Chapter no 37 – AJIHAD

Eragon (The Inheritance Cycle, #1)

Eragon entered an elegant, two-story study paneled with rows of cedar bookshelves. A wrought-iron staircase wound up to a small balcony with two chairs and a reading table. White lanterns hung along the walls and ceiling so a book could be read anywhere in the room. The stone floor was covered by an intricate oval rug. At the far end of the room, a man stood behind a large walnut desk.

His skin gleamed the color of oiled ebony. The dome of his head was shaved bare, but a closely trimmed black beard covered his chin and upper lip. Strong features shadowed his face, and grave, intelligent eyes lurked under his brow. His shoulders were broad and powerful, emphasized by a tapered red vest embroidered with gold thread and clasped over a rich purple shirt. He bore himself with great dignity, exuding an intense, commanding air. When he spoke, his voice was strong, confident: “Welcome to

Tronjheim, Eragon and Saphira. I am Ajihad. Please, seat yourselves.”

Eragon slipped into an armchair next to Murtagh, while Saphira settled protectively behind them. Ajihad raised his hand and snapped his fingers. A man stepped out from behind the staircase. He was identical to the bald man beside him. Eragon stared at the two of them with surprise, and Murtagh stiffened. “Your confusion is understandable; they are twin brothers,” said Ajihad with a small smile. “I would tell you their names, but they have none.”

Saphira hissed with distaste. Ajihad watched her for a moment, then sat in a high-backed chair behind the desk. The Twins retreated under the stairs and stood impassively beside each other. Ajihad pressed his fingers together as he stared at Eragon and Murtagh. He studied them for a long time with an unwavering gaze.

Eragon squirmed, uncomfortable. After what seemed like several minutes, Ajihad lowered his hands and beckoned to the Twins. One of them hurried to his side. Ajihad whispered in his ear. The bald man suddenly paled and shook his head vigorously. Ajihad frowned, then nodded as if something had been confirmed.

He looked at Murtagh. “You have placed me in a difficult position by refusing to be examined. You have been allowed into Farthen Dûr because the Twins have assured me that they can control you and because of your actions on behalf of Eragon and Arya. I understand that there may be things you wish to keep hidden in your mind, but as long as you do, we cannot trust you.”

“You wouldn’t trust me anyway,” said Murtagh defiantly.

Ajihad’s face darkened as Murtagh spoke, and his eyes flashed dangerously. “Though it’s been twenty and three years since it last broke upon my ear . . . I know that voice.” He stood ominously, chest swelling. The Twins looked alarmed and put their heads together, whispering frantically. “It came from another man, one more beast than human. Get up.”

Murtagh warily complied, his eyes darting between the Twins and Ajihad. “Remove your shirt,” ordered Ajihad. With a shrug, Murtagh pulled off his tunic. “Now turn around.” As he pivoted to the side, light fell upon the scar on his back.

“Murtagh,” breathed Ajihad. A grunt of surprise came from Orik. Without warning, Ajihad turned on the Twins and thundered, “Did you know of this?”

The Twins bowed their heads. “We discovered his name in Eragon’s mind, but we did not suspect that thisboy was the son of one as powerful as Morzan. It never occurred—”

“And you didn’t tell me?” demanded Ajihad. He raised a hand, forestalling their explanation. “We will discuss it later.” He faced Murtagh again. “First I must untangle this muddle. Do you still refuse to be probed?”

“Yes,” said Murtagh sharply, slipping back into his tunic. “I won’t let anyone inside my head.”

Ajihad leaned on his desk. “There will be unpleasant consequences if you don’t. Unless the Twins can certify that you aren’t a threat, we cannot give you credence, despite, and perhaps because of, the assistance you have given Eragon. Without that verification, the people here, dwarf and human alike, will tear you apart if they learn of your presence. I’ll be forced to keep you confined at all times—as much for your protection as for ours. It will only get worse once the dwarf king, Hrothgar, demands custody of you. Don’t force yourself into that situation when it can easily be avoided.”

Murtagh shook his head stubbornly. “No . . . even if I were to submit, I would still be treated like a leper and an outcast. All I wish is to leave. If you let me do that peacefully, I’ll never reveal your location to the Empire.”

“What will happen if you are captured and brought before Galbatorix?” demanded Ajihad. “He will extract every secret from your mind, no matter how strong you may be. Even if you could resist him, how can we trust that you won’t rejoin him in the future? I cannot take that chance.”

