“What am I supposed to do? I’m more likely to run into a wall and break my nose than I am to find those two beetles…. They could sneak around behind us and stab us in the back.”
“Shh…. Hold on to my belt, follow me, and be ready to duck.”
Eragon could not see, but he could still hear, smell, touch, and taste, and those faculties were sensitive enough that he had a fair idea of what lay nearby. The greatest danger was that the Ra’zac would attack from a distance, perhaps with a bow, but he trusted that his reflexes were sharp enough to save Roran and himself from an oncoming missile.
A current of air tickled Eragon’s skin, then paused and reversed itself as pressure from the outside waxed and waned. The cycle repeated itself at inconsistent intervals, creating invisible eddies that brushed against him like fountains of roiling water.
His breathing, and Roran’s, was loud and ragged compared with the odd assortment of sounds that propagated through the tunnel. Above the gusts of their respiration, Eragon caught the tink, clink, clatter of a stone falling somewhere in the tangle of branching tubes and the steady doink … doink … doink of condensed droplets striking the drumlike surface of a subterranean pool. He also heard the grind of pea-sized gravel crushed underneath the soles of his boots. A long, eerie moan wavered somewhere far ahead of them.
Of smells, none were new: sweat, blood, damp, and mold.
Step by step, Eragon led the way as they burrowed farther into the bowels of Helgrind. The tunnel slanted downward and often split or turned, so that Eragon would have soon been lost if he had not been able to use Katrina’s mind as a reference point. The various knobby holes were low and cramped. Once, when Eragon bumped his head against the ceiling, a sudden flare of claustrophobia unnerved him.
I’m back, Saphira announced just as Eragon put his foot on a rugged step hewn out of the rock below him. He paused. She had escaped additional injury, which relieved him.
And the Lethrblaka?
Floating belly-up in Leona Lake. I’m afraid that some fishermen saw our battle. They were rowing toward Dras-Leona when I last saw them.
Well, it can’t be helped. See what you can find in the tunnel the Lethrblaka came out of. And keep an eye out for the Ra’zac. They may try to slip past us and escape Helgrind through the entrance we used.
They probably have a bolt-hole at ground level.
Probably, but I don’t think they’ll run quite yet.
After what seemed like an hour trapped in the darkness—though Eragon knew it could not have been more than ten or fifteen minutes—and after descending more than a hundred feet through Helgrind, Eragon stopped on a level patch of stone. Transmitting his thoughts to Roran, he said, Katrina’s cell is about fifty feet in front of us, on the right.
We can’t risk letting her out until the Ra’zac are dead or gone.
What if they won’t reveal themselves until we do let her out? For some reason, I can’t sense them. They could hide from me until doomsday in here. So do we wait for who knows how long, or do we free Katrina while we still have the chance? I can place some wards around her that should protect her from most attacks.
Roran was quiet for a second. Let’s free her, then.
They began to move forward again, feeling their way along the squat corridor with its rough, unfinished floor. Eragon had to devote most of his attention to his footing in order to maintain his balance.
As a result, he almost missed the swish of cloth sliding over cloth and then the faint twang that emanated from off to his right.
He recoiled against the wall, shoving Roran back. At the same time, something augered past his face, carving a groove of flesh from his right cheek. The thin trench burned as if cauterized.
“Kveykva!” shouted Eragon.
Red light, bright as the midday sun, flared into existence. It had no source, and thus it illuminated every surface evenly and without shadows, giving things a curious flat appearance. The sudden blaze dazzled Eragon, but it did more than that to the lone Ra’zac in front of him; the creature dropped its bow, covered its hooded face, and screamed high and shrill. A similar screech told Eragon that the second Ra’zac was behind them.
Eragon pivoted just in time to see Roran charge the other Ra’zac, hammer held high. The disoriented monster stumbled backward but was too slow. The hammer fell. “For my father!” shouted Roran. He struck again. “For our home!” The Ra’zac was already dead, but Roran lifted the hammer once more. “For Carvahall!” His final blow shattered the Ra’zac’s carapace like the rind of a dry gourd. In the merciless ruby glare, the spreading pool of blood appeared purple.
