He’s right, said Saphira.
Eragon ignored her. “It isn’t that bad,” he said, trying to sound optimistic. Murtagh snorted derisively and looked away. “I’m sure that they won’t be—” His words were cut short as the door opened a hand’s breadth and two bowls were pushed through the space. A loaf of bread and a hunk of raw meat followed, then the door was shut again.
“Finally!” grumbled Murtagh, going to the food. He tossed the meat to Saphira, who snapped it out of the air and swallowed it whole. Then he tore the loaf in two, gave half to Eragon, picked up his bowl, and retreated to a corner.
They ate silently. Murtagh jabbed at his food. “I’m going to sleep,” he announced, putting down his bowl without another word.
“Good night,” said Eragon. He lay next to Saphira, his arms under his head. She curled her long neck around him, like a cat wrapping its tail around itself, and laid her head alongside his. One of her wings extended over him like a blue tent, enveloping him in darkness.
Good night, little one.
A small smile lifted Eragon’s lips, but he was already asleep.
Eragon jolted upright as a growl sounded in his ear. Saphira was still asleep, her eyes wandering sightlessly under her eyelids, and her upper lip trembled, as if she were going to snarl. He smiled, then jerked as she growled again.
She must be dreaming, he realized. He watched her for a minute, then carefully slid out from under her wing. He stood and stretched. The room was cool, but not unpleasantly so. Murtagh lay on his back in the far corner, his eyes closed.
As Eragon stepped around Saphira, Murtagh stirred. “Morning,” he said quietly, sitting up.
“How long have you been awake?” asked Eragon in a hushed voice.
“Awhile. I’m surprised Saphira didn’t wake you sooner.”
“I was tired enough to sleep through a thunderstorm,” said Eragon wryly. He sat by Murtagh and rested his head against the wall. “Do you know what time it is?”
“No. It’s impossible to tell in here.”
“Has anyone come to see us?”
They sat together without moving or speaking. Eragon felt oddly bound to Murtagh. I’ve been carrying his father’s sword, which would have been his . . . his inheritance. We’re alike in many ways, yet our outlook and upbringing are totally different. He thought of Murtagh’s scar and shivered. What man could do that to a child?
Saphira lifted her head and blinked to clear her eyes. She sniffed the air, then yawned expansively, her rough tongue curling at the tip. Has anything happened? Eragon shook his head. I hope they give me more food than that snack last night. I’m hungry enough to eat a herd of cows.
They’ll feed you, he assured her.
They’d better. She positioned herself near the door and settled down to wait, tail flicking. Eragon closed his eyes, enjoying the rest. He dozed awhile, then got up and paced around. Bored, he examined one of the lanterns. It was made of a single piece of teardrop-shaped glass, about twice the size of a lemon, and filled with soft blue light that neither wavered nor flickered. Four slim metal ribs wrapped smoothly around the glass, meeting at the top to form a small hook and again at the bottom where they melded together into three graceful legs. The whole piece was quite attractive.
Eragon’s inspection was interrupted by voices outside the room. The door opened, and a dozen warriors marched inside. The first man gulped when he saw Saphira. They were followed by Orik and the bald man, who declared, “You have been summoned to Ajihad, leader of the Varden. If you must eat, do so while we march.” Eragon and Murtagh stood together, watching him warily.
“Where are our horses? And can I have my sword and bow back?” asked Eragon.
The bald man looked at him with disdain. “Your weapons will be returned to you when Ajihad sees fit, not before. As for your horses, they await you in the tunnel. Now come!”
As he turned to leave, Eragon asked quickly, “How is Arya?”
The bald man hesitated. “I do not know. The healers are still with her.” He exited the room, accompanied by Orik.
One of the warriors motioned. “You go first.” Eragon went through the doorway, followed by Saphira and Murtagh. They returned through the corridor they had traversed the night before, passing the statue of the quilled animal. When they reached the huge tunnel through which they had first entered the mountain, the bald man was waiting with Orik, who held Tornac’s and Snowfire’s reins.
