Eragon nodded. Then Arya scavenged a sword, and together they set out to make it appear as if a troop of ordinary warriors had killed the soldiers. It was grisly work, but it went quickly, for they both knew exactly what kinds of wounds the soldiers should have to ensure the success of the deception, and neither of them wished to linger. When they came to the man whose chest Eragon had destroyed, Arya said, “There’s little we can do to disguise an injury like that. We will have to leave it as is and hope people assume a horse stepped on him.” They moved on. The last soldier they dealt with was the commander of the patrol. His mustache was now limp and torn and had lost most of its former splendor.
After enlarging the pebble hole so it more closely resembled the triangular pit left by the spike of a war hammer, Eragon rested for a moment, contemplating the commander’s sad mustache, then said, “He was right, you know.”
“I need a weapon, a proper weapon. I need a sword.” Wiping his palms on the edge of his tunic, he surveyed the plain around them, counting the bodies. “That’s it, then, isn’t it? We’re done.” He went and collected his scattered armor, rewrapped it in cloth, and returned it to the bottom of his pack. Then he joined Arya on the low hillock she had climbed.
“We had best avoid the roads from now on,” she said. “We cannot risk another encounter with Galbatorix’s men.” Indicating his deformed right hand, which stained his tunic with blood, she said, “You should tend to that before we set forth.” She gave him no time to respond but grasped his paralyzed fingers and said, “Waíse heill.”
An involuntary groan escaped him as his fingers popped back into their sockets, and as his abraded tendons and crushed cartilage regained the fullness of their proper shapes, and as the flaps of skin hanging from his knuckles again covered the raw flesh below. When the spell ended, he opened and closed his hand to confirm that it was fully cured. “Thank you,” he said. It surprised him that she had taken the initiative when he was perfectly capable of healing his own wounds.
Arya seemed embarrassed. Looking away, out over the plains, she said, “I am glad you were by my side today, Eragon.”
“And you by mine.”
She favored him with a quick, uncertain smile. They lingered on the hillock for another minute, neither of them eager to resume their journey. Then Arya sighed and said, “We should be off. The shadows lengthen, and someone else is bound to appear and raise a hue and cry when they discover this crows’ feast.”
Abandoning the hillock, they orientated themselves in a southwesterly direction, angling away from the road, and loped out across the uneven sea of grass. Behind them, the first of the carrion eaters dropped from the sky.
SHADOWS OF THE PAST
That night, Eragon sat staring at their meager fire, chewing on a dandelion leaf. Their dinner had consisted of an assortment of roots, seeds, and greens that Arya had gathered from the surrounding countryside. Eaten uncooked and unseasoned, they were hardly appetizing, but he had refrained from augmenting the meal with a bird or rabbit, of which there was an abundance in the immediate vicinity, for he did not wish Arya to regard him with disapproval. Moreover, after their fight with the soldiers, the thought of taking another life, even an animal’s, sickened him.
It was late, and they would have to get an early start the next morning, but he made no move to retire, nor did Arya. She was situated at right angles to him, her legs pulled up, with her arms wrapped around them and her chin resting on her knees. The skirt of her dress spread outward, like the wind-battered petals of a flower.
His chin sunk low against his chest, Eragon massaged his right hand with his left, trying to dispel a deep-seated ache. I need a sword, he thought. Short of that, I could use some sort of protection for my hands so I don’t cripple myself whenever I hit something. The problem is, I’m so strong now, I would have to wear gloves with several inches of padding, which is ridiculous. They would be too bulky, too hot, and what’s more, I can’t go around with gloves on for the rest of my life. He frowned. Pushing the bones of his hand out of their normal positions, he studied how they altered the play of light over his skin, fascinated by the malleability of his body. And what happens if I get in a fight while I’m wearing Brom’s ring? It’s of elvish make, so I probably don’t have to worry about breaking the sapphire. But if I hit anything with the ring on my finger, I won’t just dislocate a few joints, I’ll splinter every bone in my hand…. I might not even be able to repair the damage…. He tightened his hands into fists and slowly turned them from side to side, watching the shadows deepen and fade between his knuckles. I could invent a spell that would stop any object that was moving at a dangerous speed from touching my hands. No, wait, that’s no good. What if it was a boulder? What if it was a mountain? I’d kill myself trying to stop it.
