Oromis was sitting upon Glaedr’s right forearm when they landed in the clearing. The dragon’s scales gilded the landscape with countless chips of golden light. Neither elf nor dragon stirred. Descending from Saphira’s back, Eragon bowed. “Master Glaedr. Master Oromis.”
Glaedr said, You have taken it upon yourself to return to the Varden, have you not?
We have, replied Saphira.
Eragon’s sense of betrayal overcame his self-restraint. “Why did you hide the truth from us? Are you so determined to keep us here that you must resort to such underhand trickery? The Varden are about to be attacked and you didn’t even mention it!”
Calm as ever, Oromis asked, “Do you wish to hear why?”
Very much, Master, said Saphira before Eragon could respond. In private, she scolded him, growling, Be polite!
“We withheld the tidings for two reasons. Chief among them was that we ourselves did not know until nine days past that the Varden were threatened, and the true size, location, and movements of the Empire’s troops remained concealed from us until three days after that, when Lord Däthedr pierced the spells Galbatorix used to deceive our scrying.”
“That still doesn’t explain why you said nothing of this.” Eragon scowled. “Not only that, but once you discovered that the Varden were in danger, why didn’t Islanzadí rouse the elves to fight? Are we not allies?”
“She has roused the elves, Eragon. The forest echoes with the ring of hammers, the tramp of armored boots, and the grief of those who are about to be parted. For the first time in a century, our race is set to emerge from Du Weldenvarden and challenge our greatest foe. The time has come for elves to once more walk openly in Alagaësia.” Gently, Oromis added, “You have been distracted of late, Eragon, and I understand why. Now you must look beyond yourself. The world demands your attention.”
Shamefaced, all Eragon could say was, “I am sorry, Master.” He remembered Blagden’s words and allowed himself a bitter smile. “I’m as blind as a bat.”
“Hardly, Eragon. You have done well, considering the enormous responsibilities we have asked you to shoulder.” Oromis looked at him gravely. “We expect to receive a missive from Nasuada in the next few days, requesting assistance from Islanzadí and that you rejoin the Varden. I intended to inform you of the Varden’s predicament then, when you would still have enough time to reach Surda before swords are drawn. If I told you earlier, you would have been honor-bound to abandon your training and rush to the defense of your liegelord. That is why I and Islanzadí held our tongues.”
“My training won’t matter if the Varden are destroyed.”
“No. But you may be the only person who can prevent them from being destroyed, for a chance exists—slim but terrible—that Galbatorix will be present at this battle. It is far too late for our warriors to assist the Varden, which means that if Galbatorix is indeed there, you shall confront him alone, without the protection of our spellweavers. Under those circumstances, it seemed vital that your training continue for as long as possible.”
In an instant, Eragon’s anger melted away and was replaced with a cold, hard, and brutally practical mind-set as he understood the necessity for Oromis’s silence. Personal feelings were irrelevant in a situation as dire as theirs. With a flat voice, he said, “You were right. My oath of fealty compels me to ensure the safety of Nasuada and the Varden. However, I’m not ready to confront Galbatorix. Not yet, at least.”
“My suggestion,” said Oromis, “is that if Galbatorix reveals himself, do everything you can to distract him from the Varden until the battle is decided for good or for ill and avoid directly fighting him. Before you go, I ask but one thing: that you and Saphira vow that—once events permit—you will return here to complete your training, for you still have much to learn.”
We shall return, pledged Saphira, binding herself in the ancient language.
“We shall return,” repeated Eragon, and sealed their fate.
Appearing satisfied, Oromis reached behind himself and produced an embroidered red pouch that he tugged open. “In anticipation of your departure, I gathered together three gifts for you, Eragon.” From the pouch, he withdrew a silver bottle. “First, some faelnirv I augmented with my own enchantments. This potion can sustain you when all else fails, and you may find its properties useful in other circumstances as well. Drink it sparingly, for I only had time to prepare a few mouthfuls.”
He handed the bottle to Eragon, then removed a long black-and-blue sword belt from the pouch. The belt felt unusually thick and heavy to Eragon when he ran it through his hands. It was made of cloth threads woven together in an interlocking pattern that depicted a coiling Lianí Vine. At Oromis’s instruction, Eragon pulled at a tassel at the end of the belt and gasped as a strip in its center slid back to expose twelve diamonds, each an inch across. Four diamonds were white, four were black, and the remainder were red, blue, yellow, and brown. They glittered cold and brilliant, like ice in the dawn, casting a rainbow of multicolored specks onto Eragon’s hands.
“Master…” Eragon shook his head, at a loss for words for several breaths. “Is it safe to give this to me?”
“Guard it well so that none are tempted to steal it. This is the belt of Beloth the Wise—who you read of in your history of the Year of Darkness—and is one of the great treasures of the Riders. These are the most perfect gems the Riders could find. Some we traded for with the dwarves. Others we won in battle or mined ourselves. The stones have no magic of their own, but you may use them as repositories for your power and draw upon that reserve when in need. This, in addition to the ruby set in Zar’roc’s pommel, will allow you to amass a store of energy so that you do not become unduly exhausted casting spells in battle, or even when confronting enemy magicians.”
Last, Oromis brought out a thin scroll protected inside a wooden tube that was decorated with a bas-relief sculpture of the Menoa tree. Unfurling the scroll, Eragon saw the poem he had recited at the Agaetí Blödhren. It was lettered in Oromis’s finest calligraphy and illustrated with the elf’s detailed ink paintings. Plants and animals twined together inside the outline of the first glyph of each quatrain, while delicate scrollwork traced the columns of words and framed the images.
“I thought,” said Oromis, “that you would appreciate a copy for yourself.”
Eragon stood with twelve priceless diamonds in one hand and Oromis’s scroll in the other, and he knew that it was the scroll he deemed the most precious. Eragon bowed and, reduced to the simplest language by the depth of his gratitude, said, “Thank you, Master.”
Then Oromis surprised Eragon by initiating the elves’ traditional greeting and thereby indicating his respect for Eragon: “May good fortune rule over you.”
“May the stars watch over you.”
“And may peace live in your heart,” finished the silver-haired elf. He repeated the exchange with Saphira. “Now go and fly as fast as the north wind, knowing that you—Saphira Brightscales and Eragon Shadeslayer—carry the blessing of Oromis, last scion of House Thrándurin, he who is both the Mourning Sage and the Cripple Who Is Whole.”
And mine as well, added Glaedr. Extending his neck, he touched the tip of his nose to Saphira’s, his gold eyes glittering like swirling pools of embers. Remember to keep your heart safe, Saphira. She hummed in response.
They parted with solemn farewells. Saphira soared over the tangled forest and Oromis and Glaedr dwindled behind them, lonely on the crags. Despite the hardships of his stay in Ellesméra, Eragon would miss being among the elves, for with them he had found the closest thing to a home since fleeing Palancar Valley.
I leave here a changed man, he thought, and closed his eyes, clinging to Saphira.
Before going to meet with Orik, they made one more stop: Tialdarí Hall. Saphira landed in the enclosed gardens, careful not to damage any of the plants with her tail or claws. Without waiting for her to crouch, Eragon leaped straight to the ground, a drop that would have injured him before.
r /> A male elf came out, touched his lips with his first two fingers, and asked if he could help them. When Eragon replied that he sought an audience with Islanzadí, the elf said, “Please wait here, Silver Hand.”
Not five minutes later, the queen herself emerged from the wooded depths of Tialdarí Hall, her crimson tunic like a drop of blood among the white-robed elf lords and ladies who accompanied her. After the appropriate forms of address were observed, she said, “Oromis informed me of your intention to leave us. I am displeased by this, but one cannot resist the will of fate.”
“No, Your Majesty…. Your Majesty, we came to pay our respects before departing. You have been most considerate of us, and we thank you and your House for clothing, lodging, and feeding us. We are in your debt.”
“Never in our debt, Rider. We but repaid a little of what we owe you and the dragons for our miserable failure in the Fall. I am gratified, though, that you appreciate our hospitality.” She paused. “When you arrive in Surda, convey my royal salutations to Lady Nasuada and King Orrin and inform them that our warriors will soon attack the northern half of the Empire. If fortune smiles upon us, we shall catch Galbatorix off guard and, given time, divide his forces.”
