A single voice, low and clear, wafted across the chamber, singing a slow, wistful melody. One by one, the other members of the hidden dwarf choir joined in the song, filling Tronjheim with the plaintive beauty of their music. Eragon was going to ask for them to be silent, but Saphira said, It’s all right. Leave them alone.
Although he did not understand what the choir sang, Eragon could tell from the tone of the music that it was a lamentation for things that had been and were no more, such as the star sapphire. As the song built toward its conclusion, he found himself thinking of his lost life in Palancar Valley, and tears welled in his eyes.
To his surprise, he sensed a similar strain of pensive melancholy from Saphira. Neither sorrow nor regret was a normal part of her personality, so he wondered at it and would have questioned her, except that he also sensed a stirring of something deep within her, like the awakening of some ancient part of her being.
The song ended on a long, wavering note, and as it faded into oblivion, a surge of energy rushed through Saphira—so much energy, Eragon gasped at its magnitude—and she bent and touched the star sapphire with the tip of her snout. The branching cracks within the giant gemstone flared bright as bolts of lightning, and then the scaffolding shattered and fell to the floor, revealing Isidar Mithrim whole and sound again.
But not quite the same. The color of the jewel was a deeper, richer shade of red than before, and the innermost petals of the rose were shot through with streaks of dusky gold.
The dwarves stared in wonder at Isidar Mithrim. Then they leaped to their feet, cheering and applauding Saphira with such enthusiasm, it sounded like the pounding roar of a waterfall. She dipped her head toward the crowd and then walked back to Eragon, crushing rose petals under her feet. Thank you, she said to him.
For helping me. It was your emotions that showed me the way. Without them, I might have stayed there for weeks before I felt inspired to fix Isidar Mithrim.
Lifting his arms, Orik quieted the crowd, and then he said, “On behalf of our entire race, I thank you for your gift, Saphira. Today you have restored the pride of our realm, and we shall not forget your deed. Let it not be said that knurlan are an ungrateful lot; from now until the end of time, your name shall be recited at the winter festivals, along with the lists of Master Makers, and when Isidar Mithrim is returned to its setting at the peak of Tronjheim, your name will be engraved in the collar surrounding the Star Rose, along with that of Dûrok Ornthrond, who first gave shape to the jewel.”
To both Eragon and Saphira, Orik said, “Once again you have demonstrated your friendship to mine people. It pleases me that, by your actions, you have vindicated my foster father’s decision to adopt you into Dûrgrimst Ingeitum.”
After the conclusion of the multitude of rituals that followed the coronation, and after Eragon had helped remove the wool caught between Saphira’s teeth—a slippery, slimy, smelly task that left him needing a bath—the two of them attended the banquet held in Orik’s honor. The feasting was loud and boisterous and lasted long into the night. Jugglers and acrobats entertained the guests, as well as a troupe of actors who performed a play called Az Sartosvrenht rak Balmung, Grimstnzborith rak Kvisagûr, which Hûndfast told Eragon meant The Saga of King Balmung of Kvisagûr.
When the celebrations had died down some and most of the dwarves were deep in their cups, Eragon leaned toward Orik, who sat at the head of the stone table, and said, “Your Majesty.”
Orik waved a hand. “I won’t have you calling me Your Majesty all the time, Eragon. It won’t do. Unless the occasion demands it, use mine name as you always have. That’s an order.” He reached for his goblet but missed and nearly knocked the container over. He laughed.
Smiling, Eragon said, “Orik, I have to ask, Was that really Gûntera who crowned you?”
Orik’s chin sank to his chest, and he fingered the stem of the goblet, his expression growing serious. “It was as close to Gûntera as we are ever likely to see on this earth. Does that answer your question, Eragon?”
“I … I think so. Does he always answer when called upon? Has he ever refused to crown one of your rulers?”
The gap between Orik’s eyebrows narrowed. “Have you ever heard of the Heretic Kings and the Heretic Queens before?”
Eragon shook his head.
“They are knurlan who failed to secure Gûntera’s blessing as our next ruler and yet who nevertheless insisted upon taking the throne.” Orik’s mouth twisted. “Without exception, their reigns were short and unhappy ones.”
