Out of respect, Eragon knelt before the altar and bowed his head. He did not pray but paid homage to the cathedral itself. The sorrows of the lives it had witnessed, as well as the unpleasantness of the elaborate pageantry that played out between its walls, emanated from the stones. It was a forbidding place, bare and cold. In that chilling touch, though, came a glimpse of eternity and perhaps the powers that lay there.
Finally Eragon inclined his head and rose. Calm and grave, he whispered words to himself in the ancient language, then turned to leave. He froze. His heart jumped, hammering like a drum.
The Ra’zac stood at the cathedral’s entrance, watching him. Their swords were drawn, keen edges bloody in a crimson light. A sibilant hiss came from the smaller Ra’zac. Neither of them moved.
Rage welled up in Eragon. He had chased the Ra’zac for so many weeks that the pain of their murderous deed had dulled within him. But his vengeance was at hand. His wrath exploded like a volcano, fueled even more by his pent-up fury at the slaves’ plight. A roar broke from his lips, echoing like a thunderstorm as he snatched his bow from his back. Deftly, he fit an arrow to the string and loosed it. Two more followed an instant later.
The Ra’zac leapt away from the arrows with inhuman swiftness. They hissed as they ran up the aisle between the pews, cloaks flapping like raven wings. Eragon reached for another arrow, but caution stayed his hand. If they knew where to find me, Brom is in danger as well! I must warn him! Then, to Eragon’s horror, a line of soldiers filed into the cathedral, and he glimpsed a field of uniforms jostling outside the doorway.
Eragon gazed hungrily at the charging Ra’zac, then swept around, searching for means of escape. A vestibule to the left of the altar caught his attention. He bounded through the archway and dashed down a corridor that led to a priory with a belfry. The patter of the Ra’zac’s feet behind him made him quicken his pace until the hall abruptly ended with a closed door.
He pounded against it, trying to break it open, but the wood was too strong. The Ra’zac were nearly upon him. Frantic, he sucked in his breath and barked, “Jierda!” With a flash, the door splintered into pieces and fell to the floor. Eragon jumped into the small room and continued running.
He sped through several chambers, startling a group of priests. Shouts and curses followed him. The priory bell tolled an alarm. Eragon dodged through a kitchen, passed a pair of monks, then slipped through a side door. He skidded to stop in a garden surrounded by a high brick wall devoid of handholds. There were no other exits.
Eragon turned to leave, but there was a low hiss as the Ra’zac shouldered aside the door. Desperate, he rushed at the wall, arms pumping. Magic could not help him here—if he used it to break through the wall, he would be too tired to run.
He jumped. Even with his arms outstretched, only his fingertips cleared the edge of the wall. The rest of his body smashed against the bricks, driving out his breath. Eragon gasped and hung there, struggling not to fall. The Ra’zac prowled into the garden, swinging their heads from side to side like wolfhounds sniffing for prey.
Eragon sensed their approach and heaved with his arms. His shoulders shrieked with pain as he scrambled onto the wall and dropped to the other side. He stumbled, then regained his balance and darted down an alley just as the Ra’zac leapt over the wall. Galvanized, Eragon put on another burst of speed.
He ran for over a mile before he had to stop and catch his breath. Unsure if he had lost the Ra’zac, he found a crowded marketplace and dived under a parked wagon. How did they find me? he wondered, panting. They shouldn’t have known where I was . . . unless something happened to Brom! He reached out with his mind to Saphira and said, The Ra’zac found me. We’re all in danger! Check if Brom’s all right. If he is, warn him and have him meet me at the inn. And be ready to fly here as fast as you can. We may need your help to escape.
She was silent, then said curtly, He’ll meet you at the inn. Don’t stop moving; you’re in great danger.
“Don’t I know it,” muttered Eragon as he rolled out from under the wagon. He hurried back to the Golden Globe, quickly packed their belongings, saddled the horses, then led them to the street. Brom soon arrived, staff in hand, scowling dangerously. He swung onto Snowfire and asked, “What happened?”
