“That we live in a strange world, and I’ll be lucky if I ever understand more than a small portion of it.” Then he recounted his conversation with the man, which she found as interesting as he had.
“You should tell Arya about this,” said Nasuada. “She might know what these ‘others’ could be.”
They parted at her pavilion, Nasuada going inside to finish reading a report, while Eragon and Saphira continued on to Eragon’s tent. There Saphira curled up on the ground and prepared to sleep as Eragon sat next to her and gazed at the stars, a parade of wounded men marching before his eyes.
What many of them had told him continued to reverberate through his mind: We fought for you, Shadeslayer.
WHISPERS IN THE NIGHT
Roran opened his eyes and stared at the drooping canvas overhead.
A thin gray light pervaded the tent, leaching objects of their color, rendering everything a pale shadow of its daylight self. He shivered. The blankets had slid down to his waist, exposing his torso to the cold night air. As he pulled them back up, he noticed that Katrina was no longer by his side.
He saw her sitting by the entrance to the tent, staring up at the sky. She had a cloak wrapped over her shift. Her hair fell to the small of her back, a dark tangled bramble.
A lump formed in Roran’s throat as he studied her.
Dragging the blankets with him, he sat beside her. He placed an arm around her shoulders, and she leaned against him, her head and neck warm against his chest. He kissed her on the brow. For a long while, he contemplated the glimmering stars with her and listened to the regular pattern of her breathing, the only sound besides his own in the sleeping world.
Then she whispered, “The constellations are shaped differently here. Have you noticed?”
“Aye.” He shifted his arm, fitting it against the curve of her waist and feeling the slight bulge of her growing belly. “What woke you?”
She shivered. “I was thinking.”
Starlight gleamed in her eyes as she twisted in his arms and gazed at him. “I was thinking about you and us … and our future together.”
“Those are heavy thoughts for so late at night.”
“Now that we are married, how do you plan to care for me and for our child?”
“Is that what worries you?” He smiled. “You won’t starve; we have gold enough to assure that. Besides, the Varden will always see to it that Eragon’s cousins have food and shelter. Even if something were to happen to me, they would continue to provide for you and the baby.”
“Yes, but what do you intend to do?”
Puzzled, he searched her face for the source of her agitation. “I am going to help Eragon end this war so we can return to Palancar Valley and settle down without fear of soldiers dragging us off to Urû’baen. What else would I do?”
“You will fight with the Varden, then?”
“You know I will.”
“As you would have fought today if Nasuada had let you?”
“What of our baby, though? An army on the march is no place to raise a child.”
“We cannot run away and hide from the Empire, Katrina. Unless the Varden win, Galbatorix will find and kill us, or he will find and kill our children, or our children’s children. And I do not think the Varden will achieve victory unless everyone does their utmost to help them.”
She placed a finger over his lips. “You are my only love. No other man shall ever capture my heart. I will do everything I can to lighten your burden. I will cook your meals, mend your clothes, and clean your armor …. But once I give birth, I will leave this army.”
“Leave!” He went rigid. “That’s nonsense! Where would you go?”
“Dauth, perhaps. Remember, Lady Alarice offered us sanctuary, and some of our people are still there. I would not be alone.”
“If you think I’m going to let you and our newborn child go tramping across Alagaësia by yourselves, then—”
“You don’t need to shout.”
“Yes, you are.” Clasping his hand between hers and pressing it against her heart, she said, “It’s not safe here. If it were only the two of us, I could accept the danger, but not when it is our baby who might die. I love you, Roran, I love you so much, but our child has to come before anything we want for ourselves. Otherwise, we do not deserve to be called parents.” Tears shone in her eyes, and he felt his own eyes dampen. “It was you, after all, who convinced me to leave Carvahall and hide in the Spine when the soldiers attacked. This is no different.”
The stars swam before Roran as his vision blurred. “I would rather lose an arm than be parted from you again.”
Katrina began to cry then, her quiet sobs shaking his body. “I don’t want to leave you either.”
