Trianna paused, then bowed. “Of course, Shadeslayer—for the good of the Varden. It will be an honor to have you lead Du Vrangr Gata.”
“Then let us begin.”
Over the next few hours, Eragon talked with every one of the assembled magicians, although a fair number were absent, being occupied with one task or another to help the Varden. He did his best to acquaint himself with their knowledge of magic. He learned that the majority of men and women in Du Vrangr Gata had been introduced to their craft by a relative, and usually in profound secrecy to avoid attracting attention from those who feared magic—and, of course, Galbatorix himself. Only a handful had received proper apprenticeships. As a result, most of the spellcasters knew little about the ancient language—none could truly speak it fluently—their beliefs about magic were often distorted by religious superstitions, and they were ignorant of numerous applications of gramarye.
No wonder the Twins were so desperate to extract your vocabulary of the ancient language when they tested you in Farthen Dûr, observed Saphira. With it they could have easily conquered these lesser magicians.
They’re all we have to work with, though.
True. I hope you can see now I was right about Trianna. She places her own desires before the good of the many.
You were right, he agreed. But I don’t condemn her for it. Trianna deals with the world in the best way she can, as do we all. I understand that, even if I don’t approve, and understanding—as Oromis said—breeds empathy.
A bit more than a third of the spellcasters specialized as healers. Those Eragon sent on their way after giving them a quintet of new spells to memorize, enchantments that would allow them to treat a greater range of injuries. The remaining spellcasters Eragon worked with to establish a clear chain of command—he appointed Trianna his lieutenant and let her ensure that his orders were carried out—and to weld their disparate personalities into a cohesive fighting unit. Trying to convince magicians to cooperate, he discovered, was like trying to get a pack of dogs to share a meat bone. Nor did it help that they were in evident awe of him, for he could find no way of using his influence to smooth relations among the contentious magicians.
In order to gain a better idea of their exact proficiency, Eragon had them cast a series of spells. As he watched them struggle with enchantments that he now considered simple, Eragon became aware of just how far his own powers had advanced. To Saphira, he marveled, And to think I once had trouble lifting a pebble in the air.
And to think, she replied, Galbatorix has had over a century to hone his talent.
The sun was low in the west, intensifying the fermented orange light until the Varden’s camp, the livid Jiet River, and the entirety of the Burning Plains glowed in the mad, marbled effulgence, as if in a scene from a lunatic’s dreams. The sun was no more than a finger’s breadth above the horizon when a runner arrived at the tent. He told Eragon that Nasuada ordered him to attend her at once. “An’ I think you’d better hurry, Shadeslayer, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
After extracting a promise from Du Vrangr Gata that they would be ready and willing when he called upon them for assistance, Eragon ran alongside Saphira through the rows of gray tents toward Nasuada’s pavilion. A harsh tumult above them caused Eragon to lift his eyes from the treacherous ground long enough to glance overhead.
What he saw was a giant flock of birds wheeling between the two armies. He spotted eagles, hawks, and falcons, along with countless greedy crows and their larger, dagger-beaked, blue-backed, rapacious cousin, the raven. Each bird shrieked for blood to wet its throat and enough hot meat to fill its belly and sate its hunger. By experience and instinct, they knew that whenever armies appeared in Alagaësia, they could expect to feast on acres of carrion.
The clouds of war are gathering, observed Eragon.
Eragon entered the pavilion, Saphira pushing her head through after him. He was met by a steely rasp as Jörmundur and a half-dozen of Nasuada’s commanders drew their swords at the intruders. The men lowered their weapons as Nasuada said, “Come here, Eragon.”
“What is your bidding?” Eragon asked.
“Our scouts report that a company of some hundred Kull approach from the northeast.”
Eragon frowned. He had not expected to encounter Urgals in this battle, since Durza no longer controlled them and so many had been killed in Farthen Dûr. But if they had come, they had come. He felt his bloodlust rise and allowed himself a savage grin as he contemplated destroying Urgals with his new strength. Clapping his hand to Zar’roc’s hilt, he said, “It will be a pleasure to eliminate them. Saphira and I can handle it by ourselves, if you want.”
