And if I cannot prevail?
All of Alagaësia will fall to Galbatorix.
Eragon sensed Arya concentrating, then the cut in Saphira’s wing ceased weeping tears of blood and the raw edges of the delicate cerulean membrane flowed together without a scab or a scar. Saphira’s relief was palpable. With a tinge of fatigue, Arya said, Guard yourself better if you can. This was not easy.
After Saphira had kicked him, Thorn flailed and lost altitude. He must have assumed that Saphira meant to harry him downward, where it would be harder for him to evade her attacks, because he fled west a quarter of a mile. When he finally noticed that Saphira was not pursuing him, he circled up and around until he was a good thousand feet higher than she was.
Drawing in his wings, Thorn hurtled toward Saphira, flames flickering in his open maw, his ivory talons outstretched, Murtagh brandishing Zar’roc on his back.
Eragon nearly lost his grip on the falchion as Saphira folded one wing and flipped upside down with a dizzying wrench, then extended the wing again to slow her descent. If he craned his head backward, Eragon could see the ground below them. Or was it above them? He gritted his teeth and concentrated on maintaining his hold on the saddle.
Thorn and Saphira collided, and to Eragon, it was as if Saphira had crashed into the side of a mountain. The force of the impact drove him forward, and he banged his helmet against the neck spike in front of him, denting the thick steel. Dazed, he hung loose from the saddle and watched as the disks of the heavens and the earth reversed themselves, spinning without a discernible pattern. He felt Saphira shudder as Thorn battered her exposed belly. Eragon wished there had been time to dress her in the armor the dwarves had given her.
A glittering ruby leg appeared around Saphira’s shoulder, mauling her with bloody claws. Without thinking, Eragon hacked at it, shattering a line of scales and severing a bundle of tendons. Three of the toes on the foot went limp. Eragon hacked again.
Snarling, Thorn disengaged from Saphira. He arched his neck, and Eragon heard an inrush of air as the stocky dragon filled his lungs. Eragon ducked, burying his face in the corner of his elbow. A ravening inferno engulfed Saphira. The heat of the fire could not harm them—Eragon’s wards prevented that—but the torrent of incandescent flames was still blinding.
Saphira veered to the left, out of the churning fire. By then, Murtagh had repaired the damage to Thorn’s leg, and Thorn again flung himself at Saphira, grappling with her as they plummeted in sickening lurches toward the gray tents of the Varden. Saphira managed to clamp her teeth on the horned crest that projected from the rear of Thorn’s head, despite the points of bone that punctured her tongue. Thorn bellowed and thrashed like a hooked fish, trying to pull away, but he was no match for the iron muscles of Saphira’s jaws. The two dragons drifted downward side by side, like a pair of interlocked leaves.
Eragon leaned over and slashed crosswise at Murtagh’s right shoulder, not intending to kill him but rather to injure him severely enough to end the fight. Unlike during their clash over the Burning Plains, Eragon was well rested; with his arm as fast as an elf’s, he was confident Murtagh would be defenseless before him.
Murtagh lifted his shield and blocked the falchion.
His reaction was so unexpected, Eragon faltered, then barely had time to recoil and parry as Murtagh retaliated, swinging Zar’roc at him, the blade humming through the air with inordinate speed. The stroke jarred Eragon’s shoulder. Pressing the attack, Murtagh struck at Eragon’s wrist and then, when Eragon dashed aside Zar’roc, thrust underneath Eragon’s shield and stabbed through the fringe of his mail hauberk and his tunic and the waist of his breeches and into his left hip. The tip of Zar’roc embedded itself in bone.
The pain shocked Eragon like a splash of frigid water, but it also lent his thoughts a preternatural clarity and sent a burst of uncommon strength coursing through his limbs.
As Murtagh withdrew Zar’roc, Eragon yelled and lunged at Murtagh, who, with a flip of his wrist, trapped the falchion beneath Zar’roc. Murtagh bared his teeth in a sinister smile. Without pause, Eragon yanked the falchion free, feinted toward Murtagh’s right knee, then whipped the falchion in the opposite direction and sliced Murtagh across the cheek.
“You should have worn a helmet,” said Eragon.
They were so close to the ground then—only a few hundred feet—that Saphira had to release Thorn, and the two dragons separated before Eragon and Murtagh could exchange any more blows.
