In a mild tone, Orik said, “This too I believe I can explain to you, Gannel, at least in part. I cannot speak to the activities of the other clans, but several hundred of the warriors who have been hurrying through the servants’ halls in Tronjheim have been of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum. This I freely admit.”
All was silent until Íorûnn said, “And what explanation have you for this belligerent behavior, Orik, Thrifk’s son?”
“As I said before, fair Íorûnn, my answer must of necessity be a lengthy one, so if you, Gannel, have any other questions to ask, I suggest you proceed forthwith.”
Gannel’s frown deepened until his projecting eyebrows nearly touched. He said, “I will withhold mine other questions for the time being, for they all pertain to those I have already put to the meet, and it seems we must wait upon your pleasure to learn any more of those subjects. However, since you are involved fist and foot with these doubtful activities, a new question has occurred to me that I would ask of you specifically, Grimstborith Orik. For what reason did you desert yesterday’s meet? And let me warn you, I will brook no evasions. You have already intimated you have knowledge of these affairs. Well, time is for you to provide a full accounting of yourself, Grimstborith Orik.”
Orik stood even as Gannel sat, and he said, “It shall be mine pleasure.”
Lowering his bearded chin until it rested upon his chest, Orik paused for a brief span and then began to speak in a sonorous voice, but he did not begin as Eragon had expected, nor, Eragon surmised, as the rest of the congregation had expected. Instead of describing the attempt on Eragon’s life, and thus explaining why he had terminated the previous clanmeet prematurely, Orik commenced by recounting how, at the dawn of history, the race of dwarves had migrated from the once-verdant fields of the Hadarac Desert to the Beor Mountains, where they had excavated their uncounted miles of tunnels, built their magnificent cities both above and below the ground, and waged lusty war between their various factions, as well as with the dragons, whom, for thousands of years, the dwarves had regarded with a combination of hate, fear, and reluctant awe.
Then Orik spoke of the elves’ arrival in Alagaësia and of how the elves had fought with the dragons until they nearly destroyed each other and of how, as a result, the two races had agreed to create the Dragon Riders to maintain the peace thereafter.
“And what was our response when we learned of their intentions?” demanded Orik, his voice ringing loud in the chamber. “Did we ask to be included in their pact? Did we aspire to share in the power that would be the Dragon Riders’? No! We clung to our old ways, our old hatreds, and we rejected the very thought of bonding with the dragons or allowing anyone outside our realm to police us. To preserve our authority, we sacrificed our future, for I am convinced that if some of the Dragon Riders had been knurlan, Galbatorix might have never risen to power. Even if I am wrong—and I mean not to belittle Eragon, who has proven himself a fine Rider—the dragon Saphira might have hatched for one of our race and not a human. And then what glory might have been ours?
“Instead, our importance in Alagaësia has diminished ever since Queen Tarmunora and Eragon’s namesake made peace with the dragons. At first our lessened status was not so bitter a draught to swallow, and often it was easier to deny than to accept. But then came the Urgals, and then the humans, and the elves amended their spells so humans might be Riders as well. And then did we seek to be included in their accord, as well we might have … as was our right?” Orik shook his head. “Our pride would not allow it. Why should we, the oldest race in the land, beg the elves for the favor of their magic? We did not need to chain our fate to the dragons’ in order to save our race from destruction, as had the elves and humans. We ignored, of course, the battles we waged among ourselves. Those, we reasoned, were private affairs and of no concern to anyone else.”
The listening clan chiefs stirred. Many of them bore expressions of dissatisfaction at Orik’s criticism, whereas the rest seemed more receptive to his comments and were thoughtful of countenance.
Orik continued: “While the Riders watched over Alagaësia, we enjoyed the greatest period of prosperity ever recorded in the annals of our realm. We flourished as never before, and yet we had no share in the cause of it: the Dragon Riders. When the Riders fell, our fortunes faltered, but again we had no share in the cause of it: the Riders. Neither state of affairs is, I deem, fitting for a race of our stature. We are not a country of vassals subject to the whims of foreign masters. Nor should those who are not the descendants of Odgar and Hlordis dictate our fate.”
