“Not that I could tell.”
“That’s good enough for me,” replied the sentry. “If there are laggards, they’ll have to wait until tomorrow to get in.” To another man on the opposite side of the gate, he shouted, “Close it up!” Together they pushed the fifteen-foot-tall ironbound doors shut and barred them with four oak beams as thick as Eragon’s chest.
They must expect a siege, thought Eragon, and then smiled at his own blindness. Well, who doesn’t expect trouble in these times? A few months ago, he would have worried about being trapped in Eastcroft, but now he was confident he could scale the fortifications barehanded and, if he concealed himself with magic, escape unnoticed in the gloom of night. He chose to stay, however, for he was tired and casting a spell might attract the attention of nearby magicians, if there were any.
Before he took more than a few steps down the muddy lane that led to the town square, a watchman accosted him, thrusting a lantern toward his face. “Hold there! You’ve not been to Eastcroft before, have you?”
“This is my first visit,” said Eragon.
The stubby watchman bobbed his head. “And have you family or friends here to welcome you?”
“No, I don’t.”
“What brings you to Eastcroft, then?”
“Nothing. I’m traveling south to fetch my sister’s family and bring them back to Dras-Leona.” Eragon’s story seemed to have no effect on the watchman. Perhaps he doesn’t believe me, Eragon speculated. Or perhaps he’s heard so many accounts like mine, they’ve ceased to matter to him.
“Then you want the wayfarers’ house, by the main well. Go there and you will find food and lodging. And while you stay here in Eastcroft, let me warn you, we don’t tolerate murder, thievery, or lechery in these parts. We have sturdy stocks and gallows, and they have had their share of tenants. My meaning is clear?”
“Then go, and be you of good fortune. But wait! What is your name, stranger?”
With that, the watchman strode away, returning to his evening rounds. Eragon waited until the combined mass of several houses concealed the lantern the watchman carried before wandering over to the message board mounted to the left of the gates.
There, nailed over a half-dozen posters of various criminals, were two sheets of parchment almost three feet long. One depicted Eragon, one depicted Roran, and both labeled them traitors to the Crown. Eragon examined the posters with interest and marveled at the reward offered: an earldom apiece to whoever captured them. The drawing of Roran was a good likeness and even included the beard he had grown since fleeing Carvahall, but Eragon’s portrait showed him as he had been before the Blood-oath Celebration, when he still appeared fully human.
How things have changed, thought Eragon.
Moving on, he slipped through the village until he located the wayfarers’ house. The common room had a low ceiling with tarstained timbers. Yellow tallow candles provided a soft, flickering light and thickened the air with intersecting layers of smoke. Sand and rushes covered the floor, and the mixture crunched underneath Eragon’s boots. To his left were tables and chairs and a large fireplace, where an urchin turned a pig on a spit. Opposite this was a long bar, a fortress with raised drawbridges that protected casks of lager, ale, and stout from the horde of thirsty men who assailed it from all sides.
A good sixty people filled the room, crowding it to an uncomfortable level. The roar of conversation would have been startling enough to Eragon after his time on the road, but with his sensitive hearing, he felt as if he stood in the middle of a pounding waterfall. It was hard for him to concentrate upon any one voice. As soon as he caught hold of a word or a phrase, it was swept away by another utterance. Off in one corner, a trio of minstrels was singing and playing a comic version of “Sweet Aethrid o’ Dauth,” which did nothing to improve the clamor.
Wincing at the barrage of noise, Eragon wormed his way through the crowd until he reached the bar. He wanted to talk with the serving woman, but she was so busy, five minutes passed before she looked at him and asked, “Your pleasure?” Strands of hair hung over her sweaty face.
“Have you a room to let, or a corner where I could spend the night?”
“I wouldn’t know. The mistress of the house is the one you should speak to about that. She’ll be down directly,” said the serving woman, and flicked a hand at a rank of gloomy stairs.
