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Eldest: Chapter 18

DRIFTING

The valley widened throughout the morning as the rafts swept toward a bright gap between two mountains. They reached the opening at midday and found themselves looking out of shadow upon a sunny prairie that faded into the north.

Then the current pushed them beyond the frosted crags and the walls of the world dropped away to reveal a gigantic sky and flat horizon. Almost immediately, the air grew warmer. The Az Ragni curved to the east, edging the foothills of the mountain range on one side and the plains on the other.

The amount of open space seemed to unsettle the dwarves. They muttered among themselves and glanced longingly at the cavernous rift behind them.

Eragon found the sunlight invigorating. It was hard to ever really feel awake when three-quarters of the day was spent in twilight. Behind his raft, Saphira launched herself out of the water and flew up over the prairie until she dwindled to a winking speck in the azure dome above.

What do you see? he asked.

I see vast herds of gazelles to the north and east. To the west, the Hadarac Desert. That is all.

No one else? No Urgals, slavers, or nomads?

We are alone.

That evening, Thorv chose a small cove for their camp. While Dûthmér fixed dinner, Eragon cleared a space beside his tent, then drew Zar’roc and settled into the ready stance Brom had taught him when they first sparred. Eragon knew he was at a disadvantage compared to the elves, and he had no intention of arriving in Ellesméra out of practice.

With excruciating slowness, he looped Zar’roc over his head and brought it back down with both hands, as if to cleave an enemy’s helm. He held the pose for a second. Keeping his motion under complete control, he pivoted to the right—twisting Zar’roc’s point to parry an imaginary blow—then stopped with rigid arms.

Out of the corner of his eye, Eragon noticed Orik, Arya, and Thorv watching. He ignored them and focused only on the ruby blade in his hands; he held it as if it were a snake that could writhe out of his grip and bite his arm.

Turning again, he commenced a series of forms, flowing from one to another with disciplined ease as he gradually increased his speed. In his mind, he was no longer in the shadowy cove, but surrounded by a knot of ferocious Urgals and Kull. He ducked and slashed, parried, riposted, jumped to the side, and stabbed in a whirl of activity. He fought with mindless energy, as he had in Farthen Dûr, with no thought for the safety of his own flesh, dashing and tearing aside his imagined enemies.

He spun Zar’roc around—in an attempt to flip the hilt from one palm to another—then dropped the sword as a jagged line of pain bisected his back. He staggered and fell. Above him, he could hear Arya and the dwarves babbling, but all he saw was a constellation of sparkling red haze, like a bloody veil dropped over the world. No sensation existed other than pain. It blotted out thought and reason, leaving only a feral animal that screamed for release.

When Eragon recovered enough to notice his whereabouts, he found that he had been placed inside his tent and wrapped tightly with blankets. Arya sat beside him, while Saphira’s head stuck through the entrance flaps.

Was I out long? asked Eragon.

A while. You slept a little at the end. I tried to draw you from your body into mine and shield you from the pain, but I could do little with you unconscious.

Eragon nodded and closed his eyes. His entire body throbbed. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at Arya and quietly asked, “How can I train? … How can I fight, or use magic? … I am a broken vessel.” His face felt heavy with age as he spoke.

She answered just as softly: “You can sit and watch. You can listen. You can read. And you can learn.”

Despite her words, he heard a hitch of uncertainty, even fear, in her voice. He rolled onto his side to avoid meeting her eyes. It shamed him to appear so helpless before her. “How did the Shade do this to me?”

“I have no answers, Eragon. I am neither the wisest nor the strongest elf. We all do our best, and you cannot be blamed for it. Perhaps time will heal your wound.” Arya pressed her fingers to his brow and murmured, “Sé mor’ranr ono finna,” then left the tent.

Eragon sat and winced as his cramped back muscles stretched. He stared at his hands without seeing them. I wonder if Murtagh’s scar ever pained him like mine does.

I don’t know, said Saphira.

A dead silence followed. Then: I’m afraid.

Why?

Because … He hesitated. Because nothing I do will prevent another attack. I don’t know when or where it will happen, but I do know that it’s inevitable. So I wait, and every moment I fear that if I lift something too heavy or stretch in the wrong way, the pain will return. My own body has become the enemy.

Saphira hummed deep in her throat. I have no answers either. Life is both pain and pleasure. If this is the price you must pay for the hours you enjoy, is it too much?