“I was in the cathedral when the Ra’zac just appeared behind me,” said Eragon, climbing onto Cadoc. “I ran back as fast as possible, but they could be here at any second. Saphira will join us once we’re out of Dras-Leona.”
“We have to get outside the city walls before they close the gates, if they haven’t already,” said Brom. “If they’re shut, it’ll be nigh impossible for us to leave. Whatever you do, don’t get separated from me.” Eragon stiffened as ranks of soldiers marched down one end of the street.
Brom cursed, lashed Snowfire with his reins, and galloped away. Eragon bent low over Cadoc and followed. They nearly crashed several times during the wild, hazardous ride, plunging through masses of people that clogged the streets as they neared the city wall. When the gates finally came into view, Eragon pulled on Cadoc’s reins with dismay. The gates were already half closed, and a double line of pikemen blocked their way.
“They’ll cut us to pieces!” he exclaimed.
“We have to try and make it,” said Brom, his voice hard. “I’ll deal with the men, but you have to keep the gates open for us.” Eragon nodded, gritted his teeth, and dug his heels into Cadoc.
They plowed toward the line of unwavering soldiers, who lowered their pikes toward the horses’ chests and braced the weapons against the ground. Though the horses snorted with fear, Eragon and Brom held them in place. Eragon heard the soldiers shout but kept his attention on the gates inching shut.
As they neared the sharp pikes, Brom raised his hand and spoke. The words struck with precision; the soldiers fell to each side as if their legs had been cut out from under them. The gap between the gates shrank by the second. Hoping that the effort would not prove too much for him, Eragon drew on his power and shouted, “Du grind huildr!”
A deep grating sound emanated from the gates as they trembled, then ground to a stop. The crowd and guards fell silent, staring with amazement. With a clatter of the horses’ hooves, Brom and Eragon shot out from behind Dras-Leona’s wall. The instant they were free, Eragon released the gates. They shuddered, then boomed shut.
He swayed with the expected fatigue but managed to keep riding. Brom watched him with concern. Their flight continued through the outskirts of Dras-Leona as alarm trumpets sounded on the city wall. Saphira was waiting for them by the edge of the city, hidden behind some trees. Her eyes burned; her tail whipped back and forth. “Go, ride her,” said Brom. “And this time stay in the air, no matter what happens to me. I’ll head south. Fly nearby; I don’t care if Saphira’s seen.” Eragon quickly mounted Saphira. As the ground dwindled away beneath him, he watched Brom gallop along the road.
Are you all right? asked Saphira.
Yes, said Eragon. But only because we were very lucky.
A puff of smoke blew from her nostrils. All the time we’ve spent searching for the Ra’zac was useless.
I know, he said, letting his head sag against her scales. If the Ra’zac had been the only enemies back there, I would have stayed and fought, but with all the soldiers on their side, it was hardly a fair match!
You understand that there will be talk of us now? This was hardly an unobtrusive escape. Evading the Empire will be harder than ever. There was an edge to her voice that he was unaccustomed to.
They flew low and fast over the road. Leona Lake receded behind them; the land became dry and rocky and filled with tough, sharp bushes and tall cactuses. Clouds darkened the sky. Lightning flashed in the distance. As the wind began to howl, Saphira glided steeply down to Brom. He stopped the horses and asked, “What’s wrong?”
“The wind’s too strong.”
“It’s not that bad,” objected Brom.
“It is up there,” sa
id Eragon, pointing at the sky.
Brom swore and handed him Cadoc’s reins. They trotted away with Saphira following on foot, though on the ground she had difficulty keeping up with the horses.
The gale grew stronger, flinging dirt through the air and twisting like a dervish. They wrapped scarves around their heads to protect their eyes. Brom’s robe flapped in the wind while his beard whipped about as if it had a life of its own. Though it would make them miserable, Eragon hoped it would rain so their tracks would be obliterated.
Soon darkness forced them to stop. With only the stars to guide them, they left the road and made camp behind two boulders. It was too dangerous to light a fire, so they ate cold food while Saphira sheltered them from the wind.
After the sparse dinner, Eragon asked bluntly, “How did they find us?”
