Furious, Eragon breathed heavily through his nose, gripping and regripping the pommel of his falchion.
In a softer, although still guarded, tone, Nasuada said, “What will it be, Eragon? Will you do as I ask, or will you dispossess me and lead the Varden yourself? Those are your only options.”
Shocked, he said, “No, I can reason with you. I can convince you otherwise.”
“You cannot, because you cannot provide me with an alternative that is as likely to succeed.”
He met her gaze. “I could refuse your order and let you punish me however you deem fit.”
His suggestion startled her. Then she said, “To see you lashed to a whipping post would do irreparable harm to the Varden. And it would destroy my authority, for people would know you could defy me whenever you wanted, with the only consequence being a handful of stripes that you could heal an instant later, for we cannot execute you, as we would any other warrior who disobeyed a superior. I would rather abdicate my post and grant you command of the Varden than allow such a thing to occur. If you believe you are better suited for the task, then take my position, take my chair, and declare yourself master of this army! But so long as I speak for the Varden, I have the right to make these decisions. If they be mistakes, then that is my responsibility as well.”
“Will you listen to no advice?” Eragon asked, troubled. “Will you dictate the course of the Varden regardless of what those around you counsel?”
Nasuada’s middle fingernail clacked against the polished wood of her chair. “I do listen to advice. I listen to a continuous stream of advice every waking hour of my life, but sometimes my conclusions do not match those of my underlings. Now, you must decide whether you will uphold your oath of fealty and abide by my decision, even though you may not agree with it, or if you will set yourself up as a mirror image of Galbatorix.”
“I only want what is best for the Varden,” he said.
“As do I.”
“You leave me no choice but one I dislike.”
“Sometimes it is harder to follow than it is to lead.”
“May I have a moment to think?”
Saphira? he asked.
Flecks of purple light danced around the interior of the pavilion as she twisted her neck and fixed her eyes upon Eragon’s. Little one?
Should I go?
I think you must.
He pressed his lips together in a rigid line. And what of you?
You know I hate to be separated from you, but Nasuada’s arguments are well reasoned. If I can help keep Murtagh and Thorn away by remaining with the Varden, then perhaps I should.
His emotions and hers washed between their minds, tidal surges in a shared pool of anger, anticipation, reluctance, and tenderness. From him flowed the anger and reluctance; from her other, gentler sentiments—as rich in scope as his own—that moderated his choleric passion and lent him perspectives he would not otherwise have. Nevertheless, he clung with stubborn insistence to his opposition to Nasuada’s scheme. If you flew me to Farthen Dûr, I would not be gone for as long, meaning Galbatorix would have less of an opportunity to mount a new assault.
But his spies would tell him the Varden were vulnerable the moment we left.
I do not want to part with you again so soon after Helgrind.
Our own desires cannot take precedence over the needs of the Varden, but no, I do not want to part with you either. Still, remember what Oromis said, that the prowess of a dragon and Rider is measured not only by how well they work together but also by how well they can function when apart. We are both mature enough to operate independently of each other, Eragon, however much we may dislike the prospect. You proved that yourself during your trip from Helgrind.
Would it bother you fighting with Arya on your back, as Nasuada mentioned?
Her I would mind least of all. We have fought together before, and it was she who ferried me across Alagaësia for nigh on twenty years when I was in my egg. You know that, little one. Why pose this question? Are you jealous?
What if I am?
An amused twinkle lit her sapphire eyes. She flicked her tongue at him. Then it is very sweet of you…. Would you I should stay or go?
It is your choice to make, not mine.
But it affects us both.
Eragon dug at the ground with the tip of his boot. Then he said, If we must participate in this mad scheme, we should do everything we can to help it succeed. Stay, and see if you can keep Nasuada from losing her head over this thrice-blasted plan of hers.
Be of good cheer, little one. Run fast, and we shall be reunited in short order.
Eragon looked up at Nasuada. “Very well,” he said, “I will go.”
