“Hold the line!” shouted Martland, dismounting and planting himself with spread legs on the edge of the riverbank. “Don’t let them regain the shore!”
Roran dropped into a half crouch, ground his heels into the soft earth until he was comfortable with his stance, and waited for the large soldier standing in the cold water several feet in front of him to attack. With a roar, the soldier splashed out of the shallows, swinging his sword at Roran, which Roran caught on his shield. Roran retaliated with a stroke of his hammer, but the soldier blocked him with his own shield and then cut at Roran’s legs. For several seconds, they exchanged blows, but neither wounded the other. Then Roran shattered the man’s left forearm, knocking him back several paces. The soldier merely smiled and uttered a mirthless, soul-chilling laugh.
Roran wondered whether he or any of his companions would survive the night. They’re harder to kill than snakes. We can cut them to ribbons, and they’ll still keep coming at us unless we hit something vital. His next thought vanished as the soldier rushed at him again, his notched sword flickering in the pale light like a tongue of flame.
Thereafter, the battle assumed a nightmarish quality for Roran. The strange, baleful light gave the water and the soldiers an unearthly aspect, bleaching them of color and projecting long, thin, razor-sharp shadows across the shifting water, while beyond and all around, the fullness of night prevailed. Again and again, he repelled the soldiers who stumbled out of the water to kill him, hammering at them until they were barely recognizable as human, and yet they would not die. With every blow, medallions of black blood stained the surface of the river, like blots of spilled ink, and drifted away on the current. The deadly sameness of each clash numbed and horrified Roran. No matter how hard he strove, there was always another mutilated soldier there to slash and stab at him. And always the demented giggling of men who knew they were dead and yet continued to maintain a semblance of life even while the Varden destroyed their bodies.
And then silence.
Roran remained crouched behind his shield with his hammer half raised, gasping and drenched with sweat and blood. A minute passed before it dawned on him that no one stood in the water before him. He glanced left and right three times, unable to grasp that the soldiers were finally, blessedly, irrevocably dead. A corpse floated past him in the glittering water.
An inarticulate bellow escaped him as a hand gripped his right arm. He whipped around, snarling and pulling away, only to see Carn next to him. The wan, gore-smeared spellcaster was speaking. “We won, Roran! Eh? They’re gone! We vanquished them!”
Roran let his arms drop and tilted his head back, too tired even to sit. He felt … he felt as if his senses were abnormally sharp, and yet his emotions were dull, muted things, tamped down somewhere deep inside of himself. He was glad it was so; otherwise, he thought he would go mad.
“Gather up and inspect the wagons!” shouted Martland. “The sooner you bestir yourselves, the sooner we can leave this accursed place! Carn, attend to Welmar. I don’t like the look of that gash.”
With an enormous effort of will, Roran turned and trudged across the bank to the nearest wagon. Blinking away the sweat that dripped from his brow, he saw that of their original force, only nine were still fit to stand. He pushed the observation out of his mind. Mourn later, not now.
As Martland Redbeard walked across the corpse-strewn encampment, a soldier who Roran had assumed was dead flipped over and, from the ground, lopped off the earl’s right hand. With a movement so graceful it appeared practiced, Martland kicked the sword out of the soldier’s grip, then knelt on the soldier’s throat and, using his left hand, drew a dagger from his belt and stabbed the man through one of his ears, killing him. His face flushed and strained, Martland shoved the stump of his wrist under his left armpit and waved away everyone who rushed over to him. “Leave me alone! It’s hardly a wound at all. Get to those wagons! Unless you wastrels hurry up, we’ll be here so long, my beard will turn white as snow. Go on!” When Carn refused to budge, however, Martland scowled and shouted, “Begone with you, or I’ll have you flogged for insubordination, I will!”
Carn held up Martland’s wayward hand. “I might be able to re-attach it, but I’ll need a few minutes.”
“Ah, confound it, give me that!” exclaimed Martland, and snatched his hand away from Carn. He tucked it inside his tunic. “Stop fretting about me and save Welmar and Lindel if you can. You can try reattaching it once we’ve put a few leagues between us and these monsters.”
“It might be too late then,” said Carn.
“That was an order, spellcaster, not a request!” thundered Martland. As Carn retreated, the earl used his teeth to tie off the sleeve of his tunic over the stump of his arm, which he again stuck in his left armpit. Sweat beaded his face. “Right, then! What misbegotten items are hidden in those confounded wagons?”
