He wrestled with his unruly emotions deep into the night, until finally he succumbed to exhaustion and drifted into the waiting embrace of his waking dreams. There he wandered for a few fitful hours until the stars began to fade and it was time for him and Arya to leave Eastcroft.
Together, they opened the window and jumped from the sill to the ground twelve feet below, a small drop for one with an elf’s abilities. As she fell, Arya grasped the skirt of her dress to keep it from billowing around her. They landed inches apart and then set off running between the houses toward the palisade.
“People will wonder where we went,” said Eragon between strides. “Maybe we should have waited and left like normal travelers.”
“It’s riskier to stay. I paid for my room. That’s all the innkeeper really cares about, not whether we snuck out early.” The two of them parted for a few seconds as they circumvented a decrepit wagon, and then Arya added, “The most important thing is to keep moving. If we linger, the king will surely find us.”
When they arrived at the outer wall, Arya ranged along it until she found a post that protruded somewhat. She wrapped her hands around it and pulled, testing the wood with her weight. The post swayed and rattled against its neighbors, but otherwise held.
“You first,” said Arya.
“Please, after you.”
With a sigh of impatience, she tapped her bodice. “A dress is somewhat breezier than a pair of leggings, Eragon.”
Heat flooded his cheeks as he caught her meaning. Reaching above his head, he got a good grip and then began to climb the palisade, bracing himself with his knees and feet during the ascent. At the top, he stopped and balanced on the tips of the sharpened posts.
“Go on,” whispered Arya.
“Not until you join me.”
“Don’t be so—”
“Watchman!” said Eragon, and pointed. A lantern floated in the darkness between a pair of nearby houses. As the light approached, the gilded outline of a man emerged from the gloom. He carried a naked sword in one hand.
Silent as a specter, Arya grasped the post and, using only the strength of her arms, pulled herself hand over hand toward Eragon. She seemed to glide upward, as if by magic. When she was close enough, Eragon seized her right forearm and lifted her above the remainder of the posts, setting her down next to him. Like two strange birds, they perched on the palisade, motionless and breathless as the watchman walked underneath them. He swung the lantern in either direction, searching for intruders.
Don’t look at the ground, pleaded Eragon. And don’t look up.
A moment later, the watchman sheathed his sword and continued on his rounds, humming to himself.
Without a word, Eragon and Arya dropped to the other side of the palisade. The armor in Eragon’s pack rattled as he struck the grass-covered bank below and rolled to dissipate the force of the impact. Springing to his feet, he bent low and dashed away from Eastcroft over the gray landscape, Arya close behind. They kept to hollows and dry streambeds as they skirted the farms that surrounded the village. A half-dozen times, indignant dogs ran out to protest the invasion of their territories. Eragon tried to calm them with his mind, but the only way he found to stop the dogs from barking was to assure them that their terrible teeth and claws had scared him and Arya away. Pleased with their success, the dogs pranced with wagging tails back to the barns, sheds, and porches where they had been standing guard over their fiefdoms. Their smug confidence amused Eragon.
Five miles from Eastcroft, when it became apparent they were utterly alone and no one was trailing them, Eragon and Arya drew to a halt by a charred stump. Kneeling, Arya scooped several handfuls of dirt from the ground in front of her. “Adurna rïsa,” she said. With a faint trickle, water welled out of the surrounding soil and poured into the hole she had dug. Arya waited until the water filled the cavity and then said, “Letta,” and the flow ceased.
She intoned a spell of scrying, and Nasuada’s face appeared upon the surface of the still water. Arya greeted her. “My Lady,” Eragon said, and bowed.
“Eragon,” she replied. She appeared tired, hollow-cheeked, as if she had suffered a long illness. A lock snapped free of her bun and coiled itself into a tight knot at her hairline. Eragon glimpsed a row of bulky bandages on her arm as she slid a hand over her head, pressing the rebellious hair flat. “You are safe, thank Gokukara. We were so worried.”
