Clovis waved a hand. “Once or twice. What of it?”
“You see it now on the beach. Galbatorix’s soldiers attacked us without provocation. We fought back and, when our position became untenable, we crossed the Spine and followed the coast to Narda. Galbatorix has promised that every man, woman, and child from Carvahall will be killed or enslaved. Reaching Surda is our only hope of survival.” Roran left out mention of the Ra’zac; he did not want to frighten Clovis too badly.
The weathered seaman had gone gray. “Are you still pursued?”
“Aye, but the Empire has yet to discover us.”
“An’ are you why the alarm was sounded?”
Very softly, Roran said, “I killed two soldiers who recognized me.” The revelation startled Clovis: his eyes widened, he stepped back, and the muscles in his forearms rippled as he clenched his fists. “Make your choice, Clovis; the shore draws near.”
He knew he had won when the captain’s shoulders drooped and the bravado faded from his bearing. “Ah, the plague take you, Stronghammer. I’m no friend of the king; I’ll get you to Teirm. But then I want nothing more to do with you.”
“Will you give me your word that you won’t attempt to slip away in the night or any similar deception?”
“Aye. You have it.”
Sand and rocks grated across the bottom of the Red Boar’s hull as the barge drove itself up onto the beach, followed on either side by its two companions. The relentless, rhythmic surge of water dashing itself against the land sounded like the breathing of a gigantic monster. Once the sails were furled and the gangplanks extended, Torson and Flint both strode over to the Red Boar and accosted Clovis, demanding to know what was going on.
“There’s been a change of plans,” said Clovis.
Roran left him to explain the situation—skirting the exact reasons why the villagers left Palancar Valley—and jumped onto the sand, whereupon he set out to find Horst among the milling knots of people. When he spotted the smith, Roran pulled him aside and told him about the deaths in Narda. “If it’s discovered that I left with Clovis, they may send soldiers on horses after us. We have to get everyone onto the barges as fast as possible.”
Horst met his eye for a long minute. “You’ve become a hard man, Roran, harder than I’ll ever be.”
“I’ve had to.”
“Mind that you don’t forget who you are.”
Roran spent the next three hours moving and packing the villagers’ belongings in the Red Boar until Clovis expressed his satisfaction. The bundles had to be secured so that they would not shift unexpectedly and injure someone, as well as distributed so that the barge rode level in the water, which was no easy task as the bundles were of irregular size and density. Then the animals were coaxed on board—much to their displeasure—and immobilized by tethers lashed to iron rings in the hold.
Last of all came the people, who, like the rest of the cargo, had to be organized into a symmetrical pattern within the barge to keep it from capsizing. Clovis, Torson, and Flint each ended up standing at the fore of their barges, shouting directions to the mass of villagers below.
What now? thought Roran as he heard an argument break out on the beach. Pushing his way to the source of the disturbance, he saw Calitha kneeling beside her stepfather, Wayland, trying to calm the old man.
“No! I won’t go on that beast! You can’t make me,” cried Wayland. He thrashed his withered arms and beat his heels in an attempt to free himself from Calitha’s embrace. Spittle flew from his lips. “Let me go, I say. Let me go!”
Wincing from his blows, Calitha said, “He’s been unreasonable ever since we made camp last night.”
It would have been better for all concerned if he had died in the Spine, what with the trouble he’s caused, thought Roran. He joined Calitha, and together they managed to soothe Wayland so that he no longer screamed and hit. As a reward for his good behavior, Calitha gave him a piece of jerky, which occupied his entire attention. While Wayland concentrated on gumming the meat, she and Roran were able to guide him onto the Edeline and get him settled in a deserted corner where he would not be a nuisance.
“Move your backsides, you lubbers,” shouted Clovis. “The tide’s about to turn. Hop to, hop to.”
After a final flurry of activity, the gangplanks were withdrawn, leaving a cluster of twenty men standing on the beach before each barge. The three groups gathered around the prows and prepared to push them back into the water.
