“You painted this…fairth?”
“No, no such thing. A fairth is an image fixed by magic upon a square of polished slate that is prepared beforehand with layers of pigments. The landscape upon that door is exactly how Ilirea presented itself to me at the moment I uttered my spell.”
“And,” said Eragon, unable to stop the flow of questions, “what was the Broddring Kingdom?”
Oromis’s eyes widened with dismay. “You don’t know?” Eragon shook his head. “How can you not? Considering your circumstances and the fear that Galbatorix wields among your people, I might understand that you were raised in darkness, ignorant of your heritage. But I cannot credit Brom with being so lax with your instruction as to neglect subjects that even the youngest elf or dwarf knows. The children of your Varden could tell me more about the past.”
“Brom was more concerned with keeping me alive than teaching me about people who are already dead,” retorted Eragon.
This drew silence from Oromis. Finally, he said, “Forgive me. I did not mean to impugn Brom’s judgment, only I am impatient beyond reason; we have so little time, and each new thing you must learn reduces that which you can master during your tenure here.” He opened a series of cupboards hidden within the curved wall and removed bread rolls and bowls of fruit, which he rowed out on the table. He paused for a moment over the food with his eyes closed before beginning to eat. “The Broddring Kingdom was the human’s country before the Riders fell. After Galbatorix killed Vrael, he flew on Ilirea with the Forsworn and deposed King Angrenost, taking his throne and titles for his own. The Broddring Kingdom then formed the core of Galbatorix’s conquests. He added Vroengard and other lands to the east and south to his holdings, creating the empire you are familiar with. Technically, the Broddring Kingdom still exists, though, at this point, I doubt that it is much more than a name on royal decrees.”
Afraid to pester the elf with further inquiries, Eragon concentrated on his food. His face must have betrayed him, though, because Oromis said, “You remind me of Brom when I chose him as my apprentice. He was younger than you, only ten, but his curiosity was just as great. I doubt I heard aught from him for a year but how, what, when, and, above all else, why. Do not be shy to ask what lies in your heart.”
“I want to know so much,” whispered Eragon. “Who are you? Where do you come from?…Where did Brom come from? What was Morzan like? How, what, when, why? And I want to know everything about Vroengard and the Riders. Maybe then my own path will be clearer.”
Silence fell between them as Oromis meticulously disassembled a blackberry, prying out one plump segment at a time. When the last corpuscle vanished between his port-red lips, he rubbed his hands flat together—“polishing his palms,” as Garrow used to say—and said, “Know this about me, then: I was born some centuries past in our city of Luthivíra, which stood in the woods by Lake Tüdosten. At the age of twenty, like all elf children, I was presented to the eggs that the dragons had given the Riders, and Glaedr hatched for me. We were trained as Riders, and for near a century, we traveled the world over, doing Vrael’s will. Eventually, the day arrived when it was deemed appropriate for us to retire and pass on our experience to the next generation, so we took a position in Ilirea and taught new Riders, one or two at a time, until Galbatorix destroyed us.”
“Brom came from a family of illuminators in Kuasta. His mother was Nelda and his father Holcomb. Kuasta is so isolated by the Spine from the rest of Alagaësia, it has become a peculiar place, full of strange customs and superstitions. When he was still new to Ilirea, Brom would knock on a door frame three times before entering or leaving a room. The human students teased him about it until he abandoned the practice along with some of his other habits.
“Morzan was my greatest failure. Brom idolized him. He never left his side, never contradicted him, and never believed that he could best Morzan in any venture. Morzan, I’m ashamed to admit—for it was within my power to stop—was aware of this and took advantage of Brom’s devotion in a hundred different ways. He grew so proud and cruel that I considered separating him from Brom. But before I could, Morzan helped Galbatorix to steal a dragon hatchling, Shruikan, to replace the one Galbatorix had lost, killing the dragon’s original Rider in the process. Morzan and Galbatorix then fled together, sealing our doom.
