Eldest (The Inheritance Cycle 2) - Page 21

Roran looked up as well. At first he saw nothing, but then a nameless terror gripped him as two barbed shadows appeared high over the Spine, eclipsing the stars. They advanced quickly, growing larger and larger until they obscured half the sky with their ominous presence. A foul wind rushed across the land, bringing with it a sulfurous miasma that made Roran cough and gag.

The soldiers were likewise afflicted; their curses echoed as they pressed sleeves and scarves over their noses.

Above them, the shadows paused and then began to drift downward, enclosing the camp in a dome of menacing darkness. The sickly torches flickered and threatened to extinguish themselves, yet they still provided sufficient light to reveal the two beasts descending among the tents.

Their bodies were naked and hairless—like newborn mice—with leathery gray skin pulled tight across their corded chests and bellies. In form they resembled starved dogs, except that their hind legs bulged with enough muscle to crush a boulder. A narrow crest extended from the back of each of their attenuated heads, opposite a long, straight, ebony beak made for spearing prey, and cold, bulbous eyes identical to the Ra’zac’s. From their shoulders and backs sprang huge wings that made the air moan under their weight.

Flinging themselves to the ground, the soldiers cowered and hid their faces from the monsters. A terrible, alien intelligence emanated from the creatures, bespeaking a race far older and far more powerful than humans. Roran was suddenly afraid that his mission might fail. Behind him, Horst whispered to the men, urging them to hold their ground and remain hidden, else they would be slain.

The Ra’zac bowed to the beasts, then slipped into a tent and returned carrying Katrina—who was bound with ropes—and leading Sloan. The butcher walked freely.

Roran stared, unable to comprehend how Sloan had been captured. His house isn’t anywhere near Horst’s. Then it struck him. “He betrayed us,” said Roran with wonder. His fist slowly tightened on his hammer as the true horror of the situation exploded within him. “He killed Byrd and he betrayed us!” Tears of rage streamed down his face.

“Roran,” murmured Horst, crouching beside him. “We can’t attack now; they’d slaughter us. Roran…do you hear me?”

He heard but a whisper in the distance as he watched the smaller Ra’zac jump onto one beast above the shoulders, then catch Katrina as the other Ra’zac tossed her up. Sloan seemed upset and frightened now. He began arguing with the Ra’zac, shaking his head and pointing at the ground. Finally, the Ra’zac struck him across the mouth, knocking him unconscious. Mounting the second beast, with the butcher slung over its shoulder, the largest Ra’zac declared, “We will return once it isss sssafe again. Kill the boy, and your livesss are forfeit.” Then the steeds flexed their massive thighs and leaped into the sky, once again shadows upon the field of stars.

No words or emotions were left to Roran. He was utterly destroyed. All that remained was to kill the soldiers. He stood and raised his hammer in preparation to charge, but as he stepped forward, his head throbbed in unison with his wounded shoulder, the ground vanished in a burst of light, and he toppled into oblivion.


Every day since leaving the outpost of Ceris was a hazy dream of warm afternoons spent paddling up Eldor Lake and then the Gaena River. All around them, water gurgled through the tunnel of verdant pines that wound ever deeper into Du Weldenvarden.

Eragon found traveling with the elves delightful. Narí and Lifaen were perpetually smiling, laughing, and singing songs, especially when Saphira was around. They rarely looked elsewhere or spoke of another subject but her in her presence.

However, the elves were not human, no matter the similarity of appearance. They moved too quickly, too fluidly, for creatures born of simple flesh and blood. And when they spoke, they often used roundabout expressions and aphorisms that left Eragon more confused than when they began. In between their bursts of merriment, Lifaen and Narí would remain silent for hours, observing their surroundings with a glow of peaceful rapture on their faces. If Eragon or Orik attempted to talk with them during their contemplation, they would receive only a word or two in response.

It made Eragon appreciate how direct and forthright Arya was by comparison. In fact, she seemed uneasy around Lifaen and Narí, as if she were no longer sure how to behave with her own kind.

