Whoa. Over 200 reviews. Thank you all - for reading and taking the time to write something. It makes me happy :) Answers to few reviews without account at the end of the chapter.
Then, I need to apologise for the state of the story, and the last chapter in particular, even though it wasn't my fault - decided it was time to play with their stupid filters again (no one but them have a clue what they're even goodfor), and that killed all of my scene breaks. Some pointed out that the chapter was confusing ... removing all scene breaks would do that, I imagine. I fixed it, though.
Turning back to this chapter, of course my rule of thumb worked - everything gets twice as long as planned. So here's part 1 of Consequences, Arya's POV. Eragon is up next.
Thanks to JWH for betaing, and to silverlasso for helping me with keeping my plotlines under control.
6. Consequences, I
Light up, light up
As if you have a choice?
It was autumn when Queen Islanzadí declared the war against Galbatorix and the Forsworn ended.
Arya stood on a bed of red and golden leaves in the doorway to her rooms, when Kialandí, sole Forsworn of the elvish race, was lead across Tialdarí Hall bound. She watched the elf pass, head held high, strikingly beautiful, with long dark hair and piercing blue eyes; and despite what she had done, despite betraying and slaying her own kin and despising her for it, Arya could not help the smallest twinge of admiration as she never begged for mercy, never claimed innocence; simply sitting there and listening to the accusations, graceful and composed, but never uttering a word in her defense.
It was only when the Queen uttered the verdict that she showed a reaction, surprising Arya.
"So you would that I live? You are weak, Islanzadí, and a fool. End my life now, and you shan't regret it, for it is what I deserve. Let me live, and it will be your sorrow. That I swear."
"Enough blood of our kin has been spilled. I will not add to it. Neither in waging a war on a land that is no longer ours, nor in ending the life of one of our own."
One of the gathered Lords rose and frowned.
"Surely, you will not deny her to bear punishment? She has the right to atone, as does everyone."
The Queen looked at him and he bowed, sitting back down.
"And atone she shall. Let her be carried away into the forest, bound of most her powers and fettered to a spot, until ever such a time that she would see her mistakes and ask for redemption; and let the dragon share her fate. And when the time has come and she born enough to balance out her deeds, let her call for me and I will be there."
And Kialandí rose, a terrible, hard look upon her proud face, meeting the Queen's stare and uttered a single, final word: "Never."
For an instant, Arya spotted a fearful look on her mother's face, before she whispered: "Begone. Begone from my eyes, Kialandí. Your presence is no longer wanted."
And so it was curiosity that drove Arya ahead, out into the forest, far past the homely rooms of Tialdarí Hall. It was dense, and almost impenetrateable in this part. Silence laid draped over the trees like a stiffling cloth when no animals could be heard, and such was the case now. Only she darted between the branches and brambles, shadow-like, finding a way when there was none; pausing for moments, then starting anew.
Arya stopped again, crouching, bending away thorny branches and staring onward, where a sudden break in the trees opened up a clearing, on all but one side surrounded by the same tangled thorn bushes, while the last side opened up to the heavens, for they were on the same rocky crags that also housed Oromis' home.
Keen eyes observed the sole occupant, who did naught but sitting with her back towards Arya leant against a single large tree, which was aflame in autum's colours; herself over and over covered in fallen leaves, a magnificent golden cloak, regal, and melancholic. And just a few paces away from her rested a huge, dark purple dragon, dozing in the shade of the tree; one of the Nameless Ones.
Suddenly, the elf raised her left hand, and an irresistible force seized her, dragging her through the bushes. She stiffled a scream as the thorns pricked her skin; she flew a few lengths through the air before she was dumped undignified onto the small meadow and dragged her through the grass.
Next to the tree, the elf had risen. She lowered her hand and the force tearing at Arya stopped, still without a single uttered word on her part.
Kialandí was tall, the features unchanged from the time when she had passed Arya in Tialdarí Hall; features that still, even here, gave the impression of a proud, perhaps even arrogant demeanour. The blue eyes lowered their piercing gaze on her, then she uttered a derisive laugh.
"A child? Islanzadí sends a child to attend me? Apparently, mocking me with a view of open skies and refusing me my chance to atone was not quite enough. Islanzadí's cowardly behaviour continues."
Arya rose, and stared up the elf haughtily.
"I am Arya Dröttningu … Kialandí."
Kialandí remained silent and regarded her stonily. Arya matched her stare, until she could contain herself no longer, and burst out: "Why? Why did you do it?"
Nothing changed in Kialandí's expression, and as the minutes passed, Arya was already certain that she would not answer her at all, just as she had said nothing in front of Mother, when she suddenly spoke.
"Do you hate, little princess?"
"From the bottom of your heart, wishing with every fiber of your being that someone or something would not be, and knowing that you would do anything to see it made so?"
Her first impulse was to say no. She opened her mouth, but no words would come. The Ancient Language would not allow her to deny what her heart knew to be true, from the moment she had seen Father die. She … she hated Galbatorix. She had never, until now, consciously admitted it, but as she did now, she knew it was the case.
She would that he never existed. She wished there was some way to take away from him something that meant to him just as much as Father had meant to her. And if it was but his own life, in exchange for Father's. The feeling seized her while Kialandí stared at her, a curious, enigmatic smile on her face, and it was as if a dark shadow descended over Arya's heart. She stared at the Forsworn in dawning horror, and darted around and fled.
The nine elves, standing just a few paces in front of her on the dark heath in one, straight row, perfectly still, lowered as one their heads and hands, which had been raised to the heavens as in a silent prayer. They said not a word, and the air was quiet but for the soft rustle of their silvery cloaks. Arya felt the magic dissipate, which had safely guided her through the air, the many thousand feet from the entry of the cave at Helgrind's top down to earth.
