Since then, Roran often wondered if he made the right choice. By now everyone hated living on the Dragon Wing. People were tense and short-tempered, a situation only aggravated by the knowledge they were sailing toward a battle. Was it all selfishness on my part? wondered Roran. Did I really do this for the benefit of the villagers, or only because it will bring me one step closer to finding Katrina?
“Perhaps we should have,” he said to Elain.
Together they watched as a thick layer of smoke gathered overhead, darkening the sky, obscuring the sun, and filtering the remaining light so that everything below was colored a nauseating hue of orange. It produced an eerie twilight the likes of which Roran had never imagined. The sailors on deck looked about fearfully and muttered charms of protection, pulling out stone amulets to ward off the evil eye.
“Listen,” said Elain. She tilted her head. “What is that?”
Roran strained his ears and caught the faint ring of metal striking metal. “That,” he said, “is the sound of our destiny.” Twisting, he shouted back over his shoulder, “Captain, there’s fighting just ahead!”
“Man the ballistae!” roared Uthar. “Double-time on those oars, Bonden. An’ every able-bodied man jack among you better be ready or you’ll be using your guts for pillows!”
Roran remained where he was as the Dragon Wing exploded with activity. Despite the increase in noise, he could still hear swords and shields clanging together in the distance. The screams of men were audible now, as were the roars of some giant beast.
He glanced over as Jeod joined them at the prow. The merchant’s face was pale. “Have you ever been in battle before?” asked Roran.
The knob in Jeod’s throat bobbed as he swallowed and shook his head. “I got into plenty of fights along with Brom, but never anything of this scale.”
“A first for both of us, then.”
The bank of smoke thinned on the right, providing them with a glimpse of a dark land that belched forth fire and putrid orange vapor and was covered with masses of struggling men. It was impossible to tell who was the Empire and who was the Varden, but it was apparent to Roran that the battle could tip in either direction given the right nudge. We can provide that nudge.
Then a voice echoed over the water as a man shouted, “A ship! A ship is coming up the Jiet River!”
“You should go belowdecks,” said Roran to Elain. “It won’t be safe for you here.” She nodded and hurried to the fore hatchway, where she climbed down the ladder, closing the opening behind her. A moment later, Horst bounded up to the prow and handed Roran one of Fisk’s shields.
“Thought you might need that,” said Horst.
Roran stopped as the air around them vibrated, as if from a mighty concussion. Thud. His teeth jarred together. Thud. His ears hurt from the pressure. Close upon the heels of the second impact came a third—thud—and with it a raw-throated yell that Roran recognized, for he had heard it many times in his childhood. He looked up and beheld a gigantic sapphire dragon diving out of the shifting clouds. And on the dragon’s back, at the juncture between its neck and shoulders, sat his cousin, Eragon.
It was not the Eragon he remembered, but rather as if an artist had taken his cousin’s base features and enhanced them, streamlined them, making them both more noble and more feline. This Eragon was garbed like a prince, in fine cloth and armor—though tarnished by the grime of war—and in his right hand he wielded a blade of iridescent red. This Eragon, Roran knew, could kill without hesitation. This Eragon was powerful and implacable…. This Eragon could slay the Ra’zac and their mounts and help him to rescue Katrina.
Flaring its translucent wings, the dragon pulled up sharply and hung before the ship. Then Eragon met Roran’s eyes.
Until that moment, Roran had not completely believed Jeod’s story about Eragon and Brom. Now, as he stared at his cousin, a wave of confused emotions washed over him. Eragon is a Rider! It seemed inconceivable that the slight, moody, overeager boy he grew up with had turned into this fearsome warrior. Seeing him alive again filled Roran with unexpected joy. Yet, at the same time, a terrible, familiar anger welled up inside him over Eragon’s role in Garrow’s death and the siege of Carvahall. In those few seconds, Roran knew not whether he loved or hated Eragon.
He stiffened with alarm as a vast and alien being touched his mind. From that consciousness emanated Eragon’s voice: Roran?
Think your answers and I’ll hear them. Is everyone from Carvahall with you?
How did you…No, we can’t go into it; there’s no time. Stay where you are until the battle is decided. Better yet, go back farther down the river, where the Empire can’t attack you.
We have to talk, Eragon. You have much to answer for.
Eragon hesitated with a troubled expression, then said, I know. But not now, later. With no visible prompting, the dragon veered away from the ship and flew off to the east, vanishing in the haze over the Burning Plains.
In an awed voice, Horst said, “A Rider! A real Rider! I never thought I’d see the day, much less that it would be Eragon.” He shook his head. “I guess you told us the truth, eh, Longshanks?” Jeod grinned in response, looking like a delighted child.
Their words sounded muted to Roran as he stared at the deck, feeling like he was about to explode with tension. A host of unanswerable questions assailed him. He forced himself to ignore them. I can’t think about Eragon now. We have to fight. The Varden must defeat the Empire.
A rising tide of fury consumed him. He had experienced this before, a berserk frenzy that allowed him to overcome nearly any obstacle, to move objects he could not shift ordinarily, to face an enemy in combat and feel no fear. It gripped him now, a fever in his veins, quickening his breath and setting his heart a-pounding.
He pushed himself off the railing, ran the length of the ship to the quarterdeck, where Uthar stood by the wheel, and said, “Ground the ship.”
“Ground the ship, I say! Stay here with the rest of the soldiers and use the ballistae to wreak what havoc you can, keep the Dragon Wing from being boarded, and guard our families with your lives. Understand?”
Uthar stared at him with flat eyes, and Roran feared he would not accept the orders. Then the scarred sailor grunted and said, “Aye, aye, Stronghammer.”
Horst’s heavy tread preceded his arrival at the quarterdeck. “What do you intend to do, Roran?”
“Do?” Roran laughed and spun widdershins to stand toe to toe with the smith. “Do? Why, I intend to alter the fate of Alagaësia!”
Eragon barely noticed as Saphira carried him back into the swirling confusion of the battle. He had known that Roran was at sea, but it never occurred to him that Roran might be heading for Surda, nor that they would reunite in this manner. And Roran’s eyes! His eyes seemed to bore into Eragon, questioning, relieved, enraged…accusing. In them, Eragon saw that his cousin had learned of Eragon’s role in Garrow’s death and had not yet forgiven him.
It was only when a sword bounced off his greaves that Eragon returned his attention to his surroundings. He unleashed a hoarse shout and slashed downward, cutting away the soldier who struck him. Cursing himself for being so careless, Eragon reached out to Trianna and said, No one on that ship is an enemy. Spread the word that they’re not to be attacked. Ask Nasuada if, as a favor to us, she can send a herald to explain the situation to them and see that they stay away from the fighting.
As you wish, Argetlam.
From the western flank of the battle, where she alighted, Saphira traversed the Burning Plains in a few giant leaps, stopping before Hrothgar and his dwarves. Dismounting, Eragon went to the king, who said, “Hail, Argetlam! Hail, Saphira! The elves seem to have done more for you than they promised.” Beside him stood Orik.
“No, sir, it was the dragons.”
“Really? I must hear your adventures once our blood
y work here is done. I’m glad you accepted my offer to become Dûrgrimst Ingeitum. It is an honor to have you as mine kin.”
“And you mine.”
Hrothgar laughed, then turned to Saphira and said, “I still haven’t forgotten your vow to mend Isidar Mithrim, dragon. Even now, our artisans are assembling the star sapphire in the center of Tronjheim. I look forward to seeing it whole once again.”
She bowed her head. As I promised, so it shall be.
After Eragon repeated her words, Hrothgar reached out with a gnarled finger and tapped one of the metal plates on her side. “I see you wear our armor. I hope it has served you well.”
Very well, King Hrothgar, said Saphira through Eragon. It has saved me many an injury.
Hrothgar straightened and lifted Volund, a twinkle in his deep-set eyes. “Well then, shall we march out and test it once again in the forge of war?” He looked back at his warriors and shouted, “Akh sartos oen dûrgrimst!”
“Vor Hrothgarz korda! Vor Hrothgarz korda!”