Nasuada’s posture relaxed somewhat. “Thank you. And you, Saphira? Will you stay or go?”
Projecting her thoughts to include Nasuada as well as Eragon, Saphira said, I will stay, Nightstalker.
Nasuada inclined her head. “Thank you, Saphira. I am most grateful for your support.”
“Have you spoken to Blödhgarm of this?” asked Eragon. “Has he agreed to it?”
“No, I assumed you would inform him of the details.”
Eragon doubted the elves would be pleased by the prospect of him traveling to Farthen Dûr with only an Urgal for company. He said, “If I might make a suggestion?”
“You know I welcome your suggestions.”
That stopped him for a moment. “A suggestion and a request, then.” Nasuada lifted a finger, motioning for him to continue. “When the dwarves have chosen their new king or queen, Saphira should join me in Farthen Dûr, both to honor the dwarves’ new ruler and to fulfill the promise she made to King Hrothgar after the battle for Tronjheim.”
Nasuada’s expression sharpened into that of a hunting wildcat. “What promise was this?” she asked. “You have not told me of this before.”
“That Saphira would mend the star sapphire, Isidar Mithrim, as recompense for Arya breaking it.”
Her eyes wide with astonishment, Nasuada looked at Saphira and said, “You are capable of such a feat?”
I am, but I do not know if I will be able to summon the magic I will need when I am standing before Isidar Mithrim. My ability to cast spells is not subject to my own desires. At times, it is as if I have gained a new sense and I can feel the pulse of energy within my own flesh, and by directing it with my will, I can reshape the world as I wish. The rest of my life, however, I can no more cast a spell than a fish can fly. If I could mend Isidar Mithrim, though, it would go a long way toward earning us the goodwill of all the dwarves, not just a select few who have the breadth of knowledge to appreciate the importance of their cooperation with us.
“It would do more than you imagine,” said Nasuada. “The star sapphire holds a special place in the hearts of dwarves. Every dwarf has a love of gemstones, but Isidar Mithrim they love and cherish above all others, because of its beauty, and most of all because of its immense size. Restore it to its previous glory and you will restore the pride of their race.”
Eragon said, “Even if Saphira failed to repair Isidar Mithrim, she should be present for the coronation of the dwarves’ new ruler. You could conceal her absence for a few days by letting it be known among the Varden that she and I have left on a brief trip to Aberon, or some such. By the time Galbatorix’s spies realized you had deceived them, it would be too late for the Empire to organize an attack before we returned.”
Nasuada nodded. “It is a good idea. Contact me as soon as the dwarves set a date for the coronation.”
“You have made your suggestion, now out with your request. What is it you wish of me?”
“Since you insist I must make this trip, with your permission, I would like to fly with Saphira from Tronjheim to Ellesméra, after the coronation.”
“For what purpose?”
“To consult with the ones who taught us during our last visit to Du Weldenvarden. We promised them that as soon
as events allowed, we would return to Ellesméra to complete our training.”
The line between Nasuada’s eyebrows deepened. “There is not the time for you to spend weeks or months in Ellesméra continuing your education.”
“No, but perhaps we have the time for a brief visit.”
Nasuada leaned her head against the back of her carved chair and gazed down at Eragon from underneath heavy lids. “And who exactly are your teachers? I have noticed you always evade direct questions about them. Who was it that taught the two of you in Ellesméra, Eragon?”
Fingering his ring, Aren, Eragon said, “We swore an oath to Islanzadí that we would not reveal their identity without permission from her, Arya, or whoever may succeed Islanzadí to her throne.”
“By all the demons above and below, how many oaths have you and Saphira sworn?” demanded Nasuada. “You seem to bind yourself to everyone you meet.”
Feeling somewhat sheepish, Eragon shrugged and had opened his mouth to speak when Saphira said to Nasuada, We do not seek them out, but how can we avoid pledging ourselves when we cannot topple Galbatorix and the Empire without the support of every race in Alagaësia? Oaths are the price we pay for winning the aid of those in power.