She was thirsty, exhausted, physically and mentally, worn down from the events, and forced herself to stand tall and strong. She would not show a sign of weakness in front of other elves, least of all her.
Her, here, of all people, but she knew she should have been expecting her. Islanzadí wouldn't trust anyone in her stead, no one, not even her daughter.
Deïa was the sole exception. The petite elf whose name had slipped by Arya's lips the moment she had seen her was kneeling down beside the second body, which was lying unresponsive on the heath in Helgrind's shadow; her long, fair hair falling past her face and obscuring it.
A rush of memories. Unbidden, tearing at her mind; of the hours and days past, when she held him close, when for a moment she had thought …
He was not Fäolin. She clung to that thought and realised she was shaking, and clenched her fists until the nails bit in the flesh of her palms. Not now. Please. Not now, she couldn't deal. Didn't want to deal. And she did as she always did, forcing the memories away, away, to the rest of them, only away.
Kálin, Svitya and Lidian stood still next to her. They were the ones who found them – her.
Her, bent over Eragon, measuring time in his heartbeats as she kept him alive, beat after beat, when he could no longer do it himself; her world faded away in a haze of exhaustion, exclusively encompassing the last dying rider, focussed solely on keeping the heart beating and hoping it would be enough … and later not even hoping anymore, just staring blankly into space while refusing to let him die.
Until an eternity later, the cave had exploded, showering her with a hail of chips of rocks and revealing the three elves standing there; and had she been not as exhausted, she might have wept in relief. As it was, she could only stare numbly at their rescuers, her thoughts slow and confused. She remembered drinking something, soaring through the air, always on the brink of losing consciousness, experiencing the flight as in dreams.
Finally, the elf turned away from Eragon, looked at her with her clear blue eyes and bowed.
"Princess. I am overjoyed to see you alive."
Arya's answer came out bitingly.
"I am certain."
At other times, she might have made an effort to hide her aversion, but she couldn't muster the will to care now. And not with her, said a little voice, and she did not even attempt to contradict it, even if she was not looking for a fight.
Deïa's eyes narrowed.
"You have not changed at all, child. Mind your manners."
"There is no one here for whom you would need to keep up your precious appearance, Deïa."
Arya heard her own words as a third person, an onlooker watching herself in apathy. She was too tired to care. So perhaps she was looking for a fight.
But the other elf only looked at her coldly.
"You always mistook basic courtesy for a need of appearance."
"Just as you were always substituting station with importance."
Deïa gave her another particularly unfriendly look
"Well, if you are well enough to be your usual insolent self, surely you are ready to talk about what foolishness you did now." She pointed down. "He is hours away from dying. Explain yourself. Explain to me, why on Alagaësia's green soil, I find the last free Dragon Rider and hailed hope for our victory in the very centre of the darkness that covers the land, nearly dead, and without his dragon. Arya."
Deïa's words cut into a surprisingly intimate part of her. Does he mean that much to me?
"We – we set out to kill the Ra'zac and free a hostage. You knew that." Arya felt her anger rising. If Deïa thought she could chastise her, she was wrong. "Your question is without sense. I did my best to keep him alive."
The look on Deïa's face darkened.
"Your task was not to keep him alive, but out of harm. You know what your mother told you. And then you chose to do the very opposite of what she asked, risking his life instead of protecting it. He doesn't know any better. He is but an infant. You, however, should. Your mother asked this one thing of you, and not even that you deemed necessary to grant. Will you ever cease being rebellious and disagreeable, Arya? Your selfishness has brought us more grief that any event since Evandar's death. Now you added quite possibly another life to the tally, and more – the fate of our race. Every one elf would see this alone as sufficient punishment, but not you. You bore more than that, more than any elf in recent history, and still, it seems it has not been enough. When will it be enough, Arya? When?"
She felt her anger flare, clenching her fists.
"Not enough? Not enough, Deïa? Islanzadí banned me from my home in disgrace for seventy years, for only I chose to disagree –"
"And she accepted you back, did she not? Despite it all, she forgave and apologised, welcomed you upon your return, forever holding out hope you would have come to see your errors. I have not her optimism. She is too soft. Were it my decision … For all the grief and sorrow you brought over Islanzadí and all of us, your name would be stricken from the royal line, and never uttered again within the realm that is walked by elves. For all I understand you might even welcome that. Yes, child, were you mine, you would be free to do whatever your selfish little heart desired – as long as it was far, far away."
Arya had only a bitter smile for the older elf. She would never see what Arya did.
"But I am not, am I? Not your child, not your token of Father's love. Much to your consternation, since you so dearly would Mother's place."
Deïa stiffened. Her blue eyes only barely hid the loathing, Arya thought.
"I serve my Queen in utmost loyalty. Are you questioning my dedication?"
Arya curled her lips into a fine smile. "Did it come across that way? I am sorry if you got that impression, Deïa."
The other elf stood rigidly, a tense look on her face, before she suddenly, became impassive once more.
"This is not the time, nor the place."
She turned away, looking into the darkness, and as if that had been a cue, Arya saw a shadow appearing. With thundering hooves, a stallion appeared out of the night, at full gallop, crossing the remaining distance at a wondrous pace. It was larger and finer than any human steeds, clear signs that marked it as elfish of breed.
"Snevhid," Deïa called, smiling as it came to a halt next to her, with lightly trembling flanks. "You came. You heard my plea upon our leaving, and came, all the way across Alagaësia. Elruna eka ono wiol inkoma onr." I thank you for coming.
