A lot of you have been waiting long for this update, and to them I can only extend my sincerest apologies and thanks for their patience. Please enjoy this chapter, and do not forget to leave reviews!
"She will come to no harm in Ellesmera, Eragon."
Eragon turned to see Arya standing at the doorway to his bower, watching him as he muttered spells of protection and purity over a sleeping Varda and her Dragon. Their conversation with Gilderien and Haindar had taken the better part of the day, and now the moon shone bright in the night sky with shafts of its silvery light illuminating his Eyrie. "I have been doing this for her ever since I found her on the shores of Alalea. I have always seen to her protection with spells like these…powerful spells", he said absently, finishing the warding net with a flick of his hand. He leant forwards slightly and kissed his sleeping apprentice gently on her brow.
"Perhaps you are right to do so. The truth of her descent was a great surprise to me…to think one so young existed so long, to think your elf-like Rider is the daughter of Queen Tarmunora; you keep many secrets, Eragon, secrets that originally my people should have known", she said with just a hint of reproach. Eragon shook his head slightly; it would be unfair of him to expect Arya to stop caring entirely for the people she had ruled for a century. And she did make a valid point – the Elves did have a right to know the truth of the lineage of their queen. Strictly speaking, Varda was elven royalty much like Laetri and Arya themselves.
And it is no pleasure to be such, I assure you, Eragon-elda. The expectations are beyond unfair, and it causes a child like her to close her heart away from the world at an early age. In this regard we made the right decision for her, said Laetri with conviction. Eragon acknowledged the point with a smile, feeling Laetri's mind and emotions stretch somewhat as she woke up from the Elven trance. When looked at in that light, I cannot help but agree. Anyway the issue is moot, for you were the one who found her not us. I would still like to know what it was that took you to the shores of our homeland, wondered Arya as she too smoothly joined into their mental communion. Eragon still could not quite believe the completeness he experienced when he felt Arya and Laetri joined consciousnesses with him…such unions were reserved for Rider and Dragon alone.
"Draumr Kopa", he said, twisting the intentions behind the ancient words to command the magic. The air around Varda wavered slightly, and Arya raised an eyebrow at his actions. "Anyone who seeks to harm her will be caught in a world of dreams. It is no bias against Ellesmera, Arya", he said, convincing her with his mind and emotions, "as I said, Laetri and I are what you would label as overprotective of Varda. It has always been thus with us", he said with a smile. Before the debate could continue any further, he took her hand and caused them both to disappear from his quarters in a flash of light.
They appeared in one of the many corridors of Tialdari Hall. Eragon nodded towards a door that was already standing open for them, and Arya followed him as they entered the chamber. "You always favored this practical wear over casual. A trait you and Arya share, Laetri", commented Eragon smilingly as he saw Laetri waiting for them clad in what would in most parts of the empire be called men's wear. Of course, it did nothing to diminish her femininity; it was only enhanced by magnitude. Laetri would look lovely even if clad in naught but rags.
"Who do you believe she imbibed that trait from, Eragon-elda?", asked Laetri, looking at Arya with a knowing amusement. Eragon looked on interestedly as Arya actually blushed slightly, and for a moment he glimpsed the young and curious self she hid beneath the full-grown wisdom and maturity of an Elven Queen. "What is this she speaks of?", asked Eragon curiously, causing Arya to avert her eyes from his. He looked from Laetri to Arya, the two Elven princesses who had defined much of who he was today. Laetri represented his transition from suffering to peace, and Arya stood for his change from peace to happiness. There was no Eragon without either one of them, and he felt blessed to have elves of such beauty, heart and strength as his companions.
"When I was a child of twelve, I used to idolize Laetri. I imbibed a preference towards these clothes", said Arya, indicating her and Laetri's dominantly masculine attire, "from her. Truth be told, I feel most comfortable in this attire; it allows for great freedom of movement, and is highly utilitarian. Alas, most of my people did not share my convictions, and as Queen I was weighed down by ceremonies and heavy state robes. No more, though. Now I can wear what I wish!", she said with genuine happiness and no small amount of satisfaction.
"Yes, you can indeed", said Eragon, a burst of affection flaring in him as he looked at Arya. As their feelings three mingled effortlessly, he extended his hands to both elves. "We are ready to proceed. Yaela is negotiating with Berentain on our behalf, and Gilderien has promised to care for my Varda. Murtagh and the Dragons are waiting for us near the outskirts of Ellesmera, I believe. I trust the two of you are ready?", he asked, and in reply they simply put their hands in his. He nodded solemnly and gathered magic to take them instantaneously to their destination.
The falter was so small that he almost did not notice it at first…Laetri's hand shook in his ever so slightly. By a hairsbreadth he avoided casting the spell, even as Laetri sank down to her knees, her eyes closed as if battling some agony. Both he and Arya were frozen for the smallest instant before bursting into action- Eragon clapped his hands and the doors and windows closed simultaneously while weaving several spells of warding at once. Arya floated Laetri gently but firmly to the bed that was so recently made, her face set in concern and surprise as she did so. "Dark Magic", Eragon almost spat, recognizing the repulsive desires of the Gramarye Laetri was being tormented by. "That Shade managed to sneak something past me! I thought I healed her of the damage at Utgard. Burzum letta", he muttered feverishly, laying a hand on Laetri's forehead as she convulsed and whispered ceaselessly as if in some tormented sleep. She went calm suddenly, leaning into Eragon's palm as he stroked her sculpted cheeks. Only her erratic breathing betrayed any sign of distress, but to those of Elven sense it was enough.
