She swept back the entrance flap to the tent, and Eragon jumped as a host of people shouted, “Surprise!” A wide trestle table laden with food dominated the center of the tent, and at the table were sitting Roran and Katrina, twenty or so of the villagers from Carvahall—including Horst and his family—Angela the herbalist, Jeod and his wife, Helen, and several people Eragon did not recognize but who had the look of sailors. A half-dozen children had been playing on the ground next to the table; they paused in their games and stared at Nasuada and Eragon with open mouths, seemingly unable to decide which of these two strange figures deserved more of their attention.
Eragon grinned, overwhelmed. Before he could think of what to say, Angela raised her flagon and piped, “Well, don’t just stand there gaping! Come in, sit down. I’m hungry!”
As everyone laughed, Nasuada pulled Eragon toward the two empty chairs next to Roran. Eragon helped Nasuada to her seat, and as she sank into the chair, he asked, “Did you arrange this?”
“Roran suggested whom you might want to attend, but yes, the original idea was mine. And I made a few additions of my own to the table, as you can see.”
“Thank you,” said Eragon, humbled. “Thank you so much.”
He saw Elva sitting cross-legged in the far-left corner of the tent, a platter of food on her lap. The other children shunned her—Eragon could not imagine they had much in common—and none of the adults, save Angela, seemed comfortable in her presence. The small, narrow-shouldered girl gazed up at him from under her black bangs with her horrible violet eyes and mouthed what he guessed was “Greetings, Shadeslayer.”
“Greetings, Farseer,” he mouthed in return. Her small pink lips parted in what would have been a charming smile if not for the fell orbs that burned above them.
Eragon gripped the arms of his chair as the table shook, the dishes rattled, and the walls of the tent flapped. Then the back of the tent bulged and parted as Saphira pushed her head inside. Meat! she said. I smell meat!
For the next few hours, Eragon lost himself in a blur of food, drink, and the pleasure of good company. It was like returning home. The wine flowed like water, and after they had drained their cups once or twice, the villagers forgot their deference and treated him as one of their own, which was the greatest gift they could give. They were equally generous with Nasuada, although they refrained from making jokes at her expense, as they sometimes did with Eragon. Pale smoke filled the tent as the candles consumed themselves. Beside him, Eragon heard the boom of Roran’s laughter ring forth again and again, and across the table the even deeper boom of Horst’s laugh. Muttering an incantation, Angela set to dancing a small man she had fashioned from a crust of sourdough bread, much to everyone’s amusement. The children gradually overcame their fear of Saphira and dared to walk up to her and pet her snout. Soon they were clambering over her neck, hanging from her spikes, and tugging at the crests above her eyes. Eragon laughed as he watched. Jeod entertained the crowd with a song he had learned from a book long ago. Tara danced a jig. Nasuada’s teeth flashed as she tossed her head back. And Eragon, by popular request, recounted several of his adventures, including a detailed description of his flight from Carvahall with Brom, which was of special interest to his listeners.
“To think,” said Gertrude, the round-faced healer tugging on her shawl, “we had a dragon in our valley and we never even knew it.” With a pair of knitting needles produced from within her sleeves, she pointed at Eragon. “To think I nursed you when your legs had been scraped from flying on Saphira and I never suspected the cause.” Shaking her head and clucking her tongue, she cast on with brown wool yarn and began to knit with speed born of decades of practice.
Elain was the first to leave the party, pleading exhaustion brought on by her advanced stage of pregnancy; one of her sons, Baldor, went with her. Half an hour later, Nasuada also made to leave, explaining that the demands of her position prevented her from staying as long as she would like but that she wished them health and happiness and hoped they would continue to support her in her fight against the Empire.
As she moved away from the table, Nasuada beckoned to Eragon. He joined her by the entrance. Turning her shoulder to the rest of the tent, she said, “Eragon, I know that you need time to recover from your journey and that you have affairs of your own that you must tend to. Therefore, tomorrow and the day after are yours to spend as you will. But on the morning of the third day, present yourself at my pavilion and we shall talk about your future. I have a most important mission for you.”
