“I’ll do that,” Eragon promised.
With a satisfied grunt, Horst lifted the bar partway out of the coals to better judge the color of the steel. Plunging the bar back into the center of the fire, he jerked his beard toward Albriech. “Here now, give it some air. It’s almost ready.” As Albriech began to pump the leather bellows, Horst grinned at Eragon. “When I told the Varden I was a smith, they were so happy, you would have thought I was another Dragon Rider. They don’t have enough metal workers, you see. And they gave me what tools I was missing, including that anvil. When we left Carvahall, I wept at the prospect that I would not have the opportunity to practice my craft again. I am no swordsmith, but here, ah, here there is enough work to keep Albriech, Baldor, and me busy for the next fifty years. It doesn’t pay very well, but at least we’re not stretched out on a rack in Galbatorix’s dungeons.”
“Or the Ra’zac could be nibbling on our bones,” observed Baldor.
“Aye, that too.” Horst motioned for his sons to take up the sledgehammers again and then, holding the felt plug beside his left ear, said, “Is there anything else you wish of us, Eragon? The steel is ready, and I cannot leave it in the fire any longer without weakening it.”
“Do you know where Gedric is?”
“Gedric?” The furrow between Horst’s eyebrows deepened. “He should be practicing the sword and spear along with the rest of the men, thataway about a quarter of a mile.” Horst pointed with a thumb.
Eragon thanked him and departed in the direction Horst had indicated. The repetitive ring of metal striking metal resumed, clear as the peals of a bell and as sharp and piercing as a glass needle stabbing the air. Eragon covered his ears and smiled. It comforted him that Horst had retained his strength of purpose and that, despite the loss of his wealth and home, he was still the same person he had been in Carvahall. Somehow the smith’s consistency and resiliency renewed Eragon’s faith that if only they could overthrow Galbatorix, everything would be all right in the end, and his life and those of the villagers from Carvahall would regain a semblance of normalcy.
Eragon soon arrived at the field where the men of Carvahall were drilling with their new weapons. Gedric was there, as Horst had suggested he would be, sparring with Fisk, Darmmen, and Morn. A quick word on the part of Eragon with the one-armed veteran who was leading the drills was sufficient to secure Gedric’s temporary release.
The tanner ran over to Eragon and stood before him, his gaze lowered. He was short and swarthy, with a jaw like a mastiff’s, heavy eyebrows, and arms thick and gnarled from stirring the foul-smelling vats where he had cured his hides. Although he was far from handsome, Eragon knew him to be a kind and honest man.
“What can I do for you, Shadeslayer?” Gedric mumbled.
“You have already done it. And I have come here to thank and repay you.”
“I? How have I helped you, Shadeslayer?” He spoke slowly, cautiously, as if afraid Eragon were setting a trap for him.
“Soon after I ran away from Carvahall, you discovered that someone had stolen three ox hides from the drying hut by the vats. Am I right?”
Gedric’s face darkened with embarrassment, and he shuffled his feet. “Ah, well now, I didn’t lock that hut, you know. Anyone might have snuck in and carried those hides off. Besides, given what’s happened since, I can’t see as it’s much important. I destroyed most of my stock before we trooped into the Spine, to keep the Empire and those filthy Ra’zac from getting their claws on anything of use. Whoever took those hides saved me from having to destroy three more. So let bygones be bygones, I say.”
“Perhaps,” said Eragon, “but I still feel honor-bound to tell you that it was I who stole your hides.”
Gedric met his gaze then, looking at him as if he were an ordinary person, without fear, awe, or undue respect, as if the tanner were reevaluating his opinion of Eragon.
“I stole them, and I’m not proud of it, but I needed the hides. Without them, I doubt I would have survived long enough to reach the elves in Du Weldenvarden. I always preferred to think that I had borrowed the hides, but the truth is, I stole them, for I had no intention of returning them. Therefore, you have my apologies. And since I am keeping the hides, or what is left of them, it seems only right to pay you for them.” From within his belt, Eragon removed one of the spheres of gold—hard, round, and warm from the heat of his flesh—and handed it to Gedric.