“As you wish.”
“Also, know that I have dispatched twelve of our finest spellweavers to Surda. If you are still alive when they arrive, they will place themselves under your command and do their best to shield you from danger both night and day.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Islanzadí extended a hand and one of the elf lords handed her a shallow, unadorned wooden box. “Oromis had his gifts for you, and I have mine. Let them remind you of your time spent with us under the dusky pines.” She opened the box, revealing a long, dark bow with reflexed limbs and curled tips nestled on a bed of velvet. Silver fittings chased with dogwood leaves decorated the ears and grip of the bow. Beside it lay a quiver of new arrows fletched with white swan feathers. “Now that you share our strength, it seems only proper that you should have one of our bows. I sang it myself from a yew tree. The string will never break. And so long as you use these arrows, you will be hard-pressed to miss your target, even if the wind should gust during your shot.”
Once again, Eragon was overwhelmed by the elves’ generosity. He bowed. “What can I say, my Lady? You honor me that you saw fit to give me the labor of your own hands.”
Islanzadí nodded, as if agreeing with him, then stepped past him and said, “Saphira, I brought you no gifts because I could think of nothing you might need or want, but if there is aught of ours you desire, name it and it shall be yours.”
Dragons, said Saphira, do not require possessions to be happy. What use have we for riches when our hides are more glorious than any treasure hoard in existence? No, I am content with the kindness that you have shown Eragon.
Then Islanzadí bade them a safe journey. Sweeping around, her red cape billowing from her shoulders, she made to leave the gardens, only to stop at the edge of the pleasance and say, “And, Eragon?”
“Yes, Your Majesty?”
“When you meet with Arya, please express my affection to her and tell her that she is sorely missed in Ellesméra.” The words were stiff and formal. Without waiting for a reply, she strode away and disappeared among the shadowed boles that guarded the interior of Tialdarí Hall, followed by the elf lords and ladies.
It took Saphira less than a minute to fly to the sparring field, where Orik sat on his bulging pack, tossing his war ax from one hand to the other and scowling ferociously. “About time you got here,” he grumbled. He stood and slipped the ax back under his belt. Eragon apologized for the delay, then tied Orik’s pack onto the back of his saddle. The dwarf eyed Saphira’s shoulder, which loomed high above him. “And how, by Morgothal’s black beard, am I supposed to get up there? A cliff has more handholds than you, Saphira.”
Here, she said. She lay flat on her belly and pushed her right hind leg out as far as she could, forming a knobby ramp. Pulling himself onto her shin with a loud huff, Orik crawled up her leg on hands and knees. A small jet of flame burst from Saphira’s nostrils as she snorted. Hurry up—that tickles!
Orik paused on the ledge of her haunches, then placed one foot on either side of Saphira’s spine and carefully walked his way up her back toward the saddle. He tapped one of the ivory spikes between his legs and said, “There be as good a way to lose your manhood as ever I’ve seen.”
Eragon grinned. “Don’t slip.” When Orik lowered himself onto the front of the saddle, Eragon mounted Saphira and sat behind the dwarf. To hold Orik in place when Saphira turned or inverted, Eragon loosened the thongs that were meant to secure his arms and had Orik put his legs through them.
As Saphira rose to her full height, Orik swayed, then clutched the spike in front of him. “Garr! Eragon, don’t let me open my eyes until we’re in the air, else I fear I’ll be sick. This is unnatural, it is. Dwarves aren’t meant to ride dragons. It’s never been done before.”
Orik shook his head without answering.
Clusters of elves drifted out of Du Weldenvarden, gathered along the edge of the field, and with solemn expressions watched Saphira lift her translucent wings in preparation to take off.
Eragon tightened his grip as he felt her mighty thews bunch underneath his legs. With a rush of acceleration, Saphira launched herself into the azure sky, flapping swift and hard to rise above the giant trees. She wheeled over the vast forest—spiraling upward as she gained altitude—and then aimed herself south, toward the Hadarac Desert.
