“Blast it,” he growled.
The study was a whirlwind of paper and quills, darting about as if they had a mind of their own. He dove into the flurry with his arms wrapped around his head. It felt like he was being pelted with stones when the tips of the quills struck him.
Eragon struggled to close the upper portal without Saphira’s help. The moment he did, pain—endless, mind-numbing pain—ripped open his back.
He screamed once and went hoarse from the strength of his cry. His vision flashed with red and yellow, then faded to black as he toppled to his side. Below, he heard Saphira howl with frustration; the staircase was too small and, outside, the wind was too ferocious for her to reach him. His connection with her receded. He surrendered to the waiting darkness as a release from his agony.
A sour taste filled Eragon’s mouth when he woke. He did not know how long he had been lying on the floor, but the muscles in his arms and legs were knotted from being curled into a tight ball. The storm still assailed the tree, accompanied by a thudding rain that matched the pounding in his head.
I’m here. Can you come down?
He was too weak to stand on the pitching floor, so he crawled to the stairs and slid down one at a time, wincing with each impact. Halfway down, he encountered Saphira, who had jammed her head and neck as far up the stairs as she could, gouging the wood in her frenzy.
Little one. She flicked out her tongue and caught him on the hand with its rough tip. He smiled. Then she arched her neck and tried to pull back, but to no avail.
You’re… He could not help it; he laughed even though it hurt. The situation was too absurd.
She snarled and heaved her entire body, shaking the tree with her efforts and knocking him over. Then she collapsed, panting. Well, don’t just sit there grinning like an idiot fox. Help me!
Fighting the urge to giggle, he put his foot on her nose and pushed as hard as he dared while Saphira twisted and squirmed in an attempt to free herself.
It took more than ten minutes before she succeeded. Only then did Eragon see the full extent of the damage to the stairwell. He groaned. Her scales had cut through the bark and obliterated the delicate patterns grown out from the wood.
Oops, said Saphira.
At least you did it, not me. The elves might forgive you. They’d sing dwarf love ballads night and day if you asked them to.
He joined Saphira on her dais and huddled against the flat scales of her belly, listening as the storm roared about them. The wide membrane became translucent whenever lightning pulsed in jagged shards of light.
What time do you think it is?
Several hours before we must meet Oromis. Go on, sleep and recover. I will keep guard.
He did just that, despite the tree’s churning.
WHY DO YOU FIGHT?
Oromis’s timepiece buzzed like a giant hornet, blaring in Eragon’s ears until he retrieved the bauble and wound the mechanism.
His bashed knee had turned purple, he was sore both from his attack and the elves’ Dance of Snake and Crane, and he could do no more than croak with his ragged throat. The worst injury, though, was his sense of foreboding that this would not be the last time Durza’s wound would trouble him. The prospect sickened him, draining his strength and will.
So many weeks passed between attacks, he said, I began to hope that maybe, just maybe, I was healed…. I suppose sheer luck is the only reason I was spared that long.
Extending her neck, Saphira nuzzled him on the arm. You know you aren’t alone, little one. I’ll do everything I can to help. He responded with a weak smile. Then she licked his face and added, You should get ready to leave.
I know. He stared at the floor, unwilling to move, then dragged himself to the wash closet, where he scrubbed himself clean and used magic to shave.
He was in the middle of drying himself when he felt a presence touch his mind. Without pausing to think, Eragon began to fortify his mind, concentrating on an image of his big toe to the exclusion of all else. Then he heard Oromis say, Admirable, but unnecessary. Bring Zar’roc with you today. The presence vanished.
Eragon released a shaky breath. I need to be more alert, he told Saphira. I would have been at his mercy if he were an enemy.
Not with me around.
When his ablutions were complete, Eragon unhooked the membrane from the wall and mounted Saphira, cradling Zar’roc in the crook of his arm.