From the prow of the canoe, Lifaen looked over his shoulder and said, “Tell me, Eragon-finiarel…. What do your people sing about in these dark days? I remember the epics and lays I heard in Ilirea—sagas of your proud kings and earls—but it was long, long ago and the memories are like withered flowers in my mind. What new works have your people created?” Eragon frowned as he tried to recall the names of stories Brom had recited. When Lifaen heard them, he shook his head sorrowfully and said, “So much has been lost. No court ballads survive, and, if you speak truly, nor does most of your history or art, except for fanciful tales Galbatorix has allowed to thrive.”

“Brom once told us about the fall of the Riders,” said Eragon defensively. An image of a deer bounding over rotting logs flashed behind his eyes from Saphira, who was off hunting.

“Ah, a brave man.” For a minute, Lifaen paddled silently. “We too sing about the Fall…but rarely. Most of us were alive when Vrael entered the void, and we still grieve for our burned cities—the red lilies of Éwayëna, the crystals of Luthivíra—and for our slain families. Time cannot dull the pain of those wounds, not if a thousand thousand years pass and the sun itself dies, leaving the world to float in eternal night.”

Orik grunted in the back. “As it is with the dwarves. Remember, elf, we lost an entire clan to Galbatorix.”

“And we lost our king, Evandar.”

“I never heard that,” said Eragon, surprised.

Lifaen nodded as he guided them around a submerged rock. “Few have. Brom could have told you about it; he was there when the fatal blow was struck. Before Vrael’s death, the elves faced Galbatorix on the plains of Ilirea in our final attempt to defeat him. There Evandar—”

“Where is Ilirea?” asked Eragon.

“It’s Urû’baen, boy,” said Orik. “Used to be an elf city.”

Unperturbed by the interruption, Lifaen continued: “As you say, Ilirea was one of our cities. We abandoned it during our war with the dragons, and then, centuries later, humans adopted it as their capital after King Palancar was exiled.”

Eragon said, “King Palancar? Who was he? Is that how Palancar Valley got its name?”

This time the elf turned and looked at him with amusement. “You have as many questions as leaves on a tree, Argetlam.”

“Brom was of the same opinion.”

Lifaen smiled, then paused, as if to gather his thoughts. “When your ancestors arrived in Alagaësia eight hundred years ago, they roamed far across it, seeking a suitable place to live. Eventually, they settled in Palancar Valley—though it was not called such then—as it was one of the few defendable locations that we or the dwarves had not claimed. There your king, Palancar, began to build a mighty state.

“In an attempt to expand his borders, he declared war against us, though we had offered no provocation. Three times he attacked, and three times we prevailed. Our strength frightened Palancar’s nobles and they pled with their liege for peace. He ignored their counsel. Then the lords approached us with a treaty, which we signed without the king’s knowledge.

“With our help, Palancar was usurped and banished, but he, his family, and their vassals refused to leave the valley. Since we had no wish to murder them, we constructed the tower of Ristvak’baen so the Riders could watch over Palancar and ensure he would never again rise to power or attack anyone else in Alagaësia.

“Before long Palancar was killed by a son who did not wish to wait for nature to take its course. Thereafter, family politics consisted of assassination, betrayal, and other depravities, reducing Palancar’s house to a shadow of its former grandeur. However, his descendants never left, and the blood of k

ings still runs in Therinsford and Carvahall.”

“I see,” said Eragon.

Lifaen lifted one dark eyebrow. “Do you? It has more significance than you may think. It was this event that convinced Anurin—Vrael’s predecessor as head Rider—to allow humans to become Riders, in order to prevent similar disputes.”

Orik emitted a bark of laughter. “That must have caused some argument.”

“It was an unpopular decision,” admitted Lifaen. “Even now some question the wisdom of it. It caused such a disagreement between Anurin and Queen Dellanir that Anurin seceded from our government and established the Riders on Vroengard as an independent entity.”

“But if the Riders were separated from your government, then how could they keep the peace, as they were supposed to?” asked Eragon.

