It was an attack unlike any Eragon had experienced. He shrank from it and concentrated upon a single thought—revenge—as he struggled to protect himself. Through their contact, he could feel Galbatorix’s emotions: anger, mainly, but also a savage joy at being able to hurt Eragon and watch him writhe in discomfort.
The reason, Eragon realized, that Galbatorix was so good at breaking the minds of his enemies was because it gave him a perverse pleasure.
The blade dug deeper into Eragon’s being and he howled, unable to help himself.
Galbatorix smiled, the edges of his teeth translucent, like fired clay.
Defense alone was no way to win a fight, and so, despite the searing pain, Eragon forced himself to attack Galbatorix in return. He dove into the king’s consciousness and grasped at his razor-sharp thoughts, trying to pin them in place and prevent the king from moving or thinking without his approval.
Galbatorix made no attempt to guard himself, however. His cruel smile widened, and he twisted the blade in Eragon’s mind even further.
It felt to Eragon as if a nest of briars were ripping him apart from the inside. A scream racked his throat, and he went limp in the grip of Galbatorix’s spell.
“Submit,” said the king. He grabbed Eragon’s chin with fingers of steel. “Submit.” The blade twisted yet again, and Eragon screamed until his voice gave out.
The king’s probing thoughts closed in around Eragon’s consciousness, restricting him to an ever-smaller part of his mind, until all that was left to him was a small, bright nub overshadowed by the looming weight of Galbatorix’s presence.
“Submit,” the king whispered, almost lovingly. “You have nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. … This life is at an end for you, Eragon Shadeslayer, but a new one awaits. Submit, and all shall be forgiven.”
Tears distorted Eragon’s vision as he stared into the featureless abyss of Galbatorix’s pupils.
They had lost. … He had lost.
The knowledge was more painful than any of the wounds he had received. A hundred years’ worth of striving—all for naught. Saphira, Elva, Arya, the Eldunarí: none of them could overcome Galbatorix. He was too strong, too knowledgeable. Garrow and Brom and Oromis had all died in vain, as had the many warriors of different races who had laid down their lives in the course of fighting the Empire.
The tears spilled from Eragon’s eyes.
“Submit,” whispered the king, and his grip tightened.
More than anything, it was the injustice of the situation that Eragon hated. It seemed wrong on a fundamental level that so many had suffered and died in pursuit of a hopeless goal. It seemed wrong that Galbatorix alone should be the cause of so much misery. And it seemed wrong that he should escape punishment for his misdeeds.
Why? Eragon asked himself.
He remembered, then, the vision the oldest of the Eldunarí, Valdr, had shown him and Saphira, where the dreams of starlings were equal to the concerns of kings.
“Submit!” shouted Galbatorix, and his mind bore down on Eragon with even greater force as splinters of ice and fire lanced through him from every direction.
Eragon cried out, and in his desperation he reached for Saphira and the Eldunarí—their minds besieged by the crazed dragons of Galbatorix’s command—and without intending to, he drew from their stores of energy.
And with that energy, he cast a spell.
It was a spell without words, for Galbatorix’s magic would not allow otherwise, and no words could have described what Eragon wanted, nor what he felt. A library of books would have been insufficient to the task. His was a spell of instinct and emotion; language could not contain it.
What he wanted was both simple and complex: he wanted Galbatorix to understand … to understand the wrongness of his actions. The spell was not an attack; it was an attempt to communicate. If Eragon was going to spend the rest of his life as a slave to the king, then he wanted Galbatorix to comprehend what he had done, fully and completely.
As the magic took effect, Eragon felt Umaroth and the Eldunarí turn their attention to his spell, fighting to ignore Galbatorix’s dragons. A hundred years of inconsolable grief and anger welled up within the Eldunarí, like a roaring wave, and the dragons melded their minds with Eragon’s and began to alter the spell, deepening it, widening it, and building upon it until it encompassed far more than he originally intended.
