And again: thump.
On the third thump, the musicians struck their drums in rhythm. A thump later, the harpists plucked the strings of their gilt instruments, and a moment after that, those elves with flutes joined the throbbing melody.
Slowly at first, but with gathering speed, Iduna and Nëya began to dance, marking time with the stamp of their feet on the dirt and undulating so that it was not they who seemed to move but the dragon upon them. Round and round they went, and the dragon flew endless circles across their skin.
Then the twins added their voices to the music, building upon the pounding beat with their fierce cries, their lyrics verses of a spell so complex that its meaning escaped Eragon. Like the rising wind that precedes a storm, the elves accompanied the incantation, singing with one tongue and one mind and one intent. Eragon did not know the words but found himself mouthing them along with the elves, swept along by the inexorable cadence. He heard Saphira and Glaedr hum in concordance, a deep pulse so strong that it vibrated within his bones and made his skin tingle and the air shimmer.
Faster and faster spun Iduna and Nëya until their feet were a dusty blur and their hair fanned about them and they glistened with a film of sweat. The elf-maids accelerated to an inhuman speed and the music climaxed in a frenzy of chanted phrases. Then a flare of light ran the length of the dragon tattoo, from head to tail, and the dragon stirred. At first Eragon thought his eyes had deceived him, until the creature blinked, raised his wings, and clenched his talons.
A burst of flame erupted from the dragon’s maw and he lunged forward and pulled himself free of the elves’ skin, climbing into the air, where he hovered, flapping his wings. The tip of his tail remained connected to the twins below, like a glowing umbilical cord. The giant beast strained toward the black moon and loosed an untamed roar of ages past, then turned and surveyed the assembled elves.
As the dragon’s baleful eye fell upon him, Eragon knew that the creature was no mere apparition but a conscious being bound and sustained by magic. Saphira and Glaedr’s humming grew ever louder until it blocked all other sound from Eragon’s ears. Above, the specter of their race looped down over the elves, brushing them with an insubstantial wing. It came to a stop before Eragon, engulfing him in an endless, whirling gaze. Bidden by some instinct, Eragon raised his right hand, his palm tingling.
In his mind echoed a voice of fire: Our gift so you may do what you must.
The dragon bent his neck and, with his snout, touched the heart of Eragon’s gedwëy ignasia. A spark jumped between them, and Eragon went rigid as incandescent heat poured through his body, consuming his insides. His vision flashed red and black, and the scar on his back burned as if branded. Fleeing to safety, he fell deep within himself, where darkness grasped him and he had not the strength to resist it.
Last, he again heard the voice of fire say, Our gift to you.
INA STARRY GLADE
Eragon was alone when he woke.
He opened his eyes to stare at the carved ceiling in the tree house he and Saphira shared. Outside, night still reigned and the sounds of the elves’ revels drifted from the glittering city below.
Before he noticed more than that, Saphira leaped into his mind, radiating concern and anxiety. An image passed to him of her standing beside Islanzadí at the Menoa tree, then she asked, How are you?
I feel…good. Better than I’ve felt in a long time. How long have I—
Only an hour. I would have stayed with you, but they needed Oromis, Glaedr, and me to complete the ceremony. You should have seen the elves’ reaction when you fainted. Nothing like this has occurred before.
Did you cause this, Saphira?
It was not my work alone, nor Glaedr’s. The memories of our race, which were given form and substance by the elves’ magic, anointed you with what skill we dragons possess, for you are our best hope to avoid extinction.
I don’t understand.
Look in a mirror, she suggested. Then rest and recover and I shall rejoin you at dawn.
She left, and Eragon got to his feet and stretched, amazed by the sense of well-being that pervaded him. Going to the wash closet, he retrieved the mirror he used for shaving and brought it into the light of a nearby lantern.
Eragon froze with surprise.
