A long, puckered scar, red and glossy, wrapped around Roran’s right shoulder, starting at his collarbone and ending just past the middle of his arm. It was obvious that the Ra’zac had severed part of the muscle and that the two ends had failed to heal back together, for an unsightly bulge deformed the skin below the scar, where the underlying fibers had recoiled upon themselves. Farther up, the skin had sunk inward, forming a depression half an inch deep.
“Roran! You should have shown this to me days ago. I had no idea the Ra’zac hurt you so badly…. Do you have any difficulty moving your arm?”
“Not to the side or back,” said Roran. He demonstrated. “But in the front, I can only lift my hand about as high as… midchest.” Grimacing, he lowered his arm. “Even that’s a struggle; I have to keep my thumb level, or else my arm goes dead. The best way I’ve found is to swing my arm around from behind and let it land on whatever I’m trying to grasp. I skinned my knuckles a few times before I mastered the trick.”
Eragon twisted the staff between his hands. Should I? he asked Saphira.
I think you must.
We may regret it tomorrow.
You will have more cause for regret if Roran dies because he could not wield his hammer when the occasion demanded. If you draw upon the resources around us, you can avoid tiring yourself further.
You know I hate doing that. Even talking about it sickens me.
Our lives are more important than an ant’s, Saphira countered.
Not to an ant.
And are you an ant? Don’t be glib, Eragon; it ill becomes you.
With a sigh, Eragon put down the staff and beckoned to Roran. “Here, I’ll heal that for you.”
“You can do that?”
A momentary surge of excitement brightened Roran’s face, but then he hesitated and looked troubled. “Now? Is that wise?”
“As Saphira said, better I tend to you while I have the chance, lest your injury cost you your life or endanger the rest of us.” Roran drew near, and Eragon placed his right hand over the red scar while, at the same time, expanding his consciousness to encompass the trees and the plants and the animals that populated the gulch, save those he feared were too weak to survive his spell.
Then Eragon began to chant in the ancient language. The incantation he recited was long and complex. Repairing such a wound went far beyond growing new skin and was a difficult matter at best. In this, Eragon relied upon the curative formulas that he had studied in Ellesméra and had devoted so many weeks to memorizing.
The silvery mark on Eragon’s palm, the gedwëy ignasia, glowed white-hot as he released the magic. A second later, he uttered an involuntary groan as he died three times, once each with two small birds roosting in a nearby juniper and also with a snake hidden among the rocks. Across from him, Roran threw back his head and bared his teeth in a soundless howl as his shoulder muscle jumped and writhed beneath the surface of his shifting skin.
Then it was over.
Eragon inhaled a shuddering breath and rested his head in his hands, taking advantage of the concealment they provided to wipe away his tears before he examined the results of his labor. He saw Roran shrug several times and then stretch and windmill his arms. Roran’s shoulder was large and round, the result of years spent digging holes for fence posts, hauling rocks, and pitching hay. Despite himself, a needle of envy pricked Eragon. He might be stronger, but he had never been as muscular as his cousin.
Roran grinned. “It’s as good as ever! Better, maybe. Thank you.”
“It was the strangest thing. I actually felt as if I was going to crawl out of my hide. And it itched something terrible; I could barely keep from ripping—”
“Get me some bread from your saddlebag, would you? I’m hungry.”
“We just had dinner.”
“I need a bite to eat after using magic like that.” Eragon sniffed and then pulled out his kerchief and wiped his nose. He sniffed again. What he had said was not quite true. It was the toll his spell had exacted on the wildlife that disturbed him, not the magic itself, and he feared he might throw up unless he had something to settle his stomach.
“You’re not ill, are you?” asked Roran.
“No.” With the memory of the deaths he had caused still heavy in his mind, Eragon reached for the jar of mead by his side, hoping to fend off a tide of morbid thoughts.
