Which was the basis of her argument with Fadawar.
Fadawar again jabbed his scepter into the ground. “Blood is the most important thing! First come your responsibilities to your family, then to your tribe, then to your warlord, then to the gods above and below, and only then to your king and to your nation, if you have them. That is how Unulukuna intended men to live, and that is how we should live if we want to be happy. Are you brave enough to spit on the shoes of the Old One? If a man does not help his family, whom can he depend upon to help him? Friends are fickle, but family is forever.”
“You ask me,” said Nasuada, “to give positions of power to your fellow kinsmen because you are my mother’s cousin and because my father was born among you. This I would be happy to do if your kinsmen could fulfill those positions better than anyone else in the Varden, but nothing you have said thus far has convinced me that is so. And before you squander more of your gilt-tongued eloquence, you should know that appeals based upon our shared blood are meaningless to me. I would give your request greater consideration if ever you had done more to support my father than send trinkets and empty promises to Farthen Dûr. Only now that victory and influence are mine have you made yourself known to me. Well, my parents are dead, and I say I have no family but myself. You are my people, yes, but nothing more.”
Fadawar narrowed his eyes and lifted his chin and said, “A woman’s pride is always without sense. You shall fail without our support.”
He had switched to his native language, which forced Nasuada to respond in kind. She hated him for it. Her halting speech and uncertain tones exposed her unfamiliarity with her birth tongue, emphasizing that she had not grown up in their tribe but was an outsider. The ploy undermined her authority. “I always welcome new allies,” she said. “However, I cannot indulge in favoritism, nor should you have need of it. Your tribes are strong and well gifted. They should be able to rise quickly through the ranks of the Varden without having to rely upon the charity of others. Are you starving dogs to sit whining at my table, or are you men who can feed themselves? If you can, then I look forward to working with you to better the Varden’s lot and to defeat Galbatorix.”
“Bah!” exclaimed Fadawar. “Your offer is as false as you are. We shall not do servants’ work; we are the chosen ones. You insult us, you do. You stand there and you smile, but your heart is full of scorpion’s poison.”
Stifling her anger, Nasuada attempted to calm the warlord. “It was not my intent to cause offense. I was only trying to explain my position. I have no enmity for the wandering tribes, nor have I any special love for them. Is that such a bad thing?”
“It is worse than bad, it is bald-faced treachery! Your father made certain requests of us based upon our relation, and now you ignore our service and turn us away like empty-handed beggars!”
A sense of resignation overwhelmed Nasuada. So Elva was right—it is inevitable, she thought. A thrill of fear and excitement coursed through her. If it must be, then I have no reason to maintain this charade. Allowing her voice to ring forth, she said, “Requests that you did not honor half the time.”
“You did not. And even if you were telling the truth, the Varden’s position is too precarious for me to give you something for nothing. You ask for favors, yet tell me, what do you offer in return? Will you help fund the Varden with your gold and jewels?”
“Not directly, but—”
“Will you give me the use of your craftsmen, free of charge?”
“We could not—”
“How, then, do you intend to earn these boons? You cannot pay with warriors; your men already fight for me, whether in the Varden or in King Orrin’s army. Be content with what you have, Warlord, and do not seek more than is rightfully yours.”
“You twist the truth to suit your own selfish goals. I seek what is rightfully ours! That is why I am here. You talk and you talk, yet your words are meaningless, for by your actions, you have betrayed us.” The bangles on his arms clattered together as he gestured, as if before an audience of thousands. “You admit we are your people. Then do you still follow our customs and worship our gods?”
Here is the turning point, thought Nasuada. She could lie and claim she had abandoned the old ways, but if she did, the Varden would lose Fadawar’s tribes, and other nomads besides, once they heard of her statement. We need them. We need everyone we can get if we’re to have the slightest chance of toppling Galbatorix.
“I do,” she said.
