As soon as the first hint of light appeared in the east, Eragon and Saphira continued on their way, soaring high above the verdant plains.
A fierce headwind sprang up in midmorning, which slowed Saphira to half her normal speed. Try as she might, she could not rise above the wind. All day she fought against the rushing air. It was arduous work, and although Eragon gave her as much of his strength as he dared, by afternoon her exhaustion was profound. She swooped down and alighted on a knoll in the grasslands and sat there with her wings draped across the ground, panting and trembling.
We should stay here for the night, Eragon said.
Saphira, you’re in no condition to go on. Let’s make camp until you recover. Who knows, the wind might die down by evening.
He heard the wet rasp of her tongue as she licked her chops and then the heave of her lungs as she resumed panting.
No, she said. On these plains, it might blow for weeks or even months on end. We cannot wait for calm.
I will not give up merely because I hurt, Eragon. Too much is at stake….
Then let me give you energy from Aren. There is more than enough in the ring to sustain you from here to Du Weldenvarden.
No, she repeated again. Save Aren for when we have no other recourse. I can rest and recover in the forest. Aren, however, we may have need of at any moment; you should not deplete it merely to ease my discomfort.
I hate to see you in such pain, though.
A faint growl escaped her. My ancestors, the wild dragons, would not have shrunk from a puny breeze like this, and neither will I.
And with that, she jumped back into the air, carrying him with her as she drove herself into the gale.
As the day was drawing to an end and the wind still howled around them, pushing against Saphira as if fate were determined to keep them from reaching Du Weldenvarden, Eragon thought of the dwarf woman Glûmra and of her faith in the dwarven gods, and for the first time in his life, he felt the desire to pray. Withdrawing from his mental contact with Saphira—who was so tired and preoccupied, she did not notice—Eragon whispered, “Gûntera, king of the gods, if you exist, and if you can hear me, and if you have the power, then, please, still this wind. I know I’m not a dwarf, but King Hrothgar adopted me into his clan, and I think that gives me the right to pray to you. Gûntera, please, we have to get to Du Weldenvarden as fast as possible, not only for the good of the Varden but also for the good of your people, the knurlan. Please, I beg of you, still this wind. Saphira cannot keep this up much longer.” Then, feeling slightly foolish, Eragon extended himself toward Saphira’s consciousness, wincing in sympathy as he felt the burning within her muscles.
Late that night, when all was cold and black, the wind abated and, thereafter, only occasionally buffeted them with a gust.
When morning came, Eragon looked down and saw the hard, dry land of the Hadarac Desert. Blast it, he said, for they had not come as far as he had hoped. We won’t make it to Ellesméra today, will we?
Not unless the wind decides to blow in the opposite direction and carry us there upon its back. Saphira labored in silence for another few minutes, then added, However, barring any other unpleasant surprises, we should arrive at Du Weldenvarden by evening.
They landed only twice that day. Once, while they were on the ground, Saphira devoured a brace of ducks that she caught and killed with a burst of fire, but other than that, she went without food. To save time, Eragon ate his own meals in the saddle.
As Saphira had predicted, Du Weldenvarden came into sight even as the sun neared setting. The forest appeared before them as an endless expanse of green. Deciduous trees—oaks and beeches and maples—dominated the outer parts of the forest, but farther in, Eragon knew, they gave way to the forbidding pine trees that formed the bulk of the woods.
Dusk had settled over the countryside by the time they arrived at the edge of Du Weldenvarden, and Saphira glided to a soft landing under the outstretched branches of a massive oak. She folded her wings and sat still for a while, too tired to continue. Her crimson tongue hung loose from her mouth. While she rested, Eragon listened to the rustle of leaves overhead and to the hoot of owls and the chirp of evening insects.
When she was sufficiently recovered, Saphira walked forward and passed between two giant, moss-covered oak trees and so crossed into Du Weldenvarden on foot. The elves had made it impossible for anyone or anything to enter the forest by means of magic, and since dragons did not rely upon their bodies alone to fly, Saphira could not enter while in the air, else her wings would fail her and she would fall from the sky.