Roran led the effort on the Red Boar. Chanting in unison, he and his men strained against the weight of the huge barge, the gray sand giving beneath their feet, the timbers and cables creaking, and the smell of sweat in the air. For a moment, their efforts seemed to be in vain, then the Red Boar lurched and slid back a foot.
“Again!” shouted Roran. Foot by foot, they advanced into the sea, until the frigid water surged about their waists. A breaker crashed over Roran, filling his mouth with seawater, which he spat out vigorously, disgusted by the taste of salt; it was far more intense than he expected.
When the barge lifted free of the seabed, Roran swam alongside the Red Boar and pulled himself up with one of the ropes draped over the gunwale. Meanwhile, the sailors deployed long poles that they used to propel the Red Boar into ever deeper water, as did the crews of the Merrybell and Edeline.
The instant they were a reasonable distance from shore, Clovis ordered the poles stowed away and oars broken out, with which the sailors aimed the Red Boar’s prow toward the cove’s entrance. They hoisted the sail, aligned it to catch the light wind, and, at the vanguard of the trio of barges, set forth for Teirm upon the uncertain expanse of the bounding main.
THE BEGINNING OF WISDOM
The days Eragon spent in Ellesméra blended together without distinction; time seemed to have no hold in the pinewood city. The season aged not, even as the afternoons and evenings lengthened, barring the forest with rich shadows. Flowers of all months bloomed at the urging of the elves’ magic, nourished by the enchantments spun through the air.
Eragon came to love Ellesméra with its beauty and its quiet, the graceful buildings that flowed out of the trees, the haunting songs that echoed at twilight, the works of art hidden within the mysterious dwellings, and the introspection of the elves themselves, which they mixed with outbursts of merriment.
The wild animals of Du Weldenvarden had no fear of hunters. Often Eragon would look from his eyrie to see an elf petting a stag or a gray fox or murmuring to a shy bear that trundled along the edge of a clearing, reluctant to expose himself. Some animals had no recognizable form. They appeared at night, moving and grunting in the bushes and fleeing if Eragon dared approach. Once he glimpsed a creature like a furred snake and once a white-robed woman whose body wavered and disappeared to reveal a grinning she-wolf in her place.
Eragon and Saphira continued to explore Ellesméra when they had the chance. They went alone or with Orik, for Arya no longer accompanied them, nor had Eragon spoken to her since she broke his fairth. He saw her now and then, flitting between the trees, but whenever he approached—intending to apologize—she withdrew, leaving him alone among the ancient pines. At last Eragon realized that he had to take the initiative if he were to ever have a chance of mending his relationship with her. So one evening, he picked a bouquet from the flowers along the path by his tree and hobbled to Tialdarí Hall, where he asked directions to Arya’s quarters from an elf in the common room.
The screen door was open when he reached her chambers. No one answered when he knocked. He stepped inside, listening for approaching footsteps as he glanced around the spacious vine-covered living room, which opened to a small bedroom on one side and a study on the other. Two fairths decorated the walls: a portrait of a stern, proud elf with silver hair, who Eragon guessed was King Evandar, and that of a younger male elf whom he did not recognize.
Eragon wandered through the apartment, looking but not touching, savoring his glimpse into Arya’s life, gleaning what he could about h
er interests and hobbies. By her bed, he saw a glass sphere with a preserved blossom of the black morning glory embedded within it; on her desk, neat rows of scrolls with titles like Osilon: Harvest Report and Activity Noted by Gil’ead Watchtower; on the sill of an open bay window, three miniature trees grown in the shape of glyphs from the ancient language, the glyphs for peace, strength, and wisdom; and by the trees, a scrap of paper with an unfinished poem, covered with crossed-out words and scribbled marks. It read:
Under the moon, the bright white moon,
Lies a pool, a flat silver pool,
Among the brakes and brambles,
And black-heart pines.
Falls a stone, a living stone,
Cracks the moon, the bright white moon,
Among the brakes and brambles,
And black-heart pines.
Shards of light, swords of light,
Ripple ’cross the pool,
The quiet mere, the still tarn,
The lonely lake there.
