Islanzadí sighed, and suddenly she appeared tired. Eragon reminded himself that she too had been fighting that day. “Oromis may have been your proper teacher, but you have proved yourself Brom’s heir, not Oromis’s. Brom is the only other person who managed to entangle himself in as many predicaments as you. Like him, you seem compelled to find the deepest patch of quicksand and then dive into it.”
Eragon hid a smile, pleased by the comparison. “What of Sloan?” he asked. “His fate rests with you now.”
Slowly, Islanzadí sat upon a stool next to the folding table, placed her hands in her lap, and gazed to one side of the seeing glass. Her countenance became one of enigmatic observation: a beautiful mask that concealed her thoughts and feelings, and one that Eragon could not penetrate, no matter how hard he strove. When she spoke, she said, “As you have seen fit to save this man’s life, at no little trouble and effort on your own part, I cannot refuse your request and thereby render your sacrifice meaningless. If Sloan survives the ordeal you have set before him, then Gilderien the Wise shall allow him to pass, and Sloan shall have a room and a bed and food to eat. More I cannot promise, for what happens afterward will depend on Sloan himself, but if the conditions you named are met, then yes, we shall light his darkness.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. You are most generous.”
“No, not generous. This war does not allow me to be generous, only practical. Go and do what you must, and be you careful, Eragon Shadeslayer.”
“Your Majesty.” He bowed. “If I may ask one last favor: would you please refrain from telling Arya, Nasuada, or any of the Varden of my current situation? I don’t want them to worry about me any longer than they have to, and they’ll learn of it soon enough from Saphira.”
“I shall consider your request.”
Eragon waited, but when she remained silent and it became clear she had no intention of announcing her decision, he bowed a second time and again said, “Thank you.”
The glowing image on the surface of the water flickered and then vanished into darkness as Eragon ended the spell he had used to create it. He leaned back on his heels and gazed up at the multitude of stars, allowing his eyes to readjust to the faint, glimmering light they provided. Then he left the crumbling rock with the pool of water and retraced his path across the grass and scrub to the camp, where Sloan still sat upright, rigid as cast iron.
Eragon struck a pebble with his foot, and the resulting noise revealed his presence to Sloan, who snapped his head around, quick as a bird. “Have you made up your mind?” demanded Sloan.
“I have,” said Eragon. He stopped and squatted in front of the butcher, steadying himself with one hand on the ground. “Hear me well, for I don’t intend to repeat myself. You did what you did because of your love for Katrina, or so you say. Whether you admit it or not, I believe you also had other, baser motives in wanting to separate her from Roran: anger … hate … vindictiveness… and your own hurt.”
Sloan’s lips hardened into thin white lines. “You wrong me.”
“No, I don’t think so. Since my conscience prevents me from killing you, your punishment is to be the most terrible I could invent short of death. I’m convinced that what you said before is true, that Katrina is more important to you than anything else. Therefore, your punishment is this: you shall not see, touch, or talk with your daughter again, even unto your dying day, and you shall live with the knowledge that she is with Roran and they are happy together, without you.”
Sloan inhaled through his clenched teeth. “That is your punishment? Ha! You cannot enforce it; you have no prison to put me in.”
“I’m not finished. I will enforce it by having you swear oaths in the elves’ tongue—in the language of truth and magic—to abide by the terms of your sentence.”
“You can’t force me to give my word,” Sloan growled. “Not even if you torture me.”
“I can, and I won’t torture you. Furthermore, I will lay upon you a compulsion to travel northward until you reach the elf city of Ellesméra, which stands deep in the heart of Du Weldenvarden. You can try to resist the urge if you want, but no matter how long you fight it, the spell will irritate you like an unscratched itch until you obey its demands and travel to the elves’ realm.”