The snow white horse nickered softly and brushed its moist nose against her side, while she petted his head. Turning back to Arya, she called: "You will –"
But Arya ignored it, brushing past her, bending over Eragon. He looked so pale, she thought. To Deïa, she then said: "Now let me take Eragon and the horse, Deïa; I will carry him to the bogs of Logsvara. The ambient magic and the spirits will aid his recovery; it is the only chance we have. No magic of our own can heal a wound in his mind stemming from the loss of a dragon. We need to hurry."
Deïa spun around.
"It is not certain that he will recover at all! And you can never be certain of where the spirits are, and what they will grant."
"Do you propose a better plan, then?"
Deïa stared at her, before she briskly walked towards them.
"I am the better rider. That much even you should be able to admit. I will take him, and hope against hope that he still can be saved."
Arya made to bend over his prone form, when Deïa grabbed her arm, preventing her from reaching out to him.
"You have done enough harm for the time being."
Suddenly, she flinched and let go of Arya's arm, almost stumbling backwards. Arya looked up; staring into Deïa's wide eyes. Horror dawned on the older elf's face. Arya frowned.
"You did it again, did you not?"
When Arya gave no answer, she all but grabbed her at her cloak, looking at her, highly agitated.
"Answer me! Did you use the false magic?"
Arya gave the tiniest twitch as the memory of the Lethrblaka resurged, the darkness, the black hate, drawn up and fortified by the magic, until it filled her entirely, took hold of her, was her … and the worst part that always came after, the moment when the spell was done and she left alone to drown in her most painful memories, those that she had dragged to the forefront of her mind, in order to weave the magic. And it wasn't yet over.
It was enough for Deïa to notice.
"You irresponsible, foolish child!" Her crystal blue sparked in fury. "Are three thousand years enough for you to think in all your juvenile arrogance that it will not matter anymore? That somehow, for you the rules of magic do not exist – that you are above and beyond such mere trivialities? Have you forgotten the last time so soon? What else needs to happen to make you see?"
Arya's voice was cold when she responded.
"I would be dead otherwise."
"As if that would make it better, somehow," cried Deïa. "In that case, it is the height of foolishness to manoeuvre yourself into a position that would leave you that as the only way out! Islanzadí will hear of this, make no mistake."
"Did Mother send you, Deïa?"
"Nay, she did not, since we could not break through your spells, and even I held you not as thoughtlessly irresponsible as to journey right across the enemy territory, and into the heart of darkness itself."
Triumph surged through Arya at the first part of Deïa's sentence, and she made no effort to hide it. So it had worked. I bested them all – I bested her.
"Then I need not explain myself to you, Deïa. Remember your place."
She reeled back as if struck, and Arya noticed it with vindictive satisfaction. She could only guess what the elf would have liked to say to her – a small part of her almost wished she would speak up against her. Both stood opposing each other, stares matched, for a terrible second when it almost seemed as if Deïa was on the verge of saying something, and Arya dared her to, but then the elf only bowed.
"I will take him to Aroughs, then, as you command. By your leave, Princess?"
Arya's eyes flickered from her to Eragon. He was still lying there as if dead, but she knew he was still alive. It couldn't be too late. He needed to live.
"Take him," she said. "I will assume your position amongst Mother's elves and lead them back to Surda."
Again, Deïa appeared on the verge objecting, but one stare by Arya made her acquiesce.
"Contact your mother," was all she said, before she leapt onto the white horse, Eragon in front of her, and galloped away, on a route slightly west to the south, a race against time.
Hold on, Eragon. Just a tiny while longer. Hold on.
– * –
They moved through night in silent run; twelve shadows, ghostly figures in the dark. No one talked to her; her companions had been around her before and knew not to bother her. And so she was alone with her thoughts, in perfect quiet but for the steady rhythm of feet hitting the ground; lulling her into an almost trance-like state. They flew across the dark countryside swift as the wind, in a monotonous left-right-left-right, each step an impact that was absorbed by her body. The movement dominated everything, her breathing, the beat of her heart; and it cleared her mind and made her think of mundane things, and finally of nothing at all.
It was more difficult when they stopped for a break.
She had pushed on and on for that very reason, ignoring the concerned looks her companions gave each other and herself. Instead, she would strike up an even faster pace. They might have covered as much as five leagues in the last hour, and still it seemed not fast enough for her. She would run, trying to leave it all behind, trying to escape, trying, always and forever trying … as long as she did not stop, it would not haunt her … could she not run on forever?
Elves surpassed any human in strength and endurance. They were quicker and stronger, could run faster and longer, yet even so, they were not without limits. Oh, how well she knew this.
If only I was as invincible as humans thought us, she thought bitterly.
So it was that they moved through the night, under their feet the barren landscape of Mírnathor giving way to moss and reeds and small holts as they neared the four hills rising up from the plain, surrounding the rocky rise called Ithindra's Tor in their centre; and so it was that eventually, her excessively taxed body would obey her no longer. Days without sleep and without sustenance, artificially extended by Faelnirv again and again, finally took their toll.
A searing pain tore through her body as her muscles seized up, and she just barely caught herself to prevent tumbling down and hitting the ground painfully; a raised hand being all sign she gave to bid them to stop for a rest, before she deserted her companions, vanishing under the trees, away, only away.
She stumbled into the arboreous foot of the hill; the ruin of Edur Ithindra towering up above her forbiddingly. She tripped over a root in the thick undergrowth, crashed down, crawled on, then picked herself up again. The branches tore at her tunic and hit her face, but she barely noticed; she stumbled ahead, the perpetual darkness blurring in front of her eyes, showing strange, swaying images of things she did not understand. And suddenly, there were strong arms, supporting her, and the control over her limbs slipped from her will, and she collapsed, and he carried her –
No – hadn't that already happened? Something caught her ankle, and she tripped again and did not get up anymore. Her cheek rested in the dirt and she stared into the weeds unfocusedly, breathing erratically.
