“I will take your words directly to him. Farewell, Rider Eragon. I hope we shall soon meet again.” She curtsied and exited the dragonhold, head held high.
If she really came all the way up Tronjheim just to meet me—pulleys or no pulleys—there was more to this meeting than idle chatter, remarked Eragon.
Aye, said Saphira, withdrawing her head into the cave. Eragon climbed up to her and was surprised to see Solembum curled up in the hollow at the base of her neck. The werecat was purring deeply, his black-tipped tail flicking back and forth. The two of them looked at Eragon impudently, as if to ask, “What?”
Eragon shook his head, laughing helplessly. Saphira, is Solembum who you wanted to meet?
They both blinked at him and answered, Yes.
Just wondering, he said, mirth still bubbling inside him. It made sense that they would befriend each other—their personalities were similar, and they were both creatures of magic. He sighed, releasing some of the day’s tension as he unbuckled Zar’roc. Solembum, do you know where Angela is? I couldn’t find her, and I need her advice.
Solembum kneaded his paws against Saphira’s scaled back. She is somewhere in Tronjheim.
When will she return?
How soon? he asked impatiently. I need to talk to her today.
Not that soon.
The werecat refused to say more, despite Eragon’s persistent questions. He gave up and nestled against Saphira. Solembum’s purring was a low thrum above his head. I have to visit Murtagh tomorrow, he thought, fingering Brom’s ring.
On the morning of their third day in Tronjheim, Eragon rolled out of bed refreshed and energized. He belted Zar’roc to his waist and slung his bow and half-full quiver across his back. After a leisurely flight inside Farthen Dûr with Saphira, he met Orik by one of Tronjheim’s four main gates. Eragon asked him about Nasuada.
“An unusual girl,” answered Orik, glancing disapprovingly at Zar’roc. “She’s totally devoted to her father and spends all her time helping him. I think she does more for Ajihad than he knows—there have been times when she’s maneuvered his enemies without ever revealing her part in it.”
“Who is her mother?”
“That I don’t know. Ajihad was alone when he brought Nasuada to Farthen Dûr as a newborn child. He’s never said where he and Nasuada came from.”
So she too grew up without knowing her mother. He shook off the thought. “I’m restless. It’ll be good to use my muscles. Where should I go for this ‘testing’ of Ajihad’s?”
Orik pointed out into Farthen Dûr. “The training field is half a mile from Tronjheim, though you can’t see it from here because it’s behind the city-mountain. It’s a large area where both dwarves and humans practice.”
I’m coming as well, stated Saphira.
Eragon told Orik, and the dwarf tugged on his beard. “That might not be a good idea. There are many people at the training field; you will be sure to attract attention.”
Saphira growled loudly. I will come! And that settled the matter.
The unruly clatter of fighting reached them from the field: the loud clang of steel clashing on steel, the solid thump of arrows striking padded targets, the rattle and crack of wooden staves, and the shouts of men in mock battle. The noise was confusing, yet each group had a unique rhythm and pattern.
The bulk of the training ground was occupied by a crooked block of foot soldiers struggling with shields and poleaxes nearly as tall as themselves. They drilled as a group in formations. Practicing beside them were hundreds of individual warriors outfitted with swords, maces, spears, staves, flails, shields of all shapes and sizes, and even, Eragon saw, someone with a pitchfork. Nearly all the fighters wore armor, usually chain mail and a helmet; plate armor was not as common. There were as many dwarves as humans, though the two kept mainly to themselves. Behind the sparring warriors, a broad line of archers fired steadily at gray sackcloth dummies.
Before Eragon had time to wonder what he was supposed to do, a bearded man, his head and blocky shoulders covered by a mail coif, strode over to them. The rest of him was protected by a rough oxhide suit that still had hair on it. A huge sword—almost as long as Eragon—hung across his broad back. He ran a quick eye over Saphira and Eragon, as if evaluating how dangerous they were, then said gruffly, “Knurla Orik. You’ve been gone too long. There’s nobody left for me to spar with.”
Orik smiled. “Oeí, that’s because you bruise everyone from head to toe with your monster sword.”
