“Perhaps.” Unfortunately, he reflected wryly, nothing she said will make sense until it has already happened. If it really does, he amended himself. “You used words of power,” he noted quietly.
Angela’s eyes flashed. “What I wouldn’t give to see how the rest of your life plays out. You can speak to werecats, know of the ancient language, and have a most interesting future. Also, few young men with empty pockets and rough traveling clothes can expect to be loved by a noblewoman. Who are you?”
Eragon realized that the werecat must not have told Angela that he was a Rider. He almost said, “Evan,” but then changed his mind and simply stated, “I am Eragon.”
Angela arched her eyebrows. “Is that who you are or your name?” she asked.
“Both,” said Eragon with a small smile, thinking of his namesake, the first Rider.
“Now I’m all the more interested in seeing how your life will unfold. Who was the ragged man with you yesterday?”
Eragon decided that one more name couldn’t hurt. “His name is Brom.”
A guffaw suddenly burst out of Angela, doubling her over in mirth. She wiped her eyes and took a sip of wine, then fought off another attack of merriment. Finally, gasping for breath, she forced out, “Oh . . . that one! I had no idea!”
“What is it?” demanded Eragon.
“No, no, don’t be upset,” said Angela, hiding a smile. “It’s only that—well, he is known by those in my profession. I’m afraid that the poor man’s doom, or future if you will, is something of a joke with us.”
“Don’t insult him! He’s a better man than any you could find!” snapped Eragon.
“Peace, peace,” chided Angela with amusement. “I know that. If we meet again at the right time I’ll be sure to tell you about it. But in the meantime you should—” She stopped speaking as Solembum padded between them. The werecat stared at Eragon with unblinking eyes.
Yes? Eragon asked, irritated.
Listen closely and I will tell you two things. When the time comes and you need a weapon, look under the roots of the Menoa tree. Then, when all seems lost and your power is insufficient, go to the rock of Kuthian and speak your name to open the Vault of Souls.
Before Eragon could ask what Solembum meant, the werecat walked away, waving his tail ever so gracefully. Angela tilted her head, coils of dense hair shadowing her forehead. “I don’t know what he said, and I don’t want to know. He spoke to you and only you. Don’t tell anyone else.”
“I think I have to go,” said Eragon, shaken.
“If you want to,” said Angela, smiling again. “You are welcome to stay here as long as you like, especially if you buy some of my goods. But go if you wish; I’m sure that we’ve given you enough to ponder for a while.”
“Yes.” Eragon quickly made his way to the door. “Thank you for reading my future.” I think.
“You’re welcome,” said Angela, still smiling.
Eragon exited the shop and stood in the street, squinting until his eyes adjusted to the brightness. It was a few minutes before he could think calmly about what he had learned. He started walking, his steps unconsciously quickening until he dashed out of Teirm, feet flying as he headed to Saphira’s hiding place.
He called to her from the base of the cliff. A minute later she soared down and bore him up to the cliff top. When they were both safely on the ground, Eragon told her about his day. And so, he concluded, I think Brom’s right; I always seem to be where there’s trouble.
You should remember what the werecat told you. It’s important.
How do you know? he asked curiously.
I’m not sure, but the names he used feel powerful. Kuthian, she said, rolling the word around. No, we should not forget what he said.
Do you think I should tell Brom?
It’s your choice, but think of this: he has no right to know your future. To tell him of Solembum and his words will only raise questions you may not want to answer. And if you decided to only ask him what those words mean, he will want to know where you learned them. Do you think you can lie convincingly to him?
No, admitted Eragon. Maybe I won’t say anything. Still, this might be too important to hide. They talked until there was nothing more to say. Then they sat together companionably, watching the trees until dusk.
Eragon hurried back to Teirm and was soon knocking on Jeod’s door. “Is Neal back?” he asked the butler.
“Yes sir. I believe he’s in the study right now.”
“Thank you,” said Eragon. He strode to the room and peeked inside. Brom was sitting before the fire, smoking. “How did it go?” asked Eragon.
“Bloody awful!” growled Brom around his pipe.
“So you talked to Brand?”
“Not that it did any good. This administrator of trade is the worst sort of bureaucrat. He abides by every rule, delights in making his own whenever it can inconvenience someone, and at the same time believes that he’s doing good.”
“Then he won’t let us see the records?” asked Eragon.
“No,” snapped Brom, exasperated. “Nothing I could say would sway him. He even refused bribes! Substantial ones, too. I didn’t think I would ever meet a noble who wasn’t corrupt. Now that I have, I find that I prefer them when they’re greedy bastards.” He puffed furiously on his pipe and mumbled a steady stream of curses.
When he seemed to have calmed, Eragon asked tentatively, “So, what now?”
“I’m going to take the next week and teach you how to read.”
“And after that?”
A smile split Brom’s face. “After that, we’re going to give Brand a nasty surprise.” Eragon pestered him for details, but Brom refused to say more.
Dinner was held in a sumptuous dining room. Jeod sat at one end of the table, a hard-eyed Helen at the other. Brom and Eragon were seated between them, which Eragon felt was a dangerous place to be. Empty chairs were on either side of him, but he didn’t mind the space. It helped to protect him from the glares of their hostess.
The food was served quietly, and Jeod and Helen wordlessly began eating. Eragon followed suit, thinking, I’ve had cheerier meals at funerals. And he had, in Carvahall. He remembered many burials that had been sad, yes, but not unduly so. This was different; he could feel simmering resentment pouring from Helen throughout the dinner.
OF READING AND PLOTS
Brom scratched a rune on parchment with charcoal, then showed it to Eragon. “This is the letter a,” he said. “Learn it.”
With that, Eragon began the task of becoming literate. It was difficult and strange and pushed his intellect to its limits, but he enjoyed it. Without anything else to do and with a good—if sometimes impatient—teacher, he advanced rapidly.
A routine was soon established. Every day Eragon got up, ate in the kitchen, then went to the study for his lessons, where he labored to memorize the sounds of the letters and the rules of writing. It got so that when he closed his eyes, letters and words danced in his mind. He thought of little else during that time.
Before dinner, he and Brom would go behind Jeod’s house and spar. The servants, along with a small crowd of wide-eyed children, would come and watch. If there was any time afterward, Eragon would practice magic in his room, with the curtains securely closed.
His only worry was Saphira. He visited her every evening, but it was not enough time together for either of them. During the day, Saphira spent most of her time leagues away searching for food; she could not hunt near Teirm without arousing suspicion. Eragon did what he could to help her, but he knew that the only solution for both her hunger and loneliness was to leave the city far behind.
Every day more grim news poured into Teirm. Arriving merchants told of horrific attacks along the coast. There were reports of powerful people disappearing from their houses in the night and their mangled corpses being discovered in the morning. Eragon often heard Brom and Jeod discussing the events in an undertone, but they always stopped when he came near.
bsp; The days passed quickly, and soon a week had gone by. Eragon’s skills were rudimentary, but he could now read whole pages without asking Brom’s help. He read slowly, but he knew that speed would come with time. Brom encouraged him, “No matter, you’ll do fine for what I have planned.”
It was afternoon when Brom summoned both Jeod and Eragon to the study. Brom gestured at Eragon. “Now that you can help us, I think it’s time to move ahead.”
“What do you have in mind?” asked Eragon.
A fierce smile danced on Brom’s face. Jeod groaned. “I know that look; it’s what got us into trouble in the first place.”
“A slight exaggeration,” said Brom, “but not unwarranted. Very well, this is what we’ll do. . . .”
We leave tonight or tomorrow, Eragon told Saphira from within his room.
This is unexpected. Will you be safe during this venture?
Eragon shrugged. I don’t know. We may end up fleeing Teirm with soldiers on our heels. He felt her worry and tried to reassure her. It’ll be all right. Brom and I can use magic, and we’re good fighters.
