“Leave it! The belt has been lost before. We will find it again. But for now, we must fly. Hurry!”
Eragon cursed, spun around, and ran to join Arya, Angela, and Solembum at the front of the cathedral. Of all the things to lose … It seemed almost sacrilegious to abandon the belt when so many creatures had died to fill it with energy. Besides, he had a horrible feeling that he might have need of that energy before the day was out.
Even as he and the herbalist pushed open the heavy doors that led out of the cathedral, Eragon sent his mind questing for Saphira, who he knew would be circling high above the city, waiting for him to contact her. The time for discretion had long since passed, and Eragon no longer cared if Murtagh or some other magician sensed his presence.
He soon felt the familiar touch of Saphira’s consciousness. As their thoughts melded together once again, a certain tightness in Eragon’s chest vanished.
What took you so long? exclaimed Saphira. He could taste her worry, and he knew she had been considering descending upon Dras-Leona and tearing it to pieces in search of him.
He poured his memories into her, sharing everything that had happened to him since they parted. The process took a few seconds, by which time he, Arya, Angela, and the werecat had exited the cathedral and were running down the front steps.
Without pausing to give Saphira an opportunity to make sense of his jumbled recollections, Eragon said, We need a distraction—now!
She acknowledged his statement, and he could feel her tip into a steep dive.
Also, tell Nasuada to start her attack. We’ll be at the south gate in a few minutes. If the Varden aren’t there when we open it, I don’t know how we’re going to escape.
THE COOL, MOIST, morning-air-off-water whistled past Saphira’s head as she dove toward the rat-nest-city half lit by the rising sun. The low rays of light made the smelly-wood-eggshell-buildings stand out in high relief, their western sides black with shadow.
The wolf-elf-in-Eragon’s-shape who was riding on her back shouted something at her, but the hungry wind tore at his words, and she could not make out his meaning. He began to ask her questions with his song-filled-mind, but she did not wait to let him finish. Instead, she told him of Eragon’s plight and asked him to alert Nasuada that now was the time for action.
How the shadow-of-Eragon that Blödhgarm wore was supposed to fool anyone, Saphira could not understand. He did not smell like her partner-of-heart-and-mind, nor did his thoughts feel like Eragon’s. Still, the two-legs seemed impressed by the apparition, and it was two-legs they were trying to fool.
On the left side of the rat-nest-city, the glittering shape of Thorn lay stretched out along the battlements above the southern gate. He lifted his crimson head, and she could tell that he had spotted her hurtling toward the break-bone-ground, as she had expected. Her feelings toward Thorn were too complicated to sum up in a few brief impressions. Every time she thought of him, she became confused and uncertain, something she was unaccustomed to.
Nevertheless, she was not about to let the upstart whelp best her in battle.
As the dark chimneys and sharp-edged roofs grew larger, she spread her wings a bit more, feeling the increased strain in her chest, shoulders, and wing muscles as she began to slow their descent. When she was only a few hundred feet above the closely packed swell of buildings, she swooped upward and allowed her wings to snap out to their full extent. The effort required to stop her fall was immense; for a moment, it felt as if the wind might tear her wings free of their sockets.
She shifted her tail to maintain balance, then wheeled over the city until she located the black-shrike-thorn-cave where the blood-mad-priests worshipped. Tucking in her wings again, she dropped the last number of feet and, with a thunderous crash, landed on the middle of the cathedral’s roof.
She dug her claws into the tiles of the roof to stop herself from sliding off into the street below. Then she threw back her head and roared as loudly as she could, challenging the world and everything in it.
There was a bell clanging in the tower of the building next to the black-shrike-thorn-cave. She found the noise irritating, so she twisted her neck and loosed a jet of blue and yellow flame at it. The tower did not catch fire, as it was stone, but the rope and beams supporting the bell ignited, and a few seconds later, the bell fell crashing into the interior of the tower.
That pleased her, as did the two-legs-round-ears who ran screaming from the area. She was a dragon, after all. It was only right that they should fear her.