Spinning his staff in a circle to knock aside the arrow or sword that he was convinced was driving toward him, Eragon turned to confront the remaining Ra’zac. The tunnel before them was empty. He swore.
Eragon strode over to the twisted figure on the floor. He swung the staff over his head and brought it down across the chest of the dead Ra’zac with a resounding thud.
“I’ve waited a long time to do that,” said Eragon.
“As have I.”
He and Roran looked at each other.
“Ahh!” cried Eragon, and clutched his cheek as the pain intensified.
“It’s bubbling!” exclaimed Roran. “Do something!”
The Ra’zac must have coated the arrowhead with Seithr oil, thought Eragon. Remembering his training, he cleansed the wound and surrounding tissue with an incantation and then repaired the damage to his face. He opened and closed his mouth several times to make sure the muscles were working properly. With a grim smile, he said, “Imagine the state we’d be in without magic.”
“Without magic, we wouldn’t have Galbatorix to worry about.”
Talk later, said Saphira. As soon as those fishermen reach Dras-Leona, the king may hear of our doings from one of his pet spellcasters in the city, and we do not want Galbatorix scrying Helgrind while we are still here.
Yes, yes, said Eragon. Extinguishing the omnipresent red glow, he said, “Brisingr raudhr,” and created a red werelight like that from the previous night, except that this one remained anchored six inches from the ceiling instead of accompanying Eragon wherever he went.
Now that he had an opportunity to examine the tunnel in some detail, Eragon saw that the stone hallway was dotted with twenty or so ironbound doors, some on either side. He pointed and said, “Ninth down, on the right. You go get her. I’ll check the other cells. The Ra’zac might have left something interesting in them.”
Roran nodded. Crouching, he searched the corpse at their feet but found no keys. He shrugged. “I’ll do it the hard way, then.” He sprinted to the proper door, abandoned his shield, and set to work on the hinges with his hammer. Each blow created a frightful crash.
Eragon did not offer to help. His cousin would not want or appreciate assistance now, and besides, there was something else Eragon had to do. He went to the first cell, whispered three words, then, after the lock snapped open, pushed aside the door. All that the small room contained was a black chain and a pile of rotting bones. Those sad remains were no more than he had expected; he already knew where the object of his search lay, but he maintained the charade of ignorance to avoid kindling Roran’s suspicion.
Two more doors opened and closed beneath the touch of Eragon’s fingers. Then, at the fourth cell, the door swung back to admit the shifting radiance of the werelight and reveal the very man Eragon had hoped he would not find: Sloan.
The butcher sat slumped against the left-hand wall, both arms chained to an iron ring above his head. His ragged clothes barely covered his pale, emaciated body; the corners of his bones stood out in sharp relief underneath his translucent skin. His blue veins were also prominent. Sores had formed on his wrists where the manacles chafed. The ulcers oozed a mixture of clear fluid and blood. What remained of his hair had turned gray or white and hung in lank, greasy ropes over his pockmarked face.
ed by the clang of Roran’s hammer, Sloan lifted his chin toward the light and, in a quavering voice, asked, “Who is it? Who’s there?” His hair parted and slid back, exposing his eye sockets, which had sunk deep into his skull. Where his eyelids should have been, there were now only a few scraps of tattered skin draped over the raw cavities underneath. The area around them was bruised and scabbed.
With a shock, Eragon realized that the Ra’zac had pecked out Sloan’s eyes.
What he then should do, Eragon could not decide. The butcher had told the Ra’zac that Eragon had found Saphira’s egg. Furthermore, Sloan had murdered the watchman, Byrd, and had betrayed Carvahall to the Empire. If he were brought before his fellow villagers, they would undoubtedly find Sloan guilty and condemn him to death by hanging.
