Umm ... twelve months? No updates? What are you talking about?

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Chapter Five.

Scandal.

Eragon yawned. He was perfectly comfortable, his bed was warm, and there was no hurry to do anything. The unpleasant events of the last few days had been momentarily forgotten; he was would quite happily have stayed there for at least another half-hour. He would have, that is, but for a very insistent bullfinch that was sitting on the open window.

"Piddle eep-peep! Iddle peep-peep!" it said brightly. Eragon raised his head and glared at it sleepily.

"Can't you do that somewhere else?"

The finch gave a happy bounce, quite clearly full of the joys of life. "Pip! Piddle iddle peep pip!"

Eragon was not. "Please go away," he said pleadingly. "Some of us were up very late last night while furry little things like you were in bed."

"Iddle pip pip piddle!" it exclaimed.

Eragon grinned, even as his remembrance of the last few days returned. He knew it could not fully understand his words, but he thought he broadcast his dejectedness quite well. The finch puffed up his tiny chest.

"Iddle piddle piddle – eep peep peep!" The black-capped head bobbed. Eragon watched with interest as first, as not only one, but five fluffy grey balls alighted on the sill. Each one had shiny black eyes and minuscule beaks; and hopping along behind them was a small, fat female.

"Oh, it's a choir now, is it?"

To finish, his plump little wife and rotund children promptly burst into song. Eragon eyed them gloomily.

"That's not making me feel much better, you know."

The brown chest inflated once again, and his beady eyes cast Eragon a despairing glance, obviously disappointed in his dark mood. "Peep piddle iddle, piddle iddle peep pip iddle iddle ..." The family raised their voices; so did Eragon.

"Yes – I can see you're a very happy, lucky bird with a big, happy family and nice nest somewhere over there ..." Eragon sighed, then scowled at himself.

Pah. I have become self-pitying old man; Garrow would flay me within an inch of my life. He leapt up out of the bed, but the blankets had wrapped themselves around his middle much like a snake in the desert, and he teetered, almost off balance, then froze. The finches had stopped singing. The male suddenly shoved his wing under each of his children, shoved them off the sill, bundled his wife over the edge too, then dived off himself. Then Saphira arrived, landing neatly on the edge of the tear-drop portal.

Oi! said Eragon indignantly, disentangling himself from the blankets. You scared them off!

Who? She queried politely, ruffling her wings.

The finch!

What a warm welcome, she remarked dryly. What finch?

There was a bullfinch on the window; he woke me up.

Really. And what's the matter? It's hardly a novelty, is it, a bullfinch?

No, I know. Eragon dropped the blankets back onto the bed and rubbed his face wearily. It was a very sensible bird, though.

I think you need sleep, said Saphira, eyeing him oddly. And food. Arya is the one that chatters to birds.

As opposed to you, who eats them, Eragon said quickly, to cover the sudden somersault his belly had performed at her name. Arya's habit of surrounding herself with fluffy, noisy hedgerow birds had been something he'd found very endearing all those years ago. Do you suppose she still does that? Talk to the birds, I mean.

Maybe, said Saphira cautiously. I expect so, unless she is too busy with all her daily business.

Strange. We spent ... seventy, eighty years apart, and I missed her; but now that we are in the same city, it is worse than ever.

I know what you mean ... I talked to Arya very much – remember when you put her on my back and jumped off, and I took her all the way around Tronjheim? She was so furious with you at first!

Yes. Eragon grinned wistfully. I remember.

Yes; so I miss her because she was the only elf or human with whom the both of us could talk and enjoy being with outside the Riders. So, I think the sooner you talk to her the better.

Eragon watched a dust mote that whirled through the air, golden in the morning light. Of course; but I am not going to make her any more uncomfortable than she is; and this is her home.

When you were being childish at Niduen's celebration you didn't seem to care.

All right, I understand, he said with a flicker of irritation. But I did not pick a fight.

Saphira was silent. She stepped over to her bed and nestled deep into the blankets, apparently full of an unfortunate deer. Eragon stared at her a moment, waiting for a rebuke, but it did not come. He knew Saphira's ways, of course; so he concluded that she was tired of talking to a slow mortal such as himself, and went to have a wash instead.

He was sure that from the small vents in the wash closet he could hear a chorus of bullfinches, still singing at the tops of their diminutive voices.