“Will you hold me prisoner forever?” demanded Murtagh, straightening. “No,” said Ajihad, “only until you let yourself be examined. If you are

found trustworthy, the Twins will remove all knowledge of Farthen Dûr’s location from your mind before you leave. We won’t risk someone with those memories falling into Galbatorix’s hands. What is it to be, Murtagh? Decide

quickly or else the path will be chosen for you.”

Just give in,Eragon pleaded silently, concerned for Murtagh’s safety.It’s not worth the fight.

Finally Murtagh spoke, the words slow and distinct. “My mind is the one sanctuary that has not been stolen from me. Men have tried to breach it before, but I’ve learned to defend it vigorously, for I am only safe with my innermost thoughts. You have asked for the one thing I cannot give, least of all to those two.” He gestured at the Twins. “Do with me what you will, but know this: death will take me before I’ll expose myself to their probing.”

Admiration glinted in Ajihad’s eyes. “I’m not surprised by your choice, though I had hoped otherwise Guards!” The cedar door slammed open as

warriors rushed in, weapons ready. Ajihad pointed at Murtagh and commanded, “Take him to a windowless room and bar the door securely. Post six men by the entrance and allow no one inside until I come to see him. Do not speak to him, either.”

The warriors surrounded Murtagh, watching him suspiciously. As they left the study, Eragon caught Murtagh’s attention and mouthed, “I’m sorry.” Murtagh shrugged, then stared forward resolutely. He vanished into the hallway with the men. The sound of their feet faded into silence.

Ajihad said abruptly, “I want everyone out of this room but Eragon and Saphira. Now!”

Bowing, the Twins departed, but Orik said, “Sir, the king will want to know of Murtagh. And there is still the matter of my insubordination ”

Ajihad frowned, then waved his hand. “I will tell Hrothgar myself. As for your actions . . . wait outside until I call for you. And don’t let the Twins get away. I’m not done with them, either.”

“Very well,” said Orik, inclining his head. He closed the door with a solid thump.

After a long silence, Ajihad sat with a tired sigh. He ran a hand over his face and stared at the ceiling. Eragon waited impatiently for him to speak. When nothing was forthcoming, he blurted, “Is Arya all right?”

Ajihad looked down at him and said gravely, “No but the healers tell

me she will recover. They worked on her all through the night. The poison took a dreadful toll on her. She wouldn’t have lived if not for you. For that you have the Varden’s deepest thanks.”

Eragon’s shoulders slumped with relief. For the first time he felt that their flight from Gil’ead had been worth the effort. “So, what now?” he asked. “I need you to tell me how you found Saphira and everything that’s happened since,” said Ajihad, forming a steeple with his fingers. “Some of it I know from the message Brom sent us, other parts from the Twins. But I want

to hear it from you, especially the details concerning Brom’s death.”

Eragon was reluctant to share his experiences with a stranger, but Ajihad was patient.Go on, urged Saphira gently. Eragon shifted, then began his story. It was awkward at first but grew easier as he proceeded. Saphira helped him to remember things clearly with occasional comments. Ajihad listened intently the entire time.

Eragon talked for hours, often pausing between his words. He told Ajihad of Teirm, though he kept Angela’s fortunetelling to himself, and how he and Brom had found the Ra’zac. He even related his dreams of Arya. When he came to Gil’ead and mentioned the Shade, Ajihad’s face hardened, and he leaned back with veiled eyes.

When his narrative was complete, Eragon fell silent, brooding on all that had occurred. Ajihad stood, clasped his hands behind his back, and absently studied one of the bookshelves. After a time he returned to the desk.

“Brom’s death is a terrible loss. He was a close friend of mine and a powerful ally of the Varden. He saved us from destruction many times through his bravery and intelligence. Even now, when he is gone, he’s provided us with the one thing that can ensure our success—you.”

“But what can you expect me to accomplish?” asked Eragon.

“I will explain it in full,” said Ajihad, “but there are more urgent matters to be dealt with first. The news of the Urgals’ alliance with the Empire is extremely serious. If Galbatorix is gathering an Urgal army to destroy us, the Varden will be hard pressed to survive, even though many of us are protected here in Farthen Dûr. That a Rider, even one as evil as Galbatorix, would consider a pact with such monsters is indeed proof of madness. I shudder to think of what he promised them in return for their fickle loyalty. And then there is the Shade. Can you describe him?”

Eragon nodded. “He was tall, thin, and very pale, with red eyes and hair.

He was dressed all in black.”

“What of his sword—did you see it?” asked Ajihad intensely. “Did it have a long scratch on the blade?”

“Yes,” said Eragon, surprised. “How did you know?”