“Don’t you have the guts to kill me yourself?” asked Sloan. “You’re too much of a coward to put a blade to my neck, so you’ll make me wander the wilderness, blind and lost, until the weather or the beasts do me in?” He spat to the left of Eragon. “You’re nothing but the yellow-bellied offspring of a canker-ridden bunter. You’re a bastard, you are, and an unlicked cub; a dung-splattered, tallow-faced rock-gnasher; a puking villain and a noxious toad; the runty, mewling spawn of a greasy sow. I wouldn’t give you my last crust if you were starving, or a drop of water if you were burning, or a beggar’s grave if you were dead. You have pus for marrow and fungus for brains, and you’re a scug-backed cheek-biter!”
There was, Eragon thought, something rather obscenely impressive about Sloan’s swearing, although his admiration did not prevent him from wanting to strangle the butcher, or to at least respond in kind. What stayed his desire for retaliation, however, was his suspicion that Sloan was deliberately trying to infuriate him enough to strike down the older man and thus give him a quick and undeserved end.
Eragon said, “Bastard I may be, but not a murderer.” Sloan drew a sharp breath. Before he could resume his torrent of abuse, Eragon added: “Wherever you go, you shall not want for food, nor will wild animals attack you. I will place certain enchantments around you that will keep men and beasts from troubling you and will cause animals to bring you sustenance when you need it.”
“You can’t do this,” whispered Sloan. Even in the starlight, Eragon could see the last remnants of color drain from his skin, leaving him bone white. “You don’t have the means. You don’t have the right.”
“I am a Dragon Rider. I have as much right as any king or queen.”
Then Eragon, who had no interest in continuing to chastise Sloan, uttered the butcher’s true name loud enough for him to hear. An expression of horror and revelation crawled across Sloan’s face, and he threw his arms up before him and howled as if he had been stabbed. His cry was raw and jagged and desolate: the scream of a man condemned by his own nature to a fate he could not escape. He fell forward onto the palms of his hands and remained in that position and began to sob, his face obscured by shocks of hair.
Eragon watched, transfixed by Sloan’s reaction. Does learning your true name affect everyone like this? Would this happen to me as well?
Hardening his heart to Sloan’s misery, Eragon set about doing what he said he would. He repeated Sloan’s true name and, word by word, schooled the butcher in the ancient language oaths that would ensure Sloan never met or contacted Katrina again. Sloan resisted with much weeping and wailing and grinding of his teeth, but no matter how vigorously he struggled, he had no choice but to obey whenever Eragon invoked his true name. And when they finished with the oaths, Eragon cast the five spells that would drive Sloan toward Ellesméra, would protect him from unprovoked violence, and would entice the birds and the beasts and the fish that dwelled in the rivers and lakes to feed him. Eragon fashioned the spells so they would derive their energy from Sloan and not himself.
Midnight was a fading memory by the time Eragon completed the final incantation. Drunk with weariness, he leaned against the hawthorn staff. Sloan lay curled at his feet.
“Finished,” said Eragon.
A garbled moan drifted up from the figure below. It sounded as if Sloan were attempting to say something. Frowning, Eragon knelt beside him. Sloan’s cheeks were red and bloody where he had scraped them with his fingers. His nose ran, and tears dripped from the corner of his left eye socket, which was the less mutilated of the two. Pity and guilt welled up inside of Eragon; it gave him no pleasure to see Sloan reduced to such a low state. He was a broken man, stripped of everything he valued in life, including his self-delu
sions, and Eragon was the one who had broken him. The accomplishment left Eragon feeling soiled, as if he had done something shameful. It was necessary, he thought, but no one should have to do what I did.
Another moan emanated from Sloan, and then he said, “… only a piece of rope. I didn’t mean to … Ismira … No, no, please no …” The butcher’s ramblings subsided, and in the intervening silence, Eragon placed his hand on Sloan’s upper arm. Sloan stiffened at the contact. “Eragon …,” he whispered. “Eragon … I am blind, and you send me to walk the land … to walk the land alone. I am forsaken and forsworn. I know who I am and I cannot bear it. Help me; kill me! Free me of this agony.”
On an impulse, Eragon pressed the hawthorn rod into Sloan’s right hand and said, “Take my staff. Let it guide you on your journey.”