Gedric stared at the shiny metal pearl, his massive jaw clamped shut, the lines around his thin-lipped mouth harsh and unyielding. He did not insult Eragon by weighing the gold in his hand, nor by biting it, but when he spoke, he said, “I cannot accept this, Eragon. I was a good tanner, but the leather I made was not worth this much. Your generosity does you credit, but it would bother me to keep this gold. I would feel as if I hadn’t earned it.”
Unsurprised, Eragon said, “You would not deny another man the opportunity to haggle for a fair price, would you?”
“Good. Then you cannot deny me this. Most people haggle downward. In this case, I have chosen to haggle upward, but I will still haggle as fiercely as if I were trying to save myself a handful of coins. To me, the hides are worth every ounce of that gold, and I would not pay you a copper less, not even if you held a knife to my throat.”
Gedric’s thick fingers closed around the gold orb. “Since you insist, I will not be so churlish as to keep refusing you. No one can say that Gedric Ostvensson allowed good fortune to pass him by because he was too busy protesting his own unworthiness. My thanks, Shadeslayer.” He placed the orb in a pouch on his belt, wrapping the gold in a patch of wool cloth to protect it from scratches. “Garrow did right by you, Eragon. He did right by both you and Roran. He may have been sharp as vinegar and as hard and dry as a winter rutabaga, but he raised the two of you well. He would be proud of you, I think.”
Unexpected emotion clogged Eragon’s chest.
As Gedric turned to rejoin the other villagers, he paused. “If I may ask, Eragon, why were those hides worth so much to you? What did you use them for?”
Eragon chuckled. “Use them for? Why, with Brom’s help, I made a saddle for Saphira out of them. She doesn’t wear it as often as she used to—not since the elves gave us a proper dragon’s saddle—but it served us well through many a scrape and fight, and even the Battle of Farthen Dûr.”
Astonishment raised Gedric’s eyebrows, exposing pale skin that normally lay hidden in deep folds. Like a split in blue-gray granite, a wide grin spread across his jaw, transforming his features. “A saddle!” he breathed. “Imagine, me tanning the leather for a Rider’s saddle! And without a hint of what I was doing at the time, no less! No, not a Rider, the Rider. He who will finally cast down the black tyrant himself! If only my father could see me now!” Kicking up his heels, Gedric danced an impromptu jig. With his grin undiminished, he bowed to Eragon and trotted back to his place among the villagers, where he began to relate his tale to everyone within earshot.
Eager to escape before the lot of them could descend upon him, Eragon slipped away between the rows of tents, pleased with what he had accomplished. It might take me a while, he thought, but I always settle my debts.
Before long, he arrived at another tent, close to the eastern edge of the camp. He knocked on the pole between the two front flaps.
With a sharp sound, the entrance was yanked aside to reveal Jeod’s wife, Helen, standing in the opening. She regarded Eragon with a cold expression. “You’ve come to talk with him, I suppose.”
“If he’s here.” Which Eragon knew perfectly well he was, for he could sense Jeod’s mind as clearly as Helen’s.
For a moment, Eragon thought Helen might deny the presence of her husband, but then she shrugged and moved aside. “You might as well come in, then.”
Eragon found Jeod sitting on a stool, poring over an assortment of scrolls, books, and sheaves of loose papers that were piled high on a cot bare of blankets. A thin shock of hair hung across Jeod’s
forehead, mimicking the curve of the scar that stretched from his scalp to his left temple.
“Eragon!” he cried as he saw him, the lines of concentration on his face clearing. “Welcome, welcome!” He shook Eragon’s hand and then offered him the stool. “Here, I shall sit on the corner of the bed. No, please, you are our guest. Would you care for some food or drink? Nasuada gives us an extra ration, so do not restrain yourself for fear that we will go hungry on your account. It is poor fare compared with what we served you in Teirm, but then no one should go to war and expect to eat well, not even a king.”
“A cup of tea would be nice,” said Eragon.
“Tea and biscuits it is.” Jeod glanced at Helen.
Snatching the kettle off the ground, Helen braced it against her hip, fit the nipple of a waterskin in the end of the spout, and squeezed. The kettle reverberated with a dull roar as a stream of water struck the bottom. Helen’s fingers tightened around the neck of the waterskin, restricting the flow to a languorous trickle. She remained thus, with the detached look of a person performing an unpleasant task, while the water droplets drummed out a maddening beat against the inside of the kettle.
