Eldest (The Inheritance Cycle 2) - Page 24

A long silence followed, as no one dared to agree or disagree. Summoning his courage, Eragon said, “Since Arya has returned alive, will you agree to help the Varden, like before? Nasuada cannot succeed otherwise, and I am pledged to her cause.”

“My quarrel with the Varden is as dust in the wind,” said Islanzadí. “Fear not; we will assist them as we once did, and more, because of you and their victory over the Urgals.” She leaned forward on one arm. “Will you give me Brom’s ring, Eragon?” Without hesitation, he pulled it off his finger and offered it to the queen, who plucked it from his palm with her slim fingers. “You should not have worn this, Eragon, as it was not meant for you. However, because of the aid you have rendered the Varden and my family, I now name you Elf Friend and bestow this ring, Aren, upon you, so that all elves, wherever you go, will know that you are to be trusted and helped.”

Eragon thanked her and returned the ring to his finger, acutely aware of the queen’s gaze, which remained upon him with disturbing perception, studying and analyzing. He felt as if she knew everything that he might say or do. She said, “Such tidings as yours, we have not heard the like of in Du Weldenvarden for many a year. We are accustomed to a slower way of life here than the rest of Alagaësia, and it troubles me that so much could occur so swiftly without word of it reaching my ear.”

“And what of my training?” Eragon snatched a furtive glance at the seated elves, wondering if any of them could be Togira Ikonoka, the being who had reached into his mind and freed him of Durza’s foul influence after the battle in Farthen Dûr—and who had also encouraged Eragon to travel to Ellesméra.

“It will begin in the fullness of time. Yet I fear that instructing you is futile so long as your infirmity persists. Unless you can overcome the Shade’s magic, you will be reduced to no more than a figurehead. You may still be useful, but only as a shadow of the hope that we have nurtured for over a century.” Islanzadí spoke without reproach, yet her words struck Eragon like hammer blows. He knew that she was right. “Your situation is not your fault, and it pains me to voice such things, but you must understand the gravity of your disability…. I am sorry.”

Then Islanzadí addressed Orik: “It has been long since one of your race entered our halls, dwarf. Eragon-finiarel has explained your presence, but do you have aught to add?”

“Only royal greetings from my king, Hrothgar, and a plea, now unneeded, for you to resume contact with the Varden. Beyond that, I am here to see that the pact that Brom forged between you and the humans is honored.”

“We keep our promises whether we utter them in this language or in the ancient language. I accept Hrothgar’s greetings and return them in kind.” Finally, as Eragon was sure she had longed to do since they first arrived, Islanzadí looked at Arya and asked, “Now, daughter, what befell you?”

Arya began to speak in a slow monotone, first of her capture and then of her long imprisonment and torture in Gil’ead. Saphira and Eragon had deliberately avoided the details of her abuse, but Arya herself seemed to have no difficulty recounting what she had been subjected to. Her emotionless descriptions roused the same rage within Eragon as when he first saw her wounds. The elves remained completely silent throughout Arya’s tale, although they gripped their swords and their faces hardened into razor lines of cold anger. A single tear rolled down Islanzadí’s cheek.

Afterward, a lithe elf lord paced along the mossy sward between the chairs. “I know that I speak for us all, Arya Dröttningu, when I say that my heart burns with sorrow for your ordeal. It is a crime beyond apology, mitigation, or reparation, and Galbatorix must be punished for it. Also, we are in your debt for keeping the locations of our cities hidden from the Shade. Few of us could have withstood him for so long.”

“Thank you, Däthedr-vor.”

Now Islanzadí spoke, and her voice rang like a bell among the trees. “Enough. Our guests wait tired on their feet, and we have spoken of evil things for far too long. I will not have this occasion marred by lingering on past injuries.” A glorious smile brightened her expression. “My daughter has returned, a dragon and her Rider have appeared, and I will see us celebrate in the proper fashion!” She stood, tall and magnificent in her crimson tunic, and clapped her hands. At the sound, the chairs and pavilion were showered with hundreds of lilies and roses that appeared twenty feet above their heads and drifted down like colorful snowflakes, suffusing the air with their heady fragrance.

