Now that the fighting had subsided, the hawks and eagles, the crows and ravens, descended like a shroud over the field.
Eragon closed his eyes, tears leaking from under the lids.
They had won, but he had lost.
Eragon and Saphira picked their way between the corpses that littered the Burning Plains, moving slowly on account of their wounds and their exhaustion. They encountered other survivors staggering through the scorched battlefield, hollow-eyed men who looked without truly seeing, their gazes focused somewhere in the distance.
Now that his bloodlust had subsided, Eragon felt nothing but sorrow. The fighting seemed so pointless to him. What a tragedy that so many must die to thwart a single madman. He paused to sidestep a thicket of arrows planted in the mud and noticed the gash on Saphira’s tail where Thorn had bitten her, as well as her other injuries. Here, lend me your strength; I’ll heal you.
Tend to those in mortal danger first.
Are you sure?
Quite sure, little one.
Acquiescing, he bent down and mended a soldier’s torn neck before moving on to one of the Varden. He made no distinction between friend and foe, treating both to the limit of his abilities.
Eragon was so preoccupied with his thoughts, he paid little attention to his work. He wished he could repudiate Murtagh’s claim, but everything Murtagh had said about his mother—their mother—coincided with the few things Eragon knew about her: Selena left Carvahall twenty-some years ago, returned once to give birth to Eragon, and was never seen again. His mind darted back to when he and Murtagh first arrived in Farthen Dûr. Murtagh had discussed how his mother had vanished from Morzan’s castle while Morzan was hunting Brom, Jeod, and Saphira’s egg. After Morzan threw Zar’roc at Murtagh and nearly killed him, Mother must have hidden her pregnancy and then gone back to Carvahall in order to protect me from Morzan and Galbatorix.
It heartened Eragon to know that Selena had cared for him so deeply. It also grieved him to know she was dead and they would never meet, for he had nurtured the hope, faint as it was, that his parents might still be alive. He no longer harbored any desire to be acquainted with his father, but he bitterly resented that he had been deprived of the chance to have a relationship with his mother.
Ever since he was old enough to understand that he was a fosterling, Eragon had wondered who his father was and why his mother left him to be raised by her brother, Garrow, and his wife, Marian. Those answers had been thrust upon him from such an unexpected source, and in such an unpropitious setting, it was more than he could make sense of at the moment. It would take months, if not years, to come to terms with the revelation.
Eragon always assumed he would be glad to learn the identity of his father. Now that he had, the knowledge revolted him. When he was younger, he often entertained himself by imagining that his father was someone grand and important, though Eragon knew the opposite was far more likely. Still, it never occurred to him, even in his most extravagant daydreams, that he might be the son of a Rider, much less one of the Forsworn.
It turned a daydream into a nightmare.
I was sired by a monster…. My father was the one who betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix. It left Eragon feeling sullied.
But no… As he healed a man’s broken spine, a new way of viewing the situation occurred to him, one that restored a measure of his self-confidence: Morzan may be my parent, but he is not my father. Garrow was my father. He raised me. He taught me how to live well and honorably, with integrity. I am who I am because of him. Even Brom and Oromis are more my father than Morzan. And Roran is my brother, not Murtagh.
Eragon nodded, determined to maintain that outlook. Until then, he had refused to completely accept Garrow as his father. And even though Garrow was dead, doing so relieved Eragon, gave him a sense of closure, and helped to ameliorate his distress over Morzan.
You have grown wise, observed Saphira.
Wise? He shook his head. No, I’ve just learned how to think. That much, at least, Oromis gave me. Eragon wiped a layer of dirt off the face of a fallen banner boy, making sure he really was dead, then straightened, wincing as his muscles spasmed in protest. You realize, don’t you, that Brom must have known about this. Why else would he choose to hide in Carvahall while he waited for you to hatch?…He wanted to keep an eye upon his enemy’s son. It unsettled him to think that Brom might have considered him a threat. And he was right too. Look what ended up happening to me!
Saphira ruffled his hair with a gust of her hot breath. Just remember, whatever Brom’s reasons, he always tried to protect us from danger. He died saving you from the Ra’zac.