It was as if the numerous physical changes that, over time, alter the appearance of a human Rider—and which Eragon had already begun to experience since bonding with Saphira—had been completed while he was unconscious. His face was now as smooth and angled as an elf’s, with ears tapered like theirs and eyes slanted like theirs, and his skin was as pale as alabaster and seemed to emit a faint glow, as if with the sheen of magic. I look like a princeling. Eragon had never before applied the term to a man, least of all himself, but the only word that described him now was beautiful. Yet he was not entirely an elf. His jaw was stronger, his brow thicker, his face broader. He was fairer than any human and more rugged than any elf.
With trembling fingers, Eragon reached around the nape of his neck in search of his scar.
He felt nothing.
Eragon tore off his tunic and twisted in front of the mirror to examine his back. It was as smooth as it had been before the battle of Farthen Dûr. Tears sprang to Eragon’s eyes as he slid his hand over the place where Durza had maimed him. He knew that his back would never trouble him again.
Not only was the savage blight he had elected to keep gone, but every other scar and blemish had vanished from his body, leaving him as unmarked as a newborn babe. Eragon traced a line upon his wrist where he had cut himself while sharpening Garrow’s scythe. No evidence of the wound remained. The blotchy scars on the insides of his thighs, remnants from his first flight with Saphira, had also disappeared. For a moment, he missed them as a record of his life, but his regret was short-lived as he realized that the damage from every injury he had ever suffered, no matter how small, had been repaired.
I have become what I was meant to be, he thought, and took a deep breath of the intoxicating air.
He dropped the mirror on the bed and garbed himself in his finest clothes: a crimson tunic stitched with gold thread; a belt studded with white jade; warm, felted leggings; a pair of the cloth boots favored by the elves; and upon his forearms, leather vam-braces the dwarves had given him.
Descending from the tree, Eragon wandered the shadows of Ellesméra and observed the elves carousing in the fever of the night. None of them recognized him, though they greeted him as one of their own and invited him to share in their saturnalias.
Eragon floated in a state of heightened awareness, his senses thrumming with the multitude of new sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that assailed him. He could see in darkness that would have blinded him before. He could touch a leaf and, by touch alone, count the individual hairs that grew upon it. He could identify the odors wafting about him as well as a wolf or a dragon. And he could hear the patter of mice in the underbrush and the noise a flake of bark makes as it falls to earth; the beating of his heart was as a drum to him.
His aimless path led him past the Menoa tree, where he paused to watch Saphira among the festivities, though he did not reveal himself to those in the glade.
Where go you, little one? she asked.
He saw Arya rise from her mother’s side, make her way through the gathered elves, and then, like a forest sprite, glide underneath the trees beyond. I walk between the candle and the dark, he replied, and followed Arya.
Eragon tracked Arya by her delicate scent of crushed pine needles, by the feathery touch of her foot upon the ground, and by the disturbance of her wake in the air. He found her standing alone on the edge of a clearing, poised like a wild creature as she watched the constellations turn in the sky above.
As Eragon emerged in the open, Arya looked at him, and he felt as if she saw him for the first time. Her eyes widened, and she whispered, “Is that you, Eragon?”
“What have they done to you?”
?I know not.”
He went to her, and together they wandered the dense woods, which echoed with fragments of music and voices from the festivities. Changed as he was, Eragon was acutely conscious of Arya’s presence, of the whisper of her clothes over her skin, of the soft, pale exposure of her neck, and of her eyelashes, which were coated with a layer of oil that made them glisten and curl like black petals wet with rain.
They stopped on the bank of a narrow stream so clear, it was invisible in the faint light. The only thing that betrayed its presence was the throaty gurgle of water pouring over rocks. Around them, the thick pines formed a cave with their branches, hiding Eragon and Arya from the world and muffling the cool, still air. The hollow seemed ageless, as if it were removed from the world and protected by some magic against the withering breath of time.
