Eragon, p.3
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       Eragon, p.3

         Part #1 of The Inheritance Cycle series by Christopher Paolini
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  “You told Horst?” said Roran incredulously. “That was private. If I wanted everyone to know about it, I could have built a bonfire and used smoke signals to communicate. If Sloan finds out, he won’t let me see her again.”

  “Horst will be discreet,” assured Eragon. “He won’t let anyone fall prey to Sloan, least of all you.” Roran seemed unconvinced, but argued no more. They returned to their meals in the taciturn presence of Garrow. When the last bites were finished, all three went to work in the fields.

  The sun was cold and pale, providing little comfort. Under its watchful eye, the last of the barley was stored in the barn. Next, they gathered prickly vined squash, then the rutabagas, beets, peas, turnips, and beans, which they packed into the root cellar. After hours of labor, they stretched their cramped muscles, pleased that the harvest was finished.

  The following days were spent pickling, salting, shelling, and preparing the food for winter.

  Nine days after Eragon’s return, a vicious blizzard blew out of the mountains and settled over the valley. The snow came down in great sheets, blanketing the countryside in white. They only dared leave the house for firewood and to feed the animals, for they feared getting lost in the howling wind and featureless landscape. They spent their time huddled over the stove as gusts rattled the heavy window shutters. Days later the storm finally passed, revealing an alien world of soft white drifts.

  “I’m afraid the traders may not come this year, with conditions this bad,” said Garrow. “They’re late as it is. We’ll give them a chance and wait before going to Carvahall. But if they don’t show soon, we’ll have to buy any spare supplies from the townspeople.” His countenance was resigned.

  They grew anxious as the days crept by without sign of the traders. Talk was sparse, and depression hung over the house.

  On the eighth morning, Roran walked to the road and confirmed that the traders had not yet passed. The day was spent readying for the trip into Carvahall, scrounging with grim expressions for saleable items. That evening, out of desperation, Eragon checked the road again. He found deep ruts cut into the snow, with numerous hoofprints between them. Elated, he ran back to the house whooping, bringing new life to their preparations.

  They packed their surplus produce into the wagon before sunrise. Garrow put the year’s money in a leather pouch that he carefully fastened to his belt. Eragon set the wrapped stone between bags of grain so it would not roll when the wagon hit bumps.

  After a hasty breakfast, they harnessed the horses and cleared a path to the road. The traders’ wagons had already broken the drifts, which sped their progress. By noon they could see Carvahall.

  In daylight, it was a small earthy village filled with shouts and laughter. The traders had made camp in an empty field on the outskirts of town. Groups of wagons, tents, and fires were randomly spread across it, spots of color against the snow. The troubadours’ four tents were garishly decorated. A steady stream of people linked the camp to the village.

  Crowds churned around a line of bright tents and booths clogging the main street. Horses whinnied at the noise. The snow had been pounded flat, giving it a glassy surface; elsewhere, bonfires had melted it. Roasted hazelnuts added a rich aroma to the smells wafting around them.

  Garrow parked the wagon and picketed the horses, then drew coins from his pouch. “Get yourselves some treats. Roran, do what you want, only be at Horst’s in time for supper. Eragon, bring that stone and come with me.” Eragon grinned at Roran and pocketed the money, already planning how to spend it.

  Roran departed immediately with a determined expression on his face. Garrow led Eragon into the throng, shouldering his way through the bustle. Women were buying cloth, while nearby their husbands examined a new latch, hook, or tool. Children ran up and down the road, shrieking with excitement. Knives were displayed here, spices there, and pots were laid out in shiny rows next to leather harnesses.

  Eragon stared at the traders curiously. They seemed less prosperous than last year. Their children had a frightened, wary look, and their clothes were patched. The gaunt men carried swords and daggers with a new familiarity, and even the women had poniards belted at their waists.

  What could have happened to make them like this? And why are they so late? wondered Eragon. He remembered the traders as being full of good cheer, but there was none of that now. Garrow pushed down the street, searching for Merlock, a trader who specialized in odd trinkets and pieces of jewelry.

