Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle 1) - Page 33


“You’re sure we’ll find food for the horses out there?” queried Eragon, slurring his words. The hot, dry air stung his throat.

“See those?” asked Murtagh, indicating the crags. “Grass grows around them. It’s short and tough, but the horses will find it sufficient.”

“I hope you’re right,” said Eragon, squinting at the sun. “Before we continue, let’s rest. My mind is slow as a snail, and I can barely move my legs.”

They untied the elf from Saphira, ate, then lay in the shadow of a dune for a nap. As Eragon settled into the sand, Saphira coiled up next to him and spread her wings over them. This is a wondrous place, she said. I could spend years here and not notice the passing time.

Eragon closed his eyes. It would be a nice place to fly, he agreed drowsily.

Not only that, I feel as though I was made for this desert. It has the space I need, mountains where I could roost, and camouflaged prey that I could spend days hunting. And the warmth! Cold does not disturb me, but this heat makes me feel alive and full of energy. She craned her head toward the sky, stretching happily.

You like it that much? mumbled Eragon.

Yes.

Then when this is all done, perhaps we can return. . . . He drifted into slumber even as he spoke. Saphira was pleased and hummed gently while he and Murtagh rested.

It was the morning of the fourth day since leaving Gil’ead. They had already covered thirty-five leagues.

They slept just long enough to clear their minds and rest the horses. No soldiers could be seen to the rear, but that did not lull them into slowing their pace. They knew that the Empire would keep searching until they were far beyond the king’s reach. Eragon said, “Couriers must have carried news of my escape to Galbatorix. He would have alerted the Ra’zac. They’re sure to be on our trail by now. It’ll take them a while to catch us even by flying, but we should be ready for them at all times.”

And this time they will find I am not so easily bound with chains, said Saphira.

Murtagh scratched his chin. “I hope they won’t be able to follow us past Bullridge. The Ramr was an effective way to lose pursuers; there’s a good chance our tracks won’t be found again.”

“Something to hope for indeed,” said Eragon as he checked the elf. Her condition was unchanged; she still did not react to his ministrations. “I place no faith in luck right now, though. The Ra’zac could be on our trail even as we speak.”

At sunset they arrived at the crags they had viewed from afar that morning. The imposing stone bluffs towered over them, casting thin shadows. The surrounding area was free of dunes for a half mile. Heat assailed Eragon like a physical blow as he dismounted Snowfire onto the baked, cracked ground. The back of his neck and his face were sunburned; his skin was hot and feverish.

After picketing the horses where they could nibble the sparse grass, Murtagh started a small fire. “How far do you think we went?” Eragon asked, releasing the elf from Saphira.

“I don’t know!” snapped Murtagh. His skin was red, his eyes bloodshot. He picked up a pot and muttered a curse. “We don’t have enough water. And the horses have to drink.”

Eragon was just as irritated by the heat and dryness, but he held his temper in check. “Bring the horses.” Saphira dug a hole for him with her claws, then he closed his eyes, releasing the spell. Though the ground was parched, there was enough moisture for the plants to live on and enough for him to fill the hole several times over.

Murtagh refilled the waterskins as water pooled in the hole, then stood aside and let the horses drink. The thirsty animals quaffed gallons. Eragon was forced to draw the liquid from ever deeper in the earth to satisfy their desire. It taxed his strength to the limit. When the horses were finally sated, he said to Saphira, If you need a drink, take it now. Her head snaked around him and she took two long draughts, but no more.

Before letting the water flow back into the ground, Eragon gulped down as much as he could, then watched the last drops melt back into the dirt. Holding the water on the surface was harder than he had expected. But at least it’s within my abilities, he reflected, remembering with some amusement how he had once struggled to lift even a pebble.

It was freezing when they rose the next day. The sand had a pink hue in the morning light, and the sky was hazy, concealing the horizon. Murtagh’s mood had not improved with sleep, and Eragon found his own rapidly deteriorating. During breakfast, he asked, “Do you think it’ll be long before we leave the desert?”