Something very large, heavy, and sharp struck his hand and pinned it against the ground. He winced and looked over to see the tip of one of Saphira’s ivory claws digging into his flesh. Her thick eyelid went snick as it flashed across the great big glittering iris she fixed upon him. After a long moment, she lifted the claw, as a person would a finger, and Eragon withdrew his hand. He gulped and gripped the hawthorn staff once more, striving to ignore the mead and to concentrate upon what was immediate and tangible, instead of wallowing in dismal introspection.
Roran removed a ragged half of sourdough bread from his bags, then paused and, with a hint of a smile, said, “Wouldn’t you rather have some venison? I didn’t finish all of mine.” He held out the makeshift spit of seared juniper wood, on which were impaled three clumps of golden brown meat. To Eragon’s sensitive nose, the odor that wafted toward him was thick and pungent and reminded him of nights he had spent in the Spine and of long winter dinners where he, Roran, and Garrow had gathered around their stove and enjoyed each other’s company while a blizzard howled outside. His mouth watered. “It’s still warm,” said Roran, and waved the venison in front of Eragon.
With an effort of will, Eragon shook his head. “Just give me the bread.”
“Are you sure? It’s perfect: not too tough, not too tender, and cooked with the perfect amount of seasoning. It’s so juicy, when you take a bite, it’s as if you swallowed a mouthful of Elain’s best stew.”
“No, I can’t.”
“You know you’ll like it.”
“Roran, stop teasing me and hand over that bread!”
“Ah, now see, you look better already. Maybe what you need isn’t bread but someone to get your hackles up, eh?”
Eragon glowered at him, then, faster than the eye could see, snatched the bread away from Roran.
That seemed to amuse Roran even more. As Eragon tore at the loaf, he said, “I don’t know how you can survive on nothing but fruit, bread, and vegetables. A man has to eat meat if he wants to keep his strength up. Don’t you miss it?”
“More than you can imagine.”
“Then why do you insist on torturing yourself like this? Every creature in this world has to eat other living beings—even if they are only plants—in order to survive. That is how we are made. Why attempt to defy the natural order of things?”
I said much the same in Ellesméra, observed Saphira, but he did not listen to me.
Eragon shrugged. “We already had this discussion. You do what you want. I won’t tell you or anyone else how to live. However, I cannot in good conscience eat a beast whose thoughts and feelings I’ve shared.”
The tip of Saphira’s tail twitched, and her scales clinked against a worn dome of rock that protruded from the ground. Oh, he’s hopeless. Lifting and extending her neck, Saphira nipped the venison, spit and all, from Roran’s other hand. The wood cracked between her serrated teeth as she bit down, and then it and the meat vanished into the fiery depths of her belly. Mmm. You did not exaggerate, she said to Roran. What a sweet and succulent morsel: so soft, so salty, so deliciously delectable, it makes me want to wiggle with delight. You should cook for me more often, Roran Stronghammer. Only next time, I think you should prepare several deer at once. Otherwise, I won’t get a proper meal.
Roran hesitated, as if unable to decide whether her request was serious and, if so, how he could politely extricate himself from such an unlooked-for and rather onerous obligation. He cast a pleading glance at Eragon, who burst out laughing, both at Roran’s expression and at his predicament. The rise and fall of Saphira’s sonorous laugh joined with Eragon’s and reverberated throughout the hollow. Her teeth gleamed madder red in the light from the embers.
An hour after the three of them had retired, Eragon was lying on his back alongside Saphira, muffled in layers of blankets against the night cold. All was still and quiet. It seemed as if a magician had placed an enchantment upon the earth and that everything in the world was bound in an eternal sleep and would remain frozen and unchanging forevermore underneath the watchful gaze of the twinkling stars.
Without moving, Eragon whispered in his mind: Saphira?
Yes, little one?
What if I’m right and he’s in Helgrind? I don’t know what I should do then…. Tell me what I should do.
I cannot, little one. This is a decision you have to make by yourself. The ways of men are not the ways of dragons. I would tear off his head and feast on his body, but that would be wrong for you, I think.
Will you stand by me, whatever I decide?
Always, little one. Now rest. All will be well.
