“I would, but the farther away I got from you, the harder it would be to send the energy to you. And if I went too far—a mile, say, or maybe a bit more—the effort would kill me. As for what can go wrong, the only risk is that I will word the counterspell improperly and it won’t block all of my blessing. If that happens, I will simply cast another counterspell.”
“And if that falls short as well?”
He paused. “Then I can always resort to the first method I explained. I would prefer to avoid that, however. It is the only way to completely do away with a spell, but if the attempt were to go amiss, and it very well might, you could end up worse off than you are now.”
Elva nodded. “I understand.”
“Have I your permission to proceed, then?”
When she dipped her chin again, Eragon took a deep breath, readying himself. His eyes half closed from the strength of his concentration, he began to speak in the ancient language. Each word fell from his tongue with the weight of a hammer blow. He was careful to enunciate every syllable, every sound that was foreign to his own language, so as to avoid a potentially tragic mishap. The counterspell was burned into his memory. He had spent many hours during his trip from Helgrind inventing it, agonizing over it, challenging himself to devise better alternatives, all in anticipation of the day he would attempt to atone for the harm he had caused Elva. As he spoke, Saphira channeled her strength into him, and he felt her supporting him and watching closely, ready to intervene if she saw in his mind that he was about to mangle the incantation. The counterspell was very long and very complicated, for he had sought to address every reasonable interpretation of his blessing. As a result, a full five minutes passed before Eragon uttered the last sentence, word, and then syllable.
In the silence that followed, Elva’s face clouded with disappointment. “I can still sense them,” she said.
Nasuada leaned forward in her seat. “Who?”
“You, him, her, everyone who’s in pain. They haven’t gone away! The urge to help them, that’s gone, but this agony still courses through me.”
Nasuada leaned forward in her throne. “Eragon?”
He frowned. “I must have missed something. Give me a little while to think, and I’ll put together another spell that may do the trick. There are a few other possibilities I considered, but…” He trailed off, troubled by the fact that the counterspell had not performed as expected. Moreover, deploying a spell specifically to block the pain Elva was feeling would be far more difficult than trying to undo the blessing as a whole. One wrong word, one poorly constructed phrase, and he might destroy her sense of empathy, or preclude her from ever learning how to communicate with her mind, or inhibit her own sense of pain, so she would not immediately notice when she was injured.
Eragon was in the midst of consulting with Saphira when Elva said, “No!”
Puzzled, he looked at her.
An ecstatic glow seemed to emanate from Elva. Her round, pearllike teeth gleamed as she smiled, her eyes flashing with triumphant joy. “No, don’t try again.”
“But, Elva, why would—”
“Because I don’t want any more spells feeding off me. And because I just realized I can ignore them!” She gripped the arms of her chair, trembling with excitement. “Without the urge to aid everyone who is suffering, I can ignore their troubles, and it doesn’t make me sick! I can ignore the man with the amputated leg, I can ignore the woman who just scalded her hand, I can ignore them all, and I feel no worse for it! It’s true I can’t block them perfectly, not yet at least, but oh, what a relief! Silence. Blessed silence! No more cuts, scrapes, bruises, or broken bones. No more petty worries of air-headed youths. No more anguish of abandoned wives or cuckolded husbands. No more the thousands of unbearable injuries of an entire war. No more the gut-wrenching panic that precedes the final darkness.” With tears starting down her cheeks, she laughed, a husky warble that set Eragon’s scalp atingle.
What madness is this? asked Saphira. Even if you can put it out of your mind, why remain shackled to the pain of others when Eragon may yet be able to free you of it?
Elva’s eyes glowed with unsavory glee. “I will never be like ordinary people. If I must be different, then let me keep that which sets me apart. As long as I can control this power, as it seems I now can, I have no objection to carrying this burden, for it shall be by my choice and not forced upon me by your magic, Eragon. Ha! From now on, I shall answer to no one and no thing. If I help anyone, it will be because I want to. If I serve the Varden, it will be because my conscience tells me I should and not because you ask me to, Nasuada, or because I’ll throw up if I don’t. I will do as I please, and woe unto those who oppose me, for I know all their fears and shall not hesitate to play upon them in order to fulfill my wishes.”