He tightened his embrace and rocked back and forth with her. When her weeping subsided, he whispered in her ear, “I would rather lose an arm than be parted from you, but I would rather die than allow anyone to hurt you … or our child. If you are going to leave, you should leave now, while it’s still easy for you to travel.”
She shook her head. “No. I want Gertrude as my midwife. She’s the only one I trust. Besides, if I have any difficulty, I would rather be here, where there are magicians trained in healing.”
“Nothing will go wrong,” he said. “As soon as our child is born, you will go to Aberon, not Dauth; it is less likely to be attacked. And if Aberon becomes too dangerous, then you will go to the Beor Mountains and live with the dwarves. And if Galbatorix strikes at the dwarves, then you will go to the elves in Du Weldenvarden.”
“And if Galbatorix attacks Du Weldenvarden, I will fly to the moon and raise our child among the spirits who inhabit the heavens.”
“And they will bow down to you and make you their queen, as you deserve.”
She snuggled closer to him.
Together, they sat and watched as, one by one, the stars vanished from the sky, obscured by the glow spreading in the east. When only the morning star remained, Roran said, “You know what this means, don’t you?”
“I’ll just have to ensure we kill every last one of Galbatorix’s soldiers, capture all the cities in the Empire, defeat Murtagh and Thorn, and behead Galbatorix and his turncoat dragon before your time comes. That way, there will be no need for you to go away.”
She was silent for a moment, then said, “If you could, I would be very happy.”
They were about to return to their cot when, out of the glimmering sky, there sailed a miniature ship, woven of dry strips of grass. The ship hovered in front of their tent, rocking upon invisible waves of air, and almost seemed to be looking at them with its dragon-head-shaped prow.
Roran froze, as did Katrina.
Like a living creature, the ship darted across the path before their tent, then it swooped up and around, chasing an errant moth. When the moth escaped, the ship glided back toward the tent, stopping only inches from Katrina’s face.
Before Roran could decide if he should snatch the ship out of the air, it turned and flew off toward the morning star, vanishing once more into the endless ocean of the sky, leaving them to gaze after it in wonder.
Late that night, visions of death and violence gathered along the edges of Eragon’s dreams, threatening to overwhelm him with panic. He stirred with unease, wanting to break free but unable to do so. Brief, disjointed images of stabbing swords and screaming men and Murtagh’s angry face flashed before his eyes.
Then Eragon felt Saphira enter his mind. She swept through his dreams like a great wind, brushing aside his looming nightmare. In the silence that followed, she whispered, All is well, little one. Rest easy; you are safe, and I am with you …. Rest easy.
A sense of profound peace crept over Eragon. He rolled over and drifted off into happier memories, comforted by his awareness of Saphira’s presence.
When Eragon opened his eyes, a
n hour before sunrise, he found himself lying underneath one of Saphira’s vein-webbed wings. She had her tail wrapped around him, and her side was warm against his head. He smiled and crawled out from under her wing even as she lifted her head and yawned.
Good morning, he said.
She yawned again and stretched like a cat.
Eragon bathed, shaved with magic, cleaned the falchion’s scabbard of dried blood from the previous day, and then dressed in one of his elf tunics.
Once he was satisfied he was presentable, and Saphira had finished her tongue bath, they walked to Nasuada’s pavilion. All six of the current shift of Nighthawks were standing outside, their seamed faces set into their usual grim expressions. Eragon waited while a stocky dwarf announced them. Then he entered the tent, and Saphira crawled around to the open panel where she could insert her head and participate in the discussion.
Eragon bowed to Nasuada where she sat in her high-backed chair carved with blooming thistles. “My Lady, you asked me to come here to talk about my future; you said you had a most important mission for me.”