While he waited, Eragon rested against the bar and studied the people in the room. They were a motley assortment. About half he guessed were villagers from Eastcroft come to enjoy a night of drinking. Of the rest, the majority were men and women—families oftentimes—who were migrating to safer parts. It was easy for him to identify them by their frayed shirts and dirty pants and by how they huddled in their chairs and peered at anyone who came near. However, they studiously avoided looking at the last and smallest group of patrons in the wayfarers’ house: Galbatorix’s soldiers. The men in red tunics were louder than anyone else. They laughed and shouted and banged on tabletops with their armored fists while they quaffed beer and groped any maid foolish enough to walk by them.
Do they behave like that because they know no one dares oppose them and they enjoy demonstrating their power? wondered Eragon. Or because they were forced to join Galbatorix’s army and seek to dull their sense of shame and fear with their revels?
Now the minstrels were singing:
So with her hair aflying, sweet Aethrid o’ Dauth
Ran to Lord Edel and cried, “Free my lover,
Else a witch shall turn you into a woolly goat!”
Lord Edel, he laughed and said, “No witch shall turn me into a woolly goat!”
The crowd shifted and granted Eragon a view of a table pushed against one wall. At it sat a lone woman, her face hidden by the drawn hood of her dark traveling cloak. Four men surrounded her, big, beefy farmers with leathery necks and cheeks flushed with the fever of alcohol. Two of them were leaning against the wall on either side of the woman, looming over her, while one sat grinning in a chair turned around backward and the fourth stood with his left foot on the edge of the table and was bent forward over his knee. The men spoke and gestured, their movements careless. Although Eragon could not hear or see what the woman said, it was obvious to him that her response angered the farmers, for they scowled and swelled their chests, puffing themselves up like roosters. One of them shook a finger at her.
To Eragon, they appeared decent, hardworking men who had lost their manners in the depths of their tankards, a mistake he had witnessed often enough on feast days in Carvahall. Garrow had had little respect for men who knew they could not hold their beer and yet insisted on embarrassing themselves in public. “It’s unseemly,” he had said. “What’s more, if you drink to forget your lot in life and not for pleasure, you ought to do it where you won’t disturb anyone.”
The man to the left of the woman suddenly reached down and hooked a finger underneath the edge of her hood, as if to toss it back. So quickly that Eragon barely saw, the woman lifted her right hand and grasped the man’s wrist, but then released it and returned to her previous position. Eragon doubted that anyone else in the common room, including the man she touched, had noticed her actions.
The hood collapsed around her neck, and Eragon stiffened, astounded. The woman was human, but she resembled Arya. The only differences between them were her eyes—which were round and level, not slanted like a cat’s—and her ears, which lacked the pointed tips of an elf’s. She was just as beautiful as the Arya Eragon knew, but in a less exotic, more familiar way.
Without hesitation, Eragon probed toward the woman with his mind. He had to know who she really was.
As soon as he touched her consciousness, a mental blow struck back at Eragon, destroying his concentration, and then in the confines of his skull, he heard a deafening voice exclaim, Eragon!
Their eyes met for a moment before the crowd thickened again and hid he
Eragon hurried across the room to her table, prying apart the bodies packed close together to clear himself a path. The farmers looked askance at him when he emerged from the press, and one said, “You’re awful rude, barging in on us uninvited-like. Best make yourself scarce, eh?”
In as diplomatic a voice as he could muster, Eragon said, “It seems to me, gentlemen, that the lady would rather be left alone. Now, you wouldn’t ignore the wishes of an honest woman, would you?”
“An honest woman?” laughed the nearest man. “No honest woman travels alone.”
“Then let me set your concern to rest, for I am her brother, and we are going to live with our uncle in Dras-Leona.”
The four men exchanged uneasy glances. Three of them began to edge away from Arya, but the largest planted himself a few inches in front of Eragon and, breathing upon his face, said, “I’m not sure I believe you, friend. You’re just trying to drive us away so you can be with her yourself.”
