The sight was so majestic, Nasuada stood transfixed for a moment, thankful she was fortunate enough to witness it. They’re safe! she thought, and breathed a sigh of relief.
The warrior who had brought word of Saphira’s arrival—a thin man with a large, untrimmed beard—bowed and then pointed. “My Lady, as you can see, I spoke the truth.”
“Yes. You did well. You must have exceedingly sharp eyes to have spotted Saphira earlier. What is your name?”
“Fletcher, son of Harden, my Lady.”
“You have my thanks, Fletcher. You may return to your post now.”
With another bow, the man trotted off toward the edge of the camp.
Keeping her gaze fixed upon Saphira, Nasuada picked her way between the rows of tents toward the large clearing set aside as a place for Saphira to land and take off. Her guards and companions accompanied her, but she paid them little heed, eager as she was to rendezvous with Eragon and Saphira. She had spent much of the previous days worrying about them, both as the leader of the Varden and, somewhat to her surprise, as a friend.
Saphira flew as fast as any hawk or falcon Nasuada had seen, but she was still a number of miles away from the camp, and it took her almost ten minutes to traverse the remaining distance. In that time, a massive crowd of warriors gathered around the clearing: humans, dwarves, and even a contingent of gray-skinned Urgals, led by Nar Garzhvog, who spit at the men closest to them. Also in the congregation were King Orrin and his courtiers, who positioned themselves opposite Nasuada; Narheim, the dwarf ambassador who had assumed Orik’s duties since Orik left for Farthen Dûr; Jörmundur; the other members of the Council of Elders; and Arya.
The tall elf woman wove her way through the crowd toward Nasuada. Even with Saphira nigh upon them, men and women alike tore their gaze from the sky to watch Arya’s progress, she presented such a striking image. Dressed all in black, she wore leggings like a man, a sword on her hip, and a bow and quiver on her back. Her skin was the color of light honey. Her face was as angular as a cat’s. And she moved with a slinking, muscular grace that bespoke her skill with a blade, and also her supernatural strength.
Her eccentric ensemble had always struck Nasuada as slightly indecent; it revealed so much of her form. But Nasuada had to admit that even if Arya donned a gown of rags, she would still appear more regal and dignified than any mortal-born noble.
Halting before Nasuada, Arya gestured with one elegant finger at Nasuada’s wounds. “As the poet Earnë said, to place yourself in harm’s way for the sake of the people and the country you love is the finest thing one can do. I have known every leader of the Varden, and they were all mighty men and women, and none so much as Ajihad. In this, though, I believe you have surpassed even him.”
“You honor me, Arya, but I fear that if I burn so brightly, too few shall remember my father as he deserves.”
“The deeds of the children are a testament of the upbringing they received from their parents. Burn like the sun, Nasuada, for the brighter you burn, the more people there shall be who will respect Ajihad for teaching you how to bear the responsibilities of command at such a tender age.”
Nasuada dipped her head, taking to heart Arya’s advice. Then she smiled and said, “A tender age? I’m a grown woman, by our reckoning.”
Amusement gleamed in Arya’s green eyes. “True. But if we judge by years, and not wisdom, no human would be considered an adult among my kind. Except for Galbatorix, that is.”
“And me,” Angela chimed in.
“Come now,” said Nasuada, “you can’t be much older than I am.”
“Ha! You’re confusing appearances with age. You ought to have more sense than that after being around Arya so long.”
Before Nasuada could ask just how old Angela really was, she felt a hard tug on the back of her dress. Looking around, she saw that it was Elva who had taken such a liberty and that the girl was beckoning. Bending, Nasuada placed an ear close to Elva, who muttered, “Eragon’s not on Saphira.”
Nasuada’s chest tightened, restricting her breathing. She peered upward: Saphira circled directly over the camp, some thousands of feet high. Her huge, batlike wings were black against the sky. Nasuada could see Saphira’s underside, and her talons white against the lapped scales of her belly, but nothing of whoever might be riding her.
“How do you know?” she asked, keeping her voice low.
