The deepening night obscured his surroundings; the shaded mountains were unfamiliar. I’m in the Spine, I don’t know where, during the middle of winter, with a crazed dragon, unable to walk or find shelter. Night is falling. I have to get back to the farm tomorrow. And the only way to do that is to fly, which I can’t endure anymore. He took a deep breath. Oh, I wish Saphira could breathe fire. He turned his head and saw her next to him, crouched low to the ground. He put a hand on her side and found it trembling. The barrier in her mind was gone. Without it, her fear scorched through him. He clamped down on it and slowly soothed her with gentle images. Why do the strangers frighten you?
Murderers, she hissed.
Garrow is in danger and you kidnap me on this ridiculous journey! Are you unable to protect me? She growled deeply and snapped her jaws. Ah, but if you think you can, why run?
Death is a poison.
He leaned on one elbow and stifled his frustration. Saphira, look where we are! The sun is down, and your flight has stripped my legs as easily as I would scale a fish. Is that what you wanted?
Then why did you do it? he demanded. Through his link with Saphira, he felt her regret for his pain, but not for her actions. She looked away and refused to answer. The icy temperature deadened Eragon’s legs; although it lessened the pain, he knew that his condition was not good. He changed tack. I’m going to freeze unless you make me a shelter or hollow so I can stay warm. Even a pile of pine needles and branches would do.
She seemed relieved that he had stopped interrogating her. There is no need. I will curl around you and cover you with my wings—the fire inside me will stay the cold.
Eragon let his head thump back on the ground. Fine, but scrape the snow off the ground. It’ll be more comfortable. In answer, Saphira razed a drift with her tail, clearing it with one powerful stroke. She swept over the site again to remove the last few inches of hardened snow. He eyed the exposed dirt with distaste. I can’t walk over there. You’ll have to help me to it. Her head, larger than his torso, swung over him and came to rest by his side. He stared at her large, sapphire-colored eyes and wrapped his hands around one of her ivory spikes. She lifted her head and slowly dragged him to the bare spot. Gently, gently. Stars danced in his eyes as he slid over a rock, but he managed to hold on. After he let go, Saphira rolled on her side, exposing her warm belly. He huddled against the smooth scales of her underside. Her right wing extended over him and enclosed him in complete darkness, forming a living tent. Almost immediately the air began to lose its frigidity.
He pulled his arms inside his coat and tied the empty sleeves around his neck. For the first time he noticed that hunger gnawed at his stomach. But it did not distract him from his main worry: Could he get back to the farm before the strangers did? And if not, what would happen? Even if I can force myself to ride Saphira again, it’ll be at least midafternoon before we get back. The strangers could be there long before that. He closed his eyes and felt a single tear slide down his face. What have I done?
THE DOOM OF INNOCENCE
When Eragon opened his eyes in the morning, he thought the sky had fallen. An unbroken plane of blue stretched over his head and slanted to the ground. Still half asleep, he reached out tentatively and felt a thin membrane under his fingers. It took him a long minute to realize what he was staring at. He bent his neck slightly and glared at the scaly haunch his head rested on. Slowly he pushed his legs out from his fetal curl, scabs cracking. The pain had subsided some from yesterday, but he shrank from the thought of walking. Burning hunger reminded him of his missed meals. He summoned the energy to move and pounded weakly on Saphira’s side. “Hey! Wake up!” he yelled.
She stirred and lifted her wing to admit a torrent of sunshine. He squinted as the snow momentarily blinded him. Beside him Saphira stretched like a cat and yawned, flashing rows of white teeth. When Eragon’s eyes adjusted, he examined where they were. Imposing and unfamiliar mountains surrounded them, casting deep shadows on the clearing. Off to one side, he saw a trail cut through the snow and into the forest, where he could hear the muffled gurgling of a creek.