In that secret place, Eragon felt suddenly close to Arya, and all his passion for her sprang to the fore of his mind. He was so intoxicated with the strength and vitality coursing through his veins—as well as the untamed magic that filled the forest—he ignored caution and said, “How tall the trees, how bright the stars…and how beautiful you are, O Arya Svit-kona.” Under normal circumstances, he would have considered his deed the height of folly, but in that fey, madcap night, it seemed perfectly sane.
She stiffened. “Eragon…”
He ignored her warning. “Arya, I’ll do anything to win your hand. I would follow you to the ends of the earth. I would build a palace for you with nothing but my bare hands. I would—”
“Will you stop pursuing me? Can you promise me that?” When he hesitated, she stepped closer and said, low and gentle, “Eragon, this cannot be. You are young and I am old, and that shall never change.”
“Do you feel nothing for me?”
“My feelings for you,” she said, “are those of a friend and nothing more. I am grateful to you for rescuing me from Gil’ead, and I find your company pleasant. That is all…. Relinquish this quest of yours—it will only bring you heartache—and find someone your own age to spend the long years with.”
His eyes brimmed with tears. “How can you be so cruel?”
“I am not cruel, but kind. You and I are not meant for each other.”
In desperation, he suggested, “You could give me your memories, and then I would have the same amount of experience and knowledge as you.”
“It would be an abomination.” Arya lifted her chin, her face grave and solemn and brushed with silver from the glimmering stars. A hint of steel entered her voice: “Hear me well, Eragon. This cannot, nor ever shall be. And until you master yourself, our friendship must cease to exist, for your emotions do nothing but distract us from our duty.” She bowed to him. “Goodbye, Eragon Shadeslayer.” Then she strode past and vanished into Du Weldenvarden.
Now the tears spilled down Eragon’s cheeks and dropped to the moss below, where they lay unabsorbed, like pearls strewn across a blanket of emerald velvet. Numb, Eragon sat upon a rotting log and buried his face in his hands, weeping that his affection for Arya was doomed to remain unrequited, and weeping that he had driven her further away.
Within moments, Saphira joined him. Oh, little one. She nuzzled him. Why did you have to inflict this upon yourself? You knew what would happen if you tried to woo Arya again.
I couldn’t stop myself. He wrapped his arms around his belly and rocked back and forth on the log, reduced to hiccuping sobs by the strength of his misery. Putting one warm wing over him, Saphira drew him close to her side, like a mother falcon with her offspring. He curled up against her and remained huddled there as night passed into day and the Agaetí Blödhren came to an end.
Roran stood upon the poop deck of the Red Boar, his arms crossed over his chest and his feet planted wide apart to steady himself on the rolling barge. The salty wind ruffled his hair and tugged at his thick beard and tickled the hairs on his bare forearms.
Beside him, Clovis manned the tiller. The weathered sailor pointed toward the coastline at a seagull-covered rock silhouetted on the crest of a rolling hill that extended into the ocean. “Teirm be right on the far side of that peak.”
Roran squinted into the afternoon sun, which reflected off the ocean in a blindingly bright band. “We’ll stop here for now, then.”
“You don’t want to go on into the city yet?”
“Not all of us at once. Call over Torson and Flint and have them run the barges up on that shore. It looks like a good place to camp.”
Clovis grimaced. “Arrgh. I was hoping t’ get a hot meal tonight.” Roran understood; the fresh food from Narda had long since been eaten, leaving them with naught but salt pork, salted herring, salted cabbage, sea biscuits the villagers had made from their purchased flour, pickled vegetables, and the occasional fresh meat when the villagers slaughtered one of their few remaining animals or managed to catch game when they landed.
Clovis’s rough voice echoed over the water as he shouted to the skippers of the other two barges. When they drew near, he ordered them to pull ashore, much to their vociferous displeasure. They and the other sailors had counted on reaching Teirm that day and lavishing their pay on the city’s delights.
