The other trees creaked and moaned like abandoned souls, and then, soft and fluttering, the voice came again. Will you give me what I want in return, Dragon Rider?
I will, Eragon said without hesitation. Whatever the price, he would gladly pay it for a Rider’s sword.
The canopy of the Menoa tree grew still, and for several minutes, all was quiet in the clearing. Then the ground began to shake and the roots in front of Eragon began to twist and grind, shedding flakes of bark as they pulled aside to reveal a bare patch of dirt, out of which emerged what appeared to be a lump of corroded iron roughly two feet long and a foot and a half wide. As the ore came to rest on the surface of the rich black soil, Eragon felt a slight twinge in his lower belly. He winced and rubbed at the spot, but the momentary flare of discomfort had already vanished. Then the root around his ankle loosened and retreated into the ground, as did those that had been holding Saphira in place.
Here is your metal, whispered the Menoa tree. Take it and go….
But—Eragon started to ask.
Go …, said the Menoa tree, its voice fading away. Go…. And the tree’s consciousness withdrew from him and Saphira, receding deeper and deeper into itself until Eragon could barely sense its presence. Around them, looming pines relaxed and resumed their usual positions.
“But…,” Eragon said out loud, puzzled that the Menoa tree had not told him what she wanted.
Still perplexed, he went over to the ore, slid his fingers under the edge of the metal-laced stone, and hoisted the irregular mass into his arms, grunting at its weight. Hugging it against his chest, he turned away from the Menoa tree and started the long walk toward Rhunön’s house.
Saphira sniffed the brightsteel as she joined him. You were right, she said. I should not have attacked her.
At least we got the brightsteel, said Eragon, and the Menoa tree … well, I don’t know what she got, but we have what we came for, and that’s what matters.
The elves gathered alongside the path Eragon had chosen to follow and gazed at Eragon and Saphira with an intensity that made Eragon quicken his pace and the skin on the nape of his neck prickle. Not once did the elves speak, only stared with their slanting eyes, stared as if they were watching a dangerous animal stalk through their homes.
A puff of smoke billowed from Saphira’s nostrils. If Galbatorix does not kill us first, she said, I think we shall live to regret this.
MIND OVER METAL
“Where did you find that?” demanded Rhunön as Eragon staggered into the atrium of her house and dropped the lump of brightsteel ore onto the ground by her feet.
In as few words as possible, Eragon explained about Solembum and the Menoa tree.
Squatting next to the ore, Rhunön caressed the pitted surface, her fingers lingering over the metallic patches interspersed among the stone. “You were either very foolish or very brave to test the Menoa tree as you did. She is not one to trifle with.”
Is there enough ore for a sword? Saphira asked.
“Several swords, if past experience is anything to judge by,” said Rhunön, rising to her full height. The elf woman glanced at her forge in the center of the atrium, then clapped her hands together, her eyes lighting up with a combination of eagerness and determination. “Let us to it, then! You need a sword, Shadeslayer? Very well, I shall give you a sword the likes of which has never been seen before in Alagaësia.”
“But what of your oath?” Eragon asked.
“Think not of it for the time being. When must the two of you return to the Varden?”
“We should have left the day we arrived,” said Eragon.
Rhunön paused, her expression introspective. “Then I shall have to hurry that which I do not normally hurry and use magic to craft that which would otherwise require weeks of work by hand. You and Brightscales will help me.” It was not a question, but Eragon nodded in agreement. “We shall not rest tonight, but I promise you, Shadeslayer, you shall have your sword by tomorrow morning.” Bending at the knees, Rhunön lifted the ore from the ground without discernible effort and carried it to the bench with her carving in progress.
Eragon removed his tunic and shirt, so he would not ruin them during the work to come, and in their place Rhunön gave him a tight-fitting jerkin and a fabric apron treated so that it was impervious to fire. Rhunön wore the same. When Eragon asked her about gloves, she laughed and shook her head. “Only a clumsy smith uses gloves.”