"I cannot enter her mind, and she is consciously shielding us from her pain. How do I enter her mind, Eragon?", asked Arya helplessly. Eragon shook his head.
"No, truth be told even I cannot do such a thing. The mind is something Laetri understands to an extent even I do not; no, they are attacking her body. I knew something was wrong there", he said, pointing to Laetri's tunic which was stained a slight red at her abdomen. Saphira, tell Sahloknir I am here. I will dispel that repulsive Shade's magic once and for all, said Eragon with resolve as he felt Saphira reach him. Hoping Laetri would forgive this breach of her privacy, he stepped forward and grasped the edge of her tunic; muttering under his breath, he raised it and pulled it up far enough to reveal the skin of her abdomen.
Not that, Eragon. Sahloknir is not even concerned about that, he knows you are with her. No, I am afraid Leya just reached me through mindspeech- Teirm is being besieged even now with a huge force of Urgals, said Saphira urgently and he could see Arya too listening to the communion. Even as he accepted her memories, he raised Laetri's tunic even higher to reveal flawless porcelain skin that he had dreamed of occasionally in heated elven dreams of arousal and sweat. Even as Arya watched with rapt gaze, he folded the tunic enough to fully cover the swells of Laetri's breasts.
Images of six thousand Urgals reached him, stretching out towards the end of the horizon and covering the Spine mountains around Teirm. But what chilled his blood was the presence of six Riders clad and hooded in black, standing at the helm of the monstrous force and holding aloft six swords of darkness. Ragnar roared his defiance and dived directly for the Black Riders, belching enormous gouts of blue flame. Leya's hand was raised high, glowing white with the sheen of magic.
"Distraction. This is merely a distraction so you cannot interfere at Teirm. I do not know how he managed it, but that is what this is", said Arya, her eyes narrowing as the flow of memory ceased.
"It is a distraction indeed", muttered Eragon absently, staring at Laetri's exposed abdomen…even in this crisis he fell for her overwhelming beauty. He could not help it, it was a smooth expanse of the most flawless skin he had ever seen, her stomach was perfectly flat and toned, her navel round and her waist slim and proportioned. His eyes followed where her waist flared beautifully near her hips, making him breathe faster….her silver hair fanning out beneath her body only added to her nigh unreachable sense of sublime magnificence.
"Do not act coy, Eragon. You have seen her body before, yes? Why do you not proceed?", she asked sharply, and Eragon dimly noticed her distant expression that indicated she was speaking to Firnen.
"I have never touched Laetri inappropriately until now, nor have I touched another woman in that manner. But you are right in that this is not the time for such apprehensions", said Eragon decisively, and suppressed the reactions of his body with an enormous effort. Taking a deep breath, he hooked his right index finger into the waistline of the trousers Laetri wore and tugged it downwards carefully so as to preserve her modesty, and to reveal a thin black scar that ran diagonally from her right hipbone to navel.
"Shade's curse, but merely remnants of it. It is being controlled from without", said Arya clinically, running delicate fingers over Laetri's exposed scar. "I cannot trace the threads of this spell, I am not skilled enough. Can you do it, Eragon?", she asked seriously even as Eragon's hand replaced hers upon Laetri's form. Eragon nodded, and reached out with his mind. Saphira, I am going to deal with this matter. We will not be thrown off our course by ill-conceived bait, he said firmly, tracing his finger slowly over the black scar given to Laetri by the Shade Azaer.
He flinched as Laetri suddenly convulsed, her back arching as he saw the scar inflame painfully. Covering her navel with his palm, he pushed her back firmly into the bed lest the convulsions take her once more. Aren glowed in his hand and disappeared with a flash of light. That is a sign that all my Riders know how to respond to. Teirm will stand for now, said Eragon in reply to Arya's questioning glance. Arya spared a glance at his hand, which was soothingly stroking Laetri's stomach in wide circles that almost reached her midriff. As their gazes parted, Eragon felt a flash of a slow, burning arousal combined with envy in Arya at his act with Laetri. It was so foreign an emotion to him that it took him seconds to gather his composure again, and the threads of jealousy and longing interwoven did not quite help. To feel it from Arya scrambled his thoughts in ways he found disarming.
I feel the same turmoil. But Laetri needs our help, he reminded her gently and she snapped out of her confused gaze. Castigating himself for losing to these base thoughts, he caressed Laetri once more to feel the trail of magic affecting her. Her skin felt like satin under his hands, serving to distract him painfully from healing her. A blast of clarity hit him from both Arya and Saphira, their sense of urgency and desperation pulling him out of his dreamy haze.