“Rope!” someone shouted.
“Whiskey!” shouted someone else.
Martland grunted. “Ulhart, you record the figures for me.”
Roran helped the others as they rifled through each of the wagons, calling out the contents to Ulhart. Afterward, they slaughtered the teams of oxen and lit the wagons on fire, as before. Then they rounded up their horses and mounted them, tying the injured into their saddles.
When they were ready to depart, Carn gestured toward the flare of light in the sky and murmured a long, tangled word. Night enveloped the world. Glancing up, Roran beheld a throbbing afterimage of Carn’s face superimposed over the faint stars, and then as he became accustomed to the darkness, he beheld the soft gray shapes of thousands of disoriented moths scattering across the sky like the shades of men’s souls.
His heart heavy within him, Roran touched his heels to Snowfire’s flanks and rode away from the remnants of the convoy.
BLOOD ON THE ROCKS
Frustrated, Eragon stormed out of the circular chamber buried deep under the center of Tronjheim. The oak door slammed shut behind him with a hollow boom.
Eragon stood with his hands on his hips in the middle of the arched corridor outside the chamber and glared at the floor, which was tessellated with rectangles of agate and jade. Since he and Orik had arrived in Tronjheim, three days ago, the thirteen chiefs of the dwarf clans had done nothing but argue about issues that Eragon considered inconsequential, such as which clans had the right to graze their flocks in certain disputed pastures. As he listened to the clan chiefs debate obscure points of their legal code, Eragon often felt like shouting that they were being blind fools who were going to doom all of Alagaësia to Galbatorix’s rule unless they put aside their petty concerns and chose a new ruler without further delay.
Still lost in thought, Eragon slowly walked down the corridor, barely noticing the four guards who followed him—as they did wherever he went—nor the dwarves he passed in the hall, who greeted him with variations of “Argetlam.” The worst one is Íorûnn, Eragon decided. The dwarf woman was the grimstborith of Dûrgrimst Vrenshrrgn, a powerful, warlike clan, and she had made it clear, from the very beginning of the deliberations, that she intended to have the throne for herself. Only one other clan, the Urzhad, had openly pledged themselves to her cause, but as she had demonstrated on multiple occasions during the meetings between the clan chiefs, she was clever, cunning, and able to twist most any situation to her advantage. She might make an excellent queen, Eragon admitted to himself, but she’s so devious, it’s impossible to know whether she would support the Varden once she was enthroned. He allowed himself a wry smile. Talking with Íorûnn was always awkward for him. The dwarves considered her a great beauty, and even by the standards of humans, she cut a striking figure. Besides which, she seemed to have developed a fascination with Eragon that he was unable to fathom. In every conversation they had, she insisted upon making allusions to the dwarves’ history and mythology that Eragon did not understand but that seemed to amuse Orik and the other dwarves to no end.
In addition to Íorûnn, two other clan chiefs
had emerged as rivals for the throne: Gannel, chief of Dûrgrimst Quan, and Nado, chief of Dûrgrimst Knurlcarathn. As the custodians of the dwarves’ religion, the Quan wielded enormous influence among their race, but so far, Gannel had obtained the support of but two other clans, Dûrgrimst Ragni Hefthyn and Dûrgrimst Ebardac—a clan primarily devoted to scholarly research. In contrast, Nado had forged a larger coalition, consisting of the clans Feldûnost, Fanghur, and Az Sweldn rak Anhûin.
Whereas Íorûnn seemed to want the throne merely for the power she would gain thereafter, and Gannel did not seem inherently hostile to the Varden—although neither was he friendly toward them—Nado was openly and vehemently opposed to any involvement with Eragon, Nasuada, the Empire, Galbatorix, Queen Islanzadí, or, so far as Eragon could tell, any living being outside of the Beor Mountains. The Knurlcarathn were the stoneworkers’ clan and, in men and material goods, they had no equal, for every other clan depended upon their expertise for the tunneling and the building of their abodes, and even the Ingeitum needed them to mine the ore for their smiths. And if Nado’s bid for the crown should falter, Eragon knew that many of the other, lesser clan chiefs who shared his views would leap up to take his place. Az Sweldn rak Anhûin, for example—whom Galbatorix and the Forsworn had nearly obliterated during their uprising—had declared themselves Eragon’s blood enemies during his visit to the city of Tarnag and, in every action of theirs at the clanmeet, had demonstrated their implacable hatred of Eragon, Saphira, and all things to do with dragons and those who rode them. They had objected to Eragon’s very presence at the meetings of the clan chiefs, even though it was perfectly legal by dwarf law, and forced a vote on the issue, thereby delaying the proceedings another six unnecessary hours.
