Eragon, p.25
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       Eragon, p.25

         Part #1 of The Inheritance Cycle series by Christopher Paolini
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  Several miles east, a mountain of bare rock speared the sky with spires and columns, a tenebrous nightmare ship. Near-vertical sides rose out of the ground like a jagged piece of the earth’s bone.

  Brom pointed. “That is Helgrind. It’s the reason Dras-Leona was originally built. People are fascinated by it, even though it’s an unhealthy and malevolent thing.” He gestured at the buildings inside the city’s wall. “We should go to the center of the city first.”

  As they crept along the road to Dras-Leona, Eragon saw that the highest building within the city was a cathedral that loomed behind the walls. It was strikingly similar to Helgrind, especially when its arches and flanged spires caught the light. “Who do they worship?” he asked.

  Brom grimaced in distaste. “Their prayers go to Helgrind. It’s a cruel religion they practice. They drink human blood and make flesh offerings. Their priests often lack body parts because they believe that the more bone and sinew you give up, the less you’re attached to the mortal world. They spend much of their time arguing about which of Helgrind’s three peaks is the highest and most important and whether the fourth—and lowest—should be included in their worship.”

  “That’s horrible,” said Eragon, shuddering.

  “Yes,” said Brom grimly, “but don’t say that to a believer. You’ll quickly lose a hand in ‘penance.’ ”

  At Dras-Leona’s enormous gates, they led the horses through the crush of people. Ten soldiers were stationed on either side of the gates, casually scanning the crowd. Eragon and Brom passed into the city without incident.

  The houses inside the city wall were tall and thin to compensate for the lack of space. Those next to the wall were braced against it. Most of the houses hung over the narrow, winding streets, covering the sky so that it was hard to tell if it was night or day. Nearly all the buildings were constructed of the same rough brown wood, which darkened the city even more. The air reeked like a sewer; the streets were filthy.

  A group of ragged children ran between the houses, fighting over scraps of bread. Deformed beggars crouched next to the entrance gates, pleading for money. Their cries for help were like a chorus of the damned. We don’t even treat animals like this, thought Eragon, eyes wide with anger. “I won’t stay here,” he said, rebelling against the sight.

  “It gets better farther in,” said Brom. “Right now we need to find an inn and form a strategy. Dras-Leona can be a dangerous place to even the most cautious. I don’t want to remain on the streets any longer than necessary.”

  They forged deeper into Dras-Leona, leaving the squalid entrance behind. As they entered wealthier parts of the city, Eragon wondered, How can these people live in ease when the suffering around them is so obvious?

  They found lodging at the Golden Globe, which was cheap but not decrepit. A narrow bed was crammed against one wall of the room, with a rickety table and a basin alongside it. Eragon took one look at the mattress and said, “I’m sleeping on the floor. There are probably enough bugs in that thing to eat me alive.”

  “Well, I wouldn’t want to deprive them of a meal,” said Brom, dropping his bags on the mattress. Eragon set his own on the floor and pulled off his bow.

  “What now?” he asked.

  “We find food and beer. After that, sleep. Tomorrow we can start looking for the Ra’zac.” Before they left the room, Brom warned, “No matter what happens, make sure that your tongue doesn’t loosen. We’ll have to leave immediately if we’re given away.”

  The inn’s food was barely adequate, but its beer was excellent. By the time they stumbled back to the room, Eragon’s head was buzzing pleasantly. He unrolled his blankets on the floor and slid under them as Brom tumbled onto the bed.

  Just before Eragon fell asleep, he contacted Saphira: We’re going to be here for a few days, but this shouldn’t take as long as it did at Teirm. When we discover where the Ra’zac are, you might be able to help us get them. I’ll talk to you in the morning. Right now I’m not thinking too clearly.

  You’ve been drinking, came the accusing thought. Eragon considered it for a moment and had to agree that she was absolutely right. Her disapproval was clear, but all she said was, I won’t envy you in the morning.

  No, groaned Eragon, but Brom will. He drank twice as much as I did.

  TRAIL OF OIL

  What was I thinking? wondered Eragon in the morning. His head was pounding and his tongue felt thick and fuzzy. As a rat skittered under the floor, Eragon winced at the noise.

