“Are they—” Eragon stopped as his gedwëy ignasia tingled. The silver hammer on the necklace Gannel had given him grew hot on his chest, and he felt the amulet’s spell draw upon his strength.
Someone was trying to scry him.
Is it Galbatorix? he wondered, frightened. He clutched the necklace and pulled it out of his tunic, ready to yank it off should he become too weak. From the other side of the camp, Saphira rushed to his side, bolstering him with her own reserves of energy.
A moment later, the heat leached out of the hammer, leaving it cold against Eragon’s skin. He bounced it on his palm, then tucked it back under his clothes, whereupon Saphira said, Our enemies are searching for us.
Enemies? Could not it be someone in Du Vrangr Gata?
I think Hrothgar would have told Nasuada that he ordered Gannel to enchant you this necklace…. She might have even come up with the idea in the first place.
Arya frowned when Eragon explained what had occurred. “This makes it all the more important we reach Ellesméra quickly so your training can resume. Events in Alagaësia move apace, and I fear you won’t have adequate time for your studies.”
Eragon wanted to discuss it further, but lost the opportunity in the rush to leave camp. Once the canoes were loaded and the fire tamped out, they continued to forge up the Gaena River.
They had only been on the water for an hour when Eragon noticed that the river was growing wider and deeper. A few minutes later, they came upon a waterfall that filled Du Weldenvarden with its throbbing rumble. The cataract was about a hundred feet tall, and streamed down a stone face with an overhang that made it impossible to climb. “How do we get past that?” He could already feel cool spray on his face.
Lifaen pointed at the left shore, some distance from the falls, where a trail had been worn up the steep ridge. “We have to portage our canoes and supplies for half a league before the river clears.”
The five of them untied the bundles wedged between the seats of the canoes and divided the supplies into piles that they stuffed into their packs. “Ugh,” said Eragon, hefting his load. It was twice as heavy as what he usually carried when traveling on foot.
I could fly it upstream for you…all of it, offered Saphira, crawling onto the muddy bank and shaking herself dry.
When Eragon repeated her suggestion, Lifaen looked horrified. “We would never dream of using a dragon as a beast of burden. It would dishonor you, Saphira—and Eragon as Shur’tugal—and it would shame our hospitality.”
Saphira snorted, and a plume of flame erupted from her nostrils, vaporizing the surface of the river and creating a cloud of steam. This is nonsense. Reaching past Eragon with one scaly leg, she hooked her talons through the packs’ shoulder straps, then took off over their heads. Catch me if you can!
A peal of clear laughter broke the silence, like the trill of a mockingbird. Amazed, Eragon turned and looked at Arya. It was the first time he had ever heard her laugh; he loved the sound. She smiled at Lifaen. “You have much to learn if you presume to tell a dragon what she may or may not do.”
“But the dishonor—”
“It is no dishonor if Saphira does it of her free will,” asserted Arya. “Now, let us go before we waste any more time.”
Hoping that the strain would not trigger the pain in his back, Eragon picked up his canoe with Lifaen and fit it over his shoulders. He was forced to rely on the elf to guide him along the trail, as he could only see the ground beneath his feet.
An hour later, they had topped the ridge and hiked beyond the dangerous white water to where the Gaena River was once again calm and glassy. Waiting for them was Saphira, who was busy catching fish in the shallows, jabbing her triangular head into the water like a heron.
Arya called her over and said to both her and Eragon, “Beyond the next curve lies Ardwen Lake and, upon its western shore, Sílthrim, one of our greatest cities. Past that, a vast expanse of forest still separates us from Ellesméra. We will encounter many elves close to Sílthrim. However, I don’t want either of you to be seen until we speak with Queen Islanzadí.”
Why? asked Saphira, echoing Eragon’s thoughts.
In her musical accent, Arya answered: “Your presence represents a great and terrible change for our kingdom, and such shifts are dangerous unless handled with care. The queen must be the first to meet with you. Only she has the authority and wisdom to oversee this transition.”
“You speak highly of her,” commented Eragon.
At his words, Narí and Lifaen stopped and watched Arya with guarded eyes. Her face went blank, then she drew herself up proudly. “She has led us well…. Eragon, I know you carry a hooded cape from Tronjheim. Until we are free of possible observers, will you wear it and keep your head covered so that none can see your rounded ears and know that you are human?” He nodded. “And, Saphira, you must hide during the day and catch up with us at night. Ajihad told me that is what you did in the Empire.”
And I hated every moment of it, she growled.
“It’s only for today and tomorrow. After that we will be far enough away from Sílthrim that we won’t have to worry about encountering anyone of consequence,” promised Arya.
Saphira turned her azure eyes on Eragon. When we escaped the Empire, I swore that I would always stay close enough to protect you. Every time I leave, bad things happen: Yazuac, Daret, Dras-Leona, the slavers.
Not in Teirm.
You know what I mean! I’m especially loath to leave since you can’t defend yourself with your crippled back.
I trust that Arya and the others will keep me safe. Don’t you?
Saphira hesitated. I trust Arya. She twisted away and padded up the riverbank, sat for a minute, then returned. Very well. She broadcast her acceptance to Arya, adding, But I won’t wait any longer than tomorrow night, even if you’re in the middle of Sílthrim at the time.
“I understand,” said Arya. “You will still have to be careful when flying after dark, as elves can see clearly on all but the blackest nights. If you are sighted by chance, you could be attacked by magic.”
Wonderful, commented Saphira.
While Orik and the elves repacked the boats, Eragon and Saphira explored the dim forest, searching for a suitable hiding place. They settled on a dry hollow rimmed by crumbling rocks and blanketed with a bed of pine needles that were pleasantly soft underfoot. Saphira curled up on the ground and nodded her head. Go now. I will be fine.
Eragon hugged her neck—careful to avoid her sharp spines—and then reluctantly departed, glancing backward. At the river, he donned his cape before they resumed their journey.
The air was motionless when Ardwen Lake came into view, and as a result, the vast mantle of water was smooth and flat, a perfect mirror for the trees and clouds. The illusion was so flawless, Eragon felt as if he were looking through a window at another world and that if they continued forward, the canoes would fall endlessly into the reflected sky. He shivered at the thought.
In the hazy distance, numerous white birch-bark boats darted like water striders along both shores, propelled to incredible speeds by the elves’ strength. Eragon ducked his head and tugged on the edge of his hood to ensure that it covered his face.
His link with Saphira grew ever more tenuous the farther apart they became, until only a wisp of thought connected them. By evening he could no longer feel her presence, even if he strained his mind to its limits. All of a sudden, Du Weldenvarden seemed much more lonely and desolate.
As the gloom deepened, a cluster of white lights—placed at every conceivable height among the trees—sprang into existence a mile ahead. The sparks glowed with the silver radiance of the full moon, eerie and mysterious in the night.
“There lies Sílthrim,” said Lifaen.
With a faint splash, a dark boat passed them from the opposite direction, accompanied by a murmur of “Kvetha Fricai” from the elf steering.
Arya brought her canoe alongside Eragon’s. “We will stop here tonight.”
They made camp a ways from Ardwen Lake, where the ground was dry enough to sleep on. The ferocious droves of mosquitoes forced Arya to cast a protective spell so that they could eat dinner in relative comfort.
Afterward, the five of them sat around the fire, staring at the gold flames. Eragon leaned his head against a tree and watched a meteor streak across the sky. His eyelids were about to sink shut when a woman’s voice drifted through the woods from Sílthrim, a faint susurration that brushed the inside of his ear like a down feather. He frowned and straightened, trying to better hear the tenuous whisper.
Like a thread of smoke that thickens as a newborn fire blazes to life, so the voice rose in strength until the forest sighed with a teasing, twisting melody that leaped and fell with wild abandon. More voices joined the unearthly song, embroidering the original theme with a hundred variations. The air itself seemed to shimmer with the fabric of the tempestuous music.