“I did, and I do,” said Nasuada. “Please, be seated.” She indicated a folding chair next to Eragon. Tilting the sword at his waist so it would not catch, he settled into the chair. “As you know, Galbatorix has sent battalions to the cities of Aroughs, Feinster, and Belatona in an attempt to prevent us from taking them by siege or, failing that, to slow our progress and force us to divide our own troops so we would be more vulnerable to the depredations of the soldiers who were camped north of us. After yesterday’s battle, our scouts reported that the last of Galbatorix’s men withdrew to parts unknown. I was going to strike at those soldiers days ago, but I had to refrain since you were absent. Without you, Murtagh and Thorn could have slaughtered our warriors with impunity, and we had no way of discovering whether the two of them were among the soldiers. Now that you are with us again, our position is somewhat improved, although not as much as I had hoped, given that we must now also contend with Galbatorix’s latest artifice, these men without pain. Our only encouragement is that the two of you, along with Islanzadí’s spellcasters, have proved you can fend off Murtagh and Thorn. Upon that hope depends our plan for victory.”
That red runt is no match for me, said Saphira. If he did not have Murtagh protecting him, I would trap him against the ground and shake him by the neck until he submitted to me and acknowledged me as leader of the hunt.
“I am sure you would,” said Nasuada, smiling.
Eragon asked, “What course of action have you decided upon, then?”
“I have decided upon several courses, and we must undertake them all simultaneously if any are to be successful. First, we cannot push farther into the Empire, leaving cities behind us that Galbatorix still controls. To do that would be to expose ourselves to attacks from both the front and the rear and to invite Galbatorix to invade and seize Surda while we were absent. So I have already ordered the Varden to march north, to the nearest place where we can safely cross the Jiet River. Once we are on the other side of the river, I will send warriors south to capture Aroughs while King Orrin and I continue with the remainder of our forces to Feinster, which, with your help and Saphira’s, should fall before us without too much trouble.
“While we are engaged in the tedious business of tramping across the countryside, I have other responsibilities for you, Eragon.” She leaned forward in her seat. “We need the full help of the dwarves. The elves are fighting for us in the north of Alagaësia, the Surdans have joined with us body and mind, and even the Urgals have allied themselves with us. But we need the dwarves. We cannot succeed without them. Especially now that we must contend with soldiers who cannot feel pain.”
“Have the dwarves chosen a new king or queen yet?”
Nasuada grimaced. “Narheim assures me that the process is moving apace, but like the elves, dwarves take a longer view of time than we do. Apace for them might mean months of deliberations.”
“Don’t they realize the urgency of the situation?”
“Some do, but many oppose helping us in this war, and they seek to delay the proceedings as long as possible and to install one of their own upon the marble throne in Tronjheim. The dwarves have lived in hiding for so long, they have become dangerously suspicious of outsiders. If someone hostile to our aims wins the throne, we shall lose the dwarves. We cannot allow that to happen. Nor can we wait for the dwarves to resolve their differences at their usual pace. But”—she raised a finger—“from so far away, I cannot effectively intervene in their politics. Even if I were in Tronjheim, I could not ensure a favorable outcome; the dwarves do not take kindly to anyone who is not of their clans meddling in their government. So I want you, Eragon, to travel to Tronjheim in my stead and do what you can to ensure that the dwarves choose a new monarch in an expeditious manner—and that they choose a monarch who is sympathetic to our cause.”
“King Hrothgar adopted you into Dûrgrimst Ingeitum. According to their laws and customs, you are a dwarf, Eragon. You have a legal right to participate in the hallmeets of the Ingeitum, and as Orik is set to become their chief, and as he is your foster brother and a friend of the Varden’s, I am sure he will agree to let you accompany him into the secret councils of the thirteen clans where they elect their rulers.”
Her proposal seemed preposterous to Eragon. “What about Murtagh and Thorn? When they return, as they surely will, Saphira and I are the only ones who can hold our own against them, albeit with some assistance. If we are not here, no one will be able to stop them from killing you or Arya or Orrin or the rest of the Varden.”
The gap between Nasuada’s eyebrows narrowed. “You dealt Murtagh a stinging defeat yesterday. Most likely, he and Thorn are winging their way back to Urû’baen even as we speak so Galbatorix may interrogate them about the battle and chastise them for their failure. He will not send them to attack us again until he is confident that they can overwhelm you. Murtagh is surely uncertain about the true limits of your strength now, so that unhappy event may yet be some while off. Between now and then, I believe you will have enough time to travel back and forth between Farthen Dûr.”