  They found him behind a booth, displaying brooches to a group of women. As each new piece was revealed, exclamations of admiration followed. Eragon guessed that more than a few purses would soon be depleted. Merlock seemed to flourish and grow every time his wares were complimented. He wore a goatee, held himself with ease, and seemed to regard the rest of the world with slight contempt.

  The excited group prevented Garrow and Eragon from getting near the trader, so they settled on a step and waited. As soon as Merlock was unoccupied, they hurried over.

  “And what might you sirs want to look at?” asked Merlock. “An amulet or trinket for a lady?” With a twirl he pulled out a delicately carved silver rose of excellent workmanship. The polished metal caught Eragon’s attention, and he eyed it appreciatively. The trader continued, “Not even three crowns, though it has come all the way from the famed craftsmen of Belatona.”

  Garrow spoke in a quiet voice. “We aren’t looking to buy, but to sell.” Merlock immediately covered the rose and looked at them with new interest.

  “I see. Maybe, if this item is of any value, you would like to trade it for one or two of these exquisite pieces.” He paused for a moment while Eragon and his uncle stood uncomfortably, then continued, “You did bring the object of consideration?”

  “We have it, but we would rather show it to you elsewhere,” said Garrow in a firm voice.

  Merlock raised an eyebrow, but spoke smoothly. “In that case, let me invite you to my tent.” He gathered up his wares and gently laid them in an iron-bound chest, which he locked. Then he ushered them up the street and into the temporary camp. They wound between the wagons to a tent removed from the rest of the traders’. It was crimson at the top and sable at the bottom, with thin triangles of colors stabbing into each other. Merlock untied the opening and swung the flap to one side.

  Small trinkets and strange pieces of furniture, such as a round bed and three seats carved from tree stumps, filled the tent. A gnarled dagger with a ruby in the pommel rested on a white cushion.

  Merlock closed the flap and turned to them. “Please, seat yourselves.” When they had, he said, “Now show me why we are meeting in private.” Eragon unwrapped the stone and set it between the two men. Merlock reached for it with a gleam in his eye, then stopped and asked, “May I?” When Garrow indicated his approval, Merlock picked it up.

  He put the stone in his lap and reached to one side for a thin box. Opened, it revealed a large set of copper scales, which he set on the ground. After weighing the stone, he scrutinized its surface under a jeweler’s glass, tapped it gently with a wooden mallet, and drew the point of a tiny clear stone over it. He measured its length and diameter, then recorded the figures on a slate. He considered the results for a while. “Do you know what this is worth?”

  “No,” admitted Garrow. His cheek twitched, and he shifted uncomfortably on the seat.

  Merlock grimaced. “Unfortunately, neither do I. But I can tell you this much: the white veins are the same material as the blue that surrounds them, only a different color. What that material might be, though, I haven’t a clue. It’s harder than any rock I have seen, harder even than diamond. Whoever shaped it used tools I have never seen—or magic. Also, it’s hollow.”

  “What?” exclaimed Garrow.

  An irritated edge crept into Merlock’s voice. “Did you ever hear a rock sound like this?” He grabbed the dagger from the cushion and slapped the stone with the flat of the blade. A pure note filled the air, then faded away smoothly. Eragon was alarme
d, afraid that the stone had been damaged. Merlock tilted the stone toward them. “You will find no scratches or blemishes where the dagger struck. I doubt I could do anything to harm this stone, even if I took a hammer to it.”

  Garrow crossed his arms with a reserved expression. A wall of silence surrounded him. Eragon was puzzled. I knew that the stone appeared in the Spine through magic, but made by magic? What for and why? He blurted, “But what is it worth?”

  “I can’t tell you that,” said Merlock in a pained voice. “I am sure there are people who would pay dearly to have it, but none of them are in Carvahall. You would have to go to the southern cities to find a buyer. This is a curiosity for most people—not an item to spend money on when practical things are needed.”

  Garrow stared at the tent ceiling like a gambler calculating the odds. “Will you buy it?”