“Elva!” exclaimed Greta. “Do not say such terrible things! You cannot mean them!”
The girl turned toward her so sharply, her hair fanned out behind her. “Ah yes, I had forgotten about you, my nursemaid. Ever faithful. Always fussing. I am grateful to you for adopting me after my mother died, and for the care you’ve given me since Farthen Dûr, but I do not require your assistance anymore. I will live alone, tend to myself, and be beholden to no one.” Cowed, the old woman covered her mouth with the hem of a sleeve and shrank back.
What Elva said appalled Eragon. He decided that he could not allow her to retain her ability if she was going to abuse it. With Saphira’s assistance, for she agreed with him, he picked the most promising of the new counterspells he had been contemplating earlier and opened his mouth to deliver the lines.
Quick as a snake, Elva clamped a hand over his lips, preventing him from speaking. The pavilion shook as Saphira snarled, nearly deafening Eragon, with his enhanced hearing. As everyone reeled, save for Elva, who kept her hand pressed against Eragon’s face, Saphira said, Let him go, hatchling!
Drawn by Saphira’s snarl, Nasuada’s six guards charged inside, brandishing their weapons, while Blödhgarm and the other elves ran up to Saphira and stationed themselves on either side of her shoulders, pulling back the wall of the tent so they could all see what was happening. Nasuada gestured, and the Nighthawks lowered their weapons, but the elves remained poised for action. Their blades gleamed like ice.
Neither the commotion she had engendered nor the swords leveled at her seemed to perturb Elva. She cocked her head and gazed at Eragon as if he were an unusual beetle she had found crawling along the edge of her chair, and then she smiled with such a sweet, innocent expression, he wondered why he did not have greater faith in her character. In a voice like warm honey, she said, “Eragon, cease. If you cast that spell, you will hurt me as you hurt me once before. You do not want that. Every night when you lay yourself down to sleep, you will think of me, and the memory of the wrong you have committed will torment you. What you were about to do was evil, Eragon. Are you the judge of the world? Will you condemn me in the absence of wrongdoing merely because you do not approve of me? That way lies the depraved pleasure of controlling others for your own satisfaction. Galbatorix would approve.”
She released him then, but Eragon was too troubled to move. She had struck at his very core, and he had no counterarguments with which to defend himself, for her questions and observations were the very ones he directed at himself. Her understanding of him sent a chill crawling down his spine. “I am grateful to you also, Eragon, for coming here today to correct your mistake. Not everyone is as willing to acknowledge and confront their shortcomings. However, you have earned no favor with me today. You have righted the scales as best you could, but that is only what any decent person ought to have done. You have not compensated me for what I have endured, nor can you. So when next we cross paths, Eragon Shadeslayer, count me not as a friend or foe. I am ambivalent toward you, Rider; I am just as prepared to hate you as I am to love you. The outcome is yours alone to decide…. Saphira, you gave me the star upon my brow, and you have always been kind to me. I am and shall always remain yo
ur faithful servant.”
Lifting her chin to maximize her three-and-a-half-foot height, Elva surveyed the interior of the pavilion. “Eragon, Saphira, Nasuada … Angela. Good day.” And with that, she swept off toward the entrance. The Nighthawks parted ranks as she passed between them and went outside.
Eragon stood, feeling unsteady. “What sort of monster have I created?” The two Urgal Nighthawks touched the tip of each of their horns, which he knew was how they warded off evil. To Nasuada, he said, “I’m sorry. I seem to have only made things worse for you—for all of us.”
Calm as a mountain lake, Nasuada arranged her robes before answering: “No matter. The game has gotten a little more complicated, that is all. It is to be expected the closer we get to Urû’baen and Galbatorix.”
