Eragon wove his way between the houses to the butcher’s shop, a broad, thick-beamed building. Overhead, the chimney belched black smoke.
He pushed the door open. The spacious room was warm and well lit by a fire snapping in a stone fireplace. A bare counter stretched across the far side of the room. The floor was strewn with loose straw. Everything was scrupulously clean, as if the owner spent his leisure time digging in obscure crannies for minuscule pieces of filth. Behind the counter stood the butcher Sloan. A small man, he wore a cotton shirt and a long, bloodstained smock. An impressive array of knives swung from his belt. He had a sallow, pockmarked face, and his black eyes were suspicious. He polished the counter with a ragged cloth.
Sloan’s mouth twisted as Eragon entered. “Well, the mighty hunter joins the rest of us mortals. How many did you bag this time?”
“None,” was Eragon’s curt reply. He had never liked Sloan. The butcher always treated him with disdain, as if he were something unclean. A widower, Sloan seemed to care for only one person—his daughter, Katrina, on whom he doted.
“I’m amazed,” said Sloan with affected astonishment. He turned his back on Eragon to scrape something off the wall. “And that’s your reason for coming here?”
“Yes,” admitted Eragon uncomfortably.
“If that’s the case, let’s see your money.” Sloan tapped his fingers when Eragon shifted his feet and remained silent. “Come on—either you have it or you don’t. Which is it?”
“I don’t really have any money, but I do—”
“What, no money?” the butcher cut him off sharply. “And you expect to buy meat! Are the other merchants giving away their wares? Should I just hand you the goods without charge? Besides,” he said abruptly, “it’s late. Come back tomorrow with money. I’m closed for the day.”
Eragon glared at him. “I can’t wait until tomorrow, Sloan. It’ll be worth your while, though; I found something to pay you with.” He pulled out the stone with a flourish and set it gently on the scarred counter, where it gleamed with light from the dancing flames.
“Stole it is more likely,” muttered Sloan, leaning forward with an interested expression.
Ignoring the comment, Eragon asked, “Will this be enough?”
Sloan picked up the stone and gauged its weight speculatively. He ran his hands over its smoothness and inspected the white veins. With a calculating look, he set it down. “It’s pretty, but how much is it worth?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Eragon, “but no one would have gone to the trouble of shaping it unless it had some value.”
“Obviously,” said Sloan with exaggerated patience. “But how much value? Since you don’t know, I suggest that you find a trader who does, or take my offer of three crowns.”
“That’s a miser’s bargain! It must be worth at least ten times that,” protested Eragon. Three crowns would not even buy enough meat to last a week.
Sloan shrugged. “If you don’t like my offer, wait until the traders arrive. Either way, I’m tired of this conversation.”
The traders were a nomadic group of merchants and entertainers who visited Carvahall every spring and winter. They bought whatever excess the villagers and local farmers had managed to grow or make, and sold what they needed to live through another year: seeds, animals, fabric, and supplies like salt and sugar.
But Eragon did not want to wait until they arrived; it could be a while, and his family needed the meat now. “Fine, I accept,” he snapped.
“Good, I’ll get you the meat. Not that it matters, but where did you find this?”
“Two nights ago in the Spine—”
“Get out!” demanded Sloan, pushing the stone away. He stomped furiously to the end of the counter and started scrubbing old bloodstains off a knife.
“Why?” asked Eragon. He drew the stone closer, as if to protect it from Sloan’s wrath.
“I won’t deal with anything you bring back from those damned mountains! Take your sorcerer’s stone elsewhere.” Sloan’s hand suddenly slipped and he cut a finger on the knife, but he seemed not to notice. He continued to scrub, staining the blade with fresh blood.
“You refuse to sell to me!”
“Yes! Unless you pay with coins,” Sloan growled, and hefted the knife, sidling away. “Go, before I make you!”