“Mmh,” said Nasuada. “So I must ask Arya for the truth of the matter?”
“Aye, but I doubt she will tell you; the elves consider the identity of our teachers to be one of their most precious secrets. They will not risk sharing it unless absolutely necessary, to keep word of it from reaching Galbatorix.” Eragon stared at the royal-blue gemstone set in his ring, wondering how much more information his oath and his honor would allow him to divulge, then said, “Know this, though: we are not so alone as we once assumed.”
Nasuada’s expression sharpened. “I see. That is good to know, Eragon…. I only wish the elves were more forthcoming with me.” After pursing her lips for a brief moment, Nasuada continued. “Why must you travel all the way to Ellesméra? Have you no means to communicate with your tutors directly?”
Eragon spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness. “If only we could. Alas, the spell has yet to be invented that can broach the wards that encircle Du Weldenvarden.”
“The elves did not even leave an opening they themselves can exploit?”
“If they had, Arya would have contacted Queen Islanzadí as soon as she was revived in Farthen Dûr, rather than physically going to Du Weldenvarden.”
“I suppose you are right. But then how was it you were able to consult Islanzadí about Sloan’s fate? You implied that when you spoke with her, the elves’ army was still situated within Du Weldenvarden.”
“They were,” he said, “but only in the fringe, beyond the protective measures of the wards.”
The silence between them was palpable as Nasuada considered his request. Outside the tent, Eragon heard the Nighthawks arguing among themselves about whether a bill or a halberd was better suited for fighting large numbers of men on foot and, beyond them, the creak of a passing oxcart, the jangle of armor on men trotting in the opposite direction, and hundreds of other indistinct sounds that drifted through the camp.
When Nasuada spoke, she said, “What exactly do you hope to gain from such a visit?”
“I don’t know!” growled Eragon. He struck the pommel of the falchion with his fist. “And that’s the heart of the problem: we don’t know enough. It might accomplish nothing, but on the other hand, we might learn something that could help us vanquish Murtagh and Galbatorix once and for all. We barely won yesterday, Nasuada. Barely! And I fear that when we again face Thorn and Murtagh, Murtagh will be even stronger than before, and frost coats my bones when I consider the fact that Galbatorix’s abilities far exceed Murtagh’s, despite the vast amount of power he has already bestowed upon my brother. The elf who taught me, he …” Eragon hesitated, considering the wisdom of what he was about to say, then forged onward: “He hinted that he knows how it is Galbatorix’s strength has been increasing every year, but he refused to reveal more at the time because we were not advanced enough in our training. Now, after our encounters with Thorn and Murtagh, I think he will share his knowledge with us. Moreover, there are entire branches of magic we have yet to explore, and any one of them might provide the means to defeat Galbatorix. If we are going to gamble upon this trip, Nasuada, then let us not gamble to maintain our current position; let us gamble to increase our standing and so win this game of chance.”
Nasuada sat motionless for over a minute. “I cannot make this decision until after the dwarves hold their coronation. Whether you go to Du Weldenvarden will depend on the movements of the Empire then and on what our spies report about Murtagh and Thorn’s activities.”
Over the course of the next two hours, Nasuada instructed Eragon about the thirteen dwarf clans. She schooled him in their history and their politics; in the products upon which each clan based the majority of its trade; in the names, families, and personalities of the clan chiefs; in the list of important tunnels excavated and controlled by each clan; and in what she felt would be the best way to coax the dwarves to elect a king or queen friendly to the goals of the Varden.
