I can’t let them so much as scratch me, Eragon thought.
Enraged by Kvîstor’s death, Eragon stabbed at his killer so quickly, the black-garbed dwarf had no opportunity to evade the blow and dropped lifeless at Eragon’s feet.
With all his strength, Eragon shouted, “Stay behind me!”
Thin cracks split the floors and walls, and flakes of stone fell from the ceiling as his voice reverberated through the corridor. The attacking dwarves faltered at the unbridled power of his voice, then resumed their offensive.
Eragon retreated several yards to give himself room to maneuver free of the corpses and settled into a low crouch, waving the falchion to and fro, like a snake preparing to strike. His heart was racing at twice its normal rate, and although the fight had just begun, he was already gasping for breath.
The hallway was eight feet wide, which was wide enough for three of his six remaining enemies to attack him at once. They spread out, two attempting to flank him on the right and the left, while the third charged straight at him, slashing with frenzied speed at Eragon’s arms and legs.
Afraid to duel with the dwarves as he would have if they wielded normal blades, Eragon drove his legs against the floor and jumped up and forward. He spun halfway around and struck the ceiling feet-first. He pushed off, spun halfway around again, and landed on his hands and feet a yard behind the three dwarves. Even as they whirled toward him, he stepped forward and beheaded the lot of them with a single backhand blow.
Their daggers clattered against the floor an instant before their heads.
Leaping over their truncated bodies, Eragon twisted in midair and landed on the spot he had started from.
He was not a moment too soon.
A breath of wind tickled his neck as the tip of a dagger whipped past his throat. Another blade tugged at the cuff of his leggings, cutting them open. He flinched and swung the falchion, trying to gain space to fight. My wards should have turned their blades away! he thought, bewildered.
An involuntary cry escaped his throat as his foot struck a patch of slick blood and he lost his balance and toppled over backward. With a sickening crunch, his head collided with the stone floor. Blue lights flashed before his eyes. He gasped.
His three remaining guards sprang over him and swung their axes in unison, clearing the air above Eragon and saving him from the bite of the flashing daggers.
That was all the time Eragon needed to recover. He flipped upright and, berating himself for not trying this sooner, shouted a spell laced with nine of the twelve death-words Oromis had taught him. However, the moment after he loosed his magic he abandoned the spell, for the black-garbed dwarves were protected by numerous wards. Given a few minutes, he might have been able to evade or defeat the wards, but minutes might as well have been days in a battle such as theirs, where every second was as long as an hour. Having failed with magic, Eragon hardened his thoughts into an iron-hard spear and launched it at where the consciousness of one of the black-garbed dwarves ought to be. The spear skated off mental armor of a sort Eragon had not encountered before: smooth and seamless, seemingly unbroken by the concerns natural to mortal creatures engaged in a struggle to the death.
Someone else is protecting them, Eragon realized. There are more behind this attack than just these seven.
Pivoting on one foot, Eragon lunged forward and with his falchion impaled his leftmost attacker in a knee, drawing blood. The dwarf stumbled, and Eragon’s guards converged upon him, grasping the dwarf’s arms so he could not swing his dire blade and hacking at him with their curved axes.
The nearest of the last two attackers raised his shield in anticipation of the blow Eragon was about to direct at him. Summoning the full measure of his might, Eragon cut at the shield, intending to shear it and the arm underneath in half, as he had often done with Zar’roc. In the fever of battle, though, he forgot to account for the dwarf’s inexplicable speed. As the falchion neared its target, the dwarf tilted his shield, so as to deflect the blow to the side.
Two plumes of sparks erupted from the surface of the shield as the falchion glanced off the upper part and then the steel spike mounted in the center. Momentum carried the falchion farther than Eragon had intended, and it continued flying through the air until it struck edge-first against a wall, jarring Eragon’s arm. With a crystalline sound, the blade of the falchion shattered into a dozen pieces, leaving him with a six-inch spike of jagged metal protruding from the hilt.