He’s not far off, thought Eragon.
Speaking quietly enough that only that man could hear, Eragon said, “I assure you, she is my sister. Please, sir, I have no quarrel with you. Won’t you go?”
“Not when I think you’re a lying milksop.”
“Sir, be reasonable. There’s no need for this unpleasantness. The night is young, and there’s drink and music aplenty. Let’s not quarrel about such a petty misunderstanding. It’s beneath us.”
To Eragon’s relief, the other man relaxed after a few seconds and uttered a scornful grunt. “I wouldn’t want to fight a youngling like you anyway,” he said. Turning around, he lumbered toward the bar with his friends.
Keeping his gaze fixed upon the crowd, Eragon slipped behind the table and sat next to Arya. “What are you doing here?” he asked, barely moving his lips.
“Searching for you.”
Surprised, he glanced at her, and she raised a curved eyebrow. He looked back at the throng of people and, pretending to smile, asked, “Are you alone?”
“No longer…. Did you rent a bed for the night?”
He shook his head.
“Good. I already have a room. We can talk there.”
They rose in unison, and he followed her to the stairs at the back of the common room. The worn treads creaked under their feet as they climbed to a hallway on the second story. A single candle illuminated the dingy, wood-paneled corridor. Arya led the way to the last door on the right, and from within the voluminous sleeve of her cloak, she produced an iron key. Unlocking the door, she entered the room, waited for Eragon to cross the threshold after her, and then closed and secured the door again.
A faint orange glow penetrated the lead-lined window across from Eragon. The glow came from a lantern hanging on the other side of Eastcroft’s town square. By it, he was able to make out the shape of an oil lamp on a low table to his right.
“Brisingr,” whispered Eragon, and lit the wick with a spark from his finger.
Even with the lamp burning, the room was still dark. The chamber contained the same paneling as the hallway, and the chestnut-colored wood absorbed most of the light that struck it and made the room seem small and heavy, as if a great weight pressed inward. Aside from the table, the only other piece of furniture was a narrow bed with a single blanket thrown over the ticking. A small bag of supplies rested on the mattress.
Eragon and Arya stood facing each other. Then Eragon reached up and removed the cloth strip tied around his head, and Arya unfastened the brooch that held her cloak around her shoulders and placed the garment on the bed. She wore a forest-green dress, the first dress Eragon had seen her in.
It was a strange experience for Eragon to have their appearances reversed, so that he was the one who looked like an elf, and Arya a human. The change did nothing to diminish his regard for her, but it did make him more comfortable in her presence, for she was less alien to him now.
It was Arya who broke the silence. “Saphira said you stayed behind to kill the last Ra’zac and to explore the rest of Helgrind. Is that the truth?”
“It’s part of the truth.”
“And what is the whole truth?”
Eragon knew that nothing less would satisfy her. “Promise me that you won’t share what I’m about to tell you with anyone unless I give you permission.”
“I promise,” she said in the ancient language.
Then he told her about finding Sloan, why he decided not to bring him back to the Varden, the curse he had laid upon the butcher, and the chance he had given Sloan to redeem himself—at least partially—and to regain his sight. Eragon finished by saying, “Whatever happens, Roran and Katrina can never learn that Sloan is still alive. If they do, there’ll be no end of trouble.”
Arya sat on the edge of the bed and, for a long while, stared at the lamp and its jumping flame. Then: “You should have killed him.”
“Maybe, but I couldn’t.”
“Just because you find your task distasteful is no reason to shirk it. You were a coward.”
Eragon bridled at her accusation. “Was I? Anyone with a knife could have killed Sloan. What I did was far harder.”
“Physically, but not morally.”