She didn’t use the ancient language, observed Eragon.

He noticed that, while everyone was occupied by the flowers, Islanzadí touched Arya gently on the shoulder and murmured, almost too softly to hear, “You never would have suffered so if you had taken my counsel. I was right to oppose your decision to accept the yawë.”

“It was my decision to make.”

The queen paused, then nodded and extended her arm. “Blagden.” With a flutter of wings, the raven flew from his perch and landed on her left shoulder. The entire assembly bowed as Islanzadí proceeded to the end of the hall and threw open the door to the hundreds of elves outside, whereupon she made a brief declaration in the ancient language that Eragon did not understand. The elves burst into cheers and began to rush about.

“What did she say?” whispered Eragon to Narí.

Narí smiled. “To break open our finest casks and light the cookfires, for tonight shall be a night of feast and song. Come!” He grabbed Eragon’s hand and pulled him after the queen as she threaded her way between the shaggy pines and through banks of cool ferns. During their time indoors, the sun had dropped low in the sky, drenching the forest with an amber light that clung to the trees and plants like a layer of glistering oil.

You do realize, don’t you, said Saphira, that the king Lifaen mentioned, Evandar, must be Arya’s father?

Eragon almost stumbled. You’re right…. And that means he was killed by either Galbatorix or the Forsworn.

Circles within circles.

They stopped on the crest of a small hill, where a team of elves had set out a long trestle table and chairs. All around them, the forest hummed with activity. As evening approached, the cheery glow of fires appeared scattered throughout Ellesméra, including a bon-fire near the table.

Someone handed Eragon a goblet made of the same odd wood that he had noticed in Ceris. He drank the cup’s clear liqueur and gasped as it blazed down his throat. It tasted like mulled cider mixed with mead. The potion made the tips of his fingers and ears tingle and gave him a marvelous sense of clarity. “What is this?” he asked Narí.

Narí laughed. “Faelnirv? We distill it from crushed elderberries and spun moonbeams. If he needs must, a strong man can travel for three days on naught else.”

Saphira, you have to taste this. She sniffed the goblet, then opened her mouth and allowed him to pour the rest of the faelnirv down her throat. Her eyes widened and her tail twitched.

Now that’s a treat! Is there more?

Before Eragon could reply, Orik stomped over to them. “Daughter to the queen,” he grumbled, shaking his head. “I wish that I could tell Hrothgar and Nasuada. They’d want to know.”

Islanzadí seated herself in a high-backed chair and clapped her hands once again. From within the city came a quartet of elves bearing musical instruments. Two had harps of cherrywood, the third a set of reed pipes, and the fourth nothing but her voice, which she immediately put to use with a playful song that danced about their ears.

Eragon caught only every third word or so, but what he did understand made him grin. It was the story of a stag who could not drink at a pond because a magpie kept harassing him.

As Eragon listened, his gaze wandered and alighted upon a small girl prowling behind the queen. When he looked again, he saw that her shaggy hair was not silver, like many of the elves, but bleached white with age, and that her face was creased and lined like a dry, withered apple. She was no elf, nor dwarf, nor—Eragon felt—even human. She smiled at him, and he glimpsed rows of sharp teeth.  When the singer finished, and the pipes and lutes filled the silence, Eragon found himself approached by scores of elves who wished to meet him and—more importantly, he sensed—Saphira.

The elves presented themselves by bowing softly and touching their lips with their first and middle fingers, to which Eragon responded in kind, along with endless repetitions of their greeting in the ancient language. They plied Eragon with polite questions about his exploits, but they reserved the bulk of their conversation for Saphira.

At first Eragon was content to let Saphira talk, since this was the first place where anyone was interested in having a discussion just with her. But he soon grew annoyed at being ignored; he had become used to having people listen when he spoke. He grinned ruefully, dismayed that he had come to rely on people’s attention so much since he had joined the Varden, and forced himself to relax and enjoy the celebration.

