Eragon rocked back on his heels. Making rain was well beyond his power. He suspected that not even the strongest Rider could have done it. Moving that much air was like trying to lift a mountain. He needed a solution that would not drain all of his strength. I wonder if it’s possible to convert sand into water? That would solve our problem, but only if it doesn’t take too much energy.
“I have an idea,” he said. “Let me experiment, then I’ll give you an answer.” Eragon strode out of the camp, with Saphira following closely.
What are you going to try? she asked.
“I don’t know,” he muttered. Saphira, could you carry enough water for us?
She shook her enormous head. No, I wouldn’t even be able to lift that much weight, let alone fly with it.
Too bad. He knelt and picked up a stone with a cavity large enough for a mouthful of water. He pressed a clump of dirt into the hollow and studied it thoughtfully. Now came the hard part. Somehow he had to convert the dirt into water. But what words should I use? He puzzled over it for a moment, then picked two he hoped would work. The icy magic rushed through him as he breached the familiar barrier in his mind and commanded, “Deloi moi!”
Immediately the dirt began to absorb his strength at a prodigious rate. Eragon’s mind flashed back to Brom’s warning that certain tasks could consume all of his power and take his life. Panic blossomed in his chest. He tried to release the magic but could not. It was linked to him until the task was complete or he was dead. All he could do was remain motionless, growing weaker every moment.
Just as he became convinced that he would die kneeling there, the dirt shimmered and morphed into a thimbleful of water. Relieved, Eragon sat back, breathing hard. His heart pounded painfully and hunger gnawed at his innards.
What happened? asked Saphira.
Eragon shook his head, still in shock from the drain on his body’s reserves. He was glad that he had not tried to transmute anything larger. This . . . this won’t work, he said. I don’t even have the strength to give myself a drink.
You should have been more careful, she chided. Magic can yield unexpected results when the ancient words are combined in new ways.
He glared at her. I know that, but this was the only way I could test my idea. I wasn’t going to wait until we were in the desert! He reminded himself that she was only trying to help. How did you turn Brom’s grave into diamond without killing yourself? I can barely handle a bit of dirt, much less all that sandstone.
I don’t know how I did it, she stated calmly. It just happened.
Could you do it again, but this time make water?
Eragon, she said, looking him squarely in the face. I’ve no more control over my abilities than a spider does. Things like that occur whether I will them or not. Brom told you that unusual events happen around dragons. He spoke truly. He gave no explanation for it, nor do I have one. Sometimes I can work changes just by feel, almost without thought. The rest of the time—like right now—I’m as powerless as Snowfire.
You’re never powerless, he said softly, putting a hand on her neck. For a long period they were both quiet. Eragon remembered the grave he had made and how Brom lay within it. He could still see the sandstone flowing over the old man’s face. “At least we gave him a decent burial,” he whispered.
He idly swirled a finger in the dirt, making twisting ridges. Two of the ridges formed a miniature valley, so he added mountains around it. With his fingernail he scratched a river down the valley, then deepened it because it seemed too shallow. He added a few more details until he found himself staring at a passable reproduction of Palancar Valley. Homesickness welled up within him, and he obliterated the valley with a swipe of his hand.
I don’t want to talk about it, he muttered angrily, staving off Saphira’s questions. He crossed his arms and glared at the ground. Almost against his will, his eyes flicked back to where he had gouged the earth. He straightened, surprised. Though the ground was dry, the furrow he had made was lined with moisture. Curious, he scraped away more dirt and found a damp layer a few inches under the surface. “Look at this!” he said excitedly.
Saphira lowered her nose to his discovery. How does this help us? Water in the desert is sure to be buried so deeply we would have to dig for weeks to find it.
Yes, said Eragon delightedly, but as long as it’s there, I can get it. Watch! He deepened the hole, then mentally accessed the magic. Instead of changing the dirt into water, he simply summoned forth the moisture that was already in the earth. With a faint trickle, water rushed into the hole. He smiled and sipped from it. The liquid was cool and pure, perfect for drinking. See! We can get all we need.
