It was a rhetorical question, yet when Oromis remained silent, his almond eyes fixed on a trio of swallows pirouetting overhead, Eragon realized that the elf was considering how best to answer him. The birds chased each other for several minutes. When they flitted from view, Oromis said, “It is not appropriate to have this discussion at the present.”
“Then you know?” exclaimed Eragon, astonished.
“I do. But that information must wait until later in your training. You are not ready for it.” Oromis looked at Eragon, as if expecting him to object.
Eragon bowed. “As you wish, Master.” He could never prize the information out of Oromis until the elf was willing to share it, so why try? Still, he wondered what could be so dangerous that Oromis dared not tell him, and why the elves had kept it secret from the Varden. Another thought presented itself to him, and he said, “If battles with magicians are conducted like you said, then why did Ajihad let me fight without wards in Farthen Dûr? I didn’t even know that I needed to keep my mind open for enemies. And why didn’t Arya kill most or all of the Urgals? No magicians were there to oppose her except for Durza, and he couldn’t have defended his troops when he was underground.”
“Did not Ajihad have Arya or one of Du Vrangr Gata set defenses around you?” demanded Oromis.
“And you fought thus?”
Oromis’s eyes unfocused, withdrawing into himself as he stood motionless on the greensward. He spoke without warning: “I have consulted Arya, and she says that the Twins of the Varden were ordered to assess your abilities. They told Ajihad you were competent in all magic, including wards. Neither Ajihad nor Arya doubted their judgment on that matter.”
“Those smooth-tongued, bald-pated, tick-infested, treacherous dogs,” swore Eragon. “They tried to get me killed!” Reverting to his own language, he indulged in several more pungent oaths.
“Do not befoul the air,” said Oromis mildly. “It ill becomes you…. In any case, I suspect the Twins allowed you into battle unprotected not so you would be killed, but so that Durza could capture you.”
“By your own account, Ajihad suspected that the Varden had been betrayed when Galbatorix began persecuting their allies in the Empire with near-perfect accuracy. The Twins were privy to the identities of the Varden’s collaborators. Also, the Twins lured you to the heart of Tronjheim, thereby separating you from Saphira and placing you within Durza’s reach. That they were traitors is the logical explanation.”
“If they were traitors,” said Eragon, “it doesn’t matter now; they’re long dead.”
Oromis inclined his head. “Even so. Arya said that the Urgals did have magicians in Farthen Dûr and that she fought many of them. None of them attacked you?”
“More evidence that you and Saphira were left for Durza to capture and take to Galbatorix. The trap was well laid.”
Over the next hour, Oromis taught Eragon twelve methods to kill, none of which took more energy than lifting an ink-laden pen. As he finished memorizing the last one, a thought struck Eragon that caused him to grin. “The Ra’zac won’t stand a chance the next time they cross my path.”
“You must still be wary of them,” cautioned Oromis.
“Why? Three words and they’ll be dead.”
“What do ospreys eat?”
Eragon blinked. “Fish, of course.”
“And if a fish were slightly faster and more intelligent than its brethren, would it be able to escape a hunting osprey?”
“I doubt it,” said Eragon. “At least not for very long.”
“Just as ospreys are designed to be the best possible hunters of fish, wolves are designed to be the best hunters of deer and other large game, and every animal is gifted to best suit its purpose. So too are the Ra’zac designed to prey upon humans. They are the monsters in the dark, the dripping nightmares that haunt your race.”
The back of Eragon’s neck prickled with horror. “What manner of creatures are they?”
“Neither elf; man; dwarf; dragon; furred, finned, or feathered beast; reptile; insect; nor any other category of animal.”
Eragon forced a laugh. “Are they plants, then?”
“Nor that either. They reproduce by laying eggs, like dragons. When they hatch, the young—or pupae—grow black exoskeletons that mimic the human form. It’s a grotesque imitation, but convincing enough to let the Ra’zac approach their victims without undo alarm. All areas where humans are weak, the Ra’zac are strong. They can see on a cloudy night, track a scent like a bloodhound, jump higher, and move faster. However, bright light pains them and they have a morbid fear of deep water, for they cannot swim. Their greatest weapon is their evil breath, which fogs the minds of humans—incapacitating many—though it is less potent on dwarves, and elves are immune altogether.”
