“If that’s true, then the only way to keep Roran safe is to let the Ra’zac know where I am so that they’ll come after me instead of him.”
“No, that won’t work either. You’re not thinking,” admonished Brom. “If you can’t understand your enemies, how can you expect to anticipate them? Even if you exposed your location, the Ra’zac would still chase Roran. Do you know why?”
Eragon straightened and tried to consider every possibility. “Well, if I stay in hiding long enough, they might get frustrated and capture Roran to force me to reveal myself. If that didn’t work, they’d kill him just to hurt me. Also, if I become a public enemy of the Empire, they might use him as bait to catch me. And if I met with Roran and they found out about it, they would torture him to find out where I was.”
“Very good. You figured that out quite nicely,” said Brom.
“But what’s the solution? I can’t let him be killed!”
Brom clasped his hands loosely. “The solution is quite obvious. Roran is going to have to learn how to defend himself. That may sound hard-hearted, but as you pointed out, you cannot risk meeting with him. You may not remember this—you were half delirious at the time—but when we left Carvahall, I told you that I had left a warning letter for Roran so he won’t be totally unprepared for danger. If he has any sense at all, when the Ra’zac show up in Carvahall again, he’ll take my advice and flee.”
“I don’t like this,” said Eragon unhappily.
“Ah, but you forget something.”
“What?” he demanded.
“There is some good in all of this. The king cannot afford to have a Rider roaming around that he does not control. Galbatorix is the only known Rider alive besides yourself, but he would like another one under his command. Before he tries to kill you or Roran, he will offer you the chance to serve him. Unfortunately, if he ever gets close enough to make that proposition, it will be far too late for you to refuse and still live.”
“You call that some good!”
“It’s all that’s protecting Roran. As long as the king doesn’t know which side you’ve chosen, he won’t risk alienating you by harming your cousin. Keep that firmly in mind. The Ra’zac killed Garrow, but I think it was an ill-considered decision on their part. From what I know of Galbatorix, he would not have approved it unless he gained something from it.”
“And how will I be able to deny the king’s wishes when he is threatening me with death?” asked Eragon sharply.
Brom sighed. He went to his nightstand and dipped his fingers in a basin of rose water. “Galbatorix wants your willing cooperation. Without that, you’re worse than useless to him. So the question becomes, If you are ever faced with this choice, are you willing to die for what you believe in? For that is the only way you will deny him.”
The question hung in the air.
Brom finally said, “It’s a difficult question and not one you can answer until you’re faced with it. Keep in mind that many people have died for their beliefs; it’s actually quite common. The real courage is in living and suffering for what you believe.”
THE WITCH AND
It was late in the morning when Eragon woke. He dressed, washed his face in the basin, then held the mirror up and brushed his hair into place. Something about his reflection made him stop and look closer. His face had changed since he had run out of Carvahall just a short while ago. Any baby fat was gone now, stripped away by traveling, sparring, and training. His cheekbones were more prominent, and the line of his jaw was sharper. There was a slight cast to his eyes that, when he looked closely, gave his face a wild, alien appearance. He held the mirror at arm’s length, and his face resumed its normal semblance—but it still did not seem quite his own.
A little disturbed, he slung his bow and quiver across his back, then left the room. Before he had reached the end of the hall, the butler caught up with him and said, “Sir, Neal left with my master for the castle earlier. He said that you could do whatever you want today because he will not return until this evening.”
Eragon thanked him for the message, then eagerly began exploring Teirm. For hours he wandered the streets, entering every shop that struck his fancy and chatting with various people. Eventually he was forced back to Jeod’s by his empty stomach and lack of money.
When he reached the street where the merchant lived, he stopped at the herbalist’s shop next door. It was an unusual place for a store. The other shops were down by the city wall, not crammed between expensive houses. He tried to look in the windows, but they were covered with a thick layer of crawling plants on the interior. Curious, he went inside.
At first he saw nothing because the store was so dark, but then his eyes adjusted to the faint greenish light that filtered through the windows. A colorful bird with wide tail feathers and a sharp, powerful beak looked at Eragon inquisitively from a cage near the window. The walls were covered with plants; vines clung to the ceiling, obscuring all but an old chandelier, and on the floor was a large pot with a yellow flower. A collection of mortars, pestles, metal bowls, and a clear crystal ball the size of Eragon’s head rested on a long counter.
He walked to the counter, carefully stepping around complex machines, crates of rocks, piles of scrolls, and other objects he did not recognize. The wall behind the counter was covered with drawers of every size. Some of them were no larger than his smallest finger, while others were big enough for a barrel. There was a foot-wide gap in the shelves far above.
A pair of red eyes suddenly flashed from the dark space, and a large, fierce cat leapt onto the counter. It had a lean body with powerful shoulders and oversized paws. A shaggy mane surrounded its angular face; its ears were tipped with black tufts. White fangs curved down over its jaw. Altogether, it did not look like any cat Eragon had ever seen. It inspected him with shrewd eyes, then flicked its tail dismissively.
On a whim, Eragon reached out with his mind and touched the cat’s consciousness. Gently, he prodded it with his thoughts, trying to make it understand that he was a friend.
You don’t have to do that.
Eragon looked around in alarm. The cat ignored him and licked a paw. Saphira? Where are you? he asked. No one answered. Puzzled, he leaned against the counter and reached for what looked like a wood rod.
That wouldn’t be wise.
Stop playing games, Saphira, he snapped, then picked up the rod. A shock of electricity exploded through his body, and he fell to the floor, writhing. The pain slowly faded, leaving him gasping for air. The cat jumped down and looked at him.
You aren’t very smart for a Dragon Rider. I did warn you.
You said that! exclaimed Eragon. The cat yawned, then stretched and sauntered across the floor, weaving its way between objects.
But you’re just a cat! he objected.
The cat yowled and stalked back to him. It jumped on his chest and crouched there, looking down at him with gleaming eyes. Eragon tried to sit up, but it growled, showing its fangs. Do I look like other cats?
No . . .
Then what makes you think I am one? Eragon started to say something, but the creature dug its claws into his chest. Obviously your education has been neglected. I—to correct your mistake—am a werecat. There aren’t many of us left, but I think even a farm boy should have heard of us.
I didn’t know you were real, said Eragon, fascinated. A werecat! He was indeed fortunate. They were always flitting around the edges of stories, keeping to themselves and occasionally giving advice. If the legends were true, they had magical powers, lived longer than humans, and usually knew more than they told.
The werecat blinked lazily. Knowing is independent of being. I did not know you existed before you bumbled in here and ruined my nap. Yet that doesn’t mean you weren’t real before you woke me.
Eragon was lost by its reasoning. I’m sorry I disturbed you.
I was getting up anyway, it said. It leapt back onto the counter and lick
ed its paw. If I were you, I wouldn’t hold on to that rod much longer. It’s going to shock you again in a few seconds.
He hastily put the rod back where he had found it. What is it?
A common and boring artifact, unlike myself.
But what’s it for?
Didn’t you find out? The werecat finished cleaning its paw, stretched once more, then jumped back up to its sleeping place. It sat down, tucked its paws under its breast, and closed its eyes, purring.
Wait, said Eragon, what’s your name?
One of the werecat’s slanted eyes cracked open. I go by many names. If you are looking for my proper one, you will have to seek elsewhere. The eye closed. Eragon gave up and turned to leave. However, you may call me Solembum.
Thank you, said Eragon seriously. Solembum’s purring grew louder.
The door to the shop swung open, letting in a beam of sunlight. Angela entered with a cloth bag full of plants. Her eyes flickered at Solembum and she looked startled. “He says you talked with him.”
“You can talk with him, too?” asked Eragon.