“Then I say you are unfit to lead the Varden, and as is my right, I challenge you to the Trial of the Long Knives. If you are triumphant, we shall bow to you and never again question your authority. But if you lose, then you shall step aside, and I shall take your place as head of the Varden.”
Nasuada noted the spark of glee that lit Fadawar’s eyes. This is what he wanted all along, she realized. He would have invoked the trial even if I had complied with his demands. She said, “Perhaps I am mistaken, but I thought it was tradition that whoever won assumed command of his rival’s tribes, as well as his own. Is that not so?” She almost laughed at the expression of dismay that flashed across Fadawar’s face. You didn’t expect me to know that, did you?
“I accept your challenge, then, with the understanding that should I win, your crown and scepter will be mine. Are we agreed?”
Fadawar scowled and nodded. “We are.” He stabbed his scepter deep enough into the ground that it stood upright by itself, then grasped the first bangle on his left arm and began to work it down over his hand.
“Wait,” said Nasuada. Going to the table that filled the other side of the pavilion, she picked up a small brass bell and rang it twice, paused, and then rang it four times.
Only a moment or two passed before Farica entered the tent. She cast a frank gaze at Nasuada’s guests, then curtsied to the lot of them and said, “Yes, Mistress?”
Nasuada gave Fadawar a nod. “We may proceed.” Then she addressed her handmaid: “Help me out of my dress; I don’t want to ruin it.”
The older woman looked shocked by the request. “Here, Ma’am? In front of these … men?”
“Yes, here. And be quick about it too! I shouldn’t have to argue with my own servant.” Nasuada was harsher than she meant to be, but her heart was racing and her skin was incredibly, terribly sensitive; the soft linen of her undergarments seemed as abrasive as canvas. Patience and courtesy were beyond her now. All she could concentrate on was her upcoming ordeal.
Nasuada stood motionless as Farica picked and pulled at the laces to her dress, which extended from her shoulder blades to the base of her spine. When the cords were loose enough, Farica lifted Nasuada’s arms out of the sleeves, and the shell of bunched fabric dropped in a pile around Nasuada’s feet, leaving her standing almost naked in her white chemise. She fought back a shiver as the four warriors examined her, feeling vulnerable beneath their covetous looks. Ignoring them, she stepped forward, out of the dress, and Farica snatched the garment out of the dirt.
Across from Nasuada, Fadawar had been busy removing the bangles from his forearms, revealing the embroidered sleeves of his robes underneath. Finished, he lifted off his massive crown and handed it to one of his retainers.
The sound of voices outside the pavilion delayed further progress. Marching through the entrance, a message boy—Jarsha was his name, Nasuada remembered—planted himself a foot or two inside and proclaimed: “King Orrin of Surda, Jörmundur of the Varden, Trianna of Du Vrangr Gata, and Naako and Ramusewa of the Inapashunna tribe.” Jarsha very pointedly kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling while he spoke.
Snapping about, Jarsha departed and the congregation he had announced entered, with Orrin at the vanguard. The king saw Fadawar first and greeted him, saying, “Ah, Warlord, this is unexpected. I trust you and—” Astonishment suffused his youthful face as he beheld Nasuada. “Why, Nasuada, what is the meaning of this?”
“I should like to know
that as well,” rumbled Jörmundur. He gripped the hilt of his sword and glowered at anyone who dared stare at her too openly.
“I have summoned you here,” she said, “to witness the Trial of the Long Knives between Fadawar and myself and to afterward speak the truth of the outcome to everyone who asks.”
The two gray-haired tribesmen, Naako and Ramusewa, appeared alarmed by her revelation; they leaned close together and began to whisper. Trianna crossed her arms—baring the snake bracelet coiled around one slim wrist—but otherwise betrayed no reaction. Jörmundur swore and said, “Have you taken leave of your senses, my Lady? This is madness. You cannot—”
“I can, and I will.”
“My Lady, if you do, I—”
“Your concern is noted, but my decision is final. And I forbid anyone from interfering.” She could tell he longed to disobey her order, but as much as he wanted to shield her from harm, loyalty had ever been Jörmundur’s predominant trait.