I know…. Do you think he didn’t tell me about this because he was afraid I might emulate Morzan, like Murtagh has?
Of course not.
He looked at her, curious. How can you be so certain? She lifted her head high above him and refused to meet his eyes or to answer. Have it your way, then. Kneeling by one of King Orrin’s men, who had an arrow through the gut, Eragon grabbed his arms to stop him from writhing. “Easy now.”
“Water,” groaned the man. “For pity’s sake, water. My throat is as dry as sand. Please, Shadeslayer.” Sweat beaded his face.
Eragon smiled, trying to comfort him. “I can give you a drink now, but it’d be better if you wait until after I heal you. Can you wait? If you do, I promise you can have all the water you want.”
“You promise, Shadeslayer?”
The man visibly struggled against another wave of agony before saying, “If I must.”
With the aid of magic, Eragon drew out the shaft, then he and Saphira worked to repair the man’s innards, using some of the warrior’s own energy to fuel the spell. It took several minutes. Afterward, the man examined his belly, pressing his hands against the flawless skin, then gazed at Eragon, tears brimming in his eyes. “I…Shadeslayer, you…”
Eragon handed him his waterskin. “Here, keep it. You have greater need of it than I.”
A hundred yards beyond, Eragon and Saphira breached an acrid wall of smoke. There they came upon Orik and ten other dwarves—some women—arrayed around the body of Hrothgar, who lay upon four shields, resplendent in his golden mail. The dwarves tore at their hair, beat their breasts, and wailed their lamentations to the sky. Eragon bowed his head and murmured, “Stydja unin mor’ranr, Hrothgar Könungr.”
After a time, Orik noticed them and rose, his face red from crying and his beard torn free of its usual braid. He staggered over to Eragon and, without preempt, asked, “Did you kill the coward responsible for this?”
“He escaped.” Eragon could not bring himself to explain that the Rider was Murtagh.
Orik stamped his fist into his hand. “Barzûln!”
“But I swear to you upon every stone in Alagaësia that, as one of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, I’ll do everything I can to avenge Hrothgar’s death.”
“Aye, you’re the only one besides the elves strong enough to bring this foul murderer to justice. And when you find him…grind his bones to dust, Eragon. Pull his teeth and fill his veins with molten lead; make him suffer for every minute of Hrothgar’s life that he stole.”
“Wasn’t it a good death? Wouldn’t Hrothgar have wanted to die in battle, with Volund in his hand?”
“In battle, yes, facing an honest foe who dared stand and fight like a man. Not brought low by a magician’s trickery….” Shaking his head, Orik looked back at Hrothgar, then crossed his arms and tucked his chin against his collarbone. He took several ragged breaths. “When my parents died of the pox, Hrothgar gave me a life again. He took me into his hall. He made me his heir. Losing him…” Orik pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger, covering his face. “Losing him is like losing my father again.”
The grief in his voice was so clear, Eragon felt as if he shared the dwarf’s sorrow. “I understand,” he said.
“I know you do, Eragon…. I know you do.” After
a moment, Orik wiped his eyes and gestured at the ten dwarves. “Before anything else is done, we have to return Hrothgar to Farthen Dûr so he can be entombed with his predecessors. Dûrgrimst Ingeitum must choose a new grimstborith, and then the thirteen clan chiefs—including the ones you see here—will select our next king from among themselves. What happens next, I know not. This tragedy will embolden some clans and turn others against our cause….” He shook his head again.
Eragon put his hand on Orik’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about that now. You have but to ask, and my arm and my will are at your service…. If you want, come to my tent and we can share a cask of mead and toast Hrothgar’s memory.”
“I’d like that. But not yet. Not until we finish pleading with the gods to grant Hrothgar safe passage to the afterlife.” Leaving Eragon, Orik returned to the circle of dwarves and added his voice to their keening.
Continuing on through the Burning Plains, Saphira said, Hrothgar was a great king.
Aye, and a good person. Eragon sighed. We should find Arya and Nasuada. I couldn’t even heal a scratch right now, and they need to know about Murtagh.
