The two rows of lanterns that led to the dais were wide enough apart that the four of them were able to walk side by side. For that Eragon was glad, as it meant Saphira would be able to fight next to them if need be.
As they approached the throne, Eragon continued to study the chamber around them. It was, he thought, a strange room for a king to receive guests in. Aside from the bright path that lay before them, most of the space was hidden within impenetrable gloom—even more so than the halls of the dwarves beneath Tronjheim and Farthen Dûr—and the air contained a dry, musky scent that seemed familiar, even though he could not place it.
“Where is Shruikan?” he said in an undertone.
Saphira sniffed. I can smell him, but I don’t hear him.
Elva frowned. “Nor can I feel him.”
When they were perhaps thirty feet from the dais, they halted. Behind the throne hung thick black curtains made of velvety material, which stretched up toward the ceiling.
A shadow lay over Galbatorix, concealing his features. Then he leaned forward, into the light, and Eragon saw his face. It was long and lean, with a deep brow and a bladelike nose. His eyes were hard as stones, and they showed little white around the irises. His mouth was thin and wide with a slight downturn at the corners, and he had a close-cropped beard and mustache, which, like his clothes, were black as pitch. In age, he appeared to be in his fourth decade: still at the height of his strength, yet near the beginning of his decline. There were lines on his brow and on either side of his nose, and his tanned skin had a thin look to it, as if he had eaten nothing but rabbit meat and turnips through the winter. His shoulders were broad and well built, and his waist trim.
Upon his head was a crown of reddish gold set with all manner of jewels. The crown appeared old—older even than the hall, and Eragon wondered if perhaps it had once belonged to King Palancar, many hundreds of years ago.
On Galbatorix’s lap rested his sword. It was a Rider’s sword, that much was obvious, but Eragon had never seen its like before. The blade, hilt, and crossguard were stark white, while the gem within the pommel was as clear as a mountain spring. Altogether, there was something about the weapon that Eragon found unsettling. Its color—or rather its lack of color—reminded him of a sun-bleached bone. It was the color of death, not life, and it seemed far more dangerous than any shade of black, be it ever so dark.
Galbatorix examined them each in turn with his sharp, unblinking gaze. “So, you have come to kill me,” he said. “Well then, shall we begin?” He lifted his sword and spread his arms to either side in a welcoming gesture.
Eragon widened his stance and raised his sword and shield. The king’s invitation unsettled him. He’s playing with us.
Still keeping hold of the Dauthdaert, Elva stepped forward and began to speak. However, no sound came from her mouth, and she looked at Eragon with an expression of alarm.
Eragon tried to touch her mind with his own, but he could feel nothing of her thoughts; it was as if she were no longer in the room with them.
Galbatorix laughed, then returned his sword to his lap and leaned back in his throne. “Did you truly believe that I was ignorant of your ability, child? Did you really think you could render me helpless with such a petty, transparent trick? Oh, I have no doubt your words could harm me, but only if I can hear them.” His bloodless lips curved in a cruel, humorless smile. “Such folly. This is the extent of your plan? A girl who cannot speak unless I grant her leave, a spear more suited for hanging on a wall than carrying into battle, and a collection of Eldunarí half out of their minds with age? Tut-tut. I had thought better of you, Arya. And you, Glaedr, but then I suppose your emotions have clouded your reason since I used Murtagh to slay Oromis.”
To Eragon, Saphira, and Arya, Glaedr said, Kill him. The golden dragon felt perfectly calm, but his very serenity betrayed an anger that surpassed all other emotions.
Eragon exchanged a quick glance with Arya and Saphira, and then the three of them started toward the dais, even as Glaedr, Umaroth, and the other Eldunarí attacked Galbatorix’s mind.
Before Eragon managed to take more than a few steps, the king rose up from his velvet seat and shouted a Word. The Word reverberated within Eragon’s mind, and every part of his being seemed to thrum in response, as if he were an instrument upon which a bard had struck a chord. Despite the intensity of his response, Eragon was unable to remember the Word; it faded from his mind, leaving behind only the knowledge of its existence and how it had affected him.