One of the two-legs paused by the edge of the square in front of the black-shrike-thorn-cave, and she heard him shout a spell at her, his voice like the squeaking of a frightened mouse. Whatever the spell was, Eragon’s wards shielded her from it—at least she assumed they did, for she noticed no difference in how she felt or in the appearance of the world around her.
The wolf-elf-in-Eragon’s-shape killed the magician for her. She could feel how Blödhgarm grasped hold of the spellcaster’s mind and wrestled the two-legs-round-ears’ thoughts into submission, whereupon Blödhgarm uttered a single word in the ancient-elf-magic-language, and the two-legs-round-ears fell to the ground, blood seeping from his open mouth.
Then the wolf-elf tapped her on the shoulder and said, “Ready yourself, Brightscales. Here they come.”
She saw Thorn rising above the edge of the rooftops, Eragon-half-brother-Murtagh a small, dark figure on his back. In the light of the morning sun, Thorn shone and sparkled almost as brilliantly as she herself did. Her scales were cleaner than his, though, as she had taken special care when grooming earlier. She could not imagine going into battle looking anything but her best. Her enemies should not only fear her, but admire her.
She knew it was vanity on her part, but she did not care. No other race could match the grandeur of the dragons. Also, she was the last female of her kind, and she wanted those who saw her to marvel at her appearance and to remember her well, so if dragons were to vanish forevermore, two-legs would continue to speak of them with the proper respect, awe, and wonder.
As Thorn climbed a thousand or more feet above the rat-nest-city, Saphira spared a quick glance around to make sure that partner-of-her-heart-and-mind-Eragon was nowhere near the black-shrike-thorn-cave. She did not want to hurt him by accident in the fight that was about to take place. He was a fierce hunter, but he was small and easily squished.
She was still working to unravel the dark-echoing-painful-memories Eragon had shared with her, but she understood enough of them to know that events had once again proved what she had long believed: that whenever she and her partner-of-heart-and-mind were apart, he ended up in trouble of one form or another. Eragon, she knew, would disagree, but his latest misadventure had done nothing to convince her otherwise, and she felt a perverse satisfaction in having been right.
Once Thorn reached an appropriate height, he twisted round and dove toward her, flames shooting from his open maw.
The fire she did not fear—Eragon’s wards would shield her from it—but Thorn’s massive weight and strength would allow him to quickly exhaust any spells designed to shield her from physical danger. To protect herself, she ducked and pressed her body flat against the cathedral, even as she twisted her neck and snapped at Thorn’s pale underbelly.
A swirling wall of flames engulfed her, rumbling and roaring like a giant waterfall. The flames were so bright, she instinctively closed her inner eyelids, the same as she would when underwater, and then the light was no longer blinding.
The flames soon cleared, and as Thorn rushed past overhead, the tip of his thick, rib-bruising tail traced a line across the membrane of her right wing. The scratch bled, but not profusely, and she did not think it would cause her much difficulty while flying, painful though it was.
Thorn dove at her again and again, trying to bait her into taking to the air. She refused to budge, however, and after a few more passes, he tired of harrying her and landed on th
e other end of the black-shrike-thorn-cave, his huge wings outstretched for balance.
The entire building shook as Thorn dropped to all fours, and many of the gem-glass-picture-windows in the walls below shattered and fell tinkling to the ground. Thorn was bigger than her now, as a result of the egg-breaker-Galbatorix’s meddling, but she was not intimidated. She had more experience than Thorn, and besides, she had trained with Glaedr, who had been larger than both she and Thorn combined. Also, Thorn dared not kill her … nor did she think he wanted to.
The red dragon snarled and stepped forward, the tips of his claws scraping against the tiles on the roof. She snarled in return and retreated several feet, until she could feel her tail pressing against the base of the spires that rose up like a wall at the front of the black-shrike-thorn-cave.
The tip of Thorn’s tail twitched, and she knew he was about to pounce.
