Saphira pulled herself up as he finished speaking and prowled over to Eragon. He pulled out the blade and showed her the sword. It has power, she said, touching the point with her nose. The metal’s iridescent color rippled like water as it met her scales. She lifted her head with a satisfied snort, and the sword resumed its normal appearance. Eragon sheathed it, troubled.
Brom raised an eyebrow. “That’s the sort of thing I’m talking about. Dragons will constantly amaze you. Things . . . happen around them, mysterious things that are impossible anywhere else. Even though the Riders worked with dragons for centuries, they never completely understood their abilities. Some say that even the dragons don’t know the full extent of their own powers. They are linked with this land in a way that lets them overcome great obstacles. What Saphira just did illustrates my earlier point: there is much you don’t know.”
There was a long pause. “That may be,” said Eragon, “but I can learn. And the strangers are the most important thing I need to know about right now. Do you have any idea who they are?”
Brom took a deep breath. “They are called the Ra’zac. No one knows if that’s the name of their race or what they have chosen to call themselves. Either way, if they have individual names, they keep them hidden. The Ra’zac were never seen before Galbatorix came to power. He must have found them during his travels and enlisted them in his service. Little or nothing is known about them. However, I can tell you this: they aren’t human. When I glimpsed one’s head, it appeared to have something resembling a beak and black eyes as large as my fist—though how they manage our speech is a mystery to me. Doubtless the rest of their bodies are just as twisted. That is why they cover themselves with cloaks at all times, regardless of the weather.
“As for their powers, they are stronger than any man and can jump incredible heights, but they cannot use magic. Be thankful for that, because if they could, you would already be in their grasp. I also know they have a strong aversion to sunlight, though it won’t stop them if they’re determined. Don’t make the mistake of underestimating a Ra’zac, for they are cunning and full of guile.”
“How many of them are there?” asked Eragon, wondering how Brom could possibly know so much.
“As far as I know, only the two you saw. There might be more, but I’ve never heard of them. Perhaps they’re the last of a dying race. You see, they are the king’s personal dragon hunters. Whenever rumors reach Galbatorix of a dragon in the land, he sends the Ra’zac to investigate. A trail of death often follows them.” Brom blew a series of smoke rings and watched them float up between the brambles. Eragon ignored the rings until he noticed that they were changing color and darting around. Brom winked slyly.
Eragon was sure that no one had seen Saphira, so how could Galbatorix have heard about her? When he voiced his objections, Brom said, “You’re right, it seems unlikely that anyone from Carvahall could have informed the king. Why don’t you tell me where you got the egg and how you raised Saphira—that might clarify the issue.”
Eragon hesitated, then recounted all the events since he had found the egg in the Spine. It felt wonderful to finally confide in someone. Brom asked a few questions, but most of the time he listened intently. The sun was about to set when Eragon finished his tale. Both of them were quiet as the clouds turned a soft pink. Eragon eventually broke the silence. “I just wish I knew where she came from. And Saphira doesn’t remember.”
Brom cocked his head. “I don’t know. . . . You’ve made many things clear to me. I am sure that no one besides us has seen Saphira. The Ra’zac must have had a source of information outside of this valley, one who is probably dead by now. . . . You have had a hard time and done much. I’m impressed.”
Eragon stared blankly into the distance, then asked, “What happened to your head? It looks like you were hit with a rock.”
“No, but that’s a good guess.” He took a deep pull on the pipe. “I was sneaking around the Ra’zac’s camp after dark, trying to learn what I could, when they surprised me in the shadows. It was a good trap, but they underestimated me, and I managed to drive them away. Not, however,” he said wryly, “without this token of my stupidity. Stunned, I fell to the ground and didn’t regain consciousness until the next day. By then they had already arrived at your farm. It was too late to stop them, but I set out after them anyway. That’s when we met on the road.”
Who is he to think that he could take on the Ra’zac alone? They ambushed him in the dark, and he was only stunned? Unsettled, Eragon asked hotly, “When you saw the mark, the gedwëy ignasia, on my palm, why didn’t you tell me who the Ra’zac were? I would have warned Garrow instead of going to Saphira first, and the three of us could have fled.”