Murtagh glowered. “We’re only crossing a small section of it, so I can’t imagine that it’ll take us more than two or three days.”

“But look how far we’ve already come.”

“All right, maybe it won’t! All I care about right now is getting out of the Hadarac as quickly as possible. What we’re doing is hard enough without having to pick sand from our eyes every few minutes.”

They finished eating, then Eragon went to the elf. She lay as one dead—a corpse except for her measured breathing. “Where lies your injury?” whispered Eragon, brushing a strand of hair from her face. “How can you sleep like this and yet live?” The image of her, alert and poised in the prison cell, was still vivid in his mind. Troubled, he prepared the elf for travel, then saddled and mounted Snowfire.

As they left the camp, a line of dark smudges became visible on the horizon, indistinct in the hazy air. Murtagh thought they were distant hills. Eragon was not convinced, but he could make out no details.

The elf’s plight filled his thoughts. He was sure that something had to be done to help her or she would die, though he knew not what that might be. Saphira was just as concerned. They talked about it for hours, but neither of them knew enough about healing to solve the problem confronting them.

At midday they stopped for a brief rest. When they resumed their journey, Eragon noticed that the haze had thinned since morning, and the distant smudges had gained definition.

No longer were they indistinct purple-blue lumps, but rather broad, forest-covered mounds with clear outlines. The air above them was pale white, bleached of its usual hue—all color seemed to have been leached out of a horizontal band of sky that lay on top of the hills and extended to the horizon’s edges.

He stared, puzzled, but the more he tried to make sense of it, the more confused he became. He blinked and shook his head, thinking that it must be some illusion of the desert air. Yet when he opened his eyes, the annoying incongruity was still there. Indeed, the whiteness blanketed half the sky before them. Sure that something was terribly wrong, he started to point this out to Murtagh and Saphira when he suddenly understood what he was seeing.

What they had taken to be hills were actually the bases of gigantic mountains, scores of miles wide. Except for the dense forest along their lower regions, the mountains were entirely covered with snow and ice. It was this that had deceived Eragon into thinking the sky white. He craned back his neck, searching for the peaks, but they were not visible. The mountains stretched up into the sky until they faded from sight. Narrow, jagged valleys with ridges that nearly touched split the mountains like deep gorges. It was like a ragged, toothy wall linking Alagaësia with the heavens.

There’s no end to them! he thought, awestruck. Stories that mentioned the Beor Mountains always noted their size, but he had discounted such reports as fanciful embellishments. Now, however, he was forced to acknowledge their authenticity.

Sensing his wonder and surprise, Saphira followed his gaze with her own. Within a few seconds she recognized the mountains for what they were. I feel like a hatchling again. Compared to them, even I feel small!

We must be near the edge of the desert, said Eragon. It’s only taken two days and we can already see the far side and beyond!

Saphira spiraled above the dunes. Yes, but considering the size of those peaks, they could still be fifty leagues from here. It’s hard to gauge distances against something so immense. Wouldn’t they be a perfect hiding place for the elves or the Va

rden?

You could hide more than the elves and Varden, he stated. Entire nations could exist in secret there, hidden from the Empire. Imagine living with those behemoths looming over you! He guided Snowfire to Murtagh and pointed, grinning.

“What?” grunted Murtagh, scanning the land.

“Look closely,” urged Eragon.

Murtagh peered closely at the horizon. He shrugged. “What, I don’t—” The words died in his mouth and gave way to slack-jawed wonder. Murtagh shook his head, muttering, “That’s impossible!” He squinted so hard that the corners of his eyes crinkled. He shook his head again. “I knew the Beor Mountains were large, but not that monstrous size!”

“Let’s hope the animals that live there aren’t in proportion to the mountains,” said Eragon lightly.

Murtagh smiled. “It will be good to find some shade and spend a few weeks in leisure. I’ve had enough of this forced march.”

