"Enough!" the king shouted, silencing the entire square. All eyes were instantly on him. "This has dragged on long enough. You cannot beat me, you never could, and yet you continue to fight the inevitable. And now, now my dragon is dead because of your foolishness. You will swear yourself to me, Eragon, and we will be done with this mess."
"I will never," Eragon said.
"You will not have a choice. This ends now, youngling," the king seethed. He began to stride over towards Eragon. Saphira took a menacing step forward and roared at the evil king, releasing a torrent of fire from her jaw. He raised his arm and the flames passed harmlessly on either side of him. When she cut off the fire, Galbatorix looked at her impassively.
"Saphira, it seems you have misunderstood me. This fight is between me and your rider, you will take no part in this," Galbatorix said to her.
We will see about that, growled Saphira.
"No, we wont," he said softly. The king pointed at Saphira and Eragon felt a brush of wind pass him. Saphira's forelegs rose into the air before her. Eragon could sense Saphira struggle against the invisible pull on them but she wasn't strong enough. Once her legs were held out before her, Galbatorix twisted his arm.
Two loud cracks echoed across the square. Eragon immediately screamed in agony as Saphira collapsed to the dirt. Her roar was now a mere whimper as she tried to adjust herself to get the weight off her front legs. The sight of them at odd angles infuriated Eragon but he focused on forming the right spell to heal her legs.
"No, Eragon," the king said.
Eragon glared back at the king and then put his back to him to heal Saphira. The next second, he was blasted to the ground from what felt like a punch from an urgal. Eragon rolled over slowly, shock momentarily replacing his anger. His clothes were singed and he had he taste of ash in his mouth.
I didn't even sense him release that spell… Eragon thought. The familiar knot formed in his stomach.
"Saphira isn't going anywhere, Eragon. This fight is between you and I."
Eragon looked back at Saphira. He was right, Saphira was in a lot of pain but no immediate danger. He was on his own. He took a step forward when something grabbed his hand.
It was Arya.
She was awake. He looked at her and saw in her expression the same steely determination that he had come to know. She held his gaze and then gave him a slight nod. Eragon understood. She was there for him just as he was there for her. He was not on his own. She squeezed his hand with what little strength she had gained and then released it.
Eragon started forward again but with a renewed spirit. He looked to his right at the sides of the square at all the people watching his every move. Some of the women and children had frightened looks on their faces. The Empire soldiers had looks of disdain while others surprisingly had slight looks of hope. The elves, dwarves, and urgals had Arya's same look of determination. The Varden warriors looked at him with a battle ready expression. They fought for him and would die for him without a second thought. Their loyalty heartened him. It was for them and everyone in the marketplace that he was fighting for. He was fighting for their freedom; he was fighting for their lives. He was fighting for peace in Alagaesia and the end to an evil king's rule.
Eragon broke out into a dead sprint.
With his heightened speed and strength he covered the distance to the king in seconds. Raising his sword above his head, he jumped into the air. Eragon let out a yell as he swung down towards Galbatorix. The king got his sword up to block the blow. The clash of steel echoed across the market square and then they were off. Galbatorix countered with a stab at Eragon's stomach that he dodged and then followed with a slash at Galbatorix's hip. The king blocked the attack while spinning around and brought his sword across to Eragon's neck. He couldn't get his sword up in time, so he bent backwards, seconds before the king's sword would have decapitated him. He could feel the wind on his cheek as the white blade cut the air in front of his head.
Eragon jumped back at the king. He feinted a slash at Galbatorix's chest and as the king lowered his hands, Eragon raised his blade towards the king's neck. Eragon's sword almost connected, but in a last minute shimmer of motion, Galbatorix's sword was up and blocking Eragon's. They stayed like that for a second, swords locked, staring at each other, when the king's face contorted into a snarl and he pushed Eragon back with such a force that he almost fell over. Just as Eragon steadied himself, the king was upon him.