  The trader answered instantly, “It’s not worth the risk. I might be able to find a wealthy buyer during my spring travels, but I can’t be certain. Even if I did, you wouldn’t be paid until I returned next year. No, you will have to find someone else to trade with. I am curious, however . . . Why did you insist on talking to me in private?”

  Eragon put the stone away before answering. “Because,” he glanced at the man, wondering if he would explode like Sloan, “I found this in the Spine, and folks around here don’t like that.”

  Merlock gave him a startled look. “Do you know why my fellow merchants and I were late this year?”

  Eragon shook his head.

  “Our wanderings have been dogged with misfortune. Chaos seems to rule Alagaësia. We could not avoid illness, attacks, and the most cursed black luck. Because the Varden’s attacks have increased, Galbatorix has forced cities to send more soldiers to the borders, men who are needed to combat the Urgals. The brutes have been migrating southeast, toward the Hadarac Desert. No one knows why and it wouldn’t concern us, except that they’re passing through populated areas. They’ve been spotted on roads and near cities. Worst of all are reports of a Shade, though the stories are unconfirmed. Not many people survive such an encounter.”

  “Why haven’t we heard of this?” cried Eragon.

  “Because,” said Merlock grimly, “it only began a few months ago. Whole villages have been forced to move because Urgals destroyed their fields and starvation threatens.”

  “Nonsense,” growled Garrow. “We haven’t seen any Urgals; the only one around here has his horns mounted in Morn’s tavern.”

  Merlock arched an eyebrow. “Maybe so, but this is a small village hidden by mountains. It’s not surprising that you’ve escaped notice. However, I wouldn’t expect that to last. I only mentioned this because strange things are happening here as well if you found such a stone in the Spine.” With that sobering statement, he bid them farewell with a bow and slight smile.

  Garrow headed back to Carvahall with Eragon trailing behind. “What do you think?” asked Eragon.

  “I’m going to get more information before I make up my mind. Take the stone back to the wagon, then do what you want. I’ll meet you for dinner at Horst’s.”

  Eragon dodged through the crowd and happily dashed back to the wagon. Trading would take his uncle hours, time that he planned to enjoy fully. He hid the stone under the bags, then set out into town with a cocky stride.

  He walked from one booth to another, evaluating the goods with a buyer’s eye, despite his meager supply of coins. When he talked with the merchants, they confirmed what Merlock had said about the instability in Alagaësia. Over and over the message was repeated: last year’s security has deserted us; new dangers have appeared, and nothing is safe.

  Later in the day he bought three sticks of malt candy and a small piping-hot cherry pie. The hot food felt good after hours of standing in the snow. He licked the sticky syrup from his fingers regretfully, wishing for more, then sat on the edge of a porch and nibbled a piece of candy. Two boys from Carvahall wrestled nearby, but he felt no inclination to join them.

  As the day descended into late afternoon, the traders took their business into people’s homes. Eragon was impatient for evening, when the troubadours would come out to tell stories and perform tricks. He loved hearing about magic, gods, and, if they were especially lucky, the Dragon Riders. Carvahall had its own storyteller, Brom—a friend of Eragon’s—but his tales grew old over the years, whereas the troubadours always had new ones that he listened to eagerly.

  Eragon had just broken off an icicle from the underside of the porch when he spotted Sloan nearby. The butcher had not seen him, so Eragon ducked his head and bolted around a corner toward Morn’s tavern.

  The inside was hot and filled with greasy smoke from sputtering tallow candles. The shiny-black Urgal horns, their twisted span as great as his outstretched arms, were mounted over the door. The bar was long and low, with a stack of staves on one end for customers to carve. Morn tended the bar, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The bottom half of his face was short and mashed, as if he had rested his chin on a grinding wheel. People crowded solid oak tables and listened to two traders who had finished their business early and had come in for beer.

  Morn looked up from a mug he was cleaning. “Eragon! Good to see you. Where’s your uncle?”

  “Buying,” said Eragon with a shrug. “He’s going to be a while.”

  “And Roran, is he here?” asked Morn as he swiped the cloth through another mug.

