At least he’s not a Kull, thought Roran. He was confident of his own strength, but even so, he did not believe that he could over-power Yarbog with sheer force. Rare was the man who could hope to match the physical prowess of a healthy Urgal ram. Also, Roran knew that Yarbog’s large black fingernails, his fangs, his horns, and his leathery hide would all provide Yarbog with considerable advantages in the unarmed combat they were about to engage in. If I can, I will, Roran decided, thinking of all the low tricks he could use against the Urgal, for fighting Yarbog would not be like wrestling with Eragon or Baldor or any other man from Carvahall; rather, Roran was sure that it would be like the ferocious and unrestrained brawling between two wild beasts.
Again and again, Roran’s eyes returned to Yarbog’s immense horns, for those, he knew, were the most dangerous of the Urgal’s features. With them, Yarbog could butt and gore Roran with impunity, and they would also protect the sides of Yarbog’s head from any blows Roran could deliver with his bare hands, although they limited the Urgal’s peripheral vision. Then it occurred to Roran that just as the horns were Yarbog’s greatest natural gift, so too they might be his undoing.
Roran rolled his shoulders and bounced on the balls of his feet, eager for the contest to be over.
When both Roran and Yarbog were completely covered with bear grease, their seconds retreated and they stepped into the confines of the square pegged out on the ground. Roran kept his knees partially flexed, ready to leap in any direction at the slightest hint of movement from Yarbog. The rocky soil was cold, hard, and rough beneath the soles of his bare feet.
A slight gust stirred the branches of the nearby willow tree. One of the oxen harnessed to the wagons pawed at a clump of grass, his tack creaking.
With a rippling bellow, Yarbog charged Roran, covering the distance between them with three thundering steps. Roran waited until Yarbog was nearly upon him, then jumped to the right. He underestimated Yarbog’s speed, however. Lowering his head, the Urgal rammed his horns into Roran’s left shoulder and tossed him sprawling across the square.
Sharp rocks poked into Roran’s side as he landed. Lines of pain flashed across his back, tracing the paths of his half-healed wounds. He grunted and rolled upright, feeling several scabs break open, exposing his raw flesh to the stinging air. Dirt and small pebbles clung to the film of grease on his body. Keeping both feet on the ground, he shuffled toward Yarbog, never taking his eyes off the snarling Urgal.
Again Yarbog charged him, and again Roran attempted to jump out of the way. This time his maneuver succeeded, and he slipped past the Urgal with inches to spare. Whirling around, Yarbog ran at him for a third time, and once more, Roran managed to evade him.
Then Yarbog changed tactics. Advancing sideways, like a crab, he thrust out his large, hooked hands to catch Roran and pull him into his deadly embrace. Roran flinched and retreated. Whatever happened, he had to avoid falling into Yarbog’s clutches; with his immense strength, the Urgal could soon dispatch him.
The men and Urgals gathered around the square were silent, their faces impassive as they watched Roran and Yarbog scuffle back and forth in the dirt.
For several minutes, Roran and Yarbog exchanged quick glancing blows. Roran avoided closing with the Urgal wherever possible, trying to wear him out from a distance, but as the fight dragged on and Yarbog seemed no more tired than when they had begun, Roran realized that time was not his friend. If he was going to win, he had to end the fight without further delay.
Hoping to provoke Yarbog into charging again—for his strategy depended upon just that—Roran withdrew to the far corner of the square and began to taunt him, saying, “Ha! You are as fat and slow as a milk cow! Can’t you catch me, Yarbog, or are your legs made of lard? You should cut off your horns in shame for letting a human make a fool of you. What will your prospective mates think when they hear of this? Will you tell them—”
Yarbog drowned out Roran’s words with a roar. The Urgal sprinted toward him, turning slightly, so as to crash into Roran with his full weight. Skipping out of the way, Roran reached out for the tip of Yarbog’s right horn but missed his mark and fell stumbling into the middle of the square, skinning both knees. He cursed to himself as he regained his footing.
Checking his headlong rush just before momentum carried him beyond the boundaries of the square, Yarbog turned back, his small yellow eyes searching for Roran. “Yah!” shouted Roran. He stuck out his tongue and made every rude gesture he could think of. “You couldn’t hit a tree even if it was in front of you!”
