Eragon, p.47
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       Eragon, p.47

         Part #1 of The Inheritance Cycle series by Christopher Paolini
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  Light crept into the small patch of sky above them as he worked. It was not enough to see by, but it bolstered Eragon’s confidence. He turned away from the crumpled ruins of the latest tunnel and surveyed the land with interest.

  A mass exodus of women and children, along with the Varden’s elders, streamed out of Tronjheim. Everyone carried loads of provisions, clothes, and belongings. A small group of warriors, predominantly boys and old men, accompanied them.

  Most of the activity, however, was at the base of Tronjheim, where the Varden and dwarves were assembling their army, which was divided into three battalions. Each section bore the Varden’s standard: a white dragon holding a rose above a sword pointing downward on a purple field.

  The men were silent, ironfisted. Their hair flowed loosely from under their helmets. Many warriors had only a sword and a shield, but there were several ranks of spear- and pikemen. In the rear of the battalions, archers tested their bowstrings.

  The dwarves were garbed in heavy battle gear. Burnished steel hauberks hung to their knees, and thick roundshields, stamped with the crests of their clan, rested on their left arms. Short swords were sheathed at their waists, while in their right hands they carried mattocks or war axes. Their legs were covered with extra-fine mail. They wore iron caps and brass-studded boots.

  A small figure detached itself from the far battalion and hurried toward Eragon and Saphira. It was Orik, clad like the other dwarves. “Ajihad wants you to join the army,” he said. “There are no more tunnels to cave in. Food is waiting for both of you.”

  Eragon and Saphira accompanied Orik to a tent, where they found bread and water for Eragon and a pile of dried meat for Saphira. They ate it without complaint; it was better than going hungry.

  When they finished, Orik told them to wait and disappeared into the battalion’s ranks. He returned, leading a line of dwarves burdened with tall piles of plate armor. Orik lifted a section of it and handed it to Eragon.

  “What is this?” asked Eragon, fingering the polished metal. The armor was intricately wrought with engraving and gold filigree. It was an inch thick in places and very heavy. No man could fight under that much weight. And there were far too many pieces for one person.

  “A gift from Hrothgar,” said Orik, looking pleased with himself. “It has lain so long among our other treasures that it was almost forgotten. It was forged in another age, before the fall of the Riders.”

  “But what’s it for?” asked Eragon.

  “Why, it’s dragon armor, of course! You don’t think that dragons went into battle unprotected? Complete sets are rare because they took so long to make and because dragons were always growing. Still, Saphira isn’t too big yet, so this should fit her reasonably well.”

  Dragon armor! As Saphira nosed one of the pieces, Eragon asked, What do you think?

  Let’s try it on, she said, a fierce gleam in her eye.

  After a good deal of struggling, Eragon and Orik stepped back to admire the result. Saphira’s entire neck—except for the spikes along its ridge—was covered with triangular scales of overlapping armor. Her belly and chest were protected by the heaviest plates, while the lightest ones were on her tail. Her legs and back were completely encased. Her wings were left bare. A single molded plate lay on top of her head, leaving her lower jaw free to bite and snap.

  Saphira arched her neck experimentally, and the armor flexed smoothly with her. This will slow me down, but it’ll help stop the arrows. How do I look?

  Very intimidating, replied Eragon truthfully. That pleased her.

  Orik picked up the remaining items from the ground. “I brought you armor as well, though it took much searching to find your size. We rarely forge arms for men or elves. I don’t know who this was made for, but it has never been used and should serve you well.”

  Over Eragon’s head went a stiff shirt of leather-backed mail that fell to his knees like a skirt. It rested heavily on his shoulders and clinked when he moved. He belted Zar’roc over it, which helped keep the mail from swinging. On his head went a leather cap, then a mail coif, and finally a gold-and-silver helm. Bracers were strapped to his forearms, and greaves to his lower legs. For his hands there were mail-backed gloves. Last, Orik handed him a broad shield emblazoned with an oak tree.

  Knowing that what he and Saphira had been given was worth several fortunes, Eragon bowed and said, “Thank you for these gifts. Hrothgar’s presents are greatly appreciated.”

  “Don’t give thanks now,” said Orik with a chuckle. “Wait until the armor saves your life.”

