Jörmundur rubbed his chin. “Why not kill Murtagh first? That’s the part I don’t understand. Why not finish him and Thorn while we have the chance?”
“Because,” Eragon replied, “then Galbatorix would know of them.” And he motioned toward where the hidden Eldunarí floated. “We would lose the advantage of surprise.”
“What of the child?” Orrin asked harshly. “What makes you think that she will accommodate you? She hasn’t before.”
“This time she will,” Eragon promised, more confidently than he felt.
The king grunted, unconvinced.
Then Islanzadí said, “Eragon, it is a great and terrible thing you propose. Are you willing to do this? I ask not because I doubt your dedication or your bravery, but because this is something to be undertaken only after much consideration. So I ask you: are you willing to do this, even knowing what the cost may be?”
Eragon did not rise, but he allowed a bit of steel to enter his voice. “I am. It must be done, and we are the ones to whom the task has fallen. Whatever the cost, we cannot turn away now.”
As a sign of her agreement, Saphira opened her jaws a few inches and then snapped them shut, punctuating the end of his sentence.
Islanzadí turned her face toward the sky. “And do you and those you speak for approve of this, Umaroth-elda?”
We do, replied the white dragon.
“Then here we go,” Roran murmured.
A MATTER OF DUTY
THE TEN OF them—including Umaroth—continued to talk for another hour. Orrin required more convincing, and there were numerous details to decide: questions of timing and placement and signaling.
Eragon was relieved when Arya said, “Unless either you or Saphira object, I will accompany you tomorrow.”
“We would be glad to have you,” he said.
Islanzadí stiffened. “What good would that accomplish? Your talents are needed elsewhere, Arya. Blödhgarm and the other spellcasters I assigned to Saphira and Eragon are more skilled at magic than you and more experienced in battle as well. Remember, they fought against the Forsworn, and unlike many, they lived to tell of it. Many of the elder members of our race would volunteer to take your place. It would be selfish to insist upon going when there are others better suited for the task who are willing and close at hand.”
“I think no one is as suited for the task as Arya,” Eragon said in a calm voice. “And there is no one, other than Saphira, I would rather have by my side.”
Islanzadí kept her gaze upon Arya and to Eragon said, “You are still young, Shadeslayer, and you are allowing your emotions to cloud your judgment.”
“No, Mother,” said Arya. “It is you who are allowing your emotions to cloud your judgment.” She moved toward Islanzadí with long, graceful steps. “You are right, there are others who are stronger, wiser, and more experienced than I. But it was I who ferried Saphira’s egg about Alagaësia. I who helped save Eragon from the Shade Durza. And I who, with Eragon’s help, killed the Shade Varaug in Feinster. Like Eragon, I am now a Shadeslayer, and you well know that I swore myself in service to our people long ago. Who else among our kind can claim as much? Even if I wanted to, I would not turn away from this. I would sooner die. I am as prepared for this challenge as any of our elders, for it is to this I have devoted the whole of my life, as has Eragon.”
“And the whole of your life has been so short,” said Islanzadí. She put a hand up to Arya’s face. “You have devoted yourself to fighting Galbatorix all these years since your father’s death, but you know little of the joys life can provide. And in those years, we have spent such a small amount of time together: a handful of days scattered throughout a century. It is only since you brought Saphira and Eragon to Ellesméra that we have begun to speak once more, as a mother and daughter ought. I would not lose you again so soon, Arya.”
“It was not I who chose to remain apart,” said Arya.
“No,” said Islanzadí, and she took her hand away. “But it was you who chose to leave Du Weldenvarden.” Her expression softened. “I do not wish to argue, Arya. I understand that you see this as your duty, but please, for my sake, will you not allow another to take your place?”
Arya lowered her gaze and was silent for a time. Then she said, “I cannot allow Eragon and Saphira to go without me any more than you can allow your army to march into battle without you at its head. I cannot. … Would you have it said of me that I am a coward? Those of our family do not turn away from what must be done; do not ask me to shame myself.”
The shine in Islanzadí’s eyes looked suspiciously like tears to Eragon. “Yes,” said the queen, “but to fight Galbatorix …”
“If you are so afraid,” said Arya, but not unkindly, “then come with me.”
“I cannot. I must stay to command my troops.”
“And I must go with Eragon and Saphira. But I promise you, I shall not die.” Arya placed her hand on Islanzadí’s face even as her mother had done to her. “I shall not die.” Once more Arya repeated the phrase, but this time in the ancient language.
Arya’s determination impressed Eragon; to say what she had in the ancient language meant that she believed it without qualification. Islanzadí also appeared impressed, and proud too. She smiled and kissed Arya once on each cheek. “Then go, and go with my blessings. And take no more risks than you must.”
“Nor you.” And the two of them embraced.
As they separated, Islanzadí looked at Eragon and Saphira and said, “Watch over her, I implore you, for she has not a dragon or the Eldunarí to protect her.”
We will, both Eragon and Saphira replied, in the ancient language.
Once they had settled what needed to be settled, the war council broke and its various members began to disperse. From where he sat by Saphira, Eragon watched the others mill about. Neither he nor she made an effort to move. Saphira was going to remain hidden behind the hill until the attack, while he intended to wait for dark before he ventured into the camp.
Orik was the second to depart, after Roran. Before he did, the dwarf king came over to Eragon and gave him a rough hug. “Ah, I wish I were going with the two of you,” he said, his eyes solemn above his beard.
“And I wish you were coming,” said Eragon.
“Well, we’ll see each other afterward and toast our victory with barrels of mead, eh?”
“I look forward to it.”
As do I, said Saphira.
“Good,” said Orik, and he nodded firmly. “That’s settled, then. You’d better not let Galbatorix get the better of you, or I’ll be honor-bound to march in after you.”
“We’ll be careful,” Eragon said with a smile.
“I should hope so, because I doubt I could do much more than tweak Galbatorix on the nose.”
That I would like to see, said Saphira.
Orik grunted. “May the gods watch over you, Eragon, and you as well, Saphira.”
“And you, Orik, Thrifk’s son.” Then Orik slapped Eragon on the shoulder and stomped off to where he had tied his pony to a bush.
When Islanzadí and Blödhgarm left, Arya stayed. She was deep in conversation with Jörmundur, and so Eragon thought little of it. When Jörmundur rode off, however, and Arya still lingered nearby, he realized that she wanted to talk to them alone.
Sure enough, once everyone else had gone, she looked at him and Saphira and said, “Did something else happen to you while you were gone, something that you didn’t want to speak of in front of Orrin or Jörmundur … or my mother?”
“Why do you ask?”
She hesitated. “Because … you both seem to have changed. Is it the Eldunarí, or does it have to do with your experience in the storm?”
Eragon smiled at her perception. He consulted with Saphira, and when she approved, he said, “We learned our true names.”
Arya’s eyes widened. “You did? And … were you pleased with them?”
In part, said Saphira.
“We learned our true names,” Eragon repeated.
“We saw that the earth is round. And during the flight here, Umaroth and the other Eldunarí shared many of their memories with us.” He allowed himself a wry smile. “I can’t say we understand all of them, but they make things seem … different.”
“I see,” murmured Arya. “Do you think the change is for the better?”
“I do. Change itself is neither good nor bad, but knowledge is always useful.”
“Was it difficult to find your true names?”
So he told her how they had accomplished it, and he also told her about the strange creatures they had encountered on Vroengard Island, which interested her greatly.
As Eragon spoke, an idea occurred to him, one that resonated within him too strongly to ignore. He explained it to Saphira, and once again she granted him her permission, although somewhat more reluctantly than before.
Must you? she asked.
Then do as you will, but only if she agrees.