Eragon looked at Orik, who translated with a mighty yell, “By Hrothgar’s hammer!” Joining the chant, Eragon ran with the dwarf king toward the crimson ranks of soldiers, Saphira by his side.
Now at last, with the help of the dwarves, the battle turned in favor of the Varden. Together they pushed back the Empire, dividing them, crushing them, forcing Galbatorix’s vast army to abandon positions they had held since morn. Their efforts were helped by the fact that more of Angela’s poisons had taken effect. Many of the Empire’s officers behaved irrationally, giving orders that made it easier for the Varden to penetrate deeper into the army, sowing chaos as they went. The soldiers seemed to realize that fortune no longer smiled upon them, for hundreds surrendered, or defected outright and turned on their former comrades, or threw down their weapons and fled.
And the day passed into the late afternoon.
Eragon was in the midst of fighting two soldiers when a flaming javelin roared past overhead and buried itself in one of the Empire’s command tents twenty yards away, igniting the fabric. Dispatching his opponents, Eragon glanced back and saw dozens of fiery missiles arcing out from the ship on the Jiet River. What are you playing at, Roran? wondered Eragon before charging the next batch of soldiers.
Soon afterward, a horn echoed from the rear of the Empire’s army, then another and another. Someone began to pound a sonorous drum, the peals of which stilled the field as everyone looked about for the source of the beat. Even as Eragon watched, an ominous figure detached itself from the horizon in the north and rose up in the lurid sky over the Burning Plains. The gore-crows scattered before the barbed black shadow, which balanced motionless upon the thermals. At first Eragon thought it a Lethrblaka, one of the Ra’zac’s mounts. Then a ray of light escaped the clouds and struck the figure crossways from the west.
A red dragon floated above them, glowing and sparkling in the sunbeam like a bed of blood-red coals. His wing membranes were the color of wine held before a lantern. His claws and teeth and the spikes along his spine were white as snow. In his vermilion eyes there gleamed a terrible glee. On his back was fixed a saddle, and in that saddle sat a man garbed in polished steel armor and armed with a hand-and-a-half sword.
Dread clutched at Eragon. Galbatorix managed to get another dragon to hatch!
Then the man in steel raised his left hand and a shaft of crackling ruby energy sprang from his palm and smote Hrothgar on the breast. The dwarf spellcasters cried out with agony as the energy from their bodies was consumed trying to block the attack. They collapsed, dead, then Hrothgar clutched his heart and toppled to the ground. The dwarves gave a great groan of despair as they saw their king fall.
“No!” cried Eragon, and Saphira roared in protest. He glared with hate at the enemy Rider. I’ll kill you for that.
Eragon knew that, as they were, he and Saphira were too tired to confront such a mighty opponent. Glancing around, Eragon spotted a horse lying in the mud, a spear through its side. The stallion was still alive. Eragon put his hand on its neck and murmured, Sleep, brother. Then he transferred the horse’s remaining vitality into himself and Saphira. It was not enough energy to restore all their strength, but it soothed their aching muscles and stopped their limbs from shaking.
Rejuvenated, Eragon leaped onto Saphira, shouting, “Orik, take command of your kinsmen!” Across the field, he saw Arya gaze at him with concern. He put her out of his mind as he tightened the saddle straps around his legs. Then Saphira launched herself toward the red dragon, pumping her wings at a furious rate to gain the necessary speed.
I hope you remember your lessons with Glaedr, he said. He tightened his grip on his shield.
Saphira did not answer him but roared out with her thoughts at the other dragon, Traitor! Egg breaker, oath breaker, murderer! Then as one, she and Eragon assaulted the minds of the pair, seeking to overwhelm their defenses. The consciousness of the Rider felt strange to Eragon, as if it contained multitudes; scores of distinct voices whispered in the caverns of his mind, like imprisoned spirits begging for release.
The instant they made contact, the Rider retaliated with a blast of pure force greater than any even Oromis was capable of summoning. Eragon retreated deep behind his own barriers, frantically reciting a scrap of doggerel Oromis taught him to use in such predicaments:
Under a cold and empty winter sky
Stood a wee, small man with a silver sword.