Eragon shivered as he remembered his first sight of the Ra’zac in Carvahall and how he had been unable to flee once they noticed him. “It felt like a dream where I wanted to run but I couldn’t move, no matter how hard I tried.”
“As good a description as any,” said Oromis. “Though the Ra’zac cannot use magic, they are not to be underestimated. If they know that you hunt them, they will not reveal themselves but keep to the shadows, where they are strong, and plot to ambush you as they did by Dras-Leona. Even Brom’s experience could not protect him from them. Never grow overconfident, Eragon. Never grow arrogant, for then you will be careless and your enemies will exploit your weakness.”
Oromis fixed Eragon with a steady gaze. “The Ra’zac remain pupae for twenty years while they mature. On the first full moon of their twentieth year, they shed their exoskeletons, spread their wings, and emerge as adults ready to hunt all creatures, not just humans.”
“Then the Ra’zac’s mounts, the ones they fly on, are really…”
“Aye, their parents.”
IMAGE OF PERFECTION
At last I understand the nature of my enemies, thought Eragon. He had feared the Ra’zac ever since they first appeared in Carvahall, not only because of their villainous deeds but because he knew so little about the creatures. In his ignorance, he credited the Ra’zac with more powers than they actually possessed and regarded them with an almost superstitious dread. Nightmares indeed. But now that Oromis’s explanation had stripped away the Ra’zac’s aura of mystery, they no longer seemed quite so formidable. The fact that they were vulnerable to light and water strengthened Eragon’s conviction that when next they met, he would destroy the monsters that had killed Garrow and Brom.
“Are their parents called Ra’zac as well?” he asked.
Oromis shook his head. “Lethrblaka, we named them. And whereas their offspring are narrow-minded, if cunning, Lethrblaka have all the intelligence of a dragon. A cruel, vicious, and twisted dragon.”
“Where do they come from?”
“From whatever land your ancestors abandoned. Their depredations may have been what forced King Palancar to emigrate. When we, the Riders, became aware of the Ra’zac’s foul presence in Alagaësia, we did our best to eradicate them, as we would leaf blight. Unfortunately, we were only partially successful. Two Lethrblaka escaped, and they along with their pupae are the ones who have caused you so much grief. After he killed Vrael, Galbatorix sought them out and bargained for their services in return for his protection and a guaranteed amount of their favorite food. That is why Galbatorix allows them to live by Dras-Leona, one of the Empire’s largest cities.”
Eragon’s jaw tightened. “They have much to answer for.” And they will, if I have my way.
“That they do,” Oromis agreed. Returning to the hut, he stepped through the black shadow of the doorway, then reappeared carrying a half-dozen slate tablets about a half-foot wide and a foot high. He presented one to Eragon. “Let us abandon such unpleasant topics for a time. I thought you might enjoy learning how t
o make a fairth. It is an excellent device for focusing your thoughts. The slate is impregnated with enough ink to cover it with any combination of colors. All you need do is concentrate upon the image that you wish to capture and then say, ‘Let that which I see in my mind’s eye be replicated on the surface of this tablet.’” As Eragon examined the clay-smooth slate, Oromis gestured at the clearing. “Look about you, Eragon, and find something worth preserving.”
The first objects that Eragon noticed seemed too obvious, too banal to him: a yellow lily by his feet, Oromis’s overgrown hut, the white stream, and the landscape itself. None were unique. None would give an observer an insight into the subject of the fairth or he who had created it. Things that change and are lost, that is what’s worth preserving, he thought. His eye alighted upon the pale green nubs of spring growth at the tip of a tree’s branches and then the deep, narrow wound that seamed the trunk where a storm had broken a bough, tearing off a rope of bark with it. Translucent orbs of sap encrusted the seam, catching and refracting the light.
Eragon positioned himself alongside the trunk so that the rotund galls of the tree’s congealed blood bulged out in silhouette and were framed by a cluster of shiny new needles. Then he fixed the scene in his mind as best he could and uttered the spell.
