Roran nodded. “And if I don’t come back—”
“We’ll do the same for you.”
“That’s not what I was going to ask. If I don’t … you’ll see to Katrina?”
“Of course. You know that.”
“Aye, but I had to be sure.” They gazed at each other for another minute. Finally, Roran said, “We’ll be expecting you for dinner tomorrow.”
“I’ll be there.”
Then Roran slipped back into the tent, leaving Eragon standing alone in the night.
He looked up at the stars and felt a touch of grief, as if he had already lost someone close to him.
After a few moments, he padded away into the shadows, relying upon the darkness to conceal him.
He searched through the camp until he found the tent Horst and Elain shared with their baby girl, Hope. The three of them were still awake, as the infant was crying.
“Eragon!” Horst exclaimed softly when Eragon made his presence known. “Come in! Come in! We haven’t seen much of you since Dras-Leona! How are you?”
Eragon spent the better part of an hour talking with them—he did not tell them of the Eldunarí, but he did tell them of his trip to Vroengard—and when Hope finally fell asleep, he bade them farewell and returned to the night.
He next sought out Jeod, whom he found reading scrolls by candlelight while his wife, Helen, slept. When Eragon knocked and stuck his face into the tent, the scarred, thin-faced man put aside his scrolls and left the tent to join Eragon.
Jeod had many questions, and while Eragon did not answer them all, he answered enough that he thought Jeod would be able to guess much of what was about to happen.
Afterward, Jeod laid a hand on Eragon’s shoulder. “I don’t envy you the task that lies ahead. Brom would be proud of your courage.”
“I hope so.”
“I’m sure of it. … If I don’t see you again, you should know: I’ve written a small account of your experiences and of the events that led to them—mainly my adventures with Brom in recovering Saphira’s egg.” Eragon gave him a look of surprise. “I may not get the opportunity to finish it, but I thought it would make a useful addition to Heslant’s work in Domia abr Wyrda.”
Eragon laughed. “I think that would be most fitting. However, if you and I are both alive and free after tomorrow, there are some things I should tell you which will make your account that much more complete and that much more interesting.”
“I’ll hold you to it.”
Eragon wandered through the camp for another hour or so, pausing by the fires where men, dwarves, and Urgals still sat awake. He spoke briefly with each of the warriors he met, inquired whether they were being fairly treated, commiserated about their sore feet and short rations, and sometimes exchanged a quip or two. He hoped that by showing himself among them, he could lift the warriors’ spirits and strengthen their resolve, and thus spread a sense of optimism throughout the army. The Urgals, he found, were in the best mood; they seemed delighted about the upcoming battle and the opportunities for glory that it would provide.
He had another purpose as well: to spread false information. Whenever someone asked him about attacking Urû’baen, he hinted that he and Saphira would be among the battalion to besiege the northwestern section of the city wall. He hoped that Galbatorix’s spies would repeat the lie to the king as soon as the alarms woke Galbatorix the following morn.
As he looked into the faces of those listening to him, Eragon could not help but wonder which, if any, were Galbatorix’s servants. The thought made him uncomfortable, and he found himself listening for footsteps behind him when he moved from one fire to the next.
At last, when he was satisfied that he had spoken to enough warriors to ensure that the information would reach Galbatorix, he left the fires behind and made his way to a tent that was set slightly away from the others by the southern edge of the camp.
He knocked on the center pole: once, twice, three times. There was no response, so he knocked again, this time louder and longer.
A moment later, he heard a sleepy groan and the rustle of shifting blankets. He waited patiently until a small hand pulled aside the entrance flap and the witch-child, Elva, emerged. She wore a dark robe much too large for her, and by the faint light of a torch some yards away, he could see a frown upon her sharp little face.
“What do you want, Eragon?” she demanded.
“Can’t you tell?”
Her frown deepened. “No, I can’t, only that you want something badly enough to wake me in the middle of the night, which even an idiot could see. What is it? I get little enough rest as is, so this had best be important.”