He lay on the bed and stared at the ceiling. His hands shook slightly, and there was a lump in his throat. As sleep overcame him, he felt a wave of confusion. I don’t want to leave Teirm, he suddenly realized. The time I’ve spent here has been—almost normal. What I would give not to keep uprooting myself. To stay here and be like everyone else would be wonderful. Then, another thought raged through him, But I’ll never be able to while Saphira is around. Never.
Dreams owned his consciousness, twisting and directing it to their whims. At times he quaked with fear; at others he laughed with pleasure. Then something changed—it was as though his eyes had been opened for the first time—and a dream came to him that was clearer than any before.
He saw a young woman, bent over by sorrow, chained in a cold, hard cell. A beam of moonlight shone through a barred window set high in the wall and fell on her face. A single tear rolled down her cheek, like a liquid diamond.
Eragon rose with a start and found himself crying uncontrollably before sinking back into a fitful sleep.
THIEVES IN THE CASTLE
Eragon woke from his nap to a golden sunset. Red and orange beams of light streamed into the room and fell across the bed. They warmed his back pleasantly, making him reluctant to move. He dozed, but the sunlight crept off him, and he grew cold. The sun sank below the horizon, lighting the sea and sky with color. Almost time!
He slung his bow and quiver on his back, but left Zar’roc in the room; the sword would only slow him, and he was averse to using it. If he had to disable someone, he could use magic or an arrow. He pulled his jerkin over his shirt and laced it securely.
He waited nervously in his room until the light faded. Then he entered the hallway and shrugged so the quiver settled comfortably across his back. Brom joined him, carrying his sword and staff.
Jeod, dressed in a black doublet and hose, was waiting for them outside. From his waist swung an elegant rapier and a leather pouch. Brom eyed the rapier and observed, “That toad sticker is too thin for any real fighting. What will you do if someone comes after you with a broadsword or a flamberge?”
“Be realistic,” said Jeod. “None of the guards has a flamberge. Besides, this toad sticker is faster than a broadsword.”
Brom shrugged. “It’s your neck.”
They walked casually along the street, avoiding watchmen and soldiers. Eragon was tense and his heart pounded. As they passed Angela’s shop, a flash of movement on the roof caught his attention, but he saw no one. His palm tingled. He looked at the roof again, but it was still empty.
Brom led them along Teirm’s outer wall. By the time they reached the castle, the sky was black. The sealed walls of the fortress made Eragon shiver. He would hate to be imprisoned there. Jeod silently took the lead and strode up to the gates, trying to look at ease. He pounded on the gate and waited.
A small grille slid open and a surly guard peered out. “Ya?” he grunted shortly. Eragon could smell rum on his breath.
“We need to get in,” said Jeod.
The guard peered at Jeod closer. “Wha’ for?”
“The boy here left something very valuable in my office. We have to retrieve it immediately.” Eragon hung his head, shamefaced.
The guard frowned, clearly impatient to get back to his bottle. “Ah, wha’ever,” he said, swinging his arm. “Jus’ make sure ’n give ’im a good beating f’r me.”
“I’ll do that,” assured Jeod as the guard unbolted a small door set into the gate. They entered the keep, then Brom handed the guard a few coins.
“Thank’ee,” mumbled the man, tottering away. As soon as he was gone, Eragon pulled his bow from its tube and strung it. Jeod quickly let them into the main part of the castle. They hurried toward their destination, listening carefully for any soldiers on patrol. At the records room, Brom tried the door. It was locked. He put his hand against the door and muttered a word that Eragon did not recognize. It swung open with a faint click. Brom grabbed a torch from the wall, and they darted inside, closing the door quietly.
The squat room was filled with wooden racks piled high with scrolls. A barred window was set in the far wall. Jeod threaded his way between the racks, running his eyes over the scrolls. He halted at the back of the room. “Over here,” he said. “These are the shipping records for the past five years. You can tell the date by the wax seals on the corner.”