“I’m tired too,” admitted Eragon, “but I don’t want to stop until the elf is cured . . . or she dies.”

“I don’t see how continuing to travel will help her,” said Murtagh gravely. “A bed will do her more good than hanging underneath Saphira all day.”

Eragon shrugged. “Maybe . . . When we reach the mountains, I could take her to Surda—it’s not that far. There must be a healer there who can help her; we certainly can’t.”

Murtagh shaded his eyes with his hand and stared at the mountains. “We can talk about it later. For now our goal is to reach the Beors. There, at least, the Ra’zac will have trouble finding us, and we will be safe from the Empire.”

As the day wore on, the Beor Mountains seemed to get no closer, though the landscape changed dramatically. The sand slowly transformed from loose grains of reddish hue to hard-packed, dusky-cream dirt. In place of dunes were ragged patches of plants and deep furrows in the ground where flooding had occurred. A cool breeze wafted through the air, bringing welcome refreshment. The horses sensed the change of climate and hurried forward eagerly.

When evening subdued the sun, the mountains’ foothills were a mere league away. Herds of gazelles bounded through lush fields of waving grass. Eragon caught Saphira eyeing them hungrily. They camped by a stream, relieved to be out of the punishing Hadarac Desert.

A PATH REVEALED

Fatigued and haggard, but with triumphant smiles, they sat around the fire, congratulating each other. Saphira crowed jubilantly, which startled the horses. Eragon stared at the flames. He was proud that they had covered roughly sixty leagues in five days. It was an impressive feat, even for a rider able to change mounts regularly.

I am outside of the Empire. It was a strange thought. He had been born in the Empire, lived his entire life under Galbatorix’s rule, lost his closest friends and family to the king’s servants, and had nearly died several times within his domain. Now Eragon was free. No more would he and Saphira have to dodge soldiers, avoid towns, or hide who they were. It was a bittersweet realization, for the cost had been the loss of his entire world.

He looked at the stars in the gloaming sky. And though the thought of building a home in the safety of isolation appealed to him, he had witnessed too many wrongs committed in Galbatorix’s name, from murder to slavery, to turn his back on the Empire. No longer was it just vengeance—for Brom’s death as well as Garrow’s—that drove him. As a Rider, it was his duty to assist those without strength to resist Galbatorix’s oppression.

With a sigh he abandoned his deliberation and observed the elf stretched out by Saphira. The fire’s orange light gave her face a warm cast. Smooth shadows flickered under her cheekbones. As he stared, an idea slowly came to him.

He could hear the thoughts of people and animals—and communicate with them in that manner if he chose to—but it was something he had done infrequently except with Saphira. He always remembered Brom’s admonishment not to violate someone’s mind unless absolutely necessary. Save for the one time he had tried to probe Murtagh’s consciousness, he had refrained from doing so.

Now, however, he wondered if it were possible to contact the elf in her comatose state. I might be able to learn from her memories why she remains like this. But if she recovers, would she forgive me for such an intrusion? . . . Whether she does or not, I must try. She’s been in this condition for almost a week. Without speaking of his intentions to Murtagh or Saphira, he knelt by the elf and placed his palm on her brow.

Eragon closed his eyes and extended a tendril of thought, like a probing finger, toward the elf’s mind. He found it without difficulty. It was not fuzzy and filled with pain as he had anticipated, but lucid and clear, like a note from a crystal bell. Suddenly an icy dagger drove into his mind. Pain exploded behind his eyes with splashes of color. He recoiled from the attack but found himself held in an iron grip, unable to retreat.

Eragon fought as hard as he could and used every defense he could think of. The dagger stabbed into his mind again. He frantically threw his own barriers before it, blunting the attack. The pain was less excruciating than the first time, but it jarred his concentration. The elf took the opportunity to ruthlessly crush his defenses.

A stifling blanket pressed down on Eragon from all directions, smothering his thoughts. The overpowering force slowly contracted, squeezing the life out of him bit by bit, though he held on, unwilling to give up.