Comforted, Eragon gazed into the void between the stars and slowed his breathing as he drifted into the trance that had replaced sleep for him. He remained conscious of his surroundings, but against the backdrop of the white constellations, the figures of his waking dreams strode forth and performed confused and shadowy plays, as was their wont.
ASSAULT ON HELGRIND
Daybreak was fifteen minutes away when Eragon rolled upright. He snapped his fingers twice to wake Roran and then scooped up his blankets and knotted them into a tight bundle.
Pushing himself off the ground, Roran did likewise with his own bedding.
They looked at each other and shivered with excitement.
“If I die,” said Roran, “you will see to Katrina?”
“Tell her then that I went into battle with joy in my heart and her name upon my lips.”
Eragon muttered a quick line in the ancient language. The drop in his strength that followed was almost imperceptible. “There. That will filter the air in front of us and protect us from the paralyzing effects of the Ra’zac’s breath.”
From his bags, Eragon removed his shirt of mail and unwrapped the length of sackcloth he had stored it in. Blood from the fight on the Burning Plains still encrusted the once-shining corselet, and the combination of dried gore, sweat, and neglect had allowed blotches of rust to creep across the rings. The mail was, however, free of tears, as Eragon had repaired them before they had departed for the Empire.
Eragon donned the leather-backed shirt, wrinkling his nose at the stench of death and desperation that clung to it, then attached chased bracers to his forearms and greaves to his shins. Upon his head he placed a padded arming cap, a mail coif, and a plain steel helm. He had lost his own helm—the one he had worn in Farthen Dûr and that the dwarves had engraved with the crest of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum—along with his shield during the aerial duel between Saphira and Thorn. On his hands went mailed gauntlets.
Roran outfitted himself in a similar manner, although he augmented his armor with a wooden shield. A band of soft iron wrapped around the lip of the shield, the better to catch and hold an enemy’s sword. No shield encumbered Eragon’s left arm; the hawthorn staff required two hands to wield properly.
Across his back, Eragon slung the quiver given to him by Queen Islanzadí. In addition to twenty heavy oak arrows fletched with gray goose feathers, the quiver contained the bow with silver fittings that the queen had sung out of a yew tree for him. The bow was already strung and ready for use.
Saphira kneaded the soil beneath her feet. Let us be off!
Leaving their bags and supplies hanging from the branch of a juniper tree, Eragon and Roran clambered onto Saphira’s back. They wasted no time saddling her; she had worn her tack through the night. The molded leather was warm, almost hot, underneath Eragon. He clutched the neck spike in front of him—to steady himself during sudden changes in direction—while Roran hooked one thick arm around Eragon’s waist and brandished his hammer with the other.
A piece of shale cracked under Saphira’s weight as she settled into a low crouch and, in a single giddy bound, leaped up to the rim of the gulch, where she balanced for a moment before unfolding her massive wings. The thin membranes thrummed as Saphira raised them toward the sky. Vertical, they looked like two translucent blue sails.
“Not so tight,” grunted Eragon.
“Sorry,” said Roran. He loosened his embrace.
Further speech became impossible as Saphira jumped again. When she reached the pinnacle, she brought her wings down with a mighty whoosh, driving the three of them even higher. With each subsequent flap, they climbed closer to the flat, narrow clouds.
As Saphira angled toward Helgrind, Eragon glanced to his left and discovered that he could see a broad swath of Leona Lake some miles distant. A thick layer of mist, gray and ghostly in the predawn glow, emanated from the water, as if witchfire burned upon the surface of the liquid. Eragon tried, but even with his hawklike vision, he could not make out the far shore, nor the southern reaches of the Spine beyond, which he regretted. It had been too long since he had laid eyes upon the mountain range of his childhood.
To the north stood Dras-Leona, a huge, rambling mass that appeared as a blocky silhouette against the wall of mist that edged its western flank. The one building Eragon could identify was the cathedral where the Ra’zac had attacked him; its flanged spire loomed above the rest of the city, like a barbed spearhead.