Brom sighed. “I was unsure of what to do at the time. I thought I could keep the Ra’zac away from you and, once they had left, confront you about Saphira. But they outsmarted me. It’s a mistake that I deeply regret, and one that has cost you dearly.”
“Who are you?” demanded Eragon, suddenly bitter. “How come a mere village storyteller happens to have a Rider’s sword? How do you know about the Ra’zac?”
Brom tapped his pipe. “I thought I made it clear I wasn’t going to talk about that.”
“My uncle is dead because of this. Dead!” exclaimed Eragon, slashing a hand through the air. “I’ve trusted you this far because Saphira respects you, but no more! You’re not the person I’ve known in Carvahall for all of these years. Explain yourself!”
For a long time Brom stared at the smoke swirling between them, deep lines creasing his forehead. When he stirred, it was only to take another puff. Finally he said, “You’ve probably never thought about it, but most of my life has been spent outside of Palancar Valley. It was only in Carvahall that I took up the mantle of storyteller. I have played many roles to different people—I’ve a complicated past. It was partly through a desire to escape it that I came here. So no, I’m not the man you think I am.”
“Ha!” snorted Eragon. “Then who are you?”
Brom smiled gently. “I am one who is here to help you. Do not scorn those words—they are the truest I’ve ever spoken. But I’m not going to answer your questions. At this point you don’t need to hear my history, nor have you yet earned that right. Yes, I have knowledge Brom the storyteller wouldn’t, but I’m more than he. You’ll have to learn to live with that fact and the fact that I don’t hand out descriptions of my life to anyone who asks!”
Eragon glared at him sullenly. “I’m going to sleep,” he said, leaving the fire.
Brom did not seem surprised, but there was sorrow in his eyes. He spread his bedroll next to the fire as Eragon lay beside Saphira. An icy silence fell over the camp.
When Eragon’s eyes opened, the memory of Garrow’s death crashed down on him. He pulled the blankets over his head and cried quietly under their warm darkness. It felt good just to lie there . . . to hide from the world outside. Eventually the tears stopped. He cursed Brom. Then he reluctantly wiped his cheeks and got up.
Brom was making breakfast. “Good morning,” he said. Eragon grunted in reply. He jammed his cold fingers in his armpits and crouched by the fire until the food was ready. They ate quickly, trying to consume the food before it lost its warmth. When he finished, Eragon washed his bowl with snow, then spread the stolen leather on the ground.
“What are you going to do with that?” asked Brom. “We can’t carry it with us.”
“I’m going to make a saddle for Saphira.”
“Mmm,” said Brom, moving forward. “Well, dragons used to have two kinds of saddles. The first was hard and molded like a horse’s saddle. But those take time and tools to make, neither of which we have. The other was thin and lightly padded, nothing more than an extra layer between the Rider and dragon. Those saddles were used whenever speed and flexibility were important, though they weren’t nearly as comfortable as the molded ones.”
“Do you know what they looked like?” asked Eragon.
sp; “Better, I can make one.”
“Then please do,” said Eragon, standing aside.
“Very well, but pay attention. Someday you may have to do this for yourself.” With Saphira’s permission, Brom measured her neck and chest. Then he cut five bands out of the leather and outlined a dozen or so shapes on the hides. Once the pieces had been sliced out, he cut what remained of the hides into long cords.
Brom used the cords to sew everything together, but for each stitch, two holes had to be bored through the leather. Eragon helped with that. Intricate knots were rigged in place of buckles, and every strap was made extra long so the saddle would still fit Saphira in the coming months.
The main part of the saddle was assembled from three identical sections sewn together with padding between them. Attached to the front was a thick loop that would fit snugly around one of Saphira’s neck spikes, while wide bands sewn on either side would wrap around her belly and tie underneath. Taking the place of stirrups were a series of loops running down both bands. Tightened, they would hold Eragon’s legs in place. A long strap was constructed to pass between Saphira’s front legs, split in two, and then come up behind her front legs to rejoin with the saddle.
