You needed my help, she continued, unperturbed.
If I’d needed your help, I would have called!
Don’t yell at me, she snapped, letting her jaws click together. He could sense her emotions boiling with as much turmoil as his. I’ll not have you run around with a slattern who cares more for Eragon as Rider than you as a person.
She wasn’t a slattern, roared Eragon. He pounded the wall in frustration. I’m a man now, Saphira, not a hermit. You can’t expect me to ignore…ignore women just because of who I am. And it’s certainly not your decision to make. At the very least, I might have enjoyed a conversation with her, anything other than the tragedies we’ve dealt with lately. You’re in my head enough to know how I feel. Why couldn’t you leave me alone? Where was the harm?
You don’t understand. She refused to meet his eyes.
Don’t understand! Will you prevent me from ever having a wife and children? What of a family?
Eragon. She finally fixed one great eye on him. We are intimately linked.
And if you pursue a relationship, with or without my blessing, and become…attached…to someone, my feelings will become engaged as well. You should know that. Therefore—and I warn you only once—be careful who you choose, because it will involve both of us.
He briefly considered her words. Our bond works both ways, however. If you hate someone, I will be influenced likewise…. I understand your concern. So you weren’t just jealous?
She licked the claw once more. Perhaps a little.
Eragon was the one who growled this time. He brushed past her into the room, grabbed Zar’roc, then stalked away, belting on the sword.
He wandered through Tronjheim for hours, avoiding contact with everyone. What had occurred pained him, though he could not deny the truth of Saphira’s words. Of all the matters they shared, this was the most delicate and the one they agreed upon least. That night—for the first time since he was captured at Gil’ead—he slept away from Saphira, in one of the dwarves’ barracks.
Eragon returned to their quarters the following morning. By unspoken consent, he and Saphira avoided discussing what had transpired; further argument was pointless when neither party was willing to yield ground. Besides, they were both so relieved to be reunited, they did not want to risk endangering their friendship again.
They were eating lunch—Saphira tearing at a bloody haunch—when Jarsha trotted up. Like before, he stared wide-eyed at Saphira, following her movements as she nibbled off the end of a leg bone. “Yes?” asked Eragon, wiping his chin and wondering if the Council of Elders had sent for them. He had heard nothing from them since the funeral.
Jarsha turned away from Saphira long enough to say, “Nasuada would like to see you, sir. She’s waiting in her father’s study.”
Sir! Eragon almost laughed. Only a little while ago, he would have been calling people sir, not the other way around. He glanced at Saphira. “Are you done, or should we wait a few minutes?”
Rolling her eyes, she fit the rest of the meat into her mouth and split the bone with a loud crack. I’m done.
“All right,” said Eragon, standing, “you can go, Jarsha. We know the way.”
It took almost half an hour to reach the study because of the city-mountain’s size. As during Ajihad’s rule, the door was guarded, but instead of two men, an entire squad of battle-hardened warriors now stood before it, alert for the slightest hint of danger. They would clearly sacrifice themselves to protect their new leader from ambush or attack. Though the men could not have failed to recognize Eragon and Saphira, they barred the way while Nasuada was alerted of her visitors. Only then were the two allowed to enter.
Eragon immediately noticed a change: a vase of flowers in the study. The small purple blossoms were unobtrusive, but they suffused the air with a warm fragrance that—for Eragon—evoked summers of fresh-picked raspberries and scythed fields turning bronze under the sun. He inhaled, appreciating the skill with which Nasuada had asserted her individuality without obliterating Ajihad’s memory.
She sat behind the broad desk, still cloaked in the black of mourning. As Eragon seated himself, Saphira beside him, she said, “Eragon.” It was a simple statement, neither friendly nor hostile. She turned away briefly, then focused on him, her gaze steely and intent. “I have spent the last few days reviewing the Varden’s affairs, such as they are. It was a dismal exercise. We are poor, over-extended, and low on supplies, and few recruits are joining us from the Empire. I mean to change that.
“The dwarves cannot support us much longer, as it’s been a lean year for farming and they’ve suffered losses of their own. Considering this, I have decided to move the Varden to Surda. It’s a difficult proposition, but one I believe necessary to keep us safe. Once in Surda, we will finally be close enough to engage the Empire directly.”