The fey strains sent jolts of elation and fear down Eragon’s spine; they clouded his senses, drawing him into the velvet night. Seduced by the haunting notes, he jumped to his feet, ready to dash through the forest until he found the source of the voices, ready to dance among the trees and moss, anything so that he could join the elves’ revels. But before he could move, Arya caught his arm and yanked him around to face her.
“Eragon! Clear your mind!” He struggled in a futile attempt to break her grip. “Eyddr eyreya onr!” Empty your ears! Everything fell silent then, as if he had gone deaf. He stopped fighting and looked around, wondering what had just occurred. On the other side of the fire, Lifaen and Narí wrestled noiselessly with Orik.
Eragon watched Arya’s mouth move as she spoke, then sound returned to the world with a pop, though he could no longer hear the music. “What…?” he asked, dazed.
“Gerr’off me,” growled Orik. Lifaen and Narí lifted their hands and backed away.
“Your pardon, Orik-vodhr,” said Lifaen.
Arya gazed toward Sílthrim. “I miscounted the days; I didn’t want to be anywhere near a city during Dagshelgr. Our saturnalias, our celebrations, are perilous for mortals. We sing in the ancient language, and the lyrics weave spells of passion and longing that are difficult to resist, even for us.”
Narí stirred restlessly. “We should be at a grove.”
“We should,” agreed Arya, “but we will do our duty and wait.”
Shaken, Eragon sat closer to the fire, wishing for Saphira; he was sure she could have protected his mind from the music’s influence. “What is the point of Dagshelgr?” he asked.
Arya joined him on the ground, crossing her long legs. “It is to keep the forest healthy and fertile. Every spring we sing for the trees, we sing for the plants, and we sing for the animals. Without us, Du Weldenvarden would be half its size.” As if to emphasize her point, birds, deer, squirrels—red and gray—striped badgers, foxes, rabbits, wolves, frogs, toads, tortoises, and every other nearby animal forsook their hiding and began to rush madly about with a cacophony of yelps and cries. “They are searching for mates,” explained Arya. “All across Du Weldenvarden, in each of our cities, elves are singing this song. The more who participate, the stronger the spell, and the greater Du Weldenvarden will be this year.”
Eragon snatched back his hand as a trio of hedgehogs trundled past his thigh. The entire forest yammered with noise. I’ve stepped into fairyland, he thought, hugging himself.
Orik came around the fire and raised his voice above the clamor: “By my beard and my ax, I’ll not be controlled against my will by magic. If it happens again, Arya, I swear on Helzvog’s stone girdle that I’ll return to Farthen Dûr and you will have the wrath of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum to deal with.”
“It was not my intention for you to experience Dagshelgr,” said Arya. “I apologize for my mistake. However, though I am shielding you from this spell, you cannot escape magic in Du Weldenvarden; it permeates everything.”
“So long as it doesn’t befoul my mind.” Orik shook his head and fingered the haft of his ax while eyeing the shadowy beasts that lumbered in the gloom beyond the pool of firelight.
No one slept that night. Eragon and Orik remained awake because of the frightful din and the animals that kept crashing by their tents, the elves because they still listened to the song. Lifaen and Narí took to pacing in endless circles, while Arya stared toward Sílthrim with a hungry expression, her tawny skin drawn thin and taut over her cheekbones.
Four hours into the riot of sound and motion, Saphira dove out of the sky, her eyes sparkling with a queer aspect. She shivered and arched her neck, panting between her open jaws. The forest, she said, is alive. And I am alive. My blood burns like never before. It burns as yours burns when you think of Arya. I…understand!
Eragon put his hand on her shoulder, feeling the tremors that racked her frame; her sides vibrated as she hummed along with the music. She gripped the ground with her ivory claws, her muscles coiled and clenched in a supreme effort to remain motionless. The tip of her tail twitched like she was about to pounce.
Arya stood and joined Eragon on the opposite side of Saphira. The elf also put a hand on Saphira’s shoulder, and the three of them faced the darkness, united into a living chain.
When dawn broke, the first thing Eragon noticed was that all the trees now had buds of bright green needles at the ends of their branches. He bent and examined the snowberries at his feet and found that every plant, large or small, had acquired new growth during the night. The forest vibrated with the ripeness of its colors; everything was lush and fresh and clean. The air smelled like it had just rained.