The king's sword flew out at him in a blur of white. It was an attack like nothing Eragon had ever seen. One after another, slash after stab, Eragon was blocking and dodging constantly, barely even able to see the blade as it came after him. He was suddenly on his heels, backing away from the onslaught. All he could do was wait for the king to make a mistake, anything he could use as a way to turn the king on the defensive. A few times Eragon saw an opening but before he could expose it, the king was already attacking him again. He was just too fast for Eragon. His incredible speed made it impossible for Eragon to do anything but defend himself.
The king slashed at Eragon's shoulder, which he barely blocked, and followed with a slice at Eragon's legs. He saw the blade coming, but could not get his sword around in time. Instead, he jumped backwards to get out of the swords path. He was too slow. The tip of the sword connected with his left thigh and cut into his flesh. Eragon let out an involuntary groan. When he landed, his left leg buckled. He touched the injury and looked at the blood now on his hand. It was the first wound of their fight. He hoped it would be the last he suffered. He adjusted his grip on Brisingr and got into his crouch. His leg pained him but it was insignificant to the rush of adrenaline flowing through his body.
The king slowly began to circle him. Eragon was not going to make the first move this time. Galbatorix was much stronger than Eragon ever thought possible. All he could do now was hope for a mistake. Galbatorix continued to circle Eragon, never taking his eyes off him. He remembered that Shruikan would project when he was about to strike, so he watched for the king to do the same. All Eragon saw was a twitch of motion, and in the next second, the king was soaring through the air, bringing down his sword. Eragon lifted Brisingr to block the blow, and when the swords connected, the impact rattled Eragon's body to its core.
When Eragon looked up, the king was already bringing his sword around for a second hit. Eragon, again, barely managed to deflect the attack. His arms were starting to wear down from the constant strikes and his sword was beginning to feel heavy. The king continued to throw attack after attack in his angry fury, never letting up.
Despite his growing weariness, Eragon managed to hold Galbatorix off and found a second wind, giving him a chance to execute a few strikes of his own. He sliced and stabbed, pushing his body to its limits. Galbatorix was calm and calculating as he blocked each his attacks. Eragon urged his blade to move faster, making it become a blur of sapphire as it whistled through the air. None of the strikes found their mark, but he pressed on anyway.
Eragon swung a wide blow at his neck, but the king crouched under it and spun around. Eragon watched Brisingr fly through the air where the king's head used to be, and knew he had just made a terrible mistake. The king spun completely around in his crouched position, while extending his sword outward. Before Eragon could take his blade out of its trajectory, the king brought his own sword around and cut into Eragon's ribs. It felt as though a hot iron was dragged across him. He yelled out, he couldn't help it. The pain was incredible. Eragon backed away with a hand covering his side. Looking down, he saw scarlet blood seeping through his fingers. Glancing at Galbatorix, he was surprised to see him not making any motions to continue his attack. Eragon quickly took advantage of the moment and used a spell to mend his torn flesh. He felt the familiar itching sensation as tendons and muscles sowed themselves back together. The spell worked its way from the inside out. When it reached his skin, Eragon sensed a burst of movement from in front of him. He instinctively raised he sword and was met in the air by Galbatorix's blade. The king held the pose for a moment.
"That is the only time I will allow you to heal yourself," Galbatorix said. "There is no reason for you to experience any more pain like that. Pledge yourself to me and end this pointless fight, Eragon. If not, you will suffer more then you can imagine. Put an end to this madness."
Eragon's arm trembled under the weight of the king. He slowly looked up and met the king's stern gaze. With an equally steely tone he simply said, "No."
The king's face hardened into a scowl and he broke away from him. He immediately went on the offensive and tried a quick stab at Eragon, but he was ready. Eragon saw the strike before it happened and was already moving to avoid it. He sidestepped and moved towards the king, while bringing his sword under the king's outstretched arms. Eragon felt his blade make contact with Galbatorix's side and slice into his flesh. The king hissed, and immediately spun out of the way to avoid further damage. It did not matter to Eragon; the damage was done. Eragon had finally gotten through the king's impossible defenses, proving that he was not invincible.
Galbatorix touched the wound and stared at the blood on his hand. He seemed… confused.