The door behind them slammed open. Eragon whirled around, ready for more trouble. In stomped Horst, a hulking man. Sloan’s daughter, Katrina—a tall girl of sixteen—trailed behind him with a determined expression. Eragon was surprised to see her; she usually absented herself from any arguments involving her father. Sloan glanced at them warily, then started to accuse Eragon. “He won’t—”
“Quiet,” announced Horst in a rumbling voice, cracking his knuckles at the same time. He was Carvahall’s smith, as his thick neck and scarred leather apron attested. His powerful arms were bare to the elbow; a great expanse of hairy muscular chest was visible through the top of his shirt. A black beard, carelessly trimmed, roiled and knotted like his jaw muscles. “Sloan, what have you done now?”
“Nothing.” He gave Eragon a murderous gaze, then spat, “This . . . boy came in here and started badgering me. I asked him to leave, but he won’t budge. I even threatened him and he still ignored me!” Sloan seemed to shrink as he looked at Horst.
“Is this true?” demanded the smith.
“No!” replied Eragon. “I offered this stone as payment for some meat, and he accepted it. When I told him that I’d found it in the Spine, he refused to even touch it. What difference does it make where it came from?”
Horst looked at the stone curiously, then returned his attention to the butcher. “Why won’t you trade with him, Sloan? I’ve no love for the Spine myself, but if it’s a question of the stone’s worth, I’ll back it with my own money.”
The question hung in the air for a moment. Then Sloan licked his lips and said, “This is my own store. I can do whatever I want.”
Katrina stepped out from behind Horst and tossed back her auburn hair like a spray of molten copper. “Father, Eragon is willing to pay. Give him the meat, and then we can have supper.”
Sloan’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “Go back to the house; this is none of your business. . . . I said go!” Katrina’s face hardened, then she marched out of the room with a stiff back.
Eragon watched with disapproval but dared not interfere. Horst tugged at his beard before saying reproachfully, “Fine, you can deal with me. What were you going to get, Eragon?” His voice reverberated through the room.
“As much as I could.”
Horst pulled out a purse and counted out a pile of coins. “Give me your best roasts and steaks. Make sure that it’s enough to fill Eragon’s pack.” The butcher hesitated, his gaze darting between Horst and Eragon. “Not selling to me would be a very bad idea,” stated Horst.
Glowering venomously, Sloan slipped into the back room. A frenzy of chopping, wrapping, and low cursing reached them. After several uncomfortable minutes, he returned with an armful of wrapped meat. His face was expressionless as he accepted Horst’s money, then proceeded to clean his knife, pretending that they were not there.
Horst scooped up the meat and walked outside. Eragon hurried behind him, carrying his pack and the stone. The crisp night air rolled over their faces, refreshing after the stuffy shop.
“Thank you, Horst. Uncle Garrow will be pleased.”
Horst laughed quietly. “Don’t thank me. I’ve wanted to do that for a long time. Sloan’s a vicious troublemaker; it does him good to be humbled. Katrina heard what was happening and ran to fetch me. Good thing I came—the two of you were almost at blows. Unfortunately, I doubt he’ll serve you or any of your family the next time you go in there, even if you do have coins.”
“Why did he explode like that? We’ve never been friendly, but he’s always taken our money. And I’ve never seen him treat Katrina that way,” said Eragon, opening the top of the pack.
Horst shrugged. “As
k your uncle. He knows more about it than I do.”
Eragon stuffed the meat into his pack. “Well, now I have one more reason to hurry home . . . to solve this mystery. Here, this is rightfully yours.” He proffered the stone.
Horst chuckled. “No, you keep your strange rock. As for payment, Albriech plans to leave for Feinster next spring. He wants to become a master smith, and I’m going to need an assistant. You can come and work off the debt on your spare days.”
Eragon bowed slightly, delighted. Horst had two sons, Albriech and Baldor, both of whom worked in his forge. Taking one’s place was a generous offer. “Again, thank you! I look forward to working with you.” He was glad that there was a way for him to pay Horst. His uncle would never accept charity. Then Eragon remembered what his cousin had told him before he had left on the hunt. “Roran wanted me to give Katrina a message, but since I can’t, can you get it to her?”