Nasuada watched his face carefully as she said, “We can’t do that, Eragon. They’re flying a white flag, and they have asked to talk with me.”
Eragon gaped at her. “Surely you don’t intend to grant them an audience?”
“I will offer them the same courtesies I would to any foe who arrives under the banner of truce.”
“They’re brutes, though. Monsters! It’s folly to allow them into the camp…. Nasuada, I have seen the atrocities Urgals commit. They relish pain and suffering and deserve no more mercy than a rabid dog. There is no need for you to waste time over what is surely a trap. Just give the word and I and every last one of your warriors will be more than willing to kill these foul creatures for you.”
“In this,” said Jörmundur, “I agree with Eragon. If you won’t listen to us, Nasuada, at least listen to him.”
First Nasuada said to Eragon in a murmur low enough that no one else could hear, “Your training is indeed unfinished if you are so blinded.” Then she raised her voice, and in it Eragon heard the same adamantine notes of command that her father had possessed: “You all forget that I fought in Farthen Dûr, the same as you, and that I saw the savagery of the Urgals…. However, I also saw our own men commit acts just as heinous. I shall not denigrate what we have endured at the Urgals’ hands, but neither shall I ignore potential allies when we are so greatly outnumbered by the Empire.”
“My Lady, it’s too dangerous for you to meet with a Kull.”
“Too dangerous?” Nasuada raised an eyebrow. “While I am protected by Eragon, Saphira, Elva, and all the warriors around me? I think not.”
Eragon gritted his teeth with frustration. Say something, Saphira. You can convince her to abandon this harebrained scheme.
No, I won’t. Your mind is clouded on this issue.
You can’t agree with her! exclaimed Eragon, aghast. You were there in Yazuac with me; you know what the Urgals did to the villagers. And what about when we left Teirm, my capture at Gil’ead, and Farthen Dûr? Every time we’ve encountered Urgals, they’ve tried to kill us or worse. They’re nothing more than vicious animals.
The elves believed the same thing about dragons during Du Fyrn Skulblaka.
At Nasuada’s behest, her guards tied back the front and side panels of the pavilion, leaving it open for all to see and allowing Saphira to crouch low next to Eragon. Then Nasuada seated herself in her high-backed chair, and Jörmundur and the other commanders arranged themselves in two parallel rows so that anyone who sought an audience with her had to walk between them. Eragon stood at her right hand, Elva by her left.
Less than five minutes later, a great roar of anger erupted from the eastern edge of the camp. The storm of jeers and insults grew louder and louder until a single Kull entered their view, walking toward Nasuada while a mob of the Varden peppered him with taunts. The Urgal—or ram, as Eragon remembered they were called—held his head high and bared his yellow fangs, but did not otherwise react to the abuse directed at him. He was a magnificent specimen, eight and a half feet tall, with strong, proud—if grotesque—features, thick horns that spiraled all the way around, and a fantastic musculature that made it seem he could kill a bear with a single blow. His only clothing was a knotted loincloth, a few plates of crude iron armor held together with scraps of mail, and
a curved metal disk nestled between his two horns to protect the top of his head. His long black hair was in a queue.
Eragon felt his lips tighten in a grimace of hate; he had to struggle to keep from drawing Zar’roc and attacking. Yet despite himself, he could not help but admire the Urgal’s courage in confronting an entire army of enemies alone and unarmed. To his surprise, he found the Kull’s mind strongly shielded.
When the Urgal stopped before the eaves of the pavilion, not daring to come any closer, Nasuada had her guards shout for quiet to settle the crowd. Everyone looked at the Urgal, wondering what he would do next.
