He only ran now because he had encountered no living creatures, except a long snake sunning itself, for over a league.
Returning to the Varden was Eragon’s primary concern, and it rankled him to plod along like a common vagabond. Still, he appreciated the opportunity to be by himself. He had not been alone, truly alone, since he found Saphira’s egg in the Spine. Always her thoughts had rubbed against his, or Brom or Murtagh or someone else had been at his side. In addition to the burden of constant companionship, Eragon had spent all the months since he had left Palancar Valley engaged in arduous training, breaking only for travel or to take part in the tumult of battle. Never before had he concentrated so intensely for so long or dealt with such huge amounts of worry and fear.
He welcomed his solitude, then, and the peace it brought. The absence of voices, including his own, was a sweet lullaby that, for a short while, washed away his fear of the future. He had no desire to scry Saphira—although they were too far apart to touch each other’s minds, his bond with her would tell him if she was hurt—or to contact Arya or Nasuada and hear their angry words. Far better, he thought, to listen to the songs of the flitting birds and the sighing of the breeze through the grass and leafy branches.
The sound of jingling harnesses, clomping hooves, and men’s voices jarred Eragon out of his reverie. Alarmed, he stopped and glanced around, trying to determine from what direction the men were approaching. A pair of cackling jackdaws spiraled upward from a nearby ravine.
The only cover close to Eragon was a small thicket of juniper trees. He sprinted toward it and dove under the drooping branches just as six soldiers emerged from the ravine and rode cantering out onto the thin dirt road not ten feet away. Normally, Eragon would have sensed their presence long before they got so close, but since Thorn’s distant appearance, he had kept his mind walled off from his surroundings.
The soldiers reined in their horses and milled around in the middle of the road, arguing among themselves. “I’m telling you, I saw something!” one of them shouted. He was of medium height, with ruddy cheeks and a yellow beard.
His heart hammering, Eragon struggled to keep his breathing slow and quiet. He touched his brow to ensure the cloth strip he had tied around his head still covered his upswept eyebrows and pointed ears. I wish I were still wearing my armor, he thought. In order to avoid attracting unwanted attention, he had made himself a pack—using dead branches and a square of canvas he had bartered from a tinker—and placed his armor within it. Now he dared not remove and don his armor, for fear the soldiers would hear.
The soldier with the yellow beard climbed down from his bay charger and walked along the edge of the road, studying the ground and the juniper trees beyond. Like every member of Galbatorix’s army, the soldier wore a red tunic embroidered with gold thread in the outline of a jagged tongue of fire. The thread sparkled as he moved. His armor was simple—a helmet, a tapered shield, and a leather brigandine—indicating he was little more than a mounted footman. As for arms, he bore a spear in his right hand and a longsword on his left hip.
As the soldier approached his location, spurs clinking, Eragon began to whisper a complex spell in the ancient language. The words poured off his tongue in an unbroken stream, until, to his alarm, he mispronounced a particularly difficult cluster of vowels and had to start the incantation anew.
The soldier took another step toward him.
Just as the soldier paused in front of him, Eragon completed the spell and felt his strength ebb as the magic took effect. He was an instant too late, however, to completely escape detection, for the soldier exclaimed, “Aha!” and brushed aside the branches, exposing Eragon.
Eragon did not move.
The soldier peered directly at him and frowned. “What the …,” he muttered. He jabbed his spear into the thicket, missing Eragon’s face by less than an inch. Eragon dug his nails into his palms as a tremor racked his clenched muscles. “Ah, blast it,” said the soldier, and released the branches, which sprang back to their original positions, hiding Eragon once more.
“What was it?” called another of the men.
“Nothing,” said the soldier, returning to his companions. He removed his helmet and wiped his brow. “My eyes are playing tricks on me.”
“What does that bastard Braethan expect of us? We’ve hardly gotten a wink of sleep these past two days.”