Groaning, he stood and swayed, then stiffly hobbled to a tree. He grabbed one of its branches and threw his weight against it. It held, then broke with a loud crack. He ripped off the twigs, fit one end of the branch under his arm, and planted the other firmly in the ground. With the help of his improvised crutch, he limped to the iced-over creek. He broke through the hard shell and cupped the clear, bitter water. Sated, he returned to the clearing. As he emerged from the trees, he finally recognized the mountains and the lay of the land.
This was where, amid deafening sound, Saphira’s egg had first appeared. He sagged against a rough trunk. There could be no mistake, for now he saw the gray trees that had been stripped of their needles in the explosion. How did Saphira know where this was? She was still in the egg. My memories must have given her enough information to find it. He shook his head in silent astonishment.
Saphira was waiting patiently for him. Will you take me home? he asked her. She cocked her head. I know you don’t want to, but you must. Both of us carry an obligation to Garrow. He has cared for me and, through me, you. Would you ignore that debt? What will be said of us in years to come if we don’t return—that we hid like cowards while my uncle was in danger? I can hear it now, the story of the Rider and his craven dragon! If there will be a fight, let’s face it and not shy away. You are a dragon! Even a Shade would run from you! Yet you crouch in the mountains like a frightened rabbit.
Eragon meant to anger her, and he succeeded. A growl rippled in her throat as her head jabbed within a few inches of his face. She bared her fangs and glared at him, smoke trailing from her nostrils. He hoped that he had not gone too far. Her thoughts reached him, red with anger. Blood will meet blood. I will fight. Our wyrds—our fates—bind us, but try me not. I will take you because of debt owed, but into foolishness we fly.
“Foolishness or not,” he said into the air, “there is no choice—we must go.” He ripped his shirt in half and stuffed a piece into each side of his pants. Gingerly, he hoisted himself onto Saphira and took a tight hold on her neck. This time, he told her, fly lower and faster. Time is of the essence.
Don’t let go, she cautioned, then surged into the sky. They rose above the forest and leveled out immediately, barely staying above the branches. Eragon’s stomach lurched; he was glad it was empty.
Faster, faster, he urged. She said nothing, but the beat of her wings increased. He screwed his eyes shut and hunched his shoulders. He had hoped that the extra padding of his shirt would protect him, but every movement sent pangs through his legs. Soon lines of hot blood trickled down his calves. Concern emanated from Saphira. She went even faster now, her wings straining. The land sped past, as if it were being pulled out from under them. Eragon imagined that to someone on the ground, they were just a blur.
By early afternoon, Palancar Valley lay before them. Clouds obscured his vision to the south; Carvahall was to the north. Saphira glided down while Eragon searched for the farm. When he spotted it, fear jolted him. A black plume with orange flames dancing at its base rose from the farm.
Saphira! He pointed. Get me down there. Now!
She locked her wings and tilted into a steep dive, hurtling groundward at a frightening rate. Then she altered her dive slightly so they sped toward the forest. He yelled over the screaming air, “Land in the fields!” He held on tighter as they plummeted. Saphira waited until they were only a hundred feet off the ground before driving her wings downward in several powerful strokes. She landed heavily, breaking his grip. He crashed to the ground, then staggered upright, gasping for breath.
The house had been blasted apart. Timbers and boards that had been walls and roof were strewn across a wide area. The wood was pulverized, as if a giant hammer had smashed it. Sooty shingles lay everywhere. A few twisted metal plates were all that remained of the stove. The snow was perforated with smashed white crock
ery and chunks of bricks from the chimney. Thick, oily smoke billowed from the barn, which burned fiercely. The farm animals were gone, either killed or frightened away.
“Uncle!” Eragon ran to the wreckage, hunting through the destroyed rooms for Garrow. There was no sign of him. “Uncle!” Eragon cried again. Saphira walked around the house and came to his side.
Sorrow breeds here, she said.
“This wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t run away with me!”
You would not be alive if we had stayed.