“You cannot begin to fathom the effect Morzan’s betrayal had on Brom until you understand the depth of Brom’s affection for him. And when Galbatorix at last revealed himself and the Forsworn killed Brom’s dragon, Brom focused all of his anger and pain on the one who he felt was responsible for the destruction of his world: Morzan.”
Oromis paused, his face grave. “Do you know why losing your dragon, or vice versa, usually kills the survivor?”
“I can imagine,” said Eragon. He quailed at the thought.
“The pain is shock enough—although it isn’t always a factor—but what really causes the damage is feeling part of your mind, part of your identity, die. When it happened to Brom, I fear that he went mad for a time. After I was captured and escaped, I brought him to Ellesméra for safety, but he refused to stay, instead marching with our army to the plains of Ilirea, where King Evandar was slain.
“The confusion then was indescribable. Galbatorix was busy consolidating his power, the dwarves were in retreat, the southwest was a mass of war as the humans rebelled and fought to create Surda, and we had just lost our king. Driven by his desire for vengeance, Brom sought to use the turmoil to his advantage. He gathered together many of those who had been exiled, freed some who had been imprisoned, and with them he formed the Varden. He led them for a few years, then surrendered the position to another so that he was free to pursue his true passion, which was Morzan’s downfall. Brom personally killed three of the Forsworn, including Morzan, and he was responsible for the deaths of five others. He was rarely happy during his life, but he was a good Rider and a good man, and I am honored to have known him.”
“I never heard his name mentioned in connection to the Forsworn’s deaths,” objected Eragon.
“Galbatorix did not want to publicize the fact that any still existed who could defeat his servants. Much of his power resides in the appearance of invulnerability.”
Once again, Eragon was forced to revise his conception of Brom, from the village storyteller that Eragon had first taken him to be, to the warrior and magician he had traveled with, to the Rider he was at last revealed as, and now firebrand, revolutionary leader, and assassin. It was hard to reconcile all of those roles. I feel as if I barely knew him. I wish that we had had a chance to talk about all of this at least once. “He was a good man,” agreed Eragon.
He looked out one of the round windows that faced the edge of the cliff and allowed the afternoon warmth to suffuse the room. He watched Saphira, noting how she acted with Glaedr, seeming both shy and coy. One moment she would twist around to examine some feature of the clearing, the next she would shuffle her wings and make small advances on the larger dragon, weaving her head from side to side, the tip of her tail twitching as if she were about to pounce on a deer. She reminded Eragon of a kitten trying to bait an old tomcat into playing with her, only Glaedr remained impassive throughout her machinations.
Saphira, he said. She responded with a distracted flicker of her thoughts, barely acknowledging him. Saphira, answer me.
I know you’re excited, but don’t make a fool of yourself.
You’ve made a fool of yourself plenty of times, she snapped.
Her reply was so unexpected, it stunned him. It was the sort of casually cruel remark that humans often make, but that he had never thought to hear from her. He finally managed to say, That doesn’t make it any better. She grunted and closed her mind to his, although he could still feel the thread of her emotions connecting them.
Eragon returned to himself to find Oromis’s gray eyes heavy upon him. The elf’s gaze was so perceptive, Eragon was sure that Oromis u
nderstood what had transpired. Eragon forced a smile and motioned toward Saphira. “Even though we’re linked, I can never predict what she’s going to do. The more I learn about her, the more I realize how different we are.”
Then Oromis made his first statement that Eragon thought was truly wise: “Those whom we love are often the most alien to us.” The elf paused. “She is very young, as are you. It took Glaedr and I decades before we fully understood each other. A Rider’s bond with his dragon is like any relationship—that is, a work in progress. Do you trust her?”
“With my life.”
“And does she trust you?”
“Then humor her. You were brought up as an orphan. She was brought up to believe that she was the last sane individual of her entire race. And now she has been proved wrong. Don’t be surprised if it takes some months before she stops pestering Glaedr and returns her attention to you.”
Eragon rolled a blueberry between his thumb and forefinger; his appetite had vanished. “Why don’t elves eat meat?”