“Aye. The king must be desperate to drive us so hard…. To be honest, I’d rather not find whoever it is we’re searching for. It’s not that I’m faint hearted, but anyone who gives Galbatorix pause is best avoided by the likes of us. Let Murtagh and his monster of a dragon catch our mysterious fugitive, eh?”
“Unless we be searching for Murtagh,” suggested a third man. “You heard what Morzan’s spawn said well as I did.”
An uncomfortable silence settled over the soldiers. Then the one who was on the ground vaulted back onto his charger, wrapped the reins around his left hand, and said, “Keep your yap shut, Derwood. You talk too much.”
With that, the group of six spurred their steeds forward and continued north on the road.
As the sound of the horses faded, Eragon ended the spell, then rubbed his eyes with his fists and rested his hands on his knees. A long, low laugh escaped him, and he shook his head, amused by how outlandish his predicament was compared with his upbringing in Palancar Valley. I certainly never imagined this happening to me, he thought.
The spell he had used contained two parts: the first bent rays of light around his body so he appeared invisible, and the second hopefully prevented other spellweavers from detecting his use of magic. The spell’s main drawbacks were that it could not conceal footprints—therefore one had to remain stone-still while using it—and it often failed to completely eliminate a person’s shadow.
Picking his way out of the thicket, Eragon stretched his arms high over his head and then faced the ravine from whence the soldiers had emerged. A single question occupied him as he resumed his journey:
What had Murtagh said?
The gauzelike illusion of Eragon’s waking dreams vanished as he tore at the air with his hands. He twisted nearly in half as he rolled away from where he had been lying. Scrabbling backward, he pushed himself to his feet and raised his arms in front of himself to deflect oncoming blows.
The dark of night surrounded him. Above, the impartial stars continued to gyrate in their endless celestial dance. Below, not a creature stirred, nor could he hear anything but the gentle wind caressing the grass.
Eragon stabbed outward with his mind, convinced that someone was about to attack him. He extended himself over a thousand feet in every direction but found no one else in the vicinity.
At last he lowered his hands. His chest heaved, and his skin burned, and he stank of sweat. In his mind, a tempest roared: a whirlwind of flashing blades and severed limbs. For a moment, he thought he was in Farthen Dûr, fighting the Urgals, and then on the Burning Plains, crossing swords with men like himself. Each location was so real, he would have sworn some strange magic had transported him backward through space and time. He saw standing before him the men and the Urgals whom he had slain; they appeared so real, he wondered if they would speak. And while he no longer bore the scars of his wounds, his body remembered the many injuries he had suffered, and he shuddered as he again felt swords and arrows piercing his flesh.
With a shapeless howl, Eragon fell to his knees and wrapped his arms around his stomach, hugging himself as he rocked back and forth. It’s all right…. It’s all right. He pressed his forehead against the ground, curling into a hard, tight ball. His breath was hot against his belly.
“What’s wrong with me?”
None of the epics Brom had recited in Carvahall mentioned that such visions had bedeviled the heroes of old. None of the warriors Eragon had met in the Varden seemed troubled by the blood they shed. And even though Roran admitted he disliked killing, he did not wake
up screaming in the middle of the night.
I’m weak, thought Eragon. A man should not feel like this. A Rider should not feel like this. Garrow or Brom would have been fine, I know. They did what needed to be done, and that was that. No crying about it, no endless worrying or gnashing of teeth…. I’m weak.
Jumping up, he paced around his nest in the grass, trying to calm himself. After half an hour, when apprehension still clenched his chest in an iron grip and his skin itched as if a thousand ants crawled underneath it and he started at the slightest noise, Eragon grabbed his pack and set off at a dead run. He cared not what lay before him in the unknown darkness, nor who might notice his headlong flight.
He only sought to escape his nightmares. His mind had turned against him, and he could not rely upon rational thought to dispel his panic. His one recourse, then, was to trust in the ancient animal wisdom of his flesh, which told him to move. If he ran fast and hard enough, perhaps he could anchor himself in the moment. Perhaps the thrashing of his arms, the thudding of his feet on dirt, the slick chill of sweat under his arms, and a myriad of other sensations would, by their sheer weight and number, force him to forget.