“Die, puny human!” Yarbog growled, and sprang at Roran, arms outstretched.
Two of Yarbog’s nails carved bloody furrows across Roran’s ribs as Roran darted to his left, but he still managed to grasp and hang on to one of the Urgal’s horns. Roran grabbed the other horn as well before Yarbog could throw him off. Using the horns as handles, Roran wrenched Yarbog’s head to one side and, straining every muscle, cast the Urgal to the ground. Roran’s back flared in angry protest at the motion.
As soon as Yarbog’s chest touched the dirt, Roran placed a knee on top of his right shoulder, pinning him in place. Yarbog snorted and bucked, trying to break Roran’s grip, but Roran refused to let go. He braced his feet against a rock and twisted the Urgal’s head as far around as it would go, pulling so hard he would have broken the neck of any human. The grease on his palms made it difficult to hold on to Yarbog’s horns.
Yarbog relaxed for a moment, then pushed himself off the ground with his left arm, lifting Roran as well, and scrabbled with his legs in an effort to get them underneath his body. Roran grimaced and leaned against Yarbog’s neck and shoulder. After a handful of seconds, Yarbog’s left arm buckled and he fell flat on his stomach again.
Both Roran and Yarbog were panting as heavily as if they had run a race. Where they touched, the bristles on the Urgal’s hide poked Roran like pieces of stiff wire. Dust coated their bodies. Thin streams of blood ran down from the scratches on Roran’s side and from his aching back.
Yarbog resumed kicking and flailing once he had regained his breath, flopping around in the dirt like a hooked fish. It took all of Roran’s strength, but he hung on, trying to ignore the stones that cut his feet and legs. Unable to free himself by those methods, Yarbog let his limbs go limp and then began to flex his neck again and again, in an attempt to exhaust Roran’s arms.
They lay there, neither of them moving more than a few inches as they struggled against each other.
A fly buzzed over them and landed on Roran’s ankle.
After nearly ten minutes, sweat drenched Roran’s face. He could not seem to get enough air into his lungs. His arms seared with agony. The stripes on his back felt as if they were about to tear asunder. His ribs throbbed where Yarbog had clawed him.
Roran knew he could not continue for much longer. Blast it! he thought. Won’t he ever give up?
Just then, Yarbog’s head quivered as a muscle in the Urgal’s neck cramped. Yarbog grunted, the first sound he had made in over a minute, and in an undertone, he muttered, “Kill me, Stronghammer. I cannot best you.”
Adjusting his grip on Yarbog’s horns, Roran growled in an equally low tone, “No. If you want to die, find someone else to kill you. I have fought by your rules, now you will accept defeat according to mine. Tell everyone that you submit to me. Say you were wrong to challenge me. Do that, and I’ll let you go. If not, I’ll keep you here until you change your mind, no matter how long it takes.”
Yarbog’s head twitched under Roran’s hands as the Urgal tried once more to free himself. He huffed, blowing a small cloud of dust into the air, then rumbled, “The shame would be too great, Stronghammer. Kill me.”
“I don’t belong to your race, and I won’t abide by your customs,” said Roran. “If you are so worried about your honor, tell those who are curious that you were defeated by the cousin of Eragon Shadeslayer. Surely there is no shame in that.” When several minutes had passed and
Yarbog still had not replied, Roran yanked on Yarbog’s horns and growled, “Well?”
Raising his voice so that all of the men and Urgals could hear, Yarbog said, “Gar! Svarvok curse me; I submit! I should not have challenged you, Stronghammer. You are worthy to be chief, and I am not.”
As one, the men cheered and shouted, banging the pommels of their swords on their shields. The Urgals shifted in place and said nothing.
Satisfied, Roran released Yarbog’s horns and rolled away from the gray Urgal. Feeling almost as if he had endured another flogging, Roran slowly got to his feet and hobbled out of the square to where Carn was waiting.
Roran winced as Carn draped a blanket over his shoulders and the fabric rubbed against his abused skin. Grinning, Carn handed him a wineskin. “After he knocked you down, I thought for sure he would kill you. I should have learned by now to never count you out, eh, Roran? Ha! That was just about the finest fight I’ve ever seen. You must be the only man in history to have wrestled an Urgal.”