This line of reasoning was more to the liking of the clan chiefs; they nodded and smiled, and Havard even clapped a few times at the final line.
“Consider now our present era,” said Orik. “Galbatorix is ascendant, and every race fights to remain free of his rule. He has grown so powerful, the only reason we are not already his slaves is that, so far, he has not chosen to fly out upon his black dragon and attack us directly. If he did, we would fall before him like saplings before an avalanche. Fortunately, he seems content to wait for us to slaughter our way to the gates of his citadel in Urû’baen. Now, I remind you that before Eragon and Saphira turned up wet and bedraggled on our front doorstep, with a hundred yammering Kull hard upon their heels, our only hope of defeating Galbatorix was that someday, somewhere, Saphira would hatch for her chosen Rider and that this unknown person would, perhaps, perchance, if we were luckier than every gambler who has ever won a toss of dice, be able to overthrow Galbatorix. Hope? Ha! We did not even have hope; we had a hope of a hope. When Eragon first presented himself, many of us were dismayed by his appearance, myself included. ‘He is but a boy,’ we said. ‘It would have been better if he had been an elf,’ we said. But lo, he has shown himself to be the embodiment of our every hope! He slew Durza, and so allowed us to save our most beloved city, Tronjheim. His dragon, Saphira, has promised to restore the Star Rose to its former glory. During the Battle of the Burning Plains, he drove off Murtagh and Thorn, and so allowed us to win the day. And look! He even now wears the semblance of an elf, and through their strange magics, he has acquired their speed and their strength.”
Orik raised a finger for emphasis. “Moreover, King Hrothgar, in his wisdom, did what no other king or grimstborith has ever done; he offered to adopt Eragon into Dûrgrimst Ingeitum and to make him a member of his own family. Eragon was under no obligation to accept this offer. Indeed, he was aware that many of the families of the Ingeitum objected to it and that, in general, many knurlan would not regard it with favor. Yet in spite of that discouragement, and in spite of the fact that he was already bound in fealty to Nasuada, Eragon accepted Hrothgar’s gift, knowing full well that it would only make his life harder. As he has told me himself, Eragon swore the hall-oath upon the Heart of Stone because of the sense of obligation he feels toward all the races of Alagaësia, and especially toward us, since we, by the actions of Hrothgar, showed him and Saphira such kindness. Because of Hrothgar’s genius, the last free Rider of Alagaësia, and our one and only hope against Galbatorix, freely chose to become a knurla in all but blood. Since then, Eragon has abided by our laws and traditions to the best of his knowledge, and he has sought to learn ever more about our culture so that he may honor the true meaning of his oath. When Hrothgar fell, struck down by the traitor Murtagh, Eragon swore to me upon every stone in Alagaësia, and also as a member of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, that he would strive to avenge Hrothgar’s death. He has given me the respect and obedience I am due as grimstborith, and I am proud to regard him as mine foster brother.”
Eragon glanced downward, his cheeks and the tips of his ears burning. He wished Orik were not so free with his praise; it would only make his position harder to maintain in the future.
Sweeping his arms out to include the other clan chiefs, Orik exclaimed, “Everything we could have ever wished for in a Dragon Rider we have received in Eragon! He exists! He is powerful! And he has embraced our people as no other Dragon Rider ever has!??
? Then Orik lowered his arms and, with them, the volume of his voice, until Eragon had to strain to hear his words. “How have we responded to his friendship, though? In the main, with sneers and slights and surly resentment. We are an ungrateful race, I say, and our memories are too long for our own good…. There are even those who have become so filled with festering hatred, they have turned to violence to slake the thirst of their anger. Perhaps they still believe they are doing what is best for our people, but if so, then their minds are as moldy as a lump of year-old cheese. Otherwise, why would they try to kill Eragon?”
The listening clan chiefs became perfectly still, their eyes riveted to Orik’s face. So intense was their concentration, the corpulent grimstborith, Freowin, had set aside his carving of a raven and folded his hands on top of his ample belly, appearing for all the world like one of the dwarves’ statues.
As they gazed at him with unblinking eyes, Orik related to the clanmeet how the seven black-clad dwarves had attacked Eragon and his guards while they were meandering among the tunnels underneath Tronjheim. Then Orik told them of the braided horsehair bracelet set with amethyst cabochons that Eragon’s guards had found upon one of the corpses.