Well, if gloves and magic won’t work, I’d like to have a set of the dwarves’ Ascûdgamln, their “fists of steel.” With a smile, he remembered how the dwarf Shrrgnien had a steel spike threaded into a metal base that was embedded in each of his knuckles, excluding those on his thumbs. The spikes allowed Shrrgnien to hit whatever he wanted with little fear of pain, and they were convenient too, for he could remove them at will. The concept appealed to Eragon, but he was not about to start drilling holes in his knuckles. Besides, he thought, my bones are thinner than dwarf bones, too thin, perhaps, to attach the base and still have the joints function as they should…. So Ascûdgamln are a bad idea, but maybe instead I can …
Bending low over his hands, he whispered, “Thaefathan.”
The backs of his hands began to crawl and prickle as if he had fallen into a patch of stinging nettles. The sensation was so intense and so unpleasant, he longed to jump up and scratch himself as hard as he could. With an effort of will, he stayed where he was and watched as the skin on his knuckles bulged, forming a flat, whitish callus half an inch thick over each joint. They reminded him of the hornlike deposits that appear on the inside of horses’ legs. When he was pleased with the size and density of the knobs, he released the flow of magic and set about exploring, by touch and sight, the mountainous new terrain that loomed over his fingers.
His hands were heavier and stiffer than before, but he could still move his fingers through their full range of motion. It may be ugly, he thought, rubbing the rough protuberances on his right hand against the palm of his left, and people may laugh and sneer if they notice, but I don’t care, for it will serve its purpose and may keep me alive.
Brimming with silent excitement, he struck the top of a domed rock that rose out of the ground between his legs. The impact jarred his arm and produced a muted thud but caused him no more discomfort than it would have to punch a board covered with several layers of cloth. Emboldened, he retrieved Brom’s ring from his pack and slipped on the cool gold band, checking that the adjacent callus was higher than the face of the ring. He tested his observation by again ramming his fist against the rock. The only resulting sound was that of dry, compacted skin colliding with unyielding stone.
“What are you doing?” asked Arya, peering at him through a veil of her black hair.
“Nothing.” Then he held out his hands. “I thought it would be a good idea, since I’ll probably have to hit someone again.”
Arya studied his knuckles. “You are going to have difficulty wearing gloves.”
“I can always cut them open to make room.”
She nodded and returned to gazing at the fire.
Eragon leaned back on his elbows and stretched out his legs, content that he was prepared for whatever fights might await him in the immediate future. Beyond that, he dared not speculate, for if he did, he would begin to ask himself how he and Saphira could possibly defeat Murtagh or Galbatorix, and then panic would sink its icy claws into him.
He fixed his gaze on the flickering depths of the fire. There, in that writhing inferno, he sought to forget his cares and responsibilities. But the constant motion of the flames soon lulled him into a passive
state where unrelated fragments of thoughts, sounds, images, and emotions drifted through him like snowflakes falling from a calm winter’s sky. And amid that flurry, there appeared the face of the soldier who had begged for his life. Again Eragon saw him crying, and again he heard his desperate pleas, and again he felt how his neck snapped like a wet branch of wood.
Tormented by the memories, Eragon clenched his teeth and breathed hard through flared nostrils. Cold sweat sprang up over his entire body. He shifted in place and strove to dispel the soldier’s unfriendly ghost, but to no avail. Go away! he shouted. It wasn’t my fault. Galbatorix is the one you should blame, not me. I didn’t want to kill you!