Galbatorix uttered other words after the first, but none seemed to have the same power, and Eragon was too dazed to comprehend their meaning. As the last phrase left the king’s lips, a force gripped Eragon, stopping him in mid-stride. The jolt shook a yelp of surprise from him. He tried to move, but his body might as well have been encased in stone. All he could do was breathe, look, and as he had already discovered, speak.
He did not understand; his wards should have protected him from the king’s magic. That they did not left him feeling as if he were teetering on the edge of a vast abyss.
Next to him, Saphira, Arya, and Elva appeared likewise immobilized.
Enraged by how easily the king had caught them, Eragon joined his mind with the Eldunarí as they battered at Galbatorix’s consciousness. He felt a vast number of minds opposing them—dragons all, who crooned and babbled and shrieked in a mad, disjointed chorus that contained such pain and sorrow, Eragon wanted to pull himself away lest they drag him down into their insanity. They were strong too, as if most of them had been Glaedr’s size or larger.
The opposing dragons made it impossible to attack Galbatorix directly. Every time Eragon thought he felt the touch of the king’s thoughts, one of the enslaved dragons would throw itself at Eragon’s mind and—gibbering all the while—force him to retreat. Fighting the dragons was difficult on account of their wild and incoherent thoughts; subduing any one of them was like trying to hold down a rabid wolf. And there were so many of them, far more than the Riders had hidden in the Vault of Souls.
Before either side could gain the advantage, Galbatorix, who seemed entirely unaffected by the invisible struggle, said, “Come out, my dears, and meet our guests.”
A boy and a girl emerged from behind the throne and came to stand by the king’s right hand. The girl looked about six, the boy perhaps eight or nine. They shared a close resemblance, and Eragon guessed they were brother and sister. Both were dressed in their night garments. The girl clung to the boy’s arm and half hid behind him, while the boy appeared frightened but determined. Even as he struggled against Galbatorix’s Eldunarí, Eragon could feel the minds of the children—could feel their terror and confusion—and he knew they were real.
“Isn’t she charming?” asked Galbatorix, lifting the girl’s chin with one long finger. “Such large eyes and such pretty hair. And isn’t he a handsome young lad?” He put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Children, it is said, are a blessing to us all. I do not happen to share that belief. It has been my experience that children are every bit as cruel and vindictive as adults. They only lack the strength to subjugate others to their will.
“Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps you don’t. Regardless, I know that you of the Varden pride yourselves on your virtue. You see yourselves as upholders of justice, defenders of the innocent—as if any are truly innocent—and as noble warriors fighting to right an ancient wrong. Very well, then; let us test your convictions and see if you are what you claim to be. Unless you stop your attack, I shall kill these two”—he shook the boy’s shoulder—“and I shall kill them if you dare attack me again. … In fact, if you displease me excessively, I shall kill them anyway, so I advise you to be courteous.” The boy and the girl appeared sick at his words, but they made no attempt to flee.
Eragon looked over at Arya, and he saw his despair mirrored in her eyes.
Umaroth! they cried out.
No, growled the white dragon, even as he wrestled with the mind of another Eldunar?
You have to stop, said Arya.
He’ll kill them, said Eragon.
No! We will not give up. Not now!
Enough! roared Glaedr. There are hatchlings in danger!
And more hatchlings will be in danger if we do not kill the Egg-breaker.
Yes, but now is the wrong time to try, said Arya. Wait a little while, and perhaps we can find a way to attack him without risking the lives of the children.
And if not? asked Umaroth.
Neither Eragon nor Arya could bring themselves to answer.
Then we will do what we must, said Saphira. Eragon hated it, but he knew she was right. They could not place the two children before the whole of Alagaësia. If possible, they would save the boy and the girl, but if not, then they would still attack. They had no other choice.
