Galbatorix continued speaking: “Should you live, you shall have a chance to accomplish more than you ever could with the Varden. Think of it! In my service, you could help bring peace to the whole of Alagaësia, and you would be my chief architect for accomplishing these changes.”
“I would rather let a thousand vipers bite me before I would agree to serve you.” And she spat into the air.
His chuckle echoed throughout the room once more: the sound of a man who feared nothing, not even death. “We shall see.”
She flinched as she felt a finger touch the inside of her elbow. It slowly traced a circle, then slid down to the first of her scars on her forearm and paused atop the ridge of flesh, warm against her skin. The finger tapped three times before proceeding to the next few scars, then back again, running over them like a washboard.
“You have defeated an opponent in the Trial of the Long Knives,” said Galbatorix, “and with more cuts than any have endured in recent memory. That means both that you are exceptionally strong-willed and that you are able to suspend the functioning of your imagination—for it is an overactive imagination that turns men into cowards, not a surfeit of fear, as most believe. However, neither of these traits will be of help to you now. On the contrary, they are a hindrance. Everyone has a limit, whether physical or mental. The only question is how long it takes to reach that point. And you will reach it, I promise you. Your strength may delay the moment, but it cannot avert it. Nor will your wards avail you while you are within my power. Why, then, should you suffer needlessly? No one questions your courage; you have already demonstrated it to all the world. Give in now. There is no shame in accepting the inevitable. To continue would be to subject yourself to an array of torments for no other reason but to appease your sense of duty. Let your duty be appeased now, and give me your oath of fealty in the ancient language, and ere the hour is out, you will have a dozen servants to command, robes of silk and damask to wear, a set of chambers to live in, and a place at my table when we dine.”
He paused then, waiting for her answer, but she stared at the lines painted on the ceiling and refused to speak.
On her arm, the finger continued its exploration, moving from her scars to the hollow of her wrist, where it rested heavily upon a vein.
“Very well. As you wish.” The pressure on her wrist vanished. “Murtagh, come, show yourself. You’re being impolite to our guest.”
Ah, not him too, she thought, suddenly feeling a great sadness.
At the brazier, the man in red slowly turned, and though he wore a silver mask over the upper half of his face, she saw it was indeed Murtagh. His eyes were nearly lost in shadows, and his mouth and jaw were fixed in a grim expression.
“Murtagh was somewhat reluctant when he first entered my service, but he has since proven to be a most apt student. He has his father’s talents. Isn’t that so?”
“Yes, sir,” said Murtagh, his voice rough.
“He surprised me when he killed old King Hrothgar on the Burning Plains. I didn’t expect him to turn on his former friends with such eagerness, but then, our Murtagh is full of rage and bloodlust, he is. He would tear out the throat of a Kull with his bare hands if I gave him the chance, and I have. Nothing pleases you so much as killing, now does it?”
The muscles in Murtagh’s neck tensed. “No, sir.”
Galbatorix laughed softly. “Murtagh Kingkiller … ’Tis a fine name, a name fit for a legend, but not one you should seek to earn again, except at my direction.” Then to her: “Until now I have neglected his instruction in the subtle arts of persuasion, which is why I brought him here with me today. He has some experience as the object of such arts, but never as the practitioner, and it is high time he learns to master them. And what better way to learn than here, with you? It was Murtagh, after all, who convinced me that you were worthy of joining my newest generation of disciples.”
A strange sense of betrayal crept over her. Despite what had transpired, she had thought better of Murtagh. She searched his face for an explanation, but he stood stiff as a guard on watch and kept his gaze averted; she could glean nothing from his expression.
Then the king motioned toward the brazier and, in a conversational tone of voice, said, “Take up an iron.”
Murtagh’s hands curled into fists. Other than that, he did not move.