Saphira took flight with a rush of air, angling toward the Crags of Tel’naeír. From their high vantage point, they could see the damage that the storm had wreaked on Du Weldenvarden. No trees had fallen in Ellesméra, but farther away, where the elves’ magic was weaker, numerous pines had been knocked over. The remaining wind made the crossed branches and trees rub together, producing a brittle chorus of creaks and groans. Clouds of golden pollen, as thick as dust, streamed out from the trees and flowers.
While they flew, Eragon and Saphira exchanged memories of their separate lessons from the day before. He told her what he had learned about ants and the ancient language, and she told him about downdrafts and other dangerous weather patterns and how to avoid them.
Thus, when they landed and Oromis interrogated Eragon about Saphira’s lessons and Glaedr interrogated Saphira about Eragon’s, they were able to answer every question.
“Very good, Eragon-vodhr.”
Aye. Well played, Bjartskular, added Glaedr to Saphira.
As before, Saphira was sent off with Glaedr while Eragon remained on the cliffs, although this time he and Saphira were careful to maintain their link so as to absorb each other’s instruction.
As the dragons departed, Oromis observed, “Your voice is rougher today, Eragon. Are you sick?”
“My back hurt again this morning.”
“Ah. You have my sympathy.” He motioned with one finger. “Wait here.”
Eragon watched as Oromis strode into his hut and then reappeared, looking fierce and warlike with his silver mane rippling in the wind and his bronze sword in hand. “Today,” he said, “we shall forgo the Rimgar and instead cross our two blades, Naegling and Zar’roc. Draw thy sword and guard its edge as your first master taught you.”
Eragon wanted nothing more than to refuse. However, he had no intention of breaking his vow or letting his resolve waver in front of Oromis. He swallowed his trepidation. This is what it means to be a Rider, he thought.
Drawing upon his reserves, he located the nub deep within his mind that connected him to the wild flow of magic. He delved into it, and the energy suffused him. “Gëuloth du knífr,” he said, and a winking blue star popped into existence between his thumb and forefinger, jumping from one to the next as he ran it down Zar’roc’s perilous length.
The instant their swords met, Eragon knew that he was as outmatched by Oromis as by Durza and Arya. Eragon was an exemplary human swordsman, but he could not compete with warriors whose blood ran thick with magic. His arm was too weak and his reflexes too slow. Still, that did not stop him from trying to win. He fought to the limits of his abilities, even if, in the end, it was a futile prospect.
Oromis tested him in every conceivable manner, forcing Eragon to utilize his entire arsenal of blows, counterblows, and underhand tricks. It was all for naught. He could not touch the elf. As a last resort, he tried altering his style of fighting, which could unsettle even the most hardened veteran. All it got him was a welt on his thigh.
“Move your feet faster,” cried Oromis. “He who stands like a pillar dies in battle. He who bends like a reed is triumphant!”
The elf was glorious in action, a perfect blend of control and untamed violence. He pounced like a cat, struck like a heron, and bobbed and wove with the grace of a weasel.
They had been sparring for almost twenty minutes when Oromis faltered, his narrow features clamped in a brief grimace. Eragon recognized the symptoms of Oromis’s mysterious illness and las
hed out with Zar’roc. It was a low thing to do, but Eragon was so frustrated, he was willing to take advantage of any opening, no matter how unfair, just to have the satisfaction of marking Oromis at least once.
Zar’roc never reached its target. As Eragon twisted, he over-extended and strained his back.
The pain was upon him without warning.
The last thing he heard was Saphira shouting, Eragon!
Despite the intensity of the fit, Eragon remained conscious throughout his ordeal. Not that he was aware of his surroundings, only the fire that burned in his flesh and prolonged each second into an eternity. The worst part was that he could do nothing to end his suffering but wait…
Eragon lay panting in the cold mud. He blinked as his vision came into focus and he saw Oromis sitting on a stool next to him. Pushing himself onto his knees, Eragon surveyed his new tunic with a mixture of regret and disgust. The fine russet cloth was caked with dirt from his convulsions on the ground. Muck filled his hair as well.