“Everyone except you,” he corrected.
“That’s because I’m faster than a giant like you.”
The man looked at Eragon again. “I’m Fredric. I’ve been told to find out what you can do. How strong are you?”
“Strong enough,” answered Eragon. “I have to be in order to fight with magic.”
Fredric shook his head; the coif clinked like a bag of coins. “Magic has no place in what we do here. Unless you’ve served in an army, I doubt any fights you’ve been in lasted more than a few minutes. What we’re concerned about is how you’ll be able to hold up in a battle that may drag on for hours, or even weeks if it’s a siege. Do you know how to use any weapons besides that sword and bow?”
Eragon thought about it. “Only my fists.”
“Good answer!” laughed Fredric. “Well, we’ll start you off with the bow and see how you do. Then once some space has cleared up on the field, we’ll try—” He broke off suddenly and stared past Eragon, scowling angrily.
The Twins stalked toward them, their bald heads pale against their purple robes. Orik muttered something in his own language as he slipped his war ax out of his belt. “I told you two to stay away from the training area,” said Fredric, stepping forward threateningly. The Twins seemed frail before his bulk.
They looked at him arrogantly. “We were ordered by Ajihad to test Eragon’s proficiency with magic—before you exhaust him banging on pieces of metal.”
Fredric glowered. “Why can’t someone else test him?”
“No one else is powerful enough,” sniffed the Twins. Saphira rumbled deeply and glared at them. A line of smoke trickled from her nostrils, but they ignored her. “Come with us,” they ordered, and strode to an empty corner of the field.
Shrugging, Eragon followed with Saphira. Behind him he heard Fredric say to Orik, “We have to stop them from going too far.”
“I know,” answered Orik in a low voice, “but I can’t interfere again. Hrothgar made it clear he won’t be able to protect me the next time it happens.”
Eragon forced back his growing apprehension. The Twins might know more techniques and words. . . . Still, he remembered what Brom had told him: Riders were stronger in magic than ordinary men. But would that be enough to resist the combined power of the Twins?
Don’t worry so much; I will help you, said Saphira. There are two of us as well.
He touched her gently on the leg, relieved by her words. The Twins looked at Eragon and asked, “And how do you answer us, Eragon?”
Overlooking the puzzled expressions of his companions, he said flatly, “No.”
Sharp lines appeared at the corners of the Twins’ mouths. They turned so they faced Eragon obliquely and, bending at the waists, drew a large pentagram on the ground. They stepped in the middle of it, then said harshly, “We begin now. You will attempt to complete the tasks we assign you . . . that is all.”
One of the Twins reached into his robe, produced a polished rock the size of Eragon’s fist, and set it on the ground. “Lift it to eye level.”
That’s easy enough, commented Eragon to Saphira. “Stenr reisa!” The rock wobbled, then smoothly rose from the ground. Before it went more than a foot, an unexpected resistance halted it in midair. A smile touched the Twins’ lips. Eragon stared at them, enraged—they were trying to make him fail! If he became exhausted now, it would be impossible to complete the harder tasks. Obviously they were confident that their combined strength co
uld easily wear him down.
But I’m not alone either, snarled Eragon to himself. Saphira, now! Her mind melded with his, and the rock jerked through the air to stop, quivering, at eye level. The Twins’ eyes narrowed cruelly.
“Very . . . good,” they hissed. Fredric looked unnerved by the display of magic. “Now move the stone in a circle.” Again Eragon struggled against their efforts to stop him, and again—to their obvious anger—he prevailed. The exercises quickly increased in complexity and difficulty until Eragon was forced to think carefully about which words to use. And each time, the Twins fought him bitterly, though the strain never showed on their faces.
It was only with Saphira’s support that Eragon was able to hold his ground. In a break between two of the tasks, he asked her, Why do they continue this testing? Our abilities were clear enough from what they saw in my mind. She cocked her head thoughtfully. You know what? he said grimly as comprehension came to him. They’re using this as an opportunity to figure out what ancient words I know and perhaps learn new ones themselves.