As Saphira and Thorn spiraled upward, racing each other toward a pearl-white cloud gathering over the tents of the Varden, Eragon lifted his hauberk and tunic and examined his hip. A fist-sized patch of skin was discolored where Zar’roc had crushed the mail against his flesh. In the middle of the patch was a thin red line, two inches long, where Zar’roc had pierced him. Blood oozed from the wound, soaking the top of his breeches.
Being hurt by Zar’roc—a sword that had never failed him in moments of danger and that he still regarded as rightfully his—unsettled him. To have his own weapon turned against him was wrong. It was a warping of the world, and his every instinct rebelled against it.
Saphira wobbled as she flew through an eddy of air, and Eragon winced, renewed pain lancing up his side. It was fortunate, he concluded, that they were not fighting on foot, for he did not think his hip would bear his weight.
Arya, he said, do you want to heal me, or shall I do it myself and let Murtagh stop me if he can?
We shall attend to it for you, Arya said. You may be able to catch Murtagh by surprise if he believes you are still wounded.
I have to give you permission. Otherwise, my wards will block the spell. The phrase did not leap into Eragon’s mind at first, but eventually he remembered the construction of the safeguard and, in the ancient language, whispered, “I agree to let Arya, daughter of Islanzadí, cast a spell on me.”
We shall have to talk about your wards when you are not so distracted. What if you were unconscious? How could we minister to you then?
It seemed like a good idea after the Burning Plains. Murtagh immobilized us both with magic. I don’t want him or anyone else to be able to cast spells on us without our consent.
Nor should they, but there are more elegant solutions than yours.
Eragon squirmed in the saddle as the elves’ magic took effect and his hip began to tingle and itch as if covered with flea bites. When the itching ceased, he slid a hand under his tunic and was delighted to feel nothing but smooth skin.
Right, he said, rolling his shoulders. Let us teach them to fear our names!
The pearl-white cloud looming large before them, Saphira twisted to the left and then, while Thorn was struggling to turn, plunged into the heart of the cloud. Everything went cold and damp and white, then Saphira shot out of the far side, exiting only a few feet above and behind Thorn.
Roaring with triumph, Saphira dropped upon Thorn and seized him by the flanks, sinking her claws deep into his thighs and along his spine. She snaked her head forward, caught Thorn’s left wing in her mouth, and clamped down with the snick of razor teeth cutting through meat.
Thorn writhed and screamed, a horrible sound Eragon had not suspected dragons were capable of producing.
I have him, said Saphira. I can tear off his wing, but I would rather not. Whatever you are going to do, do it before we fall too far.
His face pale beneath smeared gore, Murtagh pointed at Eragon with Zar’roc—the sword trembling in the air—and a mental ray of immense power invaded Eragon’s consciousness. The foreign presence groped after his thoughts, seeking to grab ahold and subdue them and subject them to Murtagh’s approval. As on the Burning Plains, Eragon noticed that Murtagh’s mind felt as if it contained multitudes, as if a confused chorus of voices was murmuring beneath the turmoil of Murtagh’s own thoughts.
Eragon wondered if Murtagh had a group of magicians assisting him, even as the elves were him.
ult as it was, Eragon emptied his mind of everything but an image of Zar’roc. He concentrated on the sword with all his might, smoothing the plane of his consciousness into the calm of meditation so Murtagh would find no purchase with which to establish a foothold in Eragon’s being. And when Thorn flailed underneath them and Murtagh’s attention wavered for an instant, Eragon launched a furious counterattack, clutching at Murtagh’s consciousness.
The two of them strove against each other in grim silence while they fell, wrestling back and forth in the confines of their minds. Sometimes Eragon seemed to gain the upper hand, sometimes Murtagh, but neither could defeat the other. Eragon glanced at the ground rushing up at them and realized that their contest would have to be decided by other means.
Lowering the falchion so it was level with Murtagh, Eragon shouted, “Letta!”—the same spell Murtagh had used on him during their previous confrontation. It was a simple piece of magic—it would do nothing more than hold Murtagh’s arms and torso in place—but it would allow them to test themselves directly against one another and determine which of them had the most energy at their disposal.
Murtagh mouthed a counterspell, the words lost in Thorn’s snarling and in the howling of the wind.
