Excited, he picked up the flask and unscrewed its cap. A cloying smell filled the air—the same one he had noticed when he found Garrow in the wreckage of their house. He tilted the flask, and a drop of clear, shiny liquid fell on his finger. Instantly Eragon’s finger burned as if it were on fire. He yelped and scrubbed his hand on the ground. After a moment the pain subsided to a dull throbbing. A patch of skin had been eaten away.
Grimacing, he jogged back to Brom. “Look what I found.” Brom took the flask and examined it, then poured a bit of the liquid into the cap. Eragon started to warn him, “Watch out, it’ll burn—”
“My skin, I know,” said Brom. “And I suppose you went ahead and poured it all over your hand. Your finger? Well, at least you showed sense enough not to drink it. Only a puddle would have been left of you.”
“What is it?” asked Eragon.
“Oil from the petals of the Seithr plant, which grows on a small island in the frigid northern seas. In its natural state, the oil is used for preserving pearls—it makes them lustrous and strong. But when specific words are spoken over the oil, along with a blood sacrifice, it gains the property to eat any flesh. That alone wouldn’t make it special—there are plenty of acids that can dissolve sinew and bone—except for the fact that it leaves everything else untouched. You can dip anything into the oil and pull it out unharmed, unless it was once part of an animal or human. This has made it a weapon of choice for torture and assassination. It can be stored in wood, slathered on the point of a spear, or dripped onto sheets so that the next person to touch them will be burned. There are myriad uses for it, limited only by your ingenuity. Any injury caused by it is always slow to heal. It’s rather rare and expensive, especially this converted form.”
Eragon remembered the terrible burns that had covered Garrow. That’s what they used on him, he realized with horror. “I wonder why the Ra’zac left it behind if it’s so valuable.”
“It must have slipped off when they flew away.”
“But why didn’t they come back for it? I doubt that the king will be pleased that they lost it.”
“No, he won’t,” said Brom, “but he would be even more displeased if they delayed bringing him news of you. In fact, if the Ra’zac have reached him by now, you can be sure that the king has learned your name. And that means we will have to be much more careful when we go into towns. There will be notices and alerts about you posted throughout the Empire.”
Eragon paused to think. “This oil, how rare is it exactly?”
“Like diamonds in a pig trough,” said Brom. He amended himself after a second, “Actually, the normal oil is used by jewelers, but only those who can afford it.”
“So there are people who trade in it?”
“Perhaps one, maybe two.”
“Good,” said Eragon. “Now, do the cities along the coast keep shipping records?”
Brom’s eyes brightened. “Of course they do. If we could get to those records, they would tell us who brought the oil south and where it went from there.”
“And the record of the Empire’s purchase will tell us where the Ra’zac live!” concluded Eragon. “I don’t know how many people can afford this oil, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out which ones aren’t working for the Empire.”
“Genius!” exclaimed Brom, smiling. “I wish I had thought of this years ago; it would have saved me many headaches. The coast is dotted with numerous cities and towns where ships can land. I suppose that Teirm would be the place to start, as it controls most of the trade.” Brom paused. “The last I heard, my old friend Jeod lives there. We haven’t seen each other for many years, but he might be willing to help us. And because he’s a merchant, it’s possible that he has access to those records.”
“How do we get to Teirm?”
“We’ll have to go southwest until we reach a high pass in the Spine. Once on the other side, we can head up the coast to Teirm,” said Brom. A gentle wind pulled at his hair.
“Can we reach the pass within a week?”
“Easily. If we angle away from the Ninor and to our right, we might be able to see the mountains by tomorrow.”
Eragon went to Saphira and mounted her. “I’ll see you at dinner, then.” When they were at a good height, he said, I’m going to ride Cadoc tomorrow. Before you protest, know that I am only doing it because I want to talk with Brom.
You should ride with him every other day. That way you can still receive your instruction, and I will have time to hunt.
You won’t be troubled by it?