It was dark and she heard her name called.
"Who – who is there?" she asked, and the night was silent.
She struggled to lift her head and failed. A hand gently brushed over her face, and a wonderfully cool liquid moistened her lips. She swallowed and it hurt, but almost instantly she felt better. Still exhausted like she hadn't been in a long time, but not half-dead anymore, just tired. So tired …
He cared about her so touchingly. And for a while she allowed herself to be held by him, sitting under Saphira's wing, warm and cosy, an odd comfort, reminding her of summers gone by, when everything had been better, the sky without clouds and the air void of any winds carrying the sounds of war …
But she didn't deserve it.
Not her. Not when she was the one who had thrown the care back into his face, sacrificed him in the line of her duty –
So unassuming. So kind. So earnest. A true friend, and despite all that she had done, despite all her failings, all she saw in his eyes was understanding even though he could not understand, and compassion even though he knew not what for, and it broke her.
It burst out of her, the sum of all her guilt and self-loathing.
Not alright, not fine, not worth your compassion, not one of the good, not perfect – she wanted to scream, could no one see all her failings?
He had. He had been there when no one else had, he had stood by her, and she had repaid it with death …
She clenched her fingers, vaguely realising she was lying on the cold, rocky ground, stones painfully digging into her side, far from either Helgrind or Osilon. No one was here.
She struggled to keep the memories at bay, desperately, fearing what she knew would come next, and it was like holding off a dammed-up lake with her bare hands – a damned lake …
No one used that particular kind of magic lightly.
Beware what you do child, no magic comes for free even if it might appear so upon first glance …
It was time to pay the price. She had withstood it earlier, resisting it, ultimately in vain. The storm of memories descended on her, called upon to fuel the magic, wanted then, and oh, how unwanted now. She struggled silently to keep up the walls around her mind, and suppressed a sob when it was just useless –
Why do you struggle, elf? No one will come. No one cares. You are alone.
Durza's damned voice, in her ears, in her mind.
And the only thing that gave her strength to keep going was what led her into this cell; her foolish, stubborn pride, that had neither allowed her to forgive Mother, nor would it allow her to give up the secrets he wanted to know now.
She cried out in pain as he tore through her mind, he was so strong. She receded further and further into her mind, desperately trying to protect the secrets of the Varden and the elves as the innermost core of her being, giving up anything else in exchange.
What she was. What she thought. Her hopes, her dreams, her fears; what she loved, what she hated. Durza had seen it all.
Like the most perfect fairth, it was all laid out for him. In the course of long, long months he came to know like no one else had; and gloated over her troubles.
They have cast you out. There was only him that stood by you …
She writhed in pain as used his tools and her own fears and darkest memories in equal measure to torture her, her screams that she tried to suppress filling the room until her voice was hoarse.
And in the end, you killed him too …
The wood was silent, too silent. Her steed reared up and she spun around, hair whipping into her face, but it was already too late. The red light struck her trusty mount, and it died instantly. Arrows hissed trough the night –
Fäolin! It's an –
The pain lanced through her, and it was not her pain. And suddenly, he was falling, arrows in his back … falling, falling down. It was his pain she felt, his pain searing her back… she cried out in anguish. Fäolin. She felt him in her mind, deadly wounded … no. Please. Not him.
You killed him. It was your choice. You could have left the egg, and saved his life …
No! He's still alive, she screamed, he had to – hadn't she just found him, in a dark cave? He was alive, and warmed her – drove off of the cold emptiness that filled her and was her –
She struggled to lift a hand up, fingers stretching to touch his face –
He is dead.
– and encountered only coldness. The idea drilled itself like shards of ice through her heart.
… Fäolin …
Durza brought her to the brink of death and back again … for the hundredth time or more, she could not say. It was time for the drug again. She awaited it eagerly, restlessly, she needed it – escape from the pain and the sorrow, from her nightmarish waking dreams, if only for a moment … she could fly away …
She was trying desperately to cling to her sanity, but it had been broken into many tiny pieces, just like her, and simply slipped through her fingers. There was nothing left to fix, a heart missing, a soul in shambles.
Not every broken thing could be fixed, not everyone could be saved. Magic was not all-powerful. And there were situations in which death was more merciful.
He was looking at her, his face deathly pale, his light blue eyes full of reproach and disappointment.
He was dead, and it was her fault.
Her eyes flickered back and forth. She wanted to run to him, save him, she knew she could … she took a step towards him. She could help. She had to – she … the Urgals were closing in.
But – the egg …
You picked your duty over his love.
She pressed her fingers into the inside of her hands until her nails broke through the skin, creating stinging crescent marks in her palms, anything to keep at bay the tears that threatened to fall.
"I promised! There was nothing I could do!"
She took the egg…
… and the light fled his eyes.
A sob escaped her. It hadn't been him, in the cave. No, never him. Above, heaven opened the gates and rain started to fall down to earth.
You killed him, and now you betrayed him.
She felt the tears on her cheek, mingling with the rain, running down her face.
"I'm sorry, Fäolin."
She cried it, over and over again.
"I promised! I promised!"
The rain crashed down on her, cold darts of ice pricking her skin, but she hardly felt it, because nothing could compare to the icy ball in her chest, where once a heart had been.
I'm sorry …
She laid on the wet ground, shivering, helpless under the onslaught of memories having come lose from the tight rein she kept on them, shoved into the farthest corner of her mind and sealed off with all her might.
Too much pain, too much desperation, too much. The darkest hours, a reflection of her broken state, figments of a mind that was slowly staring to lose the struggle against the darkness.