Even Saphira stirred with surprise. The work that would involve! said Eragon. It could take months to get everyone’s belongings to Surda, not to mention all the people. And they’d probably be attacked along the way. “I thought King Orrin didn’t dare openly oppose Galbatorix,” he protested.
Nasuada smiled grimly. “His stance has changed since we defeated the Urgals. He will shelter and feed us and fight by our side. Many Varden are already in Surda, mainly women and children who couldn’t or wouldn’t fight. They will also support us, else I will strip our name from them.”
“How,” asked Eragon, “did you communicate with King Orrin so quickly?”
“The dwarves use a system of mirrors and lanterns to relay messages through their tunnels. They can send a dispatch from here to the western edge of the Beor Mountains in less than a day. Couriers then transport it to Aberon, capital of Surda. Fast as it is, that method is still too slow when Galbatorix can surprise us with an Urgal army and give us less than a day’s notice. I intend to arrange something far more expedient between Du Vrangr Gata and Hrothgar’s magicians before we go.”
Opening the desk drawer, Nasuada removed a thick scroll. “The Varden will depart Farthen Dûr within the month. Hrothgar has agreed to provide us with safe passage through the tunnels. Moreover, he sent a force to Orthíad to remove the last vestiges of Urgals and seal the tunnels so no one can invade the dwarves by that route again. As this may not be enough to guarantee the Varden’s survival, I have a favor to ask of you.”
Eragon nodded. He had expected a request or order. That was the only reason for her to have summoned them. “I am yours to command.”
“Perhaps.” Her eyes flicked to Saphira for a second. “In any case, this is not a command, and I want you to think carefully before replying. To help rally support for the Varden, I wish to spread word throughout the Empire that a new Rider—named Eragon Shadeslayer—and his dragon, Saphira, have joined our cause. I would like your permission before doing so, however.”
It’s too dangerous, objected Saphira.
Word of our presence here will reach the Empire anyway, pointed out Eragon. The Varden will want to brag about their victory and Durza’s death. Since it’ll happen with or without our approval, we should agree to help.
She snorted softly. I’m worried about Galbatorix. Until now we haven’t made it public where our sympathies lie.
Our actions have been clear enough.
Yes, but even when Durza fought you in Tronjheim, he wasn’t trying to kill you. If we become outspoken in our opposition to the Empire, Galbatorix won’t be so lenient again. Who knows what forces or plots he may have kept in abeyance while he tried to gain hold of us? As long as we remain ambiguous, he won’t know what to do.
The time for ambiguity has passed, asserted Eragon. We fought the Urgals, killed Durza, and I have sworn fealty to the leader of the Varden. No ambiguity exists. No, with your permission, I will agree to her proposal.
She was silent for a long while, then dipped her head. As you wish.
He put a hand on her side before returning his attention to Nasuada and saying, “Do what you
see fit. If this is how we can best assist the Varden, so be it.”
“Thank you. I know it is a lot to ask. Now, as we discussed before the funeral, I expect you to travel to Ellesméra and complete your training.”
“Of course. The elves have refused contact with both humans and dwarves ever since she was captured. Arya is the only being who can convince them to emerge from seclusion.”
“Couldn’t she use magic to tell them of her rescue?”
“Unfortunately not. When the elves retreated into Du Weldenvarden after the fall of the Riders, they placed wards around the forest that prevent any thought, item, or being from entering it through arcane means, though not from exiting it, if I understood Arya’s explanation. Thus, Arya must physically visit Du Weldenvarden before Queen Islanzadí will know that she is alive, that you and Saphira exist, and of the numerous events that have befallen the Varden these past months.” Nasuada handed him the scroll. It was stamped with a wax sigil. “This is a missive for Queen Islanzadí, telling her about the Varden’s situation and my own plans. Guard it with your life; it would cause a great deal of harm in the wrong hands. I hope that after all that’s happened, Islanzadí will feel kindly enough toward us to reinitiate diplomatic ties. Her assistance could mean the difference between victory and defeat. Arya knows this and has agreed to press our case, but I wanted you aware of the situation too, so you could take advantage of any opportunities that might arise.”