“I cannot feel his discomfort, nor his fears. Roran is there, and a woman I guess is Katrina. No one else.”
Straightening, Nasuada clapped her hands and said, “Jörmundur!” allowing her voice to ring forth.
Jörmundur, who was almost a dozen yards away, came running, shoving aside those who got in his way; he was experienced enough to know when an emergency was at hand. “My Lady.”
“Clear the field! Get everyone away from here before Saphira lands.”
“Including Orrin and Narheim and Garzhvog?”
She grimaced. “No, but allow no one else to remain. Hurry!”
As Jörmundur began shouting orders, Arya and Angela converged upon Nasuada. They appeared as alarmed as she felt. Arya said, “Saphira would not be so calm if Eragon was hurt or dead.”
“Where is he, then?” demanded Nasuada. “What trouble has he gotten himself into now?”
A raucous commotion filled the clearing as Jörmundur and his men directed the onlookers back to their tents, laying about them with swagger sticks whenever the reluctant warriors lingered or protested. Several scuffles broke out, but the captains under Jörmundur quickly overwhelmed the culprits, so as to prevent the violence from taking root and spreading. Fortunately, the Urgals, at the word of their war chief, Garzhvog, left without incident, although Garzhvog himself advanced toward Nasuada, as did King Orrin and the dwarf Narheim.
Nasuada felt the ground tremble under her feet as the eight-and-a-half-foot-tall Urgal approached her. He lifted his bony chin, baring his throat as was the custom of his race, and said, “What means this, Lady Nightstalker?” The shape of his jaws and teeth, coupled with his accent, made it difficult for Nasuada to understand him.
“Yes, I’d bloody well like an explanation myself,” said Orrin. His face was red.
“And I,” said Narheim.
It occurred to Nasuada, as she regarded them, that this was probably the first time in thousands of years that members of so many of the races of Alagaësia had gathered together in peace. The only ones missing were the Ra’zac and their mounts, and Nasuada knew no sane being would ever invite those foul creatures into their secret councils. She pointed at Saphira and said, “She shall provide the answers you desire.”
Just as the last stragglers quit the clearing, a torrent of air rushed across Nasuada as Saphira swooped to the ground, raking her wings to slow herself before alighting upon her rear legs. She dropped to all fours, and a dull boom resounded across the camp. Un buckling themselves from her saddle, Roran and Katrina quickly dismounted.
Striding forward, Nasuada examined Katrina. She was curious to see what kind of woman could inspire a man to undertake such extraordinary feats in order to rescue her. The young woman before her was strong-boned, with the pallid complexion of an invalid, a mane of copper hair, and a dress so torn and filthy, it was impossible to determine what it might have looked like originally. In spite of the toll her captivity had taken, it was apparent to Nasuada that Katrina was attractive enough, but not what the bards would call a great beauty. However, she possessed a certain force of gaze and bearing that made Nasuada think that if Roran had been the one captured, Katrina would have been just as capable of rousing the villagers of Carvahall, getting them south to Surda, fighting in the Battle of the Burning Plains, and then continuing on to Helgrind, all for the sake of her beloved. Even when she noticed Garzhvog, Katrina did not flinch or quail but remained standing where she was, next to Roran.
Roran bowed to Nasuada and, swiveling, also to King Orrin. “My Lady,” he said, his face grave. “Your Majesty. If I may, this
is my betrothed, Katrina.” She curtsied to them both.
“Welcome to the Varden, Katrina,” said Nasuada. “We have all heard your name here, on account of Roran’s uncommon devotion. Songs of his love for you already spread across the land.”
“You are most welcome,” added Orrin. “Most welcome indeed.”
Nasuada noticed that the king had eyes only for Katrina, as did every man present, including the dwarves, and Nasuada was certain they would be recounting tales of Katrina’s charms to their comrades-in-arms before the night was out. What Roran had done on her behalf elevated her far above ordinary women; it made her an object of mystery, fascination, and allure to the warriors. That anyone should sacrifice so much for another person meant, by reason of the price paid, that person must be unusually precious.