“They couldn’t,” said Lifaen. “Not until Queen Dellanir saw the wisdom of having the Riders free of any lord or king and restored their access to Du Weldenvarden. Still, it never pleased her that any authority could supersede her own.”

Eragon frowned. “Wasn’t that the whole point, though?”

“Yes…and no. The Riders were supposed to guard against the failings of the different governments and races, yet who watched the watchers? It was that very problem that caused the Fall. No one existed who could descry the flaws within the Riders’ own system, for they were above scrutiny, and thus, they perished.”

Eragon stroked the water—first on one side and then the other—while he considered Lifaen’s words. His paddle fluttered in his hands as it cut diagonally across the current. “Who succeeded Dellanir as king or queen?”

“Evandar did. He took the knotted throne five hundred years ago—when Dellanir abdicated in order to study the mysteries of magic—and held it until his death. Now his mate, Islanzadí, rules us.”

“That’s—” Eragon stopped with his mouth open. He was going to say impossible, but then realized how ridiculous the statement would sound. Instead, he asked, “Are elves immortal?”

In a soft voice, Lifaen said, “Once we were like you, bright, fleeting, and as ephemeral as the morning dew. Now our lives stretch endlessly through the dusty years. Aye, we are immortal, although we are still vulnerable to injuries of the flesh.”

“You became immortal? How?” The elf refused to elaborate, though Eragon pressed him for details. Finally, Eragon asked, “How old is Arya?”

Lifaen turned his glittering eyes on him, probing Eragon with disconcerting acuteness. “Arya? What is your interest in her?”

“I…” Eragon faltered, suddenly unsure of his intentions. His attraction to Arya was complicated by the fact that she was an elf, and that her age, whatever it might be, was so much greater than his own. She must view me as a child. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “But she saved both my life and Saphira’s, and I’m curious to know more about her.”

“I feel ashamed,” said Lifaen, pronouncing each word carefully, “for asking such a question. Among our kind, it is rude to pry into one’s affairs…. Only, I must say, and I believe that Orik agrees with me, that you would do well to guard your heart, Argetlam. Now is not the time to lose it, nor would it be well placed in this instance.”

“Aye,” grunted Orik.

Heat suffused Eragon as blood rushed to his face, like hot tallow melting through him. Before he could utter a retort, Saphira entered his mind and said, And now is the time to guard your tongue. They mean well. Don’t insult them.

He took a deep breath and tried to let his embarrassment drain away. Do you agree with them?

I believe, Eragon, that you are full of love and that you are looking for one who will reciprocate your affection. No shame exists in that.

He struggled to digest her words, then finally said, Will you be back soon?

I’m on my way now.

Returning his attention to his surroundings, Eragon found that both the elf and the dwarf were watching him. “I understand your concern…and I’d still like my question answered.”

Lifaen hesitated briefly. “Arya is quite young. She was born a year before the destruction of the Riders.”

A hundred! Though he had expected such a figure, Eragon was still shocked. He concealed it behind a blank face, thinking, She could have great-grandchildren older than me! He brooded on the subject for several minutes and then, to distract himself, said, “You mentioned that humans discovered Alagaësia eight hundred years ago. Yet Brom said that we arrived three centuries after the Riders were formed, which was thousands of years ago.”

“Two thousand, seven hundred, and four years, by our reckoning,” declared Orik. “Brom was right, if you consider a single ship with twenty warriors the ‘arrival’ of humans in Alagaësia. They landed in the south, where Surda is now. We met while they were exploring and exchanged gifts, but then they departed and we didn’t see another human for almost two millennia, or until King Palancar arrived with a fleet in tow. The humans had completely forgotten us by then, except for vague stories about hairy men-of-the-mountains that preyed on children in the night. Bah!”

“Do you know where Palancar came from?” asked Eragon.

Orik frowned and gnawed the tip of his mustache, then shook his head. “Our histories only say that his homeland was far to the south, beyond the Beors, and that his exodus was the result of war and famine.”