“He wants her to know that he’ll come into town as soon as the merchants arrive and that he will see her then.”
Eragon was slightly embarrassed. “No, he also wants her to know that she is the most beautiful girl he has ever seen and that he thinks of nothing else.”
Horst’s face broke into a broad grin, and he winked at Eragon. “Getting serious, isn’t he?”
“Yes, sir,” Eragon answered with a quick smile. “Could you also give her my thanks? It was nice of her to stand up to her father for me. I hope that she isn’t punished because of it. Roran would be furious if I got her into trouble.”
“I wouldn’t worry about it. Sloan doesn’t know that she called me, so I doubt he’ll be too hard on her. Before you go, will you sup with us?”
“I’m sorry, but I can’t. Garrow is expecting me,” said Eragon, tying off the top of the pack. He hoisted it onto his back and started down the road, raising his hand in farewell.
The meat slowed him down, but he was eager to be home, and renewed vigor filled his steps. The village ended abruptly, and he left its warm lights behind. The pearlescent moon peeked over the mountains, bathing the land in a ghostly reflection of daylight. Everything looked bleached and flat.
Near the end of his journey, he turned off the road, which continued south. A simple path led straight through waist-high grass and up a knoll, almost hidden by the shadows of protective elm trees. He crested the hill and saw a gentle light shining from his home.
The house had a shingled roof and a brick chimney. Eaves hung over the whitewashed walls, shadowing the ground below. One side of the enclosed porch was filled with split wood, ready for the fire. A jumble of farm tools cluttered the other side.
The house had been abandoned for half a century when they moved in after Garrow’s wife, Marian, died. It was ten miles from Carvahall, farther than anyone else’s. People considered the distance dangerous because the family could not rely on help from the village in times of trouble, but Eragon’s uncle would not listen.
A hundred feet from the house, in a dull-colored barn, lived two horses—Birka and Brugh—with chickens and a cow. Sometimes there was also a pig, but they had been unable to afford one this year. A wagon sat wedged between the stalls. On the edge of their fields, a thick line of trees traced along the Anora River.
He saw a light move behind a window as he wearily reached the porch. “Uncle, it’s Eragon. Let me in.” A small shutter slid back for a second, then the door swung inward.
Garrow stood with his hand on the door. His worn clothes hung on him like rags on a stick frame. A lean, hungry face with intense eyes gazed out from under graying hair. He looked like a man who had been partly mummified before it was discovered that he was still alive. “Roran’s sleeping,” was his answer to Eragon’s inquiring glance.
A lantern flickered on a wood table so old that the grain stood up in tiny ridges like a giant fingerprint. Near a woodstove were rows of cooking utensils tacked onto the wall with homemade nails. A second door opened to the rest of the house. The floor was made of boards polished smooth by years of tramping feet.
Eragon pulled off his pack and took out the meat. “What’s this? Did you buy meat? Where did you get the money?” asked his uncle harshly as he saw the wrapped packages.
Eragon took a breath before answering. “No, Horst bought it for us.”
“You let him pay for it? I told you before, I won’t beg for our food. If we can’t feed ourselves, we might as well move into town. Before you can turn around twice, they’ll be sending us used clothes and asking if we’ll be able to get through the winter.” Garrow’s face paled with anger.
“I didn’t accept charity,” snapped Eragon. “Horst agreed to let me work off the debt this spring. He needs someone to help him because Albriech is going away.”
“And where will you get the time to work for him? Are you going to ignore all the things that need to be done here?” asked Garrow, forcing his voice down.
Eragon hung his bow and quiver on hooks beside the front door. “I don’t know how I’ll do it,” he said irritably. “Besides, I found something that could be worth some money.” He set the stone on the table.
Garrow bowed over it: the hungry look on his face became ravenous, and his fingers moved with a strange twitch. “You found this in the Spine?”
“Yes,” said Eragon. He explained what had happened. “And to make matters worse, I lost my best arrow. I’ll have to make more before long.” They stared at the stone in the near darkness.