Saphira sniffed the pool. Here, yes. But in the desert? There may not be enough water in the ground for you to bring to the surface.
It will work, Eragon assured her. All I’m doing is lifting the water, an easy enough task. As long as it’s done slowly, my strength will hold. Even if I have to draw the water from fifty paces down, it won’t be a problem. Especially if you help me.
Saphira looked at him dubiously. Are you sure? Think carefully upon your answer, for it will mean our lives if you are wrong.
Eragon hesitated, then said firmly, I’m sure.
Then go tell Murtagh. I will keep watch while you sleep.
But you’ve stayed up all night like us, he objected. You should rest.
I’ll be fine—I’m stronger than you know, she said gently. Her scales rustled as she curled up with a watchful eye turned northward, toward their pursuers. Eragon hugged her, and she hummed deeply, sides vibrating. Go.
He lingered, then reluctantly returned to Murtagh, who asked, “Well? Is the desert open to us?”
“It is,” acknowledged Eragon. He flopped onto his blankets and explained what he had learned. When he finished, Eragon turned to the elf. Her face was the last thing he saw before falling asleep.
THE RAMR RIVER
They forced themselves to rise early in the gray predawn hours. Eragon shivered in the cool air. “How are we going to transport the elf? She can’t ride on Saphira’s back much longer without getting sores from her scales. Saphira can’t carry her in her claws—it tires her and makes landing dangerous. A sledge won’t work; it would get battered to pieces while we ride, and I don’t want the horses slowed by the weight of another person.”
Murtagh considered the matter as he saddled Tornac. “If you were to ride Saphira, we could lash the elf onto Snowfire, but we’d have the same problem with sores.”
I have a solution, said Saphira unexpectedly. Why don’t you tie the elf to my belly? I’ll still be able to move freely, and she will be safer than anywhere else. The only danger will be if soldiers shoot arrows at me, but I can easily fly above those.
None of them could come up with a better idea, so they quickly adopted hers. Eragon folded one of his blankets in half lengthwise, secured it around the elf’s petite form, then took her to Saphira. Blankets and spare clothes were sacrificed to form ropes long enough to encircle Saphira’s girth. With those ropes, the elf was tied back-first against Saphira’s belly, her head between Saphira’s front legs. Eragon looked critically at their handiwork. “I’m afraid your scales may rub through the ropes.”
“We’ll have to check them occasionally for fraying,” commented Murtagh.
Shall we go now? Saphira asked, and Eragon repeated the question.
Murtagh’s eyes sparked dangerously, a tight smile lifting his lips. He glanced back the way they had come, where smoke from soldiers’ camps was clearly visible, and said, “I always did like races.”
“And now we are in one for our lives!”
Murtagh swung into Tornac’s saddle and trotted out of the camp. Eragon followed close behind on Snowfire. Saphira jumped into the air with the elf. She flew low to the ground to avoid being seen by the soldiers. In this fashion, the three of them made their way southeast toward the distant Hadarac Desert.
Eragon kept a quick eye out for pursuers as h
e rode. His mind repeatedly wandered back to the elf. An elf! He had actually seen one, and she was with them! He wondered what Roran would think of that. It struck him that if he ever returned to Carvahall, he would have a hard time convincing anyone that his adventures had actually occurred.
For the rest of the day, Eragon and Murtagh sped through the land, ignoring discomfort and fatigue. They drove the horses as hard as they could without killing them. Sometimes they dismounted and ran on foot to give Tornac and Snowfire a rest. Only twice did they stop—both times to let the horses eat and drink.
Though the soldiers of Gil’ead were far behind now, Eragon and Murtagh found themselves having to avoid new soldiers every time they passed a town or village. Somehow the alarm had been sent ahead of them. Twice they were nearly ambushed along the trail, escaping only because Saphira happened to smell the men ahead of them. After the second incident, they avoided the trail entirely.