--

If Eragon had wanted a peaceful day, he would have gone at sat under the Menoa tree, or found a garden in Tialdari Hall. But he was a man used to rough and tumble and long days with bad weather. So he walked to the copse of sculptured beech trees he knew of old, and did not allow himself to hesitate.

Besides, he had an errand to complete.

The elf's lined face was bent over a hot forge, and in her hand were a pair of iron tongs. She was moulding a shape into a cast, and Eragon waited while she finished. But when she had, she took off her gloves and started to measure the blades of a pair of knives; of course she knew Eragon was there, waiting.

"Rhunon."

Her wrinkled, pitted face and straggling white hair was beaded with sweat. Her eyes glinted in the forge light.

"I thought you'd be back."

"I thought I'd find you here."

"Well, where else would I be, Rider?" she replied curtly and turned her attention back to the knives. Eragon waited, watching her. But she suddenly dropped the knives, and her eyes were sharp.

"So, what became of my swords? I heard rumours you'd buried Sorrow."

"I did. Along with its bearer and his dragon."

Rhunon's lips twitched; she blinked. "So Sorrow is laid to rest with the son of the bastard I made it for?"

"Yes," said Eragon sharply, "but Murtagh was no bastard. His sacrifice was great." Eragon looked down, remembering poor Murtagh dying because he had disregarded his oaths, and the way, in doing so, he had saved Eragon's life. "He gave his life. It was all he had to give in the end. I wanted to bring it back to you, Rhunon, but in the end I decided it should stay with Murtagh. He forged a new history with it."

"It was not necessarily your choice to make," she replied, pushing some hair out if her face and regarding him impassively. "But the Riders always took their swords with them to their graves." She looked almost sadly at the two daggers she had dropped. "Still, that leaves me with none. None of my great creations."

Eragon watched her gravely. "That is what I and the Council of Vroengard have to ask of you. That you take one last sword to into your keeping." He tilted his head slightly to see her eyes. "It is not a happy sword, or a sword used for good deeds, but it is a powerful sword. I do not like to have it in my city."

"It is Agnavra, isn't it?" she whispered. "I heard it said that you had taken it."

"Shruikan burnt along with his Rider," Eragon said, looking away, speaking in that flat voice he always used when talking about Galbatorix. "But Power the black sword of the King I took away."

"That was not your decision," said Rhunon emphatically, baring her yellow teeth. "It would have been better for all concerned if you had let it burn as well."

"Perhaps. But I did take it, and I am not going to go into details as to why."

"I do not want to hear them. I am glad the Queen did not want to see you here, for I knew you would come. I only wanted to forget."

Eragon grimaced and looked away, ignoring the stab of pain he felt at Rhunon's causal mention of Arya's unwillingness to talk to him. "I suppose you know what I am asking, though, don't you?"

"You are asking if I will take Agnavra the sword of Galbatorix into this city and keep it." Rhunon turned her back on him, and shot a bolt of yellow fire into the forge. "I know, Rider."

Eragon bowed his head, and waited. Long years of this wrangling with strong opinions and old prejudices had made him patient, and hours of supervising children trying to use magic had made him careful. So he waited.

"I made Agnavra. Nothing Galbatorix did was my fault, but the sword was my creation. It was my last creation," she said, eyes lingering on Eragon's own sword, blue Daiithil. "I do not care about your city, Shadeslayer, but I will take back what is mine. Bring Agnavra to me. I will take it."

"Very well," Eragon said with little joy but some satisfaction. "Then I name you its custodian, and so shall you be known. My Riders will come it, at a time we can later arrange."

"No ceremony," she said sharply. "None of that."

"Not if I can help it. But a certain protocol must be observed, Rhunon-elda."

Her wrinkled face twisted slightly to look over her shoulder at him, and the look in her eyes was strange. "Protocol demands, Rider, that you gain acceptance from the Queen before bringing the sword here."

"Does it indeed," Eragon said coldly, and stared at the back of her head, knowing that she knew he was still there. "What a surprise."

Rhunon made a dismissive gesture, for she cared little for these things, and Eragon left, knowing better than to thank her. He suddenly wished, fervently, he was back at home in his tower on Vroengard, and did not have to deal with the nonsense in this city that made his heart hurt so.