“Why should we?” Oromis held up a strawberry and rotated it so that the light reflected off its dimpled skin and illuminated the tiny hairs that bearded the fruit. “Everything that we need or want we sing from the plants, including our food. It would be barbaric to make animals suffer that we might have additional courses on the table…. Our choice will make greater sense to you before long.”
Eragon frowned. He had always eaten meat and did not look forward to living solely on fruit and vegetables while in Ellesméra. “Don’t you miss the taste?”
“You cannot miss that which you have never had.”
“What about Glaedr, though? He can’t live off grass.”
“No, but neither does he needlessly inflict pain. We each do the best we can with what we are given. You cannot help who or what you are born as.”
“And Islanzadí? Her cape was made of swan feathers.”
“Loose feathers gathered over the course of many years. No birds were killed to make her garment.”
They finished the meal, and Eragon helped Oromis to scour the dishes clean with sand. As the elf stacked them in the cupboard, he asked, “Did you bathe this morning?” The question startled Eragon, but he answered that no, he had not. “Please do so tomorrow then, and every day following.”
“Every day! The water’s too cold for that. I’ll catch the ague.”
Oromis eyed him oddly. “Then make it warmer.”
Now it was Eragon’s turn to look askance. “I’m not strong enough to heat an entire stream with magic,” he protested.
The house echoed as Oromis laughed. Outside, Glaedr swung his head toward the window and inspected the elf, then returned to his earlier position. “I assume that you explored your quarters last night.” Eragon nodded. “And you saw a small room with a depression in the floor?”
“I thought that it might be for washing clothes or linens.”
“It is for washing you. Two nozzles are concealed in the side of the wall above the hollow. Open them and you can bathe in water of any temperature. Also,” he gestured at Eragon’s chin, “while you are my student, I expect you to keep yourself clean-shaven until you can grow a full beard—if you so choose—and not look like a tree with half its leaves blown off. Elves do not shave, but I will have a razor and mirror found and sent to you.”
Wincing at the blow to his pride, Eragon agreed. They returned outside, whereupon Oromis looked at Glaedr and the dragon said, We have decided upon a curriculum for Saphira and you.
The elf said, “You will start—”
—an hour after sunrise tomorrow, in the time of the Red Lily. Return here then.
“And bring the saddle that Brom made for you, Saphira,” continued Oromis. “Do what you wish in the meantime; Ellesméra holds many wonders for a foreigner, if you care to see them.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said Eragon, bowing his head. “Before I go, Master, I want to thank you for helping me in Tronjheim after I killed Durza. I doubt that I would have survived without your assistance. I am in your debt.”
We are both in your debt, added Saphira.
Oromis smiled slightly and inclined his head.
THE SECRET LIVES OF ANTS
The moment that Oromis and Glaedr were out of sight, Saphira said, Eragon, another dragon! Can you believe it?
He patted her shoulder. It’s wonderful. High above Du Weldenvarden, the only sign of habitation in the forest was an occasional ghostly plume of smoke that rose from the crown of a tree and soon faded into clear air.
I never expected to encounter another dragon, except for Shruikan. Maybe rescue the eggs from Galbatorix, yes, but that was the extent of my hopes. And now this! She wriggled underneath him with joy. Glaedr is incredible, isn’t he? He’s so old and strong and his scales are so bright. He must be two, no, three times bigger than me. Did you see his claws? They…
She continued on in that manner for several minutes, waxing eloquent about Glaedr’s attributes. But stronger than her words were the emotions Eragon sensed roiling within her: eagerness and enthusiasm, twined over what he could only identify as a longing adoration.
Eragon tried to tell Saphira what he had learned from Oromis—since he knew that she had not paid attention—but he found it impossible to change the subject of conversation. He sat silently on her back, the world an emerald ocean below, and felt himself the loneliest man in existence.