“Maybe not,” Roran said between sips of wine. “But I might be the only man who has survived the experience.” He smiled as Carn laughed. Roran looked over at the Urgals, who were clustered around Yarbog, talking with him in low grunts while two of their brethren wiped the grease and grime from Yarbog’s limbs. Although the Urgals appeared subdued, they did not seem angry or resentful, so far as he was able to judge, and he was confident that he would have no more trouble from them.
Despite the pain of his wounds, Roran felt pleased with the outcome of the match. This won’t be the last fight between our two races, he thought, but as long as we can return safely to the Varden, the Urgals won’t break off our alliance, at least not on account of me.
After taking one last sip, Roran stoppered the wineskin and handed it back to Carn, then shouted, “Right, now stop standing around yammering like sheep and finish drawing up a list of what’s in those wagons! Loften, round up the soldiers’ horses, if they haven’t already wandered too far away! Dazhgra, see to the oxen. Make haste! Thorn and Murtagh could be flying here even now. Go on, snap to!
“And, Carn, where the blazes are my clothes?”
On the fourth day after leaving Farthen Dûr, Eragon and Saphira arrived in Ellesméra.
The sun was clear and bright overhead when the first of the city’s buildings—a narrow, twisting turret with glittering windows that stood between three tall pine trees and was grown out of their intermingled branches—came into view. Beyond the bark-sheathed turret, Eragon spotted the seemingly random collection of clearings that marked the location of the sprawling city.
As Saphira planed over the uneven surface of the forest, Eragon quested with his mind for the consciousness of Gilderien the Wise, who, as the wielder of the White Flame of Vándil, had protected Ellesméra from the elves’ enemies for over two and a half millennia. Projecting his thoughts toward the city, Eragon said in the ancient language, Gilderien-elda, may we pass?
A deep, calm voice sounded in Eragon’s mind. You may pass, Eragon Shadeslayer and Saphira Brightscales. So long as you keep the peace, you are welcome to stay in Ellesméra.
Thank you, Gilderien-elda, said Saphira.
Her claws brushed the crowns of the dark-needled trees, which rose over three hundred feet above the ground, as she glided across the pinewood city and headed toward the slope of inclined land on the other side of Ellesméra. Between the latticework of branches below, Eragon caught brief glimpses of the flowing shapes of buildings made of living wood, colorful beds of blooming flowers, rippling streams, the auburn glow of a flameless lantern, and, once or twice, the pale flash of an elf’s upturned face.
Tilting her wings, Saphira soared up the slope of land until she reached the Crags of Tel’naeír, which dropped over a thousand feet to the rolling forest at the base of the bare white cliff and extended for a league in either direction. Then she turned right and flew north along the ridge of stone, flapping twice to maintain her speed and altitude.
A grass-covered clearing appeared at the edge of the cliff. Set against the backdrop of the surrounding trees was a modest, single-story house grown out of four different pines. A chuckling, gurgling stream wandered out of the mossy forest and passed underneath the roots of one of the pines before disappearing into Du Weldenvarden once again. And curled up next to the house, there lay the golden dragon Glaedr, massive, glittering, his ivory teeth as thick around as Eragon’s chest, his claws like scythes, his folded wings soft as suede, his muscled tail nearly as long as all of Saphira, and the striations of his one visible eye sparkling like the rays within a star sapphire. The stump of his missing foreleg was concealed on the other side of his body. A small round table and two chairs had been placed in front of Glaedr. Oromis sat in the chair closest to him, the elf’s silver hair gleaming like metal in the sunlight.
Eragon leaned forward in his saddle as Saphira reared upright, slowing herself. She descended with a jolt upon the sward of green grass and ran forward several steps, raking her wings backward before she came to a halt.
His fingers clumsy from exhaustion, Eragon loosened the slipknots that bound the straps around his legs and then attempted to climb down Saphira’s right front leg. As he lowered himself, his knees buckled and he fell. He raised his hands to protect his face and landed upon all fours, scraping his shin on a rock hidden within the grass. He grunted with pain and, feeling as stiff as an old man, started to push himself onto his feet.
A hand entered his field of vision.