One of these days, thought Eragon, I will have to find a way to make peace with them. That or I’ll have to finish what Galbatorix started. I refuse to live my entire life in fear of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin. Again, as he had done so often in the past few days, he waited a moment for Saphira’s response, and when it was not forthcoming, a familiar pang of unhappiness lanced his heart.
How secure the alliances between any of the clans were, however, was a question of some uncertainty. Neither Orik nor Íorûnn nor Gannel nor Nado had enough support to win a popular vote, so they were all actively engaged in trying to retain the loyalties of the clans who had already promised to help them while at the same time trying to poach their opponents’ backers. Despite the importance of the process, Eragon found it exceedingly tedious and frustrating.
Based upon Orik’s explanation, it was Eragon’s understanding that before the clan chiefs could elect a ruler, they had to vote on whether they were prepared to choose a new king or queen and that the preliminary election had to garner at least nine votes in its favor if it was to pass. As of yet, none of the clan chiefs, Orik included, felt secure enough in their positions to bring the matter to a head and proceed to the final election. It was, as Orik had said, the most delicate part of the process and, in some instances, had been known to drag on for a frustratingly long time.
As he pondered the situation, Eragon wandered aimlessly through the warren of chambers below Tronjheim until he found himself in a dry, dusty room lined with five black arches on one side and a bas-relief carving of a snarling bear twenty feet high on the other. The bear had gold teeth and round, faceted rubies for eyes.
“Where are we, Kvîstor?” asked Eragon, glancing at his guards. His voice spawned hollow echoes in the room. Eragon could sense the minds of many of the dwarves in the levels above them, but he had no idea how to reach them.
The lead guard, a youngish dwarf no older than sixty, stepped forward. “These rooms were cleared millennia ago by Grimstnzborith Korgan, when Tronjheim was under construction. We have not used them much since, except when our entire race congregates in Farthen Dûr.”
Eragon nodded. “Can you lead me back to the surface?”
“Of course, Argetlam.”
Several minutes of brisk walking brought them to a broad staircase with shallow, dwarf-sized steps that climbed out of the ground to a passageway somewhere in the southwestern quadrant of Tronjheim’s base. From there Kvîstor guided Eragon to the southern branch of the four mile-long hallways that divided Tronjheim along the cardinal compass points.
It was the same hallway through which Eragon and Saphira had first entered Tronjheim several months ago, and Eragon walked down it, toward the center of the city-mountain, with a strange sense of nostalgia. He felt as if he had aged several years in the interim.
The four-story-high avenue thronged with dwarves from every clan. All of them noticed Eragon, of that he was sure, but not all deigned to acknowledge him, for which he was grateful, as it saved him the effort of having to return even more greetings.
Eragon stiffened as he saw a line of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin cross the hallway. As one, the dwarves turned their heads and looked at him, their expressions obscured behind the purple veils those of their clan always wore in public. The last dwarf in line spat on the floor toward Eragon before filing through an archway and out of the hall along with his or her brethren.
If Saphira were here, they would not dare to be so rude, thought Eragon.
A half hour later, he reached the end of the majestic hallway, and although he had been there many times before, a sense of awe and wonder overwhelmed him as he stepped between the pillars of black onyx topped with yellow zircons thrice the size of a man and entered the circular chamber in the heart of Tronjheim.
The chamber was a thousand feet from side to side, with a floor of polished carnelian etched with a hammer surrounded by twelve pentacles, which was the crest of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum and of the dwarves’ first king, Korgan, who had discovered Farthen Dûr while mining for gold. Opposite Eragon and to either side were the openings to the three other halls that radiated out through the city-mountain. The chamber had no ceiling but ascended all the way to the top of Tronjheim, a mile overhead. There it opened to the dragonhold where Eragon and Saphira had resided before Arya broke the star sapphire, and then to the sky beyond: a rich blue disk that seemed unimaginably distant, ringed as it was by the open mouth of Farthen Dûr, the hollow ten-mile-high mountain that sheltered Tronjheim from the rest of the world.