--

It was very hot; so much so that Eragon had gone to a lake near his house and, rolling up his trousers, dangled his legs in the water, watching Saphira propel herself lazily along the surface. She looked a great, shining beetle, all legs and head, and normally he would have joined her. But he only wanted to be quiet, to think and listen, and so he simply sat and watched.

He had loved Ellesmera so much, during the war against the Empire. It had been quiet, it had been peaceful; it had been a sort of home. Yet now, for the first time, he saw that it could be a sort of prison, too.

He had seen the shutters behind Arya's eyes, and he had seen the paleness of her cheeks, her cold hands; he saw the silence in her court, but heard the laughter in Ellesmera. Laughter, he knew, Arya was excluded from. She must be miserable; he knew she was, because he had known her so well; but that did not at all explain why she was so angry with him.

While tending the child Naiira, the previous night, the old Arya had shone through; he could just remember her pretending to be angry with him for putting her on Saphira's back and flying around Tronjheim; he remembered her trying in vain to communicate with a lot of Urgals who did not speak very much of anything; he remembered her pelting him with carrot tops over a camp fire …

Come to think of it, he remembered waking, for the first after he had killed Galbatorix, to find Arya by his side, sitting on an upturned keg, driving a sharp little knife into the wood and yanking it back out again. She'd smiled when he'd woken up, and mumbled; she'd been happy, and had smiled her beautiful smile …

In the hot sun and cool shade, the soft sounds of the water and Saphira blowing bursts of flame onto the water to see them become vapour, Eragon began to fall asleep. He had been up all night, woken early by the very wise bullfinch, and had been dragged through half of Ellesmera on Saphira's back to find this lake; he was tired.

And as he slept, he dreamed.

Arya's face swam into view, and Eragon stared at her, head pounding, eyes blurry. As if sensing the change in his condition, she looked and down and promptly dropped the knife she was holding.

"Oh, you're awake!" She stared back at him, and made a quick move with her arm, as if to touch his hand or the bed, but decided against it. "We thought you'd never come round."

He grunted and a firework display of bright lights flashed before his eyes. Arya put a mug of something to his lips, that burned and scorched on its way down; but as the shock receded, he recognised faelnirv; and found he could move again.

"What happened?"

"Oh, don't tell me you can't remember," she said. "It would be you." And she smiled down at him, and Eragon's bewildered mind wondered what was so different about that smile that had been missing in all the others …

Saphira went to wake him, but decided against it; she knew that purple bags under the eyes in humans was not a good sign. Besides, he so rarely dreamt these days, yet now his eyes were wandering behind the lids. She hoped it was good for him.

"Don't be silly," Arya frowned, hands on hips. "I am not going to do it."

"I didn't say you had to," Eragon protested, "but Nasuada asked me to ask you."

"You didn't have to fall in with her!" she replied, eyebrows raised. "If anyone comes near me to try poke me full of pins for a dress I won't wear I'll -"

"You can't them kill, Arya," he said reasonably. "That's an act of violence in a time of truce with the enemy."

"I -!"

"Besides," he carried on before he lost his courage, "I think you'd look beautiful whatever you wore."

He looked away quickly, but saw anyway the expression of surprise, pleasure and something else that passed over Arya's face …

Saphira, sunning herself on the bank, felt a slight disturbance in the wards surrounding the city; vaguely, she heard a bird cry.

Another carrot top hit Eragon's nose, and he flicked it back at her quickly. "This isn't fair," he complained, hiding his smile. Arya lifted a dangerous eyebrow and threw a potato sprout at him.

"Don't you dare ever do that again, Eragon!"

"Do what?" he teased. Arya put her head in her hands in mock exasperation. The fire spat and crackled in the little glade they were camping in.

"This is why Orik didn't want to come isn't it? Because you are too insufferable to spend a week travelling with!"

"Mm, yes. Something like that, I expect." Eragon avoided her gaze now, in case she found out that the reason Orik had decided against coming on the scouting mission was because he was determined to ask Hvedra to marry him. It was supposed to be a secret. "No one mentioned anything about you and your liking for food fights."

"This isn't about me," she said, waving the last un-chopped carrot about threateningly, "this is about you."

There was a breathless moment where Eragon fought a snort of laughter, and Arya scowled at him; then as if something had snapped, they both at once dissolved into uncontrollable laughter …

Saphira listened to the birds call - a bird of prey, she was sure - and glanced at Eragon. His dreams were evidently becoming more violent; she could see his hands twitching. And in her Rider's mind, she could feel black, old memories flitting through.