“Because I put it there while trying to cut out his heart,” said Ajihad with a grim smile. “His name is Durza—one of the most vicious and cunning fiends to ever stalk this land. He is the perfect servant for Galbatorix and a dangerous enemy for us. You say that you killed him. How was it done?”

Eragon remembered it vividly. “Murtagh shot him twice. The first arrow caught him in the shoulder; the second one struck him between the eyes.”

“I was afraid of that,” said Ajihad, frowning. “You didn’t kill him. Shades can only be destroyed by a thrust through the heart. Anything short of

that will cause them to vanish and then reappear elsewhere in spirit form. It’s an unpleasant process, but Durza will survive and return stronger than ever.”

A moody silence settled over them like a foreboding thunderhead. Then Ajihad stated, “You are an enigma, Eragon, a quandary that no one knows how to solve. Everyone knows what the Varden want—or the Urgals, or even Galbatorix—but no one knows whatyou want. And that makes you dangerous, especially to Galbatorix. He fears you because he doesn’t know what you will do next.”

“Do the Varden fear me?” asked Eragon quietly.

“No,” said Ajihad carefully. “We are hopeful. But if that hope proves false, then yes, we will be afraid.” Eragon looked down. “You must understand the unusual nature of your position. There are factions who want you to serve their interests and no one else’s. The moment you entered Farthen Dûr, their influence and power began tugging on you.”

“Including yours?” asked Eragon.

Ajihad chuckled, though his eyes were sharp. “Including mine. There are certain things you should know: first is how Saphira’s egg happened to appear in the Spine. Did Brom ever tell you what was done with her egg after he brought it here?”

“No,” said Eragon, glancing at Saphira. She blinked and flicked her tongue at him.

Ajihad tapped his desk before beginning. “When Brom first brought the egg to the Varden, everyone was deeply interested in its fate. We had thought the dragons were exterminated. The dwarves were solely concerned with making sure that the future Rider would be an ally—though some of them were opposed to having a new Rider at all—while the elves and Varden had a more personal stake in the matter. The reason was simple enough: throughout history all the Riders have been either elven or human, with the majority being elven. There has never been a dwarf Rider.

“Because of Galbatorix’s betrayals, the elves were reluctant to let any of the Varden handle the egg for fear that the dragon inside would hatch for a human with similar instabilities. It was a challenging situation, as both sides wanted the Rider for their own. The dwarves only aggravated the problem by arguing obstinately with both the elves and us whenever they had the chance. Tensions escalated, and before long, threats were made that were later regretted. It was then that Brom suggested a compromise that allowed all sides to save face.

“He proposed that the egg be ferried between the Varden and the elves every year. At each place children would parade past it, and then the bearers of the egg would wait to see if the dragon would hatch. If it didn’t, they

would leave and return to the other group. But if the dragondid hatch, the new Rider’s training would be undertaken immediately. For the first year or so he or she would be instructed here, by Brom. Then the Rider would be taken to the elves, who would finish the education.

“The elves reluctantly accepted this plan . . . with the stipulation that if Brom were to die before the dragon hatched, they would be free to train the new Rider without interference. The agreement was slanted in their favor— we both knew that the dragon would likely chose an elf—but it provided a desperately needed semblance of equality.”

Ajihad paused, his rich eyes somber. Shadows bit into his face under his cheekbones, making them jut out. “It was hoped that this new Rider would bring our two races closer together. We waited for well over a decade, but the egg never hatched. The matter passed from our minds, and we rarely thought about it except to lament the egg’s inactivity.

“Then last year we suffered a terrible loss. Arya and the egg disappeared on her return from Tronjheim to the elven city Osilon. The elves were the first to discover she was missing. They found her steed and guards slain in Du Weldenvarden and a group of slaughtered Urgals nearby. But neither Arya nor the egg was there. When this news reached me, I feared that Urgals had both of them and would soon learn the location of Farthen Dûr and the elves’ capital, Ellesméra, where their queen, Islanzadi, lives. Now I understand they were working for the Empire, which is far worse.

“We won’t know exactly what occurred during that attack until Arya wakes, but I have deduced a few details from what you’ve said.” Ajihad’s vest rustled as he leaned his elbows on the desk. “The attack must have been swift and decisive, else Arya would have escaped. Without any warning, and deprived of a place to hide, she could have done only one thing—used magic to transport the egg elsewhere.”

“She can use magic?” asked Eragon. Arya had mentioned that she had been given a drug to suppress her power; he wanted to confirm that she meant magic. He wondered if she could teach him more words of the ancient language.

