“Then why doesn’t he just take an army and march through Du Weldenvarden until he finds Ellesméra?” asked Eragon.
“Because the elves still have enough power to resist him,” said Ajihad. “He doesn’t dare test his strength against theirs, at least not yet. But his cursed sorcery grows stronger each year. With another Rider at his side, he would be unstoppable. He keeps trying to get one of his two eggs to hatch, but so far he’s been unsuccessful.”
Eragon was puzzled. “How can his power be increasing? The strength of his body limits his abilities—it can’t build itself up forever.”
“We don’t know,” said Ajihad, shrugging his broad shoulders, “and neither do the elves. We can only hope that someday he will be destroyed by one of his own spells.” He reached inside his vest and somberly pulled out a battered piece of parchment. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, placing it on the desk.
Eragon bent forward and examined it. Lines of black script, written in an alien language, were inked across the page. Large sections of the writing had been destroyed by blots of blood. One edge of the parchment was charred. He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”
“It was taken from the leader of the Urgal host we destroyed last night. It cost us twelve men to do so—they sacrificed themselves so that you might escape safely. The writing is the king’s invention, a script he uses to communicate with his servants. It took me a while, but I was able to devise its meaning, at least where it’s legible. It reads:
. . . gatekeeper at Ithrö Zhâda is to let this bearer and his minions pass. They are to be bunked with the others of their kind and by . . . but only if the two factions refrain from fighting. Command will be given under Tarok, under Gashz, under Durza, under Ushnark the Mighty.
“Ushnark is Galbatorix. It means ‘father’ in the Urgal tongue, an affectation that pleases him.
Find what they are suitable for and . . . The footmen and . . . are to be kept separate. No weapons are to be distributed until . . . for marching.
“Nothing else can be read past there, except for a few vague words,” said Ajihad.
“Where’s Ithrö Zhâda? I’ve never heard of it.”
“Nor have I,” confirmed Ajihad, “which makes me suspect that Galbatorix has renamed an existing place for his own purposes. After deciphering this, I asked myself what hundreds of Urgals were doing by the Beor Mountains where you first saw them and where they were going. The parchment mentions ‘others of their kind,’ so I assume there are even more Urgals at their destination. There’s only one reason for the king to gather such a force—to forge a bastard army of humans and monsters to destroy us.
“For now, there is nothing to do but wait and watch. Without further information we cannot find this Ithrö Zhâda. Still, Farthen Dûr has not yet been discovered, so there is hope. The only Urgals to have seen it died last night.”
“How did you know we were coming?” asked Eragon. “One of the Twins was waiting for us, and there was an ambush in place for the Kull.” He was aware of Saphira listening intently. Though she kept her own counsel, he knew she would have things to say later.
“We have sentinels placed at the entrance of the valley you traveled through—on either side of the Beartooth River. They sent a dove to warn us,” explained Ajihad.
Eragon wondered if it was the same bird Saphira had tried to eat. “When the egg and Arya disappeared, did you tell Brom? He said that he hadn’t heard anything from the Varden.”
“We tried to alert him,” said Ajihad, “but I suspect our men were intercepted and killed by the Empire. Why else would the Ra’zac have gone to Carvahall? After that, Brom was traveling with you, and it was impossible to get word to him. I was relieved when he contacted me via messenger from Teirm. It didn’t surprise me that he went to Jeod; they were old friends. And Jeod could easily send us a message because he smuggles supplies to us through Surda.
“All of this has raised serious questions. How did the Empire know where to ambush Arya and, later, our messengers to Carvahall? How has Galbatorix learned which merchants help the Varden? Jeod’s business has been virtually destroyed since you left him, as have those of other merchants who support us. Every time one of their ships sets sail, it disappears. The dwarves cannot give us everything we need, so the Varden are in desperate need of supplies. I’m afraid that we have a traitor, or traitors, in our midst, despite our efforts to examine people’s minds for deceit.”