Then Rhunön led him to a low, grotto-like chamber set within the trunk of one of the trees out of which her house was grown. Inside the chamber were bags of charcoal and loose piles of whitish clay bricks. By means of a spell, Eragon and Rhunön lifted several hundred bricks and carried them outside, next to the open-walled forge, then did the same with the bags of charcoal, each of which was as large as a man.
Once the supplies were arranged to Rhunön’s satisfaction, she and Eragon built a smelter for the ore. The smelter was a complex structure, and Rhunön refused to use much magic to construct it, so the project took them most of the afternoon. First they dug a rectangular pit five feet deep, which they filled with layers of sand, gravel, clay, charcoal, and ash, and in which they embedded a number of chambers and channels to wick away moisture that would otherwise dampen the heat of the smelting fire. When the contents of the pit were level with the ground, they assembled a trough of bricks on top of the layers below, using water and unfired clay as their mortar. Ducking inside her house, Rhunön returned with a pair of bellows, which they attached to holes at the base of the trough.
They broke then to drink and to eat a few bites of bread and cheese.
After the brief repast, Rhunön placed a handful of small branches in the trough, lit them on fire with a murmured word, and, when the flames were well set, laid medium-sized pieces of seasoned oak along the bottom. For nearly an hour, she tended the fire, cultivating it with the care of a gardener growing roses, until the wood had burned down to an even bed of coals. Then Rhunön nodded to Eragon and said, “Now.”
Eragon lifted the lump of ore and gently lowered it into the trough. When the heat on his fingers became unbearable, he released the ore and jumped back as a fountain of sparks swirled upward like a swarm of fireflies. On top of the ore and the coals, he shoveled a thick blanket of charcoal as fuel for the fire.
Eragon brushed the charcoal dust from his palms, then grasped the handles of one set of bellows and began to pump it, as did Rhunön the bellows on the other side of the smelter. Between them, they supplied the fire with a steady stream of fresh air so that it burned ever hotter.
The scales on Saphira’s chest, as well as on the underside of her head and neck, sparkled with dazzling flashes of light as the flames in the smelter danced. She crouched several yards away, her eyes fixed upon the molten heart of the fire. I could help with this, you know, she said. It would take me but a minute to melt the ore.
“Yes,” said Rhunön, “but if we melt it too quickly, the metal will not combine with the charcoal and become hard and flexible enough for a sword. Save your fire, dragon. We shall need it later.”
The heat from the smelter and the effort of pumping the bellows soon had Eragon covered in a sheen of sweat; his bare arms shone in the light from the fire.
Every now and then, he or Rhunön would abandon their bellows to shovel a new layer of charcoal over the fire.
The work was monotonous, and as a result, Eragon soon lost track of the time. The constant roar of the fire, the feel of the bellows’ handle in his hands, the whoosh of rushing air, and Saphira’s vigilant presence were the only things he was aware of.
It came as a surprise to him, then, when Rhunön said, “That should be sufficient. Leave the bellows.”
Wiping his brow, Eragon helped as she shoveled the incandescent coals out of the smelter and into a barrel filled with water. The coals sizzled and emitted an acrid smell as they struck the liquid.
When they finally exposed the glowing pool of white-hot metal at the bottom of
the trough—the slag and other impurities having run off during the process—Rhunön covered the metal with an inch of fine white ash, then leaned her shovel against the side of the smelter and went to sit on the bench by her forge. “What now?” Eragon asked as he joined her.
“Now we wait.”
Rhunön gestured toward the sky, where the light from the setting sun painted a tattered array of clouds red and purple and gold. “It must be dark when we work the metal if we are to correctly judge its color. Also, the brightsteel needs time to cool so that it will be soft and easy to shape.”
Reaching around behind her head, Rhunön undid the cord that held back her hair, then gathered up her hair again and retied the cord. “In the meantime, let us talk about your sword. How do you fight, with one hand or two?”
