“What are you?” shouted King Orrin. When the soldier did not immediately respond, the king cursed and said, “Answer me, or I’ll let my spellcasters at you. Be you man or beast or some ill-spawned demon? In what foul pit did Galbatorix find you and your brothers? Are you kin of the Ra’zac?”
The king’s last question acted like a needle driven into Eragon; he straightened bolt upright, every sense tingling.
The laughter paused for a moment. “Man. I am a man.”
“You are like no man I know.”
“I wanted to assure the future of my family. Is that so foreign to you, Surdan?”
“Give me no riddles, you fork-tongued wretch! Tell me how you became as you are, and speak honestly, lest you convince me to pour boiling lead down your throat and see if that pains you.”
The unbalanced chuckles intensified, then the soldier said, “You cannot hurt me, Surdan. No one can. The king himself made us impervious to pain. In return, our families will live in comfort for the rest of their lives. You can hide from us, but we will never stop pursuing you, even when ordinary men would drop dead from exhaustion. You can fight us, but we will continue killing you as long as we have an arm to swing. You cannot even surrender to us, for we take no prisoners. You can do nothing but die and return this land to peace.”
With a gruesome grimace, the soldier wrapped his mangled shield hand around the arrow and, with the sound of tearing flesh, pulled the shaft out of his foot. Lumps of crimson meat clung to the arrowhead as it came free. The soldier shook the arrow at them, then threw the missile at one of the archers, wounding him in the hand. His laugh louder than ever, the soldier lurched forward, dragging his injured foot behind him. He raised his sword, as if he intended to attack.
“Shoot him!” shouted Orrin.
Bowstrings twanged like badly tuned lutes, then a score of spinning arrows leaped toward the soldier and, an instant later, struck him in the torso. Two of the arrows bounced off his gambeson; the remainder penetrated his rib cage. His laughter reduced to a wheezing chuckle as blood seeped into his lungs, the soldier continued moving forward, painting the grass underneath him bright scarlet. The archers shot again, and arrows sprouted from the man’s shoulders and arms, but he did not stop. Another volley of arrows followed close upon the last. The soldier stumbled and fell as an arrow split his left kneecap and others skewered his upper legs and one passed entirely through his neck—punching a hole in his birthmark—and whistled out across the field, trailing a spray of blood. And still the soldier refused to die. He began to crawl, dragging himself forward with his arms, grinning and giggling as if the whole world were an obscene joke that only he could appreciate.
A cold tingle shivered down Eragon’s spine as he watched.
King Orrin swore violently, and Eragon detected a hint of hysteria in his voice. Jumping off his charger, Orrin threw his sword and his shield into the dirt and then pointed at the nearest Urgal. “Give me your ax.” Startled, the gray-skinned Urgal hesitated, then surrendered his weapon.
King Orrin limped over to the soldier, raised the heavy ax with both hands, and, with a single blow, chopped off the soldier’s head.
The giggling ceased.
The soldier’s eyes rolled and his mouth worked for another few seconds, and then he was still.
Orrin grasped the head by the hair and lifted it so all could see. “They can be killed,” he declared. “Spread the word that the only sure way of stopping these abominations is to behead them. That or bash in their skulls with a mace or shoot them in the eye from a safe distance…. Graytooth, where are you?” A stout, middle-aged horseman urged his mount forward. Orrin threw him the head, which he caught. “Mount that on a pole by the north gate of the camp. Mount all of their heads. Let them serve as a message to Galbatorix that we do not fear his underhanded tricks and we shall prevail in spite of them.” Striding back to his charger, Orrin returned the ax to the Urgal, then picked up his own weapons.
A few yards away, Eragon spotted Nar Garzhvog standing among a cluster of Kull. Eragon spoke a few words to Saphira, and she sidled over to the Urgals. After exchanging nods, Eragon asked Garzhvog, “Were all the soldiers like that?” He gestured toward the arrow-riddled corpse.
“All men with no pain. You hit them and you think them dead, turn your back and they hamstring you.” Garzhvog scowled. “I lost many rams today. We have fought droves of humans, Firesword, but never before these laughing ghouls. It is not natural. It makes us think they are possessed by hornless spirits, that maybe the gods themselves have turned against us.”