Brom started to light his pipe, but thought better of it and put it away. “One of the palace servants warned me there were spies among them. Somehow word of me and my questions must have reached Tábor . . . and through him, the Ra’zac.”
“We can’t go back to Dras-Leona, can we?” asked Eragon.
Brom shook his head. “Not for a few years.”
Eragon held his head between his hands. “Then should we draw the Ra’zac out? If we let Saphira be seen, they’ll come running to wherever she is.”
“And when they do, there will be fifty soldiers with them,” said Brom. “At any rate, this isn’t the time to discuss it. Right now we have to concentrate on staying alive. Tonight will be the most dangerous because the Ra’zac will be hunting us in the dark, when they are strongest. We’ll have to trade watches until morning.”
“Right,” said Eragon, standing. He hesitated and squinted. His eyes had caught a flicker of movement, a small patch of color that stood out from the surrounding nightscape. He stepped toward the edge of their camp, trying to see it better.
“What is it?” asked Brom as he unrolled his blankets.
Eragon stared into the darkness, then turned back. “I don’t know. I thought I saw something. It must have been a bird.” Pain erupted in the back of his head, and Saphira roared. Then Eragon toppled to the ground, unconscious.
THE RA’ZAC’S REVENGE
A dull throbbing roused Eragon. Every time blood pulsed through his head it brought a fresh wave of pain. He cracked his eyes open and winced; tears rushed to his eyes as he looked directly into a bright lantern. He blinked and looked away. When he tried to sit up, he realized that his hands were tied behind his back.
He turned lethargically and saw Brom’s arms. Eragon was relieved to see that they were bound together. Why was that? He struggled to figure it out until the thought suddenly came to him, They wouldn’t tie up a dead man! But then who were “they”? He swiveled his head further, then stopped as a pair of black boots entered his vision.
Eragon looked up, right into the cowled face of a Ra’zac. Fear jolted through him. He reached for the magic and started to voice a word that would kill the Ra’zac, but then halted, puzzled. He could not remember the word. Frustrated, he tried again, only to feel it slip out of his grasp.
Above him the Ra’zac laughed chillingly. “The drug is working, yesss? I think you will not be bothering us again.”
There was a rattle off to the left, and Eragon was appalled to see the second Ra’zac fit a muzzle over Saphira’s head. Her wings were pinioned to her sides by black chains; there were shackles on her legs. Eragon tried to contact her, but felt nothing.
“She was most cooperative once we threatened to kill you,” hissed the Ra’zac. Squatting by the lantern, he rummaged through Eragon’s bags, examining and discarding various items until he removed Zar’roc. “What a pretty thing for one so . . . insignificant. Maybe I will keep it.” He leaned closer and sneered, “Or maybe, if you behave, our master will let you polish it.” His moist breath smelled like raw meat.
Then he turned the sword over in his hands and screeched as he saw the symbol on the scabbard. His companion rushed over. They stood over the sword, hissing and clicking. At last they faced Eragon. “You will serve our master very well, yesss.”
Eragon forced his thick tongue to form words: “If I do, I will kill you.”
They chuckled coldly. “Oh no, we are too valuable. But you . . . you are disposable.” A deep snarl came from Saphira; smoke roiled from her nostrils. The Ra’zac did not seem to care.
Their attention was diverted when Brom groaned and rolled onto his side. One of the Ra’zac grabbed his shirt and thrust him effortlessly into the air. “It’sss wearing off.”
“Give him more.”
“Let’sss just kill him,” said the shorter Ra’zac. “He has caused us much grief.”
The taller one ran his finger down his sword. “A good plan. But remember, the king’s instructions were to keep them alive.”
“We can sssay he was killed when we captured them.”
“And what of thisss one?” the Ra’zac asked, pointing his sword at Eragon. “If he talksss?”
His companion laughed and drew a wicked dagger. “He would not dare.”
There was a long silence, then, “Agreed.”
They dragged Brom to the center of the camp and shoved him to his knees. Brom sagged to one side. Eragon watched with growing fear. I have to get free! He wrenched at the ropes, but they were too strong to break. “None of that now,” said the tall Ra’zac, poking him with a sword. He nosed the air and sniffed; something seemed to trouble him.