After the barges were beached, Roran walked among the villagers and helped them by pitching tents here and there, unloading equipment, fetching water from a nearby stream, and otherwise lending his assistance until everyone was settled. He paused to give Morn and Tara a word of encouragement, for they appeared despondent, and received a guarded response in turn. The tavern owner and his wife had been aloof to him ever since they left Palancar Valley. On the whole, the villagers were in better condition than when they arrived at Narda due to the rest they had garnered on the barges, but constant worry and exposure to the harsh elements had prevented them from recuperating as well as Roran hoped.
“Stronghammer, will you sup at our tent tonight?” asked Thane, coming up to Roran.
Roran declined with as much grace as he could and turned to find himself confronted by Felda, whose husband, Byrd, had been murdered by Sloan. She bobbed a quick curtsy, then said, “May I speak with you, Roran Garrowsson?”
He smiled at her. “Always, Felda. You know that.”
“Thank you.” With a furtive expression, she fingered the tassels that edged her shawl and glanced toward her tent. “I would ask a favor of you. It’s about Mandel—” Roran nodded; he had chosen her eldest son to accompany him into Narda on that fateful trip when he killed the two guards. Mandel had performed admirably then, as well as in the weeks since while he crewed the Edeline and learned what he could about piloting the barges. “He’s become quite friendly with the sailors on our barge and he’s started playing dice with those lawless men. Not for money—we have none—but for small things. Things we need.”
“Have you asked him to stop?”
Felda twisted the tassels. “I fear that, since his father died, he no longer respects me as he once did. He has grown wild and willful.”
We have all grown wild, thought Roran. “And what would you have me do about it?” he asked gently.
“You have ever dealt generously with Mandel. He admires you. If you talk with him, he will listen.”
Roran considered the request, then said, “Very well, I will do what I can.” Felda sagged with relief. “Tell me, though, what has he lost at dice?”
“Food mostly.” Felda hesitated and then added, “But I know he once risked my grandmother’s bracelet for a rabbit those men snared.”
Roran frowned. “Put your heart at ease, Felda. I will tend to the matter as soon as I can.”
“Thank you.” Felda curtsied again, then slipped away between the makeshift tents, leaving Roran to mull over what she had said.
Roran absently scratched his beard as he walked. The problem with Mandel and the sailors was a problem that cut both ways; Roran had noticed that during the trip from Narda, one of Torson’s men, Frewin, had become close to Odele—a young friend of Katrina. They could cause trouble
when we leave Clovis.
Taking care not to attract undue attention, Roran went through the camp and gathered the villagers he trusted the most and had them accompany him to Horst’s tent, where he said, “The five we agreed upon will leave now, before it gets much later. Horst will take my place while I’m gone. Remember that your most important task is to ensure Clovis doesn’t leave with the barges or damage them in any way. They may be our only means to reach Surda.”
“That, and make sure we aren’t discovered,” commented Orval.
“Exactly. If none of us have returned by nightfall day after tomorrow, assume we were captured. Take the barges and set sail for Surda, but don’t stop in Kuasta to buy provisions; the Empire will probably be lying in wait there. You’ll have to find food elsewhere.”
While his companions readied themselves, Roran went to Clovis’s cabin on the Red Boar. “Just the five of you be going?” demanded Clovis after Roran explained their plan.
“That’s right.” Roran let his iron gaze bore into Clovis until the man fidgeted with unease. “And when I get back, I expect you, these barges, and every one of your men to still be here.”
“You dare impugn my honor after how I’ve kept our bargain?”
“I impugn nothing, only tell you what I expect. Too much is at stake. If you commit treachery now, you condemn our entire village to death.”
“That I know,” muttered Clovis, avoiding his eyes.
“My people will defend themselves during my absence. So long as breath remains in their lungs, they’ll not be taken, tricked, or abandoned. And if misfortune were to befall them, I’d avenge them even if I had to walk a thousand leagues and fight Galbatorix himself. Heed my words, Master Clovis, for I speak the truth.”
“We’re not so fond of the Empire as you seem to believe,” protested Clovis. “I wouldn’t do them a favor more than the next man.”