“I didn’t kill him because I thought it was wrong.” Eragon frowned with concentration as he searched for the words to explain himself. “I wasn’t afraid … not that. Not after going into battle…. It was something else. I will kill in war. But I won’t take it upon myself to decide who lives and who dies. I don’t have the experience or the wisdom…. Every man has a line he won’t cross, Arya, and I found mine when I looked upon Sloan. Even if I had Galbatorix as my captive, I would not kill him. I would take him to Nasuada and King Orrin, and if they condemned him to death, then I would happily lop off his head, but not before. Call it weakness if you will, but that is how I am made, and I won’t apologize for it.”
“You will be a tool, then, wielded by others?”
“I will serve the people as best I can. I’ve never aspired to lead. Alagaësia does not need another tyrant king.”
Arya rubbed her temples. “Why does everything have to be so complicated with you, Eragon? No matter where you go, you seem to get yourself mired in difficult situations. It’s as if you make an effort to walk through every bramble in the land.”
“Your mother said much the same.”
“I’m not surprised…. Very well, let it be. Neither of us is about to change our opinions, and we have more pressing concerns than arguing about justice and morality. In the future, though, you would do well to remember who you are and what you mean to the races of Alagaësia.”
“I never forgot.” Eragon paused, waiting for her response, but Arya let his statement pass unchallenged. Sitting on the edge of the table, he said, “You didn’t have to come looking for me, you know. I was fine.”
“Of course I did.”
“How did you find me?”
“I guessed which route you would take from Helgrind. Luckily for me, my guess placed me forty miles west of here, and that was close enough for me to locate you by listening to the whispers of the land.”
“I don’t understand.”
“A Rider does not walk unnoticed in this world, Eragon. Those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see can interpret the signs easily enough. The birds sing of your coming, the beasts of the earth heed your scent, and the very trees and grass remember your touch. The bond between Rider and dragon is so powerful that those who are sensitive to the forces of nature can feel it.”
“You’ll have to teach that trick to me sometime.”
“It is no trick, merely the art of paying attention to what is already around you.”
“Why did you come to Eastcroft, though? It would have been safer to meet me outside the village.”
“Circumstances forced me here, as I assume they did you. You did not come here willingly, no?”
“No….” He rolled his shoulders, weary from the day’s traveling. Pushing back sleep, he waved a hand at h
er dress and said, “Have you finally abandoned your shirt and trousers?”
A small smile appeared on Arya’s face. “Only for the duration of this trip. I’ve lived among the Varden for more years than I care to recall, yet I still forget how humans insist upon separating their women from their men. I never could bring myself to adopt your customs, even if I did not conduct myself entirely as an elf. Who was to say yea or nay to me? My mother? She was on the other side of Alagaësia.” Arya seemed to catch herself then, as if she had said more than she intended. She continued. “In any event, I had an unfortunate encounter with a pair of ox herders soon after I left the Varden, and I stole this dress directly afterward.”
“It fits well.”
“One of the advantages of being a spellcaster is that you never have to wait for a tailor.”
Eragon laughed for a moment. Then he asked, “What now?”
“Now we rest. Tomorrow, before the sun rises, we shall slip out of Eastcroft, and no one shall be the wiser.”
That night, Eragon lay in front of the door, while Arya took the bed. Their arrangement was not the result of deference or courtesy on Eragon’s part—although he would have insisted on giving Arya the bed in any event—but rather caution. If anyone were to barge into the room, it would seem odd to find a woman on the floor.
As the empty hours crept by, Eragon stared at the beams above his head and traced the cracks in the wood, unable to calm his racing thoughts. He tried every method he knew to relax, but his mind kept returning to Arya, to his surprise at meeting her, to her comments about his treatment of Sloan, and, above all else, to the feelings he had for her. What those were exactly, he was unsure. He longed to be with her, but she had rejected his advances, and that tarnished his affection with hurt and anger, and also frustration, for while Eragon refused to accept that his suit was hopeless, he could not think of how to proceed.
An ache formed in his chest as he listened to the gentle rise and fall of Arya’s breathing. It tormented him to be so close and yet be unable to approach her. He twisted the edge of his tunic between his fingers and wished there was something he could do instead of resigning himself to an unwelcome fate.