His dread only worsened when he and Saphira resumed their journey and spotted lines of armed men marching over the fields below. Here and there, pillars of pale smoke rose from sacked villages. The sight of so much wanton destruction sickened him. Averting his gaze, he squeezed the neck spike in front of him and squinted until the only thing visible through the bars of his blurry eyelashes was the white calluses on his knuckles.
Little one, said Saphira, her thoughts slow and tired. We have done this before. Do not allow it to disturb you so.
Regretting that he had distracted her from flying, he said, I’m sorry…. I’ll be fine when we get there. I just want it to be over.
Eragon sniffed and wiped his cold nose on the cuff of his tunic. Sometimes I wish I enjoyed fighting as much as you do. Then this would be so much easier.
If you did, she said, the entire world would cower before our feet, including Galbatorix. No, it is good you do not share my love of blood. We balance each other out, Eragon…. Apart we are incomplete, but together we are whole. Now clear your mind of these poisonous thoughts and tell me a riddle that will keep me awake.
Very well, he said after a moment. I am colored red and blue and yellow and every other hue of the rainbow. I am long and short, thick and thin, and I often rest coiled up. I can eat a hundred sheep in a row and still be hungry. What am I?
A dragon, of course, she said without hesitation.
No, a woolen rug.
Their third day of traveling crept past with agonizing slowness. The only sounds were those of Saphira’s wings flapping, the steady rasp of her panting, and the dull roar of air rushing past Eragon’s ears. His legs and lower back ached from sitting in the saddle for so long, but his discomfort was slight compared with Saphira’s; her flight muscles burned with an almost unbearable amount of pain. Still, she persevered and did not complain, and she refused his offer to alleviate her suffering with a spell, saying, You will need the strength when we arrive.
Hours after dusk, Saphira wobbled and dropped several feet in a single, sickening lurch. Eragon straightened, alarmed, and looked around for any clues as to what had caused the disturbance but saw only blackness below and the glittering stars above.
I think we just reached the Jiet River, said Saphira. The air here is cool and moist, as it would be over water.
Then Feinster shouldn’t be much farther ahead. Are you sure you can find the city in the dark? We could be a hundred miles north or south of it!
No, we could not. My sense of direction may not be infallible, but it is certainly better than yours or that of any other earthbound creature. If the elf maps we have seen were accurate, then we cannot be off by more than fifty miles north or south of Feinster, and at this height, we can easily see the city over that distance. We may even be able to smell the smoke from their chimneys.
And so it was. Later that night, when dawn was only a few hours away, a dull red glow appeared upon the western horizon. Seeing it, Eragon twisted around and removed his armor from the saddlebags, then donned his mail hauberk, his arming cap, his helm, his bracers, and his greaves. He wished he had his shield, but he had left it with the Varden before running to Mount Thardûr with Nar Garzhvog.
Then Eragon rummaged with one hand through the contents of his bags until he found the silver flask of faelnirv Oromis had given him. The metal container was cool to the touch. Eragon drank a small sip of the enchanted liqueur, which seared the inside of his mouth and which tasted of elderberries and mead and mulled cider. Heat suffused his face. Within seconds, his weariness began to recede as the restorative properties of the faelnirv took effect.
Eragon shook the flask. To his concern, it felt as if a third of the precious liqueur was already gone, even though he had only consumed a single mouthful once before. I have to be more careful with it in the future, he thought.
As he and Saphira drew closer, the glow on the horizon resolved into thousands of individual points of light, from small handheld lanterns to cookfires to bonfires to huge patches of burning pitch that poured a foul black smoke into the night sky. By the ruddy light of the fires, Eragon saw a sea of flashing spearpoints and gleaming helmets surging against the base of the large, well-fortified city, the walls of which teemed with tiny figures busy firing arrows at the army below, pouring cauldrons of boiling oil between the merlons of the parapet, cutting ropes thrown over the walls, and pushing away the rickety wooden ladders the besiegers kept leaning against the ramparts. Faint calls and cries floated upward from the ground, as well as the boom of a battering ram crashing against the city’s iron gates.