He jumped and stabbed in a fevered frenzy,
Fighting the shadows massed before him….
The siege on Eragon’s mind abated as Saphira and the red dragon crashed together, two incandescent meteors colliding head-on. They grappled, kicking each other’s bellies with their hind legs. Their talons produced hideous screeches as they grated against Saphira’s armor and the red dragon’s flat scales. The red dragon was smaller than Saphira, but thicker in his legs and shoulders. He managed to kick her off for a moment, then they closed again, each struggling to get their jaws around the other’s neck.
It was all Eragon could do to keep hold of Zar’roc as the dragons tumbled toward the ground, battering one another with terrible blows from their feet and tails. No more than fifty yards above the Burning Plains, Saphira and the red dragon disengaged, struggling to regain altitude. Once she halted her descent, Saphira reared her head, like a snake about to strike, and loosed a thick torrent of fire.
It never reached its destination; twelve feet from the red dragon, the fire bifurcated and passed harmlessly on either side. Blast it, thought Eragon. Even as the red dragon opened its maw to retaliate, Eragon cried, “Skölir nosu fra brisingr!” He was just in time. The conflagration swirled around them but did not even scorch Saphira’s scales.
Now Saphira and the red dragon raced up through the striated smoke into the clear, chill sky beyond, darting back and forth as they tried to climb above their opponent. The red dragon nipped Saphira’s tail, and she and Eragon yelped with shared pain. Panting from the effort, Saphira executed a tight backward loop, ending up behind the dragon, who then pivoted to the left and tried to spiral up and over Saphira.
While the dragons dueled with increasingly complex acrobatics, Eragon became aware of a disturbance on the Burning Plains: the spellcasters of Du Vrangr Gata were beset by two new magicians from the Empire. These magicians were far more powerful than those who had preceded them. They had already killed one of Du Vrangr Gata and were battering past the barriers of a second. Eragon heard Trianna scream with her mind, Shadeslayer! You have to help us! We can’t stop them. They’ll kill all the Varden. Help us, it’s the—
Her voice was lost to him as the Rider stabbed at his consciousness. “This must end,” spat Eragon between clenched teeth as he strove to withstand the onslaught. Over Saphira’s neck, he saw the red dragon dive toward them, angling beneath Saphira. Eragon dared not open his mind enough to talk with Saphira, so he said out loud, “Catch me!” With two strokes of Zar’roc, he severed the straps around his legs and jumpe
d off Saphira’s back.
This is insane, thought Eragon. He laughed with giddy exhilaration as the feeling of weightlessness took hold of him. The rush of air tore off his helm and made his eyes water and sting. Releasing his shield, Eragon spread out his arms and legs, as Oromis had taught him, in order to stabilize his flight. Below, the steel-clad Rider noticed Eragon’s action. The red dragon shied to Eragon’s left but could not evade him. Eragon lashed out with Zar’roc as the dragon’s flank flashed by, and he felt the blade sink into the creature’s hamstring before his momentum carried him past.
The dragon roared in agony.
The impact of the blow sent Eragon spinning up, down, and around. By the time he managed to stop his rotation, he had plummeted through the cloud cover and was heading toward a swift and fatal landing on the Burning Plains. He could stop himself with magic if he had to, but it would drain his last reserves of energy. He glanced over both his shoulders. Come on, Saphira, where are you?
As if in answer, she dropped out of the foul smoke, her wings pressed tight against her body. She swooped underneath him and opened her wings a bit to slow her fall. Careful not to impale himself on one of her spikes, Eragon maneuvered himself back into the saddle, welcoming the return of gravity as she pulled out of the dive.
Never do that to me again, she snapped.
He surveyed the steaming blood that laced Zar’roc’s blade. It worked, didn’t it?
His satisfaction disappeared as he realized that his stunt had placed Saphira at the mercy of the red dragon. He hurtled at her from above, harrying her this way and that as he forced her toward the ground. Saphira tried to maneuver out from under him, but every time she did, he dove at her, biting and buffeting her with his wings in order to make her change course.