“It was one of the reasons why she was chosen to guard the egg. Anyway, Arya couldn’t have returned it to us—she was too far away—and the elves’ realm is warded by arcane barriers that prevent anything from entering their borders through magical means. She must have thought of Brom and, in desperation, sent the egg toward Carvahall. Without time to prepare, I’m not surprised she missed by the margin she did. The Twins tell me it is an imprecise art.”

“Why was she closer to Palancar Valley than the Varden?” asked Eragon.

“Where do the elves really live? Where is this . . . Ellesméra?”

Ajihad’s keen gaze bored into Eragon as he considered the question. “I don’t tell you this lightly, for the elves guard the knowledge jealously. But you should know, and I do this as a display of trust. Their cities lie far to the north, in the deepest reaches of the endless forest Du Weldenvarden. Not since the Riders’ time has anyone, dwarf or human, been elf-friend enough to walk in their leafy halls. I do not even know how to find Ellesméra. As for Osilon . . . based on where Arya disappeared, I suspect it is near Du Weldenvarden’s western edge, toward Carvahall. You must have many other questions, but bear with me and keep them until I have finished.”

He gathered his memories, then spoke at a quickened pace. “When Arya disappeared, the elves withdrew their support from the Varden. Queen Islanzadi was especially enraged and refused any further contact with us. As a result, even though I received Brom’s message, the elves are still ignorant of you and Saphira. . . . Without their supplies to sustain my troops, we have fared badly these past months in skirmishes with the Empire.

“With Arya’s return and your arrival, I expect the queen’s hostility will abate. The fact that you rescued Arya will greatly help our case with her. Your training, however, is going to present a problem for both Varden and elves. Brom obviously had a chance to teach you, but we need to know how thorough he was. For that reason, you’ll have to be tested to determine the extent of your abilities. Also, the elves will expect you to finish your training with them, though I’m not sure if there’s time for that.”

“Why not?” asked Eragon.

“For several reasons. Chief among them, the tidings you brought about the Urgals,” said Ajihad, his eyes straying to Saphira. “You see, Eragon, the Varden are in an extremely delicate position. On one hand, we have to comply with the elves’ wishes if we want to keep them as allies. At the same time, we cannot anger the dwarves if we wish to lodge in Tronjheim.”

“Aren’t the dwarves part of the Varden?” asked Eragon.

Ajihad hesitated. “In a sense, yes. They allow us to live here and provide assistance in our struggle against the Empire, but they are loyal only to their king. I have no power over them except for what Hrothgar gives me, and even he often has trouble with the dwarf clans. The thirteen clans are subservient to Hrothgar, but each clan chief wields enormous power; they choose the new dwarf king when the old one dies. Hrothgar is sympathetic to our cause, but many of the chiefs aren’t. He can’t afford to anger them unnecessarily or he’ll lose the support of his people, so his actions on our behalf have been severely circumscribed.”

“These clan chiefs,” said Eragon, “are they against me as well?”

“Even more so, I’m afraid,” said Ajihad wearily. “There has long been enmity between dwarves and dragons—before the elves came and made peace, dragons made a regular habit of eating the dwarves’ flocks and stealing their gold—and the dwarves are slow to forget past wrongs. Indeed, they never fully accepted the Riders or allowed them to police their kingdom. Galbatorix’s rise to power has only served to convince many of them that it would be better never to deal with Riders or dragons ever again.” He directed his last words at Saphira.

Eragon said slowly, “Why doesn’t Galbatorix know where Farthen Dûr and Ellesméra are? Surely he was told of them when he was instructed by the Riders.”

“Told of them, yes—shown where they are, no. It’s one thing to know that Farthen Dûr lies within these mountains, quite another to find it. Galbatorix hadn’t been taken to either place before his dragon was killed. After that, of course, the Riders didn’t trust him. He tried to force the information out of several Riders during his rebellion, but they chose to die rather than reveal it to him. As for the dwarves, he’s never managed to capture one alive, though it’s only a matter of time.”

“Then why doesn’t he just take an army and march through Du Weldenvarden until he finds Ellesméra?” asked Eragon.

“Because the elves still have enough power to resist him,” said Ajihad. “He doesn’t dare test his strength against theirs, at least not yet. But his cursed sorcery grows stronger each year. With another Rider at his side, he would be unstoppable. He keeps trying to get one of his two eggs to hatch, but so far he’s been unsuccessful.”

Eragon was puzzled. “How can his power be increasing? The strength of his body limits his abilities—it can’t build itself up forever.”

