While they waited for the last of the light to fade from the velvet sky, Rhunön prepared the forge and practiced wielding various tools. Her initial clumsiness with Eragon’s body soon disappeared, although once she reached for a hammer and rammed the tips of his fingers into the top of a table. The pain made Eragon’s eyes water. Rhunön apologized and said, Your arms are longer than mine. A few minutes later, when they were about to begin, she commented, It is fortunate you have the speed and strength of an elf, Shadeslayer, else we would have no hope of finishing this tonight.
Taking the pieces of hard and soft brightsteel she had decided to use, Rhunön placed them into the forge. At the elf’s request, Saphira heated the steel, opening her jaws only a fraction of an inch so that the blue and white flames that poured from her mouth remained focused in a narrow stream and did not spill over into the rest of the workshop. The roaring pillar of fire illuminated the entire atrium with a fierce blue light and made Saphira’s scales sparkle and flash with blinding brilliance.
Rhunön had Eragon remove the brightsteel from the torrent of flames with a pair of tongs once the metal began to glow cherry red. She laid it on her anvil and, with a series of quick blows from a sledgehammer, flattened the lumps of metal into plates that were no more than a quarter of an inch thick. The surface of the red-hot steel glittered with incandescent motes. As she finished with each plate, Rhunön dropped it into a nearby trough of brine.
Having flattened all of the brightsteel, Rhunön pulled the plates out of the trough, the brine warm against Eragon’s arm, and scoured each plate with a piece of sandstone to remove the black scales that had formed on the surface of the metal. The scouring exposed the crystalline structure of the metal, which Rhunön examined with great attentiveness. She further sorted the metal by relative hardness and purity according to the qualities the crystals displayed.
Eragon was privy to Rhunön’s every thought and feeling, by reason of their closeness. The depth of her knowledge amazed him; she saw things within the metal he had not suspected existed, and the calculations she made concerning its treatment were beyond his understanding. He also sensed she was dissatisfied with how she had handled the sledgehammer while flattening the steel.
Rhunön’s dissatisfaction continued to grow until she said, Bah! Look at these dents in the metal! I cannot forge a blade like this. My control over your arms and hands is not fine enough to craft a sword worthy of note.
Before Eragon could attempt to reason with her, Saphira said, The tools do not the artist make, Rhunön-elda. Surely you can find a way to compensate for this inconvenience.
Inconvenience? snorted Rhunön. I have no more coordination than a fledgling. I am a stranger in a stranger’s house. Still grumbling, she subsided into mental deliberations that were incomprehensible to Eragon, then said, Well, I may have a solution, but I warn you, I shall not continue if I am unable to maintain my usual level of craftsmanship.
She did not explain the solution to either Eragon or Saphira but, one by one, placed the plates of steel on the anvil and cracked them into flakes no wider than rose petals. Gathering up half the flakes of the harder brightsteel, Rhunön stacked them into a brick, which she then coated with clay and birch bark to hold them together. The brick went on a thick steel paddle with a seven-foot-long handle, similar to those used by bakers to insert and remove loaves of bread from a hot oven.
Rhunön laid the end of the paddle in the center of the forge and then backed Eragon as far away as she could and still have him hold on to the handle. Then she asked Saphira to resume breathing fire, and again the atrium glowed with a flickering blue radiance. The heat was so intense, Eragon felt as if his exposed skin were crisping, and he saw that the granite stones of which the forge was made had acquired a bright yellow glow.
The brightsteel could easily have taken over half an hour to reach the appropriate temperature in a charcoal fire, but it required only a few minutes in the withering inferno of Saphira’s flames before it turned white. The moment it did, Rhunön ordered Saphira to cease breathing fire. Darkness engulfed the forge as Saphira closed her jaws.
Rushing Eragon forward, Rhunön had him transport the glowing brick of clay-covered steel to the anvil, where she seized a hammer and welded the disparate flakes of brightsteel into a cohesive whole. She continued to pound on the metal, elongating it out into a bar, then made a cut in the middle, folded the metal back on itself, and welded the two pieces together. The bell-like peals of ringing metal echoed off the ancient trees that surrounded the atrium.
