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Eldest: Chapter 63

THE BURNING PLAINS

Eragon coughed as Saphira descended through the layers of smoke, angling toward the Jiet River, which was hidden behind the haze. He blinked and wiped back tears. The fumes made his eyes smart.

Closer to the ground, the air cleared, giving Eragon an unobstructed view of their destination. The rippling veil of black and crimson smoke filtered the sun’s rays in such a way that everything below was bathed in a lurid orange. Occasional rents in the besmirched sky allowed pale bars of light to strike the ground, where they remained, like pillars of translucent glass, until they were truncated by the shifting clouds.

The Jiet River lay before them, as thick and turgid as a gorged snake, its crosshatched surface reflecting the same ghastly hue that pervaded the Burning Plains. Even when a splotch of undiluted light happened to fall upon the river, the water appeared chalky white, opaque and opalescent—almost as if it were the milk of some fearsome beast—and seemed to glow with an eerie luminescence all its own.

Two armies were arrayed along the eastern banks of the oozing waterway. To the south were the Varden and the men of Surda, entrenched behind multiple layers of defense, where they displayed a fine panoply of woven standards, ranks of proud tents, and the picketed horses of King Orrin’s cavalry. Strong as they were, their numbers paled in comparison to the size of the force assembled in the north. Galbatorix’s army was so large, it measured three miles across on its leading edge and how many in length it was impossible to tell, for the individual men melded into a shadowy mass in the distance.

Between the mortal foes was an empty span of perhaps two miles. This land, and the land that the armies camped on, was pocked with countless ragged orifices in which danced green tongues of fire. From those sickly torches billowed plumes of smoke that dimmed the sun. Every scrap of vegetation had been scorched from the parched soil, except for growths of black, orange, and chartreuse lichen that, from the air, gave the earth a scabbed and infected appearance.

It was the most forbidding vista Eragon had clapped eyes upon.

Saphira emerged over the no-man’s-land that separated the grim armies, and now she twisted and dove toward the Varden as fast as she dared, for so long as they remained exposed to the Empire, they were vulnerable to attacks from enemy magicians. Eragon extended his awareness as far as he could in every direction, hunting for hostile minds that could feel his probing touch and would react to it—the minds of magicians and those trained to fend off magicians.

What he felt instead was the sudden panic that overwhelmed the Varden’s sentinels, many of whom, he realized, had never before seen Saphira. Fear made them ignore their common sense, and they released a flock of barbed arrows that arched up to intercept her.

Raising his right hand, Eragon cried, “Letta orya thorna!” The arrows froze in place. With a flick of his wrist and the word “Gánga,” he redirected them, sending the darts boring toward the no-man’s-land, where they could bury themselves in the barren soil without causing harm. He missed one arrow, though, which was fired a few seconds after the first volley.

Eragon leaned as far to his right as he could and, faster than any normal human, plucked the arrow from the air as Saphira flew past it.

Only a hundred feet above the ground, Saphira flared her wings to slow her steep descent before alighting first on her hind legs and then her front legs as she came to a running stop among the Varden’s tents.

“Werg,” growled Orik, loosening the thongs that held his legs in place. “I’d rather fight a dozen Kull than experience such a fall again.” He let himself hang off one side of the saddle, then dropped to Saphira’s foreleg below and, from there, to the ground.

Even as Eragon dismounted, dozens of warriors with awestruck expressions gathered around Saphira. From within their midst strode a big bear of a man whom Eragon recognized: Fredric, the Varden’s weapon master from Farthen Dûr, still garbed in his hairy ox-hide armor. “Come on, you slack-jawed louts!” roared Fredric. “Don’t stand here gawking; get back to your posts or I’ll have the lot of you chalked up for extra watches!” At his command, the men began to disperse with many a grumbled word and backward glance. Then Fredric drew nearer and, Eragon could tell, was startled by the change in Eragon’s countenance. The bearded man did his best to conceal the reaction by touching his brow and saying, “Welcome, Shadeslayer. You’ve arrived just in time.… I can’t tell you how ashamed I am you were attacked. The honor of every man here has been blackened by this mistake. Were the three of you hurt?”

“No.”

Relief spread across Fredric’s face. “Well, there’s that to be grateful for. I’ve had the men responsible pulled from duty. They’ll each be whipped and reduced in rank.… Will that punishment satisfy you, Rider?”

“I want to see them,” said Eragon.

Sudden concern emanated from Fredric; it was obvious he feared that Eragon wanted to enact some terrible and unnatural retribution on the sentinels. Fredric did not voice his concern, however, but said, “If you’d follow me, then, sir.”

He led them through the camp to a striped command tent where twenty or so miserable-looking men were divesting themselves of their arms and armor under the watchful eye of a dozen guards. At the sight of Eragon and Saphira, the prisoners all went down on one knee and remained there, gazing at the ground. “Hail, Shadeslayer!” they cried.

Eragon said nothing, but walked along the line of men while he studied their minds, his boots sinking through the crust of the baked earth with an ominous crunch. At last he said, “You should be proud that you reacted so quickly to our appearance. If Galbatorix attacks, that’s exactly what you should do, though I doubt arrows would prove any more effective against him than they were against Saphira and me.” The sentinels glanced at him with disbelief, their upturned faces tinted the color of tarnished brass by the variegated light. “I only ask that, in the future, you take a moment to identify your target before shooting. Next time I might be too distracted to stop your missiles. Am I understood?”

“Yes, Shadeslayer!” they shouted.

Stopping before the second-to-last man in the line, Eragon held out the arrow he had snared from Saphira’s back. “I believe this is yours, Harwin.”

With an expression of wonder, Harwin accepted the arrow from Eragon. “So it is! It has the white band I always paint on my shafts so I can find them later. Thank you, Shadeslayer.”

Eragon nodded and then said to Fredric so all could hear, “These are good and true men, and I want no misfortune to befall them because of this event.”

“I will see to it personally,” said Fredric, and smiled.

“Now, can you take us to Lady Nasuada?”

“Yes, sir.”

As he left the sentinels, Eragon knew that his kindness had earned him their undying loyalty, and that tidings of his deed would spread throughout the Varden.

The path Fredric took through the tents brought Eragon into close contact with more minds than he had ever touched before. Hundreds of thoughts, images, and sensations pressed against his consciousness. Despite his effort to keep them at a distance, he could not help absorbing random details of people’s lives. Some revelations he found shocking, some meaningless, others touching or, conversely, disgusting, and many embarrassing. A few people perceived the world so differently, their minds leaped out at him on account of that very difference.

How easy it is to view these men as nothing more than objects that I and a few others can manipulate at will. Yet they each possess hopes and dreams, potential for what they might achieve and memories of what they have already accomplished. And they all feel pain.

A handful of the minds he touched were aware of the contact and recoiled from it, hiding their inner life behind defenses of varying strength. At first Eragon was concerned—imagining that he had discovered a great many enemies who had infiltrated the Varden—but then he realized from his quick glimpse that they were the individual members of Du Vrangr Gata.

Saphira said, They must be scared out of their wits, thinking that they’re about to be assaulted by some strange magician.

I can’t convince them otherwise while they block me like this.

You should meet them in person, and soon too, before they decide to band together and attack.

Aye, although I don’t think they pose a threat to us.… Du Vrangr Gata—their very name betrays their ignorance. Properly, in the ancient language, it should be Du Gata Vrangr.

Their trip ended near the back of the Varden, at a large red pavilion flying a pennant embroidered with a black shield and two parallel swords slanting underneath. Fredric pulled back the flap and Eragon and Orik entered the pavilion. Behind them, Saphira pushed her head through the opening and peered over their shoulders.

A broad table occupied the center of the furnished tent. Nasuada stood at one end, leaning on her hands, studying a slew of maps and scrolls. Eragon’s stomach clenched as he saw Arya opposite her. Both women were armored as men for battle.

Nasuada turned her almond-shaped face toward him. “Eragon?” she whispered.

He was unprepared for how glad he was to see her. With a broad grin, he twisted his hand over his sternum in the elves’ gesture of fealty and bowed. “At your service.”

“Eragon!” This time Nasuada sounded delighted and relieved. Arya, too, appeared pleased. “How did you get our message so quickly?”

“I didn’t; I learned about Galbatorix’s army from my scrying and left Ellesméra the same day.” He smiled at her again. “It’s good to be back with the Varden.”

While he spoke, Nasuada studied him with a wondering expression. “What has happened to you, Eragon?”

Arya must not have told her, said Saphira.

And so Eragon gave a full account of what had befallen Saphira and him since they left Nasuada in Farthen Dûr so long ago. Much of what he said, he sensed that she had already heard, either from the dwarves or from Arya, but she let him speak without interrupting. Eragon had to be circumspect about his training. He had given his word not to reveal Oromis’s existence without permission, and most of his lessons were not to be shared with outsiders, but he did his best to give Nasuada a good idea of his skills and their attendant risks. Of the Agaetí Blödhren, he merely said, “… and during the celebration, the dragons worked upon me the change you see, giving me the physical abilities of an elf and healing my back.”

“Your scar is gone, then?” asked Nasuada. He nodded. A few more sentences served to end his narrative, briefly mentioning the reason they had left Du Weldenvarden and then summarizing their journey thence. She shook her head. “What a tale. You and Saphira have experienced so much since you left Farthen Dûr.”

“As have you.” He gestured at the tent. “It’s amazing what you’ve accomplished. It must have taken an enormous amount of work to get the Varden to Surda.… Has the Council of Elders caused you much trouble?”

“A bit, but nothing extraordinary. They seem to have resigned themselves to my leadership.” Her mail clinking together, Nasuada seated herself in a large, high-backed chair and turned to Orik, who had yet to speak. She welcomed him and asked if he had aught to add to Eragon’s tale. Orik shrugged and provided a few anecdotes from their stay in Ellesméra, though Eragon suspected that the dwarf kept his true observations a secret for his king.

When he finished, Nasuada said, “I am heartened to know that if we can weather this onslaught, we shall have the elves by our side. Did any of you happen to see Hrothgar’s warriors during your flight from Aberon? We are counting on their reinforcements.”

No, answered Saphira through Eragon. But then, it was dark and I was often above or between clouds. I could have easily missed a camp under those conditions. In any case, I doubt we would have crossed paths, for I flew straight from Aberon, and it seems likely the dwarves would choose a different route—perhaps following established roads—rather than march through the wilderness.

“What,” asked Eragon, “is the situation here?”

Nasuada sighed and then told of how she and Orrin had learned about Galbatorix’s army and the desperate measures they had resorted to since in order to reach the Burning Plains before the king’s soldiers. She finished by saying, “The Empire arrived three days ago. Since then, we’ve exchanged two messages. First they asked for our surrender, which we refused, and now we wait for their reply.”

“How many of them are there?” growled Orik. “It looked a mighty number from Saphira’s back.”

“Aye. We estimate Galbatorix mustered as many as a hundred thousand soldiers.”

Eragon could not contain himself: “A hundred thousand! Where did they come from? It seems impossible that he could find more than a handful of people willing to serve him.”

“They were conscripted. We can only hope that the men who were torn from their homes won’t be eager to fight. If we can frighten them badly enough, they may break ranks and flee. Our numbers are greater than in Farthen Dûr, for King Orrin has joined forces with us and we have received a veritable flood of volunteers since we began to spread the word about you, Eragon, although we are still far weaker than the Empire.”

Then Saphira asked, and Eragon was forced to repeat the dreadful question: What do you think our chances of victory are?

“That,” said Nasuada, putting emphasis on the word, “depends a great deal upon you and Eragon, and the number of magicians seeded throughout their troops. If you can find and destroy those magicians, then our enemies shall be left unprotected and you can slay them at will. Outright victory, I think, is unlikely at this point, but we might be able to hold them at bay until their supplies run low or until Islanzadí can come to our assistance. That is … if Galbatorix doesn’t fly into battle himself. In that case, I fear retreat will be our only option.”