“We don’t know,” said Ajihad, shrugging his broad shoulders, “and neither do the elves. We can only hope that someday he will be destroyed by one of his own spells.” He reached inside his vest and somberly pulled out a battered piece of parchment. “Do you know what this is?” he asked, placing it on the desk.

Eragon bent forward and examined it. Lines of black script, written in an alien language, were inked across the page. Large sections of the writing had been destroyed by blots of blood. One edge of the parchment was charred. He shook his head. “No, I don’t.”

“It was taken from the leader of the Urgal host we destroyed last night. It cost us twelve men to do so—they sacrificed themselves so that you might escape safely. The writing is the king’s invention, a script he uses to communicate with his servants. It took me a while, but I was able to devise its

meaning, at least where it’s legible. It reads:

. . . gatekeeper at Ithrö Zhâda is to let this bearer and his minions pass. They are to be bunked with the others of their kind and by . . . but only if the two factions refrain from fighting. Command will be given under Tarok, under Gashz, under Durza, under Ushnark the Mighty.

“Ushnark is Galbatorix. It means ‘father’ in the Urgal tongue, an affectation that pleases him.

Find what they are suitable for and . . . The footmen and . . . are to be kept separate. No weapons are to be distributed until . . . for marching.

“Nothing else can be read past there, except for a few vague words,” said Ajihad.

“Where’s Ithrö Zhâda? I’ve never heard of it.”

“Nor have I,” confirmed Ajihad, “which makes me suspect that Galbatorix has renamed an existing place for his own purposes. After deciphering this, I asked myself what hundreds of Urgals were doing by the Beor Mountains where you first saw them and where they were going. The parchment mentions ‘others of their kind,’ so I assume there are even more Urgals at their destination. There’s only one reason for the king to gather such a force—to forge a bastard army of humans and monsters to destroy us.

“For now, there is nothing to do but wait and watch. Without further information we cannot find this Ithrö Zhâda. Still, Farthen Dûr has not yet been discovered, so there is hope. The only Urgals to have seen it died last night.”

“How did you know we were coming?” asked Eragon. “One of the Twins was waiting for us, and there was an ambush in place for the Kull.” He was aware of Saphira listening intently. Though she kept her own counsel, he knew she would have things to say later.

“We have sentinels placed at the entrance of the valley you traveled through—on either side of the Beartooth River. They sent a dove to warn us,” explained Ajihad.

Eragon wondered if it was the same bird Saphira had tried to eat. “When the egg and Arya disappeared, did you tell Brom? He said that he hadn’t heard anything from the Varden.”

“We tried to alert him,” said Ajihad, “but I suspect our men were intercepted and killed by the Empire. Why else would the Ra’zac have gone to Carvahall? After that, Brom was traveling with you, and it was impossible to get word to him. I was relieved when he contacted me via messenger from Teirm. It didn’t surprise me that he went to Jeod; they were old friends. And Jeod could easily send us a message because he smuggles supplies to us through Surda.

“All of this has raised serious questions. How did the Empire know where to ambush Arya and, later, our messengers to Carvahall? How has Galbatorix learned which merchants help the Varden? Jeod’s business has been virtually destroyed since you left him, as have those of other merchants who support us. Every time one of their ships sets sail, it disappears. The dwarves cannot give us everything we need, so the Varden are in desperate need of supplies. I’m afraid that we have a traitor, or traitors, in our midst, despite our efforts to examine people’s minds for deceit.”

Eragon sank deep in thought, pondering what he had learned. Ajihad waited calmly for him to speak, undisturbed by the silence. For the first time since finding Saphira’s egg, Eragon felt that he understood what was going on around him. At last he knew where Saphira came from and what might lie in his future. “What do you want from me?” he asked.

“How do you mean?”

“I mean, what is expected of me in Tronjheim? You and the elves have plans for me, but what if I don’t like them?” A hard note crept into his voice. “I’ll fight when needed, revel when there’s occasion, mourn when there is grief, and die if my time comes . . . but I won’t let anyone use me against my will.” He paused to let the words sink in. “The Riders of old were arbiters of justice above and beyond the leaders of their time. I don’t claim that position

—I doubt people would accept such oversight when they’ve been free of it all their lives, especially from one as young as me. But Ido have power, and I will wield it as I see fit. What I want to know is howyou plan to use me. Then I will decide whether to agree to it.”

Ajihad looked at him wryly. “If you were anyone else and were before another leader, you would likely have been killed for that insolent speech. What makes you think I will expose my plans just because you demand it?” Eragