The implications staggered Eragon. He thought back to when he almost drowned under the waterfall of the lake Kóstha-mérna and how he had been unable to access magic because of the water surrounding him. If I had known this then, I could have saved myself, he thought. “Master,” he said, “if sound does not affect magic, why, then, do thoughts?”
Now Oromis smiled. “Why indeed? I must point out that we ourselves are not the source of magic. Magic can exist on its own, independent of any spell, such as the werelights in the bogs by Aroughs, the dream well in Mani’s Caves in the Beor Mountains, and the floating crystal on Eoam. Wild magic such as this is treacherous, unpredictable, and often stronger than any we can cast.
“Eons ago, all magic was thus. To use it required nothing but the ability to sense magic with your mind—which every magician must possess—and the desire and strength to use it. Without the structure of the ancient language, magicians could not govern their talent and, as a result, loosed many evils upon the land, killing thousands. Over time they discovered that stating their intentions in their language helped them to order their thoughts and avoid costly errors. But it was no foolproof method. Eventually, an accident occurred so horrific that it almost destroyed every living being in the world. We know of the event from fragments of manuscripts that survived the era, but who or what cast the fatal spell is hidden from us. The manuscripts say that, afterward, a race called the Grey Folk—not elves, for we were young then—gathered their resources and wrought an enchantment, perhaps the greatest that was or ever shall be. Together the Grey Folk changed the nature of magic itself. They made it so that their language, the ancient language, could control what a spell does…could actually limit the magic so that if you said burn that door and by chance looked at me and thought of me, the magic would still burn the door, not me. And they gave the ancient language its two unique traits, the ability to prevent those who speak it from lying and the ability to describe the true nature of things. How they did this remains a mystery.
“The manuscripts differ on what happened to the Grey Folk when they completed their work, but it seems that the enchantment drained them of their power and left them but a shadow of themselves. They faded away, choosing to live in their cities until the stones crumbled to dust or to take mates among the younger races and so pass into darkness.”
“Then,” said Eragon, “it is still possible to use magic without the ancient language?”
“How do you think Saphira breathes fire? And, by your own account, she used no word when she turned Brom’s tomb to diamond nor when she blessed the child in Farthen Dûr. Dragons’ minds are different from ours; they need no protection from magic. They cannot use it consciously, aside from their fire, but when the gift touches them, their strength is unparalleled…. You look troubled, Eragon. Why?”
Eragon stared down at his hands. “What does this mean for me, Master?”
“It means that you will continue to study the ancient language, for you can accomplish much with it that would be too complex or too dangerous otherwise. It means that if you are captured and gagged, you can still call upon magic to free yourself, as Vanir did. It means that if you are captured and drugged and cannot recall the ancient language, yes, even then, you may cast a spell, though only in the gravest circumstances. And it means that if you would cast a spell for that which has no name in the ancient language, you can.” He paused. “But beware the temptation to use these powers. Even the wisest among us hesitate to trifle with them for fear of death or worse.”
The next morning, and every morning thereafter so long as he stayed in Ellesméra, Eragon dueled with Vanir, but he never lost his temper again, no matter what the elf did or said.
Nor did Eragon feel like devoting energy to their rivalry. His back pained him more and more frequently, driving him to the limits of his endurance. The debilitating attacks sensitized him; actions that previously had caused him no trouble could now leave him writhing on the ground. Even the Rimgar began to trigger the seizures as he advanced to more strenuous poses. It was not uncommon for him to suffer three or four such episodes in one day.
Eragon’s face grew haggard. He walked with a shuffle, his movements slow and careful as he tried to preserve his strength. It became hard for him to think clearly or to pay attention to Oromis’s lessons, and gaps began to appear in his memory that he could not account for. In his spare time, he took up Orik’s puzzle ring again, preferring to concentrate upon the baffling interlocked rings rather than his condition. When she was with him, Saphira insisted that he ride upon her back and did everything that she could to make him comfortable and to save him effort.