He spoke without interruption for several minutes, describing his plan, then said, “Without you, it won’t work. You’re the point upon which it all turns.”
She gave an ugly laugh. “Such irony, the mighty warrior relying upon a child to kill the one he cannot.”
“Will you help?”
The girl looked down and scuffed her bare foot against the ground.
“If you do, all this”—he motioned toward the camp and the city beyond—“may end far sooner, and then you will not have to endure quite so much—”
“I’ll help.” She stamped her foot and glared at him. “You don’t have to bribe me. I was going to help anyway. I’m not about to let Galbatorix destroy the Varden just because I don’t like you. You’re not that important, Eragon. Besides, I made a promise to Nasuada, and I intend to keep it.” She cocked her head. “There’s something you’re not telling me. Something you’re afraid Galbatorix will find out before we attack. Something about—”
The sound of clanking chains interrupted her.
For a moment, Eragon was confused. Then he realized the sound was coming from the city.
He put his hand on his sword. “Ready yourself,” he said to Elva. “We may have to leave at once.”
Without argument, the girl turned around and disappeared inside the tent.
Reaching out with his mind, Eragon contacted Saphira. Do you hear it?
If we have to, we’ll meet you by the road.
The clanking continued for a short while, then there was a hollow boom, followed by silence.
Eragon listened as intently as he could but heard nothing more. He was just about to cast a spell to increase the sensitivity of his ears when there was a dull thud, accompanied by a series of sharp clacks.
Then another …
And another …
A shiver of horror ran down Eragon’s spine. The sound was unmistakably that of a dragon walking on stone. But what a dragon, to hear its steps from over a mile away!
Shruikan, he thought, and his gut clenched with dread.
Throughout the camp, alarm horns blared, and men, dwarves, and Urgals lit torches as the army scrambled to wakefulness.
Eragon spared Elva a sideways glance as she hurried out of the tent, followed by Greta, the old woman who was her caretaker. The girl had donned a short red tunic, over which she wore a mail hauberk just her size.
The footsteps in Urû’baen ceased. The dragon’s shadowy bulk blotted out most of the lanterns and watchlights in the city. How big is he? Eragon wondered, dismayed. Bigger than Glaedr, that was certain. As big as Belgabad? Eragon could not tell. Not yet.
Then the dragon leaped up and out from the city, and he unfurled his massive wings, and their opening was like a hundred black sails filling with wind. When he flapped, the air shook as if from a clap of thunder, and throughout the countryside, dogs bayed and roosters crowed.
Without thinking, Eragon crouched, feeling like a mouse hiding from an eagle.
Elva tugged on the hem of his tunic. “We should go,” she insisted.
“Wait,” he whispered. “Not yet.”
Great swaths of stars vanished as Shruikan wheeled across the sky, climbing higher and higher. Eragon tried to guess the dragon’s size from the outline of his shape, but the n
ight was too dark and the distance too hard to determine. Whatever Shruikan’s exact proportions, he was frighteningly large. At only a century of age, he ought to have been smaller than he was, but Galbatorix seemed to have accelerated his growth, even as he had Thorn’s.
As he watched the shadow drifting above, Eragon hoped with all his might that Galbatorix was not with the dragon, or if he was, that he would not bother to examine the minds of those below. If he did, he would discover—
“Eldunarí,” gasped Elva. “That’s what you’re hiding!” Behind her, the girl’s caretaker frowned with puzzlement and started to ask a question.
“Quiet!” growled Eragon. Elva opened her mouth, and he clamped his hand over it, silencing her. “Not here, not now,” he warned. She nodded, and he removed his hand.
At that very moment, a bar of fire as wide as the Anora River arced across the sky. Shruikan whipped his head back and forth, spraying the torrent of blinding flames above the camp and the surrounding fields, and the night filled with a sound like a crashing waterfall. Heat stung Eragon’s upturned face. Then the flames evaporated, like mist in the sun, leaving behind a throbbing afterimage and a smoky, sulfurous smell.