A band seemed to tighten around Eragon’s chest. “So, even though the clanmeet elected you their leader, if Gûntera had failed to crown you, you would not be king now.”
“That or I would be king of a nation at war with itself.” Orik shrugged. “I was not overly worried about the possibility. With the Varden in the midst of invading the Empire, only a madman would risk tearing our country apart merely to deny me the throne, and while Gûntera is many things, he is not mad.”
“But you did not know for certain,” said Eragon.
Orik shook his head. “Not until he placed the helm upon mine head.”
WORDS OF WISDOM
“Sorry,” said Eragon as he bumped the basin.
Nasuada frowned, her face shrinking and elongating as a row of ripples ran through the water in the basin. “What for?” she asked. “I should think congratulations are in order. You have accomplished everything I sent you to do and more.”
“No, I—” Eragon stopped as he realized she could not see the disturbance in the water. The spell was designed so that Nasuada’s mirror would provide her with an unobstructed view of him and Saphira, not the objects they were gazing at. “I struck the basin with my hand, that is all.”
“Oh. In that case, let me formally congratulate you, Eragon. By ensuring Orik became king—”
“Even if it was by getting myself attacked?”
Nasuada smiled. “Yes, even if it was by getting yourself attacked, you have preserved our alliance with the dwarves, and that might mean the difference between victory and defeat. The question now becomes, How long until the rest of the dwarves’ army will be able to join us?”
“Orik has already ordered the warriors to ready themselves for departure,” said Eragon. “It will probably take the clans a few days to muster their forces, but once they do, they’ll march immediately.”
“It’s a good thing too. We can use their assistance as soon as possible. Which reminds me, when can we expect you to return? Three days? Four days?”
Saphira shuffled her wings, her breath hot on the back of Eragon’s neck. Eragon glanced at her, and then, choosing his words with care, he said, “That depends. Do you remember what we discussed before I left?”
Nasuada pursed her lips. “Of course I do, Eragon. I—” She looked off to the side of the image and listened as a man addressed her, his voice an unintelligible murmur to Eragon and Saphira. Returning her attention to them, Nasuada said, “Captain Edric’s company has just returned. They appear to have suffered heavy casualties, but our watchmen say that Roran survived.”
“Was he injured?” asked Eragon.
“I’ll let you know once I find out. I would not worry too much, though. Roran has the luck of—” Once again, the voice of an unseen person distracted Nasuada, and she stepped out of view.
Eragon fidgeted while he waited.
“My apologies,” said Nasuada, her visage reappearing in the basin. “We are closing in on Feinster, and we are having to fight off marauding groups of soldiers Lady Lorana sends from the city to harass us…. Eragon, Saphira, we need you for this battle. If the people of Feinster see only men, dwarves, and Urgals gathered outside their walls, they may believe they have a chance of holding the city, and they will fight all the harder because of it. They can’t hold Feinster, of course, but they have yet to realize that. If they see a dragon and Rider leading the charges against them, however, they will lose the will to fight.”
Nasuada raised her hand, cutting him off. “There are other reasons for you to return as well. Because of my wounds from the Trial of the Long Knives, I cannot ride into battle with the Varden, as I have before. I need you to take my place, Eragon, in order to see that my commands are carried out as I intend and also to prop up the spirits of our warriors. What’s more, rumors of your absence are already coursing through the camp, despite our best efforts to the contrary. If Murtagh and Thorn attack us directly as a result, or if Galbatorix sends them to reinforce Feinster … well, even with the elves by our sides, I doubt we could withstand them. I’m sorry, Eragon, but I cannot allow you to return to Ellesméra right now. It’s too dangerous.”
Pressing his hands against the edge of the cold stone table upon which the basin rested, Eragon said, “Nasuada, please. If not now, then when?”
“Soon. You must be patient.”
“Soon.” Eragon drew a deep breath, tightening his grip on the table. “How soon exactly?”