“Nonsense,” scoffed Eragon. “It is merely a spell by Galbatorix, and we shall soon have a way to protect ourselves against it.” Notwithstanding his outer confidence, the concept of fighting enemies who felt no pain unsettled him as much as it did the Urgals. Moreover, from what Garzhvog had said, he guessed that maintaining morale among the Varden was going to be even more difficult for Nasuada once everyone learned about the soldiers.
While the Varden and the Urgals set about collecting their fallen comrades, stripping the dead of useful equipment, and beheading the soldiers and dragging their truncated bodies into piles to burn, Eragon, Saphira, and King Orrin returned to the camp, accompanied by Arya and the other elves.
Along the way, Eragon offered to heal Orrin’s leg, but the king refused, saying, “I have my own physicians, Shadeslayer.”
Nasuada and Jörmundur were waiting for them by the north gate. Accosting Orrin, Nasuada said, “What went wrong?”
Eragon closed his eyes as Orrin explained how at first the attack on the soldiers had seemed to go well. The horsemen had swept through their ranks, dealing what they had thought were death blows left and right, and had suffered only one casualty during their charge. When they had engaged the remaining soldiers, however, many of those they had struck down before rose up and rejoined the fight. Orrin shuddered. “We lost our nerve then. Any man would have. We did not know if the soldiers were invincible, or if they were even men at all. When you see an enemy coming at you with bone sticking out of his calf, a javelin through his belly, and half his face sheared away, and he laughs at you, it’s a rare man who can stand his ground. My warriors panicked. They broke formation. It was utter confusion. Slaughter. When the Urgals and your warriors, Nasuada, reached us, they became caught up in the madness.” He shook his head. “I’ve never seen the like of it, not even on the Burning Plains.”
Nasuada’s face had grown pale, even with her dark skin. She looked at Eragon and then Arya. “How could Galbatorix have done this?”
It was Arya who answered, “Block most, but not all, of a person’s ability to feel pain. Leave just enough sensation so they know where they are and what they are doing, but not so much that pain can incapacitate them. The spell would require only a small amount of energy.”
Nasuada wet her lips. Again speaking to Orrin, she said, “Do you know how many we lost?”
A tremor racked Orrin. He doubled over, pressed a hand against his leg, gritted his teeth, and growled, “Three hundred soldiers against … What was the size of the force you sent?”
“Two hundred swordsmen. A hundred spearmen. Fifty archers.”
“Those, plus the Urgals, plus my cavalry … Say around a thousand strong. Against three hundred foot soldiers on an open field. We slew every last one of the soldiers. What it cost us, though …” The king shook his head. “We won’t know for sure until we count the dead, but it looked to me as if three-quarters of your swordsmen are gone. More of the spearmen. Some archers. Of my cavalry, few remain: fifty, seventy. Many of them were my friends. Perhaps a hundred, a hundred and fifty Urgals dead. Overall? Five or six hundred to bury, and the better part of the survivors wounded. I don’t know … I don’t know. I don’t—” His jaw going slack, Orrin slumped to the side and would have fallen off his horse if Arya had not sprung forward and caught him.
Nasuada snapped her fingers, summoning two of the Varden from among the tents, and ordered the
m to take Orrin to his pavilion and then to fetch the king his healers.
“We have suffered a grievous defeat, no matter that we exterminated the soldiers,” Nasuada murmured. She pressed her lips together, sorrow and despair mixed in equal portions in her expression. Her eyes glimmered with unshed tears. Stiffening her back, she fixed Eragon and Saphira with an iron gaze. “How fared it with the two of you?” She listened without moving while Eragon described their encounter with Murtagh and Thorn. Afterward, she nodded. “That you would be able to escape their clutches was all we dared hope. However, you accomplished more than that. You proved that Galbatorix has not made Murtagh so powerful that we have no hope of defeating him. With a few more spellcasters to help you, Murtagh would have been yours to do with as you pleased. For that reason, he will not dare confront Queen Islanzadí’s army by himself, I think. If we can gather enough spellcasters around you, Eragon, I believe we can finally kill Murtagh and Thorn the next time they come to abduct the pair of you.”