“Ideally, Orik would be the one to take the throne,” she said. “King Hrothgar was highly regarded by most of his subjects, and Dûrgrimst Ingeitum remains one of the richest and most influential of clans, all of which is to Orik’s benefit. Orik is devoted to our cause. He has served as one of the Varden, you and I both count him as a friend, and he is your foster brother. I believe he has the skills to become an excellent king for the dwarves.” Amusement kindled in her expression. “Small matter, that. However, he is young by the standards of the dwarves, and his association with us may prove to be an insurmountable barrier for the other clan chiefs. Another obstacle is that the other great clans—Dûrgrimst Feldûnost and Dûrgrimst Knurlcarathn, to name but two—are eager, after over a hundred years of rule by the Ingeitum, to see the crown go to a different clan. By all means, support Orik if it can help him onto the throne, but if it becomes obvious that his attempt is doomed and your backing could guarantee the success of another clan chief who favors the Varden, then transfer your support, even if doing so will offend Orik. You cannot allow friendship to interfere with politics, not now.”
When Nasuada finished her lecture on the dwarf clans, she, Eragon, and Saphira spent several minutes figuring out how Eragon could slip out of the camp without being noticed. After they had finally hammered out the details of the plan, Eragon and Saphira returned to their tent and told Blödhgarm what they had decided.
To Eragon’s surprise, the fur-covered elf did not object. Curious, Eragon asked, “Do you approve?”
“It is not my place to say whether I approve or not,” Blödhgarm replied, his voice a low purr. “But since Nasuada’s stratagem does not seem to put either of you in unreasonable danger, and by means of this you may have the opportunity to further your learning in Ellesméra, neither I nor my brethren shall object.” He inclined his head. “If you will excuse me, Bjartskular, Argetlam.” Skirting Saphira, the elf exited the tent, allowing a bright flash of light to pierce the darkness inside as he pushed aside the entrance flap.
For a handful of minutes, Eragon and Saphira sat in silence, then Eragon put his hand on the top of her head. Say what you will, I will miss you.
And I you, little one.
Be careful. If anything happened to you, I would …
And you as well.
He sighed. We’ve been together only a few days, and already we must part again. I find it hard to forgive Nasuada for that.
Do not condemn her for doing what she must.
No, but it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
Move swiftly then, so I may soon join you in Farthen Dûr.
I wouldn’t mind being so far away from you if only I could still touch your mind. That’s the worst part of it: the horrible sense of emptiness. We dare not even speak to each other through the mirror in Nasuada’s tent, for people would wonder why you
kept visiting her without me.
Saphira blinked and flicked out her tongue, and he sensed a strange shift in her emotions.
What? he asked.
I … She blinked again. I agree. I wish we could remain in mental contact when we were at great distances from each other. It would reduce our worry and trouble and would allow us to confound the Empire more easily. She hummed with satisfaction as he sat next to her and began to scratch the small scales behind the corner of her jaw.
FOOTPRINTS OF SHADOW
With a series of giddy leaps, Saphira carried Eragon through the camp to Roran and Katrina’s tent. Outside the tent, Katrina was washing a shift in a bucket of soapy water, scrubbing the white fabric against a board of ridged wood. She lifted a hand to shield her eyes as a cloud of dust from Saphira’s landing drifted over her.
Roran stepped out of the tent, buckling on his belt. He coughed and squinted in the dust. “What brings you here?” he asked as Eragon dismounted.
Speaking quickly, Eragon told them of his impending departure and impressed upon them the importance of keeping his absence a secret from the rest of the villagers. “No matter how slighted they feel because I supposedly refuse to see them, you cannot reveal the truth to them, not even to Horst or Elain. Let them think I have become a rude and ungrateful lout before you so much as utter a word about Nasuada’s scheme. This I ask of you, for the sake of everyone who has pitted themselves against the Empire. Will you do it?”
“We would never betray you, Eragon,” said Katrina. “Of that, you need have no doubts.”
Then Roran said that he too was leaving.
“Where?” exclaimed Eragon.
“I just received my assignment a few minutes ago. We are going to raid the Empire’s supply trains, somewhere well north of us, behind enemy lines.”