The huge dragon turned and flapped once more—shaking the air—before his formless black shape glided back down toward the city and settled among the buildings. Footsteps followed, then the clanking of the chains, and finally the echoing crack of a gate slamming shut.
Eragon released the breath he had been holding and swallowed, though his throat was dry. His heart was pounding so hard, it was painful. We have to fight … that? he thought, all his old fears rushing back.
“Why didn’t he attack?” asked Elva in a small, fearful voice.
“He wanted to frighten us.” Eragon frowned. “Or distract us.” He searched through the minds of the Varden until he found Jörmundur, then gave the warrior instructions to check that all the sentries were still at their posts and to redouble the watch for the remainder of the night. To Elva, he said, “Were you able to feel anything from Shruikan?”
The girl shuddered. “Pain. Great pain. And anger too. If he could, he would kill every creature he met and burn every plant, until there were none left. He’s utterly mad.”
“Is there no way to reach him?”
“None. The kindest thing to do would be to release him from his misery.”
The knowledge made Eragon sad. He had always hoped that they might be able to save Shruikan from Galbatorix. Subdued, he said, “We had best be off. Are you ready?”
Elva explained to her caretaker that she was leaving, which displeased the old woman, but Elva soothed her worries with a few quick words. The girl’s power to see into others’ hearts never ceased to amaze Eragon, and trouble him as well.
Once Greta had granted her consent, Eragon hid both Elva and himself with magic, and then they set off together toward the hill where Saphira was waiting.
OVER THE WALL AND INTO THE MAW
“MUST YOU DO that?” asked Elva.
Eragon paused in the midst of checking the leg straps on Saphira’s saddle and looked over to where the girl sat cross-legged on the grass, toying with the links of her mail shirt.
“What?” he asked.
She tapped her lip with a small, pointed fingernail. “You keep chewing on the inside of your mouth. It’s distracting.” After a moment’s consideration, she said, “And disgusting.”
With some surprise, he realized that he had bitten the inner surface of his right cheek until it was covered with several bloody sores. “Sorry,” he said, and healed himself with a quick spell.
He had spent the deepest part of the night meditating—thinking not of what was to come nor of what had been, but only of what was: the touch of the cool air against his skin, the feel of the ground beneath him, the steady flow of his breath, and the slow beat of his heart as it marked off the remaining moments of his life.
Now, however, the morning star, Aiedail, had risen in the east—heralding the arrival of dawn’s first light—and the time had come to ready themselves for battle. He had inspected every inch of his equipment, adjusted the harness of the saddle until it was perfectly comfortable for Saphira, emptied the saddlebags of everything but the chest that contained Glaedr’s Eldunarí and a blanket for padding, and buckled and rebuckled his sword belt at least five times.
He finished examining the straps on the saddle, then jumped off Saphira. “Stand up,” he said. Elva gave him a look of annoyance but did as he asked, brushing grass from the side of her tunic. Moving quickly, he ran his hands over her thin shoulders and tugged on the edge of her mail hauberk to ensure that it was sitting properly. “Who made this for you?”
“A pair of charming dwarf brothers called Ûmar and Ulmar.” Her cheeks dimpled as she smiled at him. “They didn’t think I needed it, but I was very persuasive.”
I’m sure she was, Saphira said to Eragon. He suppressed a smile. The girl had spent a goodly portion of the night talking with the dragons, beguiling them as only she could. However, Eragon could tell that they also feared her—even the older ones, such as Valdr—for they had no defense against Elva’s power. No one did.
“And did Ûmar and Ulmar give you a blade to fight with?” he asked.
Elva frowned. “Why would I want that?”
He stared at her for a moment, then he fetched his old hunting knife, which he used when eating, and had her tie it around her waist with a leather thong. “Just in case,” he said when she protested. “Now, up you go.”