A word rang in Nasuada’s ears, like the clap of a great bell. The very warp and weft of the world seemed to vibrate at the sound, as if a giant had plucked the threads of reality and set them a-quivering. For a moment, she felt as if she were falling, and the air before her shimmered like water. Despite its power, she could not remember the letters that made up the word nor even what language it belonged to, for the word passed clean through her mind, leaving behind only the memory of its effects.
Murtagh shuddered; then he twisted, grasped one of the iron rods, and pulled it from the brazier with a halting motion. Sparks sprayed into the air as the iron came free of the coals, and several glittering embers fell spiraling toward the floor like pine seeds from their cones.
The end of the rod glowed a bright, pale yellow that, even as she watched, darkened to a ruddy orange. The light from the hot metal reflected off Murtagh’s polished half mask, giving him a grotesque, inhuman appearance. She saw herself reflected in the mask as well, her form distorted into a crabbed torso with spindly legs that dwindled away into thin black lines along the curve of Murtagh’s cheek.
Futile as it was, she could not help but pull against her restraints as he advanced toward her.
“I don’t understand,” she said to Galbatorix with feigned calm. “Aren’t you going to use your mind against me?” Not that she wanted him to, but she would rather defend herself from an attack on her consciousness than withstand the pain of the iron.
“There will be time for that later, if need be,” said Galbatorix. “For now, I am curious to discover how brave you really are, Nasuada, daughter of Ajihad. Besides, I would prefer not to seize control of your mind and force you to swear fealty to me. Instead, I want you to make this decision of your own free will and while still in possession of your faculties.”
“Why?” she croaked.
“Because it pleases me. Now, for the last time, will you submit?”
“So be it. Murtagh?”
The rod descended toward her, the tip like a giant, sparkling ruby.
They had given her nothing to bite on, so she had no choice but to scream, and the eight-sided chamber reverberated with the sounds of her agony until her voice gave out and an all-consuming darkness enveloped her in its folds.
ON THE WINGS OF A DRAGON
ERAGON LIFTED HIS head, took a deep breath, and felt a portion of his worries recede.
Riding a dragon was far from restful, but being so close to Saphira was calming for both him and her. The simple pleasure of physical contact comforted them in a way few things did. Also, the constant sound and motion of her flight helped distract him from the black thoughts that had been dogging him.
Despite the urgency of their trip and the precarious nature of their circumstances in general, Eragon was glad to be away from the Varden. The recent bloodshed had left him feeling as if he was no longer quite himself.
Ever since he had rejoined the Varden at Feinster, he had spent the bulk of his time fighting or waiting to fight, and the strain was beginning to wear on him, especially after the violence and horror of Dras-Leona. On the Varden’s behalf, he had killed hundreds of soldiers—few of whom had stood even the slightest chance of harming him—and though his actions had been justified, the memories troubled him. He did not want every fight to be desperate and every opponent to be his equal or his better—far from it—but at the same time, the easy slaughter of so many made him feel more like a butcher than a warrior. Death, he had come to believe, was a corrosive thing, and the more he was around it, the more it gnawed away at who he was.
However, being alone with Saphira—and Glaedr, al
though the golden dragon had kept to himself since their departure—helped Eragon regain a sense of normalcy. He felt most comfortable alone or in small groups, and he preferred not to spend time in a town or a city or even a camp like the Varden’s. Unlike the majority of people, he did not hate or fear the wilderness; as harsh as the empty lands were, they possessed a grace and a beauty that no artifice could compete with and that he found restorative.
So he let Saphira’s flying distract him, and for the better part of the day, he did nothing more important than watch the landscape slide past.
From the Varden’s camp by the banks of Leona Lake, Saphira set out across the broad expanse of water, angling northwest and climbing so high that Eragon had to use a spell to shield himself from the cold.
The lake appeared patchy: shining and sparkling in areas where the angle of the waves reflected the sunlight toward Saphira, dull and gray where it did not. Eragon never tired of staring at the constantly changing patterns of light; nothing else in the world was quite like it.