Nasuada frowned at him. “You cannot expect me to know that. First we must take Feinster, and then we must secure the countryside, and then—”
“And then you intend to march on Belatona or Dras-Leona, and then to Urû’baen,” said Eragon. Nasuada attempted to reply, but he did not allow her the opportunity. “And the closer you get to Galbatorix, the likelier it will be that Murtagh and Thorn will attack you, or even the king himself, and you will be ever more reluctant to let us go…. Nasuada, Saphira and I do not have the skill, the knowledge, nor the strength to kill Galbatorix. You know that! Galbatorix could end this war at any time if he was willing to leave his castle and confront the Varden directly. We have to talk with our teachers again. They can tell us where Galbatorix’s power is coming from, and they might be able to show us a trick or two that will allow us to defeat him.”
Nasuada gazed downward, studying her hands. “Thorn and Murtagh could destroy us while you were gone.”
“And if we do not go, Galbatorix will destroy us when we reach Urû’baen…. Could you wait a few days before you attack Feinster?”
“We could, but every day we camp outside the city will cost us lives.” Nasuada rubbed her temples with the heels of her palms. “You are asking a lot in exchange for an uncertain reward, Eragon.”
“The reward may be uncertain,” he said, “but our doom is inevitable unless we try.”
“Is it? I am not so sure. Still …” For an uncomfortably long time, Nasuada was silent, gazing past the edge of the image. Then she nodded once, as if confirming something to herself, and said, “I can delay our arrival at Feinster for two or three days. There are several towns in the area we can seize first. Once we do reach the city, I can pass another two or three days having the Varden build siege engines and prepare fortifications. No one will think strangely of it. After that, though, I will have to set upon Feinster, if for no other reason but that we need their supplies. An army that sits still in enemy territory is an army that starves. At the most, I can give you six days, and perhaps only four.”
As she spoke, Eragon made several quick calculations. “Four days won’t be long enough,” he said, “and six might not be either. It took Saphira three days to fly to Farthen Dûr, and that was without stopping to sleep and without having to carry my weight. If the maps I have seen are accurate, it’s at least as far from here to Ellesméra, maybe farther, and about the same from Ellesméra to Feinster. And with me on her back, Saphira won’t be able to cover the distance as quickly.”
No, I won’t, Saphira said to him.
Eragon continued: “Even under the best of circumstances, it would still take us a week to reach you at Feinster, and that would be without staying for more than a minute in Ellesméra.”
An expression of profound exhaustion crossed Nasuada’s face. “Must you fly all the way to Ellesméra? Wouldn’t it be sufficient to scry with your mentors once you are past the wards along the edge of Du Weldenvarden? The time you would save could be crucial.”
“I don’t know. We can try.”
Nasuada closed her eyes for a moment. In a hoarse voice, she said, “I may be able to delay our arrival at Feinster for four days…. Go to Ellesméra or don’t; I leave the decision up to you. If you do, then stay however long is needed. You’re right; unless you find a way to defeat Galbatorix, we have no hope of victory. Even so, keep you in mind the tremendous risk we are taking, the lives of the Varden I will be sacrificing in order to buy you this time, and how many more of the Varden will die if we lay siege to Feinster without you.”
Somber, Eragon nodded. “I won’t forget.”
“I should hope not. Now go! Do not tarry any longer! Fly. Fly! Fly faster than a diving hawk, Saphira, and do not let anything slow you.” Nasuada touched the tips of her fingers to her lips and then pressed them against the invisible surface of the mirror, where he knew she beheld the moving likeness of him and Saphira. “Luck on your journey, Eragon, Saphira. If we meet again, I fear it will be on the field of battle.”
And then she hurried from their sight, and Eragon released his spell, and the water in the basin cleared.
THE WHIPPING POST
Roran sat bolt upright and stared past Nasuada, his eyes fixed upon a wrinkle in the side of the crimson pavilion.
He could feel Nasuada studying him, but he refused to meet her gaze. During the long, dull silence that enveloped them, he contemplated a host of dire possibilities, and his temples throbbed with a feverish intensity. He wished he could leave the stifling pavilion and breathe the cool air outside.