Rhunön had Eragon return the brightsteel to the forge once its color had faded from white to yellow, and again Saphira bathed the metal with the fire from her belly. Six times Rhunön heated and folded the brightsteel, and each time the metal became smoother and more flexible, until it could bend without tearing.
As Eragon hammered the steel, his every action dictated by Rhunön, the elf woman began to sing, both with his tongue and her own. Together, their voices formed a not-unpleasant harmony that rose and fell with the beats of the hammer. A tingle crawled down Eragon’s spine as he felt Rhunön channel a steady flow of energy into the words they were mouthing, and he realized that the song contained spells of making, shaping, and binding. With their voices two, Rhunön sang of the metal that lay on the anvil, describing its properties—altering them in ways that exceeded Eragon’s understanding—and imbuing the brightsteel with a complex web of enchantments designed to give it strength and resilience beyond that of any ordinary metal. Of Eragon’s hammer arm Rhunön also sang, and under the gentle influence of her crooning, every blow she struck with his arm landed upon its intended target.
Rhunön quenched the bar of brightsteel after the sixth and final fold was complete. She repeated the entire process with the other half of the hard brightsteel, forging an identical bar to the first. Then she gathered up the fragments of the softer steel, which she folded and welded ten times before forming it into a short, heavy wedge.
Next, Rhunön had Saphira reheat the two bars of harder steel. Rhunön lay the shining rods side by side on her anvil, grasped both of them at either end with a pair of tongs, and then twisted the rods around each other seven times. Sparks shot into the air as she hammered upon the twists to weld them into a single piece of metal. The resulting mass of brightsteel Rhunön folded, welded, and pounded back out to length another six times. When she was pleased with the quality of the metal, Rhunön flattened the bright-steel into a thick rectangular sheet, cut the sheet in half lengthwise with a sharp chisel, and bent each of the two halves down their middle, so they were in the shape of long, shallow Vs.
And all that, Eragon estimated, Rhunön was able to accomplish within the course of an hour and a half. He marveled at her speed, even though it was his own body that carried out the tasks. Never before had he seen a smith shape metal with such ease; what would have taken Horst hours took her only minutes. And yet no matter how demanding the forging was, Rhunön continued to sing, weaving a fabric of spells within the brightsteel and guiding Eragon’s arm with infallible accuracy.
Amid the frenzy of noise, fire, sparks, and exertion, Eragon thought he glimpsed, as Rhunön raked his eyes across the forge, a trio of slender figures standing by the edge of the atrium. Saphira confirmed his suspicion a moment later when she said, Eragon, we are not alone.
Who are they? he asked. Saphira sent him an image of the short, wizened werecat Maud, in human form, standing between two pale elves who were no taller than she. One of the elves was male, the other female, and they were both extraordinarily beautiful, even by the standards of the elves. Their solemn teardrop faces seemed wise and innocent in equal measure, which made it impossible for Eragon to judge their age. Their skin displayed a faint, silvery sheen, as if the two elves were so filled with energy, it was seeping out of their very flesh.
Eragon queried Rhunön as to the identity of the elves when she paused to allow his body a brief rest. Rhunön glanced at them, affording him a slightly be
tter view, then, without interrupting her song, she said with her thoughts, They are Alanna and Dusan, the only elf children in Ellesméra. There was much rejoicing when they were conceived twelve years ago.
They are like no other elves I have met, he said.
Our children are special, Shadeslayer. They are blessed with certain gifts—gifts of grace and gifts of power—which no grown elf can hope to match. As we age, our blossom withers somewhat, although the magic of our early years never completely abandons us.
Rhunön wasted no more time talking. She had Eragon place the wedge of brightsteel between the two V-shaped strips and hammer on them until the strips nearly enveloped the wedge and friction held the three pieces together. Then Rhunön welded the pieces into a whole, and while the metal was still hot, she began to draw it out and form a rough blank of the sword. The soft wedge became the spine of the blade, while the two harder strips became the sides, edges, and point. Once the blank was nearly as long as the finished sword, the work slowed as Rhunön returned to the tang and carefully hammered her way up the blade, establishing the final angles and proportions.