“I’m sorry I upset you, but I had my reasons.”
“You must explain them to me when you arrive.”
“As you wish,” he said. “How were you hurt? Did someone attack you? Why haven’t any of Du Vrangr Gata healed you?”
“I ordered them to leave me alone. And that I will explain when you arrive.” Thoroughly puzzled, Eragon nodded and swallowed his questions. To Arya, Nasuada said, “I’m impressed; you found him. I wasn’t sure you could.”
“Fortune smiled upon me.”
“Perhaps, but I tend to believe your skill was as important as Fortune’s generosity. How long until you rejoin us?”
“Two, three days, unless we encounter unforeseen difficulties.”
“Good. I will expect you then. From now on, I want you to contact me at least once before noon and once before nightfall. If I fail to hear from you, I’ll assume you’ve been captured, and I’ll send Saphira with a rescue force.”
“We may not always have the privacy we need to work magic.”
“Find a way to get it. I need to know where you two are and whether you’re safe.”
Arya considered for a moment and then said, “If I can, I will do as you ask, but not if it puts Eragon in danger.”
Taking advantage of the ensuing pause in the conversation, Eragon said, “Nasuada, is Saphira near at hand? I would like to talk to her…. We haven’t spoken since Helgrind.”
“She left an hour ago to scout our perimeter. Can you maintain this spell while I find out if she has returned?”
“Go,” said Arya.
A single step carried Nasuada out of their field of view, leaving behind a static image of the table and chairs inside her red pavilion. For a good while, Eragon appraised the contents of the tent, but then restlessness overtook him and he allowed his eyes to drift from the pool of water to the back of Arya’s neck. Her thick black hair fell to one side, exposing a strip of smooth skin just above the collar of her dress. That transfixed him for the better part of a minute, and then he stirred and leaned against the charred stump.
There came the sound of breaking wood, and then a field of sparkling blue scales covered the pool as Saphira forced herself into the pavilion. It was hard for Eragon to tell what part of her he saw, it was such a small part. The scales slid past the pool and he glimpsed the underside of a thigh, a spike on her tail, the baggy membrane of a folded wing, and then the gleaming tip of a tooth as she turned and twisted, trying to find a position from which she could comfortably view the mirror Nasuada used for arcane communications. From the alarming noises that originated behind Saphira, Eragon guessed she was crushing most of the furniture. At last she settled in place, brought her head close to the mirror—so that one large sapphire eye occupied the entire pool—and peered out at Eragon.
They looked at each other for a full minute, neither of them moving. It surprised Eragon how relieved he was to see her. He had not truly felt safe since he and she had separated.
“I missed you,” he whispered.
She blinked once.
“Nasuada, are you still there?”
The muffled answer floated toward him from somewhere to the right of Saphira: “Yes, barely.”
“Would you be so kind as to relay Saphira’s comments to me?”
“I’m more than happy to, but at the moment, I’m caught between a wing and a pole, and there’s no path free, so far as I can tell. You may have difficulty hearing me. If you’re willing to bear with me, though, I’ll give it a try.”
was quiet for several heartbeats, and then in a tone so like Saphira’s that Eragon almost laughed, she said, “You are well?”
“I’m healthy as an ox. And you?”
“To compare myself with a bovine would be both ridiculous and insulting, but I’m as fit as ever, if that is what you are asking. I’m pleased Arya is with you. It’s good for you to have someone sensible around to watch your back.”
“I agree. Help is always welcome when you’re in danger.” While Eragon was grateful that he and Saphira were able to talk, albeit in a roundabout fashion, he found the spoken word a poor substitute for the free exchange of thoughts and emotions they enjoyed when in close proximity. Furthermore, with Arya and Nasuada privy to their conversation, Eragon was reluctant to address topics of a more personal nature, such as whether Saphira had forgiven him for forcing her to leave him in Helgrind. Saphira must have shared in his reluctance, for she too refrained from broaching the subject. They chatted about other, inconsequential happenings and then bade each other farewell. Before he stepped away from the pool, Eragon touched his fingers to his lips and silently mouthed, I’m sorry.