A cracked shout burst from Sloan’s throat, and he thrashed from side to side and pounded the earth with his fists. “Cruel, cruel you are!” His meager strength depleted, he curled into an even tighter ball, panting and whimpering.
Bending over him, Eragon placed his mouth close to Sloan’s ear and whispered, “I am not without mercy, so I give you this hope: If you reach Ellesméra, you will find a home waiting for you. The elves will care for you and allow you to do whatever you want for the rest of your life, with one exception: once you enter Du Weldenvarden, you cannot leave…. Sloan, listen to me. When I was among the elves, I learned that a person’s true name often changes as they age. Do you understand what that means? Who you are is not fixed for all of eternity. A man could forge himself anew if he so wanted.”
Sloan made no reply.
Eragon left the staff next to Sloan and crossed to the other side of the camp and stretched out his full length on the ground. His eyes already closed, he mumbled a spell that would rouse him before dawn and then allowed himself to drift into the soothing embrace of his waking rest.
The Gray Heath was cold, dark, and inhospitable when a low buzz sounded inside Eragon’s head. “Letta,” he said, and the buzzing ceased. Groaning as he stretched sore muscles, he got to his feet and lifted his arms over his head, shaking them to get the blood flowing. His back felt so bruised, he hoped it would be a long while before he had to swing a weapon again. He lowered his arms and then looked for Sloan.
The butcher was gone.
Eragon smiled as he saw a set of tracks, accompanied by the round imprint of the staff, leading away from the camp. The trail was confused and meandering, and yet its general direction was northward, toward the great forest of the elves.
I want him to succeed, Eragon thought with mild surprise. I want him to succeed, because it will mean we may all have a chance to redeem ourselves from our mistakes. And if Sloan can mend the flaws in his character and come to terms with the evil he wrought, he will find his plight is not so bleak as he believes. For Eragon had not told Sloan that if the butcher demonstrated that he truly regretted his crimes, reformed his ways, and lived as a better person, Queen Islanzadí would have her spellweavers restore his vision. However, it was a reward Sloan had to earn without knowing about its existence, else he might seek to trick the elves into bestowing it prematurely.
Eragon stared at the footprints for a long while, then lifted his gaze to the horizon and said, “Good luck.”
Tired, but also content, he turned his back on Sloan’s trail and began to run across the Gray Heath. To the southwest, he knew there stood the ancient sandstone formations where Brom lay encased in his diamond tomb. He longed to divert his path and to go pay his respects but dared not, for if Galbatorix had discovered the site, he would send his agents there to look for Eragon.
“I’ll return,” he said. “I promise you, Brom: someday I’ll return.”
He sped onward.
THE TRIAL OF THE LONG KNIVES
“But we are your people!”
Fadawar, a tall, high-nosed, black-skinned man, spoke with the same heavy emphasis and altered vowels Nasuada remembered hearing during her childhood in Farthen Dûr, when emissaries from her father’s tribe would arrive and she would sit on Ajihad’s lap and doze while they talked and smoked cardus weed.
Nasuada gazed up at Fadawar and wished she were six inches taller so that she could look the warlord and his four retainers straight in the eyes. Still, she was accustomed to men looming over her. She found it rather more disconcerting to be among a group of people who were as dark as she was. It was a novel experience not to be the object of people’s curious stares and whispered comments.
She was standing in front of the carved chair where she held her audiences—one of the only solid chairs the Varden had brought with them on their campaign—inside her red command pavilion. The sun was close to setting, and its rays filtered through the right side of the pavilion as through stained glass and gave the contents a ruddy glow. A long, low table covered with scattered reports and maps occupied one-half of the pavilion.