Somewhere in the darkness surrounding them, a wolf howled. From various locations across the plains, a score of other wolves answered, raising their voices in a discordant melody. The eerie singing made Eragon’s scalp tingle and goosebumps break out on his arms. Then, for a brief moment, the howls coalesced into a single tone that was similar to the battle-cry of a charging Kull.
Eragon shifted, uneasy.
“What’s wrong?” asked Arya. “Is it the wolves? They shall not bother us, you know. They are teaching their pups how to hunt, and they won’t allow their younglings near creatures who smell as strangely as we do.”
“It’s not the wolves out there,” said Eragon, hugging himself. “It’s the wolves in here.” He tapped the middle of his forehead.
Arya nodded, a sharp, birdlike motion that betrayed the fact she was not human, even though she had assumed the shape of one. “It is always thus. The monsters of the mind are far worse than those that actually exist. Fear, doubt, and hate have hamstrung more people than beasts ever have.”
“And love,” he pointed out.
“And love,” she admitted. “Also greed and jealousy and every other obsessive urge the sentient races are susceptible to.”
Eragon thought of Tenga alone, in the ruined elf outpost of Edur Ithindra, hunched over his precious hoard of tomes, searching, always searching, for his elusive “answer.” He refrained from mentioning the hermit to Arya, for it was not in him to discuss that curious encounter at the present. Instead, he asked, “Does it bother you when you kill?”
Arya’s green eyes narrowed. “Neither I nor the rest of my people eat the flesh of animals because we cannot bear to hurt another creature to satisfy our hunger, and you have the effrontery to ask if killing disturbs us? Do you really understand so little of us that you believe we are coldhearted murderers?”
“No, of course not,” he protested. “That’s not what I meant.”
“Then say what you mean, and do not give insult unless it is your intention.”
Choosing his words with greater care now, Eragon said, “I asked this of Roran before we attacked Helgrind, or a question very like it. What I want to know is, how do you feel when you kill? How are you supposed to feel?” He scowled at the fire. “Do you see the warriors you have vanquished staring back at you, as real as you are before me?”
Arya tightened her arms around her legs, her gaze pensive. A flame jetted upward as the fire incinerated one of the moths circling the camp. “Gánga,” she murmured, and motioned with a finger. With a flutter of downy wings, the moths departed. Never lifting her eyes from the clump of burning branches, she said, “Nine months after I became an ambassador, my mother’s only ambassador, if truth be told, I traveled from the Varden in Farthen Dûr to the capital of Surda, which was still a new country in those days. Soon after my companions and I left the Beor Mountains, we encountered a band of roving Urgals. We were content to keep our swords in their sheaths and continue on our way, but as is their wont, the Urgals insisted on trying to win honor and glory to better their standing within their tribes. Our force was larger than theirs—for Weldon, the man who succeeded Brom as leader of the Varden, was with us—and it was easy for us to drive them off…. That day was the first time I took a life. It troubled me for weeks afterward, until I realized I would go mad if I continued to dwell upon it. Many do, and they become so angry, so grief-ridden, they can no longer be relied upon, or their hearts turn to stone and they lose the ability to distinguish right from wrong.”
“How did you come to terms with what you had done?”
“I examined my reasons for killing to determine if they were just. Satisfied they were, I asked myself if our cause was important enough to continue supporting it, even though it would probably require me to kill again. Then I decided that whenever I began to think of the dead, I would picture myself in the gardens of Tialdarí Hall.”
“Did it work?”
Brushing her hair out of her face, she tucked it behind one round ear. “It did. The only antidote for the corrosive poison of violence is finding peace within yourself. It’s a difficult cure to obtain, but well worth the effort.” She paused and then added, “Breathing helps too.”
“Slow, regular breathing, as if you were meditating. It is one of the most effective methods for calming yourself.”