A flock of starlings darted across the afternoon sky, like fish through the ocean.
Eragon squinted at them. In Palancar Valley, when the starlings returned after winter, they often formed groups so large, they transformed day into night. This flock was not that large, yet it reminded him of evenings spent drinking mint tea with Garrow and Roran on the porch of their house, watching a rustling black cloud turn and twist overhead.
Lost in memory, he stopped and sat on a rock so he could retie the laces on his boots.
The weather had changed; it was cool now, and a gray smudge to the west hinted at the possibility of a storm. The vegetation was lusher, with moss and reeds and thick clumps of green grass. Several miles away, five hills dotted the otherwise smooth land. A stand of thick oak trees adorned the central hill. Above the hazy mounds of foliage, Eragon glimpsed the crumbling walls of a long-abandoned building, constructed by some race in ages past.
Curiosity aroused, he decided to break his fast among the ruins. They were sure to contain plentiful game, and foraging would provide him with an excuse to do a bit of exploring before continuing on his way.
Eragon arrived at the base of the first hill an hour later, where he found the remnants of an ancient road paved with squares of stone. He followed it toward the ruins, wondering at its strange construction, for it was unlike any human, elf, or dwarf work he was familiar with.
The shadows under the oak trees chilled Eragon as he climbed the central hill. Near the summit, the ground leveled off underneath his feet and the thicket opened up, and he entered a large glade. A broken tower stood there. The lower part of the tower was wide and ribbed, like the trunk of a tree. Then the structure narrowed and rose toward the sky for over thirty feet, ending in a sharp, jagged line. The upper half of the tower lay on the ground, shattered into innumerable fragments.
Excitement stirred within Eragon. He suspected that he had found an elven outpost, erected long before the destruction of the Riders. No other race had the skill or inclination to build such a structure.
Then he spotted the vegetable garden at the opposite side of the glade.
A single man sat hunched among the rows of plants, weeding a patch of snap peas. Shadows covered his downturned face. His gray beard was so long, it lay piled in his lap like a mound of uncombed wool.
Without looking up, the man said, “Well, are you going to help me finish these peas or not? There’s a meal in it for you if you do.”
Eragon hesitated, unsure what to do. Then he thought, Why should I be afraid of an old hermit? and walked over to the garden. “I’m Bergan…. Bergan, son of Garrow.”
The man grunted. “Tenga, son of Ingvar.”
The armor in Eragon’s pack rattled as he dropped it to the ground. For the next hour, he labored in silence along with Tenga. He knew he should not stay for so long, but he enjoyed the task; it kept him from brooding. As he weeded, he allowed his mind to expand and touch the multitude of living things within the glade. He welcomed the sense of unity he shared with them.
When they had removed every last bit of grass, purslane, and dandelions from around the peas, Eragon followed Tenga to a narrow door set into the front of the tower, through which was a spacious kitchen and dining room. In the middle of the room, a circular staircase coiled up to the second story. Books, scrolls, and sheaves of loose-bound vellum covered every available surface, including a goodly portion of the floor.
Tenga pointed at the small pile of branches in the fireplace. With a pop and a crackle, the wood burst into flame. Eragon tensed, ready to grapple physically and mentally with Tenga.
The other man did not seem to notice his reaction but continued to bustle about the kitchen, procuring mugs, dishes, knives, and various leftovers for their lunch. He muttered to himself in an undertone while he did.
Every sense alert, Eragon sank onto the bare corner of a nearby chair. He didn’t utter the ancient language, he thought. Even if he said the spell in his head, he still risked death or worse to start a mere cookfire! For as Oromis had taught Eragon, words were the means by which one controlled the release of magic. To cast a spell without the structure of language binding that motive power was to risk having a stray thought or emotion distort the result.