The last of Eragon’s weariness vanished as he studied the battlefield and noted the placement of the men and the buildings and the various pieces of war machinery. Extending outward from the walls of Feinster were hundreds of ramshackle hovels crammed one against another, with hardly enough room for a horse to pass between: the dwellings of those too poor to afford a house within the main part of the city. Most of the hovels appeared deserted, and a wide swath had been demolished so that the Varden could approach the city walls in force. A score or more of the mean huts were burning, and even as he watched, the fires spread, leaping from one thatched roof to another. East of the hovels, curved black lines scored the earth where trenches had been excavated to protect the Varden’s camp. On the other side of the city were docks and wharves similar to those Eragon remembered from Teirm, and then the dark and restless ocean that seemed to extend to infinity.
A thrill of feral excitement ran through Eragon, and he felt Saphira shiver underneath him at the same time. He gripped the hilt of Brisingr. They don’t seem to have noticed us yet. Shall we announce our arrival?
Saphira answered him by loosing a roar that made his teeth rattle and by painting the sky in front of them with a thick sheet of blue fire.
Below, the Varden at the foot of the city and the defenders upon the ramparts paused, and for a moment, silence enveloped the battlefield. Then the Varden began to cheer and bang their spears and swords against their shields while great groans of despair wafted from the people of the city.
Ah! exclaimed Eragon, blinking. I wish you hadn’t done that. Now I can’t see anything.
Still blinking, he said, The first thing we should do is find a horse that just died, or some other animal, so that I can replenish your strength with theirs.
You don’t have—
Saphira stopped talking as another mind touched theirs. After a half second of panic, Eragon recognized the consciousness as that of Trianna. Eragon, Saphira! cried the sorceress. You’re just in time! Arya and another elf scaled the walls, but they were trapped by a large group of soldiers. They won’t survive another minute unless someone helps them! Hurry!
Saphira tucked her wings close to her body and tipped into a steep dive, hurtling toward the dark buildings of the city. Eragon ducked his head against the blast of wind that tore at his face. The world spun around them as Saphira rolled to her right so that the archers on the ground would have difficulty shooting her.
Eragon’s limbs grew heavy as Saphira pulled out of the dive. Then she leveled out and the weight pressing down on him vanished. Like strange, shrieking hawks, arrows whistled past them, some missing their mark, while Eragon’s wards deflected the rest.
Swooping low over the outer city walls, Saphira roared again and lashed out with her claws and tail, knocking groups of screaming men off the parapet and toward the hard ground eighty feet below.
A tall, square tower armed with four ballistae stood at the far end of the southern wall. The huge crossbows fired twelve-foot-long javelins toward the Varden massed before the city gates. Inside the curtain wall, Eragon and Saphira spotted a hundred or so soldiers gathered around a pair of warriors, who stood with their backs pressed against the base of the tower, desperately trying to fend off a thicket of thrusting blades.
Even in the gloom and from h
igh above, Eragon recognized one of the warriors as Arya.
Saphira leaped down from the parapet and landed in the midst of the soldiers, crushing several men beneath her feet. The rest scattered, screaming with fear and surprise. Saphira roared, frustrated that her prey was escaping, and whipped her tail across the dirt, flattening a dozen more soldiers. A man tried to run past her. Fast as a striking snake, she caught him between her jaws and shook her head, snapping his spine. She disposed of another four in a similar manner.
By then the remaining men had vanished among the buildings.
Eragon quickly pulled loose his leg straps, then jumped to the ground. The additional weight of his armor drove him to one knee as he landed. He grunted and pushed himself up onto his feet.
“Eragon!” cried Arya, running up to him. She was panting and drenched with sweat. Her only armor was a padded jerkin and a light helm painted black so it would not cast unwanted reflections.