When they finished speaking of Vroengard, he looked Arya in the eyes and said, “Would you like to hear my true name? I would like to share it with you.”
The offer seemed to shock her. “No! You shouldn’t tell it to me or anyone else. Especially not when we’re so close to Galbatorix. He might steal it from my mind. Besides, you should only give your true name to … to one whom you trust above all others.”
“I trust you.”
“Eragon, even when we elves exchange our true names, we do not do so until we have known each other for many, many years. The knowledge they provide is too personal, too intimate, to bandy about, and there is no greater risk than sharing it. When you teach someone your true name, you place everything you are in their hands.”
“I know, but I may never have the chance again. This is the only thing I have to give, and I would give it to you.”
“Eragon, what you are proposing … It is the most precious thing one person can give another.”
A shiver ran through Arya, and then she seemed to withdraw within herself. After a time, she said, “No one has ever offered me such a gift before. … I’m honored by your trust, Eragon, and I understand how much this means to you, but no, I must decline. It would be wrong for you to do this and wrong for me to accept just because tomorrow we may be killed or enslaved. Danger is no reason to act foolishly, no matter how great our peril.”
Eragon inclined his head. Her reasons were good reasons, and he would respect her choice. “Very well, as you wish,” he said.
“Thank you, Eragon.”
A moment passed. Then he said, “Have you ever told anyone your true name?”
“Not even your mother?”
Her mouth twisted. “No.”
“Do you know what it is?”
“Of course. Why would you think otherwise?”
He half shrugged. “I didn’t. I just wasn’t sure.” Silence came between them. Then, “When … how did you learn your true name?”
Arya was quiet for so long, he began to think that she would refuse to answer. Then she took a breath and said, “It was a number of years after I left Du Weldenvarden, when I finally had become accustomed to my role among the Varden and the dwarves. Faolin and my other companions were away, and I had a great deal of time to myself. I spent most of it exploring Tronjheim, wandering in the empty reaches of the city-mountain, where others rarely tread. Tronjheim is bigger than most realize, and there are many strange things within it: rooms, people, creatures, forgotten artifacts. … As I wandered, I thought, and I came to know myself better than ever I had before. One day I discovered a room somewhere high in Tronjheim—I doubt I could locate it again, even if I tried. A beam of sunlight seemed to pour into the room, though the ceiling was solid, and in the center of the room was a pedestal, and upon the pedestal was growing a single flower. I do not know what kind of flower it was; I have never seen its like before or since. The petals were purple, but the center of the blossom was like a drop of blood. There were thorns upon the stem, and the flower exuded the most wonderful scent and seemed to hum with a music all its own. It was such an amazing and unlikely thing to find, I stayed in the room, staring at the flower for longer than I can remember, and it was then and there that I was finally able to put words to who I was and who I am.”
“I would like to see that flower someday.”
“Perhaps you will.” Arya glanced toward the Varden’s camp. “I should go. There is much yet to be done.”
He nodded. “We’ll see you tomorrow, then.”
“Tomorrow.” Arya began to walk away. After a few steps, she paused and looked back. “I’m glad that Saphira chose you as her Rider, Eragon. And I’m proud to have fought alongside you. You have become more than any of us dared hope. Whatever happens tomorrow, know that.”
Then she resumed her stride, and soon she disappeared around the curve of the hill, leaving him alone with Saphira and the Eldunarí.
FIRE IN THE NIGHT
WHEN DARKNESS FELL, Eragon cast a spell to hide himself. Then he patted Saphira on the nose and set out on foot for the Varden’s camp.
Be careful, she said.
Invisible as he was, it was easy to slip past the warriors who kept watch around the periphery of the camp. As long as he was quiet, and as long as the men did not catch sight of his footprints or shadows, he could move about freely.
He wound his way between the woolen tents until he found Roran and Katrina’s. He rapped his knuckles against the central pole, and Roran popped his head out.
“Where are you?” whispered Roran. “Hurry in!”
