“For us or for them?”
“Them,” said Morn as angry voices filled the tavern. Eragon left when the argument threatened to become violent. The door thudded shut behind him, cutting off the voices. It was early evening, and the sun was sinking rapidly; the houses cast long shadows on the ground. As Eragon headed down the street, he noticed Roran and Katrina standing in an alley.
Roran said something Eragon could not hear. Katrina looked down at her hands and answered in an undertone, then leaned up on her tiptoes and kissed him before darting away. Eragon trotted to Roran and teased, “Having a good time?” Roran grunted noncommittally as he paced away.
“Have you heard the traders’ news?” asked Eragon, following. Most of the villagers were indoors, talking to traders or waiting until it was dark enough for the troubadours to perform.
“Yes.” Roran seemed distracted. “What do you think of Sloan?”
“I thought it was obvious.”
“There’ll be blood between us when he finds out about Katrina and me,” stated Roran. A snowflake landed on Eragon’s nose, and he looked up. The sky had turned gray. He could think of nothing appropriate to say; Roran was right. He clasped his cousin on the shoulder as they continued down the byway.
Dinner at Horst’s was hearty. The room was full of conversation and laughter. Sweet cordials and heavy ales were consumed in copious amounts, adding to the boisterous atmosphere. When the plates were empty, Horst’s guests left the house and strolled to the field where the traders were camped. A ring of poles topped with candles had been stuck into the ground around a large clearing. Bonfires blazed in the background, painting the ground with dancing shadows. The villagers slowly gathered around the circle and waited expectantly in the cold.
The troubadours came tumbling out of their tents, dressed in tasseled clothing, followed by older and more stately minstrels. The minstrels provided music and narration as their younger counterparts acted out the stories. The first plays were pure entertainment: bawdy and full of jokes, pratfalls, and ridiculous characters. Later, however, when the candles sputtered in their sockets and everyone was drawn together into a tight circle, the old storyteller Brom stepped forward. A knotted white beard rippled over his chest, and a long black cape was wrapped around his bent shoulders, obscuring his body. He spread his arms with hands that reached out like talons and recited thus:
“The sands of time cannot be stopped. Years pass whether we will them or not . . . but we can remember. What has been lost may yet live on in memories. That which you will hear is imperfect and fragmented, yet treasure it, for without you it does not exist. I give you now a memory that has been forgotten, hidden in the dreamy haze that lies behind us.”
His keen eyes inspected their interested faces. His gaze lingered on Eragon last of all.
“Before your grandfathers’ fathers were born, and yea, even before their fathers, the Dragon Riders were formed. To protect and guard was their mission, and for thousands of years they succeeded. Their prowess in battle was unmatched, for each had the strength of ten men. They were immortal unless blade or poison took them. For good only were their powers used, and under their tutelage tall cities and towers were built out of the living stone. While they kept peace, the land flourished. It was a golden time. The elves were our allies, the dwarves our friends. Wealth flowed into our cities, and men prospered. But weep . . . for it could not last.”
Brom looked down silently. Infinite sadness resonated in his voice.
“Though no enemy could destroy them, they could not guard against themselves. And it came to pass at the height of their power that a boy, Galbatorix by name, was born in the province of Inzilbêth, which is no more. At ten he was tested, as was the custom, and it was found that great power resided in him. The Riders accepted him as their own.
“Through their training he passed, exceeding all others in skill. Gifted with a sharp mind and strong body, he quickly took his place among the Riders’ ranks. Some saw his abrupt rise as dangerous and warned the others, but the Riders had grown arrogant in their power and ignored caution. Alas, sorrow was conceived that day.
“So it was that soon after his training was finished, Galbatorix took a reckless trip with two friends. Far north they flew, night and day, and passed into the Urgals’ remaining territory, foolishly thinking their new powers would protect them. There on a thick sheet of ice, unmelted even in summer, they were ambushed in their sleep. Though his friends and their dragons were butchered and he suffered great wounds, Galbatorix slew his attackers. Tragically, during the fight a stray arrow pierced his dragon’s heart. Without the arts to save her, she died in his arms. Then were the seeds of madness planted.”
