“It seems they’ve gone to Yazuac,” said Brom with a perplexed air.
“Due east and four days away, if all goes well. It’s a small village situated by the Ninor River.” He gestured at the Anora, which streamed away from them to the north. “Our only supply of water is here. We’ll have to replenish our waterskins before attempting to cross the plains. There isn’t another pool or stream between here and Yazuac.”
The excitement of the hunt began to rise within Eragon. In a few days, maybe less than a week, he would use his arrows to avenge Garrow’s death. And then . . . He refused to think about what might happen afterward.
They filled the waterskins, watered the horses, and drank as much as they could from the river. Saphira joined them and took several gulps of water. Fortified, they turned eastward and started across the plains.
Eragon decided that it would be the wind that drove him crazy first. Everything that made him miserable—his chapped lips, parched tongue, and burning eyes—stemmed from it. The ceaseless gusting followed them throughout the day. Evening only strengthened the wind, instead of subduing it.
Since there was no shelter, they were forced to camp in the open. Eragon found some scrub brush, a short tough plant that thrived on harsh conditions, and pulled it up. He made a careful pile and tried to light it, but the woody stems only smoked and gave off a pungent smell. Frustrated, he tossed the tinderbox to Brom. “I can’t make it burn, especially with this blasted wind. See if you can get it going: otherwise dinner will be cold.”
Brom knelt by the brush and looked at it critically. He rearranged a couple of branches, then struck the tinderbox, sending a cascade of sparks onto the plants. There was smoke, but nothing else. Brom scowled and tried again, but his luck was no better than Eragon’s. “Brisingr!” he swore angrily, striking the flint again. Flames suddenly appeared, and he stepped back with a pleased expression. “There we go. It must have been smoldering inside.”
They sparred with mock swords while the food cooked. Fatigue made it hard on both of them, so they kept the session short. After they had eaten, they lay next to Saphira and slept, grateful for her shelter.
The same cold wind greeted them in the morning, sweeping over the dreadful flatness. Eragon’s lips had cracked during the night; every time he smiled or talked, beads of blood covered them. Licking them only made it worse. It was the same for Brom. They let the horses drink sparingly from their supply of water before mounting them. The day was a monotonous trek of endless plodding.
On the third day, Eragon woke well rested. That, coupled with the fact that the wind had stopped, put him in a cheery humor. His high spirits were dampened, however, when he saw the sky ahead of them was dark with thunderheads.
Brom looked at the clouds and grimaced. “Normally I wouldn’t go into a storm like that, but we’re in for a battering no matter what we do, so we might as well get some distance covered.”
It was still calm when they reached the storm front. As they entered its shadow, Eragon looked up. The thundercloud had an exotic structure, forming a natural cathedral with a massive arched roof. With some imagination he could see pillars, windows, soaring tiers, and snarling gargoyles. It was a wild beauty.
As Eragon lowered his gaze, a giant ripple raced toward them through the grass, flattening it. It took him a second to realize that the wave was a tremendous blast of wind. Brom saw it too, and they hunched their shoulders, preparing for the storm.
The gale was almost upon them when Eragon had a horrible thought and twisted in his saddle, yelling, both with his voice and mind, “Saphira! Land!” Brom’s face grew pale. Overhead, they saw her dive toward the ground. She’s not going to make it!
Saphira angled back the way they had come, to gain time. As they watched, the tempest’s wrath struck them like a hammer blow. Eragon gasped for breath and clenched the saddle as a frenzied howling filled his ears. Cadoc swayed and dug his hooves into the ground, mane snapping in the air. The wind tore at their clothes with invisible fingers while the air darkened with billowing clouds of dust.
Eragon squinted, searching for Saphira. He saw her land heavily and then crouch, clenching the ground with her talons. The wind reached her just as she started to fold her wings. With an angry yank, it unfurled them and dragged her into the air. For a moment she hung there, suspended by the storm’s force. Then it slammed her down on her back.
With a savage wrench, Eragon yanked Cadoc around and galloped back up the trail, goading the horse with both heels and mind. Saphira! he shouted. Try to stay on the ground. I’m coming! He felt a grim acknowledgment from her. As they neared Saphira, Cadoc balked, so Eragon leapt down and ran toward her.
