He cautiously stepped into the hall. I have to find Zar’roc and the elf. She must be in one of these cells, but there isn’t time to look in them all. As for Zar’roc, the Shade might have it with him. He realized that his thinking was still muddled. Why am I out here? I could escape right now if I went back into the cell and opened the window with magic. But then I wouldn’t be able to rescue the elf. . . . Saphira, where are you? I need your help. He silently berated himself for not contacting her sooner. That should have been the first thing he did after getting his power back.
Her reply came with surprising alacrity. Eragon! I’m over Gil’ead. Don’t do anything. Murtagh is on the way.
What are— Footsteps interrupted him. He spun around, crouching as a squad of six soldiers marched into the hall. They halted abruptly, eyes flicking between Eragon and the open cell door. Blood drained from their faces. Good, they know who I am. Maybe I can scare them off so we won’t have to fight.
“Charge!” yelled one of the soldiers, running forward. The rest of the men drew their blades and pounded down the hall.
It was madness to fight six men when he was unarmed and weak, but the thought of the elf kept him in place. He could not force himself to abandon her. Uncertain if the effort would leave him standing, he pulled on his power and raised his hand, the gedwëy ignasia glowing. Fear showed in the soldiers’ eyes, but they were hardened warriors and did not slow. As Eragon opened his mouth to pronounce the fatal words, there was a low buzz, a flicker of motion. One of the men crashed to the floor with an arrow in his back. Two more were struck before anyone understood what was happening.
At the end of the hall, where the soldiers had entered, stood a ragged, bearded man with a bow. A crutch lay on the floor by his feet, apparently unneeded, for he stood tall and straight.
The three remaining soldiers turned to face this new threat. Eragon took advantage of the confusion. “Thrysta!” he shouted. One of the men clutched his chest and fell. Eragon staggered as the magic took its toll. Another soldier fell, pierced through the neck with an arrow. “Don’t kill him!” called Eragon, seeing his rescuer take aim at the last soldier. The bearded man lowered his bow.
Eragon concentrated on the soldier before him. The man was breathing hard; the whites of his eyes showed. He seemed to understand that his life was being spared.
“You’ve seen what I can do,” said Eragon harshly. “If you don’t answer my questions, the rest of your life will be spent in utter misery and torment. Now where’s my sword—its sheath and blade are red—and what cell is the elf in?”
The man clamped his mouth shut.
Eragon’s palm glowed ominously as he reached for the magic. “That was the wrong answer,” he snapped. “Do you know how much pain a grain of sand can cause you when it’s embedded red hot in your stomach? Especially when it doesn’t cool off for the next twenty years and slowly burns its way down to your toes! By the time it gets out of you, you’ll be an old man.” He paused for effect. “Unless you tell me what I want.”
The soldier’s eyes bulged, but he remained silent. Eragon scraped some dirt off the stone floor and observed dispassionately, “This is a bit more than a piece of sand, but be comforted; it’ll burn through you faster. Still, it’ll leave a bigger hole.” At his word, the dirt shone cherry red, though it did not burn his hand.
“All right, just don’t put that in me!” yelped the soldier. “The elf’s in the last cell to the left! I don’t know about your sword, but it’s probably in the guardroom upstairs. All the weapons are there.”
Eragon nodded, then murmured, “Slytha.” The soldier’s eyes rolled up in his head, and he collapsed limply.
“Did you kill him?”
Eragon looked at the stranger, who was now only a few paces away. He narrowed his eyes, trying to see past the beard. “Murtagh! Is that you?” he exclaimed.
“Yes,” said Murtagh, briefly lifting the beard from his shaven face. “I don’t want my face seen. Did you kill him?”
“No, he’s only asleep. How did you get in?”
“There’s no time to explain. We have to get up to the next floor before anyone finds us. There’ll be an escape route for us in a few minutes. We don’t want to miss it.”
“Didn’t you hear what I said?” asked Eragon, gesturing at the unconscious soldier. “There’s an elf in the prison. I saw her! We have to rescue her. I need your help.”
“An elf . . . !” Murtagh hurried down the hall, growling, “This is a mistake. We should flee while we have the chance.” He stopped before the cell the soldier had indicated and produced a ring of keys from under his ragged cloak. “I took it from one of the guards,” he explained.