“Do not think to blame this attack upon mine clan based upon such paltry evidence!” exclaimed Vermûnd, bolting upright. “One can buy similar trinkets in most every market of our realm!”
“Quite so,” said Orik, and inclined his head toward Vermûnd. In a dispassionate voice, and with a quick pace, Orik proceeded to tell his audience, as he had told Eragon the previous night, how his subjects in Dalgon had confirmed for him that the strange flickering daggers the assassins had wielded had been forged by the smith Kiefna, and also how his subjects had discovered that the dwarf who had bought the weapons had arranged for them to be transported from Dalgon to one of the cities held by Az Sweldn rak Anhûin.
Uttering a low, growling oath, Vermûnd leaped to his feet again. “Those daggers might never have reached our city, and even if they did, you can draw no conclusions from that fact! Knurlan of many clans stay within our walls, as they do within the walls of Bregan Hold, for example. It signifies nothing. Be careful what you say next, Grimstborith Orik, for you have no grounds upon which to level accusations against mine clan.”
“I was of the same opinion as you, Grimstborith Vermûnd,” Orik replied. “Therefore, last night, my spellcasters and I retraced the assassins’ path back to their place of origin, and on the twelfth level of Tronjheim, we captured three knurlan who were hiding in a dusty storeroom. We broke the minds of two of them and, from them, we learned they provisioned the assassins for their attack. And,” said Orik, his voice growing harsh and terrible, “from them we learned the identity of their master. I name you, Grimstborith Vermûnd! I name you Murderer and Oath-breaker. I name you an enemy of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, and I name you a traitor to your kind, for it was you and your clan who attempted to kill Eragon!”
The clanmeet erupted into chaos as every clan chief except Orik and Vermûnd began to shout and wave their hands and otherwise attempt to dominate the conversation. Eragon stood and loosened his borrowed sword in its sheath, drawing it out a half inch, so he could respond with all possible speed if Vermûnd or one of his dwarves chose that moment to attack. Vermûnd did not move, however, nor did Orik; they stared at each other like rival wolves and paid no attention to the commotion around them.
When at last Gannel succeeded in restoring order, he said, “Grimstborith Vermûnd, can you refute these charges?”
In a flat, emotionless voice, Vermûnd replied, “I deny them with every bone in my body, and I challenge anyone to prove them to the satisfaction of a reader-of-law.”
Gannel turned toward Orik. “Present your evidence, then, Grimstborith Orik, that we may judge whether it is valid or not. There are five readers-of-law here today, if I am not mistaken.” He motioned toward the wall, where five white-bearded dwarves stood and bowed. “They will ensure that we do not stray beyond the boundaries of the law in our investigation. Are we agreed?”
“I am agreed,” said Ûndin.
“I am agreed,” said Hadfala and all the rest of the clan chiefs after her save Vermûnd.
First, Orik placed the amethyst bracelet upon the table. Every clan chief had one of their magicians examine it, and all agreed that as evidence it was inconclusive.
Then Orik had an aide bring in a mirror mounted on a bronze tripod. One of the magicians within his retinue cast a spell, and upon the glossy surface of the mirror there appeared the image of a small, book-filled room. A moment passed, and then a dwarf rushed into the room and bowed toward the clanmeet from within the mirror. In a breathless voice, he introduced himself as Rimmar, and after swearing oaths in the ancient language to ensure his honesty, he told the clanmeet how he and his assistants had made their discoveries concerning the daggers Eragon’s attackers had wielded.
When the clan chiefs finished questioning Rimmar, Orik had his warriors bring in the three dwarves the Ingeitum had captured. Gannel ordered them to swear the oaths of truthfulness in the ancient language, but they cursed at him and spat on the floor and refused. Then magicians from all of the different clans joined their thoughts, invaded the prisoners’ minds, and wrested from them the information the clanmeet desired. Without exception, the magicians confirmed what Orik had already said.