Eragon tucked the scroll into his jerkin. “When will we leave?”
“Tomorrow morning…unless you have something already planned?”
“Good.” She clasped her hands. “You should know, one other person will be traveling with you.” He looked at her quizzically. “King Hrothgar insisted that in the interest of fairness there should be a dwarf representative present at your training, since it affects their race as well. So he’s sending Orik along.”
Eragon’s first reaction was irritation. Saphira could have flown Arya and him to Du Weldenvarden, thereby eliminating weeks of unnecessary travel. Three passengers, however, were too many to fit on Saphira’s shoulders. Orik’s presence would confine them to the ground.
Upon further reflection, Eragon acknowledged the wisdom of Hrothgar’s request. It was important for Eragon and Saphira to maintain a semblance of equality in their dealings with the different races. He smiled. “Ah, well, it’ll slow us down, but I suppose we have to placate Hrothgar. To tell the truth, I’m glad Orik is coming. Crossing Alagaësia with only Arya was a rather daunting prospect. She’s…”
Nasuada smiled too. “She’s different.”
“Aye.” He grew serious again. “Do you really mean to attack the Empire? You said yourself that the Varden are weak. It doesn’t seem like the wisest course. If we wait—”
“If we wait,” she said sternly, “Galbatorix will only get stronger. This is the first time since Morzan was slain that we have even the slightest opportunity of catching him unprepared. He had no reason to suspect we could defeat the Urgals—which we did thanks to you—so he won’t have readied the Empire for invasion.”
Invasion! exclaimed Saphira. And how does she plan to kill Galbatorix when he flies out to obliterate their army with magic?
Nasuada shook her head in response when Eragon restated the objection. “From what we know of him, he won’t fight until Urû’baen itself is threatened. It doesn’t matter to Galbatorix if we destroy half the Empire, so long as we come to him, not the other way around. Why should he bother anyway? If we do manage to reach him, our troops will be battered and depleted, making it all the easier for him to destroy us.”
“You still haven’t answered Saphira,” protested Eragon.
“That’s because I can’t yet. This will be a long campaign. By its end you might be powerful enough to defeat Galbatorix, or the elves may have joined us…and their spellcasters are the strongest in Alagaësia. No matter what happens, we cannot afford to delay. Now is the time to gamble and dare what no one thinks we can accomplish. The Varden have lived in the shadows for too long—we must either challenge Galbatorix or submit and pass away.”
The scope of what Nasuada was suggesting disturbed Eragon. So many risks and unknown dangers were involved, it was almost absurd to consider such a venture. However, it was not his place to make the decision, and he accepted that. Nor would he dispute it further. We have to trust in her judgment now.
“But what of you, Nasuada? Will you be safe while we’re gone? I must think of my vow. It’s become my responsibility to ensure that you won’t have your own funeral soon.”
Her jaw tightened as she gestured at the door and the warriors beyond. “You needn’t fear, I am well defended.” She looked down. “I will admit…one reason for going to Surda is that Orrin knows me of old and will offer his protection. I cannot tarry here with you and Arya gone and the Council of Elders still with power. They won’t accept me as their leader until I prove beyond doubt that the Varden are under my control, not theirs.”
Then she seemed to draw on some inner strength, squaring her shoulders and lifting her chin so she was distant and aloof. “Go now, Eragon. Ready your horse, gather supplies, and be at the north gate by dawn.”
He bowed low, respecting her return to formality, then left with Saphira.
After dinner, Eragon and Saphira flew together. They sailed high above Tronjheim, where crenulated icicles hung from the sides of Farthen Dûr, forming a great white band around them. Though it was still hours until night, it was already nearly dark within the mountain.
Eragon threw back his head, savoring the air on his face. He missed the wind—wind that would rush through the grass and stir the clouds until everything was tousled and fresh. Wind that would bring rain and storms and lash the trees so they bent. For that matter, I miss trees as well, he thought. Farthen Dûr is an incredible place, but it’s as empty of plants and animals as Ajihad’s tomb.
