Roran quickly moved in front of her, casting her in his shadow. “When was the last time you were outside?”
“I don’t know….” A hint of panic crept into her voice. “I don’t know! Not since they brought me here. Roran, am I going blind?” She sniffed and began to cry.
Her tears surprised Eragon. He remembered her as someone of great strength and fortitude. But then, she had spent many weeks locked in the dark, fearing for her life. I might not be myself either, if I were in her place.
“No, you’re fine. You just need to get used to the sun again.” Roran stroked her hair. “Come on, don’t let this upset you. Everything is going to be all right…. You’re safe now. Safe, Katrina. You hear me?”
“I hear you.”
Although he hated to ruin one of the tunics the elves had given him, Eragon tore off a strip of cloth from the bottom edge of his garment. He handed it to Katrina and said, “Tie this over your eyes. You should be able to see through it well enough to keep from falling or running into anything.”
She thanked him and then blindfolded herself.
Once again advancing, the trio emerged into the sunny, blood-splattered main cavern—which stank worse than before, owing to the noxious fumes that drifted from the body of the Lethrblaka—even as Saphira appeared from within the depths of the lancet opening opposite them. Seeing her, Katrina gasped and clung to Roran, digging her fingers into his arms.
Eragon said, “Katrina, allow me to introduce you to Saphira. I am her Rider. She can understand if you speak to her.”
“It is an honor, O dragon,” Katrina managed to say. She dipped her knees in a weak imitation of a curtsy.
Saphira inclined her head in return. Then she faced Eragon. I searched the Lethrblaka’s nest, but all I found was bones, bones, and more bones, including several that smelled of fresh meat. The Ra’zac must have eaten the slaves last night.
I wish we could have rescued them.
I know, but we cannot protect everyone in this war.
Gesturing at Saphira, Eragon said, “Go on; climb onto her. I’ll join you in a moment.”
Katrina hesitated, then glanced at Roran, who nodded and murmured, “It’s all right. Saphira brought us here.” Together, the couple skirted the corpse of the Lethrblaka as they went over to Saphira, who crouched flat upon her belly so that they could mount her. Cupping his hands to form a step, Roran lifted Katrina high enough to pull herself over the upper part of Saphira’s left foreleg. From there Katrina clambered the looped leg straps of the saddle, as if a ladder, until she sat perched upon the crest of Saphira’s shoulders. Like a mountain goat leaping from one ledge to another, Roran duplicated her ascent.
Crossing the cave after them, Eragon examined Saphira, assessing the severity of her various scrapes, gashes, tears, bruises, and stab wounds. To do so, he relied upon what she herself felt, in addition to what he could see.
For goodness sake, said Saphira, save your attentions until we are well out of danger. I’m not going to bleed to death.
That’s not quite true, and you know it. You’re bleeding inside. Unless I stop it now, you may suffer complications I can’t heal, and then we’ll never get back to the Varden. Don’t argue; you can’t change my mind, and I won’t take a minute.
As it turned out, Eragon required several minutes to restore Saphira to her former health. Her injuries were severe enough that in order to complete his spells, he had to empty the belt of Beloth the Wise of energy and, after that, draw upon Saphira’s own vast reserves of strength. Whenever he shifted from a larger wound to a smaller one, she protested that he was being foolish and would he please leave off, but he ignored her complaints, much to her growing displeasure.
Afterward, Eragon slumped, tired from the magic and the fighting. Flicking a finger toward the places where the Lethrblaka had skewered her with their beaks, he said, You should have Arya or another elf inspect my handiwork on those. I did my best, but I may have missed something.
I appreciate your concern for my welfare, she replied, but this is hardly the place for softhearted demonstrations. Once and for all, let us be gone!
Aye. Time to leave. Stepping back, Eragon edged away from Saphira, in the direction of the tunnel behind him.
“Come on!” called Roran. “Hurry up!”
Eragon! exclaimed Saphira.
Eragon shook his head. “No. I’m staying here.”
“You—” Roran started to say, but a ferocious growl from Saphira interrupted him. She lashed her tail against the side of the cave and raked the floor with her talons, so that bone and stone squealed in what sounded like mortal agony.