“So what do we do now?” asked Eragon, pleased that they had made it so far without being discovered.
“Start at the top and work down,” said Jeod. “Some scrolls only deal with taxes. You can ignore those. Look for anything that mentions Seithr oil.” He took a length of parchment from his pouch and stretched it out on the floor, then set a bottle of ink and a quill pen next to it. “So we can keep track of whatever we find,” he explained.
Brom scooped an armful of scrolls from the top of the rack and piled them on the floor. He sat and unrolled the first one. Eragon joined him, positioning himself so he could see the door. The tedious work was especially difficult for him, as the cramped script on the scrolls was different from the printing Brom had taught him.
By looking only for the names of ships that sailed in the northern areas, they winnowed out many of the scrolls. Even so, they moved down the rack slowly, recording each shipment of Seithr oil as they located it.
It was quiet outside the room, except for the occasional watchman. Suddenly, Eragon’s neck prickled. He tried to keep working, but the uneasy feeling remained. Irritated, he looked up and jerked with surprise—a small boy crouched on the windowsill. His eyes were slanted, and a sprig of holly was woven into his shaggy black hair.
Do you need help? asked a voice in Eragon’s head. His eyes widened with shock. It sounded like Solembum.
Is that you? he asked incredulously.
Am I someone else?
Eragon gulped and concentrated on his scroll. If my eyes don’t deceive me, you are.
The boy smiled slightly, revealing pointed teeth. What I look like doesn’t change who I am. You don’t think I’m called a werecat for nothing, do you?
What are you doing here? Eragon asked.
The werecat tilted his head and considered whether the question was worth an answer. That depends on what you are doing here. If you are reading those scrolls for entertainment, then I suppose there isn’t any reason for my visit. But if what you are doing is unlawful and you don’t want to be discovered, I might be here to warn you that the guard whom you bribed just told his replacement about you and that this second official of the Empire has sent soldiers to search for you.
Thank you for telling me, said Eragon.
Told you something, did I? I suppose I did. And I suggest you make use of it.
The boy stood and tossed back his wild hair. Eragon asked quickly, What did you mean last time about the tree and the vault?
Exactly what I said.
Eragon tried t
o ask more, but the werecat vanished through the window. He announced abruptly, “There are soldiers looking for us.”
“How do you know?” asked Brom sharply.
“I listened in on the guard. His replacement just sent men to search for us. We have to get out of here. They’ve probably already discovered that Jeod’s office is empty.”
“Are you sure?” asked Jeod.
“Yes!” said Eragon impatiently. “They’re on their way.”
Brom snatched another scroll from the rack. “No matter. We have to finish this now!” They worked furiously for the next minute, scanning the records as fast as they could. As the last scroll was finished, Brom threw it back onto the rack, and Jeod jammed his parchment, ink, and pen into his pouch. Eragon grabbed the torch.
They raced from the room and shut the door, but just as it closed they heard the heavy tramp of soldiers’ boots at the end of the hall. They turned to leave, but Brom hissed furiously, “Damnation! It’s not locked.” He put his hand against the door. The lock clicked at the same time three armed soldiers came into view.
“Hey! Get away from that door!” shouted one of them. Brom stepped back, assuming a surprised expression. The three men marched up to them. The tallest one demanded, “Why are you trying to get into the records?” Eragon gripped his bow tighter and prepared to run.
“I’m afraid we lost our way.” The strain was evident in Jeod’s voice. A drop of sweat rolled down his neck.
The soldier glared at them suspiciously. “Check inside the room,” he ordered one of his men.
Eragon held his breath as the soldier stepped up to the door, tried to open it, then pounded on it with his mailed fist. “It’s locked, sir.”
The leader scratched his chin. “Ar’right, then. I don’t know what you were up to, but as long as the door’s locked, I guess you’re free to go. Come on.” The soldiers surrounded them and marched them back to the keep.
I can’t believe it, thought Eragon. They’re helping us get away!