Thank you, he said gratefully to them and looked carefully at the scar again. It was almost like a corrosive substance, and his refined sight easily observed strands of darkness burrowing into her body like some frenzied parasite. I must draw this infection out. This spell is so subtly done that she would not have noticed it hit; it is a spell of torment that flows into your body through a point of vitality. Not even I noticed this accursed work of darkness, thought Eragon as he deliberated rapidly upon what to do. Thousands of pages of manuscript flashed before his mind's eye as he tried to recall relevant information through the mountainous body of healing scripts he had devoured.
The curse pulsed once more, and Arya gasped as a visible line of darkness seemed to rush into Laetri's body through her navel, causing her to arch her back once more and hiss in pain. "Hold her down. This will hurt her greatly, for I must draw the magic out from within. That insect of a Shade left behind a spell that attacked muscle and sinew, and not mind or magic. When he rematerializes…", he whispered darkly. She has but one chance; You must do to her what Invidia did to heal Dusan after he was struck down by the Ra'zac blade, came the voice of the Eldunari Valdr. Eragon was beset by indecision for an instant, but even that was banished as he felt Laetri's skin pulse and sweat beneath his palm at another throb of the insidious scar
"Focus, Eragon", she told him softly as she moved to hold Laetri's arms down. "She is so strong. What are you doing?", she whispered as Laetri's convulsions threatened to break her firm grip.. Eragon had raised his right hand, his finger glowing brightly with blue flame as he intoned the true name of fire. "Skin is not deep enough to make this vein-deep magic leave, and other alternatives are not close enough to the scar's area. I must leech this out where it is entering", he said with resolve.
"Yes. Hold her hands down with one of your own, and cover her mouth", he added calmly, nodding in satisfaction as she did so. Using the forefinger and thumb of his left hand spread open Laetri's navel, he hovered his glowing right finger over the cavity all the while muttering ancient spells of healing. Close your mind for the moment, Sahloknir, he advised gently and without delay plunged the tip of his flaming right forefinger into the open navel. Laetri's screams were muffled against Arya's hand, and her flailing was stilled by the firm hand holding both of her own.
Time to see if Invidia's experiments with magic are beneficial, he thought morbidly, his face drawn with misery at the pain he was causing Laetri. The tip of his finger had penetrated through the navel and into her stomach, and he could feel the flesh trying to reject him violently. The wound was cauterized by the heat thereby avoiding bleeding, but the pain would certainly be unbearable.
"Her struggles are wearing on me. Can I bind her with magic?", asked Arya in a strained voice, watching with wide eyes at what Eragon was doing.
"No you must not. The only one casting magic here should be me…my touch with magic is already forceful enough, not delicate like Laetri's or yours. I need no distractions", he replied in an equally strained voice, his forefinger penetrating deeper through the navel which he spread as wide as possible with his left hand. "Garjzla!", he said in a loud voice, and Laetri literally seemed to glow brightly from within. In stark contrast was the livid black scar upon her abdomen, which was pulsing maliciously.
"I see it clearly now, the parasitic spell …I hate that Shade. Esterni hjarta!", said Eragon and Arya almost lost her grip on Laetri's hands at the words he had incanted. The Star Heart was a spell that consumed such amounts of energy that it was used only by the most powerful magicians; it was one of Morzan's only known discoveries of magic before he turned to evil. Brom had torn its use from a dying Morzan's mind, having once seen Morzan incapacitate Durza with the power of that spell. None but the twelve strongest spellcasters of the Elves could use it safely. This spell was the bane of darkness, the spell that made evil flee. This was the spell that the strongest Riders had used to subdue shades and other creatures spawned of malice.
Laetri's mouth opened in a soundless scream, causing a brilliant shaft of light to escape as her body seemed to fill up with it. Eragon seemed to crook his finger where it had pierced her flesh, and she flailed so terribly that it almost broke even his resolve. The blackness marring her marble skin writhed and twisted as it curled around Eragon's finger.
"I have you now, you loathsome termite", snarled Eragon, his visage twisted into one of pure hate. "You think you can hurt her on my watch? I will find you, and I will cast you into timelessness", he promised in a deadly voice. As he carefully extracted his finger from where it pierced, a strand of what looked like wriggling black thread removed itself from Laetri's now still body. Leaning forward, he deeply kissed her wounded navel without hesitation. This time Arya let go of her constriction, and stared at Eragon with a mixture of emotions that threatened to unbalance him again. Slowly disengaging from his seemingly uncharacteristic act, he stood up and looked at Arya. There is no need for your disquiet. I have my enemy's art within my hand, and healing is best done with contact. This was the only alternative, as you well know, he admonished Arya. Her mind was entwining itself around his, and their link blazed once more with her arousal and too many other emotions to name.
I could have healed her, Arya said uncertainly, trying to quiet her disturbed mind and watching Laetri's wound close itself up with Eragon's kiss. You did not have to…, she trailed off, blushing furiously as she recalled his act. After a moment, Eragon too looked distinctly uncomfortable as he shared in the memories. He could not help but admit the sheer abandon and amorousness he exuded while he kissed Laetri in such an intimate place. As he gently pulled the sleeping Laetri's tunic back into place and covered the exposed hipbone with the displaced trousers he felt reactions he had not felt since first seeing Arya. It was not like him to lose his composure this easily.