Just then, Eragon felt a strange mind approaching, one that knew he was watching and yet did not shrink from the contact. One that felt cold and hard, calculating. Alert for danger, Eragon turned his gaze toward the rear of the pavilion, where he saw the same black-haired girl who had appeared when he scryed Nasuada from Ellesméra. The girl stared at him with violet eyes, then said, “Welcome, Shadeslayer. Welcome, Saphira.”

Eragon shivered at the sound of her voice, the voice of an adult. He wet his dry mouth and asked, “Who are you?”

Without answering, the girl brushed back her glossy bangs and exposed a silvery white mark on her forehead, exactly like Eragon’s gedwëy ignasia. He knew then whom he faced.

No one moved as Eragon went to the girl, accompanied by Saphira, who extended her neck farther into the pavilion. Dropping to one knee, Eragon took the girl’s right hand in his own; her skin burned as if with fever. She did not resist him, but merely left her hand limp in his grip. In the ancient language—and also with his mind, so that she would understand—Eragon said, “I am sorry. Can you forgive me for what I did to you?”

The girl’s eyes softened, and she leaned forward and kissed Eragon upon the brow. “I forgive you,” she whispered, for the first time sounding her age. “How could I not? You and Saphira created who I am, and I know you meant no harm. I forgive you, but I shall let this knowledge torture your conscience: You have condemned me to be aware of all the suffering around me. Even now your spell drives me to rush to the aid of a man not three tents away who just cut his hand, to help the young flag carrier who broke his left index finger in the spokes of a wagon wheel, and to help countless others who have been or are about to be hurt. It costs me dearly to resist those urges, and even more if I consciously cause someone discomfort, as I do by saying this.… I cannot even sleep at night for the strength of my compulsion. That is your legacy, O Rider.” By the end, her voice had regained its bitter, mocking edge.

Saphira interposed herself between them and, with her snout, touched the girl in the center of her mark. Peace, Changeling. You have much anger in your heart.

“You don’t have to live like this forever,” said Eragon. “The elves taught me how to undo a spell, and I believe I can free you of this curse. It won’t be easy, but it can be done.”

For a moment, the girl seemed to lose her formidable self-control. A small gasp escaped her lips, her hand trembled against Eragon’s, and her eyes glistened with a film of tears. Then just as quickly, she hid her true emotions behind a mask of cynical amusement. “Well, we shall see. Either way, you shouldn’t try until after this battle.”

“I could save you a great deal of pain.”

“It wouldn’t do to exhaust you when our survival may depend on your talents. I do not deceive myself; you are more important than me.” A sly grin crossed her face. “Besides, if you remove your spell now, I won’t be able to help any of the Varden if they are threatened. You wouldn’t want Nasuada to die because of that, would you?”

“No,” admitted Eragon. He paused for a long time, considering the issue, then said, “Very well, I will wait. But I swear to you: If we win this fight, I shall right this wrong.”

The girl tilted her head to one side. “I will hold you to your word, Rider.”

Rising from her chair, Nasuada said, “Elva was the one who saved me from an assassin in Aberon.”

“Did she? In that case, I am in your debt … Elva … for protecting my liegelord.”

“Come now,” said Nasuada. “I must introduce the three of you to Orrin and his nobles. Have you met the king before, Orik?”

The dwarf shook his head. “I’ve never been this far west.”

As they left the pavilion—Nasuada in the lead, with Elva by her side—Eragon tried to position himself so he could talk with Arya, but when he neared her, she quickened her pace until she was level with Nasuada. Arya never even looked at him while she walked, a slight that caused him more anguish than any physical wound he had endured. Elva glanced back at him, and he knew that she was aware of his distress.

They soon arrived at another large pavilion, this one white and yellow—although it was difficult to determine the exact hue of the colors, given the garish orange that glazed everything on the Burning Plains. Once they were granted entrance, Eragon was astonished to find the tent crammed with an eccentric collection of beakers, alembics, retorts, and other instruments of natural philosophy. Who would bother toting all this onto a battlefield? he wondered, bewildered.