Speak softly then, so that they cannot hear you, and use the simplest words possible.
From then on, Eragon used only a handful of basic words to complete the tasks. But finding ways to make them perform in the same manner as a long sentence or phrase stretched his ingenuity to the limit. He was rewarded by the frustration that contorted the Twins’ faces as he foiled them again and again. No matter what they tried, they could not get him to use any more words in the ancient language.
More than an hour passed, but the Twins showed no sign of stopping. Eragon was hot and thirsty, but refrained from asking for a reprieve—he would continue as long as they did. There were many tests: manipulating water, casting fire, scrying, juggling rocks, hardening leather, freezing items, controlling the flight of an arrow, and healing scratches. He wondered how long it would take for the Twins to run out of ideas.
Finally the Twins raised their hands and said, “There is only one thing left to do. It is simple enough—any competent user of magic should find this easy.” One of them removed a silver ring from his finger and smugly handed it to Eragon. “Summon the essence of silver.”
Eragon stared at the ring in confusion. What was he supposed to do? The essence of silver, what was that? And how was it to be summoned? Saphira had no idea, and the Twins were not going to help. He had never learned silver’s name in the ancient language, though he knew it had to be part of argetlam. In desperation he combined the only word that might work, ethgrí, or “invoke,” with arget.
Drawing himself upright, he gathered together what power he had left and parted his lips to deliver the invocation. Suddenly a clear, vibrant voice split the air.
The word rushed over Eragon like cool water—the voice was strangely familiar, like a half-remembered melody. The back of his neck tingled. He slowly turned toward its source.
A lone figure stood behind them: Arya. A leather strip encircled her brow, restraining her voluminous black hair, which tumbled behind her shoulders in a lustrous cascade. Her slender sword was at her hip, her bow on her back. Plain black leather clothed her shapely frame, poor raiment for one so fair. She was taller than most men, and her stance was perfectly balanced and relaxed. An unmarked face reflected none of the horrific abuse she had endured.
Arya’s blazing emerald eyes were fixed on the Twins, who had turned pale with fright. She approached on silent footsteps and said in soft, menacing tones, “Shame! Shame to ask of him what only a master can do. Shame that you should use such methods. Shame that you told Ajihad you didn’t know Eragon’s abilities. He is competent. Now leave!” Arya frowned dangerously, her slanted eyebrows meeting like lightning bolts in a sharp V, and pointed at the ring in Eragon’s hand. “Arget!” she exclaimed thunderously.
The silver shimmered, and a ghostly image of the ring materialized next to it. The two were identical except that the apparition seemed purer and glowed white-hot. At the sight of it, the Twins spun on their heels and fled, robes flapping wildly. The insubstantial ring vanished from Eragon’s hand, leaving the circlet of silver behind. Orik and Fredric were on their feet, eyeing Arya warily. Saphira crouched, ready for action.
The elf surveyed them all. Her angled eyes paused on Eragon. Then she turned and strode toward the heart of the training field. The warriors ceased their sparring and looked at her with wonder. Within a few moments the entire field fell silent in awe of her presence.
Eragon was inexorably dragged forward by his own fascination. Saphira spoke, but he was oblivious to her comments. A large circle formed around Arya. Looking only at Eragon, she proclaimed, “I claim the right of trial by arms. Draw your sword.”
She means to duel me!
But not, I think, to harm you, replied Saphira slowly. She nudged him with her nose. Go and acquit yourself well. I will watch.
Eragon reluctantly stepped forward. He did not want to do this when he was exhausted from magic use and when there were so many people watching. Besides, Arya could be in no shape for sparring. It had only been two days since she had received Túnivor’s Nectar. I will soften my blows so I don’t hurt her, he decided.
They faced each other across the circle of warriors. Arya drew her sword with her left hand. The weapon was thinner than Eragon’s, but just as long and sharp. He slid Zar’roc out of its polished sheath and held the red blade point-down by his side. For a long moment they stood motionless, elf and human watching each other. It flashed through Eragon’s mind that this was how many of his fights with Brom had started.
