Even as he watched, she swooped down and landed on the edge of the opening, her scales twinkling like a constellation of blue stars. Behind her, the last rays of the sun streaked across the forest, painting the various ridges and hills with a hazy amber that made the needles glow like hot iron and chased the shadows back toward the violet horizon. From their height, the city appeared as a series of gaps in the voluminous canopy, islands of calm in a restless ocean. Ellesméra’s true scope was now revealed; it extended for several miles to the west and to the north.
I respect the Riders even more if this is how Vrael normally lived, said Eragon. It’s much simpler than I expected. The entire structure rocked slightly in response to a breath of wind.
Saphira sniffed her blankets. We have yet to see Vroengard, she cautioned, although he sensed that she agreed with him.
As Eragon closed the screen to the bedroom, he saw something in the corner that he had missed during his first inspection: a spiral staircase that wound up a dark wood chimney. Thrusting the lantern before him, he cautiously ascended, one step at a time. After about twenty feet, he emerged in a study furnished with a writing desk—stocked with quills, ink, and paper, but no parchment—and another padded roost for a dragon to curl up on. The far wall also had an opening to fly through.
Saphira, come see this.
How? she asked.
Through the outside. Eragon winced as layers of bark splintered and cracked under Saphira’s claws while she crawled out of the bedroom and up the side of the compound to the study. Satisfied? he asked when she arrived. Saphira raked him with her sapphire eyes, then proceeded to scrutinize the walls and furniture.
I wonder, she said, how you are supposed to stay warm when the rooms are open to the elements?
I don’t know. Eragon examined the walls on either side of the breach, running his hands over abstract patterns that had been coaxed from the tree by the elves’ songs. He stopped when he felt a vertical ridge embedded in the bark. He tugged on it, and a diaphanous membrane unspooled from within the wall. Pulling it across the portal, he found a second groove to hold the hem of the cloth. As soon as it was fastened, the air thickened and became noticeably hotter. There’s your answer, he said. He released the cloth and it lashed back and forth as it rewound itself.
When they returned to the bedroom, Eragon unpacked while Saphira coiled upon her dais. He carefully arranged his shield, bracers, greaves, coif, and helm, then stripped off his tunic and removed his shirt of leather-backed mail. He sat bare-chested on the bed and studied the oiled links, struck by their similarity to Saphira’s scales.
We made it, he said, bemused.
A long journey…but yes, we made it. We’re lucky that misfortune did not strike upon the road.
He nodded. Now we’ll find out if it was worth it. Sometimes I wonder if our time would have been better spent helping the Varden.
Eragon! You know that we need further instruction. Brom would have wanted it. Besides, Ellesméra and Islanzadí were certainly worth coming all this way to see.
Maybe. Finally, he asked, What do you make of all this?
Saphira parted her jaws slightly to show her teeth. I don’t know. The elves keep more secrets than even Brom, and they can do things with magic that I never thought possible. I have no idea what methods they use to grow their trees into such shapes, nor how Islanzadí summoned those flowers. It is beyond my ken.
Eragon was relieved that he was not the only one who felt overwhelmed. And Arya?
What about her?
You know, who she really is.
She hasn’t changed, only your perception of her. Saphira chuckled deep in her throat, where it sounded like stones grinding against each other, and rested her head on her two front feet.
The stars were bright in the sky now, and the soft hoots of owls drifted through Ellesméra. All the world was calm and silent as it slumbered away the liquid night.
Eragon clambered underneath his downy sheets and reached to shutter the lantern, then stopped, his hand an inch from the latch. Here he was in the elves’ capital, over a hundred feet in the air, lying in what used to be Vrael’s bed.
The thought was too much for him.
Rolling upright, he grabbed the lantern with one hand, Zar’roc with the other, and surprised Saphira by crawling onto her dais and snuggling against her warm side. She hummed and dropped a velvet wing over him as he extinguished the light and closed his eyes.