Katrina blushed and smiled. “Thank you,” she said. Along with her embarrassment at such attentions, a hint of pride colored her expression, as if she knew how remarkable Roran was and delighted in having captured his heart, of all the women in Alagaësia. He was hers, and that was all the status or treasure she desired.
A pang of loneliness shot through Nasuada. I wish I had what they have, she thought. Her responsibilities prevented her from entertaining girlish dreams of romance and marriage—and certainly children—unless she were to arrange a marriage of convenience for the good of the Varden. She had often considered doing that with Orrin, but her nerve always failed her. Still, she was content with her lot and did not begrudge Katrina and Roran their happiness. Her cause was what she cared about; defeating Galbatorix was far more important than something as trifling as marriage. Most everyone got married, but how many had the opportunity to oversee the birth of a new age?
I’m not myself this evening, realized Nasuada. My wounds have set my thoughts ahumming like a nest of bees. Shaking herself, she looked past Roran and Katrina to Saphira. Nasuada opened up the barriers she usually maintained around her mind so she might hear what Saphira had to say and then asked: “Where is he?”
With the dry rustle of scales sliding over scales, Saphira crept forward and lowered her neck so her head was directly in front of Nasuada, Arya, and Angela. The dragon’s left eye sparkled with blue fire. She sniffed twice, and her crimson tongue darted out of her mouth. Hot, moist breath ruffled the lace collar on Nasuada’s dress.
Nasuada swallowed as Saphira’s consciousness brushed against her own. Saphira felt unlike any other being Nasuada had encountered: ancient, alien, and both ferocious and gentle. That, along with Saphira’s imposing physical presence, always reminded Nasuada that if Saphira wanted to eat them, she could. It was impossible, Nasuada believed, to be complacent around a dragon.
I smell blood, said Saphira. Who has hurt you, Nasuada? Name them, and I shall tear them from neck to groin and bring you their heads for trophies.
“There’s no need for you to tear anyone apart. Not yet, at least. I wielded the knife myself. However, this is the wrong time to delve into the matter. Right now, all I care about is Eragon’s where-abouts.”
Eragon, said Saphira, decided to remain in the Empire.
For a few seconds, Nasuada was unable to move or think. Then a mounting sense of doom replaced her stunned denial of Saphira’s revelation. The others reacted in various ways as well, from which Nasuada deduced Saphira had spoken to them all at once.
“How … how could you allow him to stay?” she asked.
Small tongues of fire rippled in Saphira’s nostrils as she snorted. Eragon made his own choice. I could not stop him. He insists upon doing what he thinks is right, no matter the consequences for him or the rest of Alagaësia…. I could shake him like a hatchling, but I’m proud of him. Fear not; he can take care of himself. So far, no misfortune has befallen him. I would know if he was hurt.
Arya spoke: “And why did he make this choice, Saphira?”
It would be faster for me to show you rather than explain with words. May I?
They all indicated their consent.
A river of Saphira’s memories poured into Nasuada. She saw black Helgrind from above a layer of clouds; heard Eragon, Roran, and Saphira discussing how best to attack; watched them discover the Ra’zac’s lair; and experienced Saphira’s epic battle with the Lethrblaka. The procession of images fascinated Nasuada. She had been born in the Empire but could remember nothing of it; this was the first time as an adult that she had looked upon anything besides the wild fringes of Galbatorix’s holdings.
Lastly came Eragon and his confrontation with Saphira. Saphira attempted to hide it, but the anguish she felt over leaving Eragon was still so raw and piercing, Nasuada had to dry her cheeks with the bandages on her forearms. However, the reasons Eragon gave for staying—killing the last Ra’zac and exploring the remainder of Helgrind—were reasons Nasuada deemed inadequate.
She frowned. Eragon may be rash, but he’s certainly not foolish enough to endanger everything we seek to accomplish merely so he could visit a few caves and drain the last bitter dregs of his revenge. There must be another explanation. She wondered whether she should press Saphira for the truth, but she knew Saphira would not withhold such information on a whim. Perhaps she wants to discuss it in private, she thought.