Yes, he snapped. He pulled off the blankets and shoved past her, stumbling into the center of the camp, where Arya and the dwarves sat around a fire. “Is there food left?” asked Eragon.

Dûthmér wordlessly filled a bowl and handed it to him. With a deferential expression, Thorv asked, “Are you better now, Shadeslayer?” He and the other dwarves seemed awed by what they had seen.

“I’m fine.”

“You bear a heavy burden, Shadeslayer.”

Eragon scowled and abruptly walked to the edge of the tents, where he seated himself in darkness. He could sense Saphira nearby, but she left him in peace. He swore under his breath and jabbed Dûthmér’s stew with dull anger.

Just as he took a bite, Orik said from beside him, “You should not treat them so.”

Eragon glared at Orik’s shadowed face. “What?”

“Thorv and his men were sent to protect you and Saphira. They will die for you if need be, and trust their sacred burial to you. You should remember that.”

Eragon bit back a sharp retort and gazed at the black surface of the river—always moving, never stopping—in an attempt to calm his mind. “You’re right. I let my temper get away from me.”

Orik’s teeth gleamed in the night as he smiled. “It’s a lesson that every commander must learn. I had it beaten into me by Hrothgar after I threw my boot at a dwarf who left his halberd where someone could step on it.”

“Did you hit him?”

“I broke his nose,” chuckled Orik.

Despite himself, Eragon laughed as well. “I’ll remember not to do that.” He held the bowl with both hands to keep them warm.

Eragon heard the jangle of metal as Orik extracted something from a pouch. “Here,” said the dwarf, dropping a knot of intertwined gold rings on Eragon’s palm. “It’s a puzzle we use to test cleverness and dexterity. There are eight bands. If you arrange them properly, they form a single ring. I’ve found it useful for distracting myself when I’m troubled.”

“Thank you,” murmured Eragon, already entranced by the complexity of the gleaming nest.

“You can keep it if you can put it together.”

When he returned to his tent, Eragon lay on his stomach and inspected the rings in the dim firelight that seeped past the entrance flaps. Four bands looped through four bands. Each was smooth on the bottom half and an asymmetrical wriggling mass on the top, where it would weave through the other pieces.

As Eragon experimented with various configurations, he quickly became frustrated by a simple fact: it seemed impossible to get the two sets of bands parallel so they would lie flat together.

Absorbed by the challenge, he forgot the terror he had just endured.

Eragon woke right before dawn. Scrubbing the sleep from his eyes, he exited the tent and stretched. His breath turned white in the brisk morning air. He nodded to Shrrgnien, who was keeping guard by the fire, then strolled to the edge of the river and washed his face, blinking from the shock of the cold water.

He located Saphira with a flick of his mind, belted on Zar’roc, and headed toward her through the beech trees that lined the Az Ragni. Before long Eragon’s hands and face were slick with dew from a tangled wall of chokecherry bushes that obstructed his way. With an effort, he pushed through the net of branches and escaped onto the silent plains. A round hill rose before him. On its crest—like two ancient statues—stood Saphira and Arya. They faced east, where a molten glow crept into the sky and burnished the prairie amber.

As the clear light struck the two figures, Eragon was reminded of how Saphira had watched the sunrise from his bedpost only a few hours after she hatched. She was like a hawk or falcon with her hard, sparkling eyes under their bony ridges, the fierce arch of her neck, and the lean strength etched into every line of her body. She was a huntress, and endowed with all the savage beauty that the term implied. Arya’s angled features and panther grace perfectly matched the dragon beside her. No discrepancy existed between their demeanors as they stood bathed in dawn’s first rays.

A tingle of awe and joy shuddered along Eragon’s spine. This was where he belonged, as a Rider. Of all the things in Alagaësia, he had been lucky enough to be joined with this. The wonder of it brought tears to his eyes and a smile of wild exultation that dispelled all his doubts and fears in a surge of pure emotion.

Still smiling, he mounted the hill and took his place by Saphira as they surveyed the new day.

Arya looked at him. Eragon met her gaze, and something lurched within him. He flushed without knowing why, feeling a sudden connection with her, a sense that she understood him better than anyone other than Saphira. His reaction confused him, for no one had affected him in that manner before.

Throughout the rest of the day, all Eragon had to do was think back on that moment to make himself smile and set his insides churning with a mixture of odd sensations he could not identify. He spent most of his time seated against the raft’s cabin, working on Orik’s ring and watching the changing landscape.