  The warriors around them began marching away. The three battalions were repositioning themselves in different parts of Farthen Dûr. Unsure of what they should do, Eragon looked at Orik, who shrugged and said, “I suppose we should accompany them.” They trailed behind a battalion as it headed toward the crater wall. Eragon asked about the Urgals, but Orik only knew that scouts had been posted underground in the tunnels and that nothing had been seen or heard yet.

  The battalion halted at one of the collapsed tunnels. The dwarves had piled the rubble so that anyone inside the tunnel could easily climb out. This must be one of the places they’re going to force the Urgals to surface, Saphira pointed out.

  Hundreds of lanterns were fixed atop poles and stuck into the ground. They provided a great pool of light that glowed like an evening sun. Fires blazed along the rim of the tunnel’s roof, huge cauldrons of pitch heating over them. Eragon looked away, fighting back revulsion. It was a terrible way to kill anyone, even an Urgal.

  Rows of sharpened saplings were being pounded into the ground to provide a thorny barrier between the battalion and the tunnel. Eragon saw an opportunity to help and joined a group of men digging trenches between the saplings. Saphira assisted as well, scooping out the dirt with her giant claws. While they labored, Orik left to supervise the construction of a barricade to shield the archers. Eragon drank gratefully from the wineskin whenever it was passed around. After the trenches were finished and filled with pointed stakes, Saphira and Eragon rested.

  Orik returned to find them seated together. He wiped his brow. “All the men and dwarves are on the battlefield. Tronjheim has been sealed off. Hrothgar has taken charge of the battalion to our left. Ajihad leads the one ahead of us.”

  “Who commands this one?”

  “Jörmundur.” Orik sat with a grunt and placed his war ax on the ground.

  Saphira nudged Eragon. Look. His hand tightened on Zar’roc as he saw Murtagh, helmed, carrying a dwarven shield and his hand-and-a-half sword, approaching with Tornac.

  Orik cursed and leapt to his feet, but Murtagh said quickly, “It’s all right; Ajihad released me.”

  “Why would he do that?” demanded Orik.

  Murtagh smiled wryly. “He said this was an opportunity to prove my good intentions. Apparently, he doesn’t think I would be able to do much damage even if I did turn on the Varden.”

  Eragon nodded in welcome, relaxing his grip. Murtagh was an excellent and merciless fighter—exactly whom Eragon wanted by his side during battle.

  “How do we know you’re not lying?” asked Orik.

  “Because I say so,” announced a firm voice. Ajihad strode into their midst, armed for battle with a breastplate and an ivory-handled sword. He put a strong hand on Eragon’s shoulder and drew him away where the others could not hear. He cast an eye over Eragon’s armor. “Good, Orik outfitted you.”

  “Yes . . . has anything been seen in the tunnels?”

  “Nothing.” Ajihad leaned on his sword. “One of the Twins is staying in Tronjheim. He’s going to watch the battle from the dragonhold and relay information through his brother to me. I know you can speak with your mind. I need you to tell the Twins anything, anything, unusual that you see while fighting. Also, I’ll relay orders to you through them. Do you understand?”

  The thought of being linked to the Twins filled Eragon with loathing, but he knew it was necessary. “I do.”

  Ajihad paused.
“You’re not a foot soldier or horseman, nor any other type of warrior I’m used to commanding. Battle may prove differently, but I think you and Saphira will be safer on the ground. In the air, you’ll be a choice target for Urgal archers. Will you fight from Saphira’s back?”

  Eragon had never been in combat on horseback, much less on Saphira. “I’m not sure what we’ll do. When I’m on Saphira, I’m up too high to fight all but a Kull.”

  “There will be plenty of Kull, I’m afraid,” said Ajihad. He straightened, pulling his sword out of the ground. “The only advice I can give you is to avoid unnecessary risks. The Varden cannot afford to lose you.” With that, he turned and left.

  Eragon returned to Orik and Murtagh and hunkered next to Saphira, leaning his shield against his knees. The four of them waited in silence like the hundreds of warriors around them. Light from Farthen Dûr’s opening waned as the sun crept below the crater rim.

  Eragon turned to scan the encampment and froze, heart jolting. About thirty feet away sat Arya with her bow in her lap. Though he knew it was unreasonable, he had hoped she might accompany the other women out of Farthen Dûr. Concerned, he hastened to her. “You will fight?”

