one mind touches another, you might be able to learn to reach out and touch other minds in turn.”
“I’m not sure that is an ability I want to have.”
“No matter; you also might not be able to do it. Either way, before you spend time finding out, you should first devote yourself to the art of defense.”
His cousin cocked an eyebrow. “How?”
“Choose something—a sound, an image, an emotion, anything—and let it swell within your mind until it blots out any other thoughts.”
“It’s not as easy as you think. Go on; take a stab at it. When you’re ready, let me know, and I’ll see how well you’ve done.”
Several moments passed. Then, at a flick of Roran’s fingers, Eragon launched his consciousness toward his cousin, eager to discover what he had accomplished.
The full strength of Eragon’s mental ray rammed into a wall composed of Roran’s memories of Katrina and was stopped. He could take no ground, find no entrance or purchase, nor undermine the impenetrable barrier that stood before him. At that instant, Roran’s entire identity was based upon his feelings for Katrina; his defenses exceeded any Eragon had previously encountered, for Roran’s mind was devoid of anything else Eragon could grasp hold of and use to gain control over his cousin.
Then Roran shifted his left leg and the wood underneath released a harsh squeal.
With that, the wall Eragon had hurled himself against fractured into dozens of pieces as a host of competing thoughts distracted Roran: What was … Blast! Don’t pay attention to it; he’ll break through. Katrina, remember Katrina. Ignore Eragon. The night she agreed to marry me, the smell of the grass and her hair … Is that him? No! Focus! Don’t—
Taking advantage of Roran’s confusion, Eragon rushed forward and, by the force of his will, immobilized Roran before he could shield himself again.
You understand the basic concept, said Eragon, then withdrew from Roran’s mind and said out loud, “but you have to learn to maintain your concentration even when you’re in the middle of a battle. You must learn to think without thinking … to empty yourself of all hopes and worries, save that one idea that is your armor. Something the elves taught me, which I have found helpful, is to recite a riddle or a piece of a poem or song. Having an action that you can repeat over and over again makes it much easier to keep your mind from straying.”
“I’ll work on it,” promised Roran.
In a quiet voice, Eragon said, “You really love her, don’t you?” It was more a statement of truth and wonder than a question—the answer being self-evident—and one he felt uncertain making. Romance was not a topic Eragon had broached with his cousin before, notwithstanding the many hours they had devoted in years past to debating the relative merits of the young women in and around Carvahall. “How did it happen?”
“I liked her. She liked me. What importance are the details?”
“Come now,” said Eragon. “I was too angry to ask before you left for Therinsford, and we have not seen each other again until just four days ago. I’m curious.”
The skin around Roran’s eyes pulled and wrinkled as he rubbed his temples. “There’s not much to tell. I’ve always been partial to her. It meant little before I was a man, but after my rites of passage, I began to wonder whom I would marry and whom I wanted to become the mother of my children. During one of our visits to Carvahall, I saw Katrina stop by the side of Loring’s house to pick a moss rose growing in the shade of the eaves. She smiled as she looked at the flower…. It was such a tender smile, and so happy, I decided right then that I wanted to make her smile like that again and again and that I wanted to look at that smile until the day I died.” Tears gleamed in Roran’s eyes, but they did not fall, and a second later, he blinked and they vanished. “I fear I have failed in that regard.”
After a respectful pause, Eragon said, “You courted her, then? Aside from using me to ferry compliments to Katrina, how else did you proceed?”
“You ask like one who seeks instruction.”
“I did not. You’re imagining—”
“Come now, yourself,” said Roran. “I know when you’re lying. You get that big foolish grin, and your ears turn red. The elves may have given you a new face, but that part of you hasn’t changed. What is it that exists between you and Arya?”
The strength of Roran’s perception disturbed Eragon. “Nothing! The moon has addled your brain.”
“Be honest. You dote upon her words as if each one were a diamond, and your gaze lingers upon her as if you were starving and she a grand feast arrayed an inch beyond your reach.”
A plume of dark gray smoke erupted from Saphira’s nostrils as she made a choking-like noise.
Eragon ignored her suppressed merriment and said, “Arya is an elf.”
“And very beautiful. Pointed ears and slanted eyes are small flaws when compared with her charms. You look like a cat yourself now.”
“Arya is over a hundred years old.”
r piece of information caught Roran by surprise; his eyebrows went up, and he said, “I find that hard to believe! She’s in the prime of her youth.”