She had failed, and Ellesméra burned. Hordes of Urgals were rampaging through the city, ravaging it. Flames licked on the ancient trees, devoured the lovely gardens of her childhood, the beautiful homes, the halls and ways.
She had lost the struggle with her own dark side and burned down Ellesméra herself … in vicious revenge for all it had done to her, for what it had made her, the only defining thing left the hatred, for the elves that cast her out, for the world, for herself; it had swallowed her up, devoured her, finally …
She curled up on the cold ground, hugging herself, shivering violently, soaking wet, her thoughts a jumbled mess of painful memories, terrible visions, fears and dark desires.
She blinked, trying to clear her gaze. She made out a blurry shape standing over her on a rotting log, looking at her in concern. The storm in her mind abated a little, and shouts finally registered in her ears. Clashing swords, the sure sign of fighting.
Lidian jumped down to her as a stray arrow hissed over his head, imbedding itself in the trunk of a birch a few paces away.
She stared up at him, wide-eyed, trembling, uncomprehending.
He opened his mouth as if to say something else, then shook his head and the concern vanished from his face, as if someone wiped clear a fairth.
"You are needed. A company of soldiers, at least a half hundred." He threw her a bottle, pulling her up.
He pushed her ahead, almost dragging her through the trees when she stumbled and her legs threatened to give out under her. He pulled her sword out of her sheath and pressed it into her shaking hands, giving her a last, merciless shove into the direction of a soldier.
She felt the Faelnirv surge through her and felt herself slipping into a battle mindset, went through the motions of sword fighting, practiced a thousand times, the exercise deeply ingrained, something familiar in all this madness, and she clung to it desperately.
The soldier became more than just a faceless adversary; he suddenly turned into her fears, her doubts, her pain; and in a sudden furore, she attacked it savagely.
Why are you running from yourself, child?
Through the rain, she stormed ahead, all her anger and fear projected onto the enemy that she could fight, screaming as she wielded the sword in an arc, swishing it through the air, cutting off an arm when he could not move out of the way fast enough, then pierced his heart.
The soldier gurgled weakly, and she pushed him down with her foot, engaging the next two that came running. She hacked away at them, with no regard for technique and style at all, simply destroying things in the most primitive way possible. They were crippled, cut open, beheaded; overwhelmed by strength and fury that no man could possibly match; and she lost herself in fighting.
Suddenly, she stopped in mid-movement, breathing hard. Rain was running down her hair and her face, wonderfully cool and soothing on her skin; removing the last traces of tears. The sword still raised, she looked around. Around her, seven soldiers laid dead in the grass. For a moment, she did nothing, until a drop of red fell from the wetly shining blade. Very slowly, she lowered the sword, bent down, minutely wiping it on the rain-wet grass. Her motions were short and precise. Gone were the memories, her mind cleared, running again with cold efficiency.
The war was her bane and her cure.
Fifty paces away, she saw Kálin fighting two soldiers at once, and threatened to become overwhelmed as a third and fourth joined them. He used magic to defend himself, no weapons, as did the other elves. They all were spellweavers, not swordsmen; not even used to fights. She was the exception.
She leapt over the bodies, gathering her own magic and in a sweeping throw tossed forth balls of green fire, sizzling in the rain and lighting up the night for just an instant as they carved a burning arch into the air, guided by nothing but her will to seek the targets she bid them to.
The spheres reached the group a second before herself, striking one of the soldiers in the chest, throwing him backwards, into his companions that came running. He screamed as he vanished in a column of fire for an instant, his uniform caught alight and burning his flesh; his arms flailing wildly, preventing anyone from helping him and sowing confusion amongst the other two.
Then she reached the group, using the momentum to strike down the last soldier, evading his clumsy attack and smiting off his head afterwards; thus freeing Kálin from his predicament. From the corner of her eye she spotted more soldiers running towards them, and placed her feet a pace apart, gaining a secure footing on the trampled, slippery ground, awaiting their attack.
They all converged on her, and she cut through the ranks of the soldiers like an avenging angel, beautiful and deadly. Her elfin blade flashed silver through the night in magical light's shine, wielded in flowing movements of perfect grace that belied their deadly nature.
Within minutes, what had been a fivefold superiority had been reduced to an equal fight, though it was only so in numbers alone. Her companions had finally gathered themselves in a group and started preparing to fell the remaining soldiers in a single attack. She pushed the band of enemies back, into a single group, away from the other elves. Two guessed her intentions and tried to flee. She broke their legs and they, too, ended up in the group of soldiers surrounding her.
Then there was a bright flash of light, and around her the last twelve fell down, dead.
– * –
Silence finally descended over the battlefield, that yet only hosted a round dozen survivors, none of them men.
Arya stared at the bodies that littered the ground around her. Blood was slowly being washed away by the still evenly falling rain that softly rustled the treetops on the hillside. So many dead … a dozen right here, all died at once due to the spell her companions had woven; four times as much further away, lining the edge of the woods.
They would not be able to hide them all.
She shook her head and turned towards Svitya, who was nearest to her.
"It was a convoy."
The female elf with the short, dark hair stared thoughtfully at the ring of dead soldiers, sporting no visible injury. "Mere bad luck. They stumbled right over us when we started to make camp. Their encampment is further up the hill."
"They are resting on the hillside," Kálin spat. "They used Ithindra's tower as a place to leave their waste. It is the behaviour of animals. They live in ignorance, heedless of its millenarian history, defiling it with their filth."
Arya's look went up the hill on whose foot they stood, making out the dark shades of a ring of trees that topped the central hill like a crown, and the slender tower Elyalinn had build for her love, millennia ago, now nothing more than a ruin, rising up into sky like an admonishing finger.
"We need to make certain there are no further soldiers in the camp."