  “I do what I must,” Arya said calmly.

  “But it’s too dangerous!”

  Her face darkened. “Do not pamper me, human. Elves train both their men and women to fight. I am not one of your helpless females to run away whenever there is danger. I was given the task of protecting Saphira’s egg . . . which I failed. My breoal is dishonored and would be further shamed if I did not guard you and Saphira on this field. You forget that I am stronger with magic than any here, including you. If the Shade comes, who can defeat him but me? And who else has the right?”

  Eragon stared at her helplessly, knowing she was right and hating the fact. “Then stay safe.” Out of desperation, he added in the ancient language, “Wiol pömnuria ilian.” For my happiness.

  Arya turned her gaze away uneasily, the fringe of her hair obscuring her face. She ran a hand along her polished bow, then murmured, “It is my wyrd to be here. The debt must be paid.”

  He abruptly retreated to Saphira. Murtagh looked at him curiously. “What did she say?”

  “Nothing.”

  Wrapped in their own thoughts, the defenders sank into a brooding silence as the hours crawled by. Farthen Dûr’s crater again grew black, except for the sanguine lantern glow and the fires heating the pitch. Eragon alternated between myopically examining the links of his mail and spying on Arya. Orik repeatedly ran a whetstone over the blade of his ax, periodically eyeing the edge between strokes; the rasp of metal on stone was irritating. Murtagh just stared into the distance.

  Occasionally, messengers ran through the encampment, causing the warriors to surge to their feet. But it always proved to be a false alarm. The men and dwarves became strained; angry voices were often heard. The worst part about Farthen Dûr was the lack of wind—the air was dead, motionless. Even when it grew warm and stifling and filled with smoke, there was no reprieve.

  As the night dragged on, the battlefield stilled, silent as death. Muscles stiffened from the waiting. Eragon stared blankly into the darkness with heavy eyelids. He shook himself to alertness and tried to focus through his stupor.

  Finally Orik said, “It’s late. We should sleep. If anything happens, the others will wake us.” Murtagh grumbled, but Eragon was too tired to complain. He curled up against Saphira, using his shield as a pillow. As his eyes closed, he saw that Arya was still awake, watching over them.

  His dreams were confused and disturbing, full of horned beasts and unseen menaces. Over and over he heard a deep voice ask, “Are you ready?” But he never had an answer. Plagued by such visions, his sleep was shallow and uneasy until something touched his arm. He woke with a start.

  BATTLE UNDER

  FARTHEN DÛR

  “It has begun,” Arya said with a sorrowful expression. The troops in the encampment stood alertly with their weapons drawn. Orik swung his ax to make sure he had enough room. Arya nocked an arrow and held it ready to shoot.

  “A scout ran out of a tunnel a few minutes ago,” said Murtagh to Eragon. “The Urgals are coming.”

  Together they watched the dark mouth of the tunnel through the ranks of men and sharpened stakes. A minute dragged by, then another . . . and another. Without taking his eyes from the tunnel, Eragon hoisted himself into Saphira’s saddle, Zar’roc in his hand, a comfortable weight. Murtagh mounted Tornac beside him. Then a man cried, “I hear them!”

  The warriors stiffened; grips tightened on weapons. No one moved . . . no one breathed. Somewhere a horse nickered.

  Harsh Urgal shouts shattered the air as dark shapes boiled upward in the tunnel’s opening. At a command, the cauldrons of pitch were tilted on their sides, pouring the scalding liquid into the tunnel’s hungry throat. The monsters howled in pain, arms flailing. A torch was thrown onto the bubbling pitch, and an orange pillar of greasy flames roared up in the opening, engulfing the Urgals in an inferno. Sickened, Eragon looked across Farthen Dûr at the other two battalions and saw similar fires by each. He sheathed Zar’roc and strung his bow.

  More Urgals soon tamped the pitch down and clambered out of the tunnels over their burned brethren. They clumped together, presenting a solid wall to the men and dwarves. Behind the palisade Orik had helped build, the first row of archers pulled on their bows and fired. Eragon and Arya added their arrows to the deadly swarm and watched the shafts eat through the Urgals’ ranks.

  The Urgal line wavered, threatening to break, but they covered themselves with their shields and weathered the attack. Again the archers fired, but the Urgals continued to stream onto the surface at a ferocious rate.