The storyteller clasped his hands and looked around slowly, shadows flickering across his worn face. The next words came like the mournful toll of a requiem.
“Alone, bereft of much of his strength and half mad with loss, Galbatorix wandered without hope in that desolate land, seeking death. It did not come to him, though he threw himself without fear against any living thing. Urgals and other monsters soon fled from his haunted form. During this time he came to realize that the Riders might grant him another dragon. Driven by this thought, he began the arduous journey, on foot, back through the Spine. Territory he had soared over effortlessly on a dragon’s back now took him months to traverse. He could hunt with magic, but oftentimes he walked in places where animals did not travel. Thus when his feet finally left the mountains, he was close to death. A farmer found him collapsed in the mud and summoned the Riders.
“Unconscious, he was taken to their holdings, and his body healed. He slept for four days. Upon awakening he gave no sign of his fevered mind. When he was brought before a council convened to judge him, Galbatorix demanded another dragon. The desperation of the request revealed his dementia, and the council saw him for what he truly was. Denied his hope, Galbatorix, through the twisted mirror of his madness, came to believe it was the Riders’ fault his dragon had died. Night after night he brooded on that and formulated a plan to exact revenge.”
Brom’s words dropped to a mesmerizing whisper.
“He found a sympathetic Rider, and there his insidious words took root. By persistent reasoning and the use of dark secrets learned from a Shade, he inflamed the Rider against their elders. Together they treacherously lured and killed an elder. When the foul deed was done, Galbatorix turned on his ally and slaughtered him without warning. The Riders found him, then, with blood dripping from his hands. A scream tore from his lips, and he fled into the night. As he was cunning in his madness, they could not find him.
“For years he hid in wastelands like a hunted animal, always watching for pursuers. His atrocity was not forgotten, but over time searches ceased. Then through some ill fortune he met a young Rider, Morzan—strong of body, but weak of mind. Galbatorix convinced Morzan to leave a gate unbolted in the citadel Ilirea, which is now called Urû’baen. Through this gate Galbatorix entered and stole a dragon hatchling.
“He and his new disciple hid themselves in an evil place where the Riders dared not venture. There Morzan entered into a dark apprenticeship, learning secrets and forbidden magic that should never have been revealed. When his instruction was finished and Galbatorix’s black dragon, Shruikan, was fully grown, Galbatorix revealed himself to the world, with Morzan at his side. Together they fought any Rider they met. With each kill their strength grew. Twelve of the Riders joined Galbatorix out of desire for power and revenge against perceived wrongs. Those twelve, with Morzan, became the Thirteen Forsworn. The Riders were unprepared and fell beneath the onslaught. The elves, too, fought bitterly against Galbatorix, but they were overthrown and forced to flee to their secret places, from whence they come no more.
“Only Vrael, leader of the Riders, could resist Galbatorix and the Forsworn. Ancient and wise, he struggled to save what he could and keep the remaining dragons from falling to his enemies. In the last battle, before the gates of Dorú Areaba, Vrael def
eated Galbatorix, but hesitated with the final blow. Galbatorix seized the moment and smote him in the side. Grievously wounded, Vrael fled to Utgard Mountain, where he hoped to gather strength. But it was not to be, for Galbatorix found him. As they fought, Galbatorix kicked Vrael in the fork of his legs. With that underhanded blow, he gained dominance over Vrael and removed his head with a blazing sword.
“Then as power rushed through his veins, Galbatorix anointed himself king over all Alagaësia.
“And from that day, he has ruled us.”
With the completion of the story, Brom shuffled away with the troubadours. Eragon thought he saw a tear shining on his cheek. People murmured quietly to each other as they departed. Garrow said to Eragon and Roran, “Consider yourselves fortunate. I have heard this tale only twice in my life. If the Empire knew that Brom had recited it, he would not live to see a new month.”
The evening after their return from Carvahall, Eragon decided to test the stone as Merlock had. Alone in his room, he set it on his bed and laid three tools next to it. He started with a wooden mallet and lightly tapped the stone. It produced a subtle ringing. Satisfied, he picked up the next tool, a heavy leather hammer. A mournful peal reverberated when it struck. Lastly, he pounded a small chisel against it. The metal did not chip or scratch the stone, but it produced the clearest sound yet. As the final note died away, he thought he heard a faint squeak.