"There are none," Lidian replied, appearing to her right, out of the shadow of the bushes. "I looked. All men joined the soldiers down here, attracted by the noise. One of them had the foresight to sound an alarm."
Arya drew her eyebrows together in displeasure.
"Did they send out messengers, then?"
She pressed her lips together, weighing their options.
Lidian led her over the remnants of the road that once upon a time led towards the tower. Wet grass rustled softly under their light steps, springing up between the once seamlessly joined cobble stones, now broken; overgrown by shrubs that long since had started to claim back what had been wrest from them by magic and craftsmanship. Fragments of history, of a time long gone, when no men had walked Alagaësia's ground; an age, now faded into the sighing whispers of the oldest trees, and faint dreams of former glory and might, conserved in stone, resting here as in deep sleep.
For each thing has its time.
Her hand touched something that might have been a milestone, once upon a time. Another thousand years, and perhaps everything would be gone.
They climbed the hill in silence, Lidian next to her, dwelling on his own thoughts, just like herself; and she was content to let him be and simply listen to the drips of water on the leaves, not in the mood to talk for longer than was necessary.
After a few minutes, a light gleamed through the dark foliage. The camp was set up by the wayside, just below the tower; with a fire still flickering in the centre of the perimeter, which was formed by the half-circle of the wagons that were like ramparts where the soldiers had gathered to spite the lasting night. They had indeed surprised an armed convoy, transporting merchant goods or supplies, most likely from Dras Leona to Melian, Arya thought.
She pulled aside a few of the sodden canvas covers, spotting cloth and finished garments, meat, a wagon full of barrels marked for the Empire's army at Melian. She left everything as it was; they had no need for any of their possessions. To her right, an ox snorted softly. She stretched out her hand and the animal sniffed it, and allowed her to pet his bulky head.
"Unyoke them," she called. "They should roam free; harnessed, they cannot move and will starve."
The oxen fidgeted, their ears pricked up, as if they understood what she had said. Under her nimble fingers, the straps around the horns fell away, and the ox slipped out from under the wooden yoke. It bumped its head into her side again, licking her fingers, then moved over to a grassy patch and started to graze.
Arya moved on to the next wagon, the only one that remained for her inspection. It was the largest one, with a sturdy structure; made entirely of wood instead of a tarpaulin-covered frame. Here, she found what she had been looking for.
In a hidden space behind a partition wall, she beheld a wooden chest. Metal fittings kept it locked from all too greedy soldiers' hands, but it was no match for her magic She leapt back out of the wagon, and sat down by the fire.
The chest was made of wood from the Yabani-tree, a rare tree that grew at the edge of the Beor Mountains. Its heartwood was exceptionally sturdy and durable. Only the King would commission such valuable item.
Inside, it was filled with bright coins, money to defray the soldiers' pay; and paper, folded parchment. Her fingers pulled the sheets apart and slid smoothly down the list bearing the King's seal, counting names, calculating numbers.
From behind, Lidian joined Arya, looking at her curiously.
"The Empire always needs to keep track of numbers and ranks, because it has to pay their servants," she said absentmindedly. "With any unit is an envoy of the king, whose sole function is to administer and oversee the pay."
After another moment, she placed the parchment in the chest and snapped the lid back shut.
"Sixty. An entire company, indeed."
She rose, brushing off wet leaves from her cloak.
"I think I counted fifty and eight men below."
Lidian looked at her with a hint of worry. "A pair of messengers?"
She locked the chest carefully and lifted it off the ground, regarding the other elf when he still looked apprehensive.
"There is nothing to be done about it now, Lidian. We will take this with us. If there is any chance at covering up the nature of their assailants, we will have to remove the men you killed, and steal something; and that is all we can do. I have no need for the coins, but Nasuada will; and the correspondence is valuable information."
Lidian bowed his head.
"As you say."
She doused the fire, and night descended over the deserted camp. She spared it a last glance, and together, they vanished in the shrubs.
– * –
Their own camp was not more than a simple glade, with beds from grass and a roof of knotted branches from the ancient oaks, and Arya could have thought of no better place.
They had left the site of the ambush as the rain abated slowly, and found this place on the summit of the hill, directly in front of Ithindra's Tower. The structure was a dark shadow to her right, thick at the base like the trunk of a tree, rising thirty feet into the sky where it ended in a jagged line of broken stones, the missing upper half of it lying all around the glade, shattered into stony fragments, covered in moss and ivy, overgrown and crumbled under the ravages of time.
Ithindra had lived here almost three millennia ago, before the Blood Oath was sworn, before he became mad and tried to undo it and vanished; and now they were here, filling it with elfin life once more even if it was but for a night.
She rested a little apart from the rest of the group, where Lidian and Kálin were stuck in a discussion. She saw Lidian shaking his head, then he walked away and joined her, leaning against the trunk of the oaktree under which she sat.
She nodded at him, and he sat down; and for a while, he said nothing and both were silent, but she knew he had something on his mind.
"You are not alright."
Eventually, he broke the silence. Would it have been anyone but him, she would have informed them to mind their own business. Lidian, though, had been a friend of Father, and she had known him for as long as she could think. Him, at least, she owed an answer, yet what to say? She did not know, and stared ahead at the ancient stones.
"I will be," she finally said. "I made a mistake. Will you blame me?"
"We all make mistakes," he said. And then he rose and left. And far from being offended, she gazed after him fondly, was grateful for his unassuming nature, when nothing he could say would matter to her, and just like the time when he dragged her to fight, it was testament to how long they had known each other that he knew this.
It was her trouble, and hers alone, and he respected it.
For what seemed the millionth time, she examined that fateful night of the ambush. She had gone over it, again and again, always coming to the same conclusion, the one she knew she would reach now.