The elf tightened her relentless grip even more, so as to extinguish him like a snuffed candle. He desperately cried in the ancient language, “Eka aí fricai un Shur’tugal!” I am a Rider and friend! The deadly embrace did not loosen its hold, but its constriction halted and surprise emanated from her.

Suspicion followed a second later, but he knew she would believe him; he could not have lied in the ancient language. However, while he had said he was a friend, that did not mean he meant her no harm. For all she knew, Eragon believed himself to be her friend, making the statement true for him, though she might not consider him one. The ancient language does have its limitations, thought Eragon, hoping that the elf would be curious enough to risk freeing him.

She was. The pressure lifted, and the barriers around her mind hesitantly lowered. The elf warily let their thoughts touch, like two wild animals meeting for the first time. A cold shiver ran down Eragon’s side. Her mind was alien. It felt vast and powerful, weighted with memories of uncounted years. Dark thoughts loomed out of sight and touch, artifacts of her race that made him cringe when they brushed his consciousness. Yet through all the sensations shimmered a melody of wild, haunting beauty that embodied her identity.

What is your name? she asked, speaking in the ancient language. Her voice was weary and filled with quiet despair.

Eragon. And yours? Her consciousness lured him closer, inviting him to submerge himself in the lyric strains of her blood. He resisted the summons with difficulty, though his heart ached to accept it. For the first time he understood the fey attraction of elves. They were creatures of magic, unbound by the mortal laws of the land—as different from humans as dragons were from animals.

. . . Arya. Why have you contacted me in this manner? Am I still a captive of the Empire?

No, you are free! said Eragon. Though he knew only scattered words in the ancient language, he managed to convey: I was imprisoned in Gil’ead, like you, but I escaped and rescued you. In the five days since then, we’ve crossed the edge of the Hadarac Desert and are now camped by the Beor Mountains. You’ve not stirred nor said a word in all that time.

Ah . . . so it was Gil’ead. She paused. I know that my wounds were healed. At the time I did not understand why—preparation for some new torture, I was certain. Now I realize it was you. Softly she added, Even so, I have not risen, and you are puzzled.

Yes.

During my captivity, a rare poison, the Skilna Bragh, was given to me, along with the drug to suppress my power. Every morning the antidote for the previous day’s poison was administered to me, by force if I refused to take it. Without it I will die within a few hours. That is

why I lie in this trance—it slows the Skilna Bragh’s progress, though does not stop it. . . . I contemplated waking for the purpose of ending my life and denying Galbatorix, but I refrained from doing so out of hope that you might be an ally. . . . Her voice dwindled off weakly.

How long can you remain like this? asked Eragon.

For weeks, but I’m afraid I haven’t that much time. This dormancy cannot restrain death forever . . . I can feel it in my veins even now. Unless I receive the antidote, I will succumb to the poison in three or four days.

Where can the antidote be found?

It exists in only two places outside of the Empire: with my own people and with the Varden. However, my home is beyond the reach of dragonback.

What about the Varden? We would have taken you straight to them, but we don’t know where they are.

I will tell you—if you give me your word that you will never reveal their location to Galbatorix or to anyone who serves him. In addition you must swear that you have not deceived me in some manner and that you intend no harm to the elves, dwarves, Varden, or the race of dragons.

What Arya asked for would have been simple enough—if they had not been conversing in the ancient language. Eragon knew she wanted oaths more binding than life itself. Once made, they could never be broken. That weighed heavily on him as he gravely pledged his word in agreement.

It is understood. . . . A series of vertigo-inducing images suddenly flashed through his mind. He found himself riding along the Beor Mountain range, traveling eastward many leagues. Eragon did his best to remember the route as craggy mountains and hills flashed past. He was heading south now, still following the mountains. Then everything wheeled abruptly, and he entered a narrow, winding valley. It snaked through the mountains to the base of a frothy waterfall that pounded into a deep lake.



Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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