It appears that your restoration to completeness is bringing to the fore emotions you had lost as a boy. I am almost looking forward to how you handle the amorousness the rest of us feel, Eragon. It will be fun watching you fumble around Laetri and Arya with your head in daydreams of them. Your perfectness was very tiring, drawled Saphira. Eragon was about to reply indignantly when Arya interrupted, It will indeed. But we have other matters to attend to; Saphira, please tell one of my kin to cast scrying over the city of Teirm. And you, Eragon, should be examining that parasite of Shade sorcery that found its way into her, she said peremptorily to Eragon.
Very well, said Eragon in assent. But do I sense discontent in your voice for some reason?
Just go, Eragon. Get that away from her, she said, nodding to the foreign magic he had trapped within a sphere of air held securely within his palm. Watch over her, Arya. We will talk later, he said decisively. She nodded, averting her eyes and took one of Laetri's hands in her own. Hmph. Ebrithil, you do know she wishes your feelings of…ah, amorousness…to be directed at her as well, do you not? Arya is already intimidated by the closeness you and Laetri share, and your first feelings of…amorousness in a hundred years is directed at her as well. My Rider wants you to love her in every way you love Sahloknir's Rider. Elves are proud, passionate and possessive at heart, and Arya is truly Elven beyond measure, Firnen stated firmly to him.
She is fiery and beautiful as the forest. But she should be reminded that she was the very first elf I wanted to share these feelings with, responded Eragon as he disappeared with a flash of light. The consequences of his recovery were perhaps too many for even him to keep up with, and he had decided to deal with them as they came. The enormous increases in certain appetites were something he could deal with eventually, he was the Lead Rider after all. But being in proximity of the pure beauty of Laetri, and the alluring temptress Arya would test his resolve to its limits. The depths of the bond he shared with them would make it all the more harder…and he certainly did not want them to be hurt by his uncontrolled urges.
I doubt anyone would be hurt by those urges, my clueless Rider. But now, it is perhaps prudent to focus upon the malaise unleashed upon Laetri. And do not worry, Murtagh has opened a scrying channel to Teirm and we will alert you if anything goes amiss. I doubt it will, though….Leya is using that ring of yours creatively, said Saphira wryly. Eragon listened closely, and nodded with a smile. Holding up the trapped magic of the Shadow, he grinned with satisfaction as he whispered fiercely. The Shadow had played directly into Eragon's hands, overextending where he should not have.
"I have your essence and I will know you. Ganga", he said softly to cause the sphere holding the wriggling black thread to dissipate. Before the imprisoned magic could escape, he clapped his hands together as he shouted out a string of words ancient beyond reckoning. The silent forest rippled outwards as if beset by a wind, the power of the Name of Names bearing forth its influence. The wriggling black thread elongated, and suddenly streaked high into the sky and eventually out of sight. Eragon's eyes were closed as he intently traced the flow of the disgusting piece of spellwork. He could feel it fly across Alagaesia within minutes, propelled to find its owner by the most powerful word in the ancient language.
Out of my mind, Saphira and Sahloknir!, bellowed Eragon, feeling the magic he was tracking suddenly disappear…only for another presence to find him at the other end. The Dragons obeyed swiftly and efficiently, knowing not to argue with him when he took that tone. The opposing presence seemed to find and latch on to him...this time Eragon was certain of who he had found. He simply waited for his adversary to speak, all the while gathering the full strength of his mind behind his mental walls. One hundred Eldunari joined seamlessly with him, augmenting his already vast mindforce with their own strength. He felt Umaroth gently extend a featherlike tendril of consciousness to probe their adversary, and within moments he drew back sharply.
He can match you, said Umaroth gravely.
Indeed I can. Greetings Eragon Shur'tugal, Kingslayer and Lightbringer, Shade who is not a Shade and consort of Princesses Laetri and Arya. Your mastery of Gramarye is noted. I did not expect for even you to extract the Enel I had Azaer plant upon Laetri Shur'tugal. I did not even expect for it to be detected- you truly do have Vrael's powers.
You are the Shadow, said Eragon grimly, noting the clarity of his opponent's voice even though he knew they were speaking from opposite sides of Alagaesia with the powerful wards of Du Weldenvarden standing between them. You have much to answer for.
You are referring to Ismira.
Yes, among others, replied Eragon, trying to fix in his mind the voice of his enemy. But it was not possible…it was like hearing the noise of a crowd of thousands speaking words all at once. We Eldunari are inclined to believe that this Elven Shade guards his identity jealously, said Umaroth privately to Eragon. Eragon could not help but agree, for even the magic the Shadow had called the 'Enel' had warped out of existence before its creator made mind contact. Eragon only knew that his adversary stood someplace within a hundred miles of Helgrind. His mouth curled in distaste- if there was one place he detested above all others it was Helgrind.
Ismira means nothing to me, Shur'tugal.
You could have broken her fully, and remade her in your own image. But you left her whole, if a little jaded and bitter. Why would you do such a thing if she were meaningless? Why train her to become a fully accomplished Rider worthy of the ranks of Aiedail?, asked Eragon flatly.