“Blast it!” exclaimed King Orrin. “Eragon could not have picked a worse time to set off on his own. What matters a single Ra’zac when Galbatorix’s entire army resides but a few miles from us?… We have to get him back.”
Angela laughed. She was knitting a sock using five bone needles, which clicked and clacked and scraped against each other with a steady, if peculiar, rhythm. “How? He’ll be traveling during the day, and Saphira daren’t fly around searching for him when the sun’s up and anyone might spot her and alert Galbatorix.”
“Yes, but he’s our Rider! We cannot sit by idly while he remains in the midst of our enemies.”
“I agree,” said Narheim. “However it is done, we must ensure his safe return. Grimstnzborith Hrothgar adopted Eragon into his family and clan—that is mine own clan, as you know—and we owe him the loyalty of our law and our blood.”
Arya knelt and, to Nasuada’s surprise, began to unlace and retie the upright sections of her boots. Holding one of the cords between her teeth, Arya said, “Saphira, where exactly was Eragon when you last touched his mind?”
In the entrance to Helgrind.
“And have you any idea what path he intended to follow?”
He did not yet know himself.
Springing to her feet, Arya said, “Then I shall have to look everywhere I can.”
Like a deer, she bounded forward and ran across the clearing, vanishing among the tents beyond as she sped northward as fast and light as the wind itself.
“Arya, no!” shouted Nasuada, but the elf was already gone. Hopelessness threatened to engulf Nasuada as she stared after her. The center is crumbling, she thought.
Grasping the edges of the mismatched pieces of armor that covered his torso as if to tear them off, Garzhvog said to Nasuada, “Do you want me to follow, Lady Nightstalker? I cannot run as fast as little elves, but I can run as long.”
“No … no, stay. Arya can pass for human at a distance, but soldiers would hunt you down the moment some farmer caught sight of you.”
“I am used to being hunted.”
“But not in the middle of the Empire, with hundreds of Galbatorix’s men wandering the countryside. No, Arya will have to fend for herself. I pray that she can find Eragon and keep him safe, for without him, we are doomed.”
ESCAPE AND EVASION
Eragon’s feet drummed against the ground.
The pounding beat of his stride originated in his heels and ran up his legs, through his hips, and along his spine until it terminated at the base of his skull, where the recurring impact jarred his teeth and exacerbated the headache that seemed to worsen with every passing mile. The monotonous music of his running had annoyed him at first, but before long, it lulled him into a trancelike state where he did not think, but moved.
As Eragon’s boots descended, he heard brittle stalks of grass snap like twigs and glimpsed puffs of dirt rising from the cracked soil. He guessed it had been at least a month since it last rained in this part of Alagaësia. The dry air leached the moisture from his breath, leaving his throat raw. No matter how much he drank, he could not compensate for the amount of water the sun and the wind stole from him.
Thus his headache.
Helgrind was far behind him. However, he had made slower progress than he had hoped. Hundreds of Galbatorix’s patrols—containing both soldiers and magicians—swarmed across the land, and he often had to hide in order to avoid them. That they were searching for him, he had no doubt. The previous evening, he had even spotted Thorn riding low on the western horizon. He had immediately shielded his mind, thrown himself into a ditch, and stayed there for half an hour, until Thorn dipped back down below the edge of the world.
Eragon had decided to travel on established roads and trails wherever possible. The events of the past week had pushed him to the limits of his physical and emotional endurance. He preferred to allow his body to rest and recover, rather than strain himself forging through brambles, over hills, and across muddy rivers. The time for desperate, violent exertion would come again, but now was not it.
So long as he held to the roads, he dared not run as fast as he was capable; indeed, it would be wiser to avoid running altogether. A fair number of villages and outbuildings were scattered throughout the area. If any of the inhabitants observed a lone man sprinting across the countryside as if a pack of wolves were chasing him, the spectacle would be sure to arouse curiosity and suspicion and might even inspire a frightened crofter to report the incident to the Empire. That could prove fatal for Eragon, whose greatest defense was the cloak of anonymity.