Fisher hawks, cranes, geese, ducks, starlings, and other birds often flew by underneath them. Most ignored Saphira, but a few of the hawks spiraled upward and accompanied her for a short while, seeming more curious than frightened. Two were even so bold as to swerve in front of her, mere feet from her long, sharp teeth.
In many ways, the fierce, hook-clawed, yellow-beaked raptors reminded Eragon of Saphira herself, an observation that pleased her, for she admired the hawks as well, though not so much for their appearance as for their hunting prowess.
The shore behind them gradually faded to a hazy purple line, then vanished altogether. For over half an hour, they saw only birds and clouds in the sky and the vast sheet of wind-hammered water that covered the surface of the earth.
Then, ahead and to their left, the jagged gray outline of the Spine began to appear along the horizon, a welcome sight to Eragon. Although these were not the mountains of his childhood, they still belonged to the same range, and seeing them, he felt not quite so far from his old home.
The mountains grew in size until the stony, snowcapped peaks loomed before them like the broken battlements of a castle wall. Down their dark, green-covered flanks, dozens of white streams tumbled, wending their way through the creases in the land until they joined with the great lake that lay pressed against their foothills. A half-dozen villages sat upon the shore or close thereby, but on account of Eragon’s magic, the people below remained oblivious to Saphira’s presence as she sailed overhead.
As he looked at the villages, it struck Eragon just how small and isolated they were and, in hindsight, how small and isolated Carvahall had been as well. Compared to the great cities he had visited, the villages were little more than clusters of hovels, barely fit for even the meanest of paupers. Many of the men and women within them, he knew, had never traveled more than a few miles from their birthplace and would live their whole lives in a world bound by the limits of their sight.
What a blinkered existence, he thought.
And yet, he wondered if it was perhaps better to remain in one place and learn all you could about it rather than to constantly roam across the land. Was a broad but shallow education superior to one that was narrow but deep?
He was not sure. He remembered Oromis once telling him that the whole of the world could be deduced from the smallest grain of sand, if one studied it closely enough.
The Spine was only a fraction of the height of the Beor Mountains, yet the slab-sided peaks still towered a thousand feet or more above Saphira as she threaded her way between them, following the shadow-filled gorges and valleys that split the range. Now and then, she had to soar upward to clear a bare, snowy pass, and when she did and Eragon’s range of view widened, he thought the mountains looked like so many molars erupting from the brown gums of the earth.
As Saphira glided over a particularly deep valley, he saw at the bottom a glade with a ribbony stream wandering across the field of grass. And along the edges of the glade, he glimpsed what he thought might have been houses—or perhaps tents; it was hard to tell—hidden under the eaves of the heavy-boughed spruce trees that populated the flanks of the neighboring mountains. A single spot of firelight shone through a gap in the branches, like a tiny chip of gold embedded within the layers of black needles, and he thought he spied a lone figure lumbering away from the stream. The figure appeared strangely bulky, and its head seemed too large for its body.
I think that was an Urgal.
Where? Saphira asked, and he sensed her curiosity.
In the clearing behind us. He shared the memory with her. I wish we had the time to go back and find out. I’d like to see how they live.
She snorted. Hot smoke streamed out of her nostrils, then rolled down her neck and over him. They might not take kindly to a dragon and Rider landing among them without warning.
He coughed and blinked as his eyes watered. Do you mind?
She did not answer, but the line of smoke trailing from her nostrils ceased, and the air around him soon cleared.
Not long afterward, the shape of the mountains began to look familiar to Eragon, and then a large rift opened up before Saphira and he realized they were flying across the pass that led to Teirm—the same pass he and Brom had twice ridden through on horseback. It was much as he remembered it: the western branch of the Toark River still flowed fast and strong toward the distant sea, the surface of the water streaked with white mare’s tails where boulders interrupted its course. The crude road he and Brom had followed by the side of the river was still a pale, dusty line barely wider than a deer trail. He even thought he recognized a clump of trees where they had stopped to eat.