Merlock said the stone was hollow; there could be something of value inside. I don’t know how to open it, though. There must have been a good reason for someone to shape it, but whoever sent the stone into the Spine hasn’t taken the trouble to retrieve it or doesn’t know where it is. But I don’t believe that a magician with enough power to transport the stone wouldn’t be able to find it again. So was I meant to have it? He could not answer the question. Resigned to an unsolvable mystery, he picked up the tools and returned the stone to its shelf.
That night he was abruptly roused from sleep. He listened carefully. All was quiet. Uneasy, he slid his hand under the mattress and grasped his knife. He waited a few minutes, then slowly sank back to sleep.
A squeak pierced the silence, tearing him back to wakefulness. He rolled out of bed and yanked the knife from its sheath. Fumbling with a tinderbox, he lit a candle. The door to his room was closed. Though the squeak was too loud for a mouse or rat, he still checked under the bed. Nothing. He sat on the edge of the mattress and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Another squeak filled the air, and he started violently.
Where was the noise was coming from? Nothing could be in the floor or walls; they were solid wood. The same went for his bed, and he would have noticed if anything had crawled into his straw mattress during the night. His eyes settled on the stone. He took it off the shelf and absently cradled it as he studied the room. A squeak rang in his ears and reverberated through his fingers; it came from the stone.
The stone had given him nothing but frustration and anger, and now it would not even let him sleep! It ignored his furious glare and sat solidly, occasionally peeping. Then it gave one very loud squeak and fell silent. Eragon warily put it away and got back under the sheets. Whatever secret the stone held, it would have to wait until morning.
The moon was shining through his window when he woke again. The stone was rocking rapidly on the shelf, knocking against the wall. It was bathed in cool moonlight that bleached its surface. Eragon jumped out of bed, knife in hand. The motion stopped, but he remained tense. Then the stone started squeaking and rocking faster than ever.
With an oath, he began dressing. He did not care how valuable the stone might be; he was going to take it far away and bury it. The rocking stopped; the stone became quiet. It quivered, then rolled forward and dropped onto the floor with a loud thump. He inched toward the door in alarm as the stone wobbled toward him.
Suddenly a crack appeared on the stone. Then another and another. Transfixed, Eragon leaned forward, still holding the knife. At the top of the stone, where all the cracks met, a small piece wobbled, as if it were balanced on something, then rose and toppled to the floor. After another series of squeaks, a small dark head poked out of the hole, followed by a weirdly angled body. Eragon gripped the knife tighter and held very still. Soon the creature was all the way out of the stone. It stayed in place for a moment, then skittered into the moonlight.
Eragon recoiled in shock. Standing in front of him, licking off the membrane that encased it, was a dragon.
The dragon was no longer than his forearm, yet it was dignified and noble. Its scales were deep sapphire blue, the same color as the stone. But not a stone, he realized, an egg. The dragon fanned its wings; they were what had made it appear so contorted. The wings were several times longer than its body and ribbed with thin fingers of bone that extended from the wing’s front edge, forming a line of widely spaced talons. The dragon’s head was roughly triangular. Two diminutive white fangs curved down out of its upper jaw. They looked very sharp. Its claws were also white, like polished ivory, and slightly serrated on the inside curve. A line of small spikes ran down the creature’s spine from the base of its head to the tip of its tail. A hollow where its neck and shoulders joined created a larger-than-normal gap between the spikes.
Eragon shifted slightly, and the dragon’s head snapped around. Hard, ice-blue eyes fixed on him. He kept very still. It might be a formidable enemy if it decided to attack.
The dragon lost interest in Eragon and awkwardly explored the room, squealing as it bumped into a wall or furniture. With a flutter of wings, it leapt onto the bed and crawled to his pillow, squeaking. Its mouth was open pitifully, like a young bird’s, displaying rows of pointed teeth. Eragon sat cautiously on the end of the bed. The dragon smelled his hand, nibbled his sleeve. He pulled his arm back.
