“Please, Eragon,” she said. “This war shall not end as quickly as you think. The Empire is large, and we have but pricked its hide. As long as Galbatorix does not know about Oromis and Glaedr, we have an advantage.”
“Is it an advantage if they never make full use of themselves?” he grumbled. She did not answer, and after a moment, he felt childish for complaining. Oromis and Glaedr wanted more than anyone else to destroy Galbatorix, and if they chose to bide their time in Ellesméra, it was because they had excellent reasons for doing so. Eragon could even name several of them if he was so inclined, the most prominent being Oromis’s inability to cast spells that required large amounts of energy.
Cold, Eragon pulled his sleeves down over his hands and crossed his arms. “What was it you said to the spirit?”
“It was curious why we had been using magic; that was what brought us to their attention. I explained, and I also explained that you were the one who freed the spirits trapped inside of Durza. That seemed to please them a great deal.” Silence crept between them, and then she sidled toward the lily and touched it again. “Oh!” she said. “They were indeed grateful. Naina!”
At her command, a wash of soft light illuminated the camp. By it, he saw that the leaf and stem of the lily were solid gold, the petals were a whitish metal he failed to recognize, and the heart of the flower, as Arya revealed by tilting the blossom upward, appeared to have been carved out of rubies and diamonds. Amazed, Eragon ran a finger over the curved leaf, the tiny wire hairs on it tickling him. Bending forward, he discerned the same collection of bumps, grooves, pits, veins, and other minute details with which he had adorned the original version of the plant; the only difference was they were now made of gold.
“It’s a perfect copy!” he said.
“And it is still alive.”
“No!” Concentrating, he searched for the faint signs of warmth and movement that would indicate the lily was more than an inanimate object. He located them, strong as they ever were in a plant during the night. Fingering the leaf again, he said, “This is beyond everything I know of magic. By all rights, this lily ought to be dead. Instead, it is thriving. I cannot even imagine what would be involved in turning a plant into living metal. Perhaps Saphira could do it, but she would never be able to teach the spell to anyone else.”
“The real question,” said Arya, “is whether this flower will produce seeds that are fertile.”
“It could spread?”
“I would not be surprised if it does. Numerous examples of self-perpetuating magic exist throughout Alagaësia, such as the floating crystal on the island of Eoam and the dream well in Mani’s Caves. This would be no more improbable than either of those phenomena.”
“Unfortunately, if anyone discovers this flower or the offspring it may have, they will dig them all up. Every fortune hunter in the land would come here to pick the golden lilies.”
“They will not be so easy to destroy, I think, but only time will tell for sure.”
A laugh bubbled up inside of Eragon. With barely contained glee, he said, “I’ve heard the expression ‘to gild the lily’ before, but the spirits actually did it! They gilded the lily!” And he fell to laughing, letting his voice boom across the empty plain.
Arya’s lips twitched. “Well, their intentions were noble. We cannot fault them for being ignorant of human sayings.”
“No, but… oh, ha, ha, ha!”
Arya snapped her fingers, and the wash of light faded into oblivion. “We have talked away most of the night. It is time we rested. Dawn is fast approaching, and we must depart soon thereafter.”
Eragon stretched himself out on a rock-free expanse of the ground, still chuckling as he drifted into his waking dreams.
AMID THE RESTLESS CROWD
It was midafternoon when the Varden finally came into sight.
Eragon and Arya stopped on the crest of a low hill and studied the sprawling city of gray tents that lay before them, teeming as it was with thousands of men, horses, and smoking cookfires. To the west of the tents, there wound the tree-lined Jiet River. Half a mile to the east was a second, smaller camp—like an island floating close off the shore of its mother continent—where the Urgals led by Nar Garzhvog resided. Ranging for several miles around the perimeter of the Varden were numerous groups of horsemen. Some were riding patrol, others were banner-carrying messengers, and others were raiding parties either setting out on or returning from a mission. Two of the patrols spotted Eragon and Arya and, after sounding signal horns, galloped toward them with all possible speed.