That should be far enough, Saphira said, stopping in a small meadow several hundred feet from the perimeter of the forest.
Eragon unbuckled the straps from around his legs and slid down Saphira’s side. He searched the meadow until he found a bare patch of earth. With his hands, he scooped out a shallow hole a foot and a half wide. He summoned forth water to fill the hole, then uttered a spell of scrying.
The water shimmered and acquired a soft yellow glow as Eragon beheld the interior of Oromis’s hut. The silver-haired elf was sitting at his kitchen table, reading a tattered scroll. Oromis looked up at Eragon and nodded with unsurprised recognition.
“Master,” Eragon said, and twisted his hand over his chest.
“Greetings, Eragon. I have been expecting you. Where are you?”
“Saphira and I just reached Du Weldenvarden…. Master, I know we promised to return to Ellesméra, but the Varden are only a few days away from the city of Feinster, and they are vulnerable without us. We don’t have the time to fly all the way to Ellesméra. Could you answer our questions here, through the scrying pool?”
Oromis leaned back in his chair, his angled face grave and pensive. Then he said, “I will not instruct you at a distance, Eragon. I can guess at some of the things you wish to ask me, and they are subjects we must discuss in person.”
“Master, please. If Murtagh and Thorn—”
“No, Eragon. I understand the reason for your urgency, but your studies are just as important as protecting the Varden, maybe even more so. We must do this properly, or not at all.”
Eragon sighed and slumped forward. “Yes, Master.”
Oromis nodded. “Glaedr and I will be waiting for you. Fly safe and fly fast. We have much to talk about.”
Feeling numb and worn-out, Eragon ended the spell. The water soaked back into the ground. He held his head in his hands, staring at the patch of moist dirt between his feet. Saphira’s heavy breathing was loud beside him. I guess we have to keep going, he said. I’m sorry.
Her breathing paused for a moment as she licked her chops. It’s all right. I’m not about to collapse.
He looked up at her. Are you sure?
Eragon reluctantly hoisted himself upright and climbed onto her back. As long as we’re going to Ellesméra, he said, tightening the straps around his legs, we should visit the Menoa tree again. Maybe we can finally figure out what Solembum meant. I could certainly use a new sword.
When Eragon had first met Solembum in Teirm, the werecat had told him, When the time comes and you need a weapon, look under the roots of the Menoa tree. Then, when all seems lost and your power is insufficient, go to the Rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls. Eragon still did not know where the Rock of Kuthian was, but during their first stay in Ellesméra, he and Saphira had had several chances to examine the Menoa tree. They had discovered no clue as to the exact whereabouts of the supposed weapon. Moss, dirt, bark, and the occasional ant were the only things they had seen among the roots of the Menoa tree, and none of them indicated where to excavate.
Solembum might not have meant a sword, Saphira pointed out. Werecats love riddles nearly as much as dragons do. If it even exists, this weapon might be a scrap of parchment with a spell inscribed on it, or a book, or a pai
nting, or a sharp piece of rock, or any other dangerous thing.
Whatever it is, I hope we can find it. Who knows when we will have the chance to return to Ellesméra again?
Saphira raked aside a fallen tree that lay before her, then crouched and unfurled her velvety wings, her massive shoulder muscles bunching. Eragon yelped and grabbed the front of his saddle as she surged up and forward with unexpected force, rising above the tops of the trees in a single vertiginous bound.
Wheeling over the sea of shifting branches, Saphira oriented herself in a northwesterly direction and then set out toward the elves’ capital, the beats of her wings slow and heavy.