It seemed only right, to Eragon, that the butcher should die for his crimes. That was not the source of his uncertainty. Rather, it arose from the fact that Roran loved Katrina, and Katrina, whatever Sloan had done, must still harbor a certain degree of affection for her father. Watching an arbitrator publicly denounce Sloan’s offenses and then hang him would be no easy thing for her or, by extension, Roran. Such hardship might even create enough ill will between them to end their engagement. Either way, Eragon was convinced that taking Sloan back with them would sow discord between him, Roran, Katrina, and the other villagers, and might engender enough anger to distract them from their struggle against the Empire.
The easiest solution, thought Eragon, would be to kill him and say that I found him dead in the cell…. His lips trembled, one of the death-words heavy upon his tongue.
“What do you want?” asked Sloan. He turned his head from side to side in an attempt to hear better. “I already told you everything I know!”
Eragon cursed himself for hesitating. Sloan’s guilt was not in dispute; he was a murderer and a traitor. Any lawgiver would sentence him to execution.
Notwithstanding the merit of those arguments, it was Sloan who was curled in front of him, a man Eragon had known his entire life. The butcher might be a despicable person, but the wealth of memories and experiences Eragon shared with him bred a sense of intimacy that troubled Eragon’s conscience. To strike down Sloan would be like raising his hand against Horst or Loring or any of the elders of Carvahall.
Again Eragon prepared to utter the fatal word.
An image appeared in his mind’s eye: Torkenbrand, the slaver he and Murtagh had encountered during their flight to the Varden, kneeling on the dusty ground and Murtagh striding up to him and beheading him. Eragon remembered how he had objected to Murtagh’s deed and how it had troubled him for days afterward.
Have I changed so much, he asked himself, that I can do the same thing now? As Roran said, I have killed, but only in the heat of battle … never like this.
He glanced over his shoulder as Roran broke the last hinge to Katrina’s cell door. Dropping his hammer, Roran prepared to charge the door and knock it inward but then appeared to think better of it and tried to lift it free of its frame. The door rose a fraction of an inch, then halted and wobbled in his grip. “Give me a hand here!” he shouted. “I don’t want it to fall on her.”
Eragon looked back at the wretched butcher. He had no more time for mindless wanderings. He had to choose. One way or another, he had to choose….
I don’t know what’s right, realized Eragon. His own uncertainty told him that it would be wrong to kill Sloan or return him to the Varden. He had no idea what he should do instead, except to find a third path, one that was less obvious and less violent.
Lifting his hand, as if in benediction, Eragon whispered, “Slytha.” Sloan’s manacles rattled as he went limp, falling into a profound sleep. As soon as he was sure the spell had taken hold, Eragon closed and locked the cell door again and replaced his wards around it.
What are you up to, Eragon? asked Saphira.
Wait until we’re together again. I’ll explain then.
Explain what? You don’t have a plan.
Give me a minute and I will.
“What was in there?” asked Roran as Eragon took his place opposite him.
“Sloan.” Eragon adjusted his grip on the door between them. “He’s dead.”
Roran’s eyes widened. “How?”
“Looks like they broke his neck.”
For an instant, Eragon feared that Roran might not believe him. Then his cousin grunted and said, “It’s better that way, I suppose. Ready? One, two, three—”
Together, they heaved the massive door out of its casing and threw it across the hallway. The stone passageway returned the resulting boom to them again and again. Without pause, Roran rushed into the cell, which was lit by a single wax taper. Eragon followed a step behind.
Katrina cowered at the far end of an iron cot. “Let me alone, you toothless bastards! I—” She stopped, struck dumb as Roran stepped forward. Her face was white from lack of sun and streaked with filth, yet at that moment, a look of such wonder and tender love blossomed upon her features, Eragon thought he had rarely seen anyone so beautiful.
Never taking her eyes off Roran, Katrina stood and, with a shaking hand, touched his cheek.
A laughing sob broke out of Roran, and he folded her in his arms, pulling her against his chest. They remained lost in their embrace for a long moment.
Drawing back, Roran kissed her three times on the lips. Katrina wrinkled her nose and exclaimed, “You grew a beard!” Of all the things she could have said, that was so unexpected—and she sounded so shocked and surprised—that Eragon chuckled in response.