Together they slept long and deep in Ellesméra.
OUT OF THE PAST
Eragon woke at dawn well rested. He tapped Saphira’s ribs, and she lifted her wing. Running his hands through his hair, he walked to the room’s precipice and leaned against one side, bark rough against his shoulder. Below, the forest sparkled like a field of diamonds as each tree reflected the morning light with a thousand thousand drops of dew.
He jumped with surprise as Saphira dove past him, twisting like an auger toward the canopy before she pulled up and circled through the sky, roaring with joy. Morning, little one. He smiled, happy that she was happy.
He opened the screen to their bedroom, where he found two trays of food—mostly fruit—that had been placed by the lintel during the night. By the trays was a bundle of clothes with a paper note pinned to it. Eragon had difficulty deciphering the flowing script, since he had not read for over a month and had forgotten some of the letters, but at last he understood that it said:
Greetings, Saphira Bjartskular and Eragon Shadeslayer.
I, Bellaen of House Miolandra, do humble myself and apologize to you, Saphira, for this unsatisfactory meal. Elves do not hunt, and no meat is to be had in Ellesméra, nor in any of our cities. If you wish, you can do as the dragons of old were wont, and catch what you may in Du Weldenvarden. We only ask that you leave your kills in the forest so that our air and water remain untainted by blood.
Eragon, these clothes are for you. They were woven by Niduen of Islanzadí’s house and are her gift to you.
May good fortune rule over you,
Peace live in your heart,
And the stars watch over you.
Bellaen du Hljödhr
When Eragon told Saphira the message, she said, It does not matter; I won’t need to eat for a while after yesterday’s meal. However, she did snap up a few seed cakes. Just so that I don’t appear rude, she explained.
After Eragon finished breakfast, he hauled the bundle of clothes onto his bed and carefully unfolded them, finding two full-length tunics of russet trimmed with thimbleberry green, a set of creamy leggings to wrap his calves in, and three pairs of socks so soft, they felt like liquid when he pulled them through his hands. The quality of the fabric shamed the weaving of the women of Carvahall as well as the dwarf clothes he wore now.
Eragon was grateful for the new raiment. His own tunic and breeches were sadly travel-worn from their weeks exposed to the rain and sun since Farthen Dûr. Stripping, he donned one of the luxurious tunics, savoring its downy texture.
He had just laced on his boots when someone knocked on the screen to the bedroom. “Come in,” he said, reaching for Zar’roc.
Orik poked his head inside, then cautiously entered, testing the floor with his feet. He eyed the ceiling. “Give me a cave any day instead of a bird’s nest like this. How fared your night, Eragon? Saphira?”
“Well enough. And yours?” said Eragon.
“I slept like a rock.” The dwarf chuckled at his own jest, then his chin sank into his beard and he fingered the head of his ax. “I see you’ve eaten, so I’ll ask you to accompany me. Arya, the queen, and a host of other elves await you at the base of the tree.” He fixed Eragon with a testy gaze. “Something is going on that they haven’t told us about. I’m not sure what they want from you, but it’s important. Islanzadí’s as tense as a cornered wolf…I thought I’d warn you beforehand.”
Eragon thanked him, then the two of them descended by way of the stairs, while Saphira glided to earth. They were met on the ground
by Islanzadí arrayed in a mantle of ruffled swan feathers, which were like winter snow heaped upon a cardinal’s breast. She greeted them and said, “Follow me.”
Her wending course took the group to the edge of Ellesméra, where the buildings were few and the paths were faint from disuse. At the base of a wooded knoll, Islanzadí stopped and said in a terrible voice, “Before we go any farther, the three of you must swear in the ancient language that you will never speak to outsiders of what you are about to see, not without permission from me, my daughter, or whoever may succeed us to the throne.”
“Why should I gag myself?” demanded Orik.
Why indeed? asked Saphira. Do you not trust us?