After a moment, Galbatorix let out a howl and charged Eragon. He swung his sword at Eragon's shoulder but Eragon blocked it and countered. The king dodged the blow and brought his sword back around. Eragon parried the attack, but Galbatorix raised his knee and caught Eragon in the stomach. He felt the wind forced from his lungs. He gasped for air, but none came to him. The king then hit Eragon across the face with the pommel of his sword. The force of the hit knocked him off his feet. He thought he could hear a roar from a dragon in the distance, and then he hit the dust-covered ground with a thump. Eragon laid there for a moment, desperately trying to get his breath back.
Slowly, he got to his hands and knees and then tried to get up when the king walked over and kicked him hard in the side. Eragon was sent rolling across the ground. He could hear some women crying out along the sides of the square and a few men yelling something. Eragon stopped himself and carefully got to his knees again. He looked up. Galbatorix was striding over to him, the same infuriated expression upon his face. Eragon was slightly off balance as he got to his feet, but held himself up. When the king got within striking distance, Eragon extended his hand toward the ground before the king's feet and loosed a spell. It kicked up a wave a dust and debris that shot into Galbatorix's face. As the dirt cloud blinded the king, Eragon leaped out and slashed down at his shoulder. Through the dust there was a flash of white and a sword materialized in the path of Eragon's blade. Before he could retrieve his blade, Galbatorix spun his sword around Eragon's and sliced his forearm. Eragon pulled his injured arm back, but as he did, the king swung around low and caught Eragon below his knee. He groaned at the pain now throbbing from his body. Eragon struggled to bring his sword arm back up, but the king twisted around, slapping the flat of his blade across Eragon's cheek. He was sent to the dirt with lights flashing in his eyes.
Eragon caught himself on his hands and could taste fresh blood on his tongue. Determined not to give up, he pushed himself back to his feet. He swung wildly at Galbatorix, ignoring the screaming protests from his injuries. With a grunt, the king flicked Eragon's sword arm away. The king then brought his sword around with a twirl and slashed Eragon across his chest. He yelled out in agony, as his entire torso felt as if it were on fire. Galbatorix finished him off by landing a powerful kick right on top of his fresh wound. Eragon was so blinded by the pain that he did not even notice himself landing back on the dirt.
Eragon tried to tighten his grip on his sword, but found it impossible. His entire body was rebelling against him. His head wouldn't stop pounding, and he thought one of his ribs might be cracked. He struggled for a full breath of air. Slowly opening his eyes and looking at his chest wound, he realized it was not deep enough to slice any of his internal organs, but he was losing a lot of blood. The pains from it along with the cuts on his arm and leg were agonizing. He said a short spell to stop the bleeding, but he struggled to close the gash up all the way. He gave up and fought to sit up
Galbatorix walked over to him and reached down to his shirt. He grabbed a hold of Eragon's collar and lifted him off the dirt a few inches. In a flash, Galbatorix brought his other arm around and punched Eragon in the face, knocking him back to the ground. Eragon's vision went dark for a moment, the noises around him sounding distant. As his senses came back he felt the king grasp his collar again, lifting him off the ground. Again, he was struck in the face, sending him crashing back. This time he heard a crack and could feel hot blood trickling down his face. The pain seemed to block everything else. Eragon felt a strong fist grasp his collar again, but this time was completely lifted off the ground until his toes barely touched. He cracked his eyes open and saw that he was face to face with Galbatorix.
"End this now, Eragon!" shouted the king, his face turning red. Eragon stared at him for a while and then managed a bloody smile.
"No, thanks," he croaked out.
The king's scowl deepened and he threw Eragon to the ground. Eragon hit hard and felt himself slip away for a moment. As his senses slowly came back, he forced himself to gradually sit up. He coughed up blood and dirt but he made it up to his knees.
Galbatorix looked beyond frustrated, but then, out of nowhere his face calmed. The sudden change unsettled Eragon. The king seemed to relax all over and even closed his eyes. Eragon was not sure if this was a trick to entice him to attack or if it was something else. Galbatorix took a deep breath and then opened his eyes and looked directly at him.