In the night, the dark and heavy night,
Flutter shadows, confused shadows,
Going to the small table by the entrance, Eragon laid his bouquet upon it and turned to leave. He froze as he saw Arya standing in the doorway. She looked startled by his presence, then concealed her emotions behind an impassive expression.
They stared at each other in silence.
He lifted the bouquet, half offering it to her. “I don’t know how to make a blossom for you, like Fäolin did, but these are honest flowers and the best I could find.”
“I cannot accept them, Eragon.”
“They’re not…they’re not that sort of gift.” He paused. “It’s no excuse, but I didn’t realize beforehand that my fairth would put you in such a difficult situation. For that, I’m sorry, and I cry your pardon…. I was just trying to make a fairth, not cause trouble. I understand the importance of my studies, Arya, and you needn’t fear I will neglect them in order to moon after you.” He swayed and leaned against the wall, too dizzy to remain on his feet without support. “That’s all.”
She regarded him for a long moment, then slowly reached out and took the bouquet, which she held beneath her nose. Her eyes never left his. “They are honest flowers,” she conceded. Her gaze flickered down to his feet and back up again. “Have you been ill?”
“No. My back.”
“I had heard, but I did not think…”
He pushed himself away from the wall. “I should go.”
“Wait.” Arya hesitated, then guided him to the bay window, where he sat on the padded bench that curved from the wall. Removing two goblets from a cupboard, Arya crumbled dried nettle leaves into them, then filled the goblets with water and—saying “Boil”—heated the water for tea.
She gave a goblet to Eragon, who held it with both hands so the warmth seeped into him. He glanced out the window to the ground twenty feet below, where elves walked among the royal gardens, talking and singing, and fireflies floated through the dusky air.
“I wish…,” said Eragon, “I wish it could always be like this. It’s so perfect and quiet.”
Arya stirred her tea. “How fares Saphira?”
“The same. And you?”
“I have been preparing to return to the Varden.”
Alarm shot through him. “When?”
“After the Blood-oath Celebration. I have tarried here far too long as it is, but I have been loath to leave and Islanzadí wished me to stay. Also…I have never attended a Blood-oath Celebration and it is the most important of our observances.” She considered him over the rim of her goblet. “Is there nothing Oromis can do for you?”
Eragon forced a weary shrug. “He tried everything he knows.”
They sipped their tea and watched the groups and couples meander along the garden paths. “Your studies go well, though?” she asked.
“They do.” In the lull that followed, Eragon picked up the scrap of paper from between the trees and examined her stanzas, as if reading them for the first time. “Do you often write poetry?”
Arya extended her hand for the paper and, when he gave it to her, rolled it into a tube so that the words were no longer visible. “It is custom that everyone who attends the Blood-oath Celebration should bring a poem, a song, or some other piece of art that they have made and share it with those assembled. I have but begun to work on mine.”
“I think it’s quite good.”
“If you had read much poetry—”
Arya paused, then dipped her head and said, “Forgive me. You are not the person I first met in Gil’ead.”
“No. I…” He stopped and twisted the goblet between his hands while he searched for the right words. “Arya…you’ll be leaving soon enough. I would count it a shame if this is the last I see of you between now and then. Could we not meet occasionally, as we did before, and you could show Saphira and me more of Ellesméra?”
“It would not be wise,” she said in a gentle but firm voice.
He looked up at her. “Must the price of my indiscretion be our friendship? I cannot help how I feel toward you, but I would rather suffer another wound from Durza than allow my foolishness to destroy the companionship that existed between us. I value it too highly.”
Lifting her goblet, Arya finished the last of her tea before responding. “Our friendship shall endure, Eragon. As for us spending time together…” Her lips curved with a hint of a smile. “Perhaps. However, we shall have to wait and see what the future brings, for I am busy and can promise nothing.”
He knew her words were the closest thing to a conciliation he was likely to receive, and he was grateful for them. “Of course, Arya Svit-kona,” he said, and bowed his head.
They exchanged a few more pleasantries, but it was clear that Arya had gone as far as she was willing to go that day, so Eragon returned to Saphira, his hope restored by what he had accomplished. Now it’s up to fate to decide the outcome, he thought as he settled before Oromis’s latest scroll.