“My Lady.” Then he said, “You keep Elva close at hand wherever you go, do you not?”
“Aye, she is my safeguard against any danger that might slip past the Nighthawks. Also, her ability to divine what it is that pains people has proved enormously helpful. It is so much easier to obtain someone’s cooperation when you are privy to all of their secret hurts.”
“Are you willing to give that up?”
She studied him with a piercing gaze. “You intend to remove your curse from Elva?”
“I intend to try. Remember, I promised her I would.”
“Yes, I was there.” The crash of a falling chair distracted her for an instant, then she said, “Your promises will be the death of us…. Elva is irreplaceable; no one else has her skill. And the service she provides, as I just testified, is worth more than a mountain of gold. I have even thought that, of all of us, she alone might be able to defeat Galbatorix. She would be able to anticipate his every attack, and your spell would show her how to counter them, and as long as countering them did not require her to sacrifice her life, she would prevail…. For the good of the Varden, Eragon, for the good of everyone in Alagaësia, couldn’t you feign your attempt to cure Elva?”
“No,” he said, biting off the word as if it offended him. “I would not do it even if I could. It would be wrong. If we force Elva to remain as she is, she will turn against us, and I do not want her as an enemy.” He paused, then at Nasuada’s expression added, “Besides, there is a good chance I may not succeed. Removing such a vaguely worded spell is a difficult prospect at best…. If I may make a suggestion?”
“Be honest with Elva. Explain to her what she means to the Varden, and ask her if she will continue to carry her burden for the sake of all free people. She may refuse; she has every right to, but if she does, her character is not one we would want to rely upon anyway. And if she accepts, then it shall be of her own free will.”
With a slight frown, Nasuada nodded. “I shall speak with her tomorrow. You should be present as well, to help me persuade her and to lift your curse if we fail. Be at my pavilion three hours after dawn.” And with that, she swept into the torch-lit night outside.
Much later, when the candles guttered in their sockets and the villagers began to disperse in twos and threes, Roran grasped Eragon’s arm by the elbow and drew him through the back of the tent to stand by Saphira’s side, where the others could not hear. “What you said earlier about Helgrind, was that all of it?” asked Roran. His grip was like a pair of iron pincers clamped around Eragon’s flesh. His eyes were hard and questioning, and also unusually vulnerable.
Eragon held his gaze. “If you trust me, Roran, never ask me that question again. It’s not something you want to know.” Even as he spoke, Eragon felt a deep sense of unease over having to conceal Sloan’s existence from Roran and Katrina. He knew the deception was necessary, but it still made him uncomfortable to lie to his family. For a moment, Eragon considered telling Roran the truth, but then he remembered all the reasons he had decided not to and held his tongue.
Roran hesitated, his face troubled, then he set his jaw and released Eragon. “I trust you. That’s what family is for, after all, eh? Trust.”
“That and killing each other.”
Roran laughed and rubbed his nose with a thumb. “That too.” He rolled his thick, round shoulders and reached up to massage his right one, a habit he had fallen into since the Ra’zac ha
d bitten him. “I have another question.”
“It is a boon … a favor I seek of you.” A wry smile touched his lips, and he shrugged. “I never thought I would speak to you of this. You’re younger than I, you’ve barely reached your manhood, and you’re my cousin to boot.”
“Speak of what? Stop beating around the bush.”
“Of marriage,” said Roran, and lifted his chin. “Will you marry Katrina and me? It would please me if you would, and while I have refrained from mentioning it to her until I had your answer, I know Katrina would be honored and delighted if you would consent to join us as man and wife.”
Astonished, Eragon was at a loss for words. At last he managed to stammer, “Me?” Then he hastened to say, “I would be happy to do it, of course, but… me? Is that really what you want? I’m sure Nasuada would agree to marry the two of you…. You could have King Orrin, a real king! He would leap at the chance to preside over the ceremony if it would help him earn my favor.”