“It is not a matter of trust, but of safety. We must protect this knowledge at all costs—it’s our greatest advantage over Galbatorix—and if you are bound by the ancient language, you will never willingly reveal our secret. You came to supervise Eragon’s training, Orik-vodhr. Unless you give me your word, you may as well return to Farthen Dûr.”
At last Orik said, “I believe that you mean no harm to dwarves or to the Varden, else I would never agree. And I hold you to the honor of your hall and clan that this isn’t a ploy to deceive us. Tell me what to say.”
While the queen tutored Orik in the correct pronunciation of the desired phrase, Eragon asked Saphira, Should I do it?
Do we have a choice? Eragon remembered that Arya had asked the same question yesterday, and he began to have an inkling of what she had meant: the queen left no room to maneuver.
When Orik finished, Islanzadí looked expectantly at Eragon. He hesitated, then delivered the oath, as did Saphira. “Thank you,” said Islanzadí. “Now we may proceed.”
At the top of the knoll, the trees were replaced by a bed of red clover that ran several yards to the edge of a stone cliff. The cliff extended a league in either direction and dropped a thousand feet to the forest below, which pooled outward until it merged with the sky. It felt as if they stood on the edge of the world, staring across an endless expanse of forest.
I know this place, realized Eragon, remembering his vision of Togira Ikonoka.
Thud. The air shivered from the strength of the concussion. Thud. Another dull blow made Eragon’s teeth chatter. Thud. He jammed his fingers in his ears, trying to protect them from the painful spikes in pressure. The elves stood motionless. Thud. The clover bent under a sudden gust of wind.
Thud. From below the edge of the cliff rose a huge gold dragon with a Rider on its back.
Roran glared at Horst.
They were in Baldor’s room. Roran was propped upright in bed, listening as the smith said, “What did you expect me to do? We couldn’t attack once you fainted. Besides, the men were in no state to fight. Can’t blame them either. I nearly bit off my tongue when I saw those monsters.” Horst shook his wild mane of hair. “We’ve been dragged into one of the old tales, Roran, and I don’t like it one bit.” Roran retained his stony expression. “Look, you can kill the soldiers if you want, but you have to get your strength back first. You’ll have plenty of volunteers; people trust you in battle, especially after you defeated the soldiers here last night.” When Roran remained silent, Horst sighed, patted him on his good shoulder, and left the room, closing the door behind him.
Roran did not even blink. So far in his life, he had only truly cared about three things: his family, his home in Palancar Valley, and Katrina. His family had been annihilated last year. His farm had been smashed and burned, though the land remained, which was all that really mattered.
But now Katrina was gone.
A choked sob escaped past the iron lump in his throat. He was faced with a quandary that tore at his very essence: the only way to rescue Katrina would be to somehow pursue the Ra’zac and leave Palancar Valley, yet he could not abandon Carvahall to the soldiers. Nor could he forget Katrina.
My heart or my home, he thought bitterly. They were worthless without each other. If he killed the soldiers it would only prevent the Ra’zac—and perhaps Katrina—from returning. Anyway, the slaughter would be pointless if reinforcements were nearby, for their arrival would surely signal Carvahall’s demise.
Roran clenched his teeth as a fresh burst of pain emanated from his bound shoulder. He closed his eyes. I hope Sloan gets eaten like Quimby. No fate could be too terrible for that traitor. Roran cursed him with the blackest oaths he knew.
Even if I were free to leave Carvahall, how could I find the Ra’zac? Who would know where they live? Who would dare inform on Galbatorix’s servants? Despair rolled over him as he wrestled with the problem. He imagined himself in one of the great cities of the Empire, searching aimlessly among dirty buildings and hordes of strangers for a hint, a glimpse, a taste of his love.
It was hopeless.
A river of tears followed as he doubled over, groaning from the strength of his agony and fear. He rocked back and forth, blind to anything but the desolation of the world.