Eragon sank deep in thought, pondering what he had learned. Ajihad waited calmly for him to speak, undisturbed by the silence. For the first time since finding Saphira’s egg, Eragon felt that he understood what was going on around him. At last he knew where Saphira came from and what might lie in his future. “What do you want from me?” he asked.
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, what is expected of me in Tronjheim? You and the elves have plans for me, but what if I don’t like them?” A hard note crept into his voice. “I’ll fight when needed, revel when there’s occasion, mourn when there is grief, and die if my time comes . . . but I won’t let anyone use me against my will.” He paused to let the words sink in. “The Riders of old were arbiters of justice above and beyond the leaders of their time. I don’t claim that position—I doubt people would accept such oversight when they’ve been free of it all their lives, especially from one as young as me. But I do have power, and I will wield it as I see fit. What I want to know is how you plan to use me. Then I will decide whether to agree to it.”
Ajihad looked at him wryly. “If you were anyone else and were before another leader, you would likely have been killed for that insolent speech. What makes you think I will expose my plans just because you demand it?” Eragon flushed but did not lower his gaze. “Still, you are right. Your position gives you the privilege to say such things. You cannot escape the politics of your situation—you will be influenced, one way or another. I don’t want to see you become a pawn of any one group or purpose any more than you do. You must retain your freedom, for in it lies your true power: the ability to make choices independent of any leader or king. My own authority over you will be limited, but I believe it’s for the best. The difficulty lies in making sure that those with power include you in their deliberations.
“Also, despite your protests, the people here have certain expectations of you. They are going to bring you their problems, no matter how petty, and demand that you solve them.” Ajihad leaned forward, his voice deadly serious. “There will be cases where someone’s future will rest in your hands . . . with a word you can send them careening into happiness or misery. Young women will seek your opinion on whom they should marry—many will pursue you as a husband—and old men will ask which of their children should receive an inheritance. You must be kind and wise with them all, for they put their trust in you. Don’t speak flippantly or without thought, because your words will have impact far beyond what you intend.”
Ajihad leaned back, his eyes hooded. “The burden of leadership is being responsible for the well-being of the people in your charge. I have dealt with it from the day I was chosen to head the Varden, and now you must as well. Be careful. I won’t tolerate injustice under my command. Don’t worry about your youth and inexperience; they will pass soon enough.”
Eragon was uncomfortable with the idea of people asking him for advice. “But you still haven’t said what I’m to do here.”
“For now, nothing. You covered over a hundred and thirty leagues in eight days, a feat to be proud of. I’m sure that you’ll appreciate rest. When you’ve recovered, we will test your competency in arms and magic. After that—well, I will explain your options, and then you’ll have to decide your course.”
“And what about Murtagh?” asked Eragon bitingly.
Ajihad’s face darkened. He reached beneath his desk and lifted up Zar’roc. The sword’s polished sheath gleamed in the light. Ajihad slid his hand over it, lingering on the etched sigil. “He will stay here until he allows the Twins into h
“You can’t imprison him,” argued Eragon. “He’s committed no crime!”
“We can’t give him his freedom without being sure that he won’t turn against us. Innocent or not, he’s potentially as dangerous to us as his father was,” said Ajihad with a hint of sadness.
Eragon realized that Ajihad would not be convinced otherwise, and his concern was valid. “How were you able to recognize his voice?”
“I met his father once,” said Ajihad shortly. He tapped Zar’roc’s hilt. “I wish Brom had told me he had taken Morzan’s sword. I suggest that you don’t carry it within Farthen Dûr. Many here remember Morzan’s time with hate, especially the dwarves.”
“I’ll remember that,” promised Eragon.
Ajihad handed Zar’roc to him. “That reminds me, I have Brom’s ring, which he sent as confirmation of his identity. I was keeping it for when he returned to Tronjheim. Now that he’s dead, I suppose it belongs to you, and I think he would have wanted you to have it.” He opened a desk drawer and took the ring from it.