Eragon gazed around the chamber, searching for clues about his host. He spotted an open scroll that displayed columns of words from the ancient language and recognized it as a compendium of true names similar to those he had studied in Ellesméra. Magicians coveted such scrolls and books and would sacrifice almost anything to obtain them, for with them one could learn new words for a spell and also record therein words one had discovered. Few, however, were able to acquire a compendium, for they were exceedingly rare and those who already owned them almost never parted with them willingly.
It was unusual, then, for Tenga to possess one such compendium, but to Eragon’s amazement, he saw six others throughout the room, in addition to writings on subjects ranging from history to mathematics to astronomy to botany.
A mug of ale and a plate with bread, cheese, and a slice of cold meat pie appeared in front of him as Tenga shoved the dishes under his nose.
“Thank you,” said Eragon, accepting them.
Tenga ignored him and sat cross-legged next to the fireplace. He continued to grumble and mutter into his beard as he devoured his lunch.
After Eragon had scraped his plate clean and drained the last drops of the fine harvest ale, and Tenga had also nearly completed his repast, Eragon could not help but ask, “Did the elves build this tower?”
Tenga fixed him with a pointed gaze, as if the question made him doubt Eragon’s intelligence. “Aye. The tricky elves built Edur Ithindra.”
“What is it you do here? Are you all alone, or—”
“I search for the answer!” exclaimed Tenga. “A key to an unopened door, the secret of the trees and the plants. Fire, heat, lightning, light… Most do not know the question and wander in ignorance. Others know the question but fear what the answer will mean. Bah! For thousands of years we have lived like savages. Savages! I shall end that. I shall usher in the age of light, and all shall praise my deed.”
“Pray tell, what exactly do you search for?”
A frown twisted Tenga’s face. “You don’t know the question? I thought you might. But no, I was mistaken. Still, I see you understand my search. You search for a different answer, but you search nevertheless. The same brand burns in your heart as burns in mine. Who else but a fellow pilgrim can appreciate what we must sacrifice to find the answer?”
“The answer to what?”
“To the question we choose.”
He’s mad, thought Eragon. Casting about for something with which he could distract Tenga, his gaze lit upon a row of small wood animal statues arranged on the sill below a teardrop
-shaped window. “Those are beautiful,” he said, indicating the statues. “Who made them?”
“She did… before she left. She was always making things.” Tenga bounded upright and placed the tip of his left index finger on the first of the statues. “Here the squirrel with his waving tail, he so bright and swift and full of laughing gibes.” His finger drifted to the next statue in line. “Here the savage boar, so deadly with his slashing tusks…. Here the raven with …”
Tenga paid no attention as Eragon backed away, nor when he lifted the latch to the door and slipped out of Edur Ithindra. Shouldering his pack, Eragon trotted down through the crown of oak trees and away from the cluster of five hills and the demented spellcaster who resided among them.
Throughout the rest of that day and the next, the number of people on the road increased until it seemed to Eragon as if a new group was always appearing over a hill. Most were refugees, although soldiers and other men of business were also present. Eragon avoided those he could and trudged along with his chin tucked against his collar the rest of the time.
That practice, however, forced him to spend the night in the village of Eastcroft, twenty miles north of Melian. He had intended to abandon the road long before he arrived at Eastcroft and find a sheltered hollow or cave where he might rest until morn, but because of his relative unfamiliarity with the land, he misjudged the distance and came upon the village while in the company of three men-at-arms. Leaving then, less than an hour from the safety of Eastcroft’s walls and gates and the comfort of a warm bed, would have inspired even the slowest dullard to ask why he was trying to avoid the village. So Eragon set his teeth and silently rehearsed the stories he had concocted to explain his trip.
The bloated sun was two fingers above the horizon when Eragon first beheld Eastcroft, a medium-sized village enclosed by a tall palisade. It was almost dark by the time he finally arrived at the village and entered through the gate. Behind him, he heard a sentry ask the men-at-arms if anyone else had been close behind them on the road.