Dusk softened the countryside as evening drew a black cloak across the sky. Through the night they traveled, relentlessly pacing out the miles. In the deepest hours of night, the ground rose beneath them to form low cactus-dotted hills.
Murtagh pointed forward. “There’s a town, Bullridge, some leagues ahead that we must bypass. They’re sure to have soldiers watching for us. We should try to slip past them now while it’s dark.”
After three hours they saw the straw-yellow lanterns of Bullridge. A web of soldiers patrolled between watch fires scattered around the town. Eragon and Murtagh muffled their sword sheaths and carefully dismounted. They led the horses in a wide detour around Bullridge, listening attentively to avoid stumbling on an encampment.
With the town behind them, Eragon relaxed slightly. Daybreak finally flooded the sky with a delicate blush and warmed the chilly night air. They halted on the crest of a hill to observe their surroundings. The Ramr River was to their left, but it was also five miles to their right. The river continued south for several leagues, then doubled back on itself in a narrow loop before curving west. They had covered over sixteen leagues in one day.
Eragon leaned against Snowfire’s neck, happy with the distance they had gone. “Let’s find a gully or hollow where we can sleep undisturbed.” They stopped at a small stand of juniper trees and laid their blankets beneath them. Saphira waited patiently as they untied the elf from her belly.
“I’ll take the first watch and wake you at midmorning,” said Murtagh, setting his bare sword across his knees. Eragon mumbled his assent and pulled the blankets over his shoulders.
Nightfall found them worn and drowsy but determined to continue. As they prepared to leave, Saphira observed to Eragon, This is the third night since we rescued you from Gil’ead, and the elf still hasn’t woken. I’m worried. And, she continued, she has neither drunk nor eaten in that time. I know little of elves, but she is slender, and I doubt she can survive much longer without nourishment.
“What’s wrong?” asked Murtagh over Tornac’s back.
“The elf,” said Eragon, looking down at her. “Saphira is troubled that she hasn’t woken or eaten; it disturbs me too. I healed her wounds, at least on the surface, but it doesn’t seem to have done her any good.”
“Maybe the Shade tampered with her mind,” suggested Murtagh.
“Then we have to help her.”
Murtagh knelt by the elf. He examined her intently, then shook his head and stood. “As far as I can tell, she’s only sleeping. It seems as if I could wake her with a word or a touch, yet she slumbers on. Her coma might be something elves self-induce to escape the pain of injury, but if so, why doesn’t she end it? There’s no danger to her now.”
“But does she know that?” asked Eragon quietly.
Murtagh put a hand on his shoulder. “This must wait. We have to leave now or risk losing our hard-won lead. You can tend to her later when we stop.”
“One thing first,” said Eragon. He soaked a rag, then squeezed the cloth so water dripped between the elf’s sculpted lips. He did that several times and dabbed above her straight, angled eyebrows, feeling oddly protective.
They headed through the hills, avoiding the tops for fear of being spotted by sentries. Saphira stayed with them on the ground for the same reason. Despite her bulk, she was stealthy; only her tail could be heard scraping over the ground, like a thick blue snake.
Eventually the sky brightened in the east. The morning star Aiedail appeared as they reached the edge of a steep bank covered with mounds of brush. Water roared below as it tore over boulders and sluiced through branches.
“The Ramr!” said Eragon over the noise.
Murtagh nodded. “Yes! We have to find a place to ford safely.”
That isn’t necessary, said Saphira. I can carry you across, no matter how wide the river is.
Eragon looked up at her blue-gray form. What about the horses? We can’t leave them behind. They’re too heavy for you to lift.
As long as you’re not on them and they don’t struggle too much, I’m sure that I can carry them. If I can dodge arrows with three people on my back, I can certainly fly a horse in a straight line over a river.
I believe you, but let’s not attempt it unless we have to. It’s too dangerous.
She clambered down the embankment. We can’t afford to squander time here.