His bow banged against his head. A strong gust pushed him off balance and he flew forward, landing on his chest. He skidded, then got back up with a snarl, ignoring the deep scrapes in his skin.
Saphira was only three yards away, but he could get no closer because of her flailing wings. She struggled to fold them against the overpowering gale. He rushed at her right wing, intending to hold it down, but the wind caught her and she somersaulted over him. The spines on her back missed his head by inches. Saphira clawed at the ground, trying to stay down.
Her wings began to lift again, but before they could flip her, Eragon threw himself at the left one. The wing crumpled in at the joints and Saphira tucked it firmly against her body. Eragon vaulted over her back and tumbled onto the other wing. Without warning it was blown upward, sending him sliding to ground. He broke his fall with a roll, then jumped up and grabbed the wing again. Saphira started to fold it, and he pushed with all of his strength. The wind battled with them for a second, but with one last surge they overcame it.
Eragon leaned against Saphira, panting. Are you all right? He could feel her trembling.
She took a moment to answer. I . . . I think so. She sounded shaken. Nothing’s broken—I couldn’t do anything; the wind wouldn’t let me go. I was helpless. With a shudder, she fell silent.
He looked at her, concerned. Don’t worry, you’re safe now. He spotted Cadoc a ways off, standing with his back to the wind. With his mind, Eragon instructed the horse to return to Brom. He then got onto Saphira. She crept up the road, fighting the gale while he clung to her back and kept his head down.
When they reached Brom, he shouted over the storm, “Is she hurt?”
Eragon shook his head and dismounted. Cadoc trotted over to him, nickering. As he stroked the horse’s long cheek, Brom pointed at a dark curtain of rain sweeping toward them in rippling gray sheets. “What else?” cried Eragon, pulling his clothes tighter. He winced as the torrent reached them. The stinging rain was cold as ice; before long they were drenched and shivering.
Lightning lanced through the sky, flickering in and out of existence. Mile-high blue bolts streaked across the horizon, followed by peals of thunder that shook the ground below. It was beautiful, but dangerously so. Here and there, grass fires were ignited by strikes, only to be extinguished by the rain.
The wild elements were slow to abate, but as the day passed, they wandered elsewhere. Once again the sky was revealed, and the setting sun glowed with brilliance. As beams of light tinted the clouds with blazing colors, everything gained a sharp contrast: brightly lit on one side, deeply shadowed on the other. Objects had a unique sense of mass; grass stalks seemed sturdy as marble pillars. Ordinary things took on an unearthly beauty; Eragon felt as if he were sitting inside a painting.
The rejuvenated earth smelled fresh, clearing their minds and raising their spirits. Saphira stretched, craning her neck, and roared happily. The horses skittered away from her, but Eragon and Brom smiled at her exuberance.
Before the light faded, they stopped for the night in a shallow depression. Too exhausted to spar, they went straight to sleep.
REVELATION AT YAZUAC
Although they had managed to partially refill the waterskins during the storm, they drank the last of their water that morning. “I hope w
e’re going in the right direction,” said Eragon, crunching up the empty water bag, “because we’ll be in trouble if we don’t reach Yazuac today.”
Brom did not seem disturbed. “I’ve traveled this way before. Yazuac will be in sight before dusk.”
Eragon laughed doubtfully. “Perhaps you see something I don’t. How can you know that when everything looks exactly the same for leagues around?”
“Because I am guided not by the land, but by the stars and sun. They will not lead us astray. Come! Let us be off. It is foolish to conjure up woe where none exists. Yazuac will be there.”
His words proved true. Saphira spotted the village first, but it was not until later in the day that the rest of them saw it as a dark bump on the horizon. Yazuac was still very far away; it was only visible because of the plain’s uniform flatness. As they rode closer, a dark winding line appeared on either side of the town and disappeared in the distance.
“The Ninor River,” said Brom, pointing at it.
Eragon pulled Cadoc to a stop. “Saphira will be seen if she stays with us much longer. Should she hide while we go into Yazuac?”