Before long the scent of food permeated the glade and elves appeared carrying platters piled with delicacies. Aside from loaves of warm bread and stacks of small, round honeycakes, the dishes were made entirely of fruit, vegetables, and berries. The berries predominated; they were in everything from blueberry soup to raspberry sauce to thimbleberry jelly. A bowl of sliced apples dripped with syrup and sprinkled with wild strawberries sat beside a mushroom pie stuffed with spinach, thyme, and currants.

No meat was to be found, not even fish or fowl, which still puzzled Eragon. In Carvahall and elsewhere in the Empire, meat was a symbol of status and luxury. The more gold you had, the more often you could afford steak and veal. Even the minor nobility ate meat with every meal. To do otherwise would indicate a deficit in their coffers. And yet the elves did not subscribe to this philosophy, despite their obvious wealth and the ease with which they could hunt with magic.

The elves rushed to the table with an enthusiasm that surprised Eragon. Soon all were seated: Islanzadí at the head of the table with Blagden, the raven; Däthedr to her left; Arya and Eragon by her right hand; Orik across from them; and then all the rest of the elves, including Narí and Lifaen. No chair was at the far end of the table, only a huge carved plate for Saphira.

As the meal progressed, everything dissolved around Eragon into a blur of talk and mirth. He was so caught up in the festivities, he lost track of time, aware of only the laughter and the foreign words swirling over his head and the warm glow left in his stomach by the faelnirv. The elusive harp music sighed and whispered at the edges of his hearing and sent shivers of excitement down his side. Occasionally, he found himself distracted by the lazy slit-eyed stare of the woman-child, which she kept focused on him with single-minded intensity, even when eating.

During a lull in the conversation, Eragon turned toward Arya, who had uttered no more than a dozen words. He said nothing, only looked and wondered who she really was.

Arya stirred. “Not even Ajihad knew.”


“Outside of Du Weldenvarden, I told no one of my identity. Brom was aware of it—he first met me here—but he kept it a secret at my request.”

Eragon wondered if she was explaining to him out of a sense of duty or because she felt guilty for deceiving him and Saphira. “Brom once said that what elves didn’t say was often more important that what they did.”

“He understood us well.”

“Why, though? Did it matter if anyone knew?”

This time Arya hesitated. “When I left Ellesméra, I had no desire to be reminded of my position. Nor did it seem relevant to my task with the Varden and dwarves. It had nothing to do with who I became…with who I am.” She glanced at the queen.

“You could have told Saphira and me.”

Arya seemed to bridle at the reproach in his voice. “I had no reason to suspect that my standing with Islanzadí had improved, and telling you that would have changed nothing. My thoughts are my own, Eragon.” He flushed at her implied meaning: Why should she—who was a diplomat, a princess, an elf, and older than both his father and grandfather, whoever they were—confide in him, a sixteen-year-old human?

“At least,” he muttered, “you made up with your mother.”

She smiled oddly. “Did I have a choice?”

At that moment, Blagden jumped from Islanzadí’s shoulder and strutted down the middle of the table, bobbing his head left and right in a mocking bow. He stopped before Saphira, uttered a hoarse cough, and then croaked:

Dragons, like wagons,

Have tongues.

Dragons, like flagons,

Have necks.

But while two hold beer,

The other eats deer!

The elves froze with mortified expressions while they waited for Saphira’s reaction. After a long silence, Saphira looked up from her quince pie and released a puff of smoke that enveloped Blagden. And little birds too, she said, projecting her thoughts so that everyone could hear. The elves finally laughed as Blagden staggered back, cawing indignantly and flapping his wings to clear the air.

“I must apologize for Blagden’s wretched verses,” said Islanzadí. “He has ever had a saucy tongue, despite our attempts to tame it.”

Apology accepted, said Saphira calmly, and returned to her pie.

“Where does he come from?” Eragon asked, eager to return to more cordial footing with Arya but also genuinely curious.

“Blagden,” said Arya, “once saved my father’s life. Evandar was fighting an Urgal when he stumbled and lost his sword. Before the Urgal could strike, a raven flew at him and pecked out his eyes. No one knows why the bird did it, but the distraction allowed Evandar to regain his balance and so win the battle. My father was always generous, so he thanked the raven by blessing him with spells for intelligence and long life. However, the magic had two effects that he did not foresee: Blagden lost all color in his feathers and he gained the ability to predict certain events.”