  How are we feeling? asked Saphira smugly.

  Eragon ignored her.

  A moment later, Brom rolled out of bed with a grumble. He doused his head in cold water from the basin, then left the room. Eragon followed him into the hallway. “Where are you going?” he asked.

  “To recover.”

  “I’ll come.” At the bar, Eragon discovered that Brom’s method of recovery involved imbibing copious amounts of hot tea and ice water and washing it all down with brandy. When they returned to the room, Eragon was able to function somewhat better.

  Brom belted on his sword and smoothed the wrinkles out of his robe. “The first thing we need to do is ask some discreet questions. I want to find out where the Seithr oil was delivered in Dras-Leona and where it was taken from there. Most likely, soldiers or workmen were involved in transporting it. We have to find those men and get one to talk.”

  They left the Golden Globe and searched for warehouses where the Seithr oil might have been delivered. Near the center of Dras-Leona, the streets began to slant upward toward a palace of polished granite. It was built on a rise so that it towered above every building except the cathedral.

  The courtyard was a mosaic of mother-of-pearl, and parts of the walls were inlaid with gold. Black statues stood in alcoves, with sticks of incense smoking in their cold hands. Soldiers stationed every four yards watched passersby keenly.

  “Who lives there?” asked Eragon in awe.

  “Marcus Tábor, ruler of this city. He answers only to the king and his own conscience, which hasn’t been very active recently,” said Brom. They walked around the palace, looking at the gated, ornate houses that surrounded it.

  By midday they had learned nothing useful, so they stopped for lunch. “This city is too vast for us to comb it together,” said Brom. “Search on your own. Meet me at the Golden Globe by dusk.” He glowered at Eragon from under his bushy eyebrows. “I’m trusting you not to do anything stupid.”

  “I won’t,” promised Eragon. Brom handed him some coins, then strode away in the opposite direction.

  Throughout the rest of the day, Eragon talked with shopkeepers and workers, trying to be as pleasant and charming as he could. His questions led him from one end of the city to the other and back again. No one seemed to know about the oil. Wherever he went, the cathedral stared down at him. It was impossible to escape its tall spires.

  At last he found a man who had helped ship the Seithr oil and remembered to which warehouse it had been taken. Eragon excitedly went to look at the building, then returned to the Golden Globe. It was over an hour before Brom came back, slumped with fatigue. “Did you find anything?” asked Eragon.

  Brom brushed back his white hair. “I heard a great deal of interesting things today, not the least of which is that Galbatorix will visit Dras-Leona within the week.”

  “What?” exclaimed Eragon.

  Brom slouched against the wall, the lines on his forehead deepening. “It seems that Tábor has taken a few too many liberties with his power, so Galbatorix has decided to come teach him a lesson in humility. It’s the first time the king has left Urû’baen in over ten years.”

  “Do you think he knows of us?” asked Eragon.

  “Of course he knows of us, but I’m sure he hasn’t been told our location. If he had, we would already be in the Ra’zac’s grasp. However, this means that whatever we’re going to do about the Ra’zac must be accomplished before Galbatorix arrives. We don’t want to be anywhere within twenty
leagues of him. The one thing in our favor is that the Ra’zac are sure to be here, preparing for his visit.”

  “I want to get the Ra’zac,” said Eragon, his fists tightening, “but not if it means fighting the king. He could probably tear me to pieces.”

  That seemed to amuse Brom. “Very good: caution. And you’re right; you wouldn’t stand a chance against Galbatorix. Now tell me what you learned today. It might confirm what I heard.”

  Eragon shrugged. “It was mostly drivel, but I did talk with a man who knew where the oil was taken. It’s just an old warehouse. Other than that, I didn’t discover anything useful.”

  “My day was a little more fruitful than yours. I heard the same thing you did, so I went to the warehouse and talked with the workers. It didn’t take much cajoling before they revealed that the cases of Seithr oil are always sent from the warehouse to the palace.”

  “And that’s when you came back here,” finished Eragon.