Following her advice, Eragon began to consciously inhale and exhale, taking care to maintain a steady tempo and to expel all the air from his lungs with each breath. Within a minute, the knot inside his gut loosened, his frown eased, and the presence of his fallen enemies no longer seemed quite so tangible…. The wolves howled again, and after an initial burst of trepidation, he listened without fear, for their baying had lost the power to unsettle him. “Thank you,” he said. Arya responded with a gracious tilt of her chin.
Silence reigned for a quarter of an hour until Eragon said, “Urgals.” He let the statement stand for a while, a verbal monolith of ambivalence. “What do you think about Nasuada allowing them to join the Varden?”
Arya picked up a twig by the edge of her splayed dress and rolled it between her aquiline fingers, studying the crooked piece of wood as if it contained a secret. “It was a courageous decision, and I admire her for it. She always acts in the best interests of the Varden, no matter what the cost may be.”
“She upset many of the Varden when she accepted Nar Garzhvog’s offer of support.”
“And she won back their loyalty with the Trial of the Long Knives. Nasuada is very clever when it comes to maintaining her position.” Arya flicked the twig into the fire. “I have no love for Urgals, but neither do I hate them. Unlike the Ra’zac, they are not inherently evil, merely overfond of war. It is an important distinction, even if it can provide no consolation to the families of their victims. We elves have treated with Urgals before, and we shall again when the need arises. It is a futile prospect, however.”
She did not have to explain why. Many of the scrolls Oromis had assigned Eragon to read were devoted to the subject of Urgals, and one in particular, The Travels of Gnaevaldrskald, had taught him that the Urgals’ entire culture was based upon feats of combat. Male Urgals could only improve their standing by raiding another village—whether Urgal, human, elf, or dwarf mattered little—or by fighting their rivals one on one, sometimes to the death. And when it came to picking a mate, Urgal females refused to consider a ram eligible unless he had defeated at least three opponents. As a result, each new generation of Urgals had no choice but to challenge their peers, challenge their elders, and scour the land for opportunities to prove their valor. The tradition was so deeply ingrained, every attempt to suppress it had failed. At least they are true to who they are, mused Eragon. That’s more than most humans can claim.
“How is it,” he asked, “that Durza was able to ambush you, Glenwing, and Fäolin with Urgals? Didn’t you have wards to protect yourself against physical attacks?”
“The arrows were enchanted.”
“Were the Urgals spellcasters, then?”
Closing her eyes, Arya sighed and shook her head. “No. It was some dark magic of Durza’s invention. He gloated about it when I was in Gil’ead.”
“I don’t know how you managed to resist him for so long. I saw what he did to you.”
“It… it was
not easy. I viewed the torments he inflicted on me as a test of my commitment, as a chance to demonstrate that I had not made a mistake and I was indeed worthy of the yawë symbol. As such, I welcomed the ordeal.”
“But still, even elves are not immune to pain. It’s amazing you could keep the location of Ellesméra hidden from him all those months.”
A touch of pride colored her voice. “Not just the location of Ellesméra but also where I had sent Saphira’s egg, my vocabulary in the ancient language, and everything else that might be of use to Galbatorix.”
The conversation lapsed, and then Eragon said, “Do you think about it much, what you went through in Gil’ead?” When she did not respond, he added, “You never talk about it. You recount the facts of your imprisonment readily enough, but you never mention what it was like for you, nor how you feel about it now.”
“Pain is pain,” she said. “It needs no description.”
“True, but ignoring it can cause more harm than the original injury…. No one can live through something like that and escape unscathed. Not on the inside, at least.”
“Why do you assume I have not already confided in someone?”
“Does it matter? Ajihad, my mother, a friend in Ellesméra.”
“Perhaps I am wrong,” he said, “but you do not seem that close to anyone. Where you walk, you walk alone, even among your own people.”
Arya’s countenance remained impassive. Her lack of expression was so complete, Eragon began to wonder if she would deign to respond, a doubt that had just transformed into conviction when she whispered, “It was not always so.”
Alert, Eragon waited without moving, afraid that whatever he might do would stop her from saying more.