Why indeed? That is something you should likely know. At this point, I am surprised at not receiving threats to scatter my ashes to the four winds if I do not cease my war. I saw the result of your anger at Therinsford, Eragon. I myself have not indulged in such a way for decades…it was oddly thrilling for me to have finally discovered a Rider who could match me, after one hundred years. Galbatorix does not count, of course; it is all too easy to defeat a power-hungry madman.
This conversation is futile. And it is useless threatening you. I have already decided your fate.
Have you, now? I think it more likely that I have decided yours. But it is better that we delve into the heart of what I have to say to you. And I have only this to say to you: do not interfere in what I and my companions are doing. You will regret it. This is my one and only warning to you, so you can take the ones you love and retire to that magnificent Island. Aiedail will not be besieged by us.
You deprived Roran of a hundred years with his firstborn. You hurt Laetri with your foul arts. Even now your sycophant Urgal army is being fought by my friends. Even if I do not know precisely where you are, I can feel you, you Shade, he replied, filling the word with all the repugnance and loathing he felt. He raised his hands to the heavens, and the entire clearing he stood in was suddenly drenched in pure light that threatened to overwhelm even his sight. Into the light he poured every shred of hatred he bore the Shadow, his anguish at seeing Ismira's suffering and most recently Laetri writhing beneath him with agony as he dug his finger into her flesh.
No quarter to the enemy. There will be no bargains with the Shadow, he responded, his mindforce deceptively calm as he shouted out the true names of air and fire to the sky. From his hands erupted a bolt of pure white lightning that was as wide as the combined width of ten of Ellesmera's thickest trees. The forest rippled outward once more from where he stood, the sturdiest of foliage bending to accommodate the spell he sent against his enemy. His strength dropped somewhat at the magic he had worked, but he steadied himself after a few moments.
Tell Murtagh and Ismira to ready themselves, Saphira. We leave immediately, he said briskly to Saphira, turning away as the spell he sent crossed the visible skies in an instant and into the horizon. Wake Laetri, Arya. She can sleep later as we fly for the human lands. Leya can hold against the Urgals, of that I made sure; but if the Shadow takes a hand directly there is little she can do even with Aren, he said grimly as he ran towards Ellesmera with speed surpassing the fastest of elves. He literally seemed to fly through the air, like a flash of white and silver speeding through the gloom.
Why did you send that spell at him?, asked Arya. Eragon smiled slightly as he raced past a deer and came within sight of Tialdari Hall. It is something that will force him to respond, thusly giving me a better estimate of his location. I already knew from his foul spell's return as to where to generally look, but this will shave down the possibilities even further, he said. He was tired of the Shadow and his fell minions hurting Laetri, but this time it was his own fault for missing the dark spell that had ingrained itself inside through her scar.
The question, however, is this: Why was that spell triggered at that particular time?
Laetri! said Eragon, waves of relief overtaking him as he heard her voice. As their minds three met once more to join, he impatiently leapt into the air and disappeared with a flash of light. He landed on his knee upon the polished wooden floor of Laetri's quarters, and was beside her in an instant. I let you get hurt again. I am sorry. So sorry, he said, looking directly into her bright blue eyes. Laetri simply dismissed his apologies with her mind, her hand intertwining with his.
Eragon, why must you take everything upon yourself?, Arya asked interestedly. Laetri closed her eyes as Eragon kissed her brow gently. It is how he is. The burden of the Lead Rider's mantle weighs upon him, and over the years he has become it to an extent. It appears the Shadow is to be treated cautiously, if he were able to craft magic that could escape both my, your and even Eragon-elda's scrutiny, she said seriously to Arya. Eragon ran his fingers gently through her long silver tresses, and moments later extended his hand to Arya who placed her own palm in his.
The time for caution is over. I must find him and wipe him out. But first I must see to helping Leya and Teirm, he said in a hard voice and caused them all to disappear with a flash of indigo light.
Roran rode at the head of an army of four thousand men as they encroached deeper and ever deeper into the Spine. High in the sky he could see Nuada and Ildarien flying their Dragons, the telltale glimmer standing like a bulwark of hope for a majority of their force. Steel fought far more often than sorcery, but the latter was more devastating when used. Even until now he had not quite become accustomed to that easy sharing of minds the Riders felt was so commonplace: thus it was with discomfort that he opened enough of his mind for Nuada to converse with.
Stronghammer, not that I doubt you…
Spit it out, Nuada, said Roran wearily, in no mood for the elf's games. He could feel some amusement across the link and then assent. Very well. I doubt you are leading us correctly, Roran. I came to this conclusion because we would have atleast encountered a single Urgal by now if you were on course? Instead we have not met even a single foe, and yet we press on deeper and deeper into this accursed forest. I have brushed across the minds of your men, and I sense growing discontent.
I am leading us fine, Nuada. There are few habitable places in the Spine, and I know the way to all of them in these regions, said Roran irritably.