“You will ride single file down the center of the tunnel,” instructed the bald man. “If you attempt to go anywhere else, you will be stopped.” When Eragon started to climb onto Saphira, the bald man shouted, “No! Ride your horse until I tell you otherwise.”
Eragon shrugged and took Snowfire’s reins. He swung into the saddle, guided Snowfire in front of Saphira, and told her, Stay close in case I need your help.
Of course, she said.
Murtagh mounted Tornac behind Saphira. The bald man examined their small line, then gestured at the warriors, who divided in half to surround them, giving Saphira as wide a berth as possible. Orik and the bald man went to the head of the procession.
After looking them over once more, the bald man clapped twice and started walking forward. Eragon tapped Snowfire lightly on his flanks. The entire group headed toward the heart of the mountain. Echoes filled the tunnel as the horses’ hooves struck the hard floor, the sounds amplified in the deserted passageway. Doors and gates occasionally disturbed the smooth walls, but they were always closed.
Eragon marveled at the sheer size of the tunnel, which had been mined with incredible skill—the walls, floor, and ceiling were crafted with flawless precision. The angles at the bases of the walls were perfectly square, and as far as he could tell, the tunnel itself did not vary from its course by even an inch.
As they proceeded, Eragon’s anticipation about meeting Ajihad increased. The leader of the Varden was a shadowy figure to the people within the Empire. He had risen to power nearly twenty years ago and since then had waged a fierce war against King Galbatorix. No one knew where he came from or even what he looked like. It was rumored that he was a master strategist, a brutal fighter. With such a reputation, Eragon worried about how they would be received. Still, knowing that Brom had trusted the Varden enough to serve them helped to allay his fears.
Seeing Orik again had brought forth new questions in his mind. The tunnel was obviously dwarf work—no one else could mine with such skill—but were the dwarves part of the Varden, or were they merely sheltering them? And who was the king that Orik had mentioned? Was it Ajihad? Eragon understood now that the Varden had been able to escape discovery by hiding underground, but what about the elves? Where were they?
For nearly an hour the bald man led them through the tunnel, never straying nor turning. We’ve probably already gone a league, Eragon realized. Maybe they’re taking us all the way through the mountain! At last a soft white glow became visible ahead of them. He strained his eyes, trying to discern its source, but it was still too far away to make out any details. The glow increased in strength as they neared it.
Now he could see thick marble pillars laced with rubies and amethysts standing in rows along the walls. Scores of lanterns hung between the pillars, suffusing the air with liquid brilliance. Gold tracery gleamed from the pillars’ bases like molten thread. Arching over the ceiling were carved raven heads, their beaks open in mid-screech. At the end of the hallway rested two colossal black doors, accented by shimmering silver lines that depicted a seven-pointed crown that spanned both sides.
The bald man stopped and raised a hand. He turned to Eragon. “You will ride upon your dragon now. Do not attempt to fly away. There will be people watching, so remember who and what you are.”
Eragon dismounted Snowfire, and then clambered onto Saphira’s back. I think they want to show us off, she said as he settled into the saddle.
e. I wish I had Zar’roc, he replied, tightening the straps around his legs.
It might be better that you aren’t wearing Morzan’s sword when the Varden first see you.
True. “I’m ready,” Eragon said, squaring his shoulders.
“Good,” said the bald man. He and Orik retreated to either side of Saphira, staying far enough back so she was clearly in the lead. “Now walk to the doors, and once they open, follow the path. Go slowly.”
Ready? asked Eragon.
Of course. Saphira approached the doors at a measured pace. Her scales sparkled in the light, sending glints of color dancing over the pillars. Eragon took a deep breath to steady his nerves.
Without warning, the doors swung outward on hidden joints. As the rift widened between them, rays of sunlight streamed into the tunnel, falling on Saphira and Eragon. Temporarily blinded, Eragon blinked and squinted. When his eyes adjusted to the light, he gasped.
