At the main gates, the soldier pointed and said, “Now, you walk through those and don’t try anything. We’ll be watching. If you have to come back, wait until morning.”
“Of course,” promised Jeod.
Eragon could feel the guards’ eyes boring into their backs as they hurried out of the castle. The moment that the gates closed behind them, a triumphant grin stretched across his face, and he jumped into the air. Brom shot him a cautioning look and growled, “Walk back to the house normally. You can celebrate there.”
Chastised, Eragon adopted a staid demeanor, but inside he still bubbled with energy. Once they had hurried back to the house and into the study, Eragon exclaimed, “We did it!”
“Yes, but now we have to figure out if it was worth the trouble,” said Brom. Jeod took a map of Alagaësia from the shelves and unrolled it on the desk.
On the left side of the map, the ocean extended to the unknown west. Along the coast stretched the Spine, an immense length of mountains. The Hadarac Desert filled the center of the map—the east end was blank. Somewhere in that void hid the Varden. To the south was Surda, a small country that had seceded from the Empire after the Riders’ fall. Eragon had been told that Surda secretly supported the Varden.
Near Surda’s eastern border was a mountain range labeled Beor Mountains. Eragon had heard of them in many stories—they were supposed to be ten times the height of the Spine, though he privately believed that was exaggeration. The map was empty to the east of the Beors.
Five islands rested off the coast of Surda: Nía, Parlim, Uden, Illium, and Beirland. Nía was no more than an outcropping of rock, but Beirland, the largest, had a small town. Farther up, near Teirm, was a jagged island called Sharktooth. And high to the north was one more island, immense and shaped like a knobby hand. Eragon knew its name without even looking: Vroengard, the ancestral home of the Riders—once a place of glory, but now a looted, empty shell haunted by strange beasts. In the center of Vroengard was the abandoned city of Dorú Areaba.
Carvahall was a small dot at the top of Palancar Valley. Level with it, but across the plains, sprawled the forest Du Weldenvarden. Like the Beor Mountains, its eastern end was unmapped. Parts of Du Weldenvarden’s western edge had been settled, but its heart lay mysterious and unexplored. The forest was wilder than the Spine; the few who braved its depths often came back raving mad, or not at all.
Eragon shivered as he saw Urû’baen in the center of the Empire. King Galbatorix ruled from there with his black dragon, Shruikan, by his side. Eragon put his finger on Urû’baen. “The Ra’zac are sure to have a hiding place here.”
“You had better hope that that isn’t their only sanctuary,” said Brom flatly. “Otherwise you’ll never get near them.” He pushed the rustling map flat with his wrinkled hands.
Jeod took the parchment out of his pouch and said, “From what I saw in the records, there have been shipments of Seithr oil to every major city in the Empire over the past five years. As far as I can tell, all of them might have been ordered by wealthy jewelers. I’m not sure how we can narrow down the list without more information.”
Brom swept a hand over the map. “I think we can eliminate some cities. The Ra’zac have to travel wherever the king wants, and I’m sure he keeps them busy. If they’re expected to go anywhere at anytime, the only reasonable place for them to stay is at a crossroads where they can reach every part of the country fairly easily.” He was excited now and paced the room. “This crossroads has to be large enough so the Ra’zac will be inconspicuous. It also has to have enough trade so any unusual requests—special food for their mounts, for example—will go unnoticed.”
“That makes sense,” said Jeod, nodding. “Under those conditions, we can ignore most of the cities in the north. The only big ones are Teirm, Gil’ead, and Ceunon. I know they’re not in Teirm, and I doubt that the oil has been shipped farther up the coast to Narda—it’s too small. Ceunon is too isolated . . . only Gil’ead remains.”
“The Ra’zac might be there,” conceded Brom. “It would have a certain irony.”
“It would at that,” Jeod acknowledged softly.
“What about southern cities?” asked Eragon.
“Well,” said Jeod. “There’s obviously Urû’baen, but that’s an unlikely destination. If someone were to die from Seithr oil in Galbatorix’s court, it would be all too easy for an earl or some other lord to discover that the Empire had been buying large amounts of it. That still leaves many others, any one of which could be the one we want.”
“Yes,” said Eragon, “but the oil wasn’t sent to all of them. The parchment only lists Kuasta, Dras-Leona, Aroughs, and Belatona. Kuasta wouldn’t work for the Ra’zac; it’s on the coast and surrounded by mountains. Aroughs is isolated like Ceunon, though it is a center of trade. That leaves Belatona and Dras-Leona, which are rather close together. Of the two, I think Dras-Leona is the likelier. It’s larger and better situated.”
“And that’s where nearly all the goods of the Empire pass through at one time or another, including Teirm’s,” said Jeod. “It would be a good place for the Ra’zac to hide.”
“So . . . Dras-Leona,” said Brom as he sat down and lit his pipe. “What do the records show?”
Jeod looked at the parchment. “Here it is. At the beginning of the year, three shipments of Seithr oil were sent to Dras-Leona. Each shipment was only two weeks apart, and the records say they were all transported by the same merchant. The same thing happened last year and the year before that. I doubt any one jeweler, or even a group of them, has the money for so much oil.”
“What about Gil’ead?” asked Brom, raising an eyebrow.
“It doesn’t have the same access to the rest of the Empire. And,” Jeod tapped the parchment, “they’ve only received the oil twice in recent years.” He thought for a moment, then said, “Besides, I think we forgot something—Helgrind.”
Brom nodded. “Ah yes, the Dark Gates. It’s been many years since I’ve thought of it. You’re right, that would make Dras-Leona perfect for the Ra’zac. I guess it’s decided, then; that’s where we’ll go.”
Eragon sat abruptly, too drained of emotion to even ask what Helgrind was. I thought I would be happy to resume the hunt. Instead, I feel like an abyss has opened up before me. Dras-Leona! It’s so far away. . . .
The parchment crackled as Jeod slowly rolled up the map. He handed it to Brom and said, “You’ll need this, I’m afraid. Your expeditions often take you into obscure regions.” Nodding, Brom accepted the map. Jeod clapped him on the shoulder. “It doesn’t feel right that you will leave without me. My heart expects to go along, but the rest of me reminds me of my age and responsibilities.”
“I know,” said Brom. “But you have a life in Teirm. It is time for the next generation to take up the standard. You’ve done your part; be happy.”
“What of you?” asked Jeod. “Does the road ever end for you?”
A hollow laugh escaped Brom’s lips. “I see it coming, but not for a while.” He extinguished his pipe, and they left for their rooms, exhausted. Before he fell asleep, Eragon contacted Saphira to relate the night’s adventures.
A COSTLY MISTAKE
In the morning Eragon and Brom retrieved their saddlebags from the stable and prepared to depart. Jeod greeted Brom while Helen watched from the doorway. With grave looks, the two men clasped hands. “I’ll miss you, old man,” said Jeod.
“And you I,” said Brom thickly. He bowed his white head and then turned to Helen. “Thank you for your hospitality; it was most gracious.” Her face reddened. Eragon thought she was going to slap him. Brom continued, unperturbed, “You have a good husband; take care of him. There are few men as brave and as determined as he is. But even he cannot weather difficult times without support from those he loves.” He bowed again and said gently, “Only a suggestion, dear lady.”
Eragon watched as indignation and hurt crossed Helen’s face. Her eyes flashed as she shut the door brusquely. Sighing
, Jeod ran his fingers through his hair. Eragon thanked him for all his help, then mounted Cadoc. With the last farewells said, he and Brom departed.
At Teirm’s south gate, the guards let them through without a second glance. As they rode under the giant outer wall, Eragon saw movement in a shadow. Solembum was crouched on the ground, tail twitching. The werecat followed them with inscrutable eyes. As the city receded into the distance, Eragon asked, “What are werecats?”
Brom looked surprised at the question. “Why the sudden curiosity?”
“I heard someone mention them in Teirm. They’re not real, are they?” said Eragon, pretending ignorance.
“They are quite real. During the Riders’ years of glory, they were as renowned as the dragons. Kings and elves kept them as companions—yet the werecats were free to do what they chose. Very little has ever been known about them. I’m afraid that their race has become rather scarce recently.”
“Could they use magic?” asked Eragon.