Eragon’s pulse raced as the strength ebbed from his limbs. When he had nearly depleted his reserves and was faint from the effort, Saphira and the elves poured the energy from their bodies into his, maintaining the spell for him. Across from him, Murtagh had originally appeared smug and confident, but as Eragon continued to restrain him, Murtagh’s scowl deepened, and he pulled back his lips, baring his teeth. And the whole while, they besieged each other’s minds.
Eragon felt the energy Arya was funneling into him decrease once, then twice, and he assumed that two of the spellweavers under Blödhgarm’s command had fainted. Murtagh can’t hold out much longer, he thought, and then had to struggle to regain control of his mind, for his lapse of concentration had granted Murtagh entry.
The force from Arya and the other elves declined by half, and even Saphira began to shake with exhaustion. Just as Eragon became convinced Murtagh would prevail, Murtagh uttered an anguished shout, and a great weight seemed to lift off Eragon as Murtagh’s resistance vanished. Murtagh appeared astonished by Eragon’s success.
What now? Eragon asked Arya and Saphira. Do we take them as hostages? Can we?
Now, said Saphira, I must fly. She released Thorn and pushed herself away from him, raising her wings and laboriously flapping as she endeavored to keep them aloft. Eragon looked over her shoulder and had a brief impression of horses and sun-streaked grass hurtling toward them; then it was as if a giant struck him from underneath and his sight went black.
The next thing Eragon saw was a swath of Saphira’s neck scales an inch or two in front of his nose. The scales shone like cobalt-blue ice. Eragon was dimly aware of someone reaching out to his mind from across a great distance, their consciousness projecting an intense sense of urgency. As his faculties returned, he recognized the other person as Arya. She said: End the spell, Eragon! It will kill us all if you keep it up. End it; Murtagh is too far away! Wake up, Eragon, or you will pass into the void.
With a jolt, Eragon sat upright in the saddle, barely noticing that Saphira was crouched amid a circle of King Orrin’s horsemen. Arya was nowhere to be seen. Now that he was alert again, Eragon could feel the spell he had cast on Murtagh still draining his strength, and in ever-increasing amounts. If not for the aid of Saphira and Arya and the other elves, he would have already died.
Eragon released the magic, then looked for Thorn and Murtagh on the ground.
There, said Saphira, and motioned with her snout. Low in the northwestern sky, Eragon saw Thorn’s glittering shape, the dragon winging his way up the Jiet River, fleeing toward Galbatorix’s army some miles distant.
Murtagh healed Thorn again, and Thorn was lucky enough to land on the slope of a hill. He ran down it, then took off before you regained consciousness.
From across the rolling landscape, Murtagh’s magnified voice boomed: “Do not think you have won, Eragon, Saphira. We shall meet again, I promise, and Thorn and I shall defeat you then, for we shall be even stronger than we are now!”
Eragon clenched his shield and his falchion so tightly, he bled from underneath his fingernails. Do you think you can overtake him?
I could, but the elves would not be able to help you from so far away, and I doubt we could prevail without their support.
We might be able— Eragon stopped and pounded his leg in frustration. Blast it, I’m an idiot! I forgot about Aren. We could have used the energy in Brom’s ring to help defeat them.
You had other things on your mind. Anyone might have made the same mistake.
Maybe, but I still wish I had thought of Aren sooner. We could still use it to capture Thorn and Murtagh.
And then what? asked Saphira. How could we keep them as prisoners? Would you drug them like Durza drugged you in Gil’ead? Or do you just want to kill them?
I don’t know! We could help them to change their true names, to break their oaths to Galbatorix. Letting them wander around unchecked, though, is too dangerous.
Arya said, In theory, you are right, Eragon, but you are tired, Saphira is tired, and I would rather Thorn and Murtagh escape than we lose the two of you because you were not at your best.
But we do not have the capabilities to safely detain a dragon and Rider for an extended period, and I do not think killing Thorn and Murtagh would be as easy as you assume, Eragon. Be grateful we have driven them off, and rest easy knowing we can do so again when next they dare to confront us. So saying, she withdrew from his mind.
Eragon watched until Thorn and Murtagh had vanished from sight, then he sighed and rubbed Saphira’s neck. I could sleep for a fortnight.
As could I.
You should be proud; you outflew Thorn at nearly every turn.