“Well, be that as it may, these are reasons you give me, Eragon, and the heart rarely listens to reason. Do you fancy her or not?”
If he fancied her any more, Saphira said to both Eragon and Roran, I’d be trying to kiss Arya myself.
Saphira! Mortified, Eragon swatted her on the leg.
Roran was prudent enough not to rib Eragon further. “Then answer my original question and tell me how things stand between you and Arya. Have you spoken to her or her family about this? I have found it’s unwise to let such matters fester.”
“Aye,” said Eragon, and stared at the length of polished hawthorn. “I spoke with her.”
“To what end?” When Eragon did not immediately reply, Roran uttered a frustrated exclamation. “Getting answers out of you is harder than dragging Birka through the mud.” Eragon chuckled at the mention of Birka, one of their draft horses. “Saphira, will you solve this puzzle for me? Otherwise, I fear I’ll never get a full explanation.”
“To no end. No end at all. She’ll not have me.” Eragon spoke dispassionately, as if commenting on a stranger’s misfortune, but within him raged a torrent of hurt so deep and wild, he felt Saphira withdraw somewhat from him.
“I’m sorry,” said Roran.
Eragon forced a swallow past the lump in his throat, past the bruise that was his heart, and down to the knotted skein of his stomach. “It happens.”
“I know it may seem unlikely at the moment,” said Roran, “but I’m sure you will meet another woman who will make you forget this Arya. There are countless maids—and more than a few married women, I’d wager—who would be delighted to catch the eye of a Rider. You’ll have no trouble finding a wife among all the lovelies in Alagaësia.”
“And what would you have done if Katrina rejected your suit?”
The question struck Roran dumb; it was obvious he could not imagine how he might have reacted.
Eragon continued. “Contrary to what you, Arya, and everyone else seem to believe, I am aware that other eligible women exist in Alagaësia and that people have been known to fall in love more than once. No doubt, if I spent my days in the company of ladies from King Orrin’s court, I might indeed decide that I fancy one. However, my path is not so easy as that. Regardless of whether I can shift my affections to another—and the heart, as you observed, is a notoriously fickle beast—the question remains: should I?”
“Your tongue has grown as twisted as the roots of a fir tree,” said Roran. “Speak not in riddles.”
“Very well: what human woman can begin to understand who and what I am, or the extent of my powers? Who could share in my life? Few enough, and all of them magicians. And of that select group, or even of women in general, how many are immortal?”
Roran laughed, a rough, hearty bellow that rang loud in the gulch. “You might as well ask for the sun in your pocket or—” He stopped and tensed as if he were about to spring forward and then became unnaturally still. “You cannot be.”
Roran struggled to find words. “Is it a result of your change in Ellesméra, or is it part of being a Rider?”
“Part of being a Rider.”
“That explains why Galbatorix hasn’t died.”
The branch Roran had added to the fire burst asunder with a muted pop as the coals underneath heated the gnarled length of wood to the point where a small cache of water or sap that had somehow evaded the rays of the sun for untold decades exploded into steam.
“The idea is so … vast, it’s almost inconceivable,” said Roran. “Death is part of who we are. It guides us. It shapes us. It drives us to madness. Can you still be human if you have no mortal end?”
“I’m not invincible,” Eragon pointed out. “I can still be killed with a sword or an arrow. And I can still catch some incurable disease.”
“But if you avoid those dangers, you will live forever.”
“If I do, then yes. Saphira and I will endure.”
“It seems both a blessing and a curse.”
“Aye. I cannot in good conscience marry a woman who will age and die while I remain untouched by time; such an experience would be equally cruel for both of us. On top of that, I find the thought of taking one wife after another throughout the long centuries rather depressing.”
“Can you make someone immortal with magic?” asked Roran.
“You can darken white hair, you can smooth wrinkles and remove cataracts, and if you are willing to go to extraordinary lengths, you can give a sixty-year-old man the body he had at nineteen. However, the elves have never discovered a way to restore a person’s mind without destroying his or her memories. And who wants to erase their identity every so many decades in exchange for immortality? It would be a stranger, then, who lived on. An old brain in a young body isn’t the answer either, for even with the best of health, that which we humans are made of can only last for a century, perhaps a bit more. Nor can you just stop someone from aging. That causes a whole host of other problems…. Oh, elves and men have tried a thousand and one different ways to foil death, but none have proved successful.”