He could sense Saphira in his mind, radiating concern as she waited for him to notice her. How can you continue like this? she fretted. It’ll destroy you.
Her misgivings undermined Eragon’s remaining fortitude. Saphira had never before expressed doubt that he would prevail, not at Dras-Leona, Gil’ead, or Farthen Dûr, nor with any of the dangers they had encountered. Her confidence had given him courage. Without it he was truly afraid.
You should concentrate on your lesson, he said.
I should concentrate on you.
Leave me alone! He snapped at her like a wounded animal that wants to nurse its injuries in silence and in dark. She fell silent, leaving just enough of their connection intact so that he was vaguely aware of Glaedr teaching her about fireweed, which she could chew to help her digestion.
Eragon combed the mud from his hair with his fingers, then spat out a globule of blood. “Bit my tongue.”
Oromis nodded as if it were to be expected. “Do you require healing?”
“Very well. Tend to your sword, then bathe and go to the stump in the glade and listen to the thoughts of the forest. Listen, and when you hear no more, come tell me what you have learned.”
As he sat on the stump, Eragon found that his turbulent thoughts and emotions prevented him from mustering the concentration to open his mind and sense the creatures in the hollow. Nor was he interested in doing so.
Still, the peaceful quality of his surroundings gradually ameliorated his resentment, confusion, and stubborn anger. It did not make him happy, but it did bring him a certain fatalistic acceptance. This is my lot in life, and I’d better get used to it because it’s not about to improve in the foreseeable future.
After a quarter of an hour, his faculties had regained their usual acuity, so he resumed studying the colony of red ants that he had discovered the day before. He also tried to be aware of everything else that was happening in the glade, as Oromis had instructed.
Eragon met with limited success. If he relaxed and allowed himself to absorb input from all the consciousnesses nearby, thousands of images and feelings rushed into his head, piling on top of one another in quick flashes of sound and color, touch and smell, pain and pleasure. The amount of information was overwhelming. Out of pure habit, his mind would snatch one subject or another from the torrent, excluding all the rest before he noticed his lapse and wrenched himself back into a state of passive receptivity. The cycle repeated itself every few seconds.
Despite that, he was able to improve his understanding of the ants’ world. He got his first clue as to their genders when he deduced that the huge ant in the heart of their underground lair was laying eggs, one every minute or so, which made it—her—a female. And when he accompanied a group of the red ants up the stem of their rosebush, he got a vivid demonstration of the kind of enemies they faced: some thing darted out from underneath a leaf and killed one of the ants he was bound to. It was hard for him to guess exactly what the creature was, since the ants only saw fragments of it and, in any case, they placed more emphasis on smell than vision. If they had been people, he would have said that they were attacked by a terrifying monster the size of a dragon, which had jaws as powerful as the spiked portcullis at Teirm and could move with whiplash speed.
The ants ringed in the monster like grooms working to capture a runaway horse. They darted at it with a total lack of fear, nipping at its knobbed legs and withdrawing an instant before they were caught in the monster’s iron pincers. More and more ants joined the throng. They worked together to overpower the intruder, never faltering, even when two were caught and killed and when several of their brethren fell off the stem to the ground below.
It was a desperate battle, with neither side willing to give quarter. Only escape or victory would save the combatants from a horrible death. Eragon followed the fray with breathless anticipation, awed by the ants’ bravery and how they continued to fight in spite of injuries that would incapacitate a human. Their feats were heroic enough to be sung about by bards throughout the land.
Eragon was so engrossed by the contest that when the ants finally prevailed, he loosed an elated cry so loud, it roused the birds from their roosts among the trees.
Out of curiosity, he returned his attention to his own body, then walked to the rosebush to view the dead monster for himself. What he saw was an ordinary brown spider with its legs curled into a fist being transported by the ants down to their nest for food.