A broad smile stretched Eragon’s face, and he laughed, relieved. “We made it!” he exclaimed. “Murtagh, Thorn, hundreds of soldiers, Galbatorix’s pet magicians, the Ra’zac—none of them could catch us. Ha! How’s that for taunting the king? This’ll tweak his beard for sure when he hears of it.”
“He will be twice as dangerous then,” warned Arya.
“I know,” he said, grinning even wider. “Maybe he’ll get so angry, he’ll forget to pay his troops and they will all throw away their uniforms and join the Varden.”
“You are in fine fettle today.”
“And why shouldn’t I be?” he demanded. Bouncing on the tips of his toes, he opened his mind as wide as he could and, gathering his strength, shouted, Saphira! sending the thought flying over the countryside like a spear.
A response was not long in coming:
They embraced with their minds, smothering each other with warm waves of love, joy, and concern. They exchanged memories of their time apart, and Saphira comforted Eragon over the soldiers he had killed, drawing off the pain and anger that had accumulated within him since the incident. He smiled. With Saphira so close, everything seemed right in the world.
I missed you, he said.
And I you, little one. Then she sent him an image of the soldiers he and Arya had fought and said, Without fail, every time I leave you, you get yourself in trouble. Every time! I hate to so much as turn tail on you for fear you will be locked in mortal combat the moment I take my eyes off you.
Be fair: I’ve gotten into plenty of trouble when I am with you. It’s not something that just happens when I’m alone. We seem to be lodestones for unexpected events.
No, you are a lodestone for unexpected events, she sniffed. Nothing out of the ordinary ever occurs to me when I’m by myself. But you attract duels, ambushes, immortal enemies, obscure creatures such as the Ra’zac, long-lost family members, and mysterious acts of magic as if they were starving weasels and you were a rabbit that wandered into their den.
What about the time you spent as Galbatorix’s possession? Was that an ordinary event?
I had not hatched yet, she said. You cannot count that. The difference between you and me is that things happen to you, whereas I cause things to happen.
Maybe, but that’s because I’m still learning. Give me a few years, and I’ll be as good as Brom at getting things done, eh? You can’t say I didn’t seize the initiative with Sloan.
Mmh. We still have to talk about that. If you ever surprise me like that again, I will pin you on the ground and lick you from head to toe.
Eragon shivered. Her tongue was covered with hooked barbs that could strip hair, hide, and meat off a deer with a single swipe. I know, but I wasn’t sure myself whether I was going to kill Sloan or let him go free until I was standing in front of him. Besides, if I had told you I was going to stay behind, you would have insisted on stopping me.
He sensed a faint growl as it rumbled through her chest. She said, You should have trusted me to do the right thing. If we cannot talk openly, how are we supposed to function as dragon and Rider?
Would doing the right thing have involved taking me from Helgrind, regardless of my wishes?
It might not have, she said with a hint of defensiveness.
He smiled. You’re right, though. I should have discussed my plan with you. I’m sorry. From now on, I promise I will consult with you be
fore I do anything you don’t expect. Is that acceptable?
Only if it involves weapons, magic, kings, or family members, she said.
Or flowers, she agreed. I don’t need to know if you decide to eat some bread and cheese in the middle of the night.
Unless a man with a very long knife is waiting for me outside of my tent.
If you could not defeat a single man with a very long knife, you would be a poor excuse for a Rider indeed.
Not to mention dead.
By your own argument, you should take comfort in the fact that while I may attract more trouble than most people, I am perfectly capable of escaping from situations that would kill most anyone else.
Even the greatest warriors can fall prey to bad luck, she said. Remember the dwarf king Kaga, who was killed by a novice swordsman—swordsdwarf?—when he tripped on a rock. You should always remain cautious, for no matter your skills, you cannot anticipate and prevent every misfortune fate directs your way.