“I want you, Eragon,” said Roran, and clapped him on the shoulder. “You are a Rider, and you are the only other living person who shares my blood; Murtagh does not count. I cannot think of anyone else I would rather have tie the knot around my wrist and hers.”
“Then,” said Eragon, “I shall.” The air whooshed out of him as Roran embraced him and squeezed with all of his prodigious strength. He gasped slightly when Roran released him and then, once his breath had returned, said, “When? Nasuada has a mission planned for me. I don’t know what it is yet, but I’m guessing it will keep me busy for some time. So … maybe early next month, if events allow?”
Roran’s shoulders bunched and knotted. He shook his head like a bull sweeping its horns through a clump of brambles. “What about the day after tomorrow?”
“So soon? Isn’t that rushing it a bit? There would hardly be any time to prepare. People will think it’s unseemly.”
Roran’s shoulders rose, and the veins on his hands bulged as he opened and closed his fists. “It can’t wait. If we’re not married and quick, the old women will have something far more interesting to gossip about than my impatience. Do you understand?”
It took Eragon a moment to grasp Roran’s meaning, but once he did, Eragon could not stop a broad smile from spreading across his face. Roran’s going to be a father! he thought. Still smiling, he said, “I think so. The day after tomorrow it is.” Eragon grunted as Roran hugged him again, pounding him on the back. With some difficulty, he freed himself.
Grinning, Roran said, “I’m in your debt. Thank you. Now I must go share the news with Katrina, and we must do what we can to ready a wedding feast. I will let you know the exact hour once we decide on it.”
“That sounds fine.”
Roran began walking toward the tent, then he spun around and threw his arms out in the air as if he would gather the entire world to his breast. “Eragon, I’m going to be married!”
With a laugh, Eragon waved his hand. “Go on, you fool. She’s waiting for you.”
Eragon climbed onto Saphira as the flaps of the tent closed over Roran. “Blödhgarm?” he called. Quiet as a shadow, the elf glided into the light, his yellow eyes glowing like coals. “Saphira and I are going to fly for a little while. We will meet you at my tent.”
“Shadeslayer,” said Blödhgarm, and tilted his head.
Then Saphira raised her massive wings, ran forward three steps, and launched herself over the rows of tents, battering them with wind as she flapped hard and fast. The movements of her body beneath him shook Eragon, and he gripped the spike in front of him for support. Saphira spiraled upward above the twinkling camp until it was an inconsequential patch of light dwarfed by the dark landscape that surrounded it. There she remained, floating between the heavens and the earth, and all was silent.
Eragon lay his head on her neck and stared up at the glittering band of dust that spanned the sky.
Rest if you want, little one, said Saphira. I shall not let you fall.
And he rested, and visions beset him of a circular stone city that stood in the center of an endless plain and of a small girl who wandered among the narrow, winding alleys within and who sang a haunting melody.
And the night wore on toward morning.
It was just after dawn and Eragon was sitting on his cot, oiling his mail hauberk, when one of the Varden’s archers came to him and begged him to heal his wife, who was suffering from a malignant tumor. Even though he was supposed to be at Nasuada’s pavilion in less than an hour, Eragon agreed and accompanied the man to his tent. Eragon found his wife much weakened from the growth, and it took all of his skill to extract the insidious tendrils from her flesh. The effort left him tired, but he was pleased that he was able to save the woman from a long and painful death.
Afterward, Eragon rejoined Saphira outside of the archer’s tent and stood with her for a few minutes, rubbing the muscles near the base of her neck. Humming, Saphira flicked her sinuous tail and twisted her head and shoulders so that he had better access to her smooth plated underside. She said, While you were occupied in there, other petitioners came to seek an audience with you, but Blödhgarm and his ilk turned them away, for their requests were not urgent.