And somewhere in the landscape that rushed past below, Eragon knew, were the remnants of the campsite where the Ra’zac had mortally wounded Brom. He allowed all of his anger and grief over the events of that day—as well as Garrow’s murder and the destruction of their farm—to surge forth and give him the courage, nay, the desire, to face the Ra’zac in combat.
Eragon, said Saphira. Today we need not guard our minds and keep our thoughts secret from one another, do we?
Not unless another magician should appear.
A fan of golden light flared into existence as the top of the sun crested the horizon. In an instant, the full spectrum of colors enlivened the previously drab world: the mist glowed white, the water became a rich blue, the daubed-mud wall that encircled the center of Dras-Leona revealed its dingy yellow sides, the trees cloaked themselves in every shade of green, and the soil blushed red and orange. Helgrind, however, remained as it always was—black.
The mountain of stone rapidly grew larger as they approached. Even from the air, it was intimidating.
Diving toward the base of Helgrind, Saphira tilted so far to her left, Eragon and Roran would have fallen if they had not already strapped their legs to the saddle. Then she whipped around the apron of scree and over the altar where the priests of Helgrind observed their ceremonies. The lip of Eragon’s helm caught the wind from her passage and produced a howl that almost deafened him.
“Well?” shouted Roran. He could not see in front of them.
“The slaves are gone!”
A great weight seemed to press Eragon into his seat as Saphira pulled out of her dive and spiraled up around Helgrind, searching for an entrance to the Ra’zac’s hideout.
Not even a hole big enough for a woodrat, she declared. She slowed and hung in place before a ridge that connected the third lowest of the four peaks to the prominence above. The jagged buttress magnified the boom produced by each stroke of her wings until it was as loud as a thunderclap. Eragon’s eyes watered as the air pulsed against his skin.
A web of white veins adorned the backside of the crags and pillars, where hoarfrost had collected in the cracks that furrowed the rock. Nothing else disturbed the gloom of Helgrind’s inky, windswept ramparts. No trees grew among the slanting stones, nor shrubs, grass, or lichen, nor did eagles dare nest upon the tower’s broken ledges. True to its name, Helgrind was a place of death, and stood cloaked in the razor-sharp, sawtooth
folds of its scarps and clefts like a bony specter risen to haunt the earth.
Casting his mind outward, Eragon confirmed the presence of the two people whom he had discovered imprisoned within Helgrind the previous day, but he felt nothing of the slaves, and to his concern, he still could not locate the Ra’zac or the Lethrblaka. If they aren’t here, then where? he wondered. Searching again, he noticed something that had eluded him before: a single flower, a gentian, blooming not fifty feet in front of them, where, by all rights, there ought to be solid rock. How does it get enough light to live?
Saphira answered his question by perching on a crumbling spur several feet to the right. As she did, she lost her balance for a moment and flared her wings to steady herself. Instead of brushing against the bulk of Helgrind, the tip of her right wing dipped into the rock and then back out again.
Saphira, did you see that!
Leaning forward, Saphira pushed the tip of her snout toward the sheer rock, paused an inch or two away—as if waiting for a trap to spring—then continued her advance. Scale by scale, Saphira’s head slid into Helgrind, until all that was visible of her to Eragon was a neck, torso, and wings.
It’s an illusion! exclaimed Saphira.
With a surge of her mighty thews, she abandoned the spur and flung the rest of her body after her head. It required every bit of Eragon’s self-control not to cover his face in a desperate bid to protect himself as the crag rushed toward him.
An instant later, he found himself looking at a broad, vaulted cave suffused with the warm glow of morning. Saphira’s scales refracted the light, casting thousands of shifting blue flecks across the rock. Twisting around, Eragon saw no wall behind them, only the mouth of the cave and a sweeping view of the landscape beyond.
Eragon grimaced. It had never occurred to him that Galbatorix might have hidden the Ra’zac’s lair with magic. Idiot! I have to do better, he thought. Underestimating the king was a sure way to get them all killed.