A sliver of space appeared around each of the small scales that rimmed Saphira’s eye as the underlying flesh softened. She blinked long and slow, and he knew she understood his message and that she bore him no ill will.
After Eragon and Arya took their leave of Nasuada, Arya terminated her spell and stood. With the back of her hand, she knocked the dirt from her dress.
While she did, Eragon fidgeted, impatient as he had not been before; right then he wanted nothing else but to run straight to Saphira and curl up with her in front of a campfire.
“Let us be off,” he said, already moving.
A DELICATE MATTER
The muscles of Roran’s back popped and rippled as he heaved the boulder off the ground.
He rested the large rock on his thighs for an instant and then, grunting, pressed it overhead and locked his arms straight. For a full minute, he held the crushing weight in the air. When his shoulders were trembling and about to fail, he threw the boulder onto the ground in front of him. It landed with a dull thud, leaving an indentation several inches deep in the dirt.
On either side of Roran, twenty of the Varden’s warriors struggled to lift boulders of similar size. Only two succeeded; the rest returned to the lighter rocks they were accustomed to. It pleased Roran that the months he had spent in Horst’s forge and the years of farmwork before had given him the strength to hold his own with men who had drilled with their weapons every day since they turned twelve.
Roran shook the fire from his arms and took several deep breaths, the air cool against his bare chest. Reaching up, he massaged his right shoulder, cupping the round ball of muscle and exploring it with his fingers, confirming once again that no trace remained of the injury he had suffered when the Ra’zac had bitten him. He grinned, glad to be whole and sound again, being as it had seemed no likelier to him than a cow dancing a jig.
A yelp of pain caused him to look over at Albriech and Baldor, who were sparring with Lang, a swarthy, battle-scarred veteran who taught the arts of war. Even two against one, Lang held his own, and with his wooden practice sword, he had disarmed Baldor, knocked him across the ribs, and jabbed Albriech so hard in the leg, he fell sprawling, all in the span of a few seconds. Roran empathized with them; he had just finished his own session with Lang, and it had left him with several new bruises to go with his faded ones from Helgrind. For the most part, he preferred his hammer over a sword, but he thought he should still be able to handle a blade if the occasion called for it. Swords required more finesse than he felt most fights deserved: bash a swordsman on the wrist and, armored or not, he would be too preoccupied with his broken bones to defend himself.
After the Battle of the Burning Plains, Nasuada had invited the villagers from Carvahall to join the Varden. They had all accepted her offer. Those who would have refused had already elected to stay in Surda when the villagers stopped in Dauth on their way to the Burning Plains. Every able-bodied man from Carvahall had taken up proper arms—discarding their makeshift spears and shields—and had worked to become warriors equal to any in Alagaësia. The people of Palancar Valley were accustomed to a hard life. Swinging a sword was no worse than chopping wood, and it was a far sight easier than breaking sod or hoeing acres of beets in the heat of summer. Those who knew a useful trade continued to ply their craft in service to the Varden, but in their spare time they still strove to master the weapons given to them, for every man was expected to fight when the call to battle sounded.
Roran had devoted himself to the training with unwavering dedication since returning from Helgrind. Helping the Varden defeat the Empire and, ultimately, Galbatorix was the one thing he could do to protect the villagers and Katrina. He was not arrogant enough to believe that he alone could tip the balance of the war, but he was confident in his ability to shape the world and knew that if he applied himself, he could increase the Varden’s chances of victory. He had to stay alive, though, and that meant conditioning his body and mastering the tools and techniques of slaughter so as to avoid falling to a more experienced warrior.
As he crossed the practice field, on his way back to the tent he shared with Baldor, Roran passed a strip of grass sixty feet long whereon lay a twenty-foot log stripped of its bark and polished smooth by the thousands of hands that rubbed against it every day. Without breaking his stride, Roran turned, slipped his fingers under the thick end of the log, lifted it, and, grunting from the strain, walked it upright. He gave the log a push then, and it toppled over. Grabbing the thin end, he repeated the process twice more.