“Welcome, Bjartskular. Welcome, Shadeslayer,” purred Blödhgarm from by her side, his short fangs orange and glistening in the torchlight, his yellow eyes glowing. The ruff of fur on the elf’s back and neck stood on end, which made him appear even fiercer than usual. Both he and Arya were stained with blood, although Eragon could not tell if the blood was theirs.
“Are you hurt?” he asked.
Arya shook her head, and Blödhgarm said, “A few scratches, but nothing serious.”
What are you doing here without reinforcements? asked Saphira.
“The gates,” said Arya, gasping. “For three days, we’ve tried to break them, but they’re impervious to magic, and the battering ram has barely dented the wood. So I convinced Nasuada to …”
When Arya paused to regain her breath, Blödhgarm picked up the thread of her narrative. “Arya convinced Nasuada to stage tonight’s attack so that we could sneak into Feinster without being noticed and open the gates from within. Unfortunately, we encountered a trio of spellcasters. They engaged us with their minds and prevented us from using magic while they summoned soldiers to overwhelm us with sheer numbers.”
While Blödhgarm spoke, Eragon placed a hand on the chest of one of the dead soldiers and transferred what energy remained in the man’s flesh into his own body, and thence to Saphira. “Where are the spellcasters now?” he asked, proceeding to another corpse.
Blödhgarm’s fur-covered shoulders rose and fell. “They seem to have taken fright at your appearance, Shur’tugal.”
As well they should, growled Saphira.
Eragon drained the energy from three more soldiers, and from the last, he also took the man’s round wooden shield. “Well then,” he said, standing, “let us go open the gates for the Varden, shall we?”
“Yes, and without delay,” said Arya. She started forward, then cast a sideways glance at Eragon. “You have a new sword.” It was not a question.
He nodded. “Rhunön helped me to forge it.”
“And what is the name of your weapon, Shadeslayer?” asked Blödhgarm.
Eragon was about to answer when four soldiers ran out from the mouth of a dark alleyway, spears lowered. In a single, smooth motion, he drew Brisingr from its sheath and slashed through the haft of the lead man’s spear and, continuing with the blow, decapitated the soldier. Brisingr seemed to shimmer with savage delight. Arya lunged forward and stabbed two of the other men before they could react while Blödhgarm leaped sideways and tackled the last soldier, killing him with his own dagger.
“Hurry!” cried Arya, and started to run toward the city gates.
Eragon and Blödhgarm raced after her while Saphira followed close behind, her claws loud against the paving stones of the street. Archers fired arrows at them from the parapet above, and three different times, soldiers rushed out from the main bulk of the city and flung themselves against them. Without slowing, Eragon, Arya, and Blödhgarm cut down the attackers, or else Saphira blasted them with a withering torrent of fire.
The steady boom of the battering ram became ever louder as they approached the forty-foot-tall gates of the city. Eragon saw two men and a woman, who were garbed in dark robes, standing before the iron bound doors, chanting in the ancient language and swaying from side to side with upheld arms. The three spellcasters fell silent when they noticed Eragon and his companions and, with their robes flapping, ran up the main street of Feinster, which led to the keep at the far side of the city.
Eragon longed to pursue them. However, it was more important to let the Varden into the city, where they would no longer be at the mercy of the men on the walls. I wonder what mischief they have planned, he thought, worried as he watched the spellcasters depart.
Before Eragon, Arya, Blödhgarm, and Saphira arrived at the gates, fifty soldiers in gleaming armor streamed out of the guard towers and positioned themselves in front of the huge wooden doors.
One of the soldiers pounded the hilt of his sword against his shield and shouted, “Never shall you pass, foul demons! This is our home, and we shall not allow Urgals and elves and other inhuman monsters to enter! Begone, for you shall find nothing but blood and sorrow in Feinster!”
Arya pointed at the guard towers and murmured to Eragon, “The gears for opening the gates are hidden within there.”
“Go,” he said. “You and Blödhgarm sneak around the men and slip into the towers. Saphira and I will keep them occupied in the meantime.”
Arya nodded, then she and Blödhgarm disappeared into the pools of inky shadows that surrounded the houses behind Eragon and Saphira.
Through his bond with her, Eragon sensed that Saphira was gathering herself to pounce upon the group of soldiers. He put a hand on one of her forelegs. Wait, he said. Let me try something first.
If it doesn’t work, then may I tear them to shreds? she asked, licking her fangs.
Yes, then you may do what you wish with them.
Eragon slowly walked toward the soldiers, holding his sword and shield out to either side. An arrow shot toward him from above, only to stop dead in the air three feet from his chest and drop straight to the ground. Eragon looked over the soldiers’ frightened faces, then raised his voice and said, “My name is Eragon Shadeslayer! Perhaps you have heard of me, and perhaps not. In either case, know this: I am a Dragon Rider, and I have sworn to help the Varden remove Galbatorix from his throne. Tell me, have any of you sworn fealty in the ancient language to Galbatorix or the Empire?… Well, have you?”
The same man who had spoken before, who appeared to be the captain of the soldiers, said, “We would not swear fealty to the king even if he held a sword to our necks! Our loyalty belongs to Lady Lorana. She and her family have ruled us for four generations, and they’ve done a fine job of it too!” The other soldiers muttered in agreement.
“Then join us!” cried Eragon. “Lay down your weapons, and I promise no harm shall come to you or your families. You cannot hope to hold Feinster against the combined might of the Varden, Surda, the dwarves, and the elves.”
“So you say,” shouted one of the soldiers. “But what if Murtagh and that red dragon of his should come here again?”
Eragon hesitated, then said in a confident tone, “He is no match for me and the elves who fight with the Varden. We have already driven him off once before.” To the left of the soldiers, Eragon saw Arya and Blödhgarm sidle out from behind one of the stone staircases that led to the top of the walls and, with silent footsteps, creep toward the leftmost guard tower.
The captain of the soldiers said, “We may not have pledged ourselves to the king, but Lady Lorana has. What will you do to her, then? Kill her? Imprison her? No, we will not betray our trust and allow you to pass, nor the monsters clawing at our walls. You and the Varden hold nothing but the promise of death for those who have been forced to serve the Empire!
“Why couldn’t you have left well enough alone, eh, Dragon Rider? Why couldn’t you have kept your head down so the rest of us could live in peace? But no, the lure of fame and glory and riches was too great. You had to
bring wrack and ruin to our homes so that you could satisfy your ambitions. Well, I curse you, Dragon Rider! I curse you with all my heart! May you leave Alagaësia and never return!”
A chill crept over Eragon, for the man’s curse echoed that which the last Ra’zac had cast upon him in Helgrind, and he remembered how Angela had foretold that very future for him. With an effort, he put aside such thoughts and said, “I do not wish to kill you, but I will if I must. Lay down your weapons!”
Arya silently opened the door at the bottom of the leftmost guard tower and slipped inside. Stealthy as a hunting wildcat, Blödhgarm crept behind the soldiers toward the other tower. If any of the men had turned around, they would have seen him.
The captain of the soldiers spat on the ground by Eragon’s feet. “You don’t even look human yourself! You’re a traitor to your race, you are!” And with that, the man raised his shield and hefted his sword and slowly walked toward Eragon. “Shadeslayer,” growled the soldier. “Ha! I’d as soon believe my brother’s twelve-year-old son had killed a Shade as a youth like you.”
Eragon waited until the captain was only a few feet away. Then he took a single step forward and stabbed Brisingr through the center of the man’s embossed shield, through his arm underneath, and then through the man’s chest and out his back. The man convulsed once and was still. As Eragon pulled his blade free of the corpse, there was a discordant clamor from within the guard towers as gears and chains began to turn and the massive beams that held closed the city gates began to withdraw.
“Lay down your weapons or die!” Eragon shouted.
Bellowing in unison, twenty soldiers ran at him, brandishing their swords. The others either dispersed and fled toward the heart of the city or else took Eragon’s advice and placed their swords and spears and their shields on the gray paving stones and knelt by the side of the street with their hands on their knees.