  “No, it’s not! Don’t interrupt. After that, I went to the palace and got myself invited into the servants’ quarters as a bard. For several hours I wandered about, amusing the maids and others with songs and poems—and asking questions all the while.” Brom slowly filled his pipe with tobacco. “It’s really amazing all the things servants find out. Did you know that one of the earls has three mistresses, and they all live in the same wing of the palace?” He shook his head and lit the pipe. “Aside from the fascinating tidbits, I was told, quite by accident, where the oil is taken from the palace.”

  “And that is . . . ?” asked Eragon impatiently.

  Brom puffed on his pipe and blew a smoke ring. “Out of the city, of course. Every full moon two slaves are sent to the base of Helgrind with a month’s worth of provisions. Whenever the Seithr oil arrives in Dras-Leona, they send it along with the provisions. The slaves are never seen again. And the one time someone followed them, he disappeared too.”

  “I thought the Riders demolished the slave trade,” said Eragon.

  “Unfortunately, it has flourished under the king’s reign.”

  “So the Ra’zac are in Helgrind,” said Eragon, thinking of the rock mountain.

  “There or somewhere nearby.”

  “If they are in Helgrind, they’ll be either at the bottom—and protected by a thick stone door—or higher up where only their flying mounts, or Saphira, can reach. Top or bottom, their shelter will no doubt be disguised.” He thought for a moment. “If Saphira and I go flying around Helgrind, the Ra’zac are sure to see us—not to mention all of Dras-Leona.”

  “It is a problem,” agreed Brom.

  Eragon frowned. “What if we took the place of the two slaves? The full moon isn’t far off. It would give us a perfect opportunity to get close to the Ra’zac.”

  Brom tugged his beard thoughtfully. “That’s chancy at best. If the slaves are killed from a distance, we’ll be in trouble. We can’t harm the Ra’zac if they aren’t in sight.”

  “We don’t know if the slaves are killed at all,” Eragon pointed out.

  “I’m sure they are,” said Brom, his face grave. Then his eyes sparkled, and he blew another smoke ring. “Still, it’s an intriguing idea. If it were done with Saphira hidden nearby and a . . .” His voice trailed off. “It might work, but we’ll have to move quickly. With the king coming, there isn’t much time.”

  “Should we go to Helgrind and look around? It would be good to see the land in daylight so we won’t be surprised by any ambushes,” said Eragon.

  Brom fingered his staff. “That can be done later. Tomorrow I’ll return to the palace and figure out how we can replace the slaves. I have to be careful not to arouse suspicion, though—I could easily be revealed by spies and courtiers who know about the Ra’zac.”

  “I can’t believe it; we actually found them,” said Eragon quietly. An image of his dead uncle and burned farm flashed through his mind. His jaw tightened.

  “The toughest part is yet to come, but yes, we’ve done well,” said Brom. “If fortune smiles on us, you may soon have your revenge and the Varden will be rid of a dangerous enemy. What comes after that will be up to you.”

  Eragon opened his mind and jubilantly told Saphira, We found the Ra’zac’s lair!

  Where? He quickly explained what they had discovered. Helgrind, she mused. A fitting place for them.

  Eragon agreed. When we’re done here, maybe we could visit Carvahall.

  What is it you want? she asked, suddenly sour. To go back to your previous life? You know that won’t happen, so stop mooning after it! At a certain point you have to decide what to commit to. Will you hide for the rest of your life, or will you help the Varden? Those are the only options left to you, unless you join forces with Galbatorix, which I do not and never will accept.

  Softly, he said, If I must choose, I cast my fate with the Varden, as you well know.

  Yes, but sometimes you have to hear yourself say it. She left him to ponder her words.

  WoRSHIPERS

  OF HELGRIND

  Eragon was alone in the room when he woke. Scrawled onto the wall with a charcoal stick was a note that read:

  Eragon,

  I will be gone until late tonight. Coins for food are under the mattress. Explore the city, enjoy yourself, but stay unnoticed!

  Brom

  P.S. Avoid the palace. Don’t go anywhere without your bow! Keep it strung.

  Eragon wiped the wall clean, then retrieved the money from under the bed. He slipped the bow across his back, thinking, I wish I didn’t have to go armed all the time.