Only a scant amount of daylight filtered down to the base of Tronjheim. The City of Eternal Twilight, the elves called it. Since so little of the sun’s radiance entered the city-mountain—except for a dazzling half hour before and after noon during the height of summer—the dwarves illuminated the interior with uncounted numbers of their flameless lanterns. Thousands of them were on glorious display in the chamber. A bright lantern hung from the outside of every other pillar of the curved arcades that lined each level of the city-mountain, and even more lanterns were mounted within the arcades, marking the entrances to strange and unknown rooms, as well as the path of Vol Turin, the Endless Staircase, which spiraled around the chamber from top to bottom. The effect was both moody and spectacular. The lanterns were of many different colors, making it appear as if the interior of the chamber were dotted with glowing jewels.
Their glory, however, paled beside the splendor of a real jewel, the greatest jewel of them all: Isidar Mithrim. On the floor of the chamber, the dwarves had built a wooden scaffold sixty feet in diameter, and within the enclosure of fitted oak beams, they were, piece by precious piece, reassembling the shattered star sapphire with the utmost care and delicacy. The shards they had yet to place they had stored in open-topped boxes padded with nests of raw wool, each box labeled with a line of spidery runes. The boxes were spread out across a large portion of the western side of the vast room. Perhaps three hundred dwarves sat hunched over them, intent on their work as they strove to fit the shards together into a cohesive whole. Another group bustled about the scaffolding, tending to the fragmented gem within, as well as building additional structures.
Eragon watched them at their labor for several minutes, then wandered over to the section of the floor D
urza had broken when he and his Urgal warriors had entered Tronjheim from the tunnels below. With the tip of his boot, Eragon tapped the polished stone in front of him. No trace of the damage Durza had wrought remained. The dwarves had done a marvelous job of erasing the marks left by the Battle of Farthen Dûr, although Eragon hoped they would commemorate the battle with a memorial of some sort, for he felt it was important that future generations not forget the cost in blood the dwarves and the Varden had paid during the course of their struggle against Galbatorix.
As Eragon walked toward the scaffolding, he nodded at Skeg, who was standing on a platform overlooking the star sapphire. Eragon had met the thin, quick-fingered dwarf before. Skeg was of Dûrgrimst Gedthrall, and it was to him King Hrothgar had entrusted the restoration of the dwarves’ most valuable treasure.
Skeg gestured for Eragon to climb up onto the platform. A sparkling vista of slanting, needle-sharp spires, glittering, paperthin edges, and rippling surfaces confronted Eragon as he heaved himself onto the rough-hewn planks. The top of the star sapphire reminded him of the ice on the Anora River in Palancar Valley at the end of winter, when the ice had melted and refrozen multiple times and was treacherous to walk over, on account of the bumps and ridges the swings in temperature had cast up. Only instead of blue, white, or clear, the remnants of the star sapphire were a soft, rosy pink, shot through with traces of dusky orange.
“How goes it?” asked Eragon.
Skeg shrugged and fluttered his hands in the air like a pair of butterflies. “It goes as it does, Argetlam. You cannot hurry perfection.”
“It looks to me as if you are making quick progress.”
With a bony forefinger, Skeg tapped the side of his broad, flat nose. “The top of Isidar Mithrim, what is now the bottom, Arya broke it into large pieces, which are easy to fit together. The bottom of Isidar Mithrim, though, what is now the top …” Skeg shook his head, his lined face doleful. “The force of the break, all the pieces pushing against the face of the gem, pushing away from Arya and the dragon Saphira, pushing down toward you and that blackhearted Shade … it cracked the petals of the rose into ever-smaller fragments. And the rose, Argetlam, the rose is the key to the gem. It is the most complex, the most beautiful part of Isidar Mithrim. And it is in the most pieces. Unless we can reassemble it, every last speck where it ought to be, we might as well give the gem to our jewelers and have them grind it into rings for our mothers.” The words spilled out of Skeg like water from an overflowing beaker. He shouted in Dwarvish at a dwarf carrying a box across the chamber, then tugged at his white beard and asked, “Have you ever heard recounted, Argetlam, the tale of how Isidar Mithrim was carved, in the Age of Herran?”