Eragon thought for a minute, then said, “It varies. If I have a choice, I prefer to wield a sword with one hand and carry a shield with my other. However, circumstances have not always been favorable to me, and I have often had to fight without a shield. Then I like being able to grip the hilt with both hands, so I can deliver a more powerful stroke. The pommel on Zar’roc was large enough to grasp with my left hand if I had to, but the ridges around the ruby were uncomfortable and they did not afford me a secure hold. It would be nice to have a slightly longer hilt.”
“I take it you do not want a true two-handed sword?” said Rhunön.
Eragon shook his head. “No, it would be too big for fighting indoors.”
“That depends upon the size of the hilt and the blade combined, but in general, you are correct. Would you be amenable to a hand-and-a-half sword instead?”
An image flashed in Eragon’s mind of Murtagh’s original sword, and he smiled. Why not? thought Eragon. “Yes, a hand-and-a-half sword would be perfect, I think.”
“And how long would you like the blade?”
“No longer than Zar’roc’s.”
“Mmh. Do you want a straight blade or a curved blade?”
“Have you any preferences as to the guard?”
Crossing her arms, Rhunön sat with her chin touching her breastbone, her eyes heavy-lidded. Her lips twitched. “What of the width of the blade? Remember, no matter how narrow it is, the sword shall not break.”
“Perhaps it could be a little wider at the guard than Zar’roc was.”
“I think it might look better.”
A harsh, cracked laugh broke from Rhunön’s throat. “But how would that improve the use of the sword?”
Embarrassed, Eragon shifted on the bench, at a loss for words.
“Never ask me to alter a weapon merely in order to improve its appearance,” admonished Rhunön. “A weapon is a tool, and if it is beautiful, then it is beautiful because it is useful. A sword that could not fulfill its function would be ugly to my eyes no matter how fair its shape, not even if it were adorned with the finest jewels and the most intricate engraving.” The elf woman pursed her lips, pushing them out as she thought. “So, a sword equally suited for the unrestrained bloodshed of a battlefield as it is for defending yourself in the narrow tunnels under Farthen Dûr. A sword for all occasions, of middling length, but for the hilt, which shall be longer than average.”
“A sword for killing Galbatorix,” said Eragon.
Rhunön nodded. “And as such, it must be well protected against magic….” Her chin sank to her chest again. “Armor has improved a great deal in the past century, so the tip will need to be narrower than I used to make them, the better to pierce plate and mail and to slip into the gaps between the various pieces. Mmh.” From a pouch by her side, Rhunön withdrew a knotted piece of twine, with which she took numerous measurements of Eragon’s hands and arms. Afterward, she retrieved a wrought-iron poker from the forge and tossed it toward Eragon. He caught it with one hand and raised an eyebrow at the elf woman. She motioned toward him with a finger and said, “Go on now. Up on your feet and let me see how you move with a sword.”
Walking out from under the roof of the open-walled forge, Eragon obliged her by demonstrating several of the forms Brom had taught him. After a minute, he heard the clink of metal on stone, then Rhunön coughed and said, “Oh, this is hopeless.” She stepped in front of Eragon, holding another poker. Her brow furrowed with a fierce scowl as she raised the poker before her in a salute and shouted, “Have at you, Shadeslayer!”
Rhunön’s heavy poker whistled through the air as she swung at him with a strong slashing blow. Dancing to the side, Eragon parried the attack. The poker jumped in his hand as the two rods of metal collided. For a brief while, he and Rhunön sparred. Although it was obvious she had not practiced her swordsmanship for some time, Eragon still found her a formidable opponent. At last they were forced to stop because the soft iron of the pokers had bent until the rods were as crooked as the branches of a yew tree.
Rhunön collected Eragon’s poker, then carried the two mangled pieces of metal over to a pile of broken tools. When she returned, the elf woman lifted her chin and said, “Now I know exactly what shape your sword should have.”
“But how will you make it?”
A twinkle of amusement appeared in Rhunön’s eyes. “I won’t. You shall make the sword instead of me, Shadeslayer.”