“No one’s sure, but they could certainly do unusual things. They always seemed to know what was going on and somehow or another manage to get themselves involved.” Brom pulled his hood up to block a chill wind.
“What’s Helgrind?” asked Eragon, after a moment’s thought.
“You’ll see when we get to Dras-Leona.”
When Teirm was out of sight, Eragon reached out with his mind and called, Saphira! The force of his mental shout was so strong that Cadoc flicked his ears in annoyance.
Saphira answered and sped toward them with all of her strength. Eragon and Brom watched as a dark blur rushed from a cloud, then heard a dull roar as Saphira’s wings flared open. The sun shone behind the thin membranes, turning them translucent and silhouetting the dark veins. She landed with a blast of air.
Eragon tossed Cadoc’s reins to Brom. “I’ll join you for lunch.”
Brom nodded, but seemed preoccupied. “Have a good time,” he said, then looked at Saphira and smiled. “It’s good to see you again.”
And you too.
Eragon hopped onto Saphira’s shoulders and held on tightly as she bounded upward. With the wind at her tail, Saphira sliced through the air. Hold on, she warned Eragon, and letting out a wild bugle, she soared in a great loop. Eragon yelled with excitement as he flung his arms in the air, holding on only with his legs.
I didn’t know I could stay on while you did that without being strapped into the saddle, he said, grinning fiercely.
Neither did I, admitted Saphira, laughing in her peculiar way. Eragon hugged her tightly, and they flew a level path, masters of the sky.
By noon his legs were sore from riding bareback, and his hands and face were numb from the cold air. Saphira’s scales were always warm to the touch, but she could not keep him from getting chilled. When they landed for lunch, he buried his hands in his clothes and found a warm, sunny place to sit. As he and Brom ate, Eragon asked Saphira, Do you mind if I ride Cadoc? He had decided to question Brom further about his past.
No, but tell me what he says. Eragon was not surprised that Saphira knew his plans. It was nearly impossible to hide anything from her when they were mentally linked. When they finished eating, she flew away as he joined Brom on the trail. After a time, Eragon slowed Cadoc and said, “I need to talk to you. I wanted to do it when we first arrived in Teirm, but I decided to wait until now.”
“About what?” asked Brom.
Eragon paused. “There’s a lot going on that I don’t understand. For instance, who are your ‘friends,’ and why were you hiding in Carvahall? I trust you with my life—which is why I’m still traveling with you—but I need to know more about who you are and what you are doing. What did you steal in Gil’ead, and what is the tuatha du orothrim that you’re taking me through? I think that after all that’s happened, I deserve an explanation.”
“You eavesdropped on us.”
“Only once,” said Eragon.
“I see that you have yet to learn proper manners,” said Brom grimly, tugging on his beard. “What makes you think that this concerns you?”
“Nothing, really,” said Eragon shrugging. “Just it’s an odd coincidence that you happened to be hiding in Carvahall when I found Saphira’s egg and that you also know so much dragonlore. The more I think about it, the less likely it seems. There were other clues that I mostly ignored, but they’re obvious now that I look back. Like how you knew of the Ra’zac in the first place and why they ran away when you approached. And I can’t help but wonder if you had something to do with the appearance of Saphira’s egg. There’s a lot you haven’t told us, and Saphira and I can’t afford to ignore anything that might be dangerous.”
Dark lines appeared on Brom’s forehead as he reined Snowfire to a halt. “You won’t wait?” he asked. Eragon shook his head mulishly. Brom sighed. “This wouldn’t be a problem if you weren’t so suspicious, but I suppose that you wouldn’t be worth my time if you were otherwise.” Eragon was unsure if he should take that as a compliment. Brom lit his pipe and slowly blew a plume of smoke into the air. “I’ll tell you,” he said, “but you have to understand that I cannot reveal everything.” Eragon started to protest, but Brom cut him off. “It’s not out of a desire to withhold information, but because I won’t give away secrets that aren’t mine. There are other stories woven in with this narrative. You’ll have to talk with the others involved to find out the rest.”
“Very well. Explain what you can,” said Eragon.