  He left the Golden Globe and ambled through the streets, stopping to observe whatever interested him. There were many intriguing stores, but none quite as exciting as Angela’s herb shop in Teirm. At times he glared at the dark, claustrophobic houses and wished that he were free of the city. When he grew hungry, he bought a wedge of cheese and a loaf of bread and ate them, sitting on a curb.

  Later, in a far corner of Dras-Leona, he heard an auctioneer rattling off a list of prices. Curious, he headed toward the voice and arrived at a wide opening between two buildings. Ten men stood on a waist-high platform. Arrayed before them was a richly dressed crowd that was both colorful and boisterous. Where are the goods for sale? wondered Eragon.

  The auctioneer finished his list and motioned for a young man behind the platform to join him. The man awkwardly climbed up, chains dragging at his hands and feet. “And here we have our first item,” proclaimed the auctioneer. “A healthy male from the Hadarac Desert, captured just last month, and in excellent condition. Look at those arms and legs; he’s strong as a bull! He’d be perfect as a shield bearer, or, if you don’t trust him for that, hard labor. But let me tell you, lords and ladies, that would be a waste. He’s bright as a nail, if you can get him to talk a civilized tongue!”

  The crowd laughed, and Eragon ground his teeth with fury. His lips started to form a word that would free the slave, and his arm, newly liberated from the splint, rose. The mark on his palm shimmered. He was about to release the magic when it struck him, He’d never get away! The slave would be caught before he reached the city walls. Eragon would only make the situation worse if he tried to help. He lowered his arm and quietly cursed. Think! This is how you got into trouble with the Urgals.

  He watched helplessly as the slave was sold to a tall, hawk-nosed man. The next slave was a tiny girl, no more than six years old, wrenched from the arms of her crying mother. As the auctioneer started the bidding, Eragon forced himself to walk away, rigid with fury and outrage.

  It was several blocks before the weeping was inaudible. I’d like to see a thief try to cut my purse right now, he thought grimly, almost wishing it would happen. Frustrated, he punched a nearby wall, bruising his knuckles.

  That’s the sort of thing I could stop by fighting the Empire, he realized. With Saphira by my side I could free those slaves. I’ve been graced with special powers; it would be selfish of me not to use them for the benefit of others. If I don’t, I
might as well not be a Rider at all.

  It was a while before he took stock of his bearings and was surprised to find himself before the cathedral. Its twisted spires were covered with statues and scrollwork. Snarling gargoyles crouched along the eaves. Fantastic beasts writhed on the walls, and heroes and kings marched along their bottom edges, frozen in cold marble. Ribbed arches and tall stained-glass windows lined the cathedral’s sides, along with columns of differing sizes. A lonely turret helmed the building like a mast.

  Recessed in shadow at the cathedral’s front was an iron-bound door inlaid with a row of silver script that Eragon recognized as the ancient language. As best he could tell, it read: May thee who enter here understand thine impermanence and forget thine attachments to that which is beloved.

  The entire building sent a shiver down Eragon’s spine. There was something menacing about it, as if it were a predator crouched in the city, waiting for its next victim.

  A broad row of steps led to the cathedral’s entrance. Eragon solemnly ascended them and stopped before the door. I wonder if I can go in? Almost guiltily he pushed on the door. It swung open smoothly, gliding on oiled hinges. He stepped inside.

  The silence of a forgotten tomb filled the empty cathedral. The air was chill and dry. Bare walls extended to a vaulted ceiling that was so high Eragon felt no taller than an ant. Stained-glass windows depicting scenes of anger, hate, and remorse pierced the walls, while spectral beams of light washed sections of the granite pews with transparent hues, leaving the rest in shadow. His hands were shaded a deep blue.

  Between the windows stood statues with rigid, pale eyes. He returned their stern gazes, then slowly trod up the center row, afraid to break the quiet. His leather boots padded noiselessly on the polished stone floor.

  The altar was a great slab of stone devoid of adornment. A solitary finger of light fell upon it, illuminating motes of golden dust floating in the air. Behind the altar, the pipes of a wind organ pierced the ceiling and opened themselves to the elements. The instrument would play its music only when a gale rocked Dras-Leona.

 
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CHRISTOPHER PAOLINI SERIES:

  • The Inheritance Cycle
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