While Brom worked, Eragon repaired his pack and organized their supplies. The day was spent by the time their tasks were completed. Weary from his labor, Brom put the saddle on Saphira and checked to see that the straps fit. He made a few small adjustments, then took it off, satisfied.
“You did a good job,” Eragon acknowledged grudgingly.
Brom inclined his head. “One tries his best. It should serve you well; the leather’s sturdy enough.”
Aren’t you going to try it out? asked Saphira.
Maybe tomorrow, said Eragon, storing the saddle with his blankets. It’s too late now. In truth he was not eager to fly again—not after the disastrous outcome of his last attempt.
Dinner was made quickly. It tasted good even though it was simple. While they ate, Brom looked over the fire at Eragon and asked, “Will we leave tomorrow?”
“There isn’t any reason to stay.”
“I suppose not. . . .” He shifted. “Eragon, I must apologize about how events have turned out. I never wished for this to happen. Your family did not deserve such a tragedy. If there were anything I could do to reverse it, I would. This is a terrible situation for all of us.” Eragon sat in silence, avoiding Brom’s gaze, then Brom said, “We’re going to need horses.”
“Maybe you do, but I have Saphira.”
Brom shook his head. “There isn’t a horse alive that can outrun a flying dragon, and Saphira is too young to carry us both. Besides, it’ll be safer if we stay together, and riding is faster than walking.”
“But that’ll make it harder to catch the Ra’zac,” protested Eragon. “On Saphira, I could probably find them within a day or two. On horses, it’ll take much longer—if it’s even possible to overtake their lead on the ground!”
Brom said slowly, “That’s a chance you’ll have to take if I’m to accompany you.”
Eragon thought it over. “All right,” he grumbled, “we’ll get horses. But you have to buy them. I don’t have any money, and I don’t want to steal again. It’s wrong.”
“That depends on your point of view,” corrected Brom with a slight smile. “Before you set out on this venture, remember that your enemies, the Ra’zac, are the king’s servants. They will be protected wherever they go. Laws do not stop them. In cities they’ll have access to abundant resources and willing servants. Also keep in mind that nothing is more important to Galbatorix than recruiting or killing you—though word of your existence probably hasn’t reached him yet. The longer you evade the Ra’zac, the more desperate he’ll become. He’ll know that every day you’ll be growing stronger and that each passing moment will give you another chance to join his enemies. You must be very careful, as you may easily turn from the hunter into the hunted.”
Eragon was subdued by the strong words. Pensive, he rolled a twig between his fingers. “Enough talk,” said Brom. “It’s late and my bones ache. We can say more tomorrow.” Eragon nodded and banked the fire.
Dawn was gray and overcast with a cutting wind. The forest was quiet. After a light breakfast, Brom and Eragon doused the fire and shouldered their packs, preparing to leave. Eragon hung his bow and quiver on the side of his pack where he could easily reach them. Saphira wore the saddle; she would have to carry it until they got horses. Eragon carefully tied Zar’roc onto her back, too, as he did not want the extra weight. Besides, in his hands the sword would be no better than a club.
Eragon had felt safe inside the bramble, but outside, wariness crept into his movements. Saphira took off and circled overhead. The trees thinned as they returned to the farm.
I will see this place again, Eragon insisted to himself, looking at the ruined buildings. This cannot, will not, be a permanent exile. Someday when it’s safe, I’ll return. . . . Throwing back his shoulders, he faced south and the strange, barbaric lands that lay there.
As they walked, Saphira veered west toward the mountains and out of sight. Eragon felt uncomfortable as he watched her go. Even now, with no one around, they could not spend their days together. She had to stay hidden in case they met a fellow traveler.
The Ra’zac’s footprints were faint on the eroding snow, but Eragon was unconcerned. It was unlikely that they had forsaken the road, which was the easiest way out of the valley, for the wilderness. Once outside the valley, however, the road divided in several places. It would be difficult to ascertain which branch the Ra’zac had taken.