  Eragon was dismayed by their numbers. They were supposed to kill every single one? It seemed a madman’s task. His only encouragement was that he saw none of Galbatorix’s troops with the Urgals. Not yet, at least.

  The opposing army formed a solid mass of bodies that seemed to stretch endlessly. Tattered and sullen standards were raised in the monsters’ midst. Baleful notes echoed through Farthen Dûr as war horns sounded. The entire group of Urgals charged with savage war cries.

  They dashed against the rows of stakes, covering them with slick blood and limp corpses as the ranks at the vanguard were crushed against the posts. A cloud of black arrows flew over the barrier at the crouched defenders. Eragon ducked behind his shield, and Saphira covered her head. Arrows rattled harmlessly against her armor.

  Momentarily foiled by the pickets, the Urgal horde milled with confusion. The Varden bunched together, waiting for the next attack. After a pause, the war cries were raised again as the Urgals surged forward. The assault was bitter. Its momentum carried the Urgals through the stakes, where a line of pikemen jabbed frantically at their ranks, trying to repel them. The pikemen held briefly, but the ominous tide of Urgals could not be halted, and they were overwhelmed.

  The first lines of defense breached, the main bodies of the two forces collided for the first time. A deafening roar burst from the men and dwarves as they rushed into the conflict. Saphira bellowed and leapt toward the fight, diving into a whirlwind of noise and blurred action.

  With her jaws and talons, Saphira tore through an Urgal. Her teeth were as lethal as any sword, her tail a giant mace. From her back, Eragon parried a hammer blow from an Urgal chief, protecting her vulnerable wings. Zar’roc’s crimson blade seemed to gleam with delight as blood spurted along its length.

  From the corner of his eye, Eragon saw Orik hewing Urgal necks with mighty blows of his ax. Beside the dwarf was Murtagh on Tornac, his face disfigured by a vicious snarl as he swung his sword angrily, cutting through every defense. Then Saphira spun around, and Eragon saw Arya leap past the lifeless body of an opponent.

  An Urgal bowled over a wounded dwarf and hacked at Saphira’s front right leg. His sword skated off her armor with a burst of sparks. Eragon smote him on the head, but Zar’roc stuck in the monst
er’s horns and was yanked from his grasp. With a curse he dived off Saphira and tackled the Urgal, smashing his face with the shield. He jerked Zar’roc out of the horns, then dodged as another Urgal charged him.

  Saphira, I need you! he shouted, but the battle’s tide had separated them. Suddenly a Kull jumped at him, club raised for a blow. Unable to lift his shield in time, Eragon uttered, “Jierda!” The Kull’s head snapped back with a sharp report as his neck broke. Four more Urgals succumbed to Zar’roc’s thirsty bite, then Murtagh rode up beside Eragon, driving the press of Urgals backward.

  “Come on!” he shouted, and reached down from Tornac, pulling Eragon onto the horse. They rushed toward Saphira, who was embroiled in a mass of enemies. Twelve spear-wielding Urgals encircled her, needling her with their lances. They had already managed to prick both of her wings. Her blood splattered the ground. Every time she rushed at one of the Urgals, they bunched together and jabbed at her eyes, forcing her to retreat. She tried to sweep the spears away with her talons, but the Urgals jumped back and evaded her.

  The sight of Saphira’s blood enraged Eragon. He swung off Tornac with a wild cry and stabbed the nearest Urgal through the chest, withholding nothing in his frenzied attempt to help Saphira. His attack provided the distraction she needed to break free. With a kick, she sent an Urgal flying, then barreled to him. Eragon grabbed one of her neck spikes and pulled himself back into her saddle. Murtagh raised his hand, then charged into another knot of Urgals.

  By unspoken consent, Saphira took flight and rose above the struggling armies, seeking a respite from the madness. Eragon’s breath trembled. His muscles were clenched, ready to ward off the next attack. Every fiber of his being thrilled with energy, making him feel more alive than ever before.

  Saphira circled long enough for them to recover their strength, then descended toward the Urgals, skimming the ground to avoid detection. She approached the monsters from behind, where their archers were gathered.

 
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CHRISTOPHER PAOLINI SERIES:

  • The Inheritance Cycle
  •