They were inside a massive volcanic crater. Its walls narrowed to a small ragged opening so high above that Eragon could not judge the distance—it might have been more than a dozen miles. A soft beam of light fell through the aperture, illuminating the crater’s center, though it left the rest of the cavernous expanse in hushed twilight.
The crater’s far side, hazy blue in the distance, looked to be nearly ten miles away. Giant icicles hundreds of feet thick and thousands of feet long hung leagues above them like glistening daggers. Eragon knew from his experience in the valley that no one, not even Saphira, could reach those lofty points. Farther down the crater’s inner walls, dark mats of moss and lichen covered the rock.
He lowered his gaze and saw a wide cobblestone path extending from the doors’ threshold. The path ran straight to the center of the crater, where it ended at the base of a snowy-white mountain that glittered like an uncut gem with thousands of colored lights. It was less than a tenth of the height of the crater that loomed over and around it, but its diminutive appearance was deceiving, for it was slightly higher than a mile.
Long as it was, the tunnel had only taken them through one side of the crater wall. As Eragon stared, he heard Orik say deeply, “Look well, human, for no Rider has set eyes upon this for nigh over a hundred years. The airy peak under which we stand is Farthen Dûr—discovered thousands of years ago by the father of our race, Korgan, while he tunneled for gold. And in the center stands our greatest achievement: Tronjheim, the city-mountain built from the purest marble.” The doors grated to a halt.
Then Eragon saw the crowd. He had been so engrossed by the sights that he had failed to notice a dense sea of people clustered around the tunnel’s entrance. They lined the cobblestone pathway—dwarves and humans packed together like trees in a thicket. There were hundreds . . . thousands of them. Every eye, every face was focused on Eragon. And every one of them was silent.
Eragon gripped the base of one of Saphira’s neck spikes. He saw children in dirty smocks, hardy men with scarred knuckles, women in homespun dresses, and stout, weathered dwarves who fingered their beards. All of them bore the same taut expression—that of an injured animal when a predator is nearby and escape is impossible.
A bead of sweat rolled down Eragon’s face, but he dared not move to wipe it away. What should I do? he asked frantically.
Smile, raise your hand, anything! replied Saphira sharply.
Eragon tried to force out a smile, but his lips only twitched. Gathering his courage, he pushed a hand into the air, jerking it in a little wave. When nothing happened, he flushed with embarrassment, lowered his arm, and ducked his head.
A single cheer broke the silence. Someone clapped loudly. For a brief second the crowd hesitated, then a wild roar swept through it, and a wave of sound crashed over Eragon.
“Very good,” said the bald man from behind him. “Now start walking.”
Relieved, Eragon sat straighter and playfully asked Saphira, Shall we go? She arched her neck and stepped forward. As they passed the first row of people, she glanced to each side and exhaled a puff of smoke. The crowd quieted and shrank back, then resumed cheering, their enthusiasm only intensified.
Show-off, chided Eragon. Saphira flicked her tail and ignored him. He stared curiously at the jostling crowd as she proceeded along the path. Dwarves greatly outnumbered humans . . . and many of them glared at him resentfully. Some even turned their backs and walked away with stony faces.
The humans were hard, tough people. All the men had daggers or knives at their waists; many were armed for war. The women carried themselves proudly, but they seemed to conceal a deep-abiding weariness. The few children and babies stared at Eragon with large eyes. He felt certain that these people had experienced much hardship and that they would do whatever was necessary to defend themselves.
The Varden had found the perfect hiding place. Farthen Dûr’s walls were too high for a dragon to fly over, and no army could break through the entranceway, even if it managed to find the hidden doors.
The crowd followed close behind them, giving Saphira plenty of room. Gradually the people quieted, though their attention remained on Eragon. He looked back and saw Murtagh riding stiffly, his face pale.
They neared the city-mountain, and Eragon saw that the white marble of Tronjheim was highly polished and shaped into flowing contours, as if it had been poured into place. It was dotted with countless round windows framed by elaborate carvings. A colored lantern hung in each window, casting a soft glow on the surrounding rock. No turrets or smokestacks were visible. Directly ahead, two thirty-foot-high gold griffins guarded a massive timber gate—recessed twenty yards into the base of Tronjheim—which was shadowed by thick trusses that supported an arched vault far overhead.