A smile tugged at Eragon’s lips as he looked at the small creature. Tentatively, he reached out with his right hand and touched its flank. A blast of icy energy surged into his hand and raced up his arm, burning in his veins like liquid fire. He fell back with a wild cry. An iron clang filled his ears, and he heard a soundless scream of rage. Every part of his body seared with pain. He struggled to move, but was unable to. After what seemed like hours, warmth seeped back into his limbs, leaving them tingling. Shivering uncontrollably, he pushed himself upright. His hand was numb, his fingers paralyzed. Alarmed, he watched as the middle of his palm shimmered and formed a diffused white oval. The skin itched and burned like a spider bite. His heart pounded frantically.
Eragon blinked, trying to understand what had occurred. Something brushed against his consciousness, like a finger trailing over his skin. He felt it again, but this time it solidified into a tendril of thought through which he could feel a growing curiosity. It was as if an invisible wall surrounding his thoughts had fallen away, and he was now free to reach out with his mind. He was afraid that without anything to hold him back, he would float out of his body and be unable to return, becoming a spirit of the ether. Scared, he pulled away from the contact. The new sense vanished as if he had closed his eyes. He glared suspiciously at the motionless dragon.
A scaly leg scraped against his side, and he jerked back. But the energy did not shock him again. Puzzled, he rubbed the dragon’s head with his right hand. A light tingling ran up his arm. The dragon nuzzled him, arching its back like a cat. He slid a finger over its thin wing membranes. They felt like old parchment, velvety and warm, but still slightly damp. Hundreds of slender veins pulsed through them.
Again the tendril touched his mind, but this time, instead of curiosity, he sensed an overpowering, ravenous hunger. He got up with a sigh. This was a dangerous animal, of that he was sure. Yet it seemed so helpless crawling on his bed, he could only wonder if there was any harm in keeping it. The dragon wailed in a reedy tone as it looked for food. Eragon quickly scratched its head to keep it quiet. I’ll think about this later, he decided, and left the room, carefully closing the door.
sp; Returning with two strips of dried meat, he found the dragon sitting on the windowsill, watching the moon. He cut the meat into small squares and offered one to the dragon. It smelled the square cautiously, then jabbed its head forward like a snake and snatched the meat from his fingers, swallowing it whole with a peculiar jerk. The dragon prodded Eragon’s hand for more food.
He fed it, careful to keep his fingers out of the way. By the time there was only one square left, the dragon’s belly was bulging. He proffered the last piece; the dragon considered it for a moment, then lazily snapped it up. Done eating, it crawled onto his arm and curled against his chest. Then it snorted, a puff of dark smoke rising from its nostrils. Eragon looked at it with wonder.
Just when he thought the dragon was asleep, a low humming came from its vibrating throat. Gently, he carried it to the bed and set it by his pillow. The dragon, eyes closed, wrapped its tail around the bedpost contentedly. Eragon lay next to it, flexing his hand in the near darkness.
He faced a painful dilemma: By raising a dragon, he could become a Rider. Myths and stories about Riders were treasured, and being one would automatically place him among those legends. However, if the Empire discovered the dragon, he and his family would be put to death unless he joined the king. No one could—or would—help them. The simplest solution was just to kill the dragon, but the idea was repugnant, and he rejected it. Dragons were too revered for him to even consider that. Besides, what could betray us? he thought. We live in a remote area and have done nothing to draw attention.
The problem was convincing Garrow and Roran to let him keep the dragon. Neither of them would care to have a dragon around. I could raise it in secret. In a month or two it will be too large for Garrow to get rid of, but will he accept it? Even if he does, can I get enough food for the dragon while it’s hiding? It’s no larger than a small cat, but it ate an entire handful of meat! I suppose it’ll be able to hunt for itself eventually, but how long until then? Will it be able to survive the cold outside? All the same, he wanted the dragon. The more he thought about it, the surer he was. However things might work out with Garrow, Eragon would do everything he could to protect it. Determined, he fell asleep with the dragon cradled against him.