A procession of elves, clothed in black cloaks, holding lamps on thin chains paced slowly through the hushed Ellesmera; not a word was spoken between them, not a glance did they cast to acknowledge the crowd that was gathering. Four others walked in the midst of the silent host, carrying a stretcher of soft material, covered also in a black cloth; a thin, female figure was concealed beneath it.

Eragon watched as from the crowd emerged another figure, tall and dark-haired, green eyes wide. Arya halted them with one word, and Eragon watched from the back of the procession, as she bent over the stretcher and lifted the cloth, as she stared with horror-struck eyes at the cold, still form of her dead mother …

Even in his dream, Eragon could easily recall the scent of the flowers in Ellesmera that turned black when their Queen died. Saphira, feeling these horrid things flashing through his mind, twitched, and wondered if she should wake him. But she could not bring herself to, just yet.

The rain beat fiercely on the wooden shutters of Arya's house; for some reason she had lit only one lamp and had started the fire in the grate, but had not lit the whole house; Eragon stood by the fireplace, arms crossed, watching her pace up and down, up and down.

"You should go to bed."

"Do not tell me what to do."

"You have got a decision to make," he said as way of a reply, feeling sullen but knowing he must do what was right. "And it must be made by tomorrow morning."

"I know that."

"You do not seem to understand that."

"Oh, yes, I do!" she retorted heatedly, crossing her arms, then uncrossing them as she paced. "I always knew it would come - but not this soon! I was born to be a Queen; but I have not lived as a Princess, Eragon. Let me make my own decisions."

"I know you can decide for yourself," he replied grudgingly, "but I am here because no one else in the city knows what to do."

"What if I don't know what to do?!" she said, a break in her voice. "There is nothing special in me that can make me so sure of myself when others are not!"

Eragon looked at her gravely. "I think there must be something. It may not be your position, your heritage, but it is your nature. You will find an answer."

"How, then?" Her voice resounded with scepticism.

"If you know yourself well enough, you will be all right. Look inside yourself, and do not hide the truth about what you find." He bowed his head and looked away, into the flames. "That is my advice. I think it is all I can give you."

Arya let out a small breath, and sank onto a chair, hand on her forehead. "I have been thinking a lot about … everything, Eragon. I always thought I was true to myself, but here I am, now, torn between … between …" she trailed off, with an apprehensive look at him that Eragon found strange.

"You are torn between where your heart leads you … and where your mind is telling you your loyalty lies."

Her figure became instantly stiff, upright; her eyes closed. Eragon knew he was right. "And what," she said slowly, "do you imagine these two things are that are tearing me?"

"How can I know what your heart is telling you? Only you can know that; I will not do you the disservice of trying to guess, either. But your mind is telling you that if take the crown, become Queen, you will be doing your duty, upholding your mother's honour. All these things are good and true, but evidently something is stopping you. I do not know what that thing is."

"Have you no idea?" she asked, eyes glinting in the firelight as she looked up at him. "None at all?"

"No, Arya."

She smiled a bitter half smile. "Of course you do not, Eragon. I never meant you to. It seems my training as diplomat has not deserted me completely."

"What are you talking about?" asked Eragon slowly, the hairs on the back of his neck rising.

"I only meant that at least one of the things I have wanted has come true." She glanced sideways at him, and away.

"What is that?" he asked with inexplicable trepidation.

"Nothing important." Once more her eyes lost their expression and she stood up quickly. "You have come here to help me, guided by the Court or not -" Eragon frowned at being tarred with the same brush as any political Court "- and as I have known you of old, I will listen to you." But she did not look at him, standing by the fire. Eragon did not know why.

"I have not come here under anyone's guidance - and I have not come to make your decision for you." He looked up, watching the firelight dance in her hair; he could not see her face. "But I do want to help you. I will, if I in any way can, Arya."

At her name, her back stiffened. Slowly, she moved her long neck to see him. Her gaze was careful. "I will ask you this, then. What is more important to you, and in your opinion: duty - or pleasure?"

As a question, Eragon thought the answer obvious; but he hesitated to answer, for her could sense some hidden depths beneath it. "By pleasure, do you mean an easy life, carefree? Or do you mean the wishes of the heart?"