She obediently climbed onto his back and locked her arms around his neck. He had carried her to the hill in that manner, which had been uncomfortable for them both, but she could not keep pace with him on foot.
He carefully climbed up Saphira’s side to the peak of her shoulders. As he clung to one of the spikes that protruded from her neck, he twisted his body so that Elva was able to pull herself into the saddle.
Once he felt the girl’s weight leave him, Eragon dropped back to the ground. He tossed his shield up to her, then lunged forward, arms outstretched, when it nearly pulled her off Saphira.
“Have you got it?” he asked.
“Yes,” she said, tugging the shield onto her lap. She made a shooing motion with one hand. “Go, go.”
Holding Brisingr’s pommel to keep the sword from tangling between his legs, Eragon ran to the top of the hill and knelt on one knee, staying as low as he could. Behind him, Saphira crawled partway up the rise, then pressed herself flat against the ground and snaked her head through the grass until it was next to him and she could see what he saw.
A thick column of humans, dwarves, elves, Urgals, and werecats streamed out of the Varden’s camp. In the flat gray light of early dawn, the figures were difficult to make out, especially because they carried no lights. The column marched across the sloping fields toward Urû’baen, and when the warriors were about half a mile from the city, they divided into three lines. One positioned itself before the front gate, one turned toward the southeastern part of the curtain wall, and one went toward the northwestern part.
It was the last group that Eragon had hinted he and Saphira were going to accompany.
The warriors had wrapped rags around their feet and weapons, and they kept their voices to a whisper. Still, Eragon could hear the occasional bray of a donkey or the whinny of a horse, and a number of dogs were barking at the procession. The soldiers on the walls would soon notice the activity—most likely when the warriors began to move the catapults, ballistae, and siege towers that the Varden had already assembled and placed in the fields before the city.
Eragon was impressed that the men, dwarves, and Urgals were still willing to go into battle after seeing Shruikan. They must have a great deal of faith in us, he said to Saphira. The responsibility weighed heavily upon him, and he was keenly aware that if he and those with him failed, few of the warriors would survive.
Yes, but if Shruikan flies out again, they will scatter like so many frightened m
Then we’d best not let that happen.
A horn sounded in Urû’baen, and then another and another, and lights began to appear throughout the city as lanterns were unshuttered and torches lit.
“Here we go,” Eragon murmured, his pulse quickening.
Now that the alarm had been raised, the Varden abandoned all attempts at secrecy. To the east, a group of elves on horseback set off at a gallop toward the hill that backed the city, planning to ride up the side of it and attack the wall along the top of the immense shelf that hung over Urû’baen.
In the center of the Varden’s mostly empty camp, Eragon saw what appeared to be Saphira’s glittering shape. On the illusion sat a lone figure—which he knew bore a perfect copy of his own features—holding a sword and shield.
The duplicate of Saphira raised her head and spread her wings; then she took flight and loosed a stirring roar.
They do a good job of it, don’t they? he said to Saphira.
Elves understand how a dragon is supposed to look and behave … unlike some humans.
The shadow-Saphira landed next to the northernmost group of warriors, although Eragon noticed the elves were careful to keep her some distance from the men and dwarves, so that they would not brush up against her and discover that she was as insubstantial as a rainbow.
The sky lightened as the Varden and their allies gathered in orderly formations at each of the three locations outside the walls. Inside the city, Galbatorix’s soldiers continued to prepare for the assault, but it was obvious as they ran about the battlements that they were panicked and disorganized. However, Eragon knew their confusion would not last long.
Now, he thought. Now! Don’t wait any longer. He swept his gaze over the buildings, searching for the slightest scrap of red, but none met his eye. Where are you, blast it?! Show yourself!
Three more horns sounded, this time the Varden’s. A great chorus of shouts and cries rose from the army, and then the Varden’s war machines launched their projectiles at the city, archers loosed their arrows, and the ranks of warriors broke and charged toward the seemingly impenetrable curtain wall.