“Eragon,” said Nasuada, “I would like you to meet Orrin, son of Larkin and monarch of the realm of Surda.”

From the depths of the tangled piles of glass emerged a rather tall, handsome man with shoulder-length hair held back by the gold coronet resting upon his head. His mind, like Nasuada’s, was protected behind walls of iron; it was obvious he had received extensive training in that skill. Orrin seemed pleasant enough to Eragon from their discussion, if a bit green and untried when it came to commanding men in war and more than a little odd in the head. On the whole, Eragon trusted Nasuada’s leadership more.

After fending off scores of questions from Orrin about his stay among the elves, Eragon found himself smiling and nodding politely as one earl after another paraded past, each of whom insisted on shaking his hand, telling him what an honor it was to meet a Rider, and inviting him to their respective estates. Eragon dutifully memorized their many names and titles—as he knew Oromis would expect—and did his best to maintain a calm demeanor, despite his growing frustration.

We’re about to engage one of the largest armies in history, and here we are, stuck exchanging pleasantries.

Patience, counseled Saphira. There aren’t that many more.… Besides, look at it this way: if we win, they’ll owe us an entire year of free dinners, what with all their promises.

He stifled a chuckle. I think it would dismay them to know what it takes to feed you. Not to mention that you could empty their cellars of beer and wine in a single night.

I would never, she sniffed, then relented. Maybe in two nights.

When at last they won free of Orrin’s pavilion, Eragon asked Nasuada, “What shall I do now? How can I serve you?”

Nasuada eyed him with a curious expression. “How do you think you can best serve me, Eragon? You know your own abilities far better than I do.” Even Arya watched him now, waiting to hear his response.

Eragon gazed up at the bloody sky while he pondered her question. “I shall take control of Du Vrangr Gata, as they once asked me to, and organize them underneath me so I can lead them into battle. Working together will give us the best chance of foiling Galbatorix’s magicians.”

“That seems an excellent idea.”

Is there a place, asked Saphira, where Eragon can leave his bags? I don’t want to carry them or this saddle any longer than I have to.

When Eragon repeated her question, Nasuada said, “Of course. You may leave them in my pavilion, and I will arrange to have a tent erected for you, Eragon, where you can keep them permanently. I suggest, though, that you don your armor before parting with your bags. You might need it at any moment.… That reminds me: we have your armor with us, Saphira. I shall have it unpacked and brought to you.”

“And what of me, Lady?” asked Orik.

“We have several knurlan with us from Dûrgrimst Ingeitum who have lent their expertise to the construction of our earthen defenses. You may take command of them if you wish.”

Orik seemed heartened by the prospect of seeing fellow dwarves, especially ones from his own clan. He clapped his fist to his chest and said, “I think I will at that. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll see to it at once.” Without a backward glance, he trundled off through the camp, heading north toward the breastwork.

Returning to her pavilion with the four who remained, Nasuada said to Eragon, “Report to me once you have settled matters with Du Vrangr Gata.” Then she pushed aside the entrance flap to the pavilion and disappeared with Elva through the dark opening.

As Arya started to follow, Eragon reached toward her and, in the ancient language, said, “Wait.” The elf paused and looked at him, betraying nothing. He held her gaze without wavering, staring deep into her eyes, which reflected the strange light around them. “Arya, I won’t apologize for how I feel about you. However, I wanted you to know that I am sorry for how I acted during the Blood-oath Celebration. I wasn’t myself that night; otherwise, I would have never been so forward with you.”

“And you won’t do it again?”

He suppressed a humorless laugh. “It wouldn’t get me anywhere if I did, now would it?” When she remained silent, he said, “No matter. I don’t want to trouble you, even if you—” He bit off the end of his sentence before he made a remark he knew he would regret.

Arya’s expression softened. “I’m not trying to hurt you, Eragon. You must understand that.”

“I understand,” he said, but without conviction.

An awkward pause stretched between them. “Your flight went well, I trust?”

“Well enough.”

“You encountered no difficulty in the desert?”

“Should we have?”