“Look at this!” he screamed. “We could’ve warned Garrow! It’s your fault he didn’t get away!” He slammed his fist against a pole, splitting the skin on his knuckles. Blood dripped down his fingers as he stalked out of the house. He stumbled to the path that led to the road and bent down to examine the snow. Several tracks were before him, but his vision was blurry and he could barely see. Am I going blind? he wondered. With a shaking hand, he touched his cheeks and found them wet.
A shadow fell on him as Saphira loomed overhead, sheltering him with her wings. Take comfort; all may not be lost. He looked up at her, searching for hope. Examine the trail; my eyes see only two sets of prints. Garrow could not have been taken from here.
He focused on the trampled snow. The faint imprints of two pairs of leather boots headed toward the house. On top of those were traces of the same two sets of boots leaving. And whoever had made the departing tracks had been carrying the same weight as when they arrived. You’re right, Garrow has to be here! He leapt to his feet and hurried back to the house.
I will search around the buildings and in the forest, said Saphira.
Eragon scrambled into the remains of the kitchen and frantically started digging through a pile of rubble. Pieces of debris that he could not have moved normally now seemed to shift on their own accord. A cupboard, mostly intact, stymied him for a second, then he heaved and sent it flying. As he pulled on a board, something rattled behind him. He spun around, ready for an attack.
A hand extended from under a section of collapsed roof. It moved weakly, and he grasped it with a cry. “Uncle, can you hear me?” There was no response. Eragon tore at pieces of wood, heedless of the splinters that pierced his hands. He quickly exposed an arm and shoulder, but was barred by a heavy beam. He threw his shoulder at it and shoved with every fiber of his being, but it defied his efforts. “Saphira! I need you!”
She came immediately. Wood cracked under her feet as she crawled over the ruined walls. Without a word she nosed past him and set her side against the beam. Her claws sank into what was left of the floor; her muscles strained. With a grating sound, the beam lifted, and Eragon rushed under it. Garrow lay on his stomach, his clothes mostly torn off. Eragon pulled him out of the rubble. As soon as they were clear, Saphira released the beam, leaving it to crash to the floor.
Eragon dragged Garrow out of the destroyed house and eased him to the ground. Dismayed, he touched his uncle gently. His skin was gray, lifeless, and dry, as if a fever had burned off any sweat. His lip was split, and there was a long scrape on his cheekbone, but that was not the worst. Deep, ragged burns covered most of his body. They were chalky white and oozed clear liquid. A cloying, sickening smell hung over him—the odor of rotting fruit. His breath came in short jerks, each one sounding like a death rattle.
Murderers, hissed Saphira.
Don’t say that. He can still be saved! We have to get him to Gertrude. I can’t carry him to Carvahall, though.
Saphira presented an image of Garrow hanging under her while she flew.
Can you lift both of us?
Eragon dug through the rubble until he found a board and leather thongs. He had Saphira pierce a hole with a claw at each of the board’s corners, then he looped a piece of leather through each hole and tied them to her forelegs. After checking to make sure the knots were secure, he rolled Garrow onto the board and lashed him down. As he did, a scrap of black cloth fell from his uncle’s hand. It matched the strangers’ clothing. He angrily stuffed it in a pocket, mounted Saphira, and closed his eyes as his body settled into a steady throb of pain. Now!
She leapt up, hind legs digging into the ground. Her wings clawed at the air as she slowly climbed. Tendons strained and popped as she battled gravity. For a long, painful second, nothing happened, but then she lunged forward powerfully and they rose higher. Once they were over the forest, Eragon told her, Follow the road. It’ll give you enough room if you have to land.
I might be seen.
It doesn’t matter anymore! She argued no further as she veered to the road and headed for Carvahall. Garrow swung wildly underneath them; only the slender leather cords kept him from falling.
The extra weight slowed Saphira. Before long her head sagged, and there was froth at her mouth. She struggled to continue, yet they were almost a league from Carvahall when she locked her wings and sank toward the road.