Dismayed, Eragon dropped the broken sword and gripped the rim of the dwarf’s buckler, wresting with him back and forth and struggling to keep the shield between him and the dagger graced with a halo of translucent colors. The dwarf was incredibly tough; he matched Eragon’s efforts and even succeeded in pushing him back a step. Releasing the buckler with his right hand but still holding on with his left, Eragon drew back his arm and struck the shield as hard as he could, punching through the tempered steel as easily as if it were made of rotten wood. Because of the calluses on his knuckles, he felt no pain from the impact.
The force of the blow threw the dwarf against the opposite wall. His head lolling upon a boneless neck, the dwarf dropped to the ground, like a puppet whose strings had been severed.
Eragon pulled his hand back through the jagged hole in the shield, scratching himself on the torn metal, and drew his hunting knife.
Then the last of the black-garbed dwarves was upon him. Eragon parried his dagger twice … thrice … and then cut through the dwarf’s padded sleeve and scored his dagger arm from the elbow to the wrist. The dwarf hissed with pain, blue eyes furious above his cloth mask. He initiated a series of blows, the dagger whistling through the air faster than the eye could follow, which forced Eragon to hop away to avoid the deadly edge. The dwarf pressed the attack. For several yards, Eragon succeeded in evading him, until his heel struck a body and, in attempting to step around it, he stumbled and fell against a wall, bruising his shoulder.
With an evil laugh, the dwarf pounced, stabbing downward toward Eragon’s exposed chest. Throwing up an arm in a futile attempt to protect himself, Eragon rolled farther down the hallway, knowing that this time his luck had run out and he would not be able to escape.
As he completed a revolution and his face was momentarily turned toward the dwarf again, Eragon glimpsed the pale dagger descending toward his flesh, like a bolt of lightning from on high. Then, to his astonishment, the tip of the dagger caught on one of the flameless lanterns mounted on the wall. Eragon whirled away before he could see more, but an instant later, a burning hot hand seemed to strike him from behind, throwing him a good twenty feet through the hall, until he fetched up against the edge of an open archway, instantly accumulating a new collection of scrapes and bruises. A booming report deafened him. Feeling as if someone were driving splinters into his eardrums, Eragon clapped his hands over his ears and curled into a ball, howling.
When the noise and the pain had subsided, he lowered his hands and staggered to his feet, clenching his teeth as his injuries announced their presence with a myriad of unpleasant sensations. Groggy and confused, he gazed upon the site of the explosion.
The blast had blackened a ten-foot length of the hallway with soot. Soft flakes of ash tumbled through the air, which was as hot as the air from a heated forge. The dwarf who had been about to strike Eragon lay on the ground, thrashing, his body covered with burns. After a few more convulsions, he grew still. Eragon’s three remaining guards lay at the edge of the soot, where the explosion had thrown them. Even as he watched, they staggered upright, blood dripping from their ears and gaping mouths, their beards singed and in disarray. The links along the fringe of their hauberks glowed red, but their leather under-armor seemed to have protected them from the worst of the heat.
Eragon took a single step forward, then stopped and groaned as a patch of agony bloomed between his shoulder blades. He tried to twist his arm around to feel the extent of the wound, but as his skin stretched, the pain became too great to continue. Nea
rly losing consciousness, he leaned against the wall for support. He glanced at the burnt dwarf again. I must have suffered similar injuries on my back.
Forcing himself to concentrate, he recited two of the spells designed to heal burns that Brom had taught him during their travels. As they took effect, it felt as if cool, soothing water were flowing across his back. He sighed with relief and straightened.
“Are you hurt?” he asked as his guards hobbled over.
The lead dwarf frowned, tapped his right ear, and shook his head.
Eragon muttered a curse and only then did he notice he could not hear his own voice. Again drawing upon the reserves of energy within his body, he cast a spell to repair the inner mechanisms of his ears and of theirs. As the incantation concluded, an irritating itch squirmed inside his ears, then faded along with the spell.
“Are you hurt?”
The dwarf on the right, a burly fellow with a forked beard, coughed and spat out a glob of congealed blood, then growled, “Nothing that time won’t mend. What of you, Shadeslayer?”