“Listen!” shouted Eragon. “One of the Ra’zac is still on the loose. And think what else might be in Helgrind: scrolls, potions, information about the Empire’s activities—things that can help us! The Ra’zac may even have eggs of theirs stored here. If they do, I have to destroy them before Galbatorix can claim them for his own.”
To Saphira, Eragon also said, I can’t kill Sloan, I can’t let Roran or Katrina see him, and I can’t allow him to starve to death in his cell or Galbatorix’s men to recapture him. I’m sorry, but I have to deal with Sloan on my own.
“How will you get out of the Empire?” demanded Roran.
“I’ll run. I’m as fast as an elf now, you know.”
The tip of Saphira’s tail twitched. That was the only warning Eragon had before she leaped toward him, extending one of her glittering paws. He fled, dashing into the tunnel a fraction of a second before Saphira’s foot passed through the space where he had been.
Saphira skidded to a stop in front of the tunnel and roared with frustration that she was unable to follow him into the narrow enclosure. Her bulk blocked most of the light. The stone shook around Eragon as she tore at the entrance with her claws and teeth, breaking off thick chunks. Her feral snarls and the sight of her lunging muzzle, filled with teeth as long as his forearm, sent a jolt of fear through Eragon. He understood then how a rabbit must feel when it cowers in its den while a wolf digs after it.
“Gánga!” he shouted.
No! Saphira placed her head on the ground and uttered a mournful keen, her eyes large and pitiful.
“Gánga! I love you, Saphira, but you have to go.”
She retreated several yards from the tunnel and snuffled at him, mewling like a cat. Little one …
Eragon hated to make her unhappy, and he hated to send her away; it felt as if he were tearing himself apart. Saphira’s misery flowed across their mental link and, coupled with his own anguish, almost paralyzed him. Somehow he mustered the nerve to say, “Gánga! And don’t come back for me or send anyone else for me. I’ll be fine. Gánga! Gánga!”
Saphira howled with frustration and then reluctantly walked to the mouth of the cave. From his place on her saddle, Roran said, “Eragon, come on! Don’t be daft. You’re too important to risk—”
A combination of noise and motion obscured the rest of his sentence as Saphira launched herself out of the cave. In the clear sky beyond, her scales sparkled like a multitude of brilliant blue diamonds. She was, Eragon thought, magnificent: proud, noble, and more beautiful than any other living creature. No stag or lion could compete with the majesty of a dragon in flight. She said, A week: that is how long I shall wait. Then I shall return for you, Eragon, even if I must fight my way past Thorn, Shruikan, and a thousand magicians.
Eragon stood there until she dwindled from sight and he could no longer touch her mind. Then, his heart heavy as lead, he squared his shoulders and turned away from the sun and all things bright and living and once more descended into the tunnels of shadow.
RIDER AND RA’ZAC
Eragon sat bathed in the heatless radiance from his crimson werelight in the hall lined with cells near the center of Helgrind. His staff lay across his lap.
The rock reflected his voice as he repeated a phrase in the ancient language over and over again. It was not magic, but rather a message to the remaining Ra’zac. Wh
at he said meant this: “Come, O thou eater of men’s flesh, let us end this fight of ours. You are hurt, and I am weary. Your companions are dead, and I am alone. We are a fit match. I promise that I shall not use gramarye against you, nor hurt or trap you with spells I have already cast. Come, O thou eater of men’s flesh, let us end this fight of ours….”
The time during which he spoke seemed endless: a neverwhen in a ghastly tinted chamber that remained unchanged through an eternity of cycling words whose order and significance ceased to matter to him. After a time, his clamoring thoughts fell silent, and a strange calm crept over him.
He paused with his mouth open, then closed it, watchful.
Thirty feet in front of him stood the Ra’zac. Blood dripped from the hem of the creature’s ragged robes. “My massster does not want me to kill you,” it hissed.
“But that does not matter to you now.”
“No. If I fall to your staff, let Galbatorix deal with you as he will. He has more heartsss than you do.”