Saphira turned westward and proceeded down the river until the mountains dropped away to lush, rain-soaked fields, whereupon she adjusted her course to a more northerly direction. Eragon did not question her decision; she never seemed to lose her bearing, not even on a starless night or when deep underground in Farthen Dûr.
The sun was close to the horizon when they flew out of the Spine. As dusk settled over the land, Eragon occupied himself by trying to devise ways to trap, kill, or fool Galbatorix. After a time, Glaedr emerged from his self-imposed isolation and joined him in his efforts. They spent an hour or so discussing various strategies, and then they practiced attacking and defending each other with their minds. Saphira participated in the exercise as well, but with limited success, as flying made it difficult for her to concentrate on anything else.
Later, Eragon stared at the cold white stars for a while. Then he asked Glaedr, Could the Vault of Souls contain Eldunarí that the Riders hid from Galbatorix?
No, said Glaedr without hesitation. It’s impossible. Oromis and I would have known if Vrael had sanctioned such a plan. And if any Eldunarí had been left on Vroengard, we would have found them when we returned to search the island. It’s not so easy to hide a living creature as you seem to think.
If a hedgehog rolls into a ball, that doesn’t mean that he becomes invisible, now does it? Minds are no different. You can shield your thoughts from others, but your existence is still apparent to anyone who searches the area.
Surely with a spell you could—
If a spell had tampered with our senses, we would have known, for we had wards to prevent that from happening.
So, no Eldunarí, Eragon concluded glumly.
They flew on in silence as the waxing three-quarter moon rose above the jagged peaks of the Spine. By its light, the land looked as if it were made out of pewter, and Eragon amused himself by imagining that it was an immense sculpture the dwarves had carved and stored within a cave as large as Alagaësia itself.
Eragon could feel the pleasure Glaedr took in their flight. Like Eragon and Saphira, the old dragon seemed to welcome the opportunity to leave behind their concerns on the ground, if even only for a short while, and to soar freely through the sky.
It was Saphira who spoke nex
t. Between the slow, heavy flaps of her wings, she said to Glaedr, Tell us a story, Ebrithil.
What manner of story would you hear?
The tale of how you and Oromis were captured by the Forsworn, and how you then escaped.
At this, Eragon’s interest increased. He had always been curious about the matter himself, but he had never worked up the courage to ask Oromis.
Glaedr was quiet for a span, then said, When Galbatorix and Morzan returned from the wilds and began their campaign against our order, we did not at first realize the severity of the threat. We were concerned, of course, but no more than if we had discovered that a Shade was stalking the land. Galbatorix was not the first Rider to go mad, although he was the first to have acquired a disciple such as Morzan. That alone should have warned us of the danger we faced, but the truth was only apparent in hindsight.
At the time, we failed to consider that Galbatorix might have gathered other followers or that he would even attempt such a thing. It seemed absurd that any of our brethren could prove susceptible to Galbatorix’s poisonous whisperings. Morzan was still a novice; his weakness was understandable. But those who were already Riders in full? We never questioned their loyalties. For only when they were tempted did they reveal the extent to which their spite and weaknesses had corrupted them. Some wanted revenge for old hurts; others believed that, by virtue of our power, dragons and Riders deserved to rule over the whole of Alagaësia; and others, I am afraid to say, simply enjoyed the chance to tear down what was and indulge themselves however they wanted.
The old dragon paused, and Eragon sensed ancient hates and sorrows shading his mind. Then Glaedr continued: Events at that point were … confusing. Little was known, and what reports we received were so larded with rumors and speculation as to be useless. Oromis and I began to suspect that something far worse was afoot than most realized. We tried to convince several of the older dragons and Riders, but they disagreed and dismissed our concerns. Fools they were not, but centuries of peace had clouded their vision, and they were unable to see that the world was shifting around us.