As Umaroth and the Eldunarí he spoke for grudgingly subsided, Galbatorix smiled. “There, that’s better. Now we may speak as civilized beings, without worrying about who is trying to kill whom.” He patted the boy on the head and then pointed toward the steps of the dais. “Sit.” Without arguing, the two children settled on the lowest step, as far from the king as they could get. Then Galbatorix motioned and said, “Kausta,” and Eragon slid forward until he was standing at the base of the dais, as did Arya, Elva, and Saphira.
Eragon continued to be bewildered that their wards were not protecting them. He thought of the Word—whatever it might have been—and a horrible suspicion began to take root within him. Hopelessness quickly followed. For all their plans, for all their talking and worrying and suffering, for all their sacrifices, Galbatorix had captured them as easily as he might a litter of newborn kittens. And if Eragon’s suspicion was true, the king was even more formidable than they had suspected.
Still, they were not entirely helpless. Their minds were, for the moment, their own. And so far as he could tell, they could still use magic … one way or another.
Galbatorix’s gaze settled upon Eragon. “So you are the one who has given me so much trouble, Eragon, son of Morzan. … You and I should have met long ago. Had your mother not been so foolish as to hide you in Carvahall, you would have grown up here, in Urû’baen, as a child of the nobility, with all the riches and responsibilities that entails, instead of whiling away your days grubbing in the dirt.
“Be that as it may, you are here now, and those things shall at last be yours. They are your birthright, your inheritance, and I shall see to it that you receive them.” He seemed to study Eragon with greater intensity, and then he said, “You look more like your mother than your father. With Murtagh, the opposite holds true. Still, it matters little. Whichever one you resemble most, it is only right that you and your brother should serve me, even as did your parents.”
“Never,” said Eragon with a clenched jaw.
A thin smile appeared on the king’s face. “Never? We shall see.” His gaze shifted. “And you, Saphira. Of all my guests today, I am gladdest to see you. You have grown to a fine adulthood. Do you remember this place? Do you remember the sound of my voice? I spent many a night talking to you and the other eggs in my charge during the years when I was securing my rule over the Empire.”
I … I remember a little, said Saphira, and Eragon relayed her words to the king. She did not want to communicate directly with the king, nor would the king have allowed it. Keeping their minds separate was the best way to protect themselves when not in open conflict.
Galbatorix nodded. “And I am sure you will remember more the longer you stay within these walls. You may not have been fully aware of it at the time, but you spent most of your life in a room not far from here. This is your home, Saphira. It is where you belong. And it is where you will build your nest and lay your eggs.”
Saphira’s eyes narrowed, and Eragon felt a strange yearning from her, mixed with a burning hatred.
The king moved on. “Arya Dröttningu. Fate, it seems, has a sense of humor, for here you are, even as I ordered you to be brought so long ago. Your path was a roundabout one, but still you have come, and of your own accord. I find that rather amusing. Don’t you?”
Arya pressed her lips together and refused to answer.
Galbatorix chuckled. “I admit you have been a thorn in my side for quite some time now. You’ve not caused as much mischief as that bumbling meddler Brom, but neither have you been idle. One might even say that this whole situation is your fault, as it was you who sent Saphira’s egg to Eragon. However, I hold no enmity toward you. If not for you, Saphira might not have hatched and I might never have been able to flush the last of my enemies from hiding. For that, I thank you.
“And then there is you, Elva. The girl with the sigil of a Rider upon her brow. Dragon-marked and blessed with the wherewithal to perceive all that pains a person and all that will pain them. How you must have suffered these past months. How you must despise those around you for their weaknesses, even as you are forced to share in their misery. The Varden have used you poorly. Today I shall end the battles that have so tormented you, and you shall no longer have to endure the mistakes and misfortunes of others. That I promise. On occasion, I may have need of your skill, but in the main, you may live as you please, and peace shall be yours.”
Elva frowned, but it was obvious that the king’s offer tempted her. Listening to Galbatorix, Eragon realized, could be as dangerous as listening to Elva herself.