So be it, but I confess that even I am on edge. Not even sighting a single Urgal even after penetrating this deep into their territory is worrying me. We should be neck deep in Urgals by now, asserted Ildarien. Roran only sent wordless agreement; he too thought much the same. But there was little else left to do but press on – now that they were this far in, it would be prudent to sweep the entire spine for Urgal presence and cast them out. But so far their endeavor had returned no result; the spine was as empty as Vroengard itself. He looked behind him, and sighed as he saw the army following, extending back as far as the eye could see. Surely the Urgals would be alerted by such a large human presence.
We should pause for tonight. Light is getting scarce, and we do not want to fight in the dark, suggested Nuada as he and Ildarien descended gracefully to the ground upon their dragons, spiraling upon a downdraft. Very well. Tell the generals to see to it, Roran requested the Riders, once again bemoaning the fact that his capabilities with the mindspeech were so limited. Signaling the cavalry immediately behind him, he got down from his white warhorse and tied it to the nearest tree. The valley they were marching through suddenly resounded with sighs of relief from several thousand soldiers, prompting a tired smile from Roran. Mountain terrain was not easy to travel by foot, and only a lifetime of living in and around such areas had hardened him to feel comfortable hereabouts. But then again, he was a little worn as well: the weight of armor was not something he had had to experience for decades.
His hair was ruffled around as the Dragons swooped low, allowing the Riders to leap to the ground nimbly. Ildarien and Nuada were by his side in moments, but Roran found his thought drifting in confusing spirals as he glanced at the Riders: perhaps it was the tiredness that was drowning him under. In body he was hale and hearty, but his mind was weighed down with the grief of a century and loss of loved ones. "Are the guards around the perimeter posted?", he asked, looking at the vast camp the army had erected upon the slopes of the mountain and its passes.
"They have, but I do not believe they are even necessary", said Nuada with a hint of frustration. "Ildarien and I have combed ahead for a hundred miles, and even farther with our minds. Not once have we found even a whisper of Urgal awareness or sighted anything amiss, Stronghammer. I must reiterate my doubt in this venture", he said with a sigh. Ildarien murmured a word, and the leaves lying upon the ground rose up all around them and blended together in a fantastic pattern that moments later revealed a leafy replica of a beautiful city. Nuada's eyes grew even sadder at the sight of the model constructed by Gramarye, its soaring towers and elegant buildings instilling a longing into the surroundings that was almost tangible.
"Aiedail", said Ildarien almost longingly. "It has been mere months since we left for Alagaesia, but already I find myself missing my home. Du Weldenvarden might hold the essence of my race, but it is no longer home. Not for the Riders", he stated, trailing off into silence as he saw the number of tents pitched increase gradually. Nuada snapped his fingers and the imitation of the Rider city dissipated, its constituents returning to the ground smoothly. Feeling somewhat uncomfortable in the nostalgia shared by the two Riders, Roran fidgeted with the links of his armour in an effort to remove it. Silence befell them, split only by the clinking of chain mail links and the routine work of men arranging camp; with a grunt Roran cast off the armor, causing it to fall to the ground with a noisy clatter of steel and leather.
"Why is it that none of the Riders wear armour? Does your magic protect you even from the repeated assault of steel?", asked Roran sourly as he folded up the armor with some difficulty and stowed it inside a sack. War was glorious when fought, glorious and terrible; but the preparations that led up to such a conflict were beyond frustrating. Nuada nodded understandingly as the sounds of armor and swords being removed filled the camp.
"We shield ourselves with wards and spells, Stronghammer. Secrets of the Riders that Oromis once imparted to Eragon came to our help as we built Aiedail, sources of energy that are enormous. Elves and Riders are strong and flexible, whereas armor is not. We found a way to bypass such things and take full advantage of our gifts with magic. Elven Royal houses use the same method", said the Rider. Roran snorted.
"A good explanation, Nuada. You truly have the Elven silver tongue…answering my question without answering it."
Nuada smiled indulgently and Ildarien laughed merrily. "We Riders may be free once more, Stronghammer, but we have learnt our lessons. What should remain undisclosed will remain so", said the dark haired Ildarien returning to gravity. He glanced at the tent that now stood completely erected for Roran's use. "Perhaps we should-", he began, but stopped as the horizon began shining a bright white colour. All activity ceased in the camp as the sky above was lit with what seemed like white fire, its canopy split from horizon to horizon by a shaft of rugged white lightning. It lasted only for half a second before disappearing into the horizon towards the deeper reaches of the Spine.
"What was that just now?", asked Roran, shaken by the unnatural phenomenon.
"That, Roran Stronghammer, means I owe you my apologies", said Nuada as he exchanged a long glance with his fellow Rider. "I would like nothing better than to contact Eragon immediately, but I am certain the Shadow or his liutenants could detect such magic. You have been leading us admirably, but we have our next heading", he said, watching the direction towards which the light had just flown. The Spine had now completely fallen under the cover of dark, fell clouds obscuring the mighty mountains before them. At Roran's befuddled look, Ildarien explained.
"That spell that just lit the sky was the Star Heart, cast with a finesse that is possible for only four people in our order: Ebrithil, Blodhgarm, Laetri and Alanna. But it is definitely Eragon-elda this time…no one else has the power to fling magic across hundreds of miles so steadily. The Star Heart was created to destroy dark magic, and this particular spell was probably intended for the Shadow. Thus Nuada's conclusion", said Ildarien. Roran's expression cleared and he sighed, looking at the men of his army scattered along the slopes of their mountain. They only seemed temporarily shaken by the magic they had witnessed, revealing the changing minds of the Alagaesian people. The treaty introduced by the monarchs of the races was showing its effect here, thought Roran. The reintroduction of Elves to mainstream human society was changing people's attitude to magic. What had once been a strange and reviled art was now becoming more familiar and welcome.
"I am relieved that I have not forgotten to tread my own homeland, Nuada. I will see you in the morning. Good night", Roran said as he retired to the tent prepared for him. Behind him he could hear both Nuada and Ildarien speaking the words of the arcane language of magic, and from what he could understand they were warding against intrusion of all forms. Magic, he thought again despondently as he sank into his spread, the root of all our misery.
How are the wounds on your wing, Ragnar?, asked Leya with concern as she smoothly leapt off her Dragon's back and landed amidst the battlements high upon the walls of Teirm. Such was the ferocity of the assault that no one but her general, Hadvor, acknowledged her arrival. I will be fine, Leya. The healers are waiting for me at the east gate, Ragnar replied as a thick volley of black arrows arced up high into the air from the bows of the invading Urgals like a swarm of locusts. Just before the lethal shafts could hurt her dragon or anyone else, Leya raised her palm and shouted words of Gramarye.
"Jierda orya Thorna!"
The ring upon her finger glowed a bright blue as she drew upon the energy of Eragon Kingslayer and unleashed it in a storm of magic. The soldiers around her clapped their hands to their ears as thousands of arrows broke with a piercing report, filling the air with fine black powder. Ragnar roared in anger as he turned around and released a torrent of bright red fire, as thick as the trunk of three trees. Leya seamlessly worked with her Dragon, directing the fire and augmenting it with air to light up the entire sky with flaming red. Arrows of fire filled up the air, falling towards the Urgals in a promise of hails of death and flame. Leya watched grimly as her spell brought down at least a couple hundred Urgals, and her eyes narrowed as she saw the Black Riders who had shielded the Urgal army from the brunt of her attack.
Leya turned to face General Hadvor who had joined her after directing several soldiers to resume the defense. "General, when will the archers be ready? I cannot act for them much longer. The energy within Aren is to be used sparingly and in great need. You must bring them forth as soon as possible", she said intently. The war veteran shook his head in despair, not looking at her but at the Urgal army stretched out before the walls of the city they were tasked to protect. To Leya's elven vision they were clearly visible, but to the humans they were naught but shadowy outlines of predators. They used no torch or light, for their vision in the dark was excellent.
"It is not possible. Our Archers do not understand the city's roofs well enough to utilize it, and Teirm's Archers owe allegiance to its Lords. The Lords have selfishly kept the Archers to themselves…supposedly for their protection. Cowards!", spat Hadvor. Leya cursed angrily, uttering vile epithets that made the soldiers look at her askance. What would Barristan think if he heard you uttering such profanities, dear?, asked Ragnar slyly even as he sent her images of the healers treating his wounds.
I think he would join me, replied Leya, nevertheless ceasing her tirade. "I am not here to fight your battles, General", she said, and pointed to the six Black Riders who had not moved at all from their spot, "I am here to fight them. If I am to protect you from their attacks, you must fight the mundane battles without my help. I do not look for excuses, General, and my people do not tolerate folly. If the Lords will not release the archers into our command, there is no help for it. You must use Palencar's authority and strip them of their titles. Then there will be no allegiance and no withholding of vital armies", she stated.
"What authority? I have-"
"They don't have to know that. Just pretend that you have such leeway. I will take care of the consequences", said Leya harshly. Leya, they are bringing forth assault towers and catapults. Ask the good general to get something done. Palencar's infantry are not equipped to use Teirm to the fullest, said Ragnar, and Leya saw him hovering high above the city. "Go, Hadvor!", she lashed out, eyes flashing as she saw the General's indecision. The old soldier's adherence to the chain of command saw him obey the order briskly and depart immediately to execute her order.
"Waise heill", she muttered, healing a shoulder where an Urgal dart had clipped her. Why do the Shadow's liutenants not act against me? All they have done is defend against me and direct the siege. What game are they playing?
I do not know. Just be thankful that Ebrithil sent you Aren. Without it we would have been exhausted and overwhelmed, replied Ragnar as he shared his vision of the land with her. Leya could not quite understand how the Urgals had managed to evade every ward and scout around Teirm and simply lay siege; the logical answer was magic, but a feat of that scale eluded even her deductions. They were taken completely by surprise, saved only by the fact that Teirm was built solely to break a siege and the power of Eragon's ring. Her relief had known no bounds when her Leader had responded to her plea for help so promptly, and it was only with Aren's power that she had been able to repel countless Urgal arrows and boulders hurled by catapults. She and Ragnar alone had accounted for more than a hundred Urgals, their steel, magic and fire raising the morale of the woefully unprepared defenders. Nevertheless they had assiduously avoided encountering the Shadow's liutenants.
