From above and behind his head, there came a bumblebee as big as his thumb. It circled his ear, then hovered by the rock, probing the nodes of citrine, which were the same bright yellow as the field-stars that bloomed among the hills. The bumblebee’s mane glowed in the morning light—each hair sharp and distinct to Eragon—and its blurred wings generated a gentle bombilation, like a tattoo played on a drum. Pollen powdered the bristles on its legs.
The bumblebee was so vibrant, so alive, and so beautiful, its presence renewed Eragon’s will to survive. A world that contained a creature as amazing as that bumblebee was a world he wanted to live in.
By sheer force of will, he pushed his left hand free of his chest and grasped the woody stem of a nearby shrub. Like a leech or a tick or some other parasite, he extracted the life from the plant, leaving it limp and brown. The subsequent rush of energy that coursed through Eragon sharpened his wits. Now he was scared; having regained his desire to continue existing, he found nothing but terror in the blackness beyond.
Dragging himself forward, he seized another shrub and transferred its vitality into his body, then a third shrub and a fourth shrub, and so on until he once again possessed the full measure of his strength. He stood and looked back at the trail of brown plants that stretched out behind him; a bitter taste filled his mouth as he saw what he had wrought.
Eragon knew that he had been careless with the magic and that his reckless behavior would have doomed the Varden to certain defeat if he had died. In hindsight, his stupidity made him wince. Brom would box my ears for getting into this mess, he thought.
Returning to Sloan, Eragon hoisted the gaunt butcher off the ground. Then he turned east and loped away from Helgrind and into the concealment of a draw. Ten minutes later, when he paused to check for pursuers, he saw a cloud of dirt swirling at the base of Helgrind, which he took to mean that the horsemen had arrived at the dark tower of stone.
He smiled. Galbatorix’s minions were too far away for any lesser magicians among their ranks to detect his or Sloan’s minds. By the time they discover the Ra’zac’s bodies, he thought, I shall have run a league or more. I doubt they will be able to find me then. Besides, they will be searching for a dragon and her Rider, not a man traveling on foot.
Satisfied that he did not have to worry about an imminent attack, Eragon resumed his previous pace: a steady, effortless stride that he could maintain for the entire day.
Above him, the sun gleamed gold and white. Before him, trackless wilderness extended for many leagues before lapping against the outbuildings of some village. And in his heart, a new joy and hope flared.
At last the Ra’zac were dead!
At last his quest for vengeance was complete. At last he had fulfilled his duty to Garrow and to Brom. And at last he had cast off the pall of fear and anger that he had labored beneath ever since the Ra’zac first appeared in Carvahall. Killing them had taken far longer than he expected, but now the deed was done, and a mighty deed it was. He allowed himself to revel in satisfaction over having accomplished such a difficult feat, albeit with assistance from Roran and Saphira.
Yet, to his surprise, his triumph was bittersweet, tainted by an unexpected sense of loss. His hunt for the Ra’zac had been one of his last ties to his life in Palancar Valley, and he was loath to relinquish that bond, gruesome as it was. Moreover, the task had given him a purpose in life when he had none; it was the reason why he had originally left his home. Without it, a hole gaped inside of him where he had nurtured his hate for the Ra’zac.
That he could mourn the end of such a terrible mission appalled Eragon, and he vowed to avoid making the same mistake twice. I refuse to become so attached to my struggle against the Empire and Murtagh and Galbatorix that I won’t want to move on to something else when, and if, the time comes—or, worse, that I’ll try to prolong the conflict rather than adapt to whatever happens next. He chose then to push away his misbegotten regret and to concentrate instead on his relief: relief that he was free of the grim demands of his self-imposed quest and that his only remaining obligations were those born of his current position.
Elation lightened his steps. With the Ra’zac gone, Eragon felt as if he could finally make a life for himself based not on who he had been but on who he had become: a Dragon Rider.
He smiled at the uneven horizon and laughed as he ran, indifferent as to whether anyone might hear him. His voice rolled up and down the draw, and around him, everything seemed new and beautiful and full of promise.