She drew in her breath and bathed him in a torrent of flickering flames. Her task now was to keep Thorn and Murtagh from realizing that it was not Eragon who was sitting on her. To that end, she could either stay far enough away from Thorn that Murtagh would be unable to read the thoughts of the wolf-elf-in-Eragon’s-shape, or she could attack often and ferociously enough that Murtagh would not have the opportunity—which would be difficult, as Murtagh was used to fighting from Thorn’s back even while Thorn turned and twisted through the air. Still, they were close to the ground, and that would help her, for she preferred to attack. Always to attack.
“Is that the best you can do?” Murtagh shouted with a magically enhanced voice from within the ever-shifting cocoon of fire.
Even as the last of the flames died in her mouth, Saphira leaped toward Thorn. She struck him full in the chest, and their necks intertwined, heads slapping against one another as they each tried to fix their teeth around the other’s throat. The force of the impact pushed Thorn backward off the black-shrike-thorn-cave, and he flailed his wings, buffeting Saphira as both he and she fell toward the ground.
They landed with a crash that split paving stones and jarred the nearby houses. Something cracked in Thorn’s left wing-shoulder, and his back arched unnaturally as Murtagh’s wards kept the dragon from crushing him flat.
Saphira could hear Murtagh cursing from underneath Thorn, and she decided that it would be best to move away before the angry two-legs-round-ears started casting spells.
She jumped up, kicking Thorn in the belly as she did so, and alit on the peak of the house behind the red dragon. The building was too weak to support her, so she took flight again and, just for good measure, set the row of buildings on fire.
Let them deal with that, she thought, satisfied, as the flames gnawed hungrily at the wooden structures.
Returning to the black-shrike-thorn-cave, she slipped her claws under the tiles and began to tear open the roof, ripping it apart the same as she had ripped apart the roof of the castle in Durza-Gil’ead. Only now she was bigger. Now she was stronger. And the blocks of stone seemed to weigh no more than pebbles did to Eragon. The blood-mad-priests who worshipped within had hurt the partner-of-her-heart-and-mind, had hurt dragon-blood-elf-Arya, young-face-old-mind-Angela, and the werecat Solembum—he of the many names—and they had killed Wyrden. For that, Saphira was determined to destroy the black-shrike-thorn-cave in revenge.
Within seconds, she opened a gaping hole in the ceiling of the building. She filled the interior with a burst of flame, then hooked her claws into the ends of the brass pipes of the wind organ and pulled them free of the rear wall of the cathedral. They fell clanging and crashing onto the pews below.
Thorn roared, and then he sprang up from the street into the air above the black-shrike-thorn-cave and hung there, flapping heavily to maintain his position. He appeared as a featureless black silhouette against the wall of flames rising from the houses behind him, save for his translucent wings, which glowed orange and crimson.
He lunged toward her, reaching out with his serrated claws.
Saphira waited until the last possible moment; then she leaped to the side, off the black-shrike-thorn-cave, and Thorn rammed headfirst into the base of the cathedral’s central spire. The tall-hole-ridden-stone-spike shuddered under the impact, and the very top of it—an ornate golden rod—toppled over and plunged more than four hundred feet to the square below.
Roaring with frustration, Thorn struggled to right himself. His hindquarters slid into the opening Saphira had torn in the roof, and he scrabbled against the tiles as he tried to claw his way back out.
While he did, Saphira flew to the front of the black-shrike-thorn-cave and positioned herself on the opposite side of the spire Thorn had collided with.
She gathered her strength, then batted the spire with her right forepaw.
Statues and carved decorations shattered underneath her foot; clouds of dust clogged her nostrils; and bits of stone and mortar rained down upon the square. The spire held, though, so she struck it again.
Thorn’s bellowing took on a frantic note as he realized what she was doing, and he strove even harder to pull himself free.
On Saphira’s third blow, the tall-stone-spike cracked at the base and, with agonizing slowness, collapsed backward, falling toward the roof. Thorn only had time to utter a furious snarl, and then the tower of rubble landed on top of him, knocking him down into the shell of the ruined building and burying him under piles of rubble.