One morning, as he clung to a spike on her neck, Eragon said, I have a new name for pain.
The Obliterator. Because when you’re in pain, nothing else can exist. Not thought. Not emotion. Only the drive to escape the pain. When it’s strong enough, the Obliterator strips us of everything that makes us who we are, until we’re reduced to creatures less than animals, creatures with a single desire and goal: escape.
A good name, then.
I’m falling apart, Saphira, like an old horse that’s plowed too many fields. Keep hold of me with your mind, or I may drift apart and forget who I am.
I will never let go of you.
Soon afterward, Eragon fell victim to three bouts of agony while fighting Vanir and then two more during the Rimgar. As he uncurled from the clenched ball he had rolled into, Oromis said, “Again, Eragon. You must perfect your balance.”
Eragon shook his head and growled in an undertone, “No.” He crossed his arms to hide his tremors.
“Get up, Eragon, and try again.”
“No! Do the pose yourself; I won’t.”
Oromis knelt beside Eragon and placed a cool hand on his cheek. Holding it there, he gazed at Eragon with such kindness, Eragon understood the depth of the elf’s compassion for him, and that, if it were possible, Oromis would willingly assume Eragon’s pain to relieve his suffering. “Don’t abandon hope,” said Oromis. “Never that.” A measure of strength seemed to flow from him to Eragon. “We are the Riders. We stand between the light and the dark, and keep the balance between the two. Ignorance, fear, hate: these are our enemies. Deny them with all your might, Eragon, or we will surely fail.” He stood and extended a hand toward Eragon. “Now rise, Shadeslayer, and prove you can conquer the instincts of your flesh!”
Eragon took a deep breath and pushed himself upright on one arm, wincing from the effort. He got his feet underneath himself, paused for a moment, then straightened to his full height and looked Oromis in the eye.
The elf nodded with approval.
Eragon remained silent until they finished the Rimgar and went to bathe in the stream, whereupon he said, “Master.”
“Why must I endure this torture? You could use magic to give me the skills I need, to shape my body as you do the trees and plants.”
“I could, but if I did, you would not understand how you got the body you had, your own abilities, nor how to maintain them. No shortcuts exist for the path you walk, Eragon.”
Cold water rushed over the length of Eragon’s body as he lowered himself into the stream. He ducked his head under the surface, holding a rock so that he would not float away, and lay stretched out along the streambed, feeling like an arrow flying through the water.
Roran leaned on one knee and scratched his new beard as he looked down at Narda.
The small town was dark and compact, like a crust of rye bread tamped into a crevasse along the coast. Beyond it, the wine-red sea glimmered with the last rays of the dying sunset. The water fascinated him; it was utterly different from the landscape he was accustomed to.
We made it.
Leaving the promontory, Roran walked back to his makeshift tent, enjoying deep breaths of the salty air. They had camped high in the foo
thills of the Spine in order to avoid detection by anyone who might alert the Empire as to their whereabouts.
As he strode among the clumps of villagers huddled beneath the trees, Roran surveyed their condition with sorrow and anger. The trek from Palancar Valley had left people sick, battered, and exhausted; their faces gaunt from lack of food; their clothes tattered. Most everyone wore rags tied around their hands to ward off frostbite during the frigid mountain nights. Weeks of carrying heavy packs had bowed once-proud shoulders. The worst sight was the children: thin and unnaturally still.
They deserve better, thought Roran. I’d be in the clutches of the Ra’zac right now if they hadn’t protected me.
Numerous people approached Roran, most of whom wanted nothing more than a touch on the shoulder or a word of comfort. Some offered him bits of food, which he refused or, when they insisted, gave to someone else. Those who remained at a distance watched with round, pale eyes. He knew what they said about him, that he was mad, that spirits possessed him, that not even the Ra’zac could defeat him in battle.