Eragon felt as though his mind was pierced with a sword. He immediately began to block out Galbatorix's intruding consciousness, but it was difficult. Galbatorix had honed his thoughts into such a needle sharp point that it was impossible for Eragon to keep him from penetrating into his mind. Eragon cringed as he felt a razor blade ripping through his thoughts. He tried everything he could, but he could not stop Galbatorix. Every time Eragon tried to block the king, the razor like thoughts would slice through his defenses and force Eragon farther back. A few more seconds of this and Galbatorix would overtake his mind and simply force him to swear his loyalty.
Eragon finally decided that if he could not stop the king then he would run from him. He composed what he could of his thoughts and began to shrink away into the depths of his mind. Everything around him began to fall away. Deeper and deeper he retreated, working to put as much distance between himself and Galbatorix as he could. Before long, Eragon reached a point where he was no longer aware of his surroundings, and he could no longer feel the sensations of his body, whether pain or pleasure. Still he continued until he was curled up in a single ball of thought, deep within his own mind, unreachable by the intruder.
He was so far gone that he was simply floating within a vast empty expanse in his own subconscience. He could acknowledge Galbatorix's thoughts, and how they felt a world away as they tried to slice their way to him. Even the strength of the king's mind was not enough to make it across the void. Everything else around him was just dark emptiness.
Eragon was content to sit and wait out the invasion in depths of his mind, but he noticed another presence. Not far off was…something. The more he focused on it, the more he could start to make out what he was sensing. It seemed like a vast being, like an ocean waiting just around a mountain ridge. Eragon remembered the familiar feeling when he was back in the king's throne room, but he had only sensed it for a moment before he lost the contact.
This time was different.
He could feel its presence more than before and could sense an energy emanating from it. He realized that whatever he was feeling was immense, and seemed to go on forever.
He had just started extending himself towards the mass when Eragon felt a detaching sensation. Shifting his focus, he realized that Galbatorix was removing himself from his mind. He felt the king withdraw until he was completely free from Eragon. Eragon gradually returned from the depths of his own mind until he was back in control of his body. After carefully opening his eyes, he realized that he was on the ground curled up with his knees pressed into his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around them. He looked up at Galbatorix and saw that the king was breathing harder than normal. Trying to break Eragon must have been tougher than he had expected. Eragon sat up with effort and noticed that he was slightly trembling. He had never resisted such an attack and yet he could not stop his thoughts from drifting to what he almost discovered in the dark reaches of his mind.
Galbatorix collected himself. "You are able to resist me. Impressive. Well, Eragon, perhaps I should change tactics. You seem intent on never giving in to me. I have beaten you down and assaulted your mind and yet you still fight. Why are you doing this? Is it for your family? Your friends? Is it for all of the people who I rule over? Look at everyone around us, Eragon," he said as he gestured across the square. "All those people, some you know well, but others you have never met before. Are you willing to die for all of them? Are each of their lives that important that you would sacrifice your own for them?"
Eragon said nothing but held the king's gaze.
"I think it would be very interesting to see if you would be willing to sacrifice one of theirs instead," the king said coldly.
Eragon stared at him, confused. He saw Galbatorix turn to the side of the marketplace where everyone was watching and extend a hand at a man standing with his family. The color instantly drained from Eragon's face. The man wore no markings of the Empire and no colors of the Varden. He was dressed in a simple robe and leather strap, and had thin hair with streaks of grey. He was an innocent man caught in the middle of a fight between two armies.
The man was dragged out away from the crowd, as if invisible cords had wrapped themselves around him. The woman next to him screamed and ran forward to his outstretched arms. She grabbed a hold of him and tried to pull him back. A few others came forward to assist, but the effort was futile. The king was too strong and they were no match for the draw of his spell. They all eventually lost their grip and were left helpless as they watched one of their own being pulled across the square to the king's outstretched hand.
Eragon could not stand to see an innocent man be brought in to his fight. He struggled to his feet, forcing his body to obey his will and then extended his hand to the man. He was about to release a spell when a blast of dark energy hit him square in the chest. He was knocked off his feet and onto his back, making him gasp for air. The smell of smoke filled his lungs as his clothes singed from the spell. Eragon urged his body up and was dismayed when he saw Galbatorix's other hand pointed at him. He must have sensed what Eragon was about to do and knocked him down before he could complete the spell. Eragon's heart broke as the man finally reached Galbatorix and was caught in a firm grasp around his neck. The king was not choking him, but the man could not escape the vice like grip.