Testing the floor with every step, Eragon entered the soot-blackened area and knelt beside Kvîstor, hoping that he might still save the dwarf from the clutches of death. As soon as he beheld Kvîstor’s wound again, he knew it was not to be.
Eragon bowed his head, the memory of recent and former bloodshed bitter to his soul. He stood. “Why did the lantern explode?”
“They are filled with heat and light, Argetlam,” one of his guards replied. “If they are broken, all of it escapes at once and then it is better to be far away.”
Gesturing at the crumpled corpses of their attackers, Eragon asked, “Do you know of which clan they are?”
The dwarf with the forked beard rifled through the clothes of several of the black-garbed dwarves, then said, “Barzûl! They carry no marks upon them such as you would recognize, Argetlam, but they carry this.” He held up a bracelet made of braided horsehair set with polished cabochons of amethyst.
“What does it mean?”
“This amethyst,” said the dwarf, and tapped one of the cabochons with a soot-streaked fingernail, “this particular variety of amethyst, it grows in only four parts of the Beor Mountains, and three of them belong to Az Sweldn rak Anhûin.”
Eragon frowned. “Grimstborith Vermûnd ordered this attack?”
“I cannot say for sure, Argetlam. Another clan might have left the bracelet for us to find. They might want us to think it was Az Sweldn rak Anhûin so we do not realize who our foes really are. But … if I had to wager, Argetlam, I would wager a cartload of gold that it is Az Sweldn rak Anhûin who is responsible.”
“Blast them,” Eragon murmured. “Whoever it was, blast them.” He clenched his fists to stop them from shaking. With the side of his boot, he nudged one of the prismatic daggers the assassins had wielded. “The spells on these weapons and on the … on the men”—he motioned with his chin—“men, dwarves, be as it may, they must have required an incredible amount of energy, and I cannot even imagine how complex their wording was. Casting them would have been hard and dangerous ….” Eragon looked at each of his guards in turn and said, “As you are my witnesses, I swear I shall not let this attack, nor Kvîstor’s death, go unpunished. Whichever clan or clans sent these dung-faced killers, when I learn their names, they will wish they had never thought to strike at me and, by striking at me, strike at Dûrgrimst Ingeitum. This I swear to you, as a Dragon Rider and as a fellow member of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, and if any ask you of it, repeat my promise to them as I have given it to you.”
The dwarves bowed before him, and he with the forked beard replied, “As you command, so we shall obey, Argetlam. You honor Hrothgar’s memory by your words.”
Then another of the dwarves said, “Whichever clan it was, they have violated the law of hospitality; they have attacked a guest. They are not even so high as rats; they are menknurlan.” He spat on the floor, and the other dwarves spat with him.
Eragon walked to where the remains of his falchion lay. He knelt in the soot and, with the tip of a finger, touched one of the pieces of metal, tracing its ragged edges. I must have hit the shield and the wall so hard, I overwhelmed the spells I used to reinforce the steel, he thought.
Then he thought, I need a sword.
I need a Rider’s sword.
A MATTER OF PERSPECTIVE
The wind-of-morning-heat-above-flat-land, which was different from the wind-of-morning-heat-above-hills, shifted.
Saphira adjusted the angle of her wings to compensate for the changes in the speed and pressure of the air that supported her weight thousands of feet above the sun-bathed land below. She closed her double eyelids for a moment, luxuriating in the soft bed of the wind, as well as the warmth of the morning rays beating down upon her sinewy length. She imagined how the light must make her scales sparkle and how those who saw her circling in the sky must marvel at the sight, and she hummed with pleasure, content in the knowledge that she was the most beautiful creature in Alagaësia, for who could hope to match the glory of her scales; and her long, tapering tail; and her wings, so fair and well formed; and her curved claws; and her long white fangs, with which she could sever the neck of a wild ox with a single bite? Not Glaedr-of-the-gold-scales, who had lost a leg during the fall of the Riders. Nor could Thorn or Shruikan, for they were both slaves to Galbatorix, and their forced servitude had twisted their minds. A dragon who was not free to do as he or she wished was not a dragon at all. Besides, they were males, and while males might appear majestic, they could not embody the beauty she did. No, she was the most stunning creature in Alagaësia, and that was as it should be.