It is necessary.
When they landed for the day, he was pleased to discover that his legs did not hurt. The saddle had protected him well from Saphira’s scales.
Eragon and Brom had their nightly fight, but it lacked energy, as both were preoccupied with the day’s events. By the time they finished, Eragon’s arms burned from Zar’roc’s unaccustomed weight.
A SONG FOR
The next day while they were riding, Eragon asked Brom, “What is the sea like?”
“You must have heard it described before,” said Brom.
“Yes, but what is it really like?”
Brom’s eyes grew hazy, as if he looked upon some hidden scene. “The sea is emotion incarnate. It loves, hates, and weeps. It defies all attempts to capture it with words and rejects all shackles. No matter what you say about it, there is always that which you can’t. Do you remember what I told you about how the elves came over the sea?”
“Though they live far from the coast, they retain a great fascination and passion for the ocean. The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt air, it affects them deeply and has inspired many of their loveliest songs. There is one that tells of this love, if you want to hear it.”
“I would,” said Eragon, interested.
Brom cleared his throat and said, “I will translate it from the ancient language as best I can. It won’t be perfect, but perhaps it will give you an idea of how the original sounds.” He pulled Snowfire to a stop and closed his eyes. He was silent for a while, then chanted softly:
O liquid temptress ’neath the azure sky,
Your gilded expanse calls me, calls me.
For I would sail ever on,
Were it not for the elven maid,
Who calls me, calls me.
She binds my heart with a lily-white tie,
Never to be broken, save by the sea,
Ever to be torn twixt the trees and the waves.
The words echoed hauntingly in Eragon’s head. “There is much more to that song, the ‘Du Silbena Datia.’ I have only recited one of its verses. It tells the sad tale of two lovers, Acallamh and Nuada, who were separated by longing for the sea. The elves find great meaning in the story.”
“It’s beautiful,” said Eragon simply.
The Spine was a faint outline on the horizon when they halted that evening.
When they arrived at the Spine’s foothills, they turned and followed the mountains south. Eragon was glad to be near the mountains again; they placed comforting boundaries on the world. Three days later they came to a wide road rutted by wagon wheels. “This is the main road between the capital, Urû’baen, and Teirm,” said Brom. “It’s widely used and a favorite route for merchants. We have to be more cautious. This isn’t the busiest time of year, but a few people are bound to be using the road.”
Days passed quickly as they continued to trek along the Spine, searching for the mountain pass. Eragon could not complain of boredom. When not learning the elven language, he was either learning how to care for Saphira or practicing magic. Eragon also learned how to kill game with magic, which saved them time hunting. He would hold a small rock on his hand and shoot it at his prey. It was impossible to miss. The results of his efforts roasted over the fire each night. And after dinner, Brom and Eragon would spar with swords and, occasionally, fists.
The long days and strenuous work stripped Eragon’s body of
excess fat. His arms became corded, and his tanned skin rippled with lean muscles. Everything about me is turning hard, he thought dryly.
When they finally reached the pass, Eragon saw that a river rushed out of it and cut across the road. “This is the Toark,” explained Brom. “We’ll follow it all the way to the sea.”
“How can we,” laughed Eragon, “if it flows out of the Spine in this direction? It won’t end up in the ocean unless it doubles back on itself.”
Brom twisted the ring on his finger. “Because in the middle of the mountains rests the Woadark Lake. A river flows from each end of it and both are called the Toark. We see the eastward one now. It runs to the south and winds through the brush until it joins Leona Lake. The other one goes to the sea.”
After two days in the Spine, they came upon a rock ledge from which they could see clearly out of the mountains. Eragon noticed how the land flattened in the distance, and he groaned at the leagues they still had to traverse. Brom pointed. “Down there and to the north lies Teirm. It is an old city. Some say it’s where the elves first landed in Alagaësia. Its citadel has never fallen, nor have its warriors ever been defeated.” He spurred Snowfire forward and left the ledge.