“No. I only wondered.” Then, in an even gentler voice, Arya asked, “What of you, Eragon? How have you been since the celebration? I heard what you said to Nasuada, but you mentioned nothing other than your back.”

“I …” He tried to lie—not wanting her to know how much he had missed her—but the ancient language stopped the words dead in his mouth and rendered him mute. Finally, he resorted to a technique of the elves: telling only part of the truth in order to create an impression opposite the whole truth. “I’m better than before,” he said, meaning, in his mind, the condition of his back.

Despite his subterfuge, Arya appeared unconvinced. She did not press him on the subject, though, but rather said, “I am glad.” Nasuada’s voice emanated from inside the pavilion, and Arya glanced toward it before facing him again. “I am needed elsewhere, Eragon.… We are both needed elsewhere. A battle is about to take place.” Lifting the canvas flap, she stepped halfway into the gloomy tent, then hesitated and added, “Take care, Eragon Shadeslayer.”

Then she was gone.

Dismay rooted Eragon in place. He had accomplished what he wanted to, but it seemed to have changed nothing between him and Arya. He balled his hands into fists and hunched his shoulders and glared at the ground without seeing it, simmering with frustration.

He started when Saphira nosed him on the shoulder. Come onlittle one, she said gently. You can’t stay here forever, and this saddle is beginning to itch.

Going to her side, Eragon pulled on her neck strap, muttering under his breath when it caught in the buckle. He almost hoped the leather would break. Undoing the rest of the straps, he let the saddle and everything tied to it fall to the ground in a jumbled heap. It feels good to have that off, said Saphira, rolling her massive shoulders.

Digging his armor out of the saddlebags, Eragon outfitted himself in the bright dress of war. First he pulled his hauberk over his elven tunic, then strapped his chased greaves to his legs and his inlaid bracers to his forearms. On his head went his padded leather cap, followed by his coif of tempered steel and then his gold and silver helm. Last of all, he replaced his regular gloves with his mail-backed gauntlets.

Zar’roc he hung on his left hip using the belt of Beloth the Wise. Across his back, he placed the quiver of white swan feathers Islanzadí had given him. The quiver, he was pleased to find, could also hold the bow the elf queen had sung for him, even when it was strung.

After depositing his and Orik’s belongings into the pavilion, Eragon and Saphira set out together to find Trianna, the current leader of Du Vrangr Gata. They had gone no more than a few paces when Eragon sensed a nearby mind that was shielded from his view. Assuming that it was one of the Varden’s magicians, they veered toward it.

Twelve yards from their starting point, they came upon a small green tent with a donkey picketed in front. To the left of the tent, a blackened iron cauldron hung from a metal tripod placed over one of the malodorous flames birthed deep within the earth. Cords were strung about the cauldron, over which were draped nightshade, hemlock, rhododendron, savin, bark of the yew tree, and numerous mushrooms, such as death cap and spotted cort, all of which Eragon recognized from Oromis’s lessons on poison. And standing next to the cauldron, wielding a long wood paddle with which she stirred the brew, was Angela the herbalist. At her feet sat Solembum.

The werecat uttered a mournful meow, and Angela looked up from her task, her corkscrew hair forming a billowing thundercloud around her glistening face. She frowned, and her expression became positively ghoulish, for it was lit from beneath by the flickering green flame. “So you’ve returned, eh!”

“We have,” said Eragon.

“Is that all you have to say for yourself? Have you seen Elva yet? Have you seen what you did to that poor girl?”

“Aye.”

“Aye!” cried Angela. “How inarticulate can a person be? All this time in Ellesméra being tutored by the elves, and aye is the best you can manage? Let me tell you something, blockhead: anyone who is stupid enough to do what you did deserves—”

Eragon clasped his hands behind his back and waited as Angela informed him, in many explicit, detailed, and highly inventive terms, exactly how great a blockhead he was; what kind of ancestors he must possess to be such a monumental blockhead—she even went so far as to insinuate that one of his grandparents had mated with an Urgal—and the quite hideous punishments he ought to receive for his idiocy. If anyone else had insulted him in that manner, Eragon would have challenged them to a duel, but he tolerated her spleen because he knew he could not judge her behavior by the same standards as he did others, and because he knew her outrage was justified; he had made a dreadful mistake.