“Don’t you want to capture them?” Eragon asked.
“I want a great number of things, but I doubt I shall receive very many of them. Murtagh and Thorn may not be trying to kill you, but if the opportunity presents itself, we must kill them without hesitation. Or do you see it otherwise?”
Shifting her attention to Arya, Nasuada asked, “Did any of your spellweavers die during the contest?”
“Some fainted, but they have all recovered, thank you.”
Nasuada took a deep breath and looked northward, her eyes focused on infinity. “Eragon, please inform Trianna that I want Du Vrangr Gata to figure out how to replicate Galbatorix’s spell. Despicable as it is, we must imitate Galbatorix in this. We cannot afford not to. It won’t be practical for all of us to be unable to feel pain—we would hurt ourselves far too easily—but we should have a few hundred swordsmen, volunteers, who are immune to physical suffering.”
“So many dead,” said Nasuada. She twisted her reins in her hands. “We have remained in one place for too long. It is time we force the Empire onto the defensive again.” She spurred Battlestorm away from the carnage that lay before the camp, the stallion tossing his head and gnawing on his bit. “Your cousin, Eragon, begged me to allow him to take part in today’s fighting. I refused, on account of his impending marriage, which pleased him not—although I suspect his betrothed feels otherwise. Would you do me the favor of notifying me if they still intend to proceed with the ceremony today? After so much bloodshed, it would hearten the Varden to attend a marriage.”
“I will let you know as soon as I find out.”
“Thank you. You may go now, Eragon.”
The first thing Eragon and Saphira did upon leaving Nasuada was to visit the elves who had fainted during their battle with Murtagh and Thorn and thank them and their companions for their assistance. Then Eragon, Arya, and Blödhgarm attended to the hurts Thorn had dealt Saphira, mending her cuts and scratches and a few of her bruises. When they finished, Eragon located Trianna with his mind and conveyed Nasuada’s instructions.
Only then did he and Saphira seek out Roran. Blödhgarm and his elves accompanied them; Arya left to attend to business of her own.
Roran and Katrina were arguing quietly and intensely when Eragon spotted them standing by the corner of Horst’s tent. They fell silent as Eragon and Saphira drew near. Katrina crossed her arms and stared away from Roran, while Roran gripped the top of his hammer thrust through his belt and scuffed the heel of his boot against a rock.
Stopping in front of them, Eragon waited a few moments, hoping they would explain the reason for their quarrel, but instead Katrina said, “Are either of you injured?” Her eyes flicked from him to Saphira and back.
“We were, but no longer.”
“That is so … strange. We heard tales of magic in Carvahall, but I never really believed them. They seemed so impossible. But here, there are magicians everywhere…. Did you wound Murtagh and Thorn badly? Is that why they fled?”
“We bested them, but we caused them no permanent harm.” Eragon paused, and when neither Roran nor Katrina spoke, he asked if they still wanted to get married that day. “Nasuada suggested you proceed, but it might be better to wait. The dead have yet to be buried, and there is much that needs doing. Tomorrow would be more convenient … and more seemly.”
“No,” said Roran, and ground the tip of his boot against the rock. “The Empire could attack again at any moment. Tomorrow might be too late. If … if somehow I died before we were wed, what would become of Katrina or our …” He faltered and his cheeks reddened.
Her expression softening, Katrina turned to Roran and took his hand. She said, “Besides, the food has been cooked, the decorations have been hung, and our friends have gathered for our marriage. It would be a pity if all those preparations were for nothing.” Reaching up, she stroked Roran’s beard, and he smiled at her and placed an arm around her.
I don’t understand half of what goes on between them, Eragon complained to Saphira. “When shall the ceremony take place, then?”
“In an hour,” said Roran.
MAN AND WIFE
Four hours later, Eragon stood on the crest of a low hill dotted with yellow wildflowers.
Surrounding the hill was a lush meadow that bordered the Jiet River, which rushed past a hundred feet to Eragon’s right. The sky was bright and clear; sunshine bathed the land with a soft radiance. The air was cool and calm and smelled fresh, as if it had just rained.