Saphira shook herself beside Eragon and said, The fever has passed; I am myself again. Such things I felt…It was as if the world were being born anew and I was helping to create it with the fire in my limbs.
How are you? On the inside, I mean.
I will need some time to understand what I experienced.
Since the music had ceased, Arya removed her spell from Eragon and Orik. She said, “Lifaen. Narí. Go to Sílthrim and get horses for the five of us. We cannot walk all the way from here to Ellesméra. Also, alert Captain Damítha that Ceris requires reinforcements.”
Narí bowed. “And what shall we say when she asks why we have deserted our post?”
“Tell her that that which she once hoped for—and feared—has occurred; the wyrm has bitten its own tail. She will understand.”
The two elves departed for Sílthrim after the boats were emptied of supplies. Three hours later, Eragon heard a stick snap and looked up to see them returning through the forest on proud white stallions, leading four other identical horses. The magnificent beasts moved among the trees with uncanny stealth, their coats shimmering in the emerald twilight. None of them wore saddles or harnesses.
“Blöthr, blöthr,” murmured Lifaen, and his steed halted, pawing the ground with its dark hooves.
“Are all your horses as noble as these?” asked Eragon. He cautiously approached one, amazed by its beauty. The animals were only a few inches taller than ponies, which made it easy for them to navigate among the closely placed trunks. They did not seem frightened by Saphira.
“Not all,” laughed Narí, tossing his silver hair, “but most. We have bred them for many centuries.”
“How am I supposed to ride?”
Arya said, “An elf horse responds instantly to commands in the ancient language; tell it where you wish to go and it will take you. However, do not mistreat them with blows or harsh words, for they are not our slaves, but our friends and partners. They bear you only so long as they consent to; it is a great privilege to ride one. I was only able to save Saphira’s egg from Durza because our horses sensed that something was amiss and stopped us from riding into his ambush…. They won’t let you fall unless you deliberately throw yourself off, and they are skilled in choosing the safest, quickest path through treacherous ground. The dwarves’ Feldûnost are like that.”
“Right you are,” grunted Orik. “A Fel
dûnost can run you up a cliff and down without a single bruise. But how can we carry food and whatnot without saddles? I won’t ride while wearing a full pack.”
Lifaen tossed a pile of leather bags at Orik’s feet and indicated the sixth horse. “Nor will you have to.”
It took half an hour to arrange their supplies in the bags and heap them into a lumpy mound on the horse’s back. Afterward, Narí told Eragon and Orik the words they could use to direct the horses: “Gánga fram to go forward, blöthr to stop, hlaupa if needs you must run, and gánga aptr to go back. You can give more precise instructions if you know more of the ancient language.” He led Eragon to a horse and said, “This is Folkvír. Hold out your hand.”
Eragon did, and the stallion snorted, flaring his nostrils. Folkvír sniffed Eragon’s palm, then touched it with his muzzle and allowed Eragon to stroke his thick neck. “Good,” said Narí, appearing satisfied. The elf had Orik do the same with the next horse.
As Eragon mounted Folkvír, Saphira drew closer. He looked up at her, noting how troubled she still seemed from the night. One more day, he said.
Eragon… She paused. I thought of something while I was under the influence of the elves’ spell, something that I have always considered of little consequence, but now looms within me like a mountain of black dread: Every creature, no matter how pure or monstrous, has a mate of their own kind. Yet I have none. She shuddered and closed her eyes. In this regard, I am alone.
Her statements reminded Eragon that she was barely more than eight months old. On most occasions, her youth did not show—due to the influence of her hereditary instincts and memories—but, in this arena, she was even more inexperienced than he was with his feeble stabs at romance in Carvahall and Tronjheim. Pity welled inside Eragon, but he suppressed it before it could seep across their mental link. Saphira would have only contempt for the emotion: it could neither solve her problem nor make her feel better. Instead, he said, Galbatorix still has two dragon eggs. During our first audience with Hrothgar, you mentioned that you would like to rescue them. If we can—