Not only would the spell show Galbatorix the wrongness of his actions; now it would also compel him to experience all the feelings, both good and bad, that he had aroused in others since the day he had been born. The spell was beyond any Eragon could have invented on his own, for it contained more than a single person, or a single dragon, could conceive of. Each Eldunarí contributed to the enchantment, and the sum of their contributions was a spell that extended not only across the whole of Alagaësia but also back through every moment in time between then and Galbatorix’s birth.
It was, Eragon thought, the greatest piece of magic the dragons had ever wrought, and he was their instrument; he was their weapon.
The power of the Eldunarí rushed through him, like a river as wide as an ocean, and he felt a hollow and fragile vessel, as if his skin might tear with the force of the torrent he channeled. If not for Saphira and the other dragons, he would have died in an instant, drained of all strength by the voracious demands of the magic.
Around them, the light of the lanterns dimmed, and in his mind, Eragon seemed to hear the echo of thousands of voices: an unbearable cacophony of pains and joys innumerable, echoing forth from both the present and the past.
The lines upon Galbatorix’s face deepened, and his eyes began to bulge from their sockets. “What have you done?” he said, his voice hollow and strained. He stepped back and put his fists to his temples. “What have you done!”
With an effort, Eragon said, “Made you understand.”
The king stared at him with an expression of horror. The muscles of his face jumped and twitched, and his whole body began to shake with tremors. Baring his teeth, he growled, “You will not get the better of me, boy. You … will … not. …” He groaned and staggered, and all at once the spell holding Eragon vanished and he fell to the floor, even as Elva, Arya, Saphira, Thorn, Shruikan, and the two children began to move again as well.
A deafening roar from Shruikan filled the chamber, and the huge black dragon shook Thorn off his neck, sending the red dragon flying halfway across the room. Thorn landed on his left side, and the bones in his wing broke with a loud snap.
“I … shall … not … give … in,” said Galbatorix. Behind the king, Eragon saw Arya—who was closer to the throne than Eragon—hesitate and look back at them. Then she sprinted past the dais and ran with Saphira toward Shruikan.
Thorn struggled to his feet and followed.
His face contorted like a madman’s, Galbatorix strode toward Eragon and swung Vrangr at him.
Eragon rolled to the side and heard the sword strike the stone by his head. He kept rolling for another few feet, then pushed himself into a standing position. Only the energy from the Eldunarí allowed him to remain upright.
Shouting, Galbatorix charged at him, and Eragon deflected the king’s clumsy blow. Their swords rang like bells, sharp and clear amid the roars of dragons and the whispers of the dead.
Saphira leaped high into the air and batted at Shruikan’s enormous snout, bloodying it, then dropped back to the floor. He swung a paw at her, talons extended, and she hopped backward, half spreading her wings.
Eragon ducked a savage crosscut and stabbed at Galbatorix’s left armpit. To his astonishment, he scored a hit, wetting the tip of Brisingr with the king’s blood.
A spasm in Galbatorix’s arm threw off his next strike, and they ended up with their swords locked at the hilt, both striving to push each other off balance. The king’s face was twisted almost beyond recognition, and there were tears on his cheeks.
A sheet of flame erupted over their heads, and the air grew hot around them
Somewhere the children were screaming.
Eragon’s wounded leg gave way, and he fell back onto his hands and feet, bruising the fingers with which he held Brisingr.
He expected the king to be upon him within a second, but instead Galbatorix remained where he was, swaying from side to side.
“No!” cried the king. “I didn’t. …” He looked at Eragon and shouted, “Make it stop!”
Eragon shook his head even while he scrambled back onto his feet.
Pain shot through his left arm, and he looked over to see Saphira with a bloody gash on her corresponding foreleg. On the other side of the room, Thorn sank his teeth into Shruikan’s tail, causing the black dragon to snarl and turn on him. While Shruikan’s attention was directed elsewhere, Saphira sprang upward and landed atop his neck, close to the base of his bony skull. She hooked her claws under his scales and then bit down on his neck between two of the spikes that ran along his spine.