“You could be wrong,” argued Eragon. “Besides, how would you keep Galbatorix from learning about our absence and attacking while we are gone? I doubt you have found all of the spies he has seeded among us.”
Nasuada tapped her fingers on the arms of her chair. “I said I wanted you to go to Farthen Dûr, Eragon. I did not say I wanted Saphira to go as well.” Turning her head, Saphira released a small puff of smoke that drifted toward the peak of the tent.
“I’m not about to—”
“Let me finish, please, Eragon.”
He clamped shut his jaw and glared at her, his left hand tight around the pommel of the falchion.
“You are not beholden to me, Saphira, but my hope is that you will agree to stay here while Eragon journeys to the dwarves so that we can deceive the Empire and the Varden as to Eragon’s whereabouts. If we can hide your departure”—she gestured at Eragon—“from the masses, no one will have any reason to suspect you are not still here. We will only have to devise a suitable excuse, then, to account for your sudden desire to remain in your tent during the day—perhaps that you and Saphira are flying sorties into enemy territory at night and so must rest while the sun is up.
“In order for the ruse to work, however, Blödhgarm and his companions will have to stay here as well, both to avoid arousing suspicion and for reasons of defense. If Murtagh and Thorn reappear while you are gone, Arya can take your place on Saphira. Between her, Blödhgarm’s spellcasters, and the magicians of Du Vrangr Gata, we should have a fair chance of thwarting Murtagh.”
In a harsh voice, Eragon said, “If Saphira doesn’t fly me to Farthen Dûr, then how am I supposed to travel there in a timely fashion?”
“By running. You told me yourself you ran much of the distance from Helgrind. I expect that without having to hide from
soldiers or peasants you can traverse many more leagues each day on the way to Farthen Dûr than you were able to in the Empire.” Again Nasuada drummed the polished wood of her chair. “Of course, it would be foolish to go alone. Even a powerful magician can die of a simple accident in the far reaches of the wilderness if he has no one to help him. Shepherding you through the Beor Mountains would be a waste of Arya’s talents, and people would notice if one of Blödhgarm’s elves disappeared without explanation. Therefore, I have decided that a Kull should accompany you, as they are the only other creatures capable of matching your pace.”
“A Kull!” exclaimed Eragon, unable to contain himself any longer. “You would send me among the dwarves with a Kull by my side? I cannot think of any race the dwarves hate more than the Urgals. They make bows out of their horns! If I walked into Farthen Dûr with an Urgal, the dwarves would not pay heed to anything I had to say.”
“I am well aware of that,” said Nasuada. “Which is why you will not go directly to Farthen Dûr. Instead, you will first stop at Bregan Hold on Mount Thardûr, which is the ancestral home of the Ingeitum. There you will find Orik, and there you can leave the Kull while you continue on to Farthen Dûr in Orik’s company.”
Staring somewhat beyond Nasuada, Eragon said, “And what if I do not agree with the path you have chosen? What if I believe there are other, safer ways to accomplish what you desire?”
“What ways would those be, pray tell?” asked Nasuada, her fingers pausing in midair.
“I would have to think about it, but I am sure they exist.”
“I have thought about it, Eragon, and at great length. Having you act as my emissary is our only hope of influencing the succession of the dwarves. I was raised among dwarves, remember, and I have a better understanding of them than most humans.”
“I still believe it’s a mistake,” he growled. “Send Jörmundur instead, or one of your other commanders. I won’t go, not while—”
“You wont?” said Nasuada, her voice rising. “A vassal who disobeys his lord is no better than a warrior who ignores his captain on the field of battle and may be punished similarly. As your liegelord, then, Eragon, I order you to run to Farthen Dûr, whether you want to or not, and to oversee the choosing of the next ruler of the dwarves.”