TO WALK THE LAND ALONE
Eragon’s stomach gurgled.
He was lying on his back, legs folded under at the knees—stretching his thighs after running farther and with more weight than he ever had before—when the loud, liquid rumble erupted from his innards.
The sound was so unexpected, Eragon bolted upright, groping for his staff.
Wind whistled across the empty land. The sun had set, and in its absence, everything was blue and purple. Nothing moved, save for the blades of grass that fluttered and Sloan, whose fingers slowly opened and closed in response to some vision in his enchanted slumber. A bone-biting cold heralded the arrival of true night.
Eragon relaxed and allowed himself a small smile.
His amusement soon vanished as he considered the source of his discomfort. Battling the Ra’zac, casting numerous spells, and bearing Sloan upon his shoulders for most of the day had left Eragon so ravenous, he imagined that if he could travel back in time, he could eat the entire feast the dwarves had cooked in his honor during his visit to Tarnag. The memory of how the roast Nagra, the giant boar, had smelled—hot, pungent, seasoned with honey and spices, and dripping with lard—was enough to make his mouth water.
The problem was, he had no supplies. Water was easy enough to come by; he could draw moisture from the soil whenever he wanted. Finding food in that desolate place, however, was not only far more difficult, it presented him with a moral dilemma that he had hoped to avoid.
Oromis had devoted many of his lessons to the various climates and geographic regions that existed throughout Alagaësia. Thus, when Eragon left their camp to investigate the surrounding area, he was able to identify most of the plants he encountered. Few were edible, and of those, none were large or bountiful enough for him to gather a meal for two grown men in a reasonable amount of time. The local animals were sure to have hidden away caches of seeds and fruit, but he had no idea where to begin searching for them. Nor did he think it was likely that a desert mouse would have amassed more than a few mouthfuls of food.
That left him with two options, neither of which appealed to him. He could—as he had before—drain the energy from the plants and insects around their camp. The price of doing so would be to leave a death-spot upon the earth, a blight where nothing, not even the tiny organisms in the soil, still lived. And while it might keep him and Sloan on their feet, transfusions of energy were far from satisfying, as they did nothing to fill one’s stomach.
Or he could hunt.
Eragon scowled and twisted the butt of his staff into the ground. After sharing the thoughts and desires of numerous animals, it revolted him to consider eating one. Nevertheless, he was not about to weaken himself and perhaps allow the Empire to capture him just because he went without supper in order to spare the life of a rabbit. As both Saphira and Roran had pointed out, every living thing survived by eating something else. Ours is a cruel world, he thought, and I cannot change how it is made…. The elves may be right to avoid flesh, but at the moment, my need is great. I refuse to feel guilty if circumstances drive me to this. It is not a crime to enjoy some bacon or a trout or what have you.
He continued to reassure himself with various arguments, yet disgust at the concept still squirmed within his gut. For almost half an hour, he remained rooted to the spot, unable to do what logic told him was necessary. Then he became aware of how late it was and swore at himself for wasting time; he needed every minute of rest he could get.
Eragon sent out tendrils from his mind and probed the land until he located two large lizards and, curled in a sandy den, a colony of rodents that reminded him of a cross between a rat, a rabbit, and a squirrel. “Deyja,” said Eragon, and killed the lizards and one of the rodents. They died instantly and without pain, but he still gritted his teeth as he extinguished the bright flames of their minds.
The lizards he retrieved by hand, flipping over the rocks they had been hiding underneath. The rodent, however, he extracted from the den with magic. He was careful to not wake the other animals as he maneuvered the body up to the surface; it seemed cruel to terrify them with the knowledge that an invisible predator could kill them in their most secret havens.
He gutted, skinned, and otherwise cleaned the lizards and rodent, burying the offal deep enough to hide it from scavengers. Gathering thin, flat stones, he built a small oven, lit a fire within, and started the meat cooking. Without salt, he could not properly season any sort of food, but some of the native plants released a pleasant smell when he crushed them between his fingers, and those he rubbed over and packed into the carcasses.
The rodent was ready first, being smaller than the lizards. Lifting it off the top of the makeshift oven, Eragon held the meat in front of his mouth. He grimaced and would have remained locked in the grip of his revulsion, except that he had to continue tending the fire and the lizards. Those two activities distracted him enough that, without thinking, he obeyed the strident command of his hunger and ate.
The initial bite was the worst; it stuck in his throat, and the taste of hot grease threatened to make him sick. Then he shivered and dry-swallowed twice, and the urge passed. After that, it was easier. He was actually grateful the meat was rather bland, for the lack of flavor helped him to forget what he was chewing.
He consumed the entire rodent and then part of a lizard. Tearing the last bit of flesh off a thin leg bone, he heaved a sigh of contentment and then hesitated, chagrined to realize that, in spite of himself, he had enjoyed the meal. He was so hungry, the meager supper had seemed delicious once he overcame his inhibitions. Perhaps, he mused, perhaps when I return … if I am at Nasuada’s table, or King Orrin’s, and meat is served … perhaps, if I feel like it and it would be rude to refuse, I might have a few bites…. I won’t eat the way I used to, but neither shall I be as strict as the elves. Moderation is a wiser policy than zealotry, I think.
By the light from the coals in the oven, Eragon studied Sloan’s hands; the butcher lay a yard or two away, where Eragon had placed him. Dozens of thin white scars crisscrossed his long, bony fingers, with their oversized knuckles and long fingernails that, while they had been meticulous in Carvahall, were now ragged, torn, and blackened with accumulated filth. The scars testified to the relatively few mistakes Sloan had made during the decades he had spent wielding knives. His skin was wrinkled and weathered and bulged with worm-like veins, yet the muscles underneath were hard and lean.
Eragon sat on his haunches and crossed his arms over his knees. “I can’t just let him go,” he murmured. If he did, Sloan might track down Roran and Katrina, a prospect that Eragon considered unacceptable. Besides, even though he was not going to kill Sloan, he believed the butcher should be punished for his crimes.
Eragon had not been close friends with Byrd, but he had known him to be a good man, honest and steadfast, and he remembered Byrd’s wife, Felda, and their children with some fondness, for Garrow, Roran, and Eragon had eaten and slept in their house on several occasions. Byrd’s death, then, struck Eragon as being particularly cruel, and he felt the watchman’s family deserved justice, even if they never learned about it.
What, however, would constitute proper punishment? I refused to become an executioner, thought Eragon, only to make myself an arbiter. What do I know about the law?
Rising to his feet, he walked over to Sloan and bent toward his ear and said, “Vakna.”
With a jolt, Sloan woke, scrabbling at the ground with his sinewy hands. The remnants of his eyelids quivered as, by instinct, the butcher tried to lift them and look at his surroundings. Instead, he remained trapped in his own personal night.
Eragon said, “Here, eat this.” He thrust the remaining half of his lizard toward Sloan, who, although he could not see it, surely must have smelled the food.
“Where am I?” asked Sloan. With trembling hands, he began to explore the rocks and plants in front of him. He touched his torn wrists and ankles and appeared confused to discover that his fetters were gone.
“The elves—and also the Riders in days gone by—called this place Mírnathor. The dwarves refer to it as Werghadn, and humans as the Gray Heath. If that does not answer your question, then perhaps it will if I say we are a number of leagues southeast of Helgrind, where you were imprisoned.”
Sloan mouthed the word Helgrind. “You rescued me?”
“Leave your questions. Eat this first.”
His harsh tone acted like a whip on the butcher; Sloan cringed and reached with fumbling fingers for the lizard. Releasing it, Eragon retreated to his place next to the rock oven and scooped handfuls of dirt onto the coals, blotting out the glow so that it would not betray their presence in the unlikely event that anyone else was in the vicinity.
After an initial, tentative lick to determine what it was Eragon had given him, Sloan dug his teeth into the lizard and ripped a thick gobbet from the carcass. With each bite, he crammed as much flesh into his mouth as he could and only chewed once or twice before swallowing and repeating the process. He stripped each bone clean with the efficiency of a man who possessed an intimate understanding of how animals were constructed and what was the quickest way to disassemble them. The bones he dropped into a neat pile on his left. As the final morsel of meat from the lizard’s tail vanished down Sloan’s gullet, Eragon handed him the other reptile, which was yet whole. Sloan grunted in thanks and continued to gorge himself, making no attempt to wipe the fat from his mouth and chin.
The second lizard proved to be too large for Sloan to finish. He stopped two ribs above the bottom of the chest cavity and placed what was left of the carcass on the cairn of bones. Then he straightened his back, drew his hand across his lips, tucked his long hair behind his ears, and said, “Thank you, strange sir, for your hospitality. It has been so long since I had a proper meal, I think I prize your food even above my own freedom…. If I may ask, do you know of my daughter, Katrina, and what has happened to her? She was imprisoned with me in Helgrind.” His voice contained a complex mixture of emotions: respect, fear, and submission in the presence of an unknown authority; hope and trepidation as to his daughter’s fate; and determination as unyielding as the mountains of the Spine. The one element Eragon expected to hear but did not was the sneering disdain Sloan had used with him during their encounters in Carvahall.
“She is with Roran.”
Sloan gaped. “Roran! How did he get here? Did the Ra’zac capture him as well? Or did—”
“The Ra’zac and their steeds are dead.”
“You killed them? How?… Who—” For an instant, Sloan froze, as if he were stuttering with his entire body, and then his cheeks and mouth went slack and his shoulders caved in and he clutched at a bush to steady himself. He shook his head. “No, no, no…. No…. It can’t be. The Ra’zac spoke of this; they demanded answers I didn’t have, but I thought… That is, who would believe …?” His sides heaved with such violence, Eragon wondered if he would hurt himself. In a gasping whisper, as if he were forced to speak after being punched in the middle, Sloan said, “You can’t be Eragon.”
A sense of doom and destiny descended upon Eragon. He felt as if he were the instrument of those two merciless overlords, and he replied in accordance, slowing his speech so each word struck like a hammer blow and carried all the weight of his dignity, station, and anger. “I am Eragon and far more. I am Argetlam and Shadeslayer and Firesword. My dragon is Saphira, she who is also known a
s Bjartskular and Flametongue. We were taught by Brom, who was a Rider before us, and by the dwarves and by the elves. We have fought the Urgals and a Shade and Murtagh, who is Morzan’s son. We serve the Varden and the peoples of Alagaësia. And I have brought you here, Sloan Aldensson, to pass judgment upon you for murdering Byrd and for betraying Carvahall to the Empire.”
“You lie! You cannot be—”
“Lie?” roared Eragon. “I do not lie!” Thrusting out with his mind, he engulfed Sloan’s consciousness in his own and forced the butcher to accept memories that confirmed the truth of his statements. He also wanted Sloan to feel the power that was now his and to realize that he was no longer entirely human. And while Eragon was reluctant to admit it, he enjoyed having control over a man who had often made trouble for him and also tormented him with gibes, insulting both him and his family. He withdrew a half minute later.
Sloan continued to quiver, but he did not collapse and grovel as Eragon thought he might. Instead, the butcher’s demeanor became cold and flinty. “Blast you,” he said. “I don’t have to explain myself to you, Eragon Son of None. Understand this, though: I did what I did for Katrina’s sake and nothing else.”
“I know. That’s the only reason you’re still alive.”
“Do what you want with me, then. I don’t care, so long as she’s safe…. Well, go on! What’s it to be? A beating? A branding? They already had my eyes, so one of my hands? Or will you leave me to starve or to be recaptured by the Empire?”
“I have not decided yet.”
Sloan nodded with a sharp motion and pulled his tattered clothes tight around his limbs to ward off the night cold. He sat with military precision, gazing with blank, empty eye sockets into the shadows that ringed their camp. He did not beg. He did not ask for mercy. He did not deny his acts or attempt to placate Eragon. He but sat and waited, armored by his perfect stoic fortitude.
His bravery impressed Eragon.