Eragon looked up and saw Oromis standing over him, a faint smile upon his timeless face. In the ancient language, Oromis said, “Welcome back to Ellesméra, Eragon-finiarel. And you as well, Saphira Brightscales, welcome. Welcome, both of you.”
Eragon took his hand, and Oromis pulled him upright without apparent effort. At first Eragon was unable to find his tongue, for he had barely spoken aloud since they had left Farthen Dûr and because fatigue blurred his mind. He touched the first two fingers of his right hand to his lips and, also in the ancient language, said, “May good fortune rule over you, Oromis-elda,” and then he twisted his hand over his sternum in the gesture of courtesy and respect the elves used.
“May the stars watch over you, Eragon,” replied Oromis.
Then Eragon repeated the ceremony with Glaedr. As always, the touch of the dragon’s sanguine consciousness awed and humbled Eragon.
Saphira did not greet either Oromis or Glaedr; she remained where she was, her neck drooping until her nose brushed the ground and her shoulders and haunches trembling as if with cold. Dry yellow foam encrusted the corners of her open mouth. Her barbed tongue hung limp from between her fangs.
By way of explanation, Eragon said, “We ran into a headwind the day after we left Farthen Dûr, and …” He fell silent as Glaedr lifted his giant head and swung it across the clearing until he was looking down upon Saphira, who made no attempt to acknowledge his presence. Then Glaedr breathed out upon her, fingers of flame burning within the pits of his nostrils. A sense of relief washed over Eragon as he felt energy pour into Saphira, stilling her tremors and strengthening her limbs.
The flames in Glaedr’s nostrils vanished with a wisp of smoke. I went hunting this morning, he said, his mental voice resonating throughout Eragon’s being. You will find what is left of my kills by the tree with the white branch at the far end of the field. Eat what you want.
Silent gratitude emanated from Saphira. Dragging her limp tail across the grass, she crawled over to the tree Glaedr had indicated and then settled down and began to tear at the carcass of a deer.
“Come,” said Oromis, and gestured toward the table and chairs. On the table was a tray with bowls of fruit and nuts, half a round of cheese, a loaf of bread, a decanter of wine, and two crystal goblets. As Eragon sat, Oromis indicated the decanter and asked, “Would you care for a drink to wash the dust from your throat?”
“Yes, please,” said Eragon.
With an elegant moti
on, Oromis unstoppered the decanter and filled both goblets. He handed one to Eragon and then settled back into his chair, arranging his white tunic with long, smooth fingers.
Eragon sipped the wine. It was mellow and tasted of cherries and plums. “Master, I—”
An upraised finger from Oromis stopped him. “Unless it is unbearably urgent, I would wait until Saphira joins us before we discuss what has brought you here. Are you agreed?”
After a moment’s hesitation, Eragon nodded and concentrated upon eating, savoring the flavor of the fresh fruit. Oromis seemed content to sit beside him in silence, drinking his wine and gazing out over the edge of the Crags of Tel’naeír. Behind him, Glaedr watched over the proceedings like a living statue of gold.
The better part of an hour passed before Saphira rose from her meal, crawled over to the stream, and lapped the water for another ten minutes. Drops of water still clung to her jaws when she turned away from the stream and, with a sigh, sprawled next to Eragon, her eyes heavy-lidded. She yawned, her teeth flashing, then exchanged salutations with Oromis and Glaedr. Talk as you want, she said. How ever, do not expect me to say much. I may fall asleep at any moment.
If you do, we shall wait for you to wake before we continue, said Glaedr.
That is most … kind, replied Saphira, and her eyelids drifted even lower.
“More wine?” Oromis asked, and lifted the decanter an inch off the table. When Eragon shook his head, Oromis replaced the decanter, then pressed the tips of his fingers together, his round fingernails like polished opals. He said, “You do not need to tell me what has befallen you these past weeks, Eragon. Since Islanzadí left the forest, Arya has kept her informed of the news of the land, and every three days, Islanzadí sends a runner from our army back to Du Weldenvarden. Thus, I know of your duel with Murtagh and Thorn on the Burning Plains. I know of your trip to Helgrind and how you punished the butcher from your village. And I know you attended the dwarves’ clanmeet in Farthen Dûr and the outcome thereof. Whatever you wish to say, then, you may say without fear of having to educate me about your recent doings.”