Rhunön had Saphira heat the blade in segments of no more than six or seven inches at a time, which Rhunön arranged by holding the blade over one of Saphira’s nostrils, through which Saphira would release a single jet of fire. A host of writhing shadows fled toward the perimeter of the atrium every time the fire sprang into existence.
Eragon watched with amazement as his hands transformed the crude lump of metal into an elegant instrument of war. With every blow, the outline of the blade became clearer, as if the brightsteel wanted to be a sword and was eager to assume the shape Rhunön desired.
At last the forging came to a close, and there on the anvil lay a long black blade, which, although it was still rough and incomplete, already radiated a sense of deadly purpose.
Rhunön allowed Eragon’s tired arms to rest while the blade cooled by air, then she had Eragon take the blade to another corner of her workshop, where she had arranged six different grinding wheels and, on a small bench, a wide assortment of files, scrapers, and abrasive stones. She fixed the blade between two blocks of wood and spent the next hour planing the sides of the sword with a drawknife, as well as refining the contours of the blade with files. As with the hammering, every stroke of the drawknife and every scrape of a file seemed to have twice the effect it normally would; it was as if the tools knew exactly how much steel to remove and would remove no more.
When she was done filing, Rhunön built a charcoal fire in her forge, and while she waited for the fire to mature, she mixed a slurry of dark, fine-grained clay, ash, powdered pumice, and crystallized juniper sap. She painted the blade with the concoction, slathering twice as much on the spine as she did along the edges and by the point. The thicker the solution of clay, the slower the underlying metal would cool when it was quenched and, as a result, the softer that area of the sword would become.
The clay lightened as Rhunön dried it with a quick incantation. At the direction of the elf woman, Eragon went to the forge. He lay the sword flat upon the bed of scintillating coals and, pumping the bellows with his free hand, slowly pulled it toward his hip. Once the tip of the blade came free of the fire, Rhunön turned it over and repeated the sequence. She continued to draw the blade through the coals until both edges had acquired an even orange tone and the spine of the sword was bright red in color. Then, with a single smooth motion, Rhunön lifted the sword from the coals, swept the glowing bar of steel through the air, and plunged it into the trough of water next to the forge.
An explosive cloud of steam erupted from the surface of the water, which hissed and sizzled and bubbled around the blade. After a minute, the roiling water subsided, and Rhunön withdrew the now pearl-gray sword. Returning it to the fire, she brought the whole sword to the same low heat, so as to reduce the brittleness of the edges, and then quenched it once more.
Eragon had expected Rhunön to relinquish her hold on his body after they had forged, hardened, and tempered the blade, but to his surprise, she remained in his mind and continued to control his limbs.
Rhunön had him douse the forge, then she walked Eragon back to the bench with the files and scrapers and abrasive stones. There she sat him, and making use of ever finer stones, she polished the blade. From her memories, Eragon learned that she would normally spend a week or more polishing a blade, but because of the song they sang, she, through him, was able to complete the task in a mere four hours, in addition to carving a narrow groove down the middle of each side of the blade. As the brightsteel grew smoother, the true beauty of the metal was revealed; within it, Eragon could see a shimmering, cable-like pattern, every line of which marked the transition between two layers of the velvety steel. And along each edge of the sword was a rippling, silvery white band as wide as his thumb, which made it appear as if the edges burned with tongues of frozen fire.
The muscles in Eragon’s right arm gave way as Rhunön was covering the tang with decorative cross-hatching, and the file he was holding slipped off the tang and fell from his fingers. The extent of his exhaustion surprised him, for he had been concentrating upon the sword to the exclusion of all else.
Enough, said Rhunön, and she removed herself from Eragon’s mind without further ado.
Shocked by her sudden absence, Eragon swayed on his seat and nearly lost his balance before he regained control over his rebellious limbs. “But we’re not finished!” he protested, turning toward Rhunön. The night sounded unnaturally quiet to him without the strains of their extended duet.