Brom scratched his chin and looked at the town. “See that bend in the river? Have her wait there. It’s far enough from Yazuac so no one should find her, but close enough that she won’t be left behind. We’ll go through the town, get what we need, and then meet her.”
I don’t like it, said Saphira when Eragon had explained the plan. This is irritating, having to hide all the time like a criminal.
You know what would happen if we were revealed. She grumbled but gave in and flew away low to the ground.
They kept a swift pace in anticipation of the food and drink they would soon enjoy. As they approached the small houses, they could see smoke from a dozen chimneys, but there was no one in the streets. An abnormal silence enveloped the village. By unspoken consent they stopped before the first house. Eragon abruptly said, “There aren’t any dogs barking.”
“Doesn’t mean anything, though.”
“. . . No.”
Eragon paused. “Someone should have seen us by now.”
“Then why hasn’t anyone come out?”
Brom squinted at the sun. “Could be afraid.”
“Could be,” said Eragon. He was quiet for a moment. “And if it’s a trap? The Ra’zac might be waiting for us.”
“We need provisions and water.”
“There’s the Ninor.”
“Still need provisions.”
“True.” Eragon looked around. “So we go in?”
Brom flicked his reins. “Yes, but not like fools. This is the main entrance to Yazuac. If there’s an ambush, it’ll be along here. No one will expect us to arrive from a different direction.”
“Around to the side, then?” asked Eragon. Brom nodded and pulled out his sword, resting the bare blade across his saddle. Eragon strung his bow and nocked an arrow.
They trotted quietly around the town and entered it cautiously. The streets were empty, except for a small fox that darted away as they came near. The houses were dark and foreboding, with shattered windows. Many of the doors swung on broken hinges. The horses rolled their eyes nervously. Eragon’s palm tingled, but he resisted the urge to scratch it. As they rode into the center of town, he gripped his bow tighter, blanching. “Gods above,” he whispered.
A mountain of bodies rose above them, the corpses stiff and grimacing. Their clothes were soaked in blood, and the churned ground was stained with it. Slaughtered men lay over the women they had tried to protect, mothers still clasped their children, and lovers who had tried to shield each other rested in death’s cold embrace. Black arrows stuck out of them all. Neither young nor old had been spared. But worst of all was the barbed spear that rose out of the peak of the pile, impaling the white body of a baby.
Tears blurred Eragon’s vision and he tried to look away, but the dead faces held his attention. He stared at their open eyes and wondered how life could have left them so easily. What does our existence mean when it can end like this? A wave of hopelessness overwhelmed him.
A crow dipped out of the sky, like a black shadow, and perched on the spear. It cocked its head and greedily scrutinized the infant’s corpse. “Oh no you don’t,” snarled Eragon as he pulled back the bowstring and released it with a twang. With a puff of feathers, the crow fell over backward, the arrow protruding from its chest. Eragon fit another arrow to the string, but nausea rose from his stomach and he threw up over Cadoc’s side.
Brom patted him on the back. When Eragon was done, Brom asked gently, “Do you want to wait for me outside Yazuac?”
“No . . . I’ll stay,” said Eragon shakily, wiping his mouth. He avoided looking at the gruesome sight before them. “Who could have done . . .” He could not force out the words.
Brom bowed his head. “Those who love the pain and suffering of others. They wear many faces and go by many disguises, but there is only one name for them: evil. There is no understanding it. All we can do is pity and honor the victims.”
He dismounted Snowfire and walked around, inspecting the trampled ground carefully. “The Ra’zac passed this way,” he said slowly, “but this wasn’t their doing. This is Urgal work; the spear is of their make. A company of them came through here, perhaps as many as a hundred. It’s odd; I know of only a few instances when they have gathered in such . . .” He knelt and examined a footprint intently. With a curse he ran back to Snowfire and leapt onto him.
“Ride!” he hissed tightly, spurring Snowfire forward. “There are still Urgals here!” Eragon jammed his heels into Cadoc. The horse jumped forward and raced after Snowfire. They dashed past the houses and were almost to the edge of Yazuac when Eragon’s palm tingled again. He saw a flicker of movement to his right, then a giant fist smashed him out of the saddle. He flew back over Cadoc and crashed into a wall, holding on to his bow only by instinct. Gasping and stunned, he staggered upright, hugging his side.