It had been the right decision.
Ultimately she had failed, but only herself. Once more, Galbatorix had managed to steal away the one person that meant the world to her, but for her people, it had been a victory. The egg had hatched.
And so, saving the egg, not Fäolin, had been the right choice. And she knew that would she have had the chance to do it all over again, she would pick the egg once more, despite the piercing stab of pain, which at that thought tore through places she had assumed had already gone numb long since; and she hated the moments of weakness when the rest of her being would not obey the conclusion of reason and allowed guilt, or indeed, any feelings, to worm their way into her thoughts on the matter.
What she felt was not important. She had dedicated her life to the greater good of her kin, had given up many aspects most elves thought quintessential to their life, be it arts, studies or any other pastimes, and chosen the lonely path of the Yawë in War instead, for that was what her people needed: warriors, to defend their home, not princesses that would be able to write poems, and entertain fancies for long-winded elfin politics.
And she had done it gladly, and bore the mark, as well as the scars on her body and her soul proudly. Mother never had understood that.
Fäolin, however, had. And so she knew he would have approved. His death had not been meaningless.
It was different with Eragon.
He needed to live. She couldn't have failed. Not here … not again. She wasn't sure what she would do if he died. Wasn't everything lost without him?
And then she remembered that Saphira was gone and clenched her fists in helpless anger. She hated the King. Oh, how she despised and hated the cursed King. Galbatorix had completely outwitted them, using plans within plans and his hundreds of years worth of experience, and it had worked almost perfectly. The Varden and their allies had suffered a harsh blow. At this time, it looked fatal, even.
She pulled herself together. She would go down fighting. There was no other way, and sometimes she felt like she knew her fate. She didn't mind, not as long as it meant their victory over Galbatorix. It was the only thing that kept her here.
She contemplated telling Islanzadí's elves to continue to Surda, while she turned towards Urû'baen and tried to assassinate Galbatorix. If he became incautious and overconfident, allowing her to engage him in a magical duel, she could kill him while he killed her.
She shook her head and pushed away that thought. Too much relied on chances and guesswork for that plan to be successful. They needed to draw Galbatorix out of his citadel. He would be more vulnerable in the battlefield. The time for her to attack hadn't yet come.
And try as she might, she could not quell the irrational hope that somehow, Saphira would return and they be able to continue with their original campaign, with Eragon and Saphira as the pivotal figures at their side.
And while around her, the elves eventually settled into their trance-like state of rest, she remained awake for a long while after, staring into the dark sky and listening to sighing oaks telling their stories; and her own thoughts became more and more focussed on the young Rider, as she examined their complicated relationship and the events leading up to the incident in that dark, black cave; the one thing she had tried to push out of her mind as far as she could.
Oh, Eragon, she thought sadly. Why did you have cross that line – what could you possibly hope to gain?
She knew the answer to that, of course; he had hoped nothing, and expected to die. She wasn't angry with him, even though by rights, she should have been furious. He had broken every rule, every ounce of trust their friendship had build between them. It was unforgivable – except that he had been out of his mind. And I in all but the same state, she added to herself. She didn't want to think about the fact that she had not wanted him to stop, right then, about her thoughts at the time, flashes of Fäolin –
I should have been able to gently, but firmly deter him from his undertaking and instead urged him on. I should have been his voice of reason, but I failed. This acceptance of Deïa's words, even if it but was in a different way than the elf had intended, tasted bitter in her mouth.
Yet all the same, despite that she could and would not blame Eragon, the time in the cave remained there, like a dark shadow looming over them, and she knew things could not ever again be as they had been before that time. She had not been strong enough to make it so, to prevent from happening what now stood between them. The cave marked a fork in the road, and demanded a decision. Not so much because of her, even, she would try to carry on, happy to pretend nothing had happened, but he would not be able to. It was clear, now, that his feelings ran deeper than she ever had feared.
And so, there were only two ways, and the one that would not push them apart was the one direction into which she was neither willing nor able to go. Days spent travelling in companionship and warm summer, a night under Saphira's wing bringing back feelings, long forgotten, of secureness and safety … all that would be forever treasured, but it was just another chapter of her life, and it was now closed.
No, neither of them could continue on the path they had been on. It had irrevocably ended and culminated in the dark of Helgrind, when his love saved her life for the last time, when he paid for it with his own sanity, and hurled both of them into the abyss of the point of no return with the force of a wild dragon.
And in the end, the cave in truth had been but the final event helping her in her realisation that she could not continue to walk this path – that she did not want to; and that if she was not allowed to hold on time and stop walking altogether, she would have to turn around and walk away, for more than personal reasons.
She shivered as she remembered the wood just hours ago. She hadn't drowned that deeply in darkness since her stay in Gil'ead. Deïa couldn't have been more wrong when she accused her of ignorance. Arya knew well her price for invoking the forbidden magic. She paid it, every time she used it, every second she lived and breathed and felt the darkness within her, ugly and tainting. The breakdown was part of it, it always came, sooner or later, but come it did; the same darkness that enabled her to wield the magic turning on its master, breaking free and wrecking her mind.
It was bad enough on most occasions, but this time, it had been worse, much worse. And in a way, that was Eragon's doing, even if he, again, was hardly to blame. It was to his misfortune that it never was a matter of blame, but of choices leading to consequences, and consequences of such a kind that she could not ignore the choices that brought them about.
Her usage of false magic, as Deïa had called it, whenever she had need for a last resort, had worked, in a precarious balance, for as long as she kept a tight rein on her emotions, her iron discipline over her mind playing to her advantage, as it dampened emotions in either direction she knew she could not handle.
With Eragon though … the young rider had stumbled into her life, bright-eyed and curious, like a little dragon hatchling, and she saw a kindred spirit; someone in search for a place in a world that had taken away the old home, and offered no easy and obvious new one.