Eragon laughed. “Hearts? I am the champion of the people, not him.”
“Foolish boy.” The Ra’zac cocked its head slightly, looking past him at the corpse of the other Ra’zac farther up the tunnel. “She was my hatchmate. You have become ssstrong since we firssst met, Shadeslayer.”
“It was that or die.”
“Will you make a pact with me, Shadeslayer?”
“What kind of a pact?”
“I am the lassst of my race, Shadeslayer. We are ancient, and I would not have us forgotten. Would you, in your songsss and in your hissstories, remind your fellow humans of the terror we inssspired in your kind?… Remember us as fear!”
“Why should I do that for you?”
Tucking its beak against its narrow chest, the Ra’zac clucked and chittered to itself for several moments. “Because,” it said, “I will tell you sssomething secret, yesss I will.”
“Then tell me.”
“Give me your word firssst, lest you trick me.”
“No. Tell me, and then I will decide whether or not to agree.”
Over a minute passed, and neither of them moved, although Eragon kept his muscles taut and ready in expectation of a surprise attack. After another squall of sharp clicks, the Ra’zac said, “He has almossst found the name.”
“The name of what?”
The Ra’zac hissed with frustration. “I cannot tell you! The name! The true name!”
“You have to give me more information than that.”
“Then we have no pact.”
“Curssse you, Rider! I curssse you! May you find no roossst nor den nor peace of mind in thisss land of yours. May you leave Alagaësia and never return!”
The nape of Eragon’s neck prickled with the cold touch of dread. In his mind, he again heard the words of Angela the herbalist when she had cast her dragon bones for him and told his fortune and predicted that selfsame fate.
A mare’s tail of blood separated Eragon from his enemy as the Ra’zac swept back its sodden cloak, revealing a bow that it held with an arrow already fit to the string. Lifting and drawing the weapon, the Ra’zac loosed the bolt in the direction of Eragon’s chest.
Eragon batted the shaft aside with his staff.
As if this attempt were nothing more than a preliminary gesture that custom dictated they observe before proceeding with their actual confrontation, the Ra’zac stooped, placed the bow on the floor, then straightened its cowl and slowly and deliberately pulled its leaf-bladed sword from underneath its robes. While it did, Eragon rose to his feet and took a shoulder-wide stance, his hands tight on the staff.
They lunged toward each other. The Ra’zac attempted to cleave Eragon from collarbone to hip, but Eragon twisted and stepped past the blow. Jamming the end of the staff upward, he drove its metal spike underneath the Ra’zac’s beak and through the plates that protected the creature’s throat.
The Ra’zac shuddered once and then collapsed.
Eragon stared at his most hated foe, stared at its lidless black eyes, and suddenly he went weak at the knees and retched against the wall of the corridor. Wiping his mouth, he yanked the staff free and whispered, “For our father. For our home. For Carvahall. For Brom…. I have had my fill of vengeance. May you rot here forever, Ra’zac.”
Going to the appropriate cell, Eragon retrieved Sloan—who was still deep in his enchanted sleep—slung the butcher over his shoulder, and then began to retrace his steps back to the main cave of Helgrind. Along the way, he often lowered Sloan to the floor and left him to explore a chamber or byway that he had not visited before. In them he discovered many evil instruments, including four metal flasks of Seithr oil, which he promptly destroyed so that no one else could use the flesh-eating acid to further their malicious plans.
Hot sunlight stung Eragon’s cheeks when he stumbled out of the network of tunnels. Holding his breath, he hurried past the dead Lethrblaka and went to the edge of the vast cave, where he gazed down the precipitous side of Helgrind at the hills far below. To the west, he saw a pillar of orange dust billowing above the lane that connected Helgrind to Dras-Leona, marking the approach of a group of horsemen.
His right side was burning from supporting Sloan’s weight, so Eragon shifted the butcher onto his other shoulder. He blinked away the beads of sweat that clung to his eyelashes as he struggled to solve the problem of how he was supposed to transport Sloan and himself five thousand-some feet to the ground.