An apologetic smile flickered across Jeod’s face. He stared at a scrap of paper beside his knee as he waited for Helen to finish. Eragon studied a wrinkle in the side of the tent.
The bombastic trickle continued for over three minutes.
When the kettle was finally full, Helen removed the deflated waterskin from the spout, hung it on a hook on the center pole of the tent, and stormed out.
Eragon raised an eyebrow at Jeod.
Jeod spread his hands. “My position with the Varden is not as prominent as she had hoped, and she blames me for the fact. She agreed to flee Teirm with me, expecting, or so I believe, that Nasuada would vault me into the inner circle of her advisers, or grant me lands and riches fit for a lord, or some other extravagant reward for my help stealing Saphira’s egg those many years ago. What Helen did not bargain on was the unglamorous life of a common swordsman: sleeping in a tent, fixing her own food, washing her own clothes, and so on. It’s not that wealth and status are her only concerns, but you have to understand, she was born into one of the richest shipping families of Teirm, and for most of our marriage, I was not unsuccessful in my own ventures. She is unused to such privations as these, and she has yet to reconcile herself to them.” His shoulders rose and fell a fraction of an inch. “My own hope was that this adventure—if it deserves such a romantic term—would narrow the rifts that have opened between us in recent years, but as always, nothing is ever as simple as it seems.”
“Do you feel that the Varden ought to show you greater consideration?” asked Eragon.
“For myself, no. For Helen …” Jeod hesitated. “I want her to be happy. My reward was in escaping from Gil’ead with my life when Brom and I were attacked by Morzan, his dragon, and his men; in the satisfaction of knowing that I had helped strike a crippling blow against Galbatorix; in being able to return to my previous life and yet still help further the Varden’s cause; and in being able to marry Helen. Those were my rewards, and I am more than content with them. Any doubts I had vanished the instant I saw Saphira fly out of the smoke of the Burning Plains. I do not know what to do about Helen, though. But I forget myself. These are not your troubles, and I should not lay them upon you.”
Eragon touched a scroll with the tip of his index finger. “Then tell me, why so many papers? Have you become a copyist?”
The question amused Jeod. “Hardly, although the work is often as tedious. Since it was I who discovered the hidden passageway into Galbatorix’s castle, in Urû’baen, and I was able to bring with me some of the rare books from my library in Teirm, Nasuada has set me to searching for similar weaknesses in the other cities of the Empire. If I could find mention of a tunnel that led underneath the walls of Dras-Leona, for example, it might save us a great deal of bloodshed.”
“Where are you looking?”
“Everywhere I can.” Jeod brushed back the lock of hair that was hanging over his forehead. “Histories; myths; legends; poems; songs; religious tracts; the writings of Riders, magicians, wanderers, madmen, obscure potentates, various generals, anyone who might have knowledge of a hidden door or a secret mechanism or something of that ilk that we might turn to our advantage. The amount of material I have to sift through is immense, for all of the cities have stood for hundreds of years, and some antedate the arrival of humans in Alagaësia.”
“Is it likely you will actually find anything?”
“No, not likely. It is never likely that you will succeed in ferreting out the secrets of the past. But I may still prevail, given enough time. I have no doubt that what I am searching for exists in each of the cities; they are too old not to contain surreptitious ways in and out through their walls. However, it is another question entirely whether records of those ways exist and whether we possess those records. People who know about concealed trapdoors and the like usually want to keep the information to themselves.” Jeod grasped a handful of the papers next to him on the cot and brought them closer to his face, then snorted and tossed the papers away. “I’m trying to solve riddles invented by people who didn’t want them to be solved.”
He and Eragon continued talking about other, less important matters until Helen reappeared, carrying three mugs of steaming-hot red-clover tea. As Eragon accepted his mug, he noted that her earlier anger seemed to have subsided, and he wondered if she had been listening outside to what Jeod had said about her. She handed Jeod his mug and, from somewhere behind Eragon, procured a tin plate laden with flat biscuits and a small clay pot of honey. Then she withdrew a few feet and stood leaning against the center pole, blowing on her own mug.