Arya was silent. She stared at him, eyes burning with something that was not curiosity. Cautiously, Eragon proceeded:

"And by duty, do you mean duty to the masses … Or duty to yourself, remaining true to yourself?"

Her breast fluttered with quick breaths. "Put yourself in my place. In my position, what answer would you get when that question was applied?"

The answer came readily to Eragon's lips, yet he hesitated. He thought he knew what she was asking; and how should he answer? If Arya became Queen, she was chaining herself to the throne, to Ellesmera and politics forever. And so inscrutable, so unreadable was Arya that he did not know if she wanted that - or if she did not.

Yet she was a Princess - and Eragon, war leader, politician, tactician, all the things Arya also was, knew the importance of self-sacrifice. He knew how important it was for the elven nation to remain united, if the peace after Galbatorix's death was to be kept.

"Duty is not be thrown away. Duty must be done by everyone, and duties kept."

He glanced at Arya's flushed face, and away, back to the fire, feeling the sting of it burning his throat, yet he had not lied - he had told the truth - he'd been speaking in the Ancient Language ...

Arya made a stiff bob of the head, eyes narrow, hands in fists for some reason. "Thank you for your opinion, Eragon."

He stared at her. "It is well given," he choked out, and, not daring to see her face, hear her voice any longer, strode from the room, unlatched the door with a flick of his hand and left, out into the pouring rain.

A dark shape came flying, wing tipped, into the forest, unafraid of Saphira, unfettered by wards. The sun glinted on its forked tail and white head, and Saphira watched it with sharp eyes, saw the pouch attached to its leg. Eragon was as yet oblivious.

"Then it is decided." Arya's face was unreadable as she gazed down at her Court. "We go to war with the Empire."

The Lords and Ladies murmured assent. Eragon watched Arya turn to a page, and hold forth a glowing ball of fire, to which each and every warrior would add his or her magic; at the moment it was small, as few elves were in service, but soon, Eragon knew, it would swell to massive proportions.

As the elves in the Court started to come forward, to add their signatures to the globe, he hung back. He was no soldier to be conscripted, and his fighting abilities were at the service of whom he chose: so he merely watched Arya, her face glowing in the fire, her eyes that were guarded and body that stood so tense.

This was her first act as Queen. She would not lead her troops into battle, but would stand on the sidelines; she would not fight, would only negotiate. It seemed to Eragon that all the things she was good at, she was no longer able to do.

And his dream, he ran over the old ground over and over again, for the hundredth time in a hundred years: had what he had said about duty truly influenced her decision? If he had not spoken, would she have refused the crown? Or, if he had spoken differently, would she have taken it?

In his dream Arya was fading away, disappearing as she had from his life, and the murmurs of the elves were becoming louder and louder …

Eragon jerked awake, sitting quickly upright, and stared dumbly at the thing heading straight for him; out of reflex he lifted his arm and its sharp claws dug into his arm as the bird balanced there.

"Hello, Kaisïr," he said, blinking. The bird surveyed him with sharp eyes; he was a Red Kite, a rare breed but a proud and clever one; the reddish colours of his chest and wings glinted in the sun, and his eyes, hard ones, those of a predator, were fixed on Eragon. "I wasn't expecting you."

News. Urgent.

Eragon stared a for a moment, caught off guard; the Kite had been trained to repeat certain words; but rarely in all his life had Eragon heard the word 'urgent' be said by any messenger. He grabbed the scroll from Kaisïr's leg, nudging the bird to another perch as he did so, a lump of seeming ice in his stomach, and began to read.

Come now. Do not delay. Disgrace in Ceunon outpost. Urgent. Yours, Drake.

"Damnit," said Eragon, throwing the parchment away with an angry toss of his hand; Kaisïr the Kite watched with impassive eyes and Saphira snarled. Her lips drew back from her dagger-sharp fangs, for she, as Eragon, could sense nearby the rare, unpleasant scent of scandal.

--

Filler, yes, I know, but it's supposed to fill in some gaps. Anyway, I'm back to writing this and others, with no deadline! I suppose generally it is known that I've finished Empire, Eridor and Ending? Well, I managed it on time, but I still haven't even SEEN Brisingr.
So if no one could put any spoiler sinto the reviews, that would be great - also, if you think you really would enjoy a sequel to Empire, it wouldn't ruin Brisingr for you, please let me know that too! I'm afraid i've still got ideas :)