Crossing the Spine had been even harder than Roran expected. The only paths in the forest were game trails, which were too narrow, steep, and meandering for their group. As a result, the villagers were often forced to chop their way through the trees and underbrush, a painstaking task that everyone despised, not least because it made it easy for the Empire to track them. The one advantage to the situation was that the exercise restored Roran’s injured shoulder to its previous level of strength, although he still had trouble lifting his arm at certain angles.
Other hardships took their toll. A sudden storm trapped them on a bare pass high above the timberline. Three people froze in the snow: Hida, Brenna, and Nesbit, all of whom were quite old. That night was the first time Roran was convinced that the entire village would die because they had followed him. Soon after, a boy broke his arm in a fall, and then Southwell drowned in a glacier stream. Wolves and bears preyed upon their livestock on a regular basis, ignoring the watchfires that the villagers lit once they were concealed from Palancar Valley and Galbatorix’s hated soldiers. Hunger clung to them like a relentless parasite, gnawing at their bellies, devouring their strength, and sapping their will to continue.
And yet they survived, displaying the same obstinacy and fortitude that kept their ancestors in Palancar Valley despite famine, war, and pestilence. The people of Carvahall might take an age and a half to reach a decision, but once they did, nothing could deter them from their course.
Now that they had reached Narda, a sense of hope and accomplishment permeated the camp. No one knew what would happen next, but the fact that they had gotten so far gave them confidence.
We won’t be safe until we leave the Empire, thought Roran. And it’s up to me to ensure that we aren’t caught. I’ve become responsible for everyone here…. A responsibility that he had embraced wholeheartedly because it allowed him to both protect the villagers from Galbatorix and pursue his goal of rescuing Katrina. It’s been so long since she was captured. How can she still be alive? He shuddered and pushed the thoughts away. True madness awaited him if he allowed himself to brood over Katrina’s fate.
At dawn Roran, Horst, Baldor, Loring’s three sons, and Gertrude set out for Narda. They descended from the foothills to the town’s main road, careful to stay hidden until they emerged onto the lane. Here in the lowlands, the air seemed thick to Roran; it felt as if he were trying to breathe underwater.
Roran gripped the hammer at his belt as they approached Narda’s gate. Two soldiers guarded the opening. They examined Roran’s group with hard eyes, lingering on their ragged clothes, then lowered their poleaxes and barred the entrance.
“Where’d you be from?” asked the man on the right. He could not have been older than twenty-five, but his hair was already pure white.
Swelling his chest, Horst crossed his arms and said, “Roundabouts Teirm, if it please you.”
“What brings you here?”
“Trade. We were sent by shopkeepers who want to buy goods directly from Narda, instead of through the usual merchants.”
“That so, eh? What goods?”
When Horst faltered, Gertrude said, “Herbs and medicine on my part. The plants I’ve received from here have either been too old or moldy and spoiled. I have to procure a fresh supply.”
“And my brothers and I,” said Darmmen, “came to bargain with your cobblers. Shoes made in the northern style are fashionable in Dras-Leona and Urû’baen.” He grimaced. “At least they were when we set out.”
Horst nodded with renewed confidence. “Aye. And I’m here to collect a shipment of ironwork for my master.”
“So you say. What about that one? What does he do?” asked the soldier, motioning toward Roran with his ax.
“Pottery,” said Roran.
“Why the hammer, then?”
“How do you think the glaze on a bottle or jar gets cracked? It doesn’t happen by itself, you know. You have to hit it.” Roran returned the white-haired man’s stare of disbelief with a blank expression, daring him to challenge the statement.
The soldier grunted and ran his gaze over them again. “Be as that may, you don’t look like tradesmen to me. Starved alley cats is more like it.”
“We had difficulty on the road,” said Gertrude.
“That I’d believe. If you came from Teirm, where be your horses?”
“We left them at our camp,” supplied Hamund. He pointed south, opposite where the rest of the villagers were actually hidden.
“Don’t have the coin to stay in town, eh?” With a scornful chuckle, the soldier raised his ax and gestured for his companion to do likewise. “All right, you can pass, but don’t cause trouble or you’ll be off to the stocks or worse.”