Saphira agreed. The dwarves seem to think that gems take the place of flowers. She was silent as the light continued to fade. When it was too dark for Eragon to see comfortably, she said, It’s late. We should return.
She drifted toward the ground in great, lazy spirals, drawing nearer to Tronjheim—which glowed like a beacon in the center of Farthen Dûr. They were still far from the city-mountain when she swung her head, saying, Look.
He followed her gaze, but all he could see was the gray, featureless plain below them. What?
Instead of answering, she tilted her wings and glided to their left, slipping down to one of the four roads that radiated from Tronjheim along the cardinal compass points. As they landed, he noticed a patch of white on a small hill nearby. The patch wavered strangely in the dusk, like a floating candle, then resolved into Angela, who was wearing a pale wool tunic.
The witch carried a wicker basket nearly four feet across and filled with a wild assortment of mushrooms, most of which Eragon did not recognize. As she approached, he gestured at them and said, “You’ve been gathering toadstools?”
“Hello,” laughed Angela, putting her load down. “Oh no, toadstool is far too general a term. And anyway, they really ought to be called frogstools, not toadstools.” She spread them with her hand. “This one is sulphur tuft, and this is an inkcap, and here’s navelcap, and dwarf shield, russet tough-shank, blood ring, and that is a spotted deceiver. Delightful, isn’t it!” She pointed to each in turn, ending on a mushroom with pink, lavender, and yellow splashed in rivulets across its cap.
“And that one?” he asked, indicating a mushroom with a lightning-blue stem, molten-orange gills, and a glossy black two-tiered cap.
She looked at it fondly. “Fricai Andlát, as the elves might say. The stalk is instant death, while the cap can cure most poisons. It’s what Tunivor’s Nectar is extracted from. Fricai Andlát only grows in caves in Du Weldenvarden and Farthen Dûr, and it would die out here if the dwarves started carting thei
r dung elsewhere.”
Eragon looked back at the hill and realized that was exactly what it was, a dung heap.
“Hello, Saphira,” said Angela, reaching past him to pat Saphira on the nose. Saphira blinked and looked pleased, tail twitching. At the same time, Solembum padded into sight, his mouth clamped firmly around a limp rat. Without so much as a flick of his whiskers, the werecat settled on the ground and began to nibble on the rodent, studiously ignoring the three of them.
“So,” said Angela, tucking back a curl of her enormous hair, “off to Ellesméra?” Eragon nodded. He did not bother asking how she had found out; she always seemed to know what was going on. When he remained silent, she scowled. “Well, don’t act so morose. It’s not as if it’s your execution!”
“Then smile, because if it’s not your execution, you should be happy! You’re as flaccid as Solembum’s rat. Flaccid. What a wonderful word, don’t you think?”
That wrung a grin out of him, and Saphira chortled with amusement deep in her throat. “I’m not sure it’s quite as wonderful as you think, but yes, I understand your point.”
“I’m glad you understand. Understanding is good.” With arched eyebrows, she hooked a fingernail underneath a mushroom and flipped it over, inspecting its gills as she said, “It’s fortuitous we met tonight, as you are about to leave and I…I will accompany the Varden to Surda. As I told you before, I like to be where things are happening, and that’s the place.”
Eragon grinned even more. “Well then, that must mean we’ll have a safe journey, else you’d be with us.”
Angela shrugged, then said seriously, “Be careful in Du Weldenvarden. Just because elves do not display their emotions doesn’t mean they aren’t subject to rage and passion like the rest of us mortals. What can make them so deadly, though, is how they conceal it, sometimes for years.”
“You’ve been there?”
“Once upon a time.”
After a pause, he asked, “What do you think of Nasuada’s plans?”
“Mmm…she’s doomed! You’re doomed! They’re all doomed!” She cackled, doubling over, then straightened abruptly. “Notice I didn’t specify what kind of doom, so no matter what happens, I predicted it. How very wise of me.” She lifted the basket again, setting it on one hip. “I suppose I won’t see you for a while, so farewell, best of luck, avoid roasted cabbage, don’t eat earwax, and look on the bright side of life!” And with a cheery wink, she strolled off, leaving Eragon blinking and nonplussed.