“But, Nasuada,” said King Orrin. “This trial, is not it where—”
“Blast it, then; why don’t you give up this mad venture? You would have to be addled to carry it out.”
“I have already given my word to Fadawar.”
The mood in the pavilion became even more somber. That she had given her word meant she could not rescind her promise without revealing herself to be an honorless oath-breaker that fair-minded men would have no choice but to curse and shun. Orrin faltered for a moment, but he persisted with his questions: “To what end? That is, if you should lose—”
“If I should lose, the Varden shall no longer answer to me, but to Fadawar.”
Nasuada had expected a storm of protest. Instead, there came a silence, wherein the hot anger that animated King Orrin’s visage cooled and sharpened and acquired a brittle temper. “I do not appreciate your choice to endanger our entire cause.” To Fadawar, he said, “Will you not be reasonable and release Nasuada from her obligation? I will reward you richly if you agree to abandon this ill-conceived ambition of yours.”
“I am rich already,” said Fadawar. “I have no need for your tintainted gold. No, nothing but the Trial of the Long Knives can compensate me for the slander Nasuada has aimed at my people and me.”
“Bear witness now,” said Nasuada.
Orrin clenched tight the folds of his robes, but he bowed and said, “Aye, I will bear witness.”
From within their voluminous sleeves, Fadawar’s four warriors produced small, hairy goat-hide drums. Squatting, they placed the drums between their knees and struck up a furious beat, pounding so fast, their hands were sooty smudges in the air. The rough music obliterated all other sound, as well as the host of frantic thoughts that had been bedeviling Nasuada. Her heart felt as if it were keeping pace with the manic tempo that assaulted her ears.
Without missing a single note, the oldest of Fadawar’s men reached inside his vest and, from there, drew two long, curved knives that he tossed toward the peak of the tent. Nasuada watched the knives tumble haft over blade, fascinated by the beauty of their motion.
When it was close enough, she lifted her arm and caught her knife. The opal-studded hilt stung her palm.
Fadawar successfully intercepted his weapon as well.
He then grasped the left cuff of his garment and pushed the sleeve past his elbow. Nasuada kept her eyes fixed upon Fadawar’s forearm as he did. His limb was thick and muscled, but she deemed that of no importance; athletic gifts would not help him win their contest. What she looked for instead were the telltale ridges that, if they existed, would lie across the belly of his forearm.
She observed five of them.
Five! she thought. So many. Her confidence wavered as she contemplated the evidence of Fadawar’s fortitude. The only thing that kept her from losing her nerve altogether was Elva’s prediction: the girl had said that, in this, Nasuada would prevail. Nasuada clung to the memory as if it were her only child. She said I can do this, so I must be able to outlast Fadawar…. I must be able to!
As he was the one who had issued the challenge, Fadawar went first. He held his left arm straight out from his shoulder, palm-upward; placed the blade of his knife against his forearm, just below the crease of his elbow; and drew the mirror-polished edge across his flesh. His skin split like an overripe berry, blood welling from within the crimson crevice.
He locked gazes with Nasuada.
She smiled and set her own knife against her arm. The metal was as cold as ice. Theirs was a test of wills to discover who could withstand the most cuts. The belief was that whoever aspired to become the chief of a tribe, or even a warlord, should be willing to endure more pain than anyone else for the sake of his or her people. Otherwise, how could the tribes trust their leaders to place the concerns of the community before their own selfish desires? It was Nasuada’s opinion that the practice encouraged extremism, but she also understood the ability of the gesture to earn people’s trust. Although the Trial of the Long Knives was specific to the dark-skinned tribes, besting Fadawar would solidify her standing among the Varden and, she hoped, King Orrin’s followers.
She offered a quick plea for strength to Gokukara, the praying mantis goddess, and then pulled on the knife. The sharpened steel slid through her skin so easily, she struggled to avoid cutting too deeply. She shuddered at the sensation. She wanted to fling the knife away and clutch her wound and scream.