Once through the gate, Horst pulled Roran to the side of the street and growled in his ear, “That was a fool thing to do, making up something as ridiculous as that. Cracking the glaze! Do you want a fight? We can’t—” He stopped as Gertrude plucked at his sleeve.
“Look,” murmured the healer.
To the left of the entrance stood a six-foot-wide message board with a narrow shingle roof to protect the yellowing parchment underneath. Half the board was devoted to official notices and proclamations. On the other half hung a block of posters displaying sketches of various criminals. Foremost among them was a drawing of Roran without a beard.
Startled, Roran glanced around to make sure that no one in the street was close enough to compare his face to the illustration, then devoted his attention to the poster. He had expected the Empire to pursue them, but it was still a shock to encounter proof of it. Galbatorix must be expending an enormous amount of resources trying to catch us. When they were in the Spine, it was easy to forget that the outside world existed. I bet posters of me are nailed up throughout the Empire. He grinned, glad that he had stopped shaving and that he and the others had agreed to use false names while in Narda.
A reward was inked at the bottom of the poster. Garrow never taught Roran and Eragon to read, but he did teach them their figures because, as he said, “You have to know how much you own, what it’s worth, and what you’re paid for it so you don’t get rooked by some two-faced knave.” Thus, Roran could see that the Empire had offered ten thousand crowns for him, enough to live in comfort for several decades. In a perverse way, the size of the reward pleased him, giving him a sense of importance.
Then his gaze drifted to the next poster in line.
It was Eragon.
Roran’s gut clenched as if he had been struck, and for a few seconds he forgot to breathe.
After his initial relief subsided, Roran felt his old anger about Eragon’s role in Garrow’s death and the destruction of their farm take its place, accompanied by a burning desire to know why the Empire was hunting Eragon. It must have something to do with that blue stone and the Ra’zac’s first visit to Carvaha
ll. Once again, Roran wondered what kind of fiendish machinations he and the rest of Carvahall had become entangled in.
Instead of a reward, Eragon’s poster bore two lines of runes. “What crime is he accused of?” Roran asked Gertrude.
The skin around Gertrude’s eyes wrinkled as she squinted at the board. “Treason, the both of you. It says Galbatorix will bestow an earldom on whoever captures Eragon, but that those who try should take care because he’s extremely dangerous.”
Roran blinked with astonishment. Eragon? It seemed inconceivable until Roran considered how he himself had changed in the past few weeks. The same blood runs in our veins. Who knows, Eragon may have accomplished as much or more than I have since he left.
In a low voice, Baldor said, “If killing Galbatorix’s men and defying the Ra’zac only earns you ten thousand crowns—large as that is—what makes you worth an earldom?”
“Buggering the king himself,” suggested Larne.
“That’s enough of that,” said Horst. “Guard your tongue better, Baldor, or we’ll end up in irons. And, Roran, don’t draw attention to yourself again. With a reward like that, people are bound to be watching strangers for anyone who matches your description.” Running a hand through his hair, Horst pulled up his belt and said, “Right. We all have jobs to do. Return here at noon to report on your progress.”
With that their party split into three. Darmmen, Larne, and Hamund set out together to purchase food for the villagers, both to meet present needs and to sustain them through the next stage of their journey. Gertrude—as she had told the guard—went to replenish her stock of herbs, unguents, and tinctures. And Roran, Horst, and Baldor headed down the sloping streets to the docks, where they hoped to charter a ship that could transport the villagers to Surda or, at the very least, Teirm.
When they reached the weathered boardwalk that covered the beach, Roran halted and stared out at the ocean, which was gray from low clouds and dotted with whitecaps from erratic wind. He had never imagined that the horizon could be so perfectly flat. The hollow boom of water knocking against the piles beneath his feet made it feel as if he stood upon the surface of a huge drum. The odor of fish—fresh, gutted, and rotting—overwhelmed every other smell.