It took them until noon the next day to descend through the foothills and arrive at the other side of the Spine, where the forested land quickly leveled out. Without the mountains to hide behind, Saphira flew close to the ground, using every hollow and dip in the land to conceal herself.
Beyond the forest, they noticed a change. The countryside was covered with soft turf and heather that their feet sank into. Moss clung to every stone and branch and lined the streams that laced the ground. Pools of mud pocked the road where horses had trampled the dirt. Before long both Brom and Eragon were splattered with grime.
“Why is everything green?” asked Eragon. “Don’t they have winter here?”
“Yes, but the season is mild. Mist and fog roll in from the sea and keep everything alive. Some find it to their liking, but to me it’s dreary and depressing.”
When evening fell, they set up camp in the driest spot they could find. As they ate, Brom commented, “You should continue to ride Cadoc until we reach Teirm. It’s likely that we’ll meet other travelers now that we are out of the Spine, and it will be better if you are with me. An old man traveling alone will raise suspicion. With you at my side, no one will ask questions. Besides, I don’t want to show up at the city and have someone who saw me on the trail wondering where you suddenly came from.”
“Will we use our own names?” asked Eragon.
Brom thought about it. “We won’t be able to deceive Jeod. He already knows my name, and I think I trust him with yours. But to everyone else, I will be Neal and you will be my nephew Evan. If our tongues slip and give us away, it probably won’t make a difference, but I don’t want our names in anyone’s heads. People have an annoying habit of remembering things they shouldn’t.”
A TASTE OF TEIRM
After two days of traveling north toward the ocean, Saphira sighted Teirm. A heavy fog clung to the ground, obscuring Brom’s and Eragon’s sight until a breeze from the west blew the mist away. Eragon gaped as Teirm was suddenly revealed before them, nestled by the edge of the shimmering sea, where proud ships were docked with furled sails. The surf’s dull thunder could be heard in the distance.
The city was contained behind a white wall—a hundred feet tall and thirty feet thick—with rows of rectangular arrow slits lining it and a walkway on top for soldiers and watchmen. The wall’s smooth surface was broken by two iron portcullises, one facing the western sea, the other opening south to the road. Above the wall—and set against its northeast section—rose a huge citadel built of giant stones and turrets. In the highest tower, a lighthouse lantern gleamed brilliantly. The castle was the only thing visible over the fortifications.
Soldiers guarded the southern gate but held their pikes carelessly. “This is our first test,” said Brom. “Let’s hope they haven’t received reports of us from the Empire and won’t detain us. Whatever happens, don’t panic or act suspiciously.”
Eragon told Saphira, You should land somewhere now and hide. We’re going in.
Sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong. Again, she said sourly.
I know. But Brom and I do have some advantages most people don’t. We’ll be all right.
If anything happens, I’m going to pin you to my back and never let you off.
I love you too.
Then I will bind you all the tighter.
Eragon and Brom rode toward the gate, trying to appear casual. A yellow pennant bearing the outline of a roaring lion and an arm holding a lily blossom waved over the entrance. As they neared the wall, Eragon asked in amazement, “How big is this place?”
“Larger than any city you have ever seen,” said Brom.
At the entrance to Teirm, the guards stood straighter and blocked the gate with their pikes. “Wha’s yer name?” asked one of them in a bored tone.
“I’m called Neal,” said Brom in a wheezy voice, slouching to one side, an expression of happy idiocy on his face.
“And who’s th’ other one?” asked the guard.
“Well, I wus gettin’ to that. This’ed be m’nephew Evan. He’s m’sister’s boy, not a . . .”
The guard nodded impatiently. “Yeah, yeah. And yer business here?”
“He’s visitin’ an old friend,” supplied Eragon, dropping his voice into a thick accent. “I’m along t’ make sure he don’t get lost, if y’ get m’meaning. He ain’t as young as he used to be—had a bit too much sun when he was young’r. Touch o’ the brain fever, y’ know.” Brom bobbed his head pleasantly.