When they reached Tronjheim’s base, Saphira paused to see if the bald man had any instructions. When none were forthcoming, she continued to the gate. The walls were lined with fluted pillars of blood-red jasper. Between the pillars hulked statues of outlandish creatures, captured forever by the sculptor’s chisel.
The heavy gate rumbled open before them as hidden chains slowly raised the mammoth beams. A four-story-high passageway extended straight toward the center of Tronjheim. The top three levels were pierced by rows of archways that revealed gray tunnels curving off into the distance. Clumps of people filled the arches, eagerly watching Eragon and Saphira. On ground level, however, the archways were barred by stout doors. Rich tapestries hung between the different levels, embroidered with heroic figures and tumultuous battle scenes.
A cheer rang in their ears as Saphira stepped into the hall and paraded down it. Eragon raised his hand, eliciting another roar from the throng, though many of the dwarves did not join the welcoming shout.
The mile-long hall ended in an arch flanked by black onyx pillars. Yellow zircons three times the size of a man capped the dark columns, coruscating piercing gold beams along the hall. Saphira stepped through the opening, then stopped and craned back her neck, humming deeply in her chest.
They were in a circular room, perhaps a thousand feet across, that reached up to Tronjheim’s peak a mile overhead, narrowing as it rose. The walls were lined with arches—one row for each level of the city-mountain—and the floor was made of polished carnelian, upon which was etched a hammer girdled by twelve silver pentacles, like on Orik’s helm.
The room was a nexus for four hallways—including the one they had just exited—that divided Tronjheim into quarters. The halls were identical except for the one opposite Eragon. To the right and left of that hall were tall arches that opened to descending stairs, which mirrored each other as they curved underground.
The ceiling was capped by a dawn-red star sapphire of monstrous size. The jewel was twenty yards across and nearly as thick. Its face had been carved to resemble a rose in full bloom, and so skilled was the craftsmanship, the flower almost seemed to be real. A wide belt of lanterns wrapped around the edge of the sapphire, which cast striated bands of blushing light over everything below. The flashing rays
of the star within the gem made it appear as if a giant eye gazed down at them.
Eragon could only gape with wonder. Nothing had prepared him for this. It seemed impossible that Tronjheim had been built by mortal beings. The city-mountain shamed everything he had seen in the Empire. He doubted if even Urû’baen could match the wealth and grandeur displayed here. Tronjheim was a stunning monument to the dwarves’ power and perseverance.
The bald man walked in front of Saphira and said, “You must go on foot from here.” There was scattered booing from the crowd as he spoke. A dwarf took Tornac and Snowfire away. Eragon dismounted Saphira but stayed by her side as the bald man led them across the carnelian floor to the right-hand hallway.
They followed it for several hundred feet, then entered a smaller corridor. Their guards remained despite the cramped space. After four sharp turns, they came to a massive cedar door, stained black with age. The bald man pulled it open and conducted everyone but the guards inside.
Eragon entered an elegant, two-story study paneled with rows of cedar bookshelves. A wrought-iron staircase wound up to a small balcony with two chairs and a reading table. White lanterns hung along the walls and ceiling so a book could be read anywhere in the room. The stone floor was covered by an intricate oval rug. At the far end of the room, a man stood behind a large walnut desk.
His skin gleamed the color of oiled ebony. The dome of his head was shaved bare, but a closely trimmed black beard covered his chin and upper lip. Strong features shadowed his face, and grave, intelligent eyes lurked under his brow. His shoulders were broad and powerful, emphasized by a tapered red vest embroidered with gold thread and clasped over a rich purple shirt. He bore himself with great dignity, exuding an intense, commanding air.
When he spoke, his voice was strong, confident: “Welcome to Tronjheim, Eragon and Saphira. I am Ajihad. Please, seat yourselves.”