They angled south toward the Varden’s encampment, but before they traveled more than a few yards, Eragon saw Roran approaching from the Jiet River. Trepidation filled him. Roran stopped directly in front of them, planted his feet wide apart, and stared at Eragon, working his jaw up and down as if he wanted to talk but was unable to get the words past his teeth.
Then he punched Eragon on the chin.
It would have been easy for Eragon to avoid the blow, but he allowed it to land, rolling away from it a bit so Roran did not break his knuckles.
It still hurt.
Wincing, Eragon faced his cousin. “I guess I deserved that.”
“That you did. We have to talk.”
“It can’t wait. The Ra’zac captured Katrina, and I need your help to rescue her. They’ve had her ever since we left Carvahall.”
So that’s it. In an instant, Eragon realized why Roran appeared so grim and haunted, and why he had brought the entire village to Surda. Brom was right, Galbatorix sent the Ra’zac back to Palancar Valley. Eragon frowned, torn between his responsibility to Roran and his duty to report to Nasuada. “There’s something I need to do first, and then we can talk. All right? You can accompany me if you want….”
As they traversed the pockmarked land, Eragon kept glancing at Roran out of the corner of his eye. Finally, he said in a low voice, “I missed you.”
Roran faltered, then responded with a curt nod. A few steps later, he asked, “This is Saphira, right? Jeod said that was her name.”
Saphira peered at Roran with one of her glittering eyes. He bore her scrutiny without turning away, which was more than most people could do. I have always wanted to meet Eragon’s nest-mate.
“She speaks!” exclaimed Roran when Eragon repeated her words.
This time Saphira addressed him directly: What? Did you think I was as mute as a rock lizard?
Roran blinked. “I beg your pardon. I didn’t know that dragons were so intelligent.” A grim smile twisted his lips. “First Ra’zac and magicians, now dwarves, Riders, and talking dragons. It seems the whole world has gone mad.”
“It does seem that way.”
“I saw you fight that other Rider. Did you wound him? Is that why he fled?”
“Wait. You’ll hear.”
When they reached the pavilion Eragon was searching for, he swept back the flap and ducked inside, followed by Roran and Saphira, who pushed her head and neck in after them. In the center of the tent, Nasuada sat on the edge of the table, letting a maid remove her twisted armor while she carried on a heated discussion with Arya. The cut on her thigh had been healed.
Nasuada stopped in the middle of her sentence as she spotted the new arrivals. Running toward them, she threw her arms around Eragon and cried, “Where were you? We thought you were dead, or worse.”
“The candle still burns,” murmured Arya.
Stepping back, Nasuada said, “We couldn’t see what happened to you and Saphira after you landed on the plateau. When the red dragon left and you didn’t appear, Arya tried to contact you but felt nothing, so we assumed…” She trailed off. “We were just debating the best way to transport Du Vrangr Gata and an entire company of warriors across the river.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to worry you. I was just so tired after the fight, I forgot to lower my barriers.” Then Eragon brought Roran forward. “Nasuada, I would like to introduce my cousin, Roran. Ajihad may have mentioned him to you before. Roran, Lady Nasuada, leader of the Varden and my liegelord. And this is Arya Svit-kona, the elves’ ambassador.” Roran bowed to each of them in turn.
“It is an honor to meet Eragon’s cousin,” said Nasuada.
“Indeed,” added Arya.
After they finished exchanging greetings, Eragon explained that the entire village of Carvahall had arrived on the Dragon Wing, and that Roran was the one responsible for killing the Twins.
Nasuada lifted a dark eyebrow. “The Varden are in your debt, Roran, for stopping their rampage. Who knows how much damage the Twins would have caused before Eragon or Arya could have confronted them? You helped us to win this battle. I won’t forget that. Our supplies are limited, but I will see that everyone on your ship is clothed and fed, and that your sick are treated.”
Roran bowed even lower. “Thank you, Lady Nasuada.”