Rhunön rose from where she had been sitting cross-legged against the pole and shook her head. “I have no more need of you, Shadeslayer. Go and dream until dawn.”
“You are tired, and even with my magic, you are liable to ruin the sword if you continue to work on it. Now that the blade is done, I can attend to the rest without interference from my oath, so go. You will find a bed on the second floor of my house. If you are hungry, there is food in the pantry.”
Eragon hesitated, reluctant to leave, then nodded and shambled away from the bench, his feet dragging in the dirt. As he passed her, he ran a hand over Saphira’s wing and bade her good night, too weary to say more. In return, she tousled his hair with a warm puff of air and said, I shall watch and remember for you, little one.
Eragon paused on the threshold of Rhunön’s house and looked across the shadowy atrium to where Maud and the two elf children were still standing. He raised a hand in greeting, and Maud smiled at him, baring her sharp, pointed teeth. A tingle crawled down Eragon’s neck as the elf children gazed at him; their large, slanted eyes were slightly luminous in the gloom. When they made no other motion, he ducked his head and hurried inside, eager to lie down upon a soft mattress.
A RIDER IN FULL
Wake, little one, said Saphira. The sun has risen and Rhunön is impatient.
Eragon bolted upright, throwing off his blankets as easily as he cast off his waking dreams. His arms and shoulders were sore from his exertions of the previous day. He pulled on his boots, fumbling with the laces in his excitement, grabbed his grimy apron from the floor, and bounded down the elaborately carved stairs to the entryway of Rhunön’s curved house.
Outside, the sky was bright with the first light of dawn, although shadow still enveloped the atrium. Eragon spotted Rhunön and Saphira by the open-walled forge and trotted over to them, combing his hair into place with his fingers.
Rhunön stood leaning against the edge of the bench. There were dark bags under her eyes, and the lines on her face were heavier than before.
The sword lay before her, concealed beneath a length of white cloth.
“I have done the impossible,” she said, the words hoarse and broken. “I made a sword when I swore I would not. What is more, I made it in less than a day and with hands that were not my own. Yet the sword is not crude or shoddy. No! It is the finest sword I have ever forged. I would have preferre
d to use less magic during the process, but that is my only qualm, and it is a small one compared with the perfection of the results. Behold!”
Grasping the corner of the cloth, Rhunön pulled it aside, revealing the sword.
He had thought that in the handful of hours since he had left her, Rhunön would only have had enough time to fabricate a plain hilt and crossguard for the sword, and maybe a simple wooden scabbard. Instead, the sword Eragon saw on the bench was as magnificent as Zar’roc, Naegling, and Támerlein and, in his opinion, more beautiful than any of them.
Covering the blade was a glossy scabbard of the same dark blue as the scales on Saphira’s back. The color displayed a slight variegation, like the mottled light at the bottom of a clear forest pond. A piece of blued brightsteel carved in the shape of a leaf capped the end of the scabbard while a collar decorated with stylized vines encircled the mouth. The curved crossguard was also made of blued brightsteel, as were the four ribs that held in place the large sapphire that formed the pommel. The hand-and-a-half hilt was made of hard black wood.
Overcome by a sense of reverence, Eragon reached out toward the sword, then paused and glanced at Rhunön. “May I?” he asked.
She inclined her head. “You may. I give it to thee, Shadeslayer.”
Eragon lifted the sword from the bench. The scabbard and the wood of the hilt were cool to the touch. For several minutes, he marveled at the details on the scabbard and the guard and the pommel. Then he tightened his grip around the hilt and unsheathed the blade.
Like the rest of the sword, the blade was blue, but of a slightly lighter shade; it was the blue of the scales in the hollow of Saphira’s throat rather than the blue of those on her back. And as it was on Zar’roc, the color was iridescent; as Eragon moved the sword about, the color would shimmer and shift, displaying any of the many tones of blue present on Saphira herself. Through the wash of color, the cable-like patterns within the brightsteel and the pale bands along the edges were still visible.