Gathered in front of the hill were the villagers from Carvahall, none of whom had been injured during the fighting, and what seemed to be half of the men of the Varden. Many of the warriors held long spears mounted with embroidered pennants of every color. Various horses, including Snowfire, were picketed at the far end of the meadow. Despite Nasuada’s best efforts, organizing the assembly had taken longer than anyone had reckoned.
Wind tousled Eragon’s hair, which was still wet from washing, as Saphira glided over the congregation and alighted next to him, fanning her wings. He smiled and touched her on the shoulder.
Under normal circumstances, Eragon would have been nervous about speaking in front of so many people and performing such a solemn and important ceremony, but after the earlier fighting, everything had assumed an air of unreality, as if it were no more than a particularly vivid dream.
At the base of the hill stood Nasuada, Arya, Narheim, Jörmundur, Angela, Elva, and others of importance. King Orrin was absent, as his wounds had proved to be more serious than they had first appeared and his healers were still laboring over him in his pavilion. The king’s prime minister, Irwin, was attending in his stead.
The only Urgals present were the two in Nasuada’s private guard. Eragon had been there when Nasuada had invited Nar Garzhvog to the event, and he had been relieved when Garzhvog had had the good sense to decline. The villagers would never have tolerated a large group of Urgals at the wedding. As it was, Nasuada had difficulty convincing them to allow her guards to remain.
With a rustle of cloth, the villagers and the Varden parted, forming a long, open path from the hill to the edge of the crowd. Then, joining their voices, the villagers began to sing the ancient wedding songs of Palancar Valley. The well-worn verses spoke of the cycle of the seasons, of the warm earth that gave birth to a new crop each year, of the spring calving, of nesting robins and spawning fish, and of how it was the destiny of the young to replace the old. One of Blödhgarm’s spellcasters, a female elf with silver hair, withdrew a small gold harp from a velvet case and accompanied the villagers with notes of her own, embellishing upon the simple themes of their melodies, lending the familiar music a wistful mood.
With slow, steady steps, Roran and Katrina emerged from either side of the crowd at the far end of the path, turned toward the hill, and, without touching, began to advance toward Eragon. Roran wore a new tunic he had borrowed from one of the Varden. His
hair was brushed, his beard was trimmed, and his boots were clean. His face beamed with inexpressible joy. All in all, he seemed very handsome and distinguished to Eragon. However, it was Katrina who commanded Eragon’s attention. Her dress was light blue, as befitted a bride at her first wedding, of a simple cut but with a lace train that was twenty feet long and carried by two girls. Against the pale fabric, her free-flowing locks glowed like polished copper. In her hands was a posy of wildflowers. She was proud, serene, and beautiful.
Eragon heard gasps from some of the women as they beheld Katrina’s train. He resolved to thank Nasuada for having Du Vrangr Gata make the dress for Katrina, for he assumed it was she who was responsible for the gift.
Three paces behind Roran walked Horst. And at a similar distance behind Katrina walked Birgit, careful to avoid stepping on the train.
When Roran and Katrina were halfway to the hill, a pair of white doves flew out from the willow trees lining the Jiet River. The doves carried a circlet of yellow daffodils clutched in their feet. Katrina slowed and stopped as they approached her. The birds circled her three times, north to east, and then dipped down and laid the circlet upon the crown of her head before returning to the river.
“Did you arrange that?” Eragon murmured to Arya.
At the top of the hill, Roran and Katrina stood motionless before Eragon while they waited for the villagers to finish singing. As the final refrain faded into oblivion, Eragon raised his hands and said, “Welcome, one and all. Today we have come together to celebrate the union between the families of Roran Garrowsson and Katrina Ismirasdaughter. They are both of good reputation, and to the best of my knowledge, no one else has a claim upon their hands. If that not be the case, however, or if any other reason exists that they should not become man and wife, then make your objections known before these witnesses, that we may judge the merit of your arguments.” Eragon paused for an appropriate interval, then continued. “Who here speaks for Roran Garrowsson?”