Releasing the flow of magic, Eragon revealed himself. Roran flinched, then grabbed him by the arm and pulled him into the dark interior of the tent.
“Welcome, Eragon,” said Katrina, rising from where she sat on their tiny cot.
“It’s good to see you again.” She gave him a quick embrace.
“Will this take long?” Roran asked.
Eragon shook his head. “It shouldn’t.” Squatting on his heels, he thought for a moment, then began to chant softly in the ancient language. First, he placed spells around Katrina, to protect her against any who might harm her. He made the spells more extensive than he had originally planned, in an attempt to ensure that she and her unborn child would be able to escape Galbatorix’s forces should something happen to both him and Roran. “These wards will shield you from a certain number of attacks,” he told her. “I can’t tell you how many exactly, because it depends on the strength of the blows or spells. I’ve given you another defense as well. If you’re in danger, say the word frethya two times and you’ll vanish from sight.”
“Frethya,” she murmured.
“Exactly. It won’t hide you completely, however. The sounds you make can still be heard, and your footprints will still be visible. No matter what happens, don’t go into water or your position will be obvious at once. The spell will draw its energy from you, which means that you’ll tire faster than usual, and I wouldn’t recommend sleeping while it’s active. You might not wake up again. To end the spell, simply say frethya letta.”
Then Eragon turned his attention to Roran. He spent longer placing the wards around his cousin—for it was likely Roran would confront a greater number of threats—and he endowed the spells with more energy than he thought Roran would have approved of, but Eragon did not care. He could not bear the thought of defeating Galbatorix only to find that Roran had died during the battle.
Afterward, he said, “I did something different this time, something I should have thought of long ago. In addition to the usual wards, I gave you a few that will feed directly off your own strength. As long as you’re alive, they’ll shield you from danger. But”—he lifted a finger—“they’ll only activate once the other wards are exhausted, and if the demands placed upon them are too great, you’ll fall unconscious and then you’ll die.?
“So in trying to save me, they may kill me?” Roran asked.
Eragon nodded. “Don’t let anyone drop another wall on you, and you’ll be fine. It’s a risk, but worth it, I think, if it keeps a horse from trampling you or a javelin from going through you. Also, I gave you the same spell as Katrina. All you have to do is say frethya twice and frethya letta to turn yourself invisible and visible at will.” He shrugged. “You might find that useful during the battle.”
Roran gave an evil chuckle. “That I will.”
“Just make sure the elves don’t mistake you for one of Galbatorix’s spellcasters.”
As Eragon rose to his feet, Katrina stood as well. She surprised him by grasping one of his hands and pressing it against her chest. “Thank you, Eragon,” she said softly. “You’re a good man.”
He flushed, embarrassed. “It’s nothing.”
“Guard yourself well tomorrow. You mean a great deal to both of us, and I expect you to be around to act the doting uncle for our child. I’ll be most put out if you get yourself killed.”
He laughed. “Don’t worry. Saphira won’t let me do anything foolish.”
“Good.” She kissed him on both cheeks, then released him. “Farewell, Eragon.”
Roran accompanied him outside. Motioning toward the tent, Roran said, “Thank you.”
“I’m glad I could help.”
They gripped each other by the forearms and hugged; then Roran said, “Luck be with you.”
Eragon took a long, unsteady breath. “Luck be with you.” He tightened his grip on Roran’s forearm, reluctant to let go, for he knew that they might never meet again. “If Saphira and I don’t come back,” he said, “will you see to it that we’re buried at home? I wouldn’t want our bones to lie here.”
Roran raised his brows. “Saphira would be difficult to lug all the way back.”
“The elves would help, I’m sure.”
“Then yes, I promise. Is there anywhere in particular you would like?”
“The top of the bald hill,” said Eragon, referring to a foothill near their farm. The bare-topped hill had always seemed like an excellent location for a castle, something they had discussed at great length when younger.