She did none of those things. She kept her muscles slack; if she tensed, the process would hurt all the more. And she kept smiling as, slowly, the blade mutilated her body. The cut ended after only three seconds, but in those seconds, her outraged flesh delivered a thousand shrieking complaints, and each one nearly made her stop. As she lowered the knife, she noticed that while the tribesmen still beat upon their drums, she heard naught but the pounding of her pulse.
Then Fadawar slashed himself a second time. The cords in his neck stood in high relief, and his jugular vein bulged as if it would burst while the knife carved its bloody path.
Nasuada saw it was her turn again. Knowing what to expect only increased her fear. Her instinct for self-preservation—an instinct that had served her well on all other occasions—warred against the commands she sent to her arm and hand. Desperate, she concentrated upon her desire to preserve the Varden and overthrow Galbatorix: the two causes to which she had devoted her entire being. In her mind, she saw her father and Jörmundur and Eragon and the people of the Varden, and she thought, For them! I do this for them. I was born to serve, and this is my service.
She made the incision.
A moment later, Fadawar opened up a third gash on his forearm, as did Nasuada on her own.
The fourth cut followed soon thereafter.
And the fifth …
A strange lethargy overtook Nasuada. She was so very tired, and cold as well. It occurred to her then that tolerance of pain might not decide the trial, but rather who would faint first from loss of blood. Shifting streams of it ran across her wrist and down her fingers, splashing into the thick pool by her feet. A similar, if larger, puddle gathered around Fadawar’s boots.
The row of gaping red slits on the warlord’s arm reminded Nasuada of the gills of a fish, a thought that for some reason seemed incredibly funny to her; she had to bite her tongue to keep from giggling.
With a howl, Fadawar succeeded in completing his sixth cut. “Best that, you feckless witch!” he shouted over the noise of the drums, and dropped to one knee.
Fadawar trembled as he transferred his knife from his right hand to his left; tradition dictated a maximum of six cuts per arm, else you risked severing the veins and tendons close to the wrist. As Nasuada imitated his movement, King Orrin sprang between them and said, “Stop! I won’t allow this to continue. You’re going to kill yourselves.”
He reached toward Nasuada, then jumped back as she stabbed at him. “Don’t meddle,” she growled between her teeth.
Now Fadawar started
on his right forearm, releasing a spray of blood from his rigid muscles. He’s clenching, she realized. She hoped the mistake would be enough to break him.
Nasuada could not help herself; she uttered a wordless cry when the knife parted her skin. The razor edge burned like a white-hot wire. Halfway through the cut, her traumatized left arm twitched. The knife swerved as a result, leaving her with a long, jagged laceration twice as deep as the others. Her breath stopped while she weathered the agony. I can’t go on, she thought. I can’t … I can’t! It’s too much to bear. I’d rather die…. Oh please, let it end! It gave her some relief to indulge in those and other desperate complaints, but in the depths of her heart, she knew she would never give up.
For the eighth time, Fadawar positioned his blade above one of his forearms, and there he held it, the pale metal suspended a quarter of an inch away from his sable skin. He remained thus as sweat dripped over his eyes and his wounds shed ruby tears. It appeared as though his courage might have failed him, but then he snarled and, with a quick yank, sliced his arm.
His hesitation bolstered Nasuada’s flagging strength. A fierce exhilaration overtook her, transmuting her pain into an almost pleasurable sensation. She matched Fadawar’s effort and then, spurred onward by her sudden, heedless disregard for her own well-being, brought the knife down again.
“Best that,” she whispered.
The prospect of having to make two cuts in a row—one to equal the number of Nasuada’s and one to advance the contest—seemed to intimidate Fadawar. He blinked, licked his lips, and adjusted his grip on his knife three times before he raised the weapon over his arm.
His tongue darted out and moistened his lips again.