Eragon followed her, leading Snowfire. The bank came to an abrupt end at the Ramr, where the river ran dark and swift. White mist wafted up from the water, like blood steaming in winter. It was impossible to see the far side. Murtagh tossed a branch into the torrent and watched it race away, bobbing on the rough water.
“How deep do you think it is?” asked Eragon.
“I can’t tell,” said Murtagh, worry coloring his voice. “Can you see how far across it is with magic?”
“I don’t think so, not without lighting up this place like a beacon.”
With a gust of air, Saphira took off and soared over the Ramr. After a short time, she said, I’m on the other bank. The river is over a half-mile wide. You couldn’t have chosen a worse place to cross; the Ramr bends at this point and is at its widest.
“A half-mile!” exclaimed Eragon. He told Murtagh about Saphira’s offer to fly them.
“I’d rather not try it, for the horses’ sake. Tornac isn’t as accustomed to Saphira as Snowfire. He might panic and injure them both. Ask Saphira to look for shallows where we can swim over safely. If there aren’t any within a mile in either direction, then I suppose she can ferry us.”
At Eragon’s request, Saphira agreed to search for a ford. While she explored, they hunkered next to the horses and ate dry bread. It was not long before Saphira returned, her velvet wings whispering in the early dawn sky. The water is both deep and strong, upstream as well as downstream.
Once he was told, Murtagh said, “I’d better go over first, so I can watch the horses.” He scrambled onto Saphira’s saddle. “Be careful with Tornac. I’ve had him for many years. I don’t want anything to happen to him.” Then Saphira took off.
When she returned, the unconscious elf had been untied from her belly. Eragon led Tornac to Saphira, ignoring the horse’s low whinnies. Saphira reared back on her haunches to grasp the horse around the belly with her forelegs. Eragon eyed her formidable claws and said, “Wait!” He repositioned Tornac’s saddle blanket, strapping it to the horse’s belly so it protected his soft underside, then gestured for Saphira to proceed.
Tornac snorted in fright and tried to bolt when Saphira’s forelegs clamped around his sides, but she held him tightly. The horse rolled his eyes wildly, the whites rimming his dilated pupils. Eragon tried to gentle Tornac with his mind, but the horse’s panic resisted his touch. Before Tornac could try to escape again, Saphira jumped skyward, her hind legs thrusting with such force that her claws gouged the rocks underneath. Her wings strained furiously, struggling to lift the enormous load. For a moment it seemed she would fall back to the ground. Then, with a lunge, she shot into the air. Tornac screamed in terror, kicking and tos
sing. It was a terrible sound, like screeching metal.
Eragon swore, wondering if anyone was close enough to hear. You’d better hurry, Saphira. He listened for soldiers as he waited, scanning the inky landscape for the telltale flash of torches. It soon met his eye in a line of horsemen sliding down a bluff almost a league away.
As Saphira landed, Eragon brought Snowfire to her. Murtagh’s silly animal is in hysterics. He had to tie Tornac down to prevent him from running away. She gripped Snowfire and carried him off, ignoring the horse’s trumpeted protestations. Eragon watched her go, feeling lonely in the night. The horsemen were only a mile away.
Finally Saphira came for him, and they were soon on firm ground once more, with the Ramr to their backs. Once the horses were calmed and the saddles readjusted, they resumed their flight toward the Beor Mountains. The air filled with the calls of birds waking to a new day.
Eragon dozed even when walking. He was barely aware that Murtagh was just as drowsy. There were times when neither of them guided the horses, and it was only Saphira’s vigilance that kept them on course.
Eventually the ground became soft and gave way under their feet, forcing them to halt. The sun was high overhead. The Ramr River was no more than a fuzzy line behind them.
They had reached the Hadarac Desert.
THE HADARAC DESERT
A vast expanse of dunes spread to the horizon like ripples on an ocean. Bursts of wind twirled the reddish gold sand into the air. Scraggly trees grew on scattered patches of solid ground—ground any farmer would have declared unfit for crops. Rising in the distance was a line of purple crags. The imposing desolation was barren of any animals except for a bird gliding on the zephyrs.