Unable to muster the energy to flip the log again, Roran left the field and trotted through the surrounding maze of gray canvas tents, waving to Loring and Fisk and others he recognized, as well as a half-dozen or so strangers who greeted him. “Hail, Stronghammer!” they cried in warm tones.
“Hail!” he replied. It is a strange thing, he thought, to be known to people whom you have not met before. A minute later, he arrived at the tent that had become his home and, ducking inside, stored away the bow, the quiver of arrows, and the short sword the Varden had given him.
He snared his waterskin from beside his bedding, then hurried back into the bright sunlight and, unstoppering the skin, poured the contents over his back and shoulders. Baths tended to be sporadic and infrequent events for Roran, but today was an important day, and he wanted to be fresh and clean for what was to come. With the sharp edge of a polished stick, he scraped the grime off his arms and legs and out from under his fingernails and then combed his hair and trimmed his beard.
Satisfied that he was presentable, he pulled on his freshly washed tunic, stuck his hammer through his belt, and was about to head off through the camp when he became aware of Birgit watching him from behind the corner of the tent. She clenched a sheathed dagger with both hands.
Roran froze, ready to draw his hammer at the slightest provocation. He knew that he was in mortal danger, and despite his prowess, he was not confident of defeating Birgit if she attacked, for like him, she pursued her enemies with single-minded determination.
“You once asked me to help you,” said Birgit, “and I agreed because I wanted to find the Ra’zac and kill them for eating my husband. Have I not upheld my bargain?”
“And do you remember I promised that once the Ra’zac were dead, I would have my compensation from you for your role in Quimby’s death?”
Birgit twisted the dagger with increasing urgency, the back of her fists ridged with tendons. The dagger rose out of its sheath a full inch, baring the bright steel, and then slowly sank into darkness again. “Good,” she said. “I would not want your memory to fail you. I will have my compensation, Garrowsson. Never you doubt that.” With a swift, firm step, she departed, the dagger hidden among the folds of her dress.
Releasing his breath, Roran sat on a nearby
stool and rubbed his throat, convinced that he had narrowly escaped being gutted by Birgit. Her visit had alarmed him but it did not surprise him; he had been aware of her intentions for months, since before they left Carvahall, and he knew that one day he would have to settle his debt with her.
A raven soared overhead, and as he tracked it, his mood lightened and he smiled. “Well,” he said to himself. A man rarely knows the day and hour when he will die. I could be killed at any moment, and there’s not a blasted thing I can do about it. What will happen will happen, and I won’t waste the time I have aboveground worrying. Misfortune always comes to those who wait. The trick is to find happiness in the brief gaps between disasters. Birgit will do what her conscience tells her to, and I will deal with it when I must.
By his left foot, he noticed a yellowish stone, which he picked up and rolled between his fingers. Concentrating on it as hard as he could, he said, “Stenr rïsa.” The stone ignored his command and remained immobile between his thumb and forefinger. With a snort, he tossed it away.
Standing, he strode north between the rows of tents. While he walked, he tried to untangle a knot in the lacing at his collar, but it resisted his efforts, and he gave up on it when he arrived at Horst’s tent, which was twice as large as most. “Hello in there,” he said, and knocked on the pole between the two entrance flaps.
Katrina burst out of the tent, copper hair flying, and wrapped her arms around him. Laughing, he lifted her by the waist and spun her in a circle, all the world a blur except her face, then gently set her down. She pecked him on the lips, once, twice, three times. Growing still, he gazed into her eyes, more happy than he could ever remember being.
“You smell nice,” she said.
“How are you?” The only flaw in his joy was seeing how thin and pale imprisonment had left her. It made him want to resurrect the Ra’zac so they could endure the same suffering they had inflicted upon her and his father.