Agreed. Now, can we please abandon such weighty conversation? I have become thoroughly exhausted with thoughts of fate, destiny, justice, and other, equally gloomy topics over the past few days. As far as I am concerned, philosophic questioning is just as likely to make you confused and depressed as it is to improve your condition. Swiveling his head, Eragon surveyed the plain and sky, searching for the distinctive blue glitter of Saphira’s scales. Where are you? I can feel you are nearby, but I can’t see you.
Right above you!
With a bugle of joy, Saphira dove out of the belly of a cloud several thousand feet overhead, spiraling toward the ground with her wings tucked close to her body. Opening her fearsome jaws, she released a billow of fire, which streamed back over her head and neck like a burning mane. Eragon laughed and held his arms outstretched to her. The horses of the patrol galloping toward him and Arya shied at the sight and sound of Saphira and bolted in the opposite direction while their riders frantically tried to rein them in.
“I had hoped we could enter the camp without attracting undue attention,” Arya said, “but I suppose I should have realized we could not be unobtrusive with Saphira around. A dragon is hard to ignore.”
I heard that, said Saphira, spreading her wings and landing with a thunderous crash. Her massive thighs and shoulders rippled as she absorbed the force of the impact. A blast of air struck Eragon’s face, and the earth shuddered underneath him. He flexed his knees to maintain his balance. Folding her wings so they lay flat upon her back, she said, I can be stealthy if I want. Then she cocked her head and blinked, the tip of her tail whipping from side to side. But I don’t want to be stealthy today! Today I am a dragon, not a frightened pigeon trying to avoid being seen by a hunting falcon.
When are you not a dragon? asked Eragon as he ran toward her. Light as a feather, he leaped from her left foreleg to her shoulder and thence to the hollow at the base of her neck that was his usual seat. Settling into place, he put his hands on either side of her warm neck, feeling the rise and fall of her banded muscles as she breathed. He smiled again, with a profound sense of contentment. This is where I belong, here with you. His legs vibrated as Saphira hummed with satisfaction, her deep rumbling following a strange, subtle melody he did not recognize.
“Greetings, Saphira,” said Arya, and twisted her hand over her chest in the elves’ gesture of respect.
Crouching low and bending her long neck, Saphira touched Arya upon the brow with the tip of her snout, as she had when she blessed Elva in Farthen Dûr, and said, Greetings, älfa-kona. Welcome, and may the wind rise under your wings. She spoke to Arya with the same tone of affection that, until then, she had reserved for Eragon, as if she now considered Arya part of their small family and worthy of the same regard and intimacy as they shared. Her gesture surprised Eragon, but after an initial flare of jealousy, he approved. Saphira continued speaking: I am grateful to you for helping Eragon to return without harm. If he had been captured, I do not know what I would have done!
“Your gratitude means much to me,” said Arya, and bowed. “As for what you would have done if Galbatorix had seized Eragon, why, you would have rescued him, and I would have accompanied you, even if it was to Urû’baen itself.”
Yes, I like to think I would have rescued you, Eragon, said Saphira, turning her neck to look at him, but I worry that I would have surrendered to the Empire in order to save you, no matter the consequences for Alagaësia. Then she shook her head and kneaded the soil with her claws. Ah, these are pointless meanderings. You are here and safe, and that is the true shape of the world. To while away the day contemplating evils that might have been is to poison the happiness we already have….
At that moment, a patrol galloped toward them and, halting thirty yards away because of their nervous horses, asked if they might escort the three to Nasuada. One of the men dismounted and gave his steed to Arya, and then as a group, they advanced toward the sea of tents to the southwest. Saphira set the pace: a leisurely crawl that allowed her and Eragon to enjoy the pleasure of each other’s company before they immersed themselves in the noise and chaos that were sure to assault them once they neared the camp.
Eragon inquired after Roran and Katrina, then said, Have you been eating enough fireweed? Your breath seems stronger than usual.
Of course I have. You only notice it because you have been gone for many days. I smell exactly as a dragon should smell, and I’ll thank you not to make disparaging comments about it unless you want me to drop you on your head. Besides, you humans have nothing to brag about, sweaty, greasy, pungent things that you are. The only creatures in the wild as smelly as humans are male goats and hibernating bears. Compared to you, the scent of a dragon is a perfume as delightful as a meadow of mountain flowers.