“If I weren’t so pressed for time, I would insist upon knowing how and why you and your village evaded Galbatorix’s men, traveled to Surda, and then found us. Even just the bare facts of your trek make an extraordinary tale. I still intend to learn the specifics—especially since I suspect it concerns Eragon—but I must deal with other, more urgent matters at the moment.”
“Of course, Lady Nasuada.”
“You may go, then.”
“Please,” said Eragon, “let him stay. He should be here for this.”
Nasuada gave him a quizzical look. “Very well. If you want. But enough of this dawdling. Jump to the meat of the matter and tell us about the Rider!”
Eragon began with a quick history of the three remaining dragon eggs—two of which had now hatched—as well as Morzan and Murtagh, so that Roran would understand the significance of his news. Then he proceeded to describe his and Saphira’s fight with Thorn and the mysterious Rider, paying special attention to his extraordinary powers. “As soon as he spun his sword around, I realized we had dueled before, so I threw myself at him and tore off his helm.” Eragon paused.
“It was Murtagh, wasn’t it?” asked Nasuada quietly.
She sighed. “If the Twins survived, it only made sense that Murtagh had as well. Did he tell you what really happened that day in Farthen Dûr?” So Eragon recounted how the Twins betrayed the Varden, recruited the Urgals, and kidnapped Murtagh. A tear rolled down Nasuada’s cheek. “It’s a pity that this befell Murtagh when he has already endured so much hardship. I enjoyed his company in Tronjheim and believed he was our ally, despite his upbringing. I find it hard to think of him as our enemy.” Turning to Roran, she said, “It seems I am also personally in your debt for slaying the traitors who murdered my father.”
Fathers, mothers, brothers, cousins, thought Eragon. It all comes down to family. Summoning his courage, he completed his report with Murtagh’s theft of Zar’roc and then his final, terrible secret.
“It can’t be,” whispered Nasuada.
Eragon saw shock and revulsion cross Roran’s face before he managed to conceal his reactions. That, more than anything else, hurt Eragon.
“Could Murtagh have been lying?” asked Arya.
“I don’t see how. When I questioned him, he told me the same thing in the ancient language.”
A long, uncomfortable silence filled the pavilion.
Then Arya said, “No one else can know about this. The Varden are demoralized enough by the presence of a new Rider. And they’ll be even more upset when they learn it’s Murtagh, whom they fought alongside and came to trust in Farthen Dûr. If word spreads that Eragon Shadeslayer is Morzan’s son, the men will grow disillusioned and few people will want to join us. Not even King Orrin should be told.”
Nasuada rubbed her temples. “I fear you’re right. A new Rider…” She shook her head. “I knew it was possible for this to occur, but I didn’t really believe it would, since Galbatorix’s remaining eggs had gone so long without hatching.”
“It has a certain symmetry,” said Eragon.
“Our task is doubly hard now. We may have held our own today, but the Empire still far outnumbers us, and now we face not one but two Riders, both of whom are stronger than you, Eragon. Do you think you could defeat Murtagh with the help of the elves’ spellcasters?”
“Maybe. But I doubt he’d be foolish enough to fight them and me together.”
For several minutes, they discussed the effect Murtagh could have on their campaign and strategies to minimize or eliminate it. At last Nasuada said, “Enough. We cannot decide this when we are bloody and tired and our minds are clouded from fighting. Go, rest, and we shall take this up again tomorrow.”
As Eragon turned to leave, Arya approached and looked him straight in the eye. “Do not allow this to trouble you overmuch, Eragon-elda. You are not your father, nor your brother. Their shame is not yours.”
“Aye,” agreed Nasuada. “Nor imagine that it has lowered our opinion of you.” She reached out and cupped his face. “I know you, Eragon. You have a good heart. The name of your father cannot change that.”
Warmth blossomed inside Eragon. He looked from one woman to the next, then twisted his hand over his chest, overwhelmed by their friendship. “Thank you.”
Once they were back out in the open, Eragon put his hands on his hips and took a deep breath of the smoky air. It was late in the day, and the garish orange of noon had subsided into a dusky gold light that suffused the camp and battlefield, giving it a strange beauty. “So now you know,” he said.