For the first time, Katrina seemed to notice him. She glanced him over, then settled on his face, which she studied with evident puzzlement. “Eragon? Is that you?”
“He’s a Dragon Rider now,” said Roran.
“A Rider? You mean …” She faltered; the revelation seemed to overwhelm her. Glancing at Roran, as if for protection, she held him even closer and sidled around him, away from Eragon. To Roran, she said, “How … how did you find us? Who else is with you?”
“All that later. We have to get out of Helgrind before the rest of the Empire comes running after us.”
“Wait! What about my father? Did you find him?”
Roran looked at Eragon, then returned his gaze to Katrina and gently said, “We were too late.”
A shiver ran through Katrina. She closed her eyes, and a solitary tear leaked down the side of her face. “So be it.”
While they spoke, Eragon frantically tried to figure out how to dispose of Sloan, although he concealed his deliberations from Saphira; he knew that she would disapprove of the direction his thoughts were taking. A scheme began to form in his mind. It was an outlandish concept, fraught with danger and uncertainty, but it was the only viable path, given the circumstances.
Abandoning further reflection, Eragon sprang into action. He had much to do in little time. “Jierda!” he cried, pointing. With a burst of blue sparks and flying fragments, the metal bands riveted around Katrina’s ankles broke apart. Katrina jumped in surprise.
“Magic …,” she whispered.
“A simple spell.” She shrank from his touch as he reached toward her. “Katrina, I have to make sure that Galbatorix or one of his magicians hasn’t enchanted you with any traps or forced you to swear things in the ancient language.”
Roran interrupted her: “Eragon! Do this when we make camp. We can’t stay here.”
“No.” Eragon slashed his arm through the air. “We do it now.” Scowling, Roran moved aside and allowed Eragon to put his hands on Katrina’s shoulders. “Just look into my eyes,” he told her. She nodded and obeyed.
That was the first time Eragon had a reason to use the spells Oromis had taught him for detecting the work of another spell-caster, and he had difficulty remembering every word from the scrolls in Ellesméra. The gaps i
n his memory were so serious that on three different instances he had to rely upon a synonym to complete an incantation.
For a long while, Eragon stared into Katrina’s glistening eyes and mouthed phrases in the ancient language, occasionally—and with her permission—examining one of her memories for evidence that someone had tampered with it. He was as gentle as possible, unlike the Twins, who had ravaged his own mind in a similar procedure the day he arrived at Farthen Dûr.
Roran stood guard, pacing back and forth in front of the open doorway. Every second that went by increased his agitation; he twirled his hammer and tapped the head of it against his upper thigh, as if keeping time with a piece of music.
At last Eragon released Katrina. “I’m done.”
“What did you find?” she whispered. She hugged herself, her forehead creased with worry lines as she waited for his verdict. Silence filled the cell as Roran came to a standstill.
“Nothing but your own thoughts. You are free of any spells.”
“Of course she is,” growled Roran, and again wrapped her in his arms.
Together, the three of them exited the cell. “Brisingr, iet tauthr,” said Eragon, gesturing at the werelight that still floated near the ceiling of the hallway. At his command, the glowing orb darted to a spot directly over his head and remained there, bobbing like a piece of driftwood in the surf.
Eragon took the lead as they hurried back through the jumble of tunnels toward the cavern where they had landed. As he trotted across the slick rock, he watched for the remaining Ra’zac while, at the same time, erecting wards to safeguard Katrina. Behind him, he heard her and Roran exchange a series of brief phrases and lone words: “I love you … Horst and others safe … Always… For you … Yes… Yes… Yes… Yes.” The trust and affection they shared were so obvious, it roused a dull ache of longing inside Eragon.
When they were about ten yards from the main cavern and could just begin to see by the faint glow ahead of them, Eragon extinguished the werelight. A few feet later, Katrina slowed, then pressed herself against the side of the tunnel and covered her face. “I can’t. It’s too bright; my eyes hurt.”