In him, she had found someone that was just as lonely as she was, for other reasons and in other ways, but lonely all the same. She had lowered the walls she had erected between her and the world, for him, and yes, she admitted, been happier than she had in a long time. From the moment he had stopped seeing her as something she was not, he had become a constant in her life. The friendship they had struck up was precious to her like few things were.
But all the same, this was the reason she had to struggle through times as in the brushes at Ithindra's Tor, and dear to her as Eragon was, her own emotional balance counted her for more. She had lost the ability to control herself around him, her lowered guard whenever they were together making it possible for her in the first place to lose herself when the circumstances turned dire and plunge herself into a state of emotional turmoil that finally allowed the magic to wreck her mind.
And it was exactly that emotional turmoil she neither wanted nor could afford. It was pivotal that her mind was clear, at all times; she needed, she wanted to be in control of herself, for all of their sakes. She shivered again as she thought of Ellesméra in flames.
For a long while, she sat in the darkness, wondering what would happen now. Her fingers picked up two pieces of stone, fragments from the fallen tower, absentmindedly; while she sat there, looking out into the dark night, and yet seeing but her own past, recent and not. She thought of Eragon and Saphira's companionship, of days spent flying under the smiling sun, moments when it almost seemed there was no war and she had not a care in the world.
She traced the edges of the rocks. They were long since blunted from the elements, no longer sharp and jagged, but still there … she pushed them together, and they fit, like two pieces of a puzzle.
She thought of the underbrushes. Of the cave. Of her fight against the soldier in the village of Rak.
Her fingers opened, and the fitting pieces fell back down, still broken, still separated, because there was nothing to hold them together.
No, if this was the price for a few happy moments, it wasn't acceptable. She wasn't looking to fix herself. She knew she was broken and did not care, not as long as she could fight. It had been that way since her imprisonment in Gil'ead, and it was the way she wanted it to be. She lived for the war and pushed everything else away. But if she wanted to function, she needed a clear mind and so she knew what she had to do. A fleeting thought touched Eragon, but she put it aside. He would understand.
And so, she receded into her mind and started the painful process of re-assembling all the splinters, gathering them and pushing them far, far away, until it was just as it had been for the longest time, after Gil'ead, after Fäolin's death: the blank emotionless state, that offered no happiness, but allowed her to keep going.
Hours passed, but no sun rose to break the night. No bird sang to cheer her up, no voice sounded to disturb her meditation. People were born and died, battles won and lost; memories drifting past her eyes in an endless stream, scenes of a century, her century.
And finally, Arya opened her eyes and stared at the ruins of Edur Ithindra, broken fragments of something that once had been beautiful, and was looking at her own life. She shivered and hugged herself. It was cold. And at long last, exhaustion overcame her.
Well, and so the second story arc has started. Let's see if we can repeat the 200 reviews there?
?: First of all, thanks for reviewing.
Now, trying to answer your points ... well. From my, the author's, perspective - the story is really supposed to work that way. So if you say that Eragon could have easily used a ward, or done whatever, then all that will mean is that I bring up counters why he couldn't :P
For example, they did have wards (I'm fairly certain I mentioned that, too). However, the arrow that hit Arya was like the arrow at Durza's ambush, imbued with Dark Magic to pierce the wards. On the flip side, against Murtagh, no ward would have saved Eragon, because Murtagh is just that much more powerful, magic-wise; and in the centre of Helgrind, magic didn't work at all. And in the end, they were simply exhausted (They actually shared Eragon's reserves, if you recall).
So I'm fairly sure that Eragon did all he could do - or well, I say that he did all he could do; only, the circumstances really worked against them (which was Galbatorix's doing).
Was that the only reason you found Eragon childish (considering especially that behaving childishly has not all that much to do with raising or not raising wards)? Or was there something he did or said, in particular, that you didn't like? I thought I made him more mature, personally. But feel free to point out instances where you think he's childish. I'll have a look.
As for Katrina's eyes, they are indeed said to be brown, so there was nothing I changed. I made up Murtagh's eye colour (blue), since their colour is never stated.
Finally, this isn't the actual Brisingr - I started writing the story before that book came out; and I always knew I would be writing an AU of sorts. Part of that is that I made the Ra'zac stronger, so what you mentioned was, indeed, the point: I disliked how easily they defeated the Ra'zac in Brisingr, so that's how it doesn't work in my story; and thus two elves, or an elf and a rider without his dragon , are hard-pressed to defeat them, especially considering that the beasts have the advantage of knowing their surroundings.
So that was intentional.
And regarding predictability … being unpredictable can be fun, but at one point, predictability means nothing more than that the chapter was constructed correctly. Throwing in random shit, just to catch the readers off guard, isn't a sign of good writing. IMO.
Reviewer: Ah, thanks! If it evokes emotions while reading, then I did a few things right. That's one of the nicest compliments.
Reading for Pleasure: Thanks to you as well - people enjoying what I write always makes me happy.
(no Name): Thanks for the review. First of all, I apologise again for the state of the chapter - as I mentioned above, it had scene breaks, but killed them. I re-added them, so it should be a lot less confusing now (I hope). As far as character development goes, I've indeed focused on Arya and Eragon, simply because they are the main characters, but Murtagh will get some attention (I laid the groundwork for the ideas I have in that cave scene), as will Nasuada.
And as far as serial killer novels go, I do have a liking for noir stories, but I'm surprised that someone could deduce that from this story. Either you're just that good, or I'm more obvious than I thought :P
Oh well. As long as this story works, I suppose :D
Anonymous: Thanks! Orrin will come up again, he isn`t finished yet ;)