The surface of the gray tablet brightened as splashes of color bloomed across it, blending and mixing to produce the proper array of hues. When the pigments at last stopped moving, Eragon found himself looking at a strange copy of what he had wanted to reproduce. The sap and needles were rendered with vibrant, razor-sharp detail, while all else was slurred and bleary, as if seen through half-opened eyes. It was far removed from the universal clarity of Oromis’s fairth of Ilirea.
At a sign from Oromis, Eragon handed the tablet to him. The elf studied it for a minute, then said, “You have an unusual way of thinking, Eragon-finiarel. Most humans have difficulty achieving the proper concentration to create a recognizable image. You, on the other hand, seem to observe nearly everything about whatever interests you. It’s a narrow focus, though. You have the same problem here that you do with your meditation. You must relax, broaden your field of vision, and allow yourself to absorb everything around you without judging what is important or not.” Setting aside the picture, Oromis took a second, blank tablet from the grass and gave it to Eragon. “Try again with what I—”
Startled, Eragon turned and saw Orik and Arya emerge side by side from the forest. The dwarf raised his arm in greeting. His beard was freshly trimmed and braided, his hair was pulled back into a neat ponytail, and he wore a new tunic—courtesy of the elves—that was red and brown and embroidered with gold thread. His appearance gave no indication of his condition the previous night.
Eragon, Oromis, and Arya exchanged the traditional greeting, then, abandoning the ancient language, Oromis asked, “To what may I attribute this visit? You are both welcome to my hut, but as you can see, I am in the midst of working with Eragon, and that is of paramount importance.”
“I apologize for disturbing you, Oromis-elda,” said Arya, “but—”
“The fault is mine,” said Orik. He glanced at Eragon before continuing: “I was sent here by Hrothgar to ensure that Eragon receives the instruction he is due. I have no doubt that he is, but I am obliged to see his training with my own eyes so that when I return to Tronjheim, I may give my king a true account of events.”
Oromis said, “That which I teach Eragon is not to be shared with anyone else. The secrets of the Riders are for him alone.”
“And I understand that. However, we live in uncertain times; the stone that once was fixed and solid is now unstable. We must adapt to survive. So much depends on Eragon, we dwarves have a right to verify that his training proceeds as promised. Do you believe our request is an unreasonable one?”
“Well spoken, Master Dwarf,” said Oromis. He tapped his fingers together, inscrutable as always. “May I assume, then, that this is a matter of duty for you?”
“Duty and honor.”
“And neither will allow you to yield on this point?”
“I fear not, Oromis-elda,” said Orik.
“Very well. You may stay and watch for the duration of this lesson. Will that satisfy you?”
Orik frowned. “Are you near the end of the lesson?”
“We have just begun.”
“Then yes, I will be satisfied. For the moment, at least.”
While they spoke, Eragon tried to catch Arya’s eye, but she kept her attention centered on Oromis.
He blinked, jolted out of his reverie. “Yes, Master?”
“Don’t wander, Eragon. I want you to make another fairth. Keep your mind open, like I told you before.”
“Yes, Master.” Eragon hefted the tablet, his hands slightly damp at the thought of having Orik and Arya there to judge his performance. He wanted to do well in order to prove that Oromis was a good teacher. Even so, he could not concentrate on the pine needles and sap; Arya tugged at him like a lodestone, drawing his attention back to her whenever he thought of something else.
At last he realized that it was futile for him to resist the attraction. He composed an image of her in his head—which took but a heartbeat, since he knew her features better than his own—and voiced the spell in the ancient language, pouring all of his adoration, love, and fear of her into the currents of fey magic.
The result left him speechless.
The fairth depicted Arya’s head and shoulders against a dark, indistinct background. She was bathed in firelight on her right side and gazed out at the viewer with knowing eyes, appearing not just as she was but as he thought of her: mysterious, exotic, and the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. It was a flawed, imperfect picture, but it possessed such intensity and passion that it evoked a visceral response from Eragon. Is this how I really see her? Whoever this woman was, she was so wise, so powerful, and so hypnotic, she could consume any lesser man.