Back at their quarters, Eragon decided against any sightseeing; he was far too tired from the day’s events and the weeks of traveling. And Saphira was more than content to sit on her bed and chatter about Glaedr while he examined the mysteries of the elves’ wash closet.
Morning came, and with it a package wrapped in onionskin paper containing the razor and mirror that Oromis had promised. The blade was of elvish make, so it needed no sharpening or stropping. Grimacing, Eragon first bathed in steaming hot water, then held up the mirror and confronted his visage.
I look older. Older and worn. Not only that, but his features had become far more angled, giving him an ascetic, hawklike appearance. He was no elf, but neither would anyone take him to be a purebred human if they inspected him closely. Pulling back his hair, he bared his ears, which now tapered to slight points, more evidence of how his bond with Saphira had changed him. He touched one ear, letting his fingers wander over the unfamiliar shape.
It was difficult for him to accept the transformation of his flesh. Even though he had known it would occur—and occasionally welcomed the prospect as the last confirmation that he was a Rider—the reality of it filled him with confusion. He resented the fact that he had no say in how his body was being altered, yet at the same time he was curious where the process would take him. Also, he was aware that he was still in the midst of his own, human adolescence, and its attendant realm of mysteries and difficulties.
When will I finally know who and what I am?
He placed the edge of the razor against his cheek, as he had seen Garrow do, and dragged it across his skin. The hairs came free, but they were cut long and ragged. He altered the angle of the blade and tried again with a bit more success.
When he reached his chin, though, the razor slipped in his hand and cut him from the corner of his mouth to the underside of his jaw. He howled and dropped the razor, clapping his hand over the incision, which poured blood down his neck. Spitting the words past bared teeth, he said, “Waíse heill.” The pain quickly receded as magic knitted his flesh back together, though his heart still pounded from the shock.
Eragon! cried Saphira. She forced her head and shoulders into the vestibule and nosed open the door to the closet, flaring her nostrils at the scent of blood.
I’ll live, he assured her.
She eyed the sanguine water. Be more careful. I’d rather you were as ragged as a molting deer than have you decapitate yourself for the sake of a close shave.
So would I. Go on, I’m fine.
Saphira grunted and
Eragon sat, glaring at the razor. Finally, he muttered, “Forget this.” Composing himself, he reviewed his store of words from the ancient language, selected those that he needed, and then allowed his invented spell to roll off his tongue. A faint stream of black powder fell from his face as his stubble crumbled into dust, leaving his cheeks perfectly smooth.
Satisfied, Eragon went and saddled Saphira, who immediately took to the air, aiming their course toward the Crags of Tel’naeír. They landed before the hut and were met by Oromis and Glaedr.
Oromis examined Saphira’s saddle. He traced each strap with his fingers, pausing on the stitching and buckles, and then pronounced it passable handiwork considering how and when it had been constructed. “Brom was always clever with his hands. Use this saddle when you must travel with great speed. But when comfort is allowed—” He stepped into his hut for a moment and reappeared carrying a thick, molded saddle decorated with gilt designs along the seat and leg pieces. “—use this. It was crafted in Vroengard and imbued with many spells so that it will never fail you in time of need.”
Eragon staggered under the weight of the saddle as he received it from Oromis. It had the same general shape as Brom’s, with a row of buckles—intended to immobilize his legs—hanging from each side. The deep seat was sculpted out of the leather in such a way that he could fly for hours with ease, both sitting upright and lying flat against Saphira’s neck. Also, the straps encircling Saphira’s chest were rigged with slips and knots so that they could extend to accommodate years of growth. A series of broad ties on either side of the head of the saddle caught Eragon’s attention. He asked their purpose.
Glaedr rumbled, Those secure your wrists and arms so that you are not killed like a rat shaken to death when Saphira performs a complex maneuver.
Oromis helped Eragon relieve Saphira of her current saddle. “Saphira, you will go with Glaedr today, and I will work with Eragon here.”
As you wish, she said, and crowed with excitement. Heaving his golden bulk off the ground, Glaedr soared off to the north, Saphira close behind.