The Urgal lifted his bulging arms toward the sky, inhaled a mighty breath, and then opened his maw and bellowed at Nasuada. In an instant, a thicket of swords pointed at the Kull, but he paid them no attention and continued his ululation until his lungs were empty. Then he looked at Nasuada, ignoring the hundreds of people who, it was obvious, longed to kill him, and growled in a thick, guttural accent, “What treachery is this, Lady Nightstalker? I was promised safe passage. Do humans break their word so easily?”
Leaning toward her, one of Nasuada’s commanders said, “Let us punish him, Mistress, for his insolence. Once we have taught him the meaning of respect, then you can hear his message, whatever it is.”
Eragon longed to remain silent, but he knew his duty to Nasuada and the Varden, so he bent down and said in Nasuada’s ear, “Don’t take offense. This is how they greet their war chiefs. The proper response is to then butt heads, but I don’t think you want to try that.”
“Did the elves teach you this?” she murmured, never taking her eyes off the waiting Kull.
“What else did they teach you of the Urgals?”
“A great deal,” he admitted reluctantly.
Then Nasuada said to the Kull and also to her men beyond, “The Varden are not liars like Galbatorix and the Empire. Speak your mind; you need fear no danger while we hold council under the conditions of truce.”
The Urgal grunted and raised his bony chin higher, baring his throat; Eragon recognized it as a gesture of friendship. To lower one’s head was a threat in their race, for it meant that an Urgal intended to ram you with his horns. “I am Nar Garzhvog of the Bolvek tribe. I speak for my people.” It seemed as if he chewed on each word before spitting it out. “Urgals are hated more than any other race. Elves, dwarves, humans all hunt us, burn us, and drive us from our halls.”
“Not without good reason,” pointed out Nasuada.
Garzhvog nodded. “Not without reason. Our people love war. Yet how often are we attacked just because you find us as ugly as we find you? We have thrived since the fall of the Riders. Our tribes are now so large, the harsh land we live in can no longer feed us.”
“So you made a pact with Galbatorix.”
“Aye, Lady Nightstalker. He promised us good land if we killed his enemies. He tricked us, though. His flame-haired shaman, Durza, bent the minds of our war chiefs and forced our tribes to work together, as is not our way. When we learned this in the dwarves’ hollow mountain, the Herndall, the dams who rule us, sent my brood mate to Galbatorix to ask why he used us so.” Garzhvog shook his ponderous head. “She did not return. Our finest rams died for Galbatorix, then he abandoned us like a broken sword. He is drajl and snake-tongued and a lack-horned betrayer. Lady Nightstalker, we are fewer now, but we will fight with you if you let us.”
“What is the price?” asked Nasuada. “Your Herndall must want something in return.”
“Blood. Galbatorix’s blood. And if the Empire falls, we ask that you give us land, land for breeding and growing, land to avoid more battles in the future.”
Eragon guessed Nasuada’s decision by the set of her face, even before she spoke. So apparently did Jörmundur, for he leaned toward her and said in an undertone, “Nasuada, you can’t do this. It goes against nature.”
“Nature can’t help us defeat the Empire. We need allies.”
“The men will desert before they’ll fight with Urgals.”
“That can be worked around. Eragon, will they keep their word?”
“Only so long as we share a common enemy.”
With a sharp nod, Nasuada again lifted her voice: “Very well, Nar Garzhvog. You and your warriors may bivouac along the eastern flank of our army, away from the main body, and we shall discuss the terms of our pact.”
“Ahgrat ukmar,” growled the Kull, clapping his fists to his brow. “You are a wise Herndall, Lady Nightstalker.”
“Why do you call me that?”
Garzhvog made a ruk-ruk sound in his throat that Eragon interpreted as laughter. “Nightstalker is the name we gave your sire because of how he hunted us in the dark tunnels under the dwarf mountain and because of the color of his hide. As his cub, you are worthy of the same name.” With that he turned on his heel and strode out of the camp.
Standing, Nasuada proclaimed, “Anyone who attacks the Urgals shall be punished as if he attacked a fellow human. See that word of this is posted in every company.”