"Now, Eragon, lets see just how noble you really are. I have here a man who is neither part of my army nor yours. You claim that you are fighting for all those throughout Alagaesia, including this man. Well, are you also willing to sacrifice an innocent life for that cause? Swear yourself to me now or I kill this man where he stands."
Eragon's mouth went dry. He was stunned. His entire journey had been to free people like the man now in front of him and yet he might be killed because of Eragon's actions. However, if he swore himself to the king, then everyone he had been fighting for, all those that had giving their lives for his cause, everything that they had done up till now would have been pointless. All those sacrifices would count for nothing.
"Well, Eragon? Can you watch a man be killed knowing that you could have prevented it, but chose not to?" the king asked.
Faster than should be feasible, Galbatorix released the man and then brought his hand around backwards, striking the man in the face with the back of his fist. The man whipped backwards and fell to the ground. He stayed motionless for a moment and Eragon feared he might actually be dead. A tense second passed, then his arms moved, his legs shifted, and he slowly pushed himself up to his knees. The king reached down a grabbed the man by the back of his collar, hoisting him right to his feet in one fluid motion. He turned the man, whose head was hung, so his body faced Eragon.
Eragon balled his hand into a fist and punched the ground in frustration. The pain from his body was pushed aside by his anger. It was his fault this man was being tortured, and he was just watching it happen. He couldn't take it. He felt like he was going to be sick. This man had done nothing to deserve this and yet it was happening. Eragon looked up at the man, but he was still looking down. Eragon felt tears forming in his eyes. It wasn't right, no one should have to suffer because of him. He looked at Galbatorix and then back at the man. He had to do it. He would willingly serve the king if it meant sparing this man's life. He may be a dragon rider, but he couldn't put his life above another's.
Eragon opened his mouth to speak when the man finally looked up. It was such a simple motion and yet it held such power that Eragon's voice literally caught in his throat. The man looked directly at him with caring blue eyes, like a father to a son. His nose was broken and blood was streaked down his face, but his eyes were unwavering. While continuing to hold his gaze, the man moved his head just slightly to the side and then back.
A chill ran down Eragon's spine.
"Will you pledge yourself to me and spare this innocent man's life?" the king asked.
Eragon hesitated, cradled in the man's soft gaze, unable to bring forth his voice.
Eragon clenched his fist and looked at the king. With tears in his eyes he said, "No."
The man nodded his head slightly as Eragon gave his verdict and then closed his eyes. Eragon saw the king's face harden in disgust and then he let go of the man. For a second, Eragon thought he was going to release him. Then the king brought his sword around with a flourish, and drove it straight into the man's chest. Eragon gasped. He heard a woman scream out from the side of the square. The man's eyes opened wide and looked down at the sword that was now imbedded through his chest. As the man dropped to his knees, Galbatorix pulled the sword free with a yank. He fell forward to the ground and lay there motionless. Eragon kept waiting for him to move, to look up at him with those gentle blue eyes, but he never did. Eragon looked back at the king, anger welling up inside him.
"That man is dead because of you Eragon. How many more are you willing to send to their deaths for your cause? How many more lives will it take for you to submit to me? It does not have to be this way," said the king.
"I will kill you," Eragon said, shaking with anger. "I swear it… I will kill you."
The king cracked a smile at him. It infuriated him even more.
"Perhaps I am going about this all wrong. You may be willingly to sacrifice your life, and even strangers around you in order to resist me, but what about those most dear to you?"
His words hit Eragon like a hammer. The king looked past Eragon at something behind him while raising his hand.
"Come here, elf," he said through a twisted grin.
Eragon immediately spun around to see Arya being caught up in the king's spell and pulled towards them.
"No!" Eragon yelled.