Galbatorix paused and fingered the wire-wrapped hilt of his sword while he regarded them with a hooded gaze. Then he looked past them toward the point in the air where the Eldunarí floated hidden from sight, and his mood seemed to darken. “Convey my words to Umaroth as I speak them,” he said. “Umaroth! We are ill met once again. I thought I killed you on Vroengard.”
Umaroth responded, and Eragon began to relay his words: “He says—”
“—that you killed only his body,” Arya finished.
“That much is obvious,” said Galbatorix. “Where did the Riders hide you and those with you? On Vroengard? Or was it elsewhere? My servants and I searched the ruins of Doru Araeba most closely.”
Eragon hesitated to deliver the dragon’s answer, as it was sure to displease the king, but he could think of no other option. “He says … that he will never share that information with you of his own free will.”
Galbatorix’s eyebrows met above his nose. “Does he now? Well, he’ll tell me soon enough, whether he wishes to or not.” The king tapped the pommel of his glaringly white sword. “I took this blade from his Rider, you know, when I killed him—when I killed Vrael—in the watchtower that overlooks Palancar Valley. Vrael had his own name for this sword. He called it Islingr, ‘Light-bringer.’ I thought Vrangr was more … appropriate.”
Vrangr meant “awry,” and Eragon agreed that it fitted the sword better.
A dull boom sounded behind them, and Galbatorix smiled again. “Ah, good. Murtagh and Thorn shall be joining us shortly, and then we can begin properly.” Another sound filled the chamber, then a great gusting noise that seemed to come from several directions at once. Galbatorix glanced over his shoulder and said, “It was inconsiderate of you to attack so early in the morning. I was already awake—I rise well before dawn—but you woke Shruikan. He gets rather irritated when he’s tired, and when he’s irritated, he tends to eat people. My guards learned long ago not to disturb him when he’s resting. You would have done well to follow their example.”
As Galbatorix spoke, the curtains behind his throne shifted and rose toward the ceiling.
With a sense of shock, Eragon realized that they were actually Shruikan’s wings.
The black dragon lay curled on the floor with his head close to the throne, the bulk of his massive body forming a wall too steep and too high for any to climb without magic. His scales had not the radiance of Saphira’s or Thorn’s but rather sparkled with a dark, liquid brilliance. Their inky color made them almost opaque, which gave them an appearance of strength and solidity that Eragon had not seen in
a dragon’s scales before; it was as if Shruikan were plated with stone or metal, not gems.
The dragon was enormous. Eragon at first had difficulty comprehending that the entire shape before them was a single living creature. He saw part of Shruikan’s corded neck and thought he was seeing the main part of the dragon’s body; he saw the side of one of Shruikan’s hind feet and mistook it for a shin. A fold of a wing was an entire wing in his mind. Only when he looked up and found the spikes atop the dragon’s spine did Eragon grasp the full extent of Shruikan’s size. Each spike was as wide as the trunk of an ancient oak tree; the scales surrounding them were a foot thick, if not more.
Then Shruikan opened an eye and looked down at them. His iris was a pale blue white, the color of a high mountain glacier, and it appeared startlingly bright amid the black of his scales.
The dragon’s huge slitted orb darted back and forth as he studied their faces. His gaze seemed to contain nothing but fury and madness, and Eragon felt certain that Shruikan would kill them in an instant if Galbatorix allowed it.
The stare of the enormous eye—especially when it held such evident malice—made Eragon want to run and hide in a burrow deep, deep underground. It was, he imagined, very much how a rabbit must feel when confronted by a large, toothy creature.
Beside him, Saphira growled, and the scales along her back rippled and lifted like hackles.
In response, jets of fire appeared in the yawning pits of Shruikan’s nostrils, and then he growled as well, drowning out Saphira and filling the chamber with a rumble like that of a rockslide.
On the dais, the two children squeaked and curled into balls, tucking their heads between their knees.
“Peace, Shruikan,” said Galbatorix, and the black dragon grew silent again. His eyelid descended, but it did not close completely; the dragon continued to watch them through a gap a few inches wide, as if waiting for the right moment to pounce.