Eragon gaped at her for a moment, then sputtered and said, “Me? But I was never apprenticed to a blacksmith or a bladesmith. I have not the skill to forge even a common brush knife.”
The twinkle in Rhunön’s eyes brightened. “Nevertheless, you shall be the one to make this sword.”
“But how? Will you stand beside me and give me orders as I hammer the metal?”
“Hardly,” said Rhunön. “No, I shall guide your actions from within your mind so that your hands may do what mine cannot. It is not a perfect solution, but I can think of no other means of evading my oath that will also allow me to ply my craft.”
Eragon frowned. “If you move my hands for me, how is that any different from making the sword yourself?”
Rhunön’s expression darkened and, in a brusque voice, she said, “Do you want this sword or not, Shadeslayer?”
“Then refrain from pestering me with such questions. Making the sword through you is different because I think it is different. If I believed otherwise, then my oath would prevent me from participating in the process. So, unless you wish to return to the Varden empty-handed, you would be wise to remain silent on the subject.”
They went to the smelter then, and Rhunön had Saphira pry the still-warm mass of congealed brightsteel from the bottom of the brick trough. “Break it into fist-sized pieces,” Rhunön directed, and withdrew to a safe distance.
Lifting her front leg, Saphira stamped upon the rippled beam of brightsteel with all her strength. The earth shook, and the bright-steel cracked in several places. Three more times Saphira stamped upon the metal before Rhunön was satisfied with the results.
The elf woman gathered up the sharp lumps of metal in her apron and carried them to a low table next to her forge. There she sorted the metal according to its hardness, which, or so she told Eragon, she was able to determine by the color and texture of the fractured metal. “Some is too hard and some is too soft,” she said, “and while I could remedy that if I wanted to, it would require another heating. So we will only use the pieces that are already suitable for a sword. On the edges of the sword will go a slightly harder steel”—she touched a cluster of pieces that had a brilliant, sparkling grain—“the better to take a keen edge. The middle of the sword shall be made of a slightly softer steel”—she touched a cluster of pieces that were grayer and not so bright—“the better to bend and to absorb the shock of a blow. Before the metal can be forged into shape, though, it must be worked to rid it of the remaining impurities.”
How is that done? asked Saphira.
you shall see momentarily.” Rhunön went to one of the poles that supported the roof of the forge, sat with her back against it, crossed her legs, and closed her eyes, her face still and composed. “Are you ready, Shadeslayer?” she asked.
“I am,” said Eragon, despite the tension gathered in his belly.
The first thing Eragon noticed about Rhunön as their minds met was the low chords that echoed through the dark and tangled landscape of her thoughts. The music was slow and deliberate and cast in a strange and unsettling key that scraped on his nerves. What it implied about Rhunön’s character, Eragon was not sure, but the eerie melody caused him to reconsider the wisdom of allowing her to control his flesh. But then he thought of Saphira sitting next to the forge, watching over him, and his trepidation receded, and he lowered the last of the defenses around his consciousness.
It felt to Eragon like a piece of raw wool sliding over his skin as Rhunön enveloped his mind with hers, insinuating herself into the most private areas of his being. He shivered at the contact and almost withdrew from it, but then Rhunön’s rough voice sounded within his skull: Relax, Shadeslayer, and all shall be well.
Then Rhunön began to lift his arms, shift his legs, roll his head, and otherwise experiment with the abilities of his body. Strange as it was for Eragon to feel his head and limbs move without his direction, it was stranger still when his eyes began to flick from place to place, seemingly of their own accord. The sensation of helplessness kindled a burst of sudden panic within Eragon. When Rhunön walked him forward and his foot struck the corner of the forge and it seemed as if he were going to fall, Eragon immediately reasserted command over his faculties and grabbed the horn of Rhunön’s anvil to steady himself.
Do not interfere, snapped Rhunön. If your nerve fails you at the wrong moment during the forging, you could cause yourself irreparable harm.
So could you if you’re not careful, Eragon retorted.
Be patient, Shadeslayer. I shall have mastered this by the time it is dark.