Eragon motioned for the keys. Murtagh shrugged and handed them to him. Eragon found the right one and swung the door open. A single beam of moonlight slanted through the window, illuminating the elf’s face with cool silver.
She faced him, tense and coiled, ready for whatever would happen next. She held her head high, with a queen’s demeanor. Her eyes, dark green, almost black, and slightly angled like a cat’s, lifted to Eragon’s. Chills shot through him.
Their gaze held for a moment, then the elf trembled and collapsed soundlessly. Eragon barely caught her before she struck the floor. She was surprisingly light. The aroma of freshly crushed pine needles surrounded her.
Murtagh entered the cell. “She’s beautiful!”
“We can tend to her later. Are you strong enough to carry her?” Eragon shook his head. “Then I’ll do it,” said Murtagh as he slung the elf across his shoulders. “Now, upstairs!” He handed Eragon a dagger, then hurried back into the hall littered with soldiers’ bodies.
With heavy footsteps Murtagh led Eragon to a stone-hewn staircase at the end of the hall. As they climbed it, Eragon asked, “How are we going to get out without being noticed?”
“We’re not,” grunted Murtagh.
That did not allay Eragon’s fears. He listened anxiously for soldiers or anyone else who might be nearby, dreading what might happen if they met the Shade. At the head of the stairs was a banquet room filled with broad wooden tables. Shields lined the walls, and the wood ceiling was trussed with curved beams. Murtagh laid the elf on a table and looked at the ceiling worriedly. “Can you talk to Saphira for me?”
“Tell her to wait another five minutes.”
There were shouts in the distance. Soldiers marched past the entrance to the banquet room. Eragon’s mouth tightened with pent-up tension. “Whatever you’re planning to do, I don’t think we have much time.”
“Just tell her, and stay out of sight,” snapped Murtagh, running off.
As Eragon relayed the message, he was alarmed to hear men coming up the stairs. Fighting hunger and exhaustion, he dragged the elf off the table and hid her underneath it. He crouched next to her, holding his breath, tightly clenching the dagger.
Ten soldiers entered the room. They swept through it hurriedly, looking under only a couple of tables, and continued on their way. Eragon leaned against a table leg, sighing. The respite made him suddenly aware of his burning stomach and parched throat. A tankard and a plate of half-eaten food on the other side of the room caught his attention.
Eragon dashed from his hiding place, grabbed the food, then scurried back to the table. There was amber beer in the tankard, which he drank in two great gulps. Relief seeped through him as the cool liquid ran down his throat, soothing the irritated tissue. He suppressed a belch before ravenously tearing into a hunk of bread.
Murtagh returned carrying Zar’roc, a strange bow, and an elegant sword without a sheath. Murtagh gave Zar’roc to Eragon. “I found the other sword and bow in the guardroom. I’ve never seen weapons like them before, so I assumed they were the elf’s.”
“Let’s find out,” said Eragon through a mouthful of bread. The sword—slim and light with a curved crossguard, the ends of which narrowed into sharp points—fit the elf’s s
heath perfectly. There was no way to tell if the bow was hers, but it was shaped so gracefully he doubted it could be anyone else’s. “What now?” he asked, cramming another bite of food into his mouth. “We can’t stay here forever. Sooner or later the soldiers will find us.”
“Now,” said Murtagh, taking out his own bow and fitting an arrow to the string, “we wait. Like I said, our escape has been arranged.”
“You don’t understand; there’s a Shade here! If he finds us, we’re doomed.”
“A Shade!” exclaimed Murtagh. “In that case, tell Saphira to come immediately. We were going to wait until the watch changed, but delaying even that long is too dangerous now.” Eragon relayed the message succinctly, refraining from distracting Saphira with questions. “You messed up my plans by escaping yourself,” groused Murtagh, watching the room’s entrances for soldiers.
Eragon smiled. “In that case, perhaps I should have waited. Your timing was perfect, though. I wouldn’t have been able to even crawl if I had been forced to fight all those soldiers with magic.”