Her hind feet touched with a shower of snow. Eragon tumbled off her, landing heavily on his side to avoid hurting his legs. He struggled to his feet and worked to untie the leather from Saphira’s legs. Her thick panting filled the air. Find a safe place to rest, he said. I don’t know how long I’ll be gone, so you’re going to have to take care of yourself for a while.
I will wait, she said.
He gritted his teeth and began to drag Garrow down the road. The first few steps sent an explosion of agony through him. “I can’t do this!” he howled at the sky, then took a few more steps. His mouth locked into a snarl. He stared at the ground between his feet as he forced himself to hold a steady pace. It was a fight against his unruly body—a fight he refused to lose. The minutes crawled by at an excruciating rate. Each yard he covered seemed many times that. With desperation he wondered if Carvahall still existed or if the strangers had burnt it down, too. After a time, through a haze of pain, he heard shouting and looked up.
Brom was running toward him—eyes large, hair awry, and one side of his head caked with dried blood. He waved his arms wildly before dropping his staff and grabbing Eragon’s shoulders, saying something in a loud voice. Eragon blinked uncomprehendingly. Without warning, the ground rushed up to meet him. He tasted blood, then blacked out.
Dreams roiled in Eragon’s mind, breeding and living by their own laws. He watched as a group of people on proud horses approached a lonely river. Many had silver hair and carried tall lances. A strange, fair ship waited for them, shining under a bright moon. The figures slowly boarded the vessel; two of them, taller than the rest, walked arm in arm. Their faces were obscured by cowls, but he could tell that one was a woman. They stood on the deck of the ship and faced the shore. A man stood alone on the pebble beach, the only one who had not boarded the ship. He threw back his head and let out a long, aching cry. As it faded, the ship glided down the river, without a breeze or oars, out into the flat, empty land. The vision clouded, but just before it disappeared, Eragon glimpsed two dragons in the sky.
Eragon was first aware of the creaking: back and forth, back and forth. The persistent sound made him open his eyes and stare at the underside of a thatched roof. A rough blanket was draped over him, concealing his nakedness. Someone had bandaged his legs and tied a clean rag around his knuckles.
He was in a single-room hut. A mortar and pestle sat on a table with bowls and plants. Rows of dried herbs hung from the walls and suffused the air with strong, earthy aromas. Flames writhed inside a fireplace, before which sat a rotund woman in a wicker rocking chair—the town healer, Gertrude. Her head lolled, eyes closed. A pair of knitting needles and a ball of wool thread rested in her lap.
Though Eragon felt drained of willpower, he made himself sit up. That helped to clear his mind. He sifted through his memories of the last two days. His first thought was of Garrow, and his second was of Saphira. I hope she’s in a safe place. He tried to contact her but could not. Wherever she was, it was far from Carvahall. At least Brom got me to Carvahall. I won
der what happened to him? There was all that blood.
Gertrude stirred and opened her sparkling eyes. “Oh,” she said. “You’re awake. Good!” Her voice was rich and warm. “How do you feel?”
“Well enough. Where’s Garrow?”
Gertrude dragged the chair close to the bed. “Over at Horst’s. There wasn’t enough room to keep both of you here. And let me tell you, it’s kept me on my toes, having to run back and forth, checking to see if the two of you were all right.”
Eragon swallowed his worries and asked, “How is he?”
There was a long delay as she examined her hands. “Not good. He has a fever that refuses to break, and his injuries aren’t healing.”
“I have to see him.” He tried to get up.
“Not until you eat,” she said sharply, pushing him down. “I didn’t spend all this time sitting by your side so you can get back up and hurt yourself. Half the skin on your legs was torn off, and your fever broke only last night. Don’t worry yourself about Garrow. He’ll be fine. He’s a tough man.” Gertrude hung a kettle over the fire, then began chopping parsnips for soup.
“How long have I been here?”
“Two full days.”
Two days! That meant his last meal had been four mornings ago! Just thinking about it made Eragon feel weak. Saphira’s been on her own this entire time; I hope she’s all right.