He moved forward cautiously. With a blur of motion Arya jumped at him, slashing at his ribs. Eragon reflexively parried the attack, and their swords met in a shower of sparks. Zar’roc was batted aside as if it were no more than a fly. The elf did not take advantage of the opening, however, but spun to her right, hair whipping through the air, and struck at his other side. He barely stopped the blow and backpedaled frantically, stunned by her ferocity and speed.
Belatedly, Eragon remembered Brom’s warning that even the weakest elf could easily overpower a human. He had about as much chance of defeating Arya as he did Durza. She attacked again, swinging at his head. He ducked under the razor-sharp edge. But then why was she . . . toying with him? For a few long seconds he was too busy warding her off to think about it, then he realized, She wants to know how proficient I am.
Understanding that, he began the most complicated series of attacks he knew. He flowed from one pose to another, recklessly combining and modifying them in every possible way. But no matter how inventive he was, Arya’s sword always stopped his. She matched his actions with effortless grace.
Engaged in a fiery dance, their bodies were linked and separated by the flashing blades. At times they nearly touched, taut skin only a hair’s breadth away, but then momentum would whirl them apart, and they would withdraw for a second, only to join again. Their sinuous forms wove together like twisting ropes of windblown smoke.
Eragon could never remember how long they fought. It was timeless, filled with nothing but action and reaction. Zar’roc grew leaden in his hand; his arm burned ferociously with each stroke. At last, as he lunged forward, Arya nimbly sidestepped, sweeping the point of her sword up to his jawbone with supernatural speed.
Eragon froze as the icy metal touched his skin. His muscles trembled from the exertion. Dimly he heard Saphira bugle and the warriors cheering raucously around them. Arya lowered her sword and sheathed it. “You have passed,” she said quietly amid the noise.
Dazed, he slowly straightened. Fredric was beside him now, thumping his back enthusiastically. “That was incredible swordsmanship! I even learned some new moves from watching the two of you. And the elf—stunning!”
But I lost, he protested silently. Orik praised his performance with a broad smile, but all Eragon noticed was Arya, standing alone and silent. She motioned slightly with a finger, no more than a twitch, toward a knoll about a mile from the practice f
ield, then turned and walked away. The crowd melted before her. A hush fell over the men and dwarves as she passed.
Eragon turned to Orik. “I have to go. I’ll return to the dragonhold soon.” With a swift jab, Eragon sheathed Zar’roc and pulled himself onto Saphira. She took off over the training field, which turned into a sea of faces as everyone looked at her.
As they soared toward the knoll, Eragon saw Arya running below them with clean, easy strides. Saphira commented, You find her form pleasing, do you not?
Yes, he admitted, blushing.
Her face does have more character than that of most humans, she sniffed. But it’s long, like a horse’s, and overall she’s rather shapeless.
Eragon looked at Saphira with amazement. You’re jealous, aren’t you!
Impossible. I never get jealous, she said, offended.
You are now, admit it! he laughed.
She snapped her jaws together loudly. I am not! He smiled and shook his head, but let her denial stand. She landed heavily on the knoll, jostling him roughly. He jumped down without remarking on it.
Arya was close behind them. Her fleet stride carried her faster than any runner Eragon had seen. When she reached the top of the knoll, her breathing was smooth and regular. Suddenly tongue-tied, Eragon dropped his gaze. She strode past him and said to Saphira, “Skulblaka, eka celöbra ono un mulabra ono un onr Shur’tugal né haina. Atra nosu waíse fricai.”
Eragon did not recognize most of the words, but Saphira obviously understood the message. She shuffled her wings and surveyed Arya curiously. Then she nodded, humming deeply. Arya smiled. “I am glad that you recovered,” Eragon said. “We didn’t know if you would live or not.”
“That is why I came here today,” said Arya, facing him. Her rich voice was accented and exotic. She spoke clearly, with a hint of trill, as if she were about to sing. “I owe you a debt that must be repaid. You saved my life. That can never be forgotten.”
“It—it was nothing,” said Eragon, fumbling with the words and knowing they were not true, even as he spoke them. Embarrassed, he changed the subject. “How did you come to be in Gil’ead?”