“Glad to be of some use,” remarked Murtagh. He stiffened as they heard men running nearby. “Let’s just hope the Shade doesn’t find us.”
A cold chuckle filled the banquet room. “I’m afraid it’s far too late for that.”
Murtagh and Eragon spun around. The Shade stood alone at the end of the room. In his hand was a pale sword with a thin scratch on the blade. He unclasped the brooch that held his cape in place and let the garment fall to the floor. His body was like a runner’s, thin and compact, but Eragon remembered Brom’s warning and knew that the Shade’s appearance was deceiving; he was many times stronger than a normal human.
“So, my young Rider, do you wish to test yourself against me?” sneered the Shade. “I shouldn’t have trusted the captain when he said you ate all your food. I will not make that mistake again.”
“I’ll take care of him,” said Murtagh quietly, putting down his bow and drawing his sword.
“No,” said Eragon under his breath. “He wants me alive, not you. I can stall him for a short while, but then you’d better have a way out for us.”
“Fine, go,” said Murtagh. “You won’t have to hold him off for long.”
“I hope not,” said Eragon grimly. He drew Zar’roc and slowly advanced. The red blade glinted with light from torches on the wall.
The Shade’s maroon eyes burned like coals. He laughed softly. “Do you really think to defeat me, Du Súndavar Freohr? What a pitiful name. I would have expected something more subtle from you, but I suppose that’s all you’re capable of.”
Eragon refused to let himself be goaded. He stared at the Shade’s face, waiting for a flicker of his eyes or twitch of his lip, anything that would betray his next move. I can’t use magic for fear of provoking him to do the same. He has to think that he can win without resorting to it—which he probably can.
Before either of them moved, the ceiling boomed and shook. Dust billowed from it and turned the air gray while pieces of wood fell around them, shattering on the floor. From the roof came screams and the sound of clashing metal. Afraid of being brained by the falling timber, Eragon flicked his eyes upward. The Shade took advantage of his distraction and attacked.
Eragon barely managed to get Zar’roc up in time to block a slash at his ribs. Their blades met with a clang that jarred his teeth and numbed his arm. Hellfire! He’s strong! He grasped Zar’roc with both hands and swung with all of his might at the Shade’s head. The Shade blocked him with ease, whipping his sword through the air faster than Eragon had thought possible.
Terrible screeches sounded above them, like iron spikes being drawn across rock. Three long cracks split the ceiling. Shingles from the slate roof fell through the fissures. Eragon ignored them, even when one smashed into the floor next to him. Though he had trained with a master of the blade, Brom, and with Murtagh, who was also a deadly swordsman, he had never been this outclassed. The Shade was playing with him.
Eragon retreated toward Murtagh, arms trembling as he parried the Shade’s blows. Each one seemed more powerful than the last. Eragon was no longer strong enough to call upon magic for help even if he had wanted to. Then, with a contemptuous flick of his wrist, the Shade knocked Zar’roc out of Eragon’s hand. The force of the blow sent him to his knees, where he stayed, panting. The screeching was louder than ever. Whatever was happening, it was getting closer.
The Shade stared down at him haughtily. “A powerful piece you may be in the game that is being played, but I’m disappointed that this is your best. If the other Riders were this weak, they must have controlled the Empire only through sheer numbers.”
Eragon looked up and shook his head. He had figured out Murtagh’s plan. Saphira, now would be a good time. “No, you forget something.”
“And what might that be?” asked the Shade mockingly.
There was a thunderous reverberation as a chunk of the ceiling was torn away to reveal the night sky. “The dragons!” roared Eragon over the noise, and threw himself out of the Shade’s reach. The Shade snarled in rage, swinging his sword viciously. He missed and lunged. Surprise spread across his face as one of Murtagh’s arrows sprouted from his shoulder.
The Shade laughed and snapped the arrow off with two fingers. “You’ll have to do better than that if you want to stop me.” The next arrow caught him between the eyes. The Shade howled with agony and writhed, covering his face. His skin turned gray. Mist formed in the air around him, obscuring his figure. There was a shattering cry; then the cloud vanished.
Where the Shade had been, nothing was left but his cape and a pile of clothes. “You killed him!” exclaimed Eragon. He knew of only two heroes of legend who had survived slaying a Shade.