From a great distance, he heard Saphira whisper, Be careful….
“What have you wrought, Eragon?” demanded Oromis.
“I…I don’t know.” Eragon hesitated as Oromis extended his hand for the fairth, reluctant to let the others examine his work, especially Arya. After a long, terrifying pause, Eragon pried his fingers off the tablet and released it to Oromis.
The elf’s expression grew stern as he looked at the fairth, then back at Eragon, who quailed under the weight of his stare. Without a word, Oromis handed the tablet to Arya.
Her hair obscured her face as she bowed over the tablet, but Eragon saw cords and veins ridge her hands as she clenched the slate. It shook in her grip.
“Well, what is it?” asked Orik.
Raising the fairth over her head, Arya hurled it against the ground, shattering the picture into a thousand pieces. Then she drew herself upright and, with great dignity, walked past Eragon, across the clearing, and into the tangled depths of Du Weldenvarden.
Orik picked up one of the fragments of slate. It was blank. The image had vanished when the tablet broke. He tugged his beard. “In all the decades I’ve known her, Arya has never lost her temper like that. Never. What did you do, Eragon?”
Dazed, Eragon said, “A portrait of her.”
Orik frowned, obviously puzzled. “A portrait? Why would that—”
“I think it would be best if you left now,” said Oromis. “The lesson is over, in any case. Come back tomorrow or the day after if you want a better idea of Eragon’s progress.”
The dwarf squinted at Eragon, then nodded and brushed the dirt from his palms. “Yes, I believe I’ll do that. Thank you for your time, Oromis-elda. I appreciate it.” As he headed back toward Ellesméra, he said over his shoulder to Eragon, “I’ll be in the common room of Tialdarí Hall, if you want to talk.”
When Orik was gone, Oromis lifted the hem of his tunic, knelt, and began to gather up the remains of the tablet. Eragon watched him, unable to mov
“Why?” he asked in the ancient language.
“Perhaps,” said Oromis, “Arya was frightened by you.”
“Frightened? She never gets frightened.” Even as he said it, Eragon knew that it was not true. She just concealed her fear better than most. Dropping to one knee, he took a piece of the fairth and pressed it into Oromis’s palm. “Why would I frighten her?” he asked. “Please, tell me.”
Oromis stood and walked to the edge of the stream, where he scattered the fragments of slate over the bank, letting the gray flakes trickle through his fingers. “Fairths only show what you want them to. It’s possible to lie with them, to create a false image, but to do so requires more skill than you yet have. Arya knows this. She also knows, then, that your fairth was an accurate representation of your feelings for her.”
“But why would that frighten her?”
Oromis smiled sadly. “Because it revealed the depth of your infatuation.” He pressed his fingertips together, forming a series of arches. “Let us analyze the situation, Eragon. While you are old enough to be considered a man among your people, in our eyes, you are no more than a child.” Eragon frowned, hearing echoes of Saphira’s words from the previous night. “Normally, I would not compare a human’s age to an elf’s, but since you share our longevity, you must also be judged by our standards.
“And you are a Rider. We rely upon you to help us defeat Galbatorix; it could be disastrous for everyone in Alagaësia if you are distracted from your studies.
“Now then,” said Oromis, “how should Arya have responded to your fairth? It’s clear that you see her in a romantic light, yet—while I have no doubt Arya is fond of you—a union between the two of you is impossible due to your own youth, culture, race, and responsibilities. Your interest has placed Arya in an uncomfortable position. She dare not confront you, for fear of disrupting your training. But, as the queen’s daughter, she cannot ignore you and risk offending a Rider—especially one upon which so much depends…. Even if you were a fit match, Arya would refrain from encouraging you so that you could devote all of your energy to the task at hand. She would sacrifice her happiness for the greater good.” Oromis’s voice thickened: “You must understand, Eragon, that slaying Galbatorix is more important than any one person. Nothing else matters.” He paused, his gaze gentle, then added, “Given the circumstances, is it so strange Arya was frightened that your feelings for her could endanger everything we have worked for?”