The sound of the spire smashing to pieces echoed across the whole of the rat-nest-city, like a clap of rolling thunder.
Saphira snarled in response, this time with a sense of savage victory. Thorn would dig himself out soon enough, but until then, he was at her mercy.
Tilting her wings, she circled the black-shrike-thorn-cave. As she passed along the sides of the building, she swung at the fluted buttresses that supported the walls, demolishing them one at a time. The blocks of stone tumbled to the ground, creating an unpleasant din.
When she had removed all the buttressess, the unsupported walls began to sway and bulge outward. Thorn’s efforts to extricate himself only worsened the situation, and after a few seconds, the walls gave way. The entire structure collapsed with an avalanche-like rumble, and a huge plume of dust billowed upward.
Saphira crowed with triumph; then she landed on her hind legs next to the mound of debris and proceeded to paint the blocks of stone with the hottest stream of fire she could summon forth. Flames were easy to deflect with magic, but deflecting actual heat required greater effort and energy. By forcing Murtagh to expend even more of his strength to keep Thorn and himself from being cooked alive, as well as whatever energy he was using to avoid being squished, she hoped to deplete his reserves enough that Eragon and the two-legs-pointed-ears might have a chance of defeating him.
While she breathed fire, the wolf-elf on her back chanted spells, though what they were for she did not know, nor did she particularly care. She trusted the two-legs. Whatever he was doing, she was sure it would help.
Saphira skittered backward as the blocks in the center of the mound exploded outward and, with a roar, Thorn lurched free of the rubble. His wings were crumpled like those of a stepped-on butterfly, and he was bleeding from several gashes along his legs and back.
He glared at her and snarled, his ruby eyes dark with battle rage. For the first time, she had truly angered him, and she could see that he was eager to tear at her flesh and taste her blood.
Good, she thought. Maybe he was not quite such a beaten-frightened-cur as she had assumed.
Murtagh reached into a pouch on his belt and removed a small round object. From experience, Saphira knew that it was enchanted and he would use it to heal Thorn’s injuries.
Without waiting, she took flight, trying to gain as much altitude as possible before Thorn was able to set off in pursuit. She glanced down after a few wing beats and saw him rising toward her at a furious speed, a large-red-sharp-claw-sparrowhawk.
She twisted in the air and was just about to dive at him when, in the depths
of her mind, she heard Eragon shout:
Alarmed, she continued to twist until she was aimed at the southern arch-gate of the city, where she had sensed Eragon’s presence. She pulled in her wings as close as she dared and dropped in a steep angle toward the arch.
Thorn lunged at her as she plummeted past, and she knew without looking that he was following close behind.
And so the two of them raced toward the thin wall of the rat-nest-city, and the cool morning-air-off-water howled like a wounded wolf in Saphira’s ears.
HAMMER AND HELM
AT LAST! THOUGHT Roran as the Varden’s horns sounded the advance.
He glanced at Dras-Leona and caught a glimpse of Saphira diving toward the dark mass of buildings, her scales blazing in the light of the rising sun. Below, Thorn stirred, like some great cat that had been sunning itself on a fence, and took off in pursuit.
A surge of energy coursed through Roran. The time for battle had finally arrived, and he was eager to be done with it. He spared a quick thought of concern for Eragon, then pushed himself off the log where he was sitting and trotted over to join the rest of the men as they gathered in a wide rectangular formation.
Roran glanced up and down the ranks, checking that the troops were ready. They had been waiting for most of the night, and the men were tired, but he knew that fear and excitement would soon clear their minds. Roran was tired as well, but he paid it no mind; he could sleep when the battle was over. Until then, his main concern was keeping his men and himself alive.
He did wish he had time for a cup of hot tea, though, to help settle his stomach. He had eaten something bad for dinner and had been racked with cramps and nausea ever since. Still, the discomfort was not enough to prevent him from fighting. Or so he hoped.
Satisfied with the state of his men, Roran pulled on his helm, pushing it down over his quilted arming cap. Then he drew his hammer and slipped his left arm through the straps on his shield.