At last Nasuada said, “What am I going to do with you, Roran?”
He straightened his spine even more. “Whatever you wish, my Lady.”
“An admirable answer, Stronghammer, but in no way does it resolve my quandary.” Nasuada sipped wine from a goblet. “Twice you defied a direct order from Captain Edric, and yet if you hadn’t, neither he nor you nor the rest of your band might have survived to tell the tale. However, your success does not negate the reality of your disobedience. By your own account, you knowingly committed insubordination, and I must punish you if I am to maintain discipline among the Varden.”
“Yes, my Lady.”
Her brow darkened. “Blast it, Stronghammer. If you were anyone else but Eragon’s cousin, and if your gambit had been even one whit less effective, I would have you strung up and hanged for your misconduct.”
Roran swallowed as he imagined a noose tightening around his neck.
With the middle finger of her right hand, Nasuada tapped the arm of her high-backed chair with increasing speed until, stopping, she said, “Do you wish to continue fighting with the Varden, Roran?”
“Yes, my Lady,” he replied without hesitation.
“What are you willing to endure in order to remain within my army?”
Roran did not allow himself to dwell upon the implications of her question. “Whatever I must, my Lady.”
The tension in her face eased, and Nasuada nodded, appearing satisfied. “I hoped you would say that. Tradition and established precedent leave me only three choices. One, I can hang you, but I won’t … for a multitude of reasons. Two, I can give you thirty lashes and then discharge you from the ranks of the Varden. Or three, I can give you fifty lashes and keep you under my command.”
Fifty lashes isn’t that many more than thirty, Roran thought, trying to bolster his courage. He wet his lips. “Would I be flogged where all could see?”
Nasuada’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. “Your pride has no part in this, Stronghammer. The punishment must be severe so that others are not tempted to follow in your footsteps, and it must be held in public so that the whole of the Varden can profit by it. If you are even half as intelligent as you seem, you knew when you defied Edric that your decision would have consequences and that those consequences would most likely be unpleasant. The choice you must now make is simple: will you stay with the Varden, or will you abandon your friends and family and g
o your own way?”
Roran lifted his chin, angry that she would question his word. “I shall not leave, Lady Nasuada. No matter how many lashes you assign me, they cannot be as painful as losing my home and my father was.”
“No,” said Nasuada softly. “They could not …. One of the magicians of Du Vrangr Gata will oversee the flogging and attend to you afterward, to ensure that the whip causes you no permanent damage. However, they shall not entirely heal your wounds, nor may you seek out a magician on your own to mend your back.”
“Your flogging will be held as soon as Jörmundur can marshal the troops. Until then, you will remain under guard in a tent by the whipping post.”
It relieved Roran that he would not have to wait any longer; he did not want to have to labor for days under the shadow of what lay before him. “My Lady,” he said, and she dismissed him with a motion of her finger.
Turning on his heel, Roran marched out of the pavilion. Two guards took up positions on either side of him as he emerged. Without looking at or speaking to him, they led Roran through the camp until they arrived at a small, empty tent not far from the blackened whipping post, which stood upon a slight rise just beyond the edge of the camp.
The post was six and a half feet high and had a thick crossbeam near the top, to which prisoners’ wrists were tied. Rows of scratches from the fingernails of scourged men covered the crossbeam.
Roran forced himself to look away and then ducked inside the tent. The only piece of furniture inside was a battered wooden stool. He sat and concentrated upon his breathing, determined to remain calm.
As the minutes passed, Roran began to hear the tromp of boots and the clink of mail as the Varden assembled around the whipping post. Roran imagined the thousands of men and women staring at him, including the villagers from Carvahall. His pulse quickened, and sweat sprang up upon his brow.
After about half an hour, the sorceress Trianna entered the tent and had him strip down to his trousers, which embarrassed Roran, although the woman seemed to take no notice. Trianna examined him all over, and even cast an additional spell of healing on his left shoulder, where the soldier had stabbed him with the bolt of a crossbow. Then she declared him fit to continue and gave him a shirt made of sackcloth to wear in place of his own.