No sooner had she finished than Eragon noticed King Orrin approaching at a quick pace, his cape flapping around him. When he was close enough, he cried, “Nasuada! Is it true you met with an Urgal? What do you mean by it, and why wasn’t I alerted sooner? I don’t—”
He was interrupted as a sentry emerged from the ranks of gray tents, shouting, “A horseman approaches from the Empire!”
In an instant, King Orrin forgot his argument and joined Nasuada as she hurried toward the vanguard of the army, followed by at least a hundred people. Rather than stay among the crowd, Eragon pulled himself onto Saphira and let her carry him to their destination.
When Saphira halted at the ramparts, trenches, and rows of sharpened poles that protected the Varden’s leading edge, Eragon saw a lone soldier riding at a furious clip across the bleak no-man’s-land. Above him, the birds of prey swooped low to discover if the first course of their feast had arrived.
The soldier reined in his black stallion some thirty yards from the breastwork, keeping as much distance as possible between him and the Varden. He shouted, “By refusing King Galbatorix’s generous terms of surrender, you choose death as your fate. No more shall we negotiate. The hand of friendship has turned into the fist of war! If any of you still hold regard for your rightful sovereign, the all-knowing, all-powerful King Galbatorix, then flee! None may stand before us once we set forth to cleanse Alagaësia of every miscreant, traitor, and subversive. And though it pains our lord—for he knows that most of these rebellious acts are instigated by bitter and misguided leaders—we shall gently chastise the unlawful territory known as Surda and return it to the benevolent rule of King Galbatorix, he who sacrifices himself day and night for the good of his people. So flee, I say, or suffer the doom of your herald.”
With that the soldier untied a canvas sack and flourished a severed head. He threw it into the air and watched it fall among the Varden, then turned his stallion, dug in his spurs, and galloped back toward the dark mass of Galbatorix’s army.
“Shall I kill him?” asked Eragon.
Nasuada shook her head. “We will have our due soon enough. I won’t violate the sanctity of envoys, even if the Empire has.”
“As you—” He yelped with surprise and clutched Saphira’s neck to keep from falling as she reared above the ramparts, planting her front legs upon the chartreuse bank. Opening her jaws, Saphira uttered a long, deep roar, much like Garzhvog had done, only this roar was a defiant challenge to their enemies, a warning of the wrath they had roused, and a clarion call to all who hated Galbatorix.
The sound of her trumpeting voice frightened the stallion so badly, he jinked to the right, slipped on the heated ground, and fell on his side. The soldier was thrown free of the horse and landed in a gout of fire that erupted at that very instant. He uttered a single cry so horrible, it made Eragon’s scalp prickle, then was si
lent and still forevermore.
The birds began to descend.
The Varden cheered Saphira’s accomplishment. Even Nasuada allowed herself a small smile. Then she clapped her hands and said, “They will attack at dawn, I think. Eragon, gather Du Vrangr Gata and prepare yourself for action. I will have orders for you within the hour.” Taking Orrin by the shoulder, she guided him back toward the center of the compound, saying, “Sire, there are decisions we must make. I have a certain plan, but it will require…”
Let them come, said Saphira. The tip of her tail twitched like that of a cat stalking a rabbit. They will all burn.
Night had fallen on the Burning Plains. The roof of opaque smoke covered the moon and stars, plunging the land into profound darkness that was broken only by the sullen glow of the sporadic peat fires, and by the thousands of torches each army lit. From Eragon’s position near the fore of the Varden, the Empire looked a dense nest of uncertain orange lights as large as any city.
As Eragon buckled the last piece of Saphira’s armor onto her tail, he closed his eyes to maintain better contact with the magicians from Du Vrangr Gata. He had to learn to locate them at a moment’s notice; his life would depend on communicating with them in a quick and timely manner. In turn, the magicians had to learn to recognize the touch of his mind so they did not block him when he needed their assistance.
Eragon smiled and said, “Hello, Orik.” He opened his eyes to see Orik clambering up the low knuckle of rock where he and Saphira sat. The dwarf, who was fully armored, carried his Urgal-horn bow in his left hand.