She had regained some of her old strength, but was still too weak to fight the king's incredible might. The elves that were around her immediately stood and fired spells at the king. As the blasts neared him, he raised his other arm and knocked the spells away as if they were nothing. They fired again at him and after knocking their spells away, Galbatorix fired back. Each of the elves was hit with a blast of energy and knocked away. Arya shouted out, but the king continued pulling her towards him.
Eragon would not let Galbatorix harm Arya. He tried to stand up, but his weakened body would not cooperate. He fought against it until he was on his two wary feet. He looked at the king and let all the anger and rage that he was feeling boil over. He reached into his mind and found a reserve of energy and allowed it to spread throughout him. He gathered what amount he could, and released his spell just as Arya was passing him. It wrapped around her just as the king's had done. He held on until Arya's motion was slowed to a stop. Eragon strained against the strength of the king, but he was determined to bring Arya back. She slowly turned and looked at him, her green eyes soft in the afternoon light.
"I won't let you go," Eragon said through grit teeth.
"Eragon," she simply whispered.
Then he heard the king laugh.
"How very heroic of you. Useless, but heroic," the king said.
Eragon felt a slight tug against his hold on Arya, and then in a flash of movement she was pulled threw the air towards Galbatorix's awaiting hand as if a hook had been attached at her waist. Eragon's spell was severed and he was pulled forward to his knees. Eragon looked up and saw Galbatorix catch Arya as she flew towards him.
His heart dropped, he had failed her.
"Now Eragon, answer me this. Can you send Arya to her death just as you did the last man?" the king asked.
Eragon again fought angrily against his body to stand up. As he stood, the king swung his arm across and Eragon was hit with a spell. The force sent him down to his knees.
"Enough fooling around Eragon, bow to me as your king and Arya's life will be spared," the king said.
Arya was cut off as Galbatorix struck her across the face, knocking her to the ground. She caught herself on her hands and knees, but Eragon could tell she was in pain.
"Don't let her suffer. End her torture before it's too late," said the king.
He turned and kicked Arya on her side before she had gathered her balance to stand. She was knocked over onto the ground but stopped herself from rolling over. The king walked over to her and grabbed the back of her hair, pulling her upward. This time she let out a scream. It was a horrible sound that clawed at Eragon's heart. The king lifted her to her feet and then in one motion he pulled her towards him and brought his knee to her stomach. She coughed and spat out blood. Then the king pushed her back and struck her across the face again. Arya's head whipped to the side and she collapsed to the ground.
Eragon couldn't contain himself. The site of Arya being hurt sent him over the edge. He yelled out and with a sudden surge of energy, got to his feet, and ran at the king. He could feel his wounds cracking with fresh blood and his lungs struggling for a full breath, but he did not care. He was not going to let the king hurt Arya anymore.
Eragon charged the king, sword above his head. He swung down with everything he had, but the king simply lifted his sword arm and with a flick of his wrist, blocked Eragon's blow. With a twist of his body, the king brought his elbow crashing into the side of Eragon's head. Then he followed it up by letting go of Arya and driving his open palm into Eragon's chest while releasing a spell. The impact felt like getting hit by a boulder and sent him flying backwards through the air, almost to where he was before he charged. He landed hard, dismayed at the ease with which Galbatorix defeated him. He worked to push himself back up, even though he felt more broken ribs. He managed to sit up, glaring at the king.
"You will swear yourself to me right now, Eragon," seethed the king.
He then reached over and grabbed Arya around the throat and lifted her up into the air. She struggled against his choking grip but could not escape. Eragon could see the pain in her eyes at the crushing hold the king had on her as she fought for air.
"Let her go!" Eragon shouted.
"Swear yourself to me!" Galbatorix yelled back.
Eragon could not bear to see it. Arya, the girl he had grown to care for and trust all throughout his long journey was dying before his eyes. She was in danger and Eragon could do nothing about it. The thought was unbearable. Every fiber of his being fought to reject it. His mind just would not accept the reality of what was happening.
Arya was trying to pull the king's hand off of her, but he only stood his ground while glaring at Eragon. Her face was red from being starved of air and her efforts to escape were weak. The truth slowly began to sink into Eragon. Arya would not last much longer…