A flash of indigo light drew her attention, and she deftly caught a small piece of parchment that seemed to fall out of the air.
Leya and Ragnar,
Arrangements have been made to reinforce your station at Teirm. It has been decided that a portion of Palencar's army be diverted to your support, under the command of Nasuada. Use Aren wisely, and hold the city for a few more days. If planned well, it might be possible for you to catch the enemy in a vise. I would come myself, but certain events have forced me to adhere diligently to my original plans. I will make certain that the Shadow will not take a direct hand in your battle.
Take care, both of you.
Thank you, Ebrithil, thought Leya gratefully and burnt the letter with a thought. She did not know what 'events' Eragon was speaking of, but she was certain it had to be momentous if it forced him to stay away from a siege as this and entrust his ring to her. Ragnar, let us ready ourselves for another sally. I want to see how the Black Riders will respond to attack. Moreover, I do not want them shielding the Urgals from our arrow storm, she thought, resolve surging within her at Eragon's support. The tides of nearly inexhaustible energy flaring within Aren steadied her and her Dragon. Such trinkets bred confidence where there was none, confidence enough for her to confront six sorcerers of unknown abilities. She ran through the crowded battlements on light feet, within moments reaching the edge of the wall and threw herself high into the air. The frightened screams of the soldiers as they saw their Rider throw herself to death were for naught as Ragnar swooped low and deftly caught his Rider upon saddleback.
Are you certain you want to fight them, Leya? It might be wiser not to tempt fate, pondered Ragnar as he rushed through the air towards the six Riders in Black whose attention had seemingly turned towards them. The Urgals continued fighting without even paying attention to the Riders, seemingly leaving them to their Shadowy generals. The steely whine of six Black blades being unsheathed reached Leya even through the crashing sounds and screams of siege, and she drew her own curved blade in response even as Ragnar rapidly neared their opponents.
Do not use fire against them, Ragnar. They might be strong enough to wrest control of it and throw it back against us. Aid me only when I call you, she said as the Dragon flew low enough for her to leap to the ground. Ragnar fell upon the Urgals guarding their commanders with stunning ferocity, tearing through the Kull with all the rage of his race. Cunning wards fed by the vitality of Aren took the impact of Kull blows upon the Dragon's brown scales, and within moments Leya's path to the Black Riders was clear. Fight well, Leya, said Ragnar in solemn benediction even as he dexterously turned and snapped his Jaws around a Kull to tear him in half.
The hooded Riders did not seem to care as they dismounted from their horses, and approached her silently. Leya noticed that the edges of their dark blades seemed to be smoking, wisps of dark fire rising from their incorporeal swords. Wrought with only my blade were a proper Rider's, she lamented, fortifying her own fine sword with muttered protections. Her one advantage in this otherwise impossible fight was her master's ring, which was the embodiment of massive amounts of energy. Stay away from their blades as well, Ragnar. I am going to take a leaf out of Ebrithil's book. His skill and instinct I do not have, but I do have his stored power, she said with a grim smile as she drew energy from the ring.
Clever Leya. That might put them on their guard, said Ragnar playfully as he swept a dozen Kull high into the air with a swish of his spiked tail. Upon the wall the battle seemed to be turning in the humans' favour for the moment, and Leya saw Hadvor's forces break the assault tower that had lodged itself against the battlements with their own catapults. Hadvor defied the lords and is using the archers. We may actually be able to break this siege, she thought, a fierce exhilaration rising within her as she saw hundreds of arrows rise high from Teirm and towards the Urgal force ominously. One of the Black Riders turned, and raised his sword towards the oncoming reply of Teirm.
Steel rang against steel as Leya appeared next to the sorcerer with a flash of lilac light, her sword inches away from slicing through his heart. Leya found herself amazed by her opponent's unnatural reflexes…not even her brethren could have reacted to the speed of her nearly instantaneous attack. Her next surprise came when the Black sorcerer too disappeared in a wisp of black vapor, and only Ragnar's draconian instincts saved her life. As she appeared a few yards away, she saw a black sword thrust through where her heart had been a moment ago. The strain of using Eragon's transportation spell was enormous, despite the enormous amounts of energy available to her.
Thus it begins. They are more skilled than I had believed, she thought as all six sorcerers disappeared smoothly in a miasma of black smoke, causing her to erect a ward against harm. Use my eyes. They see deeper, Ragnar advised seriously as six swords of black flame bounced off her hastily erected protection. Lend me your vision, Ragnar, said Leya and felt her Dragon oblige. Elven and Draconic perceptions merged smoothly as Leya rushed towards the nearest sorcerer with all the speed she could muster.
This would be the most dangerous battle of her lifetime, and she knew it when the sorcerer blocked her sword skilfully and retaliated unhesitatingly with a blast of fire. As the world slowed down through Ragnar's eyes, she saw six bolts of fire streaking towards her from the other sorcerers as well. They were aiming for an instantaneous kill. So be it, she thought as she drew upon the ocean of energy in the ring to such an extent that she almost felt her nerves light up with fire. Contesting with skill would be futile against these ancient and terrible foes…but in a contest of energy she would surely have the upper hand.