A moment later, Eragon heard the sound of an object rushing through the air toward him. He flinched, but fast as he was, he was too slow to avoid a stinging slap that knocked his head to one side and sent him staggering against a chair. He rolled across the seat of the chair and sprang upright, his left arm lifted to ward off an on-coming blow, his right arm pulled back, ready to stab with the hunting knife he had snatched from his belt during the maneuver. To his astonishment, he saw that it was Angela who had struck him. The elves were gathered inches behind the fortuneteller, ready to subdue her if she should attack him again or to escort her away should Eragon order it. Solembum was at her feet, teeth and claws bared, and his hair standing on end.
Right then, Eragon could care less about the elves. “What did you do that for?” he demanded. He winced as his split lower lip stretched, tearing the flesh farther apart. Warm, metallic-tasting blood trickled down his throat.
Angela tossed her head. “Now I’m going to have to spend the next ten years teaching Elva how to behave! That’s not what I had in mind for the next decade!”
“Teach her?” exclaimed Eragon. “She won’t let you. She’ll stop you as easily as she stopped me.”
“Humph. Not likely. She doesn’t know what bothers me, nor what might be about to hurt me. I saw to that the day she and I first met.”
“Would you share this spell with us?” Nasuada asked. “After how this has turned out, it seems prudent for us to have a means of protecting ourselves from Elva.”
“No, I don’t think I will,” said Angela. Then she too marched out of the pavilion, and Solembum stalked after her, waving his tail ever so gracefully.
The elves sheathed their blades and retreated to a discreet distance from the tent.
Nasuada rubbed her temples with a circular motion. “Magic,” she cursed.
“Magic,” agreed Eragon.
The pair of them started as Greta cast herself upon the ground and began to weep and wail while pulling at her thin hair, beating herself on the face, and ripping at her bodice. “Oh, my poor dear! I’ve lost my lamb! Lost! What will become of her, all alone? Oh, woe is me, my own little blossom rejecting me. It’s a shameful reward it is for the work I’ve done, bending my back like a slave I have. What a cruel, hard world, always stealing your happiness from you.” She groaned. “My plum. My rose. My pretty sweet pea. Gone! And no one to look after her…. Shadeslayer! Will you watch over her?”
Eragon grasped her by the arm and helped her to her feet, consoling her with assurances that he and Saphira would keep a close eye on Elva. If only, as Saphira said to Eragon, because she might attempt to slip a knife between our ribs.
GIFTS OF GOLD
Eragon stood next to Saphira, fifty yards from Nasuada’s crimson pavilion. Glad to be free of all the commotion that had surrounded Elva, he gazed up at the clear azure sky and rolled his shoulders, already tired from the events of the day. Saphira intended to fly out to the Jiet River and bathe herself in its deep, slow-moving water, but his own intentions were less definite. He still needed to finish oiling his armor, prepare for Roran and Katrina’s wedding, visit with Jeod, locate a proper sword for himself, and also … He scratched his chin.
How long will you be gone? he asked.
Saphira unfurled her wings in preparation for flight. A few hours. I’m hungry. Once I am clean, I am going to catch two or three of those plump deer I’ve seen nibbling the grass on the western bank of the river. The Varden have shot so many of them, though, I may have to fly a half-dozen leagues toward the Spine before I find any game worth hunting.
Don’t go too far, he cautioned, else you might encounter the Empire.
I won’t, but if I happen upon a lone group of soldiers … She licked her chops. I would enjoy a quick fight. Besides, humans taste just as good as deer.
Saphira, you wouldn’t!
Her eyes sparkled. Maybe, maybe not. It depends on whether they are wearing armor. I hate biting through metal, and scooping my food out of a shell is just as annoying.
I see. He glanced over at the nearest elf, a tall, silver-haired woman. The elves won’t want you to go alone. Will you allow a couple of them to ride on you? Otherwise, it will be impossible for them to keep pace.
Not today. Today, I hunt alone! With a sweep of her wings, she took off, soaring high overhead. As she turned west, toward the Jiet River, her voice sounded in his mind, fainter than before because of the distance between them. When I return, we will fly together, won’t we, Eragon?
Yes, when you return, we will fly together, just the two of us. Her pleasure at that caused him to smile as he watched her arrow away toward the west.