“I’m not so sure,” said Murtagh.
A man shouted, “That’s it. He failed. Go in and get them!” Soldiers with nets and spears poured into the banquet room from both ends. Eragon and Murtagh backed up against the wall, dragging the elf with them. The men formed a menacing half-circle around them. Then Saphira stuck her head through the hole in the ceiling and roared. She gripped the edge of the opening with her powerful talons and ripped off another large section of the ceiling.
Three soldiers turned and ran, but the rest held their positions. With a resounding report, the center beam of the ceiling cracked and rained down heavy shingles. Confusion scattered the ranks as they tried to dodge the deadly barrage. Eragon and Murtagh pressed against the wall to avoid the falling debris. Saphira roared again, and the soldiers fled, some getting crushed on the way.
With a final titanic effort, Saphira tore off the rest of the ceiling before jumping into the banquet hall with her wings folded. Her weight splintered a table with a sharp crunch. Crying out with relief, Eragon threw his arms around her. She hummed contentedly. I’ve missed you, little one.
Same here. There’s someone else with us. Can you carry three?
Of course, she said, kicking shingles and tables out of the way so she could take off. Murtagh and Eragon pulled the elf out of hiding. Saphira hissed in surprise as she saw her. An elf!
Yes, and the woman I saw in my dreams, said Eragon, picking up Zar’roc. He helped Murtagh secure the elf into the saddle, then they both climbed onto Saphira. I heard fighting on the roof. Are there men up there?
There were, but no more. Are you ready?
Saphira leapt out of the banquet hall and onto the fortress’s roof, where the bodies of watchmen lay scattered. “Look!” said Murtagh, pointing. A row of archers filed out of a tower on the other side of the roofless hall.
“Saphira, you have to take off. Now!” warned Eragon.
She unfurled her wings, ran toward the edge of the building, and propelled them over it with her powerful legs. The extra weight on her back made her drop alarmingly. As she struggled to gain altitude, Eragon heard the musical twang of bowstrings being released.
Arrows whizzed toward them in the dark. Saphira roared with
pain as she was struck and quickly rolled to the left to avoid the next volley. More arrows perforated the sky, but the night protected them from the shafts’ deadly bite. Distressed, Eragon bent over Saphira’s neck. Where are you hurt?
My wings are pierced . . . one of the arrows didn’t go all the way through. It’s still there. Her breathing was labored and heavy.
How far can you take us?
Far enough. Eragon clutched the elf tightly as they skimmed over Gil’ead, then left the city behind and veered eastward, soaring upward through the night.
AND A HEALER
Saphira drifted down to a clearing, landed on the crest of a hill, and rested her outstretched wings on the ground. Eragon could feel her shaking beneath him. They were only a half-league from Gil’ead.
Picketed in the clearing were Snowfire and Tornac, who snorted nervously at Saphira’s arrival. Eragon slid to the ground and immediately turned to Saphira’s injuries, while Murtagh readied the horses.
Unable to see well in the darkness, Eragon ran his hands blindly over Saphira’s wings. He found three places where arrows had punctured the thin membrane, leaving bloody holes as thick around as his thumb. A small piece had also been torn out of the back edge of her left wing. She shivered when his fingers brushed the injuries. He tiredly healed the wounds with words from the ancient language. Then he went to the arrow that was embedded in one of the large muscles of her flying arm. The arrowhead poked through its underside. Warm blood dripped off it.
Eragon called Murtagh over and instructed, “Hold her wing down. I have to remove this arrow.” He indicated where Murtagh should grip. This will be painful, he warned Saphira, but it’ll be over quickly. Try not to struggle—you’ll hurt us.
She extended her neck and grabbed a tall sapling between her curved teeth. With a yank of her head, she pulled the tree out of the ground and clamped it firmly in her jaws. I’m ready.
Okay, said Eragon. “Hold on,” he whispered to Murtagh, then broke off the head of the arrow. Trying not cause any more damage, he swiftly pulled the shaft out of Saphira. As it left her muscle, she threw back her head and whimpered past the tree in her mouth. Her wing jerked involuntarily, clipping Murtagh under the chin and knocking him to the ground.