Eragon accepted it with reverence. The symbol cut into the face of the sapphire was identical to the tattoo on Arya’s shoulder. He fit the ring onto his index finger, admiring how it caught the light. “I . . . I am honored,” he said.
Ajihad nodded gravely, then pushed back his chair and stood. He faced Saphira and spoke to her, his voice swelling in power. “Do not think that I have forgotten you, O mighty dragon. I have said these things as much for your benefit as for Eragon’s. It is even more important that you know them, for to you falls the task of guarding him in these dangerous times. Do not underestimate your might nor falter at his side, because without you he will surely fail.”
Saphira lowered her head until their eyes were level and stared at him through slitted black pupils. They examined each other silently, neither of them blinking. Ajihad was the first to move. He lowered his eyes and said softly, “It is indeed a privilege to meet you.”
He’ll do, said Saphira respectfully. She swung her head to face Eragon. Tell him that I am impressed both with Tronjheim and with him. The Empire is right to fear him. Let him know, however, that if he had decided to kill you, I would have destroyed Tronjheim and torn him apart with my teeth.
Eragon hesitated, surprised by the venom in her voice, then relayed the message. Ajihad looked at her seriously. “I would expect nothing less from one so noble—but I doubt you could have gotten past the Twins.”
Saphira snorted with derision. Bah!
Knowing what she meant, Eragon said, “Then they must be much stronger than they appear. I think they would be sorely dismayed if they ever faced a dragon’s wrath. The two of them might be able to defeat me, but never Saphira. You should know, a Rider’s dragon strengthens his magic beyond what a normal magician might have. Brom was always weaker than me because of that. I think that in the absence of Riders, the Twins have overestimated their power.”
Ajihad looked troubled. “Brom was considered one of our strongest spell weavers. Only the elves surpassed him. If what you say is true, we will have to reconsider a great many things.” He bowed to Saphira. “As it is, I am glad it wasn’t necessary to harm either of you.” Saphira dipped her head in return.
Ajihad straightened with a lordly air and called, “Orik!” The dwarf hurried into the room and stood before the desk, crossing his arms. Ajihad frowned at him, irritated. “You’ve caused me a great deal of trouble, Orik. I’ve had to listen to one of the Twins complain all morning about your insubordination. They won’t let it rest until you are punished. Unfortunately they’re right. It’s a serious matter that cannot be ignored. An accounting is due.”
Orik’s eyes flicked toward Eragon, but his face betrayed no emotion. He spoke quickly in rough tones. “The Kull were almost around Kóstha-mérna. They were shooting arrows at the dragon, Eragon, and Murtagh, but the Twins did nothing to stop it. Like . . . sheilven, they refused to open the gates even though we could see Eragon shouting the opening phrase on the other side of the waterfall. And they refused to take action when Eragon did not rise from the water. Perhaps I did wrong, but I couldn’t let a Rider die.”
“I wasn’t strong enough to get out of the water myself,” offered Eragon. “I would have drowned if he hadn’t pulled me out.”
Ajihad glanced at him, then asked Orik seriously, “And later, why did you oppose them?”
Orik raised his chin defiantly. “It wasn’t right for them to force their way into Murtagh’s mind. But I wouldn’t have stopped them if I’d known who he was.”
“No, you did the right thing, though it would be simpler if you hadn’t. It isn’t our place to force our way into people’s minds, no matter who they are.” Ajihad fingered his dense beard. “Your actions were honorable, but you did defy a direct order from your commander. The penalty for that has always been death.” Orik’s back stiffened.
“You can’t kill him for that! He was only helping me,” cried Eragon.
“It isn’t your place to interfere,” said Ajihad sternly. “Orik broke the law and must suffer the consequences.” Eragon started to argue again, but Ajihad stopped him with a raised hand. “But you are right. The sentence will be mitigated because of the circumstances. As of now, Orik, you are removed from active service and forbidden to engage in any military activities under my command. Do you understand?”