He started to leave, but then realized that once again he had neglected to keep watch over the myriad other insects and animals in the glade. He closed his eyes and whirled through the minds of several dozen beings, doing his best to memorize as many interesting details as he could. It was a poor substitute for prolonged observation, but he was hungry and he had already exhausted his assigned hour.
When Eragon rejoined Oromis in his hut, the elf asked, “How went it?”
“Master, I could listen night and day for the next twenty years and still not know everything that goes on in the forest.”
Oromis raised an eyebrow. “You have made progress.” After Eragon described what he had witnessed, Oromis said, “But still not enough, I fear. You must work harder, Eragon. I know you can. You are intelligent and persistent, and you have the potential to be a great Rider. As difficult as it is, you have to learn to put aside your troubles and concentrate entirely on the task at hand. Find peace within yourself and let your actions flow from there.”
“I’m doing my best.”
“No, this isn’t your best. We shall recognize your best when it appears.” He paused thoughtfully. “Perhaps it would help if you had a fellow student to compete with. Then we might see your best…. I will think on the matter.”
From his cupboards, Oromis produced a loaf of freshly baked bread, a wood jar of hazelnut butter—which the elves used in place of actual butter—and a pair of bowls that he ladled full of a vegetable stew that had been simmering in a pot hung over a bed of coals in the corner fireplace.
Eragon looked at the stew with distaste; he was sick of the elves’ fare. He longed for meat, fish, or fowl, something hearty that he could sink his teeth into, not this endless parade of plants. “Master,” he asked to distract himself, “why do you have me meditate? Is it so that I will understand the doings of the animals and insects, or is there more to it than that?”
“Can you think of no other motive?” Oromis sighed when Eragon shook his head. “Always it is thus with my new students, and especially with the human ones; the mind is the last muscle they train or use, and the one that they regard the least. Ask them about swordplay and they can list every blow from a duel a month old, but ask them to solve a problem or make a coherent statement and…well, I would be lucky to get more than a blank stare in return. You are still new to the world of gramarye—as magic is properly called—but you must begin to consider its full
“Imagine for a moment that you are Galbatorix, with all of his vast resources at your command. The Varden have destroyed your Urgal army with the help of a rival Dragon Rider, who you know was educated—at least in part—by one of your most dangerous and implacable foes, Brom. You are also aware that your enemies are massing in Surda for a possible invasion. Given that, what would be the easiest way to deal with these various threats, short of flying into battle yourself?”
Eragon stirred his stew to cool it while he examined the issue. “It seems to me,” he said slowly, “that the easiest thing would be to train a corps of magicians—they wouldn’t even have to be that powerful—force them to swear loyalty to me in the ancient language, then have them infiltrate Surda to sabotage the Varden’s efforts, poison wells, and assassinate Nasuada, King Orrin, and other key members of the resistance.”
“And why hasn’t Galbatorix done this yet?”
“Because until now, Surda was of negligible interest to him, and because the Varden have dwelled in Farthen Dûr for decades, where they were able to examine every newcomer’s mind for duplicity, which they can’t do in Surda since its border and population are so large.”
“Those are my very conclusions,” said Oromis. “Unless Galbatorix forsakes his lair in Urû’baen, the greatest danger you’re likely to encounter during the Varden’s campaign will come from fellow magicians. You know as well as I how difficult it is to guard against magic, especially if your opponent has sworn in the ancient language to kill you, no matter the cost. Instead of attempting to first conquer your mind, such a foe will simply cast a spell to obliterate you, even though—in the instant before you are destroyed—you will still be free to retaliate. However, you cannot fell your murderer if you don’t know who or where he is.”
“So sometimes you don’t have to bother taking control of your opponent’s mind?”
“Sometimes, but it’s a risk to avoid.” Oromis paused to consume a few spoonfuls of stew. “Now, to address the heart of this issue, how do you defend yourself against anonymous enemies who can contravene any physical precautions and slay with a muttered word?”