Reaching into the pouch at his belt, Eragon withdrew a soapstone container of nalgask—beeswax melted with hazelnut oil—and smeared it over his lips to protect them against the cold wind that scoured his face. He closed the pouch, then wrapped his arms around Saphira’s neck and buried his face in the crook of his elbow to reduce the glare from the wimpled clouds beneath them. The tireless beat of Saphira’s wings dominated his hearing, higher and faster than that of Glaedr’s, whom she followed.
They flew southwest from dawn until early afternoon, often pausing for enthusiastic sparring bouts between Saphira and Glaedr, during which Eragon had to strap his arms onto the saddle to prevent himself from being thrown off by the stomach-turning acrobatics. He then would free himself by pulling on slipknots with his teeth.
The trip ended at a cluster of four mountains that towered over the forest, the first mountains Eragon had seen in Du Weldenvarden. White-capped and windswept, they pierced the veil of clouds and bared their crevassed brows to the beating sun, which was heatless at such altitude.
They look so small compared to the Beors, said Saphira.
As had become his habit during weeks of meditation, Eragon extended his mind in every direction, touching upon the consciousnesses around him in search of any who might mean him harm. He felt a marmot warm in her burrow, ravens, nuthatches, and hawks, numerous squirrels running among the trees, and, farther down the mountain, rock snakes undulating through the brush in search of the mice that were their prey, as well as the hordes of ubiquitous insects.
When Glaedr descended to a bare ridge on the first mountain, Saphira had to wait until he folded his massive wings before there was enough room for her to land. The field of boulder-strewn talus they alighted upon was brilliant yellow from a coating of hard, crenulated lichen. Above them loomed a sheer black cliff. It acted as buttress and dam for a cornice of blue ice that groaned and split under the wind, loosing jagged slabs that shattered on the
This peak is known as Fionula, said Glaedr. And her brothers are Ethrundr, Merogoven, and Griminsmal. Each has its own tale, which I shall recount on the flight back. But for now, I shall address the purpose of this trip, namely the nature of the bond forged between dragons and elves and, later, humans. You both know something of it—and I have hinted at its full implications to Saphira—but the time has come to learn the solemn and profound meaning of your partnership so that you may uphold it when Oromis and I are no more.
“Master?” asked Eragon, wrapping his cloak around himself to stay warm.
“Why is Oromis not here with us?”
Because, rumbled Glaedr, it is my duty—as was always the duty of an elder dragon in centuries past—to ensure that the newest generation of Riders understands the true importance of the station they have assumed. And because Oromis is not as well as he appears.
The rocks cracked with muffled reports as Glaedr coiled up, nestling himself among the scree and placing his majestic head upon the ground lengthwise to Eragon and Saphira. He examined them with one gold eye as large as a polished roundshield and twice as brilliant. A gray smudge of smoke drifted from his nostrils and was blown to tatters by the wind. Parts of what I am about to reveal were common knowledge among the elves, Riders, and learned humans, but much of it was known only to the leader of the Riders, a mere handful of elves, the humans’ current potentate, and, of course, the dragons.
Listen now, my hatchlings. When peace was made between dragons and elves at the end of our war, the Riders were created to ensure that such conflict would never again arise between our two races. Queen Tarmunora of the elves and the dragon who had been selected to represent us, whose name—he paused and conveyed a series of impressions to Eragon: long tooth, white tooth, chipped tooth; fights won, fights lost; countless eaten Shrrg and Nagra; seven-and-twenty eggs sired and nineteen offspring grown to maturity—cannot be expressed in any language, decided that a common treaty would not suffice. Signed paper means nothing to a dragon. Our blood runs hot and thick and, given enough time, it was inevitable that we would clash with the elves again, as we had with the dwarves over the millennia. But unlike with the dwarves, neither we nor the elves could afford another war. We were both too powerful, and we would have destroyed each other. The one way to prevent that and to forge a meaningful accord was to link our two races with magic.