Come now, don’t exaggerate. Although, he said, wrinkling his nose, since the Agaetí Blödhren, I have noticed that humans tend to be rather smelly. But you cannot lump me in with the rest, for I am no longer entirely human.
Perhaps not, but you still need a bath!
As they crossed the plain, more and more men congregated around Eragon and Saphira, providing them with a wholly unnecessary but very impressive honor guard. After so long spent in the wilds of Alagaësia, the dense press of bodies, the cacophony of high, excited voices, the storm of unguarded thoughts and emotions, and the confused motion of flailing arms and prancing horses were overwhelming for Eragon.
He retreated deep within himself, where the discordant mental chorus was no louder than the distant thunder of crashing waves. Even through the layers of barriers, he sensed the approach of twelve elves, running in formation from the other side of the camp, swift and lean as yellow-eyed mountain cats. Wanting to make a favorable impression, Eragon combed his hair with his fingers and squared his shoulders, but he also tightened the armor around his consciousness so that no one but Saphira could hear his thoughts. The elves had come to protect him and Saphira, but ultimately their allegiance belonged to Queen Islanzadí. While he was grateful for their presence, and he doubted their inherent politeness would allow them to eavesdrop on him, he did not want to provide the queen of the elves with any opportunity to learn the secrets of the Varden, nor to gain a hold over him. If she could wrest him away from Nasuada, he knew she would. On the whole, the elves did not trust humans, not after Galbatorix’s betrayal, and for that and other reasons, he was sure Islanzadí would prefer to have him and Saphira under her direct command. And of the potentates he had met, he trusted Islanzadí the least. She was too imperious and too erratic.
The twelve elves halted before Saphira. They bowed and twisted their hands as Arya had done and, one by one, introduced themselves to Eragon with the initial phrase of the elves’ traditional greeting, to which he replied with the appropriate lines. Then the lead elf, a tall, handsome male with glossy blue-black fur covering his entire body, proclaimed the purpose of their mission to everyone within earshot and formally asked Eragon and Saphira if the
twelve might assume their duties.
“You may,” said Eragon.
You may, said Saphira.
Then Eragon asked, “Blödhgarm-vodhr, did I perchance see you at the Agaetí Blödhren?” For he remembered watching an elf with a similar pelt gamboling among the trees during the festivities.
Blödhgarm smiled, exposing the fangs of an animal. “I believe you met my cousin Liotha. We share a most striking family resemblance, although her fur is brown and flecked, whereas mine is dark blue.”
“I would have sworn it was you.”
“Unfortunately, I was otherwise engaged at the time and was unable to attend the celebration. Perhaps I shall have the opportunity when next the occasion occurs, a hundred years from now.”
Would you not agree, Saphira said to Eragon, that he has a pleasant aroma?
Eragon sniffed the air. I don’t smell anything. And I would if there was anything to smell.
That’s odd. She provided him then with the range of odors she had detected, and at once he realized what she meant. Blödhgarm’s musk surrounded him like a cloud, thick and heady, a warm, smoky scent that contained hints of crushed juniper berries and that set Saphira’s nostrils to tingling. All the women in the Varden seem to have fallen in love with him, she said. They stalk him wherever he goes, desperate to talk with him but too shy to utter so much as a squeak when he looks at them.
Maybe only females can smell him. He cast a concerned glance at Arya. She does not seem to be affected.
She has protection against magical influences.
I hope so…. Do you think we should put a stop to Blödhgarm? What he is doing is a sneaky, underhanded way of gaining a woman’s heart.
Is it any more underhanded than adorning yourself with fine clothing to catch the eye of your beloved? Blödhgarm has not taken advantage of the women who are fascinated by him, and it seems improbable that he would have composed the notes of his scent to appeal specifically to human women. Rather, I would guess it is an unintended consequence and that he created it to serve another purpose altogether. Unless he discards all semblance of decency, I think we should refrain from interfering.