They traveled in silence, concentrating on speed. Eragon’s legs continued to bleed where the scabs had cracked. To take his mind off the discomfort, he asked, “So what exactly can dragons do? You said that you knew something of their abilities.”
Brom laughed, his sapphire ring flashing in the air as he gestured. “Unfortunately, it’s a pitiful amount compared to what I would like to know. Your question is one people have been trying to answer for centuries, so understand that what I tell you is by its very nature incomplete. Dragons have always been mysterious, though maybe not on purpose.
“Before I can truly answer your question, you need a basic education on the subject of dragons. It’s hopelessly confusing to start in the middle of such a complex topic without understanding the foundation on which it stands. I’ll begin with the life cycle of dragons, and if that doesn’t wear you out, we can continue to another topic.”
Brom explained how dragons mate and what it took for their eggs to hatch. “You see,” he said, “when a dragon lays an egg, the infant inside is ready to hatch. But it waits, sometimes for years, for the right circumstances. When dragons lived in the wild, those circumstances were usually dictated by the availability of food. However, once they formed an alliance with the elves, a certain number of their eggs, usually no more than one or two, were given to the Riders each year. These eggs, or rather the infants inside, wouldn’t hatch until the person destined to be its Rider came into their presence—though how they sensed that isn’t known. People used to line up to touch the eggs, hoping that one of them might be picked.”
“Do you mean that Saphira might not have hatched for me?” asked Eragon.
“Quite possibly, if she hadn’t liked you.”
He felt honored that of all the people in Alagaësia, she had chosen him. He wondered how long she had been waiting, then shuddered at the thought of being cramped inside an egg, surrounded by darkness.
Brom continued his lecture. He explained what and when dragons ate. A fully grown sedentary dragon could go for months without food, but in mating season they had to eat every week. Some plants could heal their sicknesses, while others would make them ill. There were various ways to care for their claws and clean their scales.
He explained the techniques to use when attacking from a dragon and what to do if you were fighting one, whether on foot, horseback, or with another
dragon. Their bellies were armored; their armpits were not. Eragon constantly interrupted to ask questions, and Brom seemed pleased by the inquiries. Hours passed unheeded as they talked.
When evening came, they were near Therinsford. As the sky darkened and they searched for a place to camp, Eragon asked, “Who was the Rider that owned Zar’roc?”
“A mighty warrior,” said Brom, “who was much feared in his time and held great power.”
“What was his name?”
“I’ll not say.” Eragon protested, but Brom was firm. “I don’t want to keep you ignorant, far from it, but certain knowledge would only prove dangerous and distracting for you right now. There isn’t any reason for me to trouble you with such things until you have the time and the power to deal with them. I only wish to protect you from those who would use you for evil.”
Eragon glared at him. “You know what? I think you just enjoy speaking in riddles. I’ve half a mind to leave you so I don’t have to be bothered with them. If you’re going to say something, then say it instead of dancing around with vague phrases!”
“Peace. All will be told in time,” Brom said gently. Eragon grunted, unconvinced.
They found a comfortable place to spend the night and set up camp. Saphira joined them as dinner was being set on the fire. Did you have time to hunt for food? asked Eragon.
She snorted with amusement. If the two of you were any slower, I would have time to fly across the sea and back without falling behind.
You don’t have to be insulting. Besides, we’ll go faster once we have horses.
She let out a puff of smoke. Maybe, but will it be enough to catch the Ra’zac? They have a lead of several days and many leagues. And I’m afraid they may suspect we’re following them. Why else would they have destroyed the farm in such a spectacular manner, unless they wished to provoke you into chasing them?
I don’t know, said Eragon, disturbed. Saphira curled up beside him, and he leaned against her belly, welcoming the warmth. Brom sat on the other side of the fire, whittling two long sticks. He suddenly threw one at Eragon, who grabbed it out of reflex as it whirled over the crackling flames.