When she finally paused for breath, he said, “You’re quite right, and I’m going to try to remove the spell once the battle is decided.”

Angela blinked three times, one right after the other, and her mouth remained open for a moment in a small “O” before she clamped it shut. With a glare of suspicion, she asked, “You’re not saying that just to placate me, are you?”

“I would never.”

“And you really intend to undo your curse? I thought such things were irrevocable.”

“The elves have discovered many uses of magic.”

“Ah … Well, then, that’s settled, isn’t it?” She flashed him a wide smile and then strode past him to pat Saphira on her jowls. “It’s good to see you again, Saphira. You’ve grown.”

Well met indeed, Angela.

As Angela returned to stirring her concoction, Eragon said, “That was an impressive tirade you gave.”

“Thank you. I worked on it for several weeks. It’s a pity you didn’t get to hear the ending; it’s memorable. I could finish it for you if you want.”

“No, that’s all right. I can imagine what it’s like.” Glancing at her out of the corner of his eye, Eragon then said, “You don’t seem surprised by how I’ve changed.”

The herbalist shrugged. “I have my sources. It’s an improvement, in my opinion. You were a bit … oh, how shall I say it? … unfinished before.”

“That I was.” He gestured at the hanging plants. “What do you plan to do with these?”

“Oh, it’s just a little project of mine—an experiment, if you will.”

“Mmm.” Examining the pattern of colors on a dried mushroom that dangled before him, Eragon asked, “Did you ever figure out if toads exist or not?”

“As a matter of fact, I did! It seems that all toads are frogs, but not all frogs are toads. So in that sense, toads don’t really exist, which means that I was right all along.” She stopped her patter abruptly, leaned to the side, grabbed a mug from a bench next to her, and offered it to Eragon. “Here, have a cup of tea.”

Eragon glanced at the deadly plants surrounding them and then back at Angela’s open face before he accepted the mug. Under his breath—so the herbalist would not hear—he muttered three spells to detect poison. Only once he ascertained that the tea was free of contamination did he dare drink. The tea was delicious, though he could not identify the ingredients.

At that moment, Solembum padded over to Saphira and began to arch his back and rub himself up against her leg, just as any normal cat would. Twisting her neck, Saphira bent down and with the tip of her nose brushed the werecat the length of his spine. She said, I met someone in Ellesméra who knows you.

Solembum stopped rubbing and cocked his head. Is that so?

Yes. Her name was Quickpaw and The Dream Dancer and also Maud.

Solembum’s golden eyes widened. A deep, throaty purr rumbled in his chest, and he rubbed against Saphira with renewed vigor.

“So,” said Angela, “I assume you already spoke with Nasuada, Arya, and King Orrin.” He nodded. “And what did you think of dear old Orrin?”

Eragon chose his words with care, for he was aware that they were talking about a king. “Well … he seems to have a great many interests.”

“Yes, he’s as balmy as a moonstruck fool on Midsummer Night Eve. But then everyone is, in one way or another.”

Amused by her forthrightness, Eragon said, “He must be crazy to have carted so much glass all the way from Aberon.”

Angela raised an eyebrow. “What’s this now?”

“Haven’t you seen the inside of his tent?”

“Unlike some people,” she sniffed, “I don’t ingratiate myself with every monarch I meet.” So he described for her the mass of instruments Orrin had brought to the Burning Plains. Angela abandoned her stirring as he spoke and listened with great interest. The instant he finished, she began bustling around the cauldron, gathering the plants off the lines—often using tongs to do so—and saying, “I think I had best pay Orrin a visit. The two of you will have to tell me about your trip to Ellesméra at a later time.… Well, go on, both of you. Be gone!”

Eragon shook his head as the short little woman drove him and Saphira away from her tent, and he still holding the cup of tea. Talking with her is always …

Different? suggested Saphira.

Exactly.


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