“How was the weather?” asked his uncle, lifting the stone. His hands tightened around it like he was afraid it would suddenly disappear.
“Cold,” was Eragon’s reply. “It didn’t snow, but it froze each night.”
Garrow looked worried by the news. “Tomorrow you’ll have to help Roran finish harvesting the barley. If we can get the squash picked, too, the frost won’t bother us.” He passed the stone to Eragon. “Here, keep it. When the traders come, we’ll find out what it’s worth. Selling it is probably the best thing to do. The less we’re involved with magic, the better. . . . Why did Horst pay for the meat?”
It took only a moment for Eragon to explain his argument with Sloan. “I just don’t understand what angered him so.”
Garrow shrugged. “Sloan’s wife, Ismira, went over the Igualda Falls a year before you were brought here. He hasn’t been near the Spine since, nor had anything to do with it. But that’s no reason to refuse payment. I think he wanted to give you trouble.”
Eragon swayed blearily and said, “It’s good to be back.” Garrow’s eyes softened, and he nodded. Eragon stumbled to his room, pushed the stone under his bed, then fell onto the mattress. Home. For the first time since before the hunt, he relaxed completely as sleep overtook him.
At dawn the sun’s rays streamed through the window, warming Eragon’s face. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up on the edge of the bed. The pine floor was cold under his feet. He stretched his sore legs and rubbed his back, yawning.
Beside the bed was a row of shelves covered with objects he had collected. There were twisted pieces of wood, odd bits of shells, rocks that had broken to reveal shiny interiors, and strips of dry grass tied into knots. His favorite item was a root so convoluted he never tired of looking at it. The rest of the room was bare, except for a small dresser and nightstand.
He pulled on his boots and stared at the floor, thinking. This was a special day. It was near this very hour, sixteen years ago, that his mother, Selena, had come home to Carvahall alone and pregnant. She had been gone for six years, living in the cities. When she returned, she wore expensive clothes, and her hair was bound by a net of pearls. She had sought out her brother, Garrow, and asked to stay with him until the baby arrived. Within five months her son was born. Everyone was shocked when Selena tearfully begged Garrow and Marian to raise him. When they asked why, she only wept and said, “I must.” Her pleas had grown increasingly desperate until they finally agreed. She named h
im Eragon, then departed early the next morning and never returned.
Eragon still remembered how he had felt when Marian told him the story before she died. The realization that Garrow and Marian were not his real parents had disturbed him greatly. Things that had been permanent and unquestionable were suddenly thrown into doubt. Eventually he had learned to live with it, but he always had a nagging suspicion that he had not been good enough for his mother. I’m sure there was a good reason for what she did; I only wish I knew what it was.
One other thing bothered him: Who was his father? Selena had told no one, and whoever it might be had never come looking for Eragon. He wished that he knew who it was, if only to have a name. It would be nice to know his heritage.
He sighed and went to the nightstand, where he splashed his face, shivering as the water ran down his neck. Refreshed, he retrieved the stone from under the bed and set it on a shelf. The morning light caressed it, throwing a warm shadow on the wall. He touched it one more time, then hurried to the kitchen, eager to see his family. Garrow and Roran were already there, eating chicken. As Eragon greeted them, Roran stood with a grin.
Roran was two years older than Eragon, muscular, sturdy, and careful with his movements. They could not have been closer even if they had been real brothers.
Roran smiled. “I’m glad you’re back. How was the trip?”
“Hard,” replied Eragon. “Did Uncle tell you what happened?” He helped himself to a piece of chicken, which he devoured hungrily.
“No,” said Roran, and the story was quickly told. At Roran’s insistence, Eragon left his food to show him the stone. This elicited a satisfactory amount of awe, but Roran soon asked nervously, “Were you able to talk with Katrina?”
“No, there wasn’t an opportunity after the argument with Sloan. But she’ll expect you when the traders come. I gave the message to Horst; he will get it to her.”