“In other words,” said Roran, “it’s safer for you to love Arya than to leave your heart free for the taking by a human woman.”
“Who else can I marry but an elf? Especially considering how I look now.” Eragon quelled the desire to reach up and finger the curved tips of his ears, a habit he had fallen into. “When I lived in Ellesméra, it was easy for me to accept how the dragons had changed my appearance. After all, they gave me many gifts besides. Also, the elves were friendlier toward me after the Agaetí Blödhren. It was only when I rejoined the Varden that I realized how different I’ve become…. It bothers me too. I’m no longer just human, and I’m not quite an elf. I’m something else in between: a mix, a half-breed.”
“Cheer up!” said Roran. “You may not have to worry about living forever. Galbatorix, Murtagh, the Ra’zac, or even one of the Empire’s soldiers could put steel through us at any moment. A wise man would ignore the future and drink and carouse while he still has an opportunity to enjoy this world.”
“I know what Father would say to that.”
“And he’d give us a good hiding to boot.”
They shared a laugh, and then the silence that so often intruded on their discussion asserted itself once again, a gap born of equal parts weariness, familiarity, and—conversely—the many differences that fate had created between those who had once gone about lives that were but variations on a single melody.
You should sleep, said Saphira to Eragon and Roran. It’s late, and we must rise early tomorrow.
Eragon looked at the black vault of the sky, judging the hour by how far the stars had rotated. The night was older than he expected. “Sound advice,” he said. “I just wish we had a few more days to rest before we storm Helgrind. The battle on the Burning Plains drained all of Saphira’s strength and my own, and we have not fully recovered, what with flying here and the energy I transferred into the belt of Beloth the Wise these past two evenings. My limbs still ache, and I have more bruises than I can count. Look….” Loosening the ties on the cuff of his left shirtsleeve, he pushed back the soft lámarae—a fabric the elves made by cross-weaving wool and nettle threads—revealing a rancid yellow streak where his shield had mashed against his forearm.
“Ha!” said Roran. “You call that tiny little mark a bruise? I hurt myself worse when I bumped my toe this morning. Here, I’ll show you a bruise a man can be proud of.” He unlaced his left boot, pulled it off, and rolled up the leg of his trousers to expose a black stripe as wide as Eragon’s thumb that slanted across his quadriceps. “I caught the haft of a spear as a soldier was turning about.”
“Impressive, but I have even better.” Ducking out of his tunic, Eragon yanked his shirt free
of his trousers and twisted to the side so that Roran could see the large blotch on his ribs and the similar discoloration on his belly. “Arrows,” he explained. Then he uncovered his right forearm, revealing a bruise that matched the one on his other arm, given when he had deflected a sword with his bracer.
Now Roran bared a collection of irregular blue-green spots, each the size of a gold coin, that marched from his left armpit down to the base of his spine, the result of having fallen upon a jumble of rocks and embossed armor.
Eragon inspected the lesions, then chuckled and said, “Pshaw, those are pinpricks! Did you get lost and run into a rosebush? I have one that puts those to shame.” He removed both his boots, then stood and dropped his trousers, so that his only garb was his shirt and woolen underpants. “Top that if you can,” he said, and pointed to the inside of his thighs. A riotous combination of colors mottled his skin, as if Eragon were an exotic fruit that was ripening in uneven patches from crabapple green to putrefied purple.
“Ouch,” said Roran. “What happened?”
“I jumped off Saphira when we were fighting Murtagh and Thorn in the air. That’s how I wounded Thorn. Saphira managed to dive under me and catch me before I hit the ground, but I landed on her back a bit harder than I wanted to.”
Roran winced and shivered at the same time. “Does it go all the way …” He trailed off, and made a vague gesture upward.
“I have to admit, that’s a remarkable bruise. You should be proud; it’s quite a feat to get injured in the manner you did and in that… particular … place.”
“I’m glad you appreciate it.”
“Well,” said Roran, “you may have the biggest bruise, but the Ra’zac dealt me a wound the likes of which you cannot match, since the dragons, as I understand, removed the scar from your back.” While he spoke, he divested himself of his shirt and moved farther into the pulsing light of the coals.
Eragon’s eyes widened before he caught himself and concealed his shock behind a more neutral expression. He berated himself for overreacting, thinking, It can’t be that bad, but the longer he studied Roran, the more dismayed he became.