  “Yes, no sick animals to keep him back this year.”

  “Good, good.”

  Eragon gestured at the two traders. “Who are they?”

  “Grain buyers. They bought everyone’s seed at ridiculously low prices, and now they’re telling wild stories, expecting us to believe them.”

  Eragon understood why Morn was so upset. People need that money. We can’t get by without it. “What kind of stories?”

  Morn snorted. “They say the Varden have formed a pact with the Urgals and are massing an army to attack us. Supposedly, it’s only through the grace of our king that we’ve been protected for so long—as if Galbatorix would care if we burned to the ground. . . . Go listen to them. I have enough on my hands without explaining their lies.”

  The first trader filled a chair with his enormous girth; his every movement caused it to protest loudly. There was no hint of hair on his face, his pudgy hands were baby smooth, and he had pouting lips that curled petulantly as he sipped from a flagon. The second man had a florid face. The skin around his jaw was dry and corpulent, filled with lumps of hard fat, like cold butter gone rancid. Contrasted with his neck and jowls, the rest of his body was unnaturally thin.

  The first trader vainly tried to pull back his expanding borders to fit within the chair. He said, “No, no, you don’t understand. It is only through the king’s unceasing efforts on your behalf that you are able to argue with us in safety. If he, in all his wisdom, were to withdraw that support, woe unto you!”

  Someone hollered, “Right, why don’t you also tell us the Riders have returned and you’ve each killed a hundred elves. Do you think we’re children to believe in your tales? We can take care of ourselves.” The group chuckled.

  The trader started to reply when his thin companion intervened with a wave of his hand. Gaudy jewels flashed on his fingers. “You misunderstand. We know the Empire cannot care for each of us personally, as you may want, but it can keep Urgals and other abominations from overrunning this,” he searched vaguely for the right term, “place.”

  The trader continued, “You’re angry with the Empire for treating people unfairly, a legitimate concern, but a government cannot please everyone. There will inevitably be arguments and conflicts. However, the majority of us have nothing to complain about. Every country has some small group of malcontents who aren’t satisfied with the balance of power.”

  “Yeah,” called a woman, “if you’re willing to call the Varden small!”

  The fat man sighed. “We already explained that the Varden have no interest in helping you. Th
at’s only a falsehood perpetuated by the traitors in an attempt to disrupt the Empire and convince us that the real threat is inside—not outside—our borders. All they want to do is overthrow the king and take possession of our land. They have spies everywhere as they prepare to invade. You never know who might be working for them.”

  Eragon did not agree, but the traders’ words were smooth, and people were nodding. He stepped forward and said, “How do you know this? I can say that clouds are green, but that doesn’t mean it’s true. Prove you aren’t lying.” The two men glared at him while the villagers waited silently for the answer.

  The thin trader spoke first. He avoided Eragon’s eyes. “Aren’t your children taught respect? Or do you let boys challenge men whenever they want to?”

  The listeners fidgeted and stared at Eragon. Then a man said, “Answer the question.”

  “It’s only common sense,” said the fat one, sweat beading on his upper lip. His reply riled the villagers, and the dispute resumed.

  Eragon returned to the bar with a sour taste in his mouth. He had never before met anyone who favored the Empire and tore down its enemies. There was a deep-seated hatred of the Empire in Carvahall, almost hereditary in nature. The Empire never helped them during harsh years when they nearly starved, and its tax collectors were heartless. He felt justified in disagreeing with the traders regarding the king’s mercy, but he did speculate about the Varden.

  The Varden were a rebel group that constantly raided and attacked the Empire. It was a mystery who their leader was or who had formed them in the years following Galbatorix’s rise to power over a century ago. The group had garnered much sympathy as they eluded Galbatorix’s efforts to destroy them. Little was known about the Varden except that if you were a fugitive and had to hide, or if you hated the Empire, they would accept you. The only problem was finding them.

  Morn leaned over the bar and said, “Incredible, isn’t it? They’re worse than vultures circling a dying animal. There’s going to be trouble if they stay much longer.”

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