Just outside the entrance to the large tent, she knew the six members of her personal guard—two humans, two dwarves, and two Urgals—were waiting with drawn weapons, ready to attack if they received the slightest indication she was in peril. Jörmundur, her oldest and most trusted commander, had saddled her with guards since the day Ajihad died, but never so many for so long. However, the day after the battle on the Burning Plains, Jörmundur expressed his deep and abiding concern for her safety, a concern, he said, that often kept him up nights with a burning stomach. As an assassin had tried to kill her in Aberon, and Murtagh had actually accomplished the deed in regard to King Hrothgar less than a week past, it was Jörmundur’s opinion that Nasuada ought to create a force dedicated to her own defense. She had objected that such a measure would be an overreaction but had been unable to convince Jörmundur; he had threatened to abdicate his post if she refused to adopt what he considered to be proper precautions. Eventually, she acceded, only to spend the next hour haggling over how many guards she was to have. He had wanted twelve or more at all times. She wanted four or fewer. They settled on six, which still struck Nasuada as too many; she worried about appearing afraid or, worse, as if she were attempting to intimidate those she met. Again her protestations had failed to sway Jörmundur. When she accused him of being a stubborn old worrywart, he laughed and said, “Better a stubborn old worrywart than a foolhardy youngling dead before his time.”
As the members of her guard changed every six hours, the total number of warriors assigned to protect Nasuada was four-and-thirty, including the ten additional warriors who remained in readiness to replace their comrades in case of sickness, injury, or death.
It was Nasuada who had insisted upon recruiting the force from each of the three mortal races arrayed against Galbatorix. By doing so, she hoped to foster greater solidarity among them, as well as to convey that she represented the interests of all the races under her command, not just the humans. She would have included the elves as well, but at the moment, Arya was the only elf who fought alongside the Varden and their allies, and the twelve spellcasters Islanzadí had sent to protect Eragon had yet to arrive. To Nasuada’s disappointment, her human and dwarf guards had been hostile to the Urgals they served with, a reaction she anticipated but had been unable to avert or mitigate. It would, she knew, take more than one shared battle to ease the tensions between races that had fought and hated each other for more generations than she cared to count. Still, she viewed it as encouraging that the warriors chose to name their corps the Nighthawks, for the title was a play upon both her coloring and the fact that the Urgals invariably referred to her as Lady Nightstalker.
Although she would never admit it to Jörmundur, Nasuada had quickly come to appreciate the increased sense of security her guards provided. In addition to being masters of their chosen weapons—whether they were the humans’ swords, the dwarves’ axes, or the Urgals’ eccentric collection of instruments—many of the warriors were skilled spellweavers. And they had all sworn their undying loyalty to her
in the ancient language. Since the day the Nighthawks first assumed their duties, they had not left Nasuada alone with another person, save for Farica, her handmaid.
That was, until now.
Nasuada had sent them out of the pavilion because she knew her meeting with Fadawar might lead to the type of bloodshed the Nighthawks’ sense of duty would require them to prevent. Even so, she was not entirely defenseless. She had a dagger hidden in the folds of her dress, and an even smaller knife in the bodice of her undergarments, and the prescient witch-child, Elva, was standing just behind the curtain that backed Nasuada’s chair, ready to intercede if need be.
Fadawar tapped his four-foot-long scepter against the ground. The chased rod was made of solid gold, as was his fantastic array of jewelry: gold bangles covered his forearms; a breastplate of hammered gold armored his chest; long, thick chains of gold hung around his neck; embossed disks of white gold stretched the lobes of his ears; and upon the top of his head rested a resplendent gold crown of such huge proportions, Nasuada wondered how Fadawar’s neck could support the weight without buckling and how such a monumental piece of architecture remained fixed in place. It seemed one would have to bolt the edifice, which was at least two and a half feet tall, to its bony bedrock in order to keep it from toppling over.
Fadawar’s men were garbed in the same fashion, although less opulently. The gold they wore served to proclaim not only their wealth but also the status and deeds of each individual and the skill of their tribe’s far-famed craftsmen. As either nomads or city dwellers, the dark-skinned peoples of Alagaësia had long been renowned for the quality of their jewelry, which at its best rivaled that of the dwarves.
Nasuada owned several pieces of her own, but she had chosen not to wear them. Her poor raiment could not compete with Fadawar’s splendor. Also, she believed it would not be wise to affiliate herself with any one group, no matter how rich or influential, when she had to deal with and speak for all the differing factions of the Varden. If she displayed partiality toward one or another, her ability to control the whole lot of them would diminish.