As was polite, Jeod waited until Eragon had taken a biscuit from the plate and consumed a bite of it before saying, “To what do I owe the pleasure of your company, Eragon? Unless I am mistaken, this is no idle visit.”
Eragon sipped his tea. “After the Battle of the Burning Plains, I promised I would tell you how Brom died. That is why I have come.”
A gray pallor replaced the color in Jeod’s cheeks. “Oh.”
“I don’t have to, if that’s not what you want,” Eragon quickly pointed out.
With an effort, Jeod shook his head. “No, I do. You merely caught me by surprise.”
When Jeod did not ask Helen to leave, Eragon was uncertain whether he should continue, but then he decided that it did not matter if Helen or anyone else heard his story. In a slow, deliberate voice, Eragon began to recount the events that had transpired since he and Brom had left Jeod’s house. He described their encounter with the band of Urgals, their search for the Ra’zac in Dras-Leona, how the Ra’zac had ambushed them outside the city, and how the Ra’zac had stabbed Brom as they fled from Murtagh’s attack.
Eragon’s throat constricted as he spoke of Brom’s last hours, of the cool sandstone cave where he had lain, of the feelings of helplessness that had assailed Eragon as he watched Brom slipping away, of the smell of death that had pervaded the dry air, of Brom’s final words, of the sandstone tomb Eragon had made with magic, and of how Saphira had transformed it into pure diamond.
“If only I had known what I know now,” Eragon said, “then I could have saved him. Instead …” Unable to summon words past the tightness in his throat, he wiped his eyes and gulped at his tea. He wished it were something stronger.
A sigh escaped Jeod. “And so ended Brom. Alas, we are all far worse off without him. If he could have chosen the means of his death, though, I think he would have chosen to die like this, in the service of the Varden, defending the last free Dragon Rider.”
“Were you aware that he had been a Rider himself?”
Jeod nodded. “The Varden told me before I met him.”
“He seemed as if he was a man who revealed little about himself,” observed Helen.
Jeod and Eragon laughed. “That he was,” said Jeod. “I still have not recovered from the
shock of seeing him and you, Eragon, standing on our doorstep. Brom always kept his own counsel, but we became close friends when we were traveling together, and I cannot understand why he let me believe he was dead for what, sixteen, seventeen years? Too long. What’s more, since it was Brom who delivered Saphira’s egg to the Varden after he slew Morzan in Gil’ead, the Varden couldn’t very well tell me they had her egg without revealing that Brom was still alive. So I’ve spent the better part of two decades convinced that the one great adventure of my life had ended in failure and that, as a result, we had lost our only hope of having a Dragon Rider to help us overthrow Galbatorix. The knowledge was no easy burden, I can assure you….”
With one hand, Jeod rubbed his brow. “When I opened our front door and realized whom I was looking at, I thought that the ghosts of my past had come to haunt me. Brom said he kept himself hidden to ensure that he would still be alive to train the new Rider when he or she should appear, but his explanation has never entirely satisfied me. Why was it necessary for him to cut himself off from nearly everyone he knew or cared about? What was he afraid of? What was he protecting?”
Jeod fingered the handle of his mug. “I cannot prove it, but it seems to me that Brom must have discovered something in Gil’ead when he was fighting Morzan and his dragon, something so momentous, it moved Brom to abandon everything that was his life up until then. It’s a fanciful conjecture, I admit, but I cannot account for Brom’s actions except by postulating that there was a piece of information he never shared with me nor another living soul.”
Again Jeod sighed, and he drew a hand down his long face. “After so many years apart, I had hoped Brom and I might ride together once more, but fate had other ideas, it seems. And then to lose him a second time but a few weeks after discovering he was still alive was a cruel joke for the world to play.” Helen swept past Eragon and went to stand by Jeod, touching him on the shoulder. He offered her a wan smile and wrapped an arm around her narrow waist. “I’m glad that you and Saphira gave Brom a tomb even a dwarf king might envy. He deserved that and more for all he did for Alagaësia. Although once people discover his grave, I have a horrible suspicion they will not hesitate to break it apart for the diamond.”