“It’s almost a mile down,” he murmured. “If there were a path, I could easily walk that distance, even with Sloan. So I must have the strength to lower us with magic…. Yes, but what you can do over a length of time may be too taxing to accomplish all at once without killing yourself. As Oromis said, the body cannot convert its stockpile of fuel into energy fast enough to sustain most spells for more than a few seconds. I only have a certain amount of power available at any given moment, and once it’s gone, I have to wait until I recover…. And talking to myself isn’t getting me anywhere.”
Securing his hold on Sloan, Eragon fixed his eyes on a narrow ledge about a hundred feet below. This is going to hurt, he thought, preparing himself for the attempt. Then he barked, “Audr!”
Eragon felt himself rise several inches above the floor of the cave. “Fram,” he said, and the spell propelled him away from Helgrind and into open space, where he hung unsupported, like a cloud drifting in the sky. Accustomed as he was to flying with Saphira, the sight of nothing but thin air underneath his feet still caused him unease.
By manipulating the flow of magic, Eragon quickly descended from the Ra’zac’s lair—which the insubstantial wall of stone once again hid—to the ledge. His boot slipped on a loose piece of rock as he alighted. For a handful of breathless seconds, he flailed, searching for solid footing but unable to look down, as tilting his head could send him toppling forward. He yelped as his left leg went off the ledge and he began to fall. Before he could resort to magic to save himself, he came to an abrupt halt as his left foot wedged itself in a crevice. The edges of the rift dug into his calf behind his greave, but he did not mind, for it held him in place.
Eragon leaned his back against Helgrind, using it to help him prop up Sloan’s limp body. “That wasn’t too bad,” he observed. The effort had cost him, but not so much that he was unable to continue. “I can do this,” he said. He gulped fresh air into his lungs, waiting for his racing heart to slow; he felt as if he had sprinted a score of yards while carrying Sloan. “I can do this….”
The approaching riders caught his eye again. They were noticeably closer than before and galloping across the dry land at a pace that worried him. It’s a race between them and me, he realized. I have to escape before they reach Helgrind. There are sure to be magicians among them, and I’m in no fit condition to duel Galbatorix’s spellcasters. Glancing over at Sloan’s face, he said, “Perhaps you can help me a bit, eh? It??
?s the least you can do, considering I’m risking death and worse for you.” The sleeping butcher rolled his head, lost in the world of dreams.
With a grunt, Eragon pushed himself off Helgrind. Again he said, “Audr,” and again he became airborne. This time he relied upon Sloan’s strength—meager as it was—as well as his own. Together they sank like two strange birds along Helgrind’s rugged flank toward another ledge whose width promised safe haven.
In such a manner Eragon orchestrated their downward climb. He did not proceed in a straight line, but rather angled off to his right, so that they curved around Helgrind and the mass of blocky stone hid him and Sloan from the horsemen.
The closer they got to the ground, the slower they went. A crushing fatigue overcame Eragon, reducing the distance he was able to traverse in a single stretch and making it increasingly difficult for him to recuperate during the pauses between his bursts of exertion. Even lifting a finger became a task that he found irritating in the extreme, as well as one that was almost unbearably laborious. Drowsiness muffled him in its warm folds and dulled his thoughts and feelings until the hardest of rocks seemed as soft as pillows to his aching muscles.
When he finally dropped onto the sun-baked soil—too weak to keep Sloan and himself from ramming into the dirt—Eragon lay with his arms folded at odd angles underneath his chest and stared with half-lidded eyes into the yellow flecks of citrine embedded within the small rock an inch or two from his nose. Sloan weighed on his back like a pile of iron ingots. Air seeped from Eragon’s lungs, but none seemed to return. His vision darkened as if a cloud had covered the sun. A deadly lull separated each beat of his heart, and the throb, when it came, was no more than a faint flutter.
Eragon was no longer capable of coherent thought, but somewhere in the back of his brain he was aware that he was about to die. It did not frighten him; to the contrary, the prospect comforted him, for he was tired beyond belief, and death would free him from the battered shell of his flesh and allow him to rest for all of eternity.