Excited by an idea, Eragon blurted, “So there might be countries elsewhere that could help us against Galbatorix.”

“Possibly,” said Orik. “But they would be difficult to find, even on dragonback, and I doubt that you’d speak the same language. Who would want to help us, though? The Varden have little to offer another country, and it’s hard enough to get an army from Farthen Dûr to Urû’baen, much less bring forces from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.”

“We could not spare you anyway,” said Lifaen to Eragon.

“I still—” Eragon broke off as Saphira soared over the river, followed by a furious crowd of sparrows and blackbirds intent on driving her away from their nests. At the same time, a chorus of squeaks and chatters burst from the armies of squirrels hidden among the branches.

Lifaen beamed and cried, “Isn’t she glorious? See how her scales catch the light! No treasure in the world can match this sight.” Similar exclamations floated across the river from Narí.

“Bloody unbearable, that’s what it is,” muttered Orik into his beard. Eragon hid a smile, though he agreed with the dwarf. The elves never seemed to tire of praising Saphira.

Nothing’s wrong with a few compliments, said Saphira. She landed with a gigantic splash and submerged her head to escape a diving sparrow.

Of course not, said Eragon.

Saphira eyed him from underwater. Was that sarcasm?

He chuckled and let it pass. Glancing at the other boat, Eragon watched Arya paddle, her back perfectly straight, her face inscrutable as she floated through webs of mottled light beneath the mossy trees. She seemed so dark and somber, it made him want to comfort her. “Lifaen,” he asked softly so that Orik would not hear, “why is Arya so…unhappy? You and—”

Lifaen’s shoulders stiffened underneath his russet tunic and he whispered, so low that Eragon could barely hear, “We are honored to serve Arya Dröttningu. She has suffered more than you can imagine for our people. We celebrate out of joy for what she has achieved with Saphira, and we weep in our dreams for her sacrifice…and her loss. Her sorrows are her own, though, and I cannot reveal them without her permission.”

As Eragon sat by their nightly campfire, petting a swatch of moss that felt like rabbit fur, he heard a commotion deeper in the forest. Exchanging glances with Saphira and Orik, he crept toward the sound, drawing Zar’roc.

Eragon stopped at the lip of a small ravine and looked across to the other side, where a gyrfalcon with a broken wing thrashed in a bed of snowberries. The raptor froze when it saw him, then opened its beak and uttered a piercing screech.

What a terrible fate, to be unable t

o fly, said Saphira.

When Arya arrived, she eyed the gyrfalcon, then strung her bow and, with unerring aim, shot it through the breast. At first Eragon thought that she had done it for food, but she made no move to retrieve either the bird or her arrow.

“Why?” he asked.

With a hard expression, Arya unstrung her bow. “It was too injured for me to heal and would have died tonight or tomorrow. Such is the nature of things. I saved it hours of suffering.”

Saphira lowered her head and touched Arya on the shoulder with her snout, then returned to their camp, her tail scraping bark off the trees. As Eragon started to follow, he felt Orik tug his sleeve and bent down to hear the dwarf say in an undertone, “Never ask an elf for help; they might decide that you’re better off dead, eh?”


Though he was tired from the previous day, Eragon forced himself to rise before dawn in an attempt to catch one of the elves asleep. It had become a game with him to discover when the elves got up—or if they slept at all—as he had yet to see any of them with their eyes closed. Today was no exception.

“Good morning,” said Narí and Lifaen from above him. Eragon craned back his head and saw that they each stood on the bough of a pine tree, over fifty feet in the air. Jumping from branch to branch with feline grace, the elves dropped to the ground alongside him.

“We have been keeping watch,” explained Lifaen.

“For what?”

Arya stepped around a tree and said, “For my fears. Du Weldenvarden has many mysteries and dangers, especially for a Rider. We have lived here for thousands of years, and old spells still linger in unexpected places; magic permeates the air, the water, and the earth. In places it has affected the animals. Sometimes strange creatures are found roaming the forest, and not all of them friendly.”

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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