“Right. Go on through,” said the guard, waving his hand and dropping the pike. “Just make sure he doesn’t cause any trouble.”
“Oh, he won’t,” promised Eragon. He urged Cadoc forward, and they rode into Teirm. The cobblestone street clacked under the horses’ hooves.
Once they were away from the guards, Brom sat up and growled, “Touch of brain fever, eh?”
“I couldn’t let you have all the fun,” teased Eragon.
Brom harrumphed and looked away.
The houses were grim and foreboding. Small, deep windows let in only sparse rays of light. Narrow doors were recessed into the buildings. The tops of the roofs were flat—except for metal railings—and all were covered with slate shingles. Eragon noticed that the houses closest to Teirm’s outer wall were no more than one story, but the buildings got progressively higher as they went in. Those next to the citadel were tallest of all, though insignificant compared to the fortress.
“This place looks ready for war,” said Eragon.
Brom nodded. “Teirm has a history of being attacked by pirates, Urgals, and other enemies. It has long been a center of commerce. There will always be conflict where riches gather in such abundance. The people here have been forced to take extraordinary measures to keep themselves from being overrun. It also helps that Galbatorix gives them soldiers to defend their city.”
“Why are some houses higher than others?”
“Look at the citadel,” said Brom, pointing. “It has an unobstructed view of Teirm. If the outer wall were breached, archers would be posted on all the roofs. Because the houses in the front, by the outer wall, are lower, the men farther back could shoot over them without fear of hitting their comrades. Also, if the enemy were to capture those houses and put their own archers on them, it would be an easy matter to shoot them down.”
“I’ve never seen a city planned like this,” said Eragon in wonder.
“Yes, but it was only done after Teirm was nearly burned down by a pirate raid,” commented Brom. As they continued up the street, people gave them searching looks, but there was not an undue amount of interest.
Compared to our reception at Daret, we’ve been welcomed with open arms. Perhaps Teirm has escaped notice by the Urgals, thought Eragon. He changed his opinion when a large man shouldered
past them, a sword hanging from his waist. There were other, subtler signs of adverse times: no children played in the streets, people bore hard expressions, and many houses were deserted, with weeds growing from cracks in their stone-covered yards. “It looks like they’ve had trouble,” said Eragon.
“The same as everywhere else,” said Brom grimly. “We have to find Jeod.” They led their horses across the street to a tavern and tied them to the hitching post. “The Green Chestnut . . . wonderful,” muttered Brom, looking at the battered sign above them as he and Eragon entered the building.
The dingy room felt unsafe. A fire smoldered in the fireplace, yet no one bothered to throw more wood on it. A few lonely people in the corners nursed their drinks with sullen expressions. A man missing two fingers sat at a far table, eyeing his twitching stumps. The bartender had a cynical twist to his lips and held a glass in his hand that he kept polishing, even though it was broken.
Brom leaned against the bar and asked, “Do you know where we can find a man called Jeod?” Eragon stood at his side, fiddling with the tip of his bow by his waist. It was slung across his back, but right then he wished that it were in his hands.
The bartender said in an overly loud voice, “Now, why would I know something like that? Do you think I keep track of the mangy louts in this forsaken place?” Eragon winced as all eyes turned toward them.
Brom kept talking smoothly. “Could you be enticed to remember?” He slid some coins onto the bar.
The man brightened and put his glass down. “Could be,” he replied, lowering his voice, “but my memory takes a great deal of prodding.” Brom’s face soured, but he slid more coins onto the bar. The bartender sucked on one side of his cheek undecidedly. “All right,” he finally said, and reached for the coins.
Before he touched them, the man missing two fingers called out from his table, “Gareth, what in th’ blazes do you think you’re doing? Anyone on the street could tell them where Jeod lives. What are you charging them for?”