Saphira wriggled with satisfaction all the way from the base of her head to the tip of her tail. Today was a perfect day. The heat of the sun made her feel as if she were lying in a nest of coals. Her belly was full, the sky was clear, and there was nothing she needed to attend to, besides watching for foes who might wish to fight, which she did anyway, as a matter of habit.
Her happiness had only one flaw, but it was a profound flaw, and the longer she considered it, the more discontented she grew, until she realized she was no longer satisfied; she wished Eragon were there to share the day with her. She growled and loosed a brief jet of blue flame from between her jaws, searing the air in front of her, then constricted her throat, cutting off the stream of liquid fire. Her tongue tingled from the flames that had run over it. When was Eragon, partner-of-her-mind-and-heart-Eragon, going to contact Nasuada from Tronjheim and ask for her, Saphira, to join him? She had urged him to obey Nasuada and travel to the mountains-higher-than-she-could-fly, but now too long had passed, and Saphira felt cold and empty in her gut.
There is a shadow in the world, she thought. That is what has upset me. Something is wrong with Eragon. He is in danger, or he was in danger recently. And I cannot help him. She was not a wild dragon. Since she had hatched, she had shared her entire life with Eragon, and without him, she was only half herself. If he died because she was not there to protect him, she would have no reason to continue living, save for revenge. She knew she would tear his killers apart and then she would fly on the black city of the egg-breaker-traitor who had kept her imprisoned for so many decades, and she would do her best to slay him, no matter that it would mean certain death for her.
Saphira growled again and snapped at a tiny sparrow that was foolish enough to fly within range of her teeth. She missed, and the sparrow darted past and continued on its way unmolested, which only exacerbated her foul mood. For a moment, she considered chasing the sparrow but then decided it was not worth bothering herself over such an inconsequential speck of bones and feathers. It would not even make a good snack.
Tilting on the wind and swinging her tail in the opposite direction to facilitate her turn, she wheeled around, studying the ground far below and all the small scurrying things that strove to hide from her hunter’s eyes. Even from her height of thousands of feet, she could count th
e number of feathers on the back of a chicken hawk that was skimming the fields of planted wheat west of the Jiet River. She could see the blur of brown fur as a rabbit dashed to the safety of its warren. She could pick out the small herd of deer cowering underneath the branches of the currant bushes clustered along a tributary of the Jiet River. And she could hear the high-pitched squeaks of frightened animals warning their brethren of her presence. Their wavering cries gratified her; it was only right that her food should fear her. If ever she should fear it, she would know it was her time to die.
A league farther upstream, the Varden were packed against the Jiet River like a herd of red deer against the edge of a cliff. The Varden had arrived at the crossing yesterday, and since then, perhaps a third of the men-who-were-friends and the Urgals-who-were-friends and the horses-she-must-not-eat had forded the river. The army moved so slowly, she sometimes wondered how humans ever had time to do anything other than travel, considering how short their lives were. It would be much more convenient if they could fly, she thought, and wondered why they did not choose to. Flying was so easy, it never ceased to puzzle her why any creature would remain earthbound. Even Eragon retained his attachment to the soft-hard-ground, when she knew he could join her in the sky at any time merely by uttering a few words in the ancient language. But then, she did not always understand the actions of those who tottered about on two legs, whether they had round ears, pointed ears, or horns or were so short she could squash them under her feet.
A flicker of movement to the northeast caught her attention, and she angled toward it, curious. She saw a line of five-and-forty weary horses trudging toward the Varden. Most of the horses were riderless; therefore, it did not occur to her until another half hour had elapsed and she could make out the faces of the men in the saddles that the group might be Roran’s returning from their raid. She wondered what had happened to so reduce their numbers and felt a momentary twinge of unease. She was not bonded to Roran, but Eragon cared for him, and that was reason enough for her to worry about his well-being.