She tossed her head. “Of course, but that doesn’t mean he’ll say anything back.” She set her plants on the counter, then walked behind it and faced him. “He likes you. That’s unusual. Most of the time Solembum doesn’t show himself to customers. In fact, he says that you show some promise, given a few years of work.”
“It’s a compliment, coming from him. You’re only the third person to come in here who has been able to speak with him. The first was a woman, many years ago; the second was a blind beggar; and now you. But I don’t run a store just so I can prattle on. Is there anything you want? Or did you only come in to look?”
“Just to look,” said Eragon, still thinking about the werecat. “Besides, I don’t really need any herbs.”
“That’s not all I do,” said Angela with a grin. “The rich fool lords pay me for love potions and the like. I never claim that they work, but for some reason they keep coming back. But I don’t think you need those chicaneries. Would you like your fortune told? I do that, too, for all the rich fool ladies.”
Eragon laughed. “No, I’m afraid my fortune is pretty much unreadable. And I don’t have any money.”
Angela looked at Solembum curiously. “I think . . .” She gestured at the crystal ball resting on the counter. “That’s only for show anyway—it doesn’t do anything. But I do have . . . Wait here; I’ll be right back.” She hurried into a room at the back of the shop.
She came back, breathless, holding a leather pouch, which she set on the counter. “I haven’t used these for so long, I almost forgot where they were. Now, sit across from me and I’ll show you why I went to all this trouble.” Eragon found a stool and sat. Solembum’s eyes glowed from the gap in the drawers.
Angela laid a thick cloth on the counter, then poured a handful of smooth bones, each slightly longer than a finger, onto it. Runes and symbols were inscribed along their sides. “These,” she said, touching them gently, “are the knucklebones of a dragon. Don’t ask where I got them; it is a secret I won’t reveal. But unlike tea leaves, crystal balls, or even divining cards, these have true power. They do not lie, though understanding what they say is . . . complicated. If you wish, I will cast and read them for you. But understand that to know one’s fate can be a terrible thing. You must be sure of your decision.”
Eragon looked at the bones with a feeling of dread. There lies what was once one of Saphira’s kin. To know one’s fate . . . How can I make this decision when I don’t know what lies in wait for me and whether I will like it? Ignorance is indeed bliss. “Why do you offer this?” he asked.
“Because of Solembum. He may have been rude, but the fact that he spoke to you makes you special. He is a werecat, after all. I offered to do this for the other two people who talked with him. Only the woman agreed to it. Selena was her name. Ah, she regretted it, too. Her fortune was bleak and painful. I don’t think she believed it—not at first.”
Emotion overcame Eragon, bringing tears to his eyes. “Selena,” he whispered to himself. His mother’s name. Could it have been her? Was her destiny so horrible that she had to abandon me? “Do you remember anything about her fortune?” he asked, feeling sick.
Angela shook her head and sighed. “It was so long ago that the details have melted into the rest of my memory, which isn’t as good as it used to be. Besides, I’ll not tell you what I do remember. That was for her and her alone. It was sad, though; I’ve never forgotten the look on her face.”
Eragon closed his eyes and struggled to regain control of his emotions. “Why do you complain about your memory?” he asked to distract himself. “You’re not that old.”
Dimples appeared on Angela’s cheeks. “I’m flattered, but don’t be deceived; I’m much older than I look. The appearance of youth probably comes from having to eat my own herbs when times are lean.”
Smiling, Eragon took a deep breath. If that was my mother and she could bear to have her fortune told, I can too. “Cast the bones for me,” he said solemnly.
Angela’s face became grave as she grasped the bones in each hand. Her eyes closed, and her lips moved in a soundless murmur. Then she said powerfully, “Manin! Wyrda! Hugin!” and tossed the bones onto the cloth. They fell all jumbled together, gleaming in the faint light.
The words rang in Eragon’s ears; he recognized them from the ancient language and realized with apprehension that to use them for magic, Angela must be a witch. She had not lied; this was a true fortunetelling. Minutes slowly passed as she studied the bones.