“He can see into the future?” asked Eragon, startled.

“See? No. But perhaps he can sense what is to come. In any case, he always speaks in riddles, most of which are a fair bit of nonsense. Just remember that if Blagden ever comes to you and tells you something that is not a joke or a pun, you would do well to heed his words.”

Once the meal had concluded, Islanzadí stood—causing a flurry of activity as everyone hastened to do likewise—and said, “It is late, I am tired, and I would return to my bower. Accompany me, Saphira and Eragon, and I will show you where you may sleep tonight.” The queen motioned with one hand to Arya, then left the table. Arya followed.

As Eragon stepped around the table with Saphira, he paused by the woman-child, caught by her feral eyes. All the elements of her appearance, from her eyes to her shaggy hair to her white fangs, triggered Eragon’s memory. “You’re a werecat, aren’t you?” She blinked once and then bared her teeth in a dangerous smile. “I met one of your kin, Solembum, in Teirm and in Farthen Dûr.”

Her grin widened. “Aye. A good one he is. Humans bore me, but he finds it amusing to travel with the witch Angela.” Then her gaze switched to Saphira and she uttered a throaty half-growl, half-purr of appreciation.

What is your name? asked Saphira.

“Names be powerful things in the heart of Du Weldenvarden, dragon, yes they are. However…among the elves, I am known as The Watcher and as Quickpaw and as The Dream Dancer, but you may know me as Maud.” She tossed her mane of stiff white bangs. “You’d better catch up with the queen, younglings; she does not take lightly to fools or laggards.”

“It was a pleasure meeting you, Maud,” said Eragon. He bowed, and Saphira inclined her head. Eragon glanced at Orik, wondering where the dwarf would be taken, and then pursued Islanzadí.

They overtook the queen just as she reached the base of a tree. The trunk was ridged by a delicate staircase that spiraled up to a series of globular rooms cupped and suspended in the tree’s crown by a spray of branches.

Islanzadí lifted an elegant hand and pointed at the eyrie. “You needs must fly there, Saphira. Our stai

rs were not grown with dragons in mind.” Then she spoke to Eragon: “This is where the leader of the Dragon Riders would dwell while in Ellesméra. I give it to you now, for you are the rightful heir to that title…. It is your inheritance.” Before Eragon could thank her, the queen swept past and departed with Arya, who held his gaze for a long moment before vanishing deeper into the city.

Shall we see what accommodations they’ve provided us with? asked Saphira. She jumped into the air and sailed around the tree in a tight circle, balancing on one wing tip, perpendicular to the ground.

As Eragon took the first step, he saw that Islanzadí had spoken true; the stairs were one with the tree. The bark beneath his feet was smooth and flat from the many elves who had traversed it, but it was still part of the trunk, as were the twisting cobweb banisters by his side and the curved railing that slid under his right hand.

Because the stairs had been designed with the elves’ strength in mind, they were steeper than Eragon was used to, and his calves and thighs soon began to burn. He was breathing so hard when he reached the top—after climbing through a trapdoor in the floor of one of the rooms—he had to put his hands on his knees and bend over to pant. Once recovered, he straightened and examined his surroundings.

He stood in a circular vestibule with a pedestal in the center, out of which spiraled a sculpture of two pale hands and forearms that twined around each other without touching. Three screen doors led from the vestibule—one to an austere dining room that might hold ten people at the most, one to a closet with an empty hollow in the floor that Eragon could think of no discernible use for, and the last to a bedroom overlooking, and open to, the wide expanse of Du Weldenvarden.

Taking a lantern from its hook in the ceiling, Eragon entered the bedroom, creating a host of shadows that jumped and swirled like madcap dancers. A teardrop gap large enough for a dragon pierced the outer wall. Inside the room was a bed, situated so that he could watch the sky and the moon while lying on his back; a fireplace made of gray wood that felt as hard and cold as steel when he touched it, as if the timber had been compressed to unsurpassed density; and a huge low-rimmed bowl set in the floor and lined with soft blankets where Saphira could sleep.

Tags: Christopher Paolini The Inheritance Cycle Fantasy
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