Shruikan let out a rumbling, savage yowl and began to thrash about even more.
Once again Galbatorix ran at Eragon, slashing at him as he did. Eragon blocked one blow, then another, and then took a hit on his ribs, which nearly caused him to black out.
“Make it stop,” said Galbatorix, his tone more pleading than threatening. “The pain …”
Another yowl, this one more frantic than the last, came from Shruikan. Behind the king, Eragon saw Thorn clinging to Shruikan’s neck, opposite Saphira. The combined weight of the two dragons pulled down Shruikan’s head until it was close to the floor. However, the black dragon was still too large and strong for them to subdue. Moreover, his neck was so thick, Eragon did not think either Saphira or Thorn would be able to hurt him much with their teeth.
Then, like a shadow flitting through a forest, Eragon saw Arya dart out from behind a pillar and run toward the dragons. In her left hand, the green Dauthdaert glowed with its usual starry nimbus.
Shruikan saw her coming and jerked his body, trying to dislodge Saphira and Thorn. When they remained affixed, he snarled and opened his jaws and painted the area in front of him with a torrent of fire.
Arya dove forward, and for a moment, Eragon lost sight of her behind the wall of flames. Then she came into view again, not far from where Shruikan’s head hung above the floor. The ends of her hair were on fire, but she seemed not to notice.
With three bounding steps, she leaped onto Shruikan’s left forefoot, and from there flung herself toward the side of his head, trailing fire like a comet. Uttering a shout that could be heard throughout the throne room, Arya threw the Dauthdaert into the center of Shruikan’s great, gleaming ice-blue eye and buried the full length of the spear within his skull.
Shruikan bellowed and twitched, and then he slowly fell sideways, liquid fire pouring from his mouth.
Saphira and Thorn jumped clear a moment before the gigantic black dragon struck the floor.
Pillars cracked; chunks of stone fell from the ceiling and shattered. A number of lanterns broke, and gouts of some molten substance dribbled out of them.
Eragon nearly fell as the room shuddered. He had not been able to see what had happened to Arya, but he feared that Shruikan’s bulk might have crushed her.
“Eragon!” shouted Elva. “Duck!”
He ducked, and he heard a whistle of wind as Galbatorix’s white blade swung over his lowered back.
Rising, Eragon lunged forward …
… and stabbed Galbatorix in the center of his stomach, even as he had stabbed Murtagh.
The king grunted, and then he stepped back, pulling himself off Eragon’s blade. He touched the wound with his free hand and stared at the blood on the tips of his fingers. Then he looked back at Eragon and said, “The voices … the voices are terrible. I can’t bear it. …” He closed his eyes, and fresh tears streamed down his cheeks. “Pain … so much pain. So much grief. … Make it stop! Make it stop!”
“No,” said Eragon. Elva joined him, as did Saphira and Thorn from the other end of the room. With them, Eragon was relieved to see, was Arya, burned and bloodied, but otherwise unhurt.
Galbatorix’s eyes snapped open—round and rimmed with an unnatural amount of white—and he stared into the distance, as if Eragon and those before him no longer existed. He shook and trembled and his jaw worked, but no sound came from his throat.
Two things happened at once, then. Elva let out a shriek and fainted, and Galbatorix shouted, “Waíse néiat!”
Eragon had no time for words. Again drawing upon the Eldunarí, he cast a spell to drag himself, Saphira, Arya, Elva, Thorn, Murtagh, and the two children on the dais over to the block of stone where Nasuada was chained. And he also cast a spell to stop or deflect whatever might harm them.
They were only halfway to the block when Galbatorix vanished in a flash of light brighter than the sun. Then all went black and silent as Eragon’s protective spell took effect.
RORAN SAT ON a litter that the elves had placed upon one of the many blocks of stone just inside the ruined gate of Urû’baen, giving orders to the warriors in front of him.
Four of the elves had carried him out of the city, where they could use magic without fear of Galbatorix’s enchantments distorting their spells. They had healed his dislocated arm and broken ribs, as well as the other wounds Barst had inflicted, although they warned him that it would be weeks before his bones were as strong as before, and they insisted that he remain off his feet for the rest of the day.
Likewise, he had insisted upon rejoining the battle. The elves argued with him, but he told them, “Either you take me back or I’ll walk there myself.” Their displeasure had been obvious, but at last they agreed and carried him to where he now sat looking over the square.
As Roran expected, the soldiers had lost their will to fight with the death of their commander, and the Varden were able to push them back up the narrow streets. By the time Roran returned, the Varden had already cleared a third or more of the city and were fast approaching the citadel.
They had lost many—the dead and dying littered the street, and the gutters ran red with blood—but with their recent advances, a renewed sense of victory gripped the army; Roran could see it in the faces of the men and dwarves and Urgals, though not the elves, who maintained a cold fury at the death of their queen.
The elves worried Roran; he had seen them kill soldiers who were trying to surrender, cutting them down without the slightest compunction. Once loosed, their bloodlust seemed to have few bounds.
Soon after Barst fell, King Orrin had taken a bolt to the chest while storming a guardhouse deeper within the city. It was a serious wound, one that even the elves, apparently, were unsure they could heal. The king’s soldiers had taken Orrin back to the camp, and so far, Roran had heard no word of his fate.
Although he could not fight, Roran could still give orders. Of his own accord, he had started to organize the army from the rear, gathering up stray warriors and sending them on missions throughout Urû’baen—the first being to capture the rest of the catapults along the walls. When he received a piece of information that he thought Jörmundur or Orik or Martland Redbeard or any of the other captains within the army ought to know, now he had runners seek them out among the buildings and convey the news.
“—and if you see any soldiers near the big domed building by the market, be sure to tell Jörmundur that as well,” he said to the thin, high-shouldered swordsman who stood in front of him.
“Yes, sir,” said the man, and the knob in his neck bobbed as he swallowed.
Roran stared for a moment, fascinated by the movement, then he waved and said, “Go.”
As the man trotted away, Roran frowned and looked over the peaked roofs of the houses toward the citadel at the base of the overhanging shelf.
Where are you? he wondered. Nothing had been seen of Eragon or those with him since they entered the stronghold, and the length of their absence worried Roran. He could th
ink of numerous explanations for the delay, but none boded well. The most benign was that Galbatorix was simply hiding, and that Eragon and his companions were having to search for the king. But after seeing the might of Shruikan during the previous night, Roran could not imagine that Galbatorix would flee from his enemies.
If his worst fears had come to pass, then the Varden’s victories would be short-lived, and Roran knew it was unlikely that he or any of the other warriors within their army would live through the day.
One of the men he had sent off earlier—a bare-headed, sandy-haired archer with a ruddy spot in the center of each cheek—ran out of a street to Roran’s right. The archer stopped in front of the block of stone and ducked his head while he panted for breath.
“You found Martland?” Roran asked.
The archer nodded again, his hair flopping over his glistening forehead.
“And you gave him my message?”
“Sir, yes sir. Martland told me to tell you that”—he paused for breath—“the soldiers have retreated from the baths, but now they’ve barricaded themselves in a hall close to the southern wall.”
Roran shifted on the litter and a pang ran through his newly healed arm. “What of the wall towers between the baths and the granaries? Have they been secured yet?”
“Two of them; we’re still fighting for the rest. Martland convinced a few elves to go and help, though. He also—”
A muffled roar from within the stone hill interrupted the man.
The archer blanched, save for the spots of color on his cheeks, which appeared even brighter and redder than before, like daubs of paint on the skin of a corpse. “Sir, is that—”
“Shh!” Roran cocked his head, listening. Only Shruikan could have roared that loud.
For a few moments, they heard nothing else of note. Then another roar sounded from inside the citadel, and Roran thought he could make out other, fainter noises, although he was not sure what they were.
Throughout the area in front of the ruined gate, men, elves, dwarves, and Urgals paused and looked toward the citadel.