Though the wind was loud in Eragon’s ears, he heard an elf woman in Ellesméra raise her clear voice in song, as he had when they first arrived. She sang:
Away, away, you shall fly away,
O’er the peaks and vales
To the lands beyond.
Away, away, you shall fly away,
And never return to me….
THE MAW OF THE OCEAN
The obsidian seas heaved underneath the Dragon Wing, propelling the ship high in the air. There it teetered on the precipitous crest of a foam-capped swell before pitching forward and racing down the face of the wave into the black trough below. Billows of stinging mist drove through the frigid air as the wind groaned and howled like a monstrous spirit.
Roran clung to the starboard rigging at the waist of the ship and retched over the gunwale; nothing came up but sour bile. He had prided himself that his stomach never bothered him while on Clovis’s barges, but the storm they raced before was so violent that even Uthar’s men—seasoned tars each and every one—had difficulty keeping their whisky down.
It felt like a boulder of ice clouted Roran between the shoulder blades as a wave struck the ship crossways, drenching the deck before draining through the scuppers and pouring back into the frothing, furrowed, furious ocean from whence it came. Roran wiped the salty water from his eyes with fingers as clumsy as frozen lumps of wood, and squinted toward the inky horizon to the aft.
Maybe this will shake them off our scent. Three black-sailed sloops had pursued them ever since they passed the Iron Cliffs and rounded what Jeod dubbed Edur Carthungavë and Uthar identified as Rathbar’s Spur. “The tailbone of the Spine, that’s what it be,” Uthar said, grinning. The sloops were faster than the Dragon Wing, weighed down with villagers as it was, and had quickly gained upon the merchant ship until they were close enough to exchange volleys of arrows. Worst of all, it seemed that the lead sloop carried a magician, for its arrows were uncannily accurate, splitting ropes, destroying ballistae, and clogging the blocks. From their attacks, Roran deduced that the Empire no longer cared about capturing him and only wanted to stop him from finding sanctuary with the Varden. He had just been preparing the villagers to repel boarding parties when the clouds above ripened to a bruised purple, heavy with rain, and a ravening tempest blew in from the northwest. At the present, Uthar had the Dragon Wing tacked crossways to the wind, heading toward the Southern Isles, wh
ere he hoped to elude the sloops among the shoals and coves of Beirland.
A sheet of horizontal lightning flickered between two bulbous thunderheads, and the world became a tableau of pale marble before darkness reigned once more. Every blinding flash imprinted a motionless scene upon Roran’s eyes that lingered, pulsing, long after the brazen bolts vanished.
Then came another round of forked lightning, and Roran saw—as if in a series of monochrome paintings—the mizzen topmast twist, crack, and topple into the thrashing sea, port amidships. Grabbing a lifeline, Roran pulled himself to the quarterdeck and, in unison with Bonden, hacked through the cables that still connected the topmast to the Dragon Wing and dragged the stern low in the water. The ropes writhed like snakes as they were cut.
Afterward, Roran sank to the deck, his right arm hooked through the gunwale to hold himself in place as the ship dropped twenty…thirty…feet between waves. A swell washed over him, leaching the warmth from his bones. Shivers racked his body.
Don’t let me die here, he pleaded, though whom he addressed, he knew not. Not in these cruel waves. My task is yet unfinished. During that long night, he clung to his memories of Katrina, drawing solace from them when he grew weary and hope threatened to desert him.
The storm lasted two full days and broke during the wee hours of the night. The following morning brought with it a pale green dawn, clear skies, and three black sails riding the northern horizon. To the southwest, the hazy outline of Beirland lay underneath a shelf of clouds gathered about the ridged mountain that dominated the island.
Roran, Jeod, and Uthar met in a small fore cabin—since the captain’s stateroom was given over to the infirm—where Uthar unrolled sea charts on the table and tapped a point above Beirland. “This’d be where we are now,” he said. He reached for a larger map of Alagaësia’s coastline and tapped the mouth of the Jiet River. “An’ this’d be our destination, since food won’t last us to Reavstone. How we get there, though, without being overtaken is beyond me. Without our mizzen topgallant, those accursed sloops will catch us by noon tomorrow, evening if we manage the sails well.”