“Are you sure?” asked Brom. “There are reasons for my secretiveness. I’ve tried to protect you by shielding you from forces that would tear you apart. Once you know of them and their purposes, you’ll never have the chance to live quietly. You will have to choose sides and make a stand. Do you really want to know?”
“I cannot live my life in ignorance,” said Eragon quietly.
“A worthy goal. . . . Very well: there is a war raging in Alagaësia between the Varden and the Empire. Their conflict, however, reaches far beyond any incidental armed clashes. They are locked in a titanic power struggle . . . centered around you.”
“Me?” said Eragon, disbelieving. “That’s impossible. I don’t have anything to do with either of them.”
“Not yet,” said Brom, “but your very existence is the focus of their battles. The Varden and the Empire aren’t fighting to control this land or its people. Their goal is to control the next generation of Riders, of whom you are the first. Whoever controls these Riders will become the undisputed master of Alagaësia.”
Eragon tried to absorb Brom’s statements. It seemed incomprehensible that so many people would be interested in him and Saphira. No one besides Brom had thought he was that important. The whole concept of the Empire and Varden fighting over him was too abstract for him to grasp fully. Objections quickly formed in his mind. “But all the Riders were killed except for the Forsworn, who joined Galbatorix. As far as I know, even those are now dead. And you told me in Carvahall that no one knows if there are still dragons in Alagaësia.”
“I lied about the dragons,” said Brom flatly. “Even though the Riders are gone, there are still three dragon eggs left—all of them in Galbatorix’s possession. Actually there are only two now, since Saphira hatched. The king salvaged the three during his last great battle with the Riders.”
“So there may soon be two new Riders, both of them loyal to the king?” asked Eragon with a sinking feeling.
“Exactly,” said Brom. “There is a deadly race in progress. Galbatorix is desperately trying to find the people for whom his eggs will hatch, while the Varden are employing every means to kill his candidates or steal the eggs.”
“But where did Saphira’s egg come from? How could anyone have gotten it away from the king? And why do you know all of this?” asked Eragon, bewildered.
“So many questions,” laughed Brom bitterly. “There is another chapter to all this, one that took place long before you were born. Back then I was a bit younger, though perhaps not as wise. I hated t
he Empire—for reasons I’ll keep to myself—and wanted to damage it in any way I could. My fervor led me to a scholar, Jeod, who claimed to have discovered a book that showed a secret passageway into Galbatorix’s castle. I eagerly brought Jeod to the Varden—who are my ‘friends’—and they arranged to have the eggs stolen.”
“However, something went amiss, and our thief got only one egg. For some reason he fled with it and didn’t return to the Varden. When he wasn’t found, Jeod and I were sent to bring him and the egg back.” Brom’s eyes grew distant, and he spoke in a curious voice. “That was the start of one of the greatest searches in history. We raced against the Ra’zac and Morzan, last of the Forsworn and the king’s finest servant.”
“Morzan!” interrupted Eragon. “But he was the one who betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix!” And that happened so long ago! Morzan must have been ancient. It disturbed him to be reminded of how long Riders lived.
“So?” asked Brom, raising an eyebrow. “Yes, he was old, but strong and cruel. He was one of the king’s first followers and by far his most loyal. As there had been blood between us before, the hunt for the egg turned into a personal battle. When it was located in Gil’ead, I rushed there and fought Morzan for possession. It was a terrible contest, but in the end I slew him. During the conflict I was separated from Jeod. There was no time to search for him, so I took the egg and bore it to the Varden, who asked me to train whomever became the new Rider. I agreed and decided to hide in Carvahall—which I had been to several times before—until the Varden contacted me. I was never summoned.”
“Then how did Saphira’s egg appear in the Spine? Was another one stolen from the king?” asked Eragon.
Brom grunted. “Small chance of that. He has the remaining two guarded so thoroughly that it would be suicide to try and steal them. No, Saphira was taken from the Varden, and I think I know how. To protect the egg, its guardian must have tried to send it to me with magic.
“The Varden haven’t contacted me to explain how they lost the egg, so I suspect that their runners were intercepted by the Empire and the Ra’zac were sent in their place. I’m sure they were quite eager to find me, as I’ve managed to foil many of their plans.”