The raid on the supply train went almost exactly as Roran had planned: three days after leaving the main body of the Varden, he and his fellow horsemen rode down from the lip of a ravine and struck the meandering line of wagons broadside. Meanwhile, the Urgals sprang out from behind boulders scattered across the floor of the ravine and attacked the supply train from the front, stopping the procession in its tracks. The soldiers and wagoners put up a brave fight, but the ambush had caught them while sleepy and disorganized, and Roran’s force soon overwhelmed them. None of the humans or Urgals died in the attack, and only three suffered wounds: two humans and one Urgal.
Roran killed several of the soldiers himself, but for the most part, he hung back and concentrated upon directing the assault, as was his responsibility now. He was still stiff and sore from the flogging he had endured, and he did not want to exert himself any more than necessary, for fear of cracking the mat of scabs that covered his back.
Until that point, Roran had had no difficulty maintaining discipline among the twenty humans and twenty Urgals. Although it was obvious that neither group liked nor trusted the other—an attitude he shared, for he regarded the Urgals with the same degree of suspicion and distaste as would any man who had been raised in proximity to the Spine—they had succeeded in working together during the past three days with nary a raised voice. That both groups had managed to cooperate so well had, he knew, little to do with his prowess as a commander. Nasuada and Nar Garzhvog had taken great care in picking the warriors who were to travel with him, selecting only those with a reputation for a quick blade, sound judgment, and, above all, a calm and even disposition.
However, in the aftermath of the attack on the supply train, as his men were busy dragging the bodies of the soldiers and the wagoners into a pile, and Roran was riding up and down the line of wagons overseeing the work, he heard an agonized howl from somewhere by the far end of the train. Thinking that perhaps another contingent of soldiers had chanced upon them, Roran shouted to Carn and several other men to join him and then touched his spurs to Snowfire’s flanks and galloped toward the rear of the wagons.
Four Urgals had tied an enemy soldier to the trunk of a gnarled willow tree and were amusing themselves by poking and prodding him with their swords. Swearing, Roran jumped down from Snow fire and, with a single blow of his hammer, put the man out of his misery.
A swirling cloud of dust swept over the group as Carn and four other warriors galloped up to the willow tree. They reined in their steeds and spread out on either side of Roran, holding their weapons at the ready.
The largest Urgal, a ram named Yarbog, stepped forward. “Strong-hammer, why did you stop our sport? He would have danced for us for many more minutes.”
From between clenched teeth, Roran said, “So long as you are under my command, you will not torture captives without cause. Am I understood? Many of these soldiers have been forced to serve Galbatorix against their will. Many of them are our friends or family or neighbors, and while we must fight them, I will not have you treat them with unnecessary cruelty. If not for the whims of fate, any one of us humans might be standing in their place. They are not our enemy; Galbatorix is, as he is yours.”
The Urgal’s heavy brow beetled, nearly obscuring his deep-set yellow eyes. “But you will still kill them, yes? Why cannot we enjoy seeing them wriggle and dance first?”
Roran wondered if the Urgal’s skull was too thick to crack with his hammer. Struggling to restrain his anger, he said, “Because it is wrong, if nothing else!” Pointing at the dead soldier, he said, “What if he had been one of your own race who had been enthralled by the Shade, Durza? Would you have tormented him as well?”
“Of course,” said Yarbog. “They would want us to tickle them with our swords so that they would have an opportunity to prove their bravery before they died. Is it not the same with you hornless humans, or have you no stomach for pain?”
Roran was not sure how serious an insult it was among the Urgals to call another hornless, but even so, he had no doubt that questioning someone’s courage was as offensive to Urgals as it was to humans, if not more so. “Any one of us could withstand more pain without crying out than you, Yarbog,” he said, tightening his grip on his hammer and shield. “Now, unless you wish to experience agony the likes of which you cannot imagine, surrender your sword to me, then untie that poor wretch and carry him over to the rest of the bodies. After that, go see to the packhorses. They are yours to care for until we return to the Varden.”
Without waiting for an acknowledgment from the Urgal, Roran turned and grasped Snowfire’s reins and prepared to climb back onto the stallion.