Orik’s face darkened, but then he only looked confused. He nodded sharply. “Yes.”
“Furthermore, in the absence of your regular duties, I appoint you Eragon and Saphira’s guide for the duration of their stay. You are to make sure they receive every comfort and amenity we have to offer. Saphira will stay above Isidar Mithrim. Eragon may have quarters wherever he wants. When he recovers from his trip, take him to the training fields. They’re expecting him,” said Ajihad, a twinkle of amusement in his eye.
Orik bowed low. “I understand.”
“Very well, you all may go. Send in the Twins as you leave.”
Eragon bowed and began to leave, then asked, “Where can I find Arya? I would like to see her.”
“No one is allowed to visit her. You will have to wait until she comes to you.” Ajihad looked down at his desk in a clear dismissal.
BLESS THE CHILD, ARGETLAM
Eragon stretched in the hall; he was stiff from sitting so long. Behind him, the Twins entered Ajihad’s study and closed the door. Eragon looked at Orik. “I’m sorry that you’re in trouble because of me,” he apologized.
“Don’t bother yourself,” grunted Orik, tugging on his beard. “Ajihad gave me what I wanted.”
Even Saphira was startled by the statement. “What do you mean?” said Eragon. “You can’t train or fight, and you’re stuck guarding me. How can that be what you wanted?”
The dwarf eyed him quietly. “Ajihad is a good leader. He understands how to keep the law yet remain just. I have been punished by his command, but I’m also one of Hrothgar’s subjects. Under his rule, I’m still free to do what I wish.”
Eragon realized it would be unwise to forget Orik’s dual loyalty and the split nature of power within Tronjheim. “Ajihad just placed you in a powerful position, didn’t he?”
Orik chuckled deeply. “That he did, and in such a way the Twins can’t complain about it. This’ll irritate them for sure. Ajihad’s a tricky one, he is. Come, lad, I’m sure you’re hungry. And we have to get your dragon settled in.”
Saphira hissed. Eragon said, “Her name is Saphira.”
Orik made a small bow to her. “My apologies, I’ll be sure to remember that.” He took an orange lamp from the wall and led them down the hallway.
“Can others in Farthen Dûr use magic?” asked Eragon, struggling to keep up with the dwarf’s brisk pace. He cradled Zar’roc carefully, concealing the symbol on the sheath with his arm.
“Few enough,” said Orik with a swift shrug under his mail. “And the ones we have can’t do much more than heal bruises. They’ve all had to tend to Arya becaus
e of the strength needed to heal her.”
“Except for the Twins.”
“Oeí,” grumbled Orik. “She wouldn’t want their help anyway; their arts are not for healing. Their talents lie in scheming and plotting for power—to everyone else’s detriment. Deynor, Ajihad’s predecessor, allowed them to join the Varden because he needed their support . . . you can’t oppose the Empire without spellcasters who can hold their own on the field of battle. They’re a nasty pair, but they do have their uses.”
They entered one of the four main tunnels that divided Tronjheim. Clusters of dwarves and humans strolled through it, voices echoing loudly off the polished floor. The conversations stopped abruptly as they saw Saphira; scores of eyes fixed on her. Orik ignored the spectators and turned left, heading toward one of Tronjheim’s distant gates. “Where are we going?” asked Eragon.
“Out of these halls so Saphira can fly to the dragonhold above Isidar Mithrim, the Star Rose. The dragonhold doesn’t have a roof—Tronjheim’s peak is open to the sky, like that of Farthen Dûr—so she, that is, you, Saphira, will be able to glide straight down into the hold. It is where the Riders used to stay when they visited Tronjheim.”
“Won’t it be cold and damp without a roof?” asked Eragon.
“Nay.” Orik shook his head. “Farthen Dûr protects us from the elements. Neither rain nor snow intrude here. Besides, the hold’s walls are lined with marble caves for dragons. They provide all the shelter necessary. All you need fear are the icicles; when they fall they’ve been known to cleave a horse in two.”