The dark landscape around them seemed immense beyond reckoning to Eragon, and he felt as if the entire hidden expanse was converging upon him, a notion that heightened his anxiety over the choice that confronted him. My verdict will shape the rest of his life, he thought.
Abandoning for the moment the question of punishment, Eragon considered what he knew about Sloan: the butcher’s overriding love for Katrina—obsessive, selfish, and generally unhealthy as it was, although it had once been something wholesome—his hate and fear of the Spine, which were the offspring of his grief for his late wife, Ismira, who had fallen to her death among those cloud-rending peaks; his estrangement from the remaining branches of his family; his pride in his work; the stories Eragon had heard about Sloan’s childhood; and Eragon’s own knowledge of what it was like to live in Carvahall.
Eragon took that collection of scattered, fragmented insights and turned them over in his mind, pondering their significance. Like the pieces of a puzzle, he tried to fit them together. He rarely succeeded, but he persisted, and gradually he traced a myriad of connections between the events and emotions of Sloan’s life, and thereby he wove a tangled web, the patterns of which represented who Sloan was. Throwing the last line of his web, Eragon felt as if he finally comprehended the reasons for Sloan’s behavior. Because of that, he empathized with Sloan.
More than empathy, he felt he understood Sloan, that he had isolated the core elements of Sloan’s personality, those things one could not remove without irrevocably changing the man. There occurred to him, then, three words in the ancient language that seemed to embody Sloan, and without thinking about it, Eragon whispered the words under his breath.
The sound could not have reached Sloan, yet he stirred—his hands gripping his thighs—and his expression became one of unease.
A cold tingle crawled down Eragon’s left side, and goosebumps appeared on his arms and legs as he watched the butcher. He considered a number of different explanations for Sloan’s reaction, each more elaborate than the last, but only one seemed plausible, and even it struck him as being unlikely. He whispered the trio of words again. As before, Sloan shifted in place, and Eragon heard him mutter, “… someone walking on my grave.”
Eragon released a shaky breath. It was difficult for him to believe, but his experiment left no room for doubt: he had, quite by accident, chanced upon Sloan’s true name. The discovery left him rather bewildered. Knowing someone’s true name was a weighty responsibility, for it granted you absolute power over that person. Because of the inherent risks, the elves rarely revealed their true names, and when they did, it was only to those whom they trusted without reservation.
Eragon had never learned anyone’s true name before. He had always expected that if he did, it would be as a gift from someone he cared about a great deal. Gaining Sloan’s true name without his consent was a turn of events Eragon was unprepared for and uncertain how to deal with. It dawned upon Eragon that in order to guess Sloan’s true name, he must understand the butcher better than he did himself, for he had not the slightest inkling what his own might be.
The realization was an uncomfortable one. He suspected that—given the nature of his enemies—not knowing everything he could about himself might well prove fatal. He vowed, then, to devote more time to introspection and to uncovering his true name. Perhaps Oromis and Glaedr could tell me what it is, he thought.
Whatever the doubts and confusion Sloan’s true name roused within him, it gave Eragon the beginning of an idea for how to deal with the butcher. Even once he had the basic concept, it still took him another ten minutes to thrash out the rest of his plan and make sure that it would work in the manner he intended.
Sloan tilted his head in Eragon’s direction as Eragon rose and walked out of their camp into the starlit land beyond. “Where are you going?” asked Sloan.
Eragon remained silent.
He wandered through the wilderness until he found a low, broad rock covered with scabs of lichen and with a bowl-like hollow in the middle. “Adurna rïsa,” said he. Around the rock, countless minuscule droplets of water filtered up through the soil and coalesced into flawless silver tubes that arched over the edge of the rock and down into the hollow. When the water started to overflow and return to the earth, only to be again ensnared by his spell, Eragon released the flow of magic.
He waited until the surface of the water became perfectly still—so that it acted like a mirror and he stood before what looked like a basin of stars—and then he said, “Draumr kópa,” and many other words besides, reciting a spell that would allow him to not only see but speak with others at a distance. Oromis had taught him the variation on scrying two days before he and Saphira had left Ellesméra for Surda.
The water went completely black, as if someone had extinguished the stars like candles. A moment or two later, an oval shape brightened in the middle of the water and Eragon beheld the interior of a large white tent, illuminated by the flameless light from a red Erisdar, one of the elves’ magical lanterns.
Normally, Eragon would be unable to scry a person or place he had not seen before, but the elves’ seeing glass was enchanted to transmit an image of its surroundings to anyone who contacted the glass. Likewise, Eragon’s spell would project an image of himself and his surroundings onto the surface of the glass. The arrangement allowed strangers to contact each other from any location in the world, which was an invaluable ability in times of war.
A tall elf with silver hair and battle-worn armor entered Eragon’s field of vision, and he recognized Lord Däthedr, who advised Queen Islanzadí and was a friend of Arya’s. If Däthedr was surprised to see Eragon, he did not show it; he inclined his head, touched the first two fingers of his right hand to his lips, and said in his lilting voice, “Atra esterní ono thelduin, Eragon Shur’tugal.”
Mentally making the shift to conversing in the ancient language, Eragon duplicated the gesture with his fingers and replied, “Atra du evarínya ono varda, Däthedr-vodhr.”
Continuing in his native tongue, Däthedr said, “I am glad to know you are well, Shadeslayer. Arya Dröttningu informed us of your mission some days ago, and we have been much concerned on your behalf and Saphira’s. I trust nothing has gone amiss?”
“No, but I encountered an unforeseen problem, and if I may, I would consult with Queen Islanzadí and seek her wisdom in this matter.”
Däthedr’s catlike eyes drifted nearly shut, becoming two angled slashes that gave him a fierce and unreadable expression. “I know you would not ask this unless it is important, Eragon-vodhr, but beware: a drawn bow may just as easily snap and injure the archer as it may send the arrow flying…. If it so please you, wait, and I shall inquire after the queen.”
“I shall wait. Your assistance is most welcome, Däthedr-vodhr.” As the elf turned away from the seeing glass, Eragon grimaced. He disliked the elves’ formality, but most of all, he hated trying to interpret their enigmatic statements. Was he warning me that scheming and plotting around the queen is a dangerous pastime or that Islanzadí is a drawn bow about to snap? Or did he mean something else entirely?
At least I’m able to contact the elves, thought Eragon. The elves’ wards prevented anything from entering Du Weldenvarden by magical means, including the far-sight of scrying. So long as elves remained in their cities, one could communicate with them only by sending messengers into their forest. But now that the elves were on the move and had left the shade of their black-needled pine trees, their great spells no longer protected them and it was possible to use devices such as the seeing glass.
Eragon became increasingly anxious as first one minute and then another trickled past. “Come on,” he murmured. He quickly glanced around to make sure that no person or beast was creeping up on him while he gazed into the pool of water.
With a sound akin to ripping cloth, the entrance flap to the tent flew open as Queen Islanzadí thrust it aside and stormed toward the seeing glass. She wore a bright corselet of golden scale ar
mor, augmented with mail and greaves and a beautifully decorated helm—set with opals and other precious gemstones—that held back her flowing black tresses. A red cape trimmed with white billowed from her shoulders; it reminded Eragon of a looming storm front. In her left hand, Islanzadí wielded a naked sword. Her right hand was empty, but it appeared gloved in crimson, and after a moment, Eragon realized that dripping blood coated her fingers and wrist.
Islanzadí’s slanting eyebrows narrowed as she looked upon Eragon. With that expression, she bore a striking resemblance to Arya, although her stature and bearing were even more impressive than her daughter’s. She was beautiful and terrible, like a frightful goddess of war.
Eragon touched his lips with his fingers, then twisted his right hand over his chest in the elves’ gesture of loyalty and respect and recited the opening line of their traditional greeting, speaking first, as was proper when addressing one of higher rank. Islanzadí made the expected response, and in an attempt to please her and demonstrate his knowledge of their customs, Eragon concluded with the optional third line of the salutation: “And may peace live in your heart.”
The ferocity of Islanzadí’s pose diminished somewhat, and a faint smile touched her lips, as if to acknowledge his maneuver. “And yours as well, Shadeslayer.” Her low, rich voice contained hints of rustling pine needles and gurgling brooks and music played on reed pipes. Sheathing her sword, she moved across the tent to the folding table and stood at an angle to Eragon as she washed the blood off her skin with water from a pitcher. “Peace is difficult to come by these days, I fear.”
“The fighting is heavy, Your Majesty?”
“It will be soon. My people are massing along the western edge of Du Weldenvarden, where we may prepare to kill and be killed while we are close to the trees we love so much. We are a scattered race and do not march in rank and file like others do—on account of the damage it inflicts upon the land—and so it takes time for us to assemble from the distant reaches of the forest.”
“I understand. Only …” He searched for a way to ask his question without being rude. “If the fighting has not started yet, I cannot help but wonder why your hand is dyed with gore.”
Shaking water droplets off her fingers, Islanzadí lifted her perfect gold-brown forearm for Eragon’s inspection, and he realized that she had been the model for the sculpture of two intertwined arms that stood in the entryway to his tree house in Ellesméra. “Dyed no more. The only stain blood leaves on a person is on her soul, not her body. I said the fighting would escalate in the near future, not that we had yet to start.” She pulled the sleeve of her corselet and the tunic underneath back down to her wrist. From the jeweled belt wrapped around her slim waist, she removed a gauntlet stitched with silver thread and worked her hand into it. “We have been observing the city of Ceunon, for we intend to attack there first. Two days ago, our rangers spotted teams of men and mules traveling from Ceunon into Du Weldenvarden. We thought they wished to collect timber from the edge of the forest, as is often done. ’Tis a practice we tolerate, for the humans must have wood, and the trees within the fringe are young and nearly beyond our influence, and we have not wanted to expose ourselves before. The teams did not stop at the fringe, however. They burrowed far into Du Weldenvarden, following game trails they were obviously familiar with. They were searching for the tallest, thickest trees—trees as old as Alagaësia itself, trees that were already ancient and fully grown when the dwarves discovered Farthen Dûr. When they found them, they began to saw them down.” Her voice rippled with rage. “From their remarks, we learned why they were here. Galbatorix wanted the largest trees he could acquire to replace the siege engines and battering rams he lost during the battle on the Burning Plains. If their motive had been pure and honest, we might have forgiven the loss of one monarch of our forest. Maybe even two. But not eight-and-twenty.”
A chill crept through Eragon. “What did you do?” he asked, although he already suspected the answer.
Islanzadí lifted her chin, and her face grew hard. “I was present with two of our rangers. Together, we corrected the humans’ mistake. In the past, the people of Ceunon knew better than to intrude upon our lands. Today we reminded them why that was so.” Without seeming to notice, she rubbed her right hand, as if it pained her, and she gazed past the seeing glass, looking at some vision of her own. “You have learned what it is like, Eragon-finiarel, to touch the life force of the plants and animals around you. Imagine how you would cherish them if you had possessed that ability for centuries. We give of ourselves to sustain Du Weldenvarden, and the forest is an extension of our bodies and minds. Any hurt it suffers is our hurt as well…. We are a slow people to rouse, but once roused we are like the dragons: we go mad with anger. It has been over a hundred years since I, or most any elf, shed blood in battle. The world has forgotten what we are capable of. Our strength may have declined since the Riders’ fall, but we shall still give a full reckoning of ourselves; to our enemies, it will seem as if even the elements have turned against them. We are an Elder Race, and our skill and knowledge far exceed that of mortal men. Let Galbatorix and his allies beware, for we elves are about to forsake our forest, and we shall return in triumph, or never again.”
Eragon shivered. Even during his confrontations with Durza, he had never encountered such implacable determination and ruthlessness. It’s not human, he thought, then laughed mockingly to himself. Of course not. And I would do well to remember that. However much we may look alike—and in my case, nigh on identical—we are not the same. “If you take Ceunon,” he said, “how will you control the people there? They may hate the Empire more than death itself, but I doubt they will trust you, if only because they are humans and you are elves.”
Islanzadí waved a hand. “That is unimportant. Once we are within the city walls, we have ways to ensure that no one will oppose us. This is not the first time we have fought your kind.” She removed her helm then, and her hair fell forward and framed her face between raven locks. “I was not pleased to hear of your raid on Helgrind, but I take it the assault is already over and was successful?”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Then my objections are for naught. I warn you, however, Eragon Shur’tugal, do not imperil yourself on such needlessly dangerous ventures. It is a cruel thing I must say, but true nevertheless, and it is this: your life is more important than your cousin’s happiness.”
“I swore an oath to Roran that I would help him.”
“Then you swore recklessly, without considering the consequences.”
“Would you have me abandon those I care about? If I did that, I would become a man to despise and distrust: an ill-formed vehicle for the hopes of the people who believe I will, somehow, bring low Galbatorix. And also, while Katrina was Galbatorix’s hostage, Roran was vulnerable to his manipulation.”
The queen lifted one dagger-sharp eyebrow. “A vulnerability that you could have prevented Galbatorix from exploiting by tutoring Roran in certain oaths in this, the language of magic…. I do not counsel you to cast away your friends or family. That would be folly indeed. But keep you firmly in mind what is at stake: the entirety of Alagaësia. If we fail now, then Galbatorix’s tyranny will extend over all the races, and his reign shall have no conceivable end. You are the tip of the spear that is our effort, and if the tip should break and be lost, then our spear shall bounce off the armor of our foe, and we too shall be lost.”
Folds of lichen cracked underneath Eragon’s fingers as he gripped the edge of the rock basin and suppressed the urge to make an impertinent remark about how any well-equipped warrior ought to have a sword or another weapon to rely upon besides a spear. He was frustrated by the direction the conversation had taken and eager to change the topic as quickly as he could; he had not contacted the queen so she could berate him as if he were a mere child. Nevertheless, allowing his impatience to dictate his actions would do nothing to further his cause, so he remained calm and replied, “Please believe me
, Your Majesty, I take your concerns very, very seriously. I can only say that if I hadn’t helped Roran, I would have been as miserable as he, and more so if he attempted to rescue Katrina by himself and died as a result. In either case, I would have been too upset to be of any use to you or anyone. Cannot we at least agree to differ on the subject? Neither of us shall convince the other.”
“Very well,” said Islanzadí. “We shall lay the matter to rest… for the present. But do not think you have escaped a proper investigation of your decision, Eragon Dragon Rider. It seems to me you display a frivolous attitude toward your larger responsibilities, and that is a serious matter. I shall discuss it with Oromis; he will decide what is to be done about you. Now tell me, why did you seek this audience?”
Eragon clenched his teeth several times before he could bring himself to, in a civil tone, explain the day’s events, the reasons for his actions in regard to Sloan, and the punishment he envisioned for the butcher.
When he finished, Islanzadí whirled around and paced the circumference of the tent—her movements as lithe as a cat’s—then stopped and said, “You chose to stay behind, in the middle of the Empire, to save the life of a murderer and a traitor. You are alone with this man, on foot, without supplies or weapons, save for magic, and your enemies are close behind. I see my earlier admonishments were more than justified. You—”
“Your Majesty, if you must be angry with me, be angry with me later. I want to resolve this quickly so I can get some rest before dawn; I have many miles to cover tomorrow.”
The queen nodded. “Your survival is all that matters. I shall be furious after we are done speaking…. As for your request, such a thing is unprecedented in our history. If I had been in your place, I would have killed Sloan and rid myself of the problem then and there.”
“I know you would have. I once watched Arya slay a gyrfalcon who was injured, for she said its death was inevitable, and by killing it, she saved the bird hours of suffering. Perhaps I should have done the same with Sloan, but I couldn’t. I think it would have been a choice I would have regretted for the rest of my life, or worse, one that would have made it easier for me to kill in the future.”