“No,” growled Yarbog.
Roran froze with one foot in a stirrup and silently swore to himself. He had hoped that just such a situation would not arise during the trip. Swinging around, he said, “No? Are you refusing to obey my orders?”
Drawing back his lips to expose his short fangs, Yarbog said, “No. I challenge you for leadership of this tribe, Stronghammer.” And the Urgal threw back his massive head and bellowed so loudly that the rest of the humans and Urgals stopped what they were doing and ran toward the willow tree until all forty of them were clustered around Yarbog and Roran.
“Shall we attend to this creature for you?” Carn asked, his voice ringing out.
Wishing that there were not so many onlookers, Roran shook his head. “No, I shall deal with him myself.” Despite his words, he was glad to have his men beside him, opposite the line of hulking, gray-skinned Urgals. The humans were smaller than the Urgals, but all except Roran were mounted on horses, which would give them a slight advantage if there were a fight between the two groups. If that came to pass, Carn’s magic would be of little help, for the Urgals had a spellcaster of their own, a shaman named Dazhgra, and from what Roran had seen, Dazhgra was the more powerful magician, if not as skilled in the nuances of their arcane art.
To Yarbog, Roran said, “It is not the custom of the Varden to award leadership based upon trial by combat. If you wish to fight, I will fight, but you will gain nothing by it. If I lose, Carn will assume my command, and you will answer to him instead of me.”
“Bah!” said Yarbog. “I do not challenge you for the right to lead your own race. I challenge you for the right to lead us, the fighting rams of the Bolvek tribe! You have not proven yourself, Stronghammer, so you cannot claim the position of chieftain. If you lose, I will become chieftain here, and we shall not lift our chins to you, Carn, or any other creature too weak to earn our respect!”
Roran pondered his situation before accepting the inevitable. Even if it cost him his life, he had to try to maintain his authority over the Urgals, else the Varden would lose them as allies. Taking a breath, he said, “Among my race, it is customary for the person who has been challenged to choose the time and place for the fight, as well as the weapons both parties will use.”
Chortling deep in his throat, Yarbog said, “The time is now, Stronghammer. The place is here. And among my race, we fight in a loincloth and without weapons.”
“That is hardly fair, since I have no horns,” Roran pointed out. “Will you agree to let me use my hammer to compensate for my lack?”
Yarbog thought about it, then said, “You may keep your helmet and shield, but no hammer. Weapons are not allowed when
we fight to be chief.”
“I see…. Well, if I can’t have my hammer, I will forgo my helmet and shield as well. What are the rules of combat, and how shall we decide the winner?”
“There is only one rule, Stronghammer: if you flee, you forfeit the match and are banished from your tribe. You win by forcing your rival to submit, but since I will never submit, we will fight to the death.”
Roran nodded. That might be what he intends to do, but I won’t kill him if I can help it. “Let us begin,” he cried, and banged his hammer against his shield.
At his direction, the men and Urgals cleared a space in the middle of the ravine and pegged out a square, twelve paces by twelve paces. Then Roran and Yarbog stripped, and two Urgals slathered bear grease over Yarbog’s body while Carn and Loften, another human, did the same for Roran.
“Rub as much as you can into my back,” Roran murmured. He wanted his scabs to be as soft as possible so as to minimize the number of places they would crack.
Leaning close to him, Carn said, “Why did you refuse the shield and helmet?”
“They would only slow me. I’ll have to be as fast as a frightened hare if I’m to avoid being crushed by him.” As Carn and Loften worked their way down his limbs, Roran studied his opponent, searching for any vulnerability that would help him defeat the Urgal.
Yarbog stood well over six feet tall. His back was broad, his chest deep, and his arms and legs covered with knotted muscles. His neck was as thick as a bull’s, as it had to be in order to sustain the weight of his head and his curled horns. Three slanting scars marked the left side of his waist, where he had been clawed by an animal. Sparse black bristles grew over the whole of his hide.