Is that so? He dug his fingers under the edge of one of her large neck scales, scratching even harder. Perhaps I should emulate Nasuada.
On the sixth day of every week, from morning until noon, she grants an audience to everyone who wishes to bring requests or disputes before her. I could do the same.
I like the idea, said Saphira. Only, you will have to be careful that you do not expend too much of your energy on people’s demands. We must be ready to fight the Empire at a moment’s notice. She pushed her neck against his hand, humming even louder.
I need a sword, Eragon said.
Then get one.
Eragon continued to scratch her until she pulled away and said, You will be late for Nasuada unless you hurry.
Together, they started toward the center of the camp and Nasuada’s pavilion. It was less than a quarter of a mile away, so Saphira walked with him instead of soaring among the clouds, as she had before.
About a hundred feet from the pavilion, they chanced upon Angela the herbalist. She was kneeling between two tents, pointing at a square of leather draped across a low, flat rock. On the leather lay a jumbled pile of finger-length bones branded with a different symbol on each facet: the knucklebones of a dragon, with which she had read Eragon’s future in Teirm.
Opposite Angela sat a tall woman with broad shoulders; tanned, weather-beaten skin; black hair braided in a long, thick rope down her back; and a face that was still handsome despite the hard lines that the years had carved around her mouth. She wore a russet dress that had been made for a shorter woman; her wrists stuck out several inches from the ends of her sleeves. She had tied a strip of dark cloth around each wrist, but the strip on the left had loosened and slipped toward her elbow. Eragon saw thick layers of scars where it had been. They were the sort of scars one could only get from the constant chafing of manacles. At some point, he realized, she had been captured by her enemies, and she had fought—fought until she had torn open her wrists to the bone, if her scars were anything to judge by. He wondered whether she had been a criminal or a slave, and he felt his countenance darken as he considered the thought of someone being so cruel as to allow such harm to befall a prisoner under his control, even if it was self-inflicted.
Next to the woman was a serious-looking teenage girl just entering into the full bloom of her adult beauty. The muscles of her forearms were unusually large, as if she had been an apprentice to a smith or a swordsman, which was highly improbable for a girl, no matter how strong she might be.
Angela had just finished saying something to the woman and her companion when Eragon and Saphira halted behind the curly-haired witch. With a single motion, Angela gathered up the knucklebones
in the leather square and tucked them under the yellow sash at her waist. Standing, she flashed Eragon and Saphira a brilliant smile. “My, you both have the most impeccable sense of timing. You always seem to turn up whenever the drop spindle of fate begins to spin.”
“The drop spindle of fate?” questioned Eragon.
She shrugged. “What? You can’t expect brilliance all the time, not even from me.” She gestured at the two strangers, who had also stood, and said, “Eragon, will you consent to give them your blessing? They have endured many dangers, and a hard road yet lies before them. I am sure they would appreciate whatever protection the benediction of a Dragon Rider may convey.”
Eragon hesitated. He knew that Angela rarely cast the dragon bones for the people who sought her services—usually only for those whom Solembum deigned to speak with—as such a prognostication was no false act of magic but rather a true foretelling that could reveal the mysteries of the future. That Angela had chosen to do this for the handsome woman with the scars on her wrists and the teenage girl with the forearms of a swordfighter told him they were people of note, people who had had, and would have, important roles in shaping the Alagaësia to be. As if to confirm his suspicions, he spotted Solembum in his usual form of a cat with large, tufted ears lurking behind the corner of a nearby tent, watching the proceedings with enigmatic yellow eyes. And yet Eragon still hesitated, haunted by the memory of the first and last blessing he had bestowed—how, because of his relative unfamiliarity with the ancient language, he had distorted the life of an innocent child.
Saphira? he asked.
Her tail whipped through the air. Do not be so reluctant. You have learned from your mistake, and you shall not make it again. Why, then, should you withhold your blessing from those who may benefit from it? Bless them, I say, and do it properly this time.
“What are your names?” he asked.