The other Ra’zac growled, yanked Brom’s head back, and swept the dagger toward his exposed throat. At that very moment a low buzz sounded, followed by the Ra’zac’s howl. An arrow protruded from his shoulder. The Ra’zac nearest Eragon dropped to the ground, barely avoiding a second arrow. He scuttled to his wounded companion, and they glared into the darkness, hissing angrily. They made no move to stop Brom as he blearily staggered upright. “Get down!” cried Eragon.
Brom wavered, then tottered toward Eragon. As more arrows hissed into the camp from the unseen attackers, the Ra’zac rolled behind some boulders. There was a lull, then arrows came from the opposite direction. Caught by surprise, the Ra’zac reacted slowly. Their cloaks were pierced in several places, and a shattered arrow buried itself in one’s arm.
With a wild cry, the smaller Ra’zac fled toward the road, kicking Eragon viciously in the side as he passed. His companion hesitated, then grabbed the dagger from the ground and raced after him. As he left the camp, he hurled the knife at Eragon.
A strange light suddenly burned in Brom’s eyes. He threw himself in front of Eragon, his mouth open in a soundless snarl. The dagger struck him with a soft thump, and he landed heavily on his shoulder. His head lolled limply.
“No!” screamed Eragon, though he was doubled over in pain. He heard footsteps, then his eyes closed and he knew no more.
For a long while, Eragon was aware only of the burning in his side. Each breath was painful. It felt as though he had been the one stabbed, not Brom. His sense of time was skewed; it was hard to tell if weeks had gone by, or only a few minutes. When consciousness finally came to him, he opened his eyes and peered curiously at a campfire several feet away. His hands were still tied together, but the drug must have worn off because he could think clearly again. Saphira, are you injured?
No, but you and Brom are. She was crouched over Eragon, wings spread protectively on either side.
Saphira, you didn’t make that fire, did you? And you couldn’t have gotten out of those chains by yourself.
I didn’t think so. Eragon struggled to his knees and saw a young man sitting on the far side of the fire.
The stranger, dressed in battered clothes, exuded a calm, assured air. In his hands was a bow, at his side a long hand-and-a-half sword. A white horn bound with silver fittings lay in his lap, and the hilt of a dagger protruded from his boot. His serious face and fierce eyes were framed by locks of brown hair. He appeared to be a few years old
er than Eragon and perhaps an inch or so taller. Behind him a gray war-horse was picketed. The stranger watched Saphira warily.
“Who are you?” asked Eragon, taking a shallow breath.
The man’s hands tightened on his bow. “Murtagh.” His voice was low and controlled, but curiously emotional.
Eragon pulled his hands underneath his legs so they were in front of him. He clenched his teeth as his side flared with pain. “Why did you help us?”
“You aren’t the only enemies the Ra’zac have. I was tracking them.”
“You know who they are?”
Eragon concentrated on the ropes that bound his wrists and reached for the magic. He hesitated, aware of Murtagh’s eyes on him, then decided it didn’t matter. “Jierda!” he grunted. The ropes snapped off his wrists. He rubbed his hands to get the blood flowing.
Murtagh sucked in his breath. Eragon braced himself and tried to stand, but his ribs seared with agony. He fell back, gasping between clenched teeth. Murtagh tried to come to his aid, but Saphira stopped him with a growl. “I would have helped you earlier, but your dragon wouldn’t let me near you.”
“Her name’s Saphira,” said Eragon tightly. Now let him by! I can’t do this alone. Besides, he saved our lives. Saphira growled again, but folded her wings and backed away. Murtagh eyed her flatly as he stepped forward.
He grasped Eragon’s arm, gently pulling him to his feet. Eragon yelped and would have fallen without support. They went to the fire, where Brom lay on his back. “How is he?” asked Eragon.
“Bad,” said Murtagh, lowering him to the ground. “The knife went right between his ribs. You can look at him in a minute, but first we’d better see how much damage the Ra’zac did to you.” He helped Eragon remove his shirt, then whistled. “Ouch!”