Yes, I did, didn’t I? She preened. It was hardly a fair competition. Thorn does not have my experience.
Nor your talent, I should think.
Twisting her neck, she licked the upper part of his right arm, the mail hauberk tinkling, and then gazed down at him with sparkling eyes.
He managed a ghost of a smile. I suppose I should have expected it, but it still surprised me that Murtagh was as fast as me. More magic on the part of Galbatorix, no doubt.
Why did your wards fail to deflect Zar’roc, though? They saved you from worse blows when we fought the Ra’zac.
I’m not sure. Murtagh or Galbatorix might have invented a spell I had not thought to guard against. Or it could just be that Zar’roc is a Rider’s blade, and as Glaedr said—
—the swords Rhunön forged excel at—
—cutting through enchantments of every kind, and—
—it is only rarely they are—
—affected by magic. Exactly. Eragon stared at the streaks of dragon blood on the flat of the falchion, weary. When will we be able to defeat our enemies on our own? I couldn’t have killed Durza if Arya hadn’t broken the star sapphire. And we were only able to prevail over Murtagh and Thorn with the help of Arya and twelve others.
We must become more powerful.
Yes, but how? How has Galbatorix amassed his strength? Has he found a way to feed off the bodies of his slaves even when he is hundreds of miles away? Garr! I don’t know.
A runnel of sweat coursed down Eragon’s brow and into the corner of his right eye. He wiped off the perspiration with the palm of his hand, then blinked and again noticed the horsemen gathered around him and Saphira. What are they doing here? Looking beyond, he realized Saphira had landed close to where King Orrin had intercepted the soldiers from the boats. Not far off to her left, hundreds of men, Urgals, and horses milled about in panic and confusion. Occasionally, the clatter of swords or the scream of a wounded man broke through the uproar, accompanied by snatches of demented laughter.
I think they are here
to protect us, said Saphira.
Us! From what? Why haven’t they killed the soldiers yet? Where—Eragon abandoned his question as Arya, Blödhgarm, and four other haggard-looking elves sprinted up to Saphira from the direction of the camp. Raising a hand in greeting, Eragon called, “Arya! What’s happened? No one seems to be in command.”
To Eragon’s alarm, Arya was breathing so hard, she was unable to speak for a few moments. Then: “The soldiers proved more dangerous than we anticipated. We do not know how. Du Vrangr Gata has heard nothing but gibberish from Orrin’s spellcasters.” Regaining her breath, Arya started examining Saphira’s cuts and bruises.
Before Eragon could ask more, a collection of excited cries from within the maelstrom of warriors drowned out the rest of the tumult, and he heard King Orrin shout, “Back, back, all of you! Archers, hold the line! Blast you, no one move, we have him!”
Saphira had the same thought as Eragon. Gathering her legs under her, she leaped over the ring of horsemen—startling the horses so they bucked and ran—and made her way across the corpsestrewn battlefield toward the sound of King Orrin’s voice, brushing aside men and Urgals alike as if they were so many stalks of grass. The rest of the elves hurried to keep up, swords and bows in hand.
Saphira found Orrin sitting on his charger at the leading edge of the tightly packed warriors, staring at a lone man forty feet away. The king was flushed and wild-eyed, his armor besmirched with filth from combat. He had been wounded under his left arm, and the shaft of a spear protruded several inches from his right thigh. When Saphira’s approach caught his attention, his face registered sudden relief.
“Good, good, you’re here,” he muttered as Saphira crawled abreast of his charger. “We needed you, Saphira, and you, Shadeslayer.” One of the archers edged forward a few inches. Orrin waved his sword at him and yelled, “Back! I’ll have the head of anyone who doesn’t remain where he is, I swear by Angvard’s crown!” Then Orrin resumed glaring at the lone man.
Eragon followed his gaze. The man was a soldier of medium height, with a purple birthmark on his neck and brown hair plastered flat by the helmet he had been wearing. His shield was a splintered ruin. His sword was notched, bent, and broken, missing the last six inches. River mud caked his mail hose. Blood sheeted from a gash along his ribs. An arrow fletched with white swan feathers had impaled his right foot and pinned it to the ground, three-quarters of the shaft buried in the hard dirt. From the man’s throat, a horrid gurgling laugh emanated. It rose and fell with a drunken cadence, pitching from note to note as if the man were about to begin shrieking with horror.