Lastly, Orik called upon Eragon to testify. Eragon felt nervous as he walked over to the table and the thirteen grim clan chiefs stared at him. He gazed across the room at a small whorl of color on a marble pillar and tried to ignore his discomfort. He repeated the oaths of truthfulness as one of the dwarf magicians gave them to him, and then, speaking no more than was necessary, Eragon told the clan chiefs how he and his guards had been attacked. Afterward, he answered the dwarves’ inevitable questions and then allowed two of the magicians—whom Gannel chose at random from among those assembled—to examine his memories of the event. As Eragon lowered the barriers around his mind, he noted that the two magicians appeared apprehensive, and he drew some comfort from the observation. Good, he thought. They will be less likely to wander where they should not if they fear me.
To Eragon’s relief, the inspection went without incident, and the magicians corroborated his account to the clan chiefs.
Gannel rose from his chair and addressed the readers-of-law, asking them: “Are you satisfied with the quality of the evidence Grimstborith Orik and Eragon Shadeslayer have shown us?”
The five white-bearded dwarves bowed, and the middle dwarf said, “We are, Grimstborith Gannel.”
Gannel grunted, seeming unsurprised. “Grimstborith Vermûnd, you are responsible for the death of Kvîstor, son of Bauden, and you attempted to kill a guest. By doing so, you have brought shame upon our entire race. What say you to this?”
The clan chief of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin pressed his hands flat against the table, veins bulging underneath his tanned skin. “If this Dragon Rider is a knurla in all but blood, then he is no guest and we may treat him as we would any of our enemies from a different clan.”
“Why, that’s preposterous!” exclaimed Orik, almost sputtering with outrage. “You can’t say he—”
“Still your tongue, if you please, Orik,” said Gannel. “Shouting will not settle this point. Orik, Nado, Íorûnn, if you will come with me.”
Worry began to gnaw at Eragon as the four dwarves went and conferred with the readers-of-law for several minutes. Surely they won’t let Vermûnd escape punishment just because of some verbal trickery! he thought.
Returning to the table, Íorûnn said, “The readers-of-law are unanimous. Even though Eragon is a sworn member of Dûrgrimst Ingeitum, he also holds positions of importance beyond our realm: namely, that of Dragon Rider, but also that of an official envoy of the Varden, sent by Nasuada to witness the coronation of our next ruler, and also that of a friend of high influence with Queen Islanzadí and her race as a whole. For those reasons, Eragon is due the same hospitality we would extend to any
visiting ambassador, prince, monarch, or other person of significance.” The dwarf woman glanced sidelong at Eragon, her dark, flashing eyes bold upon his limbs. “In short, he is our honored guest, and we should treat him as such … which every knurla who is not cave-mad ought to know.”
“Aye, he is our guest,” concurred Nado. His lips were pinched and white and his cheeks drawn, as if he had just bitten into an apple only to discover it was not yet ripe.
“What say you now, Vermûnd?” demanded Gannel.
Rising from his seat, the purple-veiled dwarf looked around the table, gazing at each of the clan chiefs in turn. “I say this, and hear me well, grimstborithn: if any clan turns their ax against Az Sweldn rak Anhûin because of these false accusations, we shall consider it an act of war, and we shall respond appropriately. If you imprison me, that too we shall consider an act of war, and we shall respond appropriately.” Eragon saw Vermûnd’s veil twitch, and he thought the dwarf might have smiled underneath. “If you strike at us in any possible way, whether with steel or with words, no matter how mild your rebuke, we shall consider it an act of war, and we shall respond appropriately. Unless you are eager to rend our country into a thousand bloody scraps, I suggest you let the wind waft away this morning’s discussion and, in its place, fill your minds with thoughts of who should next rule from upon the granite throne.”
The clan chiefs sat in silence for a long while.
Eragon had to bite his tongue to keep from jumping onto the table and railing against Vermûnd until the dwarves agreed to hang him for his crimes. He reminded himself that he had promised Orik that he would follow Orik’s lead when dealing with the clanmeet. Orik is my clan chief, and I must let him respond to this as he sees fit.
Freowin unfolded his hands and slapped the table with a meaty palm. With his hoarse baritone voice, which carried throughout the room, although it seemed no louder than a whisper, the corpulent dwarf said, “You have shamed our race, Vermûnd. We cannot retain our honor as knurlan and ignore your trespass.”