An Urgal stood over him, face set in a gross leer. The monster was tall, thick, and broader than a doorway, with gray skin and yellow piggish eyes. Muscles bulged on his arms and chest, which was covered by a too small breastplate. An iron cap rested over the pair of ram’s horns curling from his temples, and a roundshield was bound to one arm. His powerful hand held a short, wicked sword.
Behind him, Eragon saw Brom rein in Snowfire and start back, only to be stopped by the appearance of a second Urgal, this one with an ax. “Run, you fool!” Brom cried to Eragon, cleaving at his enemy. The Urgal in front of Eragon roared and swung his sword mightily. Eragon jerked back with a startled yelp as the weapon whistled past his cheek. He spun around and fled toward the center of Yazuac, heart pounding wildly.
The Urgal pursued him, heavy boots thudding. Eragon sent a desperate cry for help to Saphira, then forced himself to go even faster. The Urgal rapidly gained ground despite Eragon’s efforts; large fangs separated in a soundless bellow. With the Urgal almost upon him, Eragon strung an arrow, spun to a stop, took aim, and released. The Urgal snapped up his arm and caught the quivering bolt on his shield. The monster collided with Eragon before he could shoot again, and they fell to the ground in a confused tangle.
Eragon sprang to his feet and rushed back to Brom, who was trading fierce blows with his opponent from Snowfire’s back. Where are the rest of the Urgals? wondered Eragon frantically. Are these two the only ones in Yazuac? There was a loud smack, and Snowfire reared, whinnying. Brom doubled over in his saddle, blood streaming down his arm. The Urgal beside him howled in triumph and raised his ax for the death blow.
A deafening scream tore out of Eragon as he charged the Urgal, headfirst. The Urgal paused in astonishment, then faced him contemptuously, swinging his ax. Eragon ducked under the two-handed blow and clawed the Urgal’s side, leaving bloody furrows. The Urgal’s face twisted with rage. He slashed again, but missed as Eragon dived to the side and scrambled down an alley. Eragon concentrated on leading the Urgals away from Brom. He slipped into a narrow passageway between two houses, saw it was a dead end, and slid to a stop. He tried to back out, but the Urgals had already blocked the entrance. They advanced, cursing him in their gravelly voices. Eragon swung his head from side to side, searching for a way out, but there was none.
As he faced the Urgals, images flashed in his mind: dead villagers piled around the spear and an innocent baby who would never grow to adulthood. At the thought of their fate, a burning, fiery power gathered from every part of his body. It was more than a desire for justice. It was his entire being rebelling against the fact of death—that he would cease to exist. The power grew stronger and stronger until he felt ready to burst from the contained force.
He stood tall and straight, all fear gone. He raised his bow smoothly. The Urgals laughed and lifted their shields. Eragon sighted down the shaft, as he had done hundreds of times, and aligned the arrowhead with his target. The energy inside him burned at an unbearable level. He had to release it, or it would consume him. A word suddenly leapt unbidden to his lips. He shot, yelling, “Brisingr!”
The arrow hissed through the air, glowing with a crackling blue light. It struck the lead Urgal on the forehead, and the air resounded with an explosion. A blue shock wave blasted out of the monster’s head, killing the other Urgal instantly. It reached Eragon before he had time to react, and it passed through him without harm, dissipating against the houses.
Eragon stood panting, then looked at his icy palm. The gedwëy ignasia was glowing like white-hot metal, yet even as he watched, it faded back to normal. He clenched his fist, then a wave of exhaustion washed over him. He felt strange and feeble, as if he had not eaten for days. His knees buckled, and he sagged against a wall.
Once a modicum of strength returned to him, Eragon staggered out of the alley, skirting the dead monsters. He did not get far before Cadoc trotted to his side. “Good, you weren’t hurt,” mumbled Eragon. He noticed, without particularly caring, that his hands were shaking violently and his movements were jerky. He felt detached, as if everything he saw were happening to someone else.