An endless amount of time reduced Roran’s sobs to weak gasps of protest. He wiped his eyes and forced himself to take a long, shuddering breath. He winced. His lungs felt like they were filled with shards of glass.
I have to think, he told himself.
He leaned against the wall and—through the sheer strength of his will—began to gradually subdue each of his unruly emotions, wrestling them into submission to the one thing that could save him from insanity: reason. His neck and shoulders trembled from the violence of his efforts.
Once he regained control, Roran carefully arranged his thoughts, like a master craftsman organizing his tools into precise rows. There must be a solution hidden amid my knowledge, if only I’m creative enough.
He could not track the Ra’zac through the air. That much was clear. Someone would have to tell him where to find them, and of all the people he could ask, the Varden probably knew the most. However, they would be just as hard to find as the desecrators, and he could not waste time searching for them. Although… A small voice in his head reminded him of the rumors he had heard from trappers and traders that Surda secretly supported the Varden.
Surda. The country lay at the bottom of the Empire, or so Roran had been told, as he had never seen a map of Alagaësia. Under ideal conditions, it would take several weeks to reach on horse, longer if he had to evade soldiers. Of course, the swiftest mode of transportation would be to sail south along the coast, but that would mean having to travel all the way to the Toark River and then to Teirm to find a ship. It would take far too long. And he still might be apprehended by soldiers.
“If, could, would, might,” he muttered, repeatedly clenching his left hand. North of Teirm, the only port he knew of was Narda, but to reach it, he would have to cross the entire width of the Spine—a feat unheard of, even for the trappers.
Roran swore quietly. The conjecture was pointless. I should be trying to save Carvahall, not desert it. The problem was, he had already determined that the village and all who remained in it were doomed. Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes again. All who remain…
What…what if everyone in Carvahall accompanied me to Narda and then to Surda? He would achieve both his desires simultaneously.
The audacity of the idea stunned him.
It was heresy, blasphemy, to think that he could convince the farmers to abandon their fields and the merchants their shops…and yet…and yet what was the alternative but slavery or death? The Varden were the only group that would harbor fugitives of the Empire, and Roran was sure that the rebels would be delighted to have a village’s worth of recruits, especially ones who had proved themselves in battle. Also, by bringing the villagers to them, he would earn the Varden’s confidence, so that they would trust him with the location of the Ra’zac. Maybe they can explain why Galbatorix is so desperate to capture me.
If the plan were to succeed, though, it would have to be implemented before the new troops reached Carvahall, which left only a few days—if that—to arrange the depa
rture of some three hundred people. The logistics were frightening to consider.
Roran knew that mere reason could not persuade anyone to leave; it would require messianic zeal to stir people’s emotions, to make them feel in the depths of their hearts the need to relinquish the trappings of their identities and lives. Nor would it be enough to simply instill fear—for he knew that fear often made those in peril fight harder. Rather, he had to instill a sense of purpose and destiny, to make the villagers believe, as he did, that joining the Varden and resisting Galbatorix’s tyranny was the noblest action in the world.
It required passion that could not be intimidated by hardship, deterred by suffering, or quenched by death.
In his mind, Roran saw Katrina standing before him, pale and ghostly with solemn amber eyes. He remembered the heat of her skin, the mulled scent of her hair, and what it felt like to be with her under the cover of darkness. Then in a long line behind her appeared his family, friends, and everyone he had known in Carvahall, both dead and alive. If not for Eragon…and me…the Ra’zac would have never come here. I must rescue the village from the Empire as surely as I must rescue Katrina from those desecrators.
Drawing upon the strength of his vision, Roran rose from bed, causing his maimed shoulder to burn and sting. He staggered and leaned against a wall. Will I ever regain the use of my right arm? He waited for the pain to subside. When it did not, he bared his teeth, shoved himself upright, and marched from the room.
Elain was folding towels in the hallway. She cried out with amazement. “Roran! What are you—”