Eragon lowered his gaze as Blödhgarm ran up to him, lithe as a forest cat. The elf asked where Saphira was going and seemed displeased with Eragon’s explanation, but if he had any objections, he kept them to himself.
“Right,” Eragon said to himself as Blödhgarm rejoined his companions. “First things first.”
He strode through the camp until he found a large square of open space where thirty-some Varden were practicing with a wide assortment of weapons. To his relief, they were too busy training to notice his presence. Crouching, he lay his right hand palm-upward on the trampled earth. He chose the words he would need from the ancient language, then murmured, “Kuldr, rïsa lam iet un malthinae unin böllr.”
The soil beside his hand appeared unchanged, although he could feel the spell sifting through the dirt for hundreds of feet in every direction. Not more than five seconds later, the surface of the earth began to boil like a pot of water left to sit for too long over a high flame, and it acquired a bright yellow sheen. Eragon had learned from Oromis that wherever one went, the land was sure to contain minute particles of nearly every element, and while they would be too small and scattered to mine with traditional methods, a knowledgeable magician could, with great effort, extract them.
From the center of the yellow patch, a fountain of sparkling dust arched up and over, landing in the middle of Eragon’s palm. There each glittering mote melded into the next, until three spheres of pure gold, each the size of a large hazelnut, rested on his hand.
“Letta,” said Eragon, and released the magic. He sat back on his heels and braced himself against the ground as a wave of weariness washed over him. His head drooped forward, and his eyelids descended halfway as his vision flickered and dimmed. Taking a deep breath, he admired the mirror-smooth orbs in his hand while he waited for his strength to return. So pretty, he thought. If only I could have done this when we were living in Palancar Valley…. It would almost be easier to mine the gold, though. A spell hasn’t taken so much out of me since I carried Sloan down from the top of Helgrind.
He pocketed the gold and set out again through the camp. He found a cook tent and ate a large lunch, which he needed after casting so many arduous spells, then headed toward the area where the villagers from Carvahall were staying. As he approached, he heard the ring of metal striking metal. Curious, he turned in that direction.
Eragon stepped around a line of three wagons parked across the mouth of the lane and saw Horst standing in a thirty-foot gap between the tents, holding one end of a five-foot-long bar of steel. The other end of the
bar was bright cherry red and rested on the face of a massive two-hundred-pound anvil that was staked to the top of a low, wide stump. On either side of the anvil, Horst’s burly sons, Albriech and Baldor, alternated striking the steel with sledge-hammers, which they swung over their heads in huge circular blows. A makeshift forge glowed several feet behind the anvil.
The hammering was so loud, Eragon kept his distance until Albriech and Baldor had finished spreading the steel and Horst had returned the bar to the forge. Waving his free arm, Horst said, “Ho, Eragon!” Then he held up a finger, forestalling Eragon’s reply, and pulled a plug of felted wool out of his left ear. “Ah, now I can hear again. What brings you about, Eragon?” While he spoke, his sons scooped more charcoal into the forge from a bucket and set about tidying up the tongs, hammers, dies, and other tools that lay on the ground. All three men gleamed with sweat.
“I wanted to know what was causing such a commotion,” said Eragon. “I should have guessed it was you. No one else can create as big an uproar as someone from Carvahall.”
Horst laughed, his thick, spade-shaped beard pointed up toward the sky until his mirth was exhausted. “Ah, that tickles my pride, it does. And aren’t you the living truth of it, eh?”
“We all are,” Eragon replied. “You, me, Roran, everyone from Carvahall. Alagaësia will never be the same once the lot of us are done.” He gestured at the forge and the other equipment. “Why are you here? I thought that all the smiths were—”
“So they are, Eragon. So they are. However, I convinced the captain who’s in charge of this part of the camp to let me work closer to our tent.” Horst tugged at the end of his beard. “It’s on account of Elain, you know. This child, it goes hard with her, and no wonder, considering what we went through to get here. She’s always been delicate, and now I worry that… well…” He shook himself like a bear ridding itself of flies. “Maybe you could look in on her when you get a chance and see if you can ease her discomfort.”