Finally, Angela leaned back and heaved a long sigh. She wiped her brow and pulled out a wineskin from under the counter. “Do you want some?” she asked. Eragon shook his head. She shrugged and drank deeply. “This,” she said, wiping her mouth, “is the hardest reading I’ve ever done. You were right. Your future is nigh impossible to see. I’ve never known of anyone’s fate being so tangled and clouded. I was, however, able to wrestle a few answers from it.”
Solembum jumped onto the counter and settled there, watching them both. Eragon clenched his hands as Angela pointed to one of the bones. “I will start here,” she said slowly, “because it is the clearest to understand.”
The symbol on the bone was a long horizontal line with a circle resting on it. “Infinity or long life,” said Angela quietly. “This is the first time I have ever seen it come up in someone’s future. Most of the time it’s the aspen or the elm, both signs that a person will live a normal span of years. Whether this means that you will live forever or that you will only have an extraordinarily long life, I’m not sure. Whatever it foretells, you may be sure that many years lie ahead of you.”
No surprises there—I am a Rider, thought Eragon. Was Angela only going to tell him things he already knew?
“Now the bones grow harder to read, as the rest are in a confused pile.” Angela touched three of them. “Here the wandering path, lightning bolt, and sailing ship all lie together—a pattern I’ve never seen, only heard of. The wandering path shows that there are many choices in your future, some of which you face even now. I see great battles raging around you, some of them fought for your sake. I see the mighty powers of this land struggling to control your will and destiny. Countless possible futures await you—all of them filled with blood and conflict—but only one will bring you happiness and peace. Beware of losing your way, for you are one of the few who are truly free to choose their own fate. That freedom is a gift, but it is also a responsibility more binding than chains.”
Then her face grew sad. “And yet, as if to counteract that, here is the lightning bolt. It is a terrible omen. There is a doom upon you, but of what sort I know not. Part of it lies in a death—one that rapidly approaches and will cause you much grief. But the rest awaits in a great journey. Look closely at this bone. You can see how its end rests on that of the sailing ship. That is impossible to misunderstand. Your fate will be to leave this land f
orever. Where you will end up I know not, but you will never again stand in Alagaësia. This is inescapable. It will come to pass even if you try to avoid it.”
Her words frightened Eragon. Another death . . . who must I lose now? His thoughts immediately went to Roran. Then he thought about his homeland. What could ever force me to leave? And where would I go? If there are lands across the sea or to the east, only the elves know of them.
Angela rubbed her temples and breathed deeply. “The next bone is easier to read and perhaps a bit more pleasant.” Eragon examined it and saw a rose blossom inscribed between the horns of a crescent moon.
Angela smiled and said, “An epic romance is in your future, extraordinary, as the moon indicates—for that is a magical symbol—and strong enough to outlast empires. I cannot say if this passion will end happily, but your love is of noble birth and heritage. She is powerful, wise, and beautiful beyond compare.”
Of noble birth, thought Eragon in surprise. How could that ever happen? I have no more standing than the poorest of farmers.
“Now for the last two bones, the tree and the hawthorn root, which cross each other strongly. I wish that this were not so—it can only mean more trouble—but betrayal is clear. And it will come from within your family.”
“Roran wouldn’t do that!” objected Eragon abruptly.
“I wouldn’t know,” said Angela carefully. “But the bones have never lied, and that is what they say.”
Doubt wormed into Eragon’s mind, but he tried to ignore it. What reason would there ever be for Roran to turn on him? Angela put a comforting hand on his shoulder and offered him the wineskin again. This time Eragon accepted the drink, and it made him feel better.
“After all that, death might be welcome,” he joked nervously. Betrayal from Roran? It couldn’t happen! It won’t!
“It might be,” said Angela solemnly, then laughed slightly. “But you shouldn’t fret about what has yet to occur. The only way the future can harm us is by causing worry. I guarantee that you’ll feel better once you’re out in the sun.”