Around midday they passed the mouth of a valley, and another river melded into the Az Ragni, doubling its size and speed until the shores were over a mile apart. It was all the dwarves could do to keep the rafts from being tossed like flotsam before the inexorable current and to avoid smashing into the trees that occasionally floated by.

A mile after the rivers joined, the Az Ragni turned north and flowed past a lonely cloud-wreathed peak that stood separate from the main body of the Beor range, like a gigantic watchtower built to keep vigil over the plains.

The dwarves bowed to the peak when they saw it, and Orik told Eragon, “There is Moldûn the Proud. He is the last true mountain we shall see on this journey.”

When the rafts were moored for the evening, Eragon saw Orik unwrap a long black box inlaid with mother-of-pearl, rubies, and curved lines of silver. Orik flicked a clasp, then raised the lid to reveal an unstrung bow nestled in red velvet. The bow’s reflexed limbs were ebony, which formed the background for intricate patterns of vines, flowers, animals, and runes, all executed in the finest gold. It was such a luxurious weapon, Eragon wondered how anyone dared use it.

Orik strung the bow—it was nearly as tall as he was, but still no bigger than a child’s bow by Eragon’s standards—put the box away, and said, “I’m going to find some fresh meat. I’ll be back in an hour.” With that he disappeared into the brush. Thorv grunted disapprovingly, but made no move to stop him.

True to his word, Orik returned with a brace of long-necked geese. “I found a flock of them perched in a tree,” he said, tossing the birds to Dûthmér.

As Orik retrieved the bejeweled case, Eragon asked, “What kind of wood is your bow made of?”

“Wood?” Orik laughed, shaking his head. “You can’t make a bow this short out of wood and cast an arrow more than twenty yards; it breaks, or follows the string after a few shots. No, this is an Urgal horn bow!”

Eragon eyed him suspiciously, sure that the dwarf was trying to fool him. “Horn isn’t flexible or springy enough to make a bow.”

“Ah,” chortled Orik, “that’s because you have to know how to treat it right. We first learned to do it with Feldûnost horns, but it works just as well with an Urgal’s. It’s done by cutting the horn in half lengthwise, then trimming the outside coil until it’s the right thickness. The strip is boiled flat and sanded into the final shape before being fixed to the belly of an ash stave with glue made from fish scales and the skin from the roof of trout’s mouths. Then the back of the stave is covered with multiple layers of sinew; they give the bow its snap. The last step is decoration. The entire process can take almost a decade.”

“I’ve never heard of a bow built like that before,” said Eragon. It made his own weapon seem no more than a crudely hacked branch. “How far does it shoot?”

“See for yourself,” said Orik. He let Eragon take the bow, which he held gingerly, for fear of scuffing its finish. Orik removed an arrow from his quiver and handed it to him. “You’ll owe me an arrow, though.”

Eragon fit shaft to string, aimed over the Az Ragni, and pulled back. The bow’s draw length was less than two feet, but he was surprised to find that its weight far exceeded that of his own bow; he was barely strong enough to hold the string. He released the arrow and it vanished with a twang, only to reappear far above the river. Eragon watched with amazement as the arrow landed in a spray of water halfway across the Az Ragni.

He immediately reached through the barrier in his mind so that the magic’s power suffused him and said, “Gath sem oro un lam iet.” After a few seconds, the arrow darted back through the air to land on his outstretched palm. “And there,” he said, “is the arrow I owe you.”

Orik clapped his fist to his chest and then embraced the arrow and bow with obvious delight. “Wonderful! Now I still have an even two dozen. Otherwise, I would have had to wait until Hedarth to replenish my stock.” He deftly unstrung the bow and stored it away, wrapping the case in soft rags to protect it.

Eragon saw Arya watching. He asked her, “Do elves use horn bows as well? You’re so strong, a wood bow would shatter if it was made heavy enough for you.”

“We sing our bows from trees that do not grow.” And then she walked away.

For days, they drifted through fields of spring grass while the Beor Mountains faded into a hazy white wall behind them. The banks were often covered with vast herds of gazelles and small red deer that watched them with liquid eyes.

Now that the Fanghur were no longer a threat, Eragon flew almost constantly with Saphira. It was their first opportunity since before Gil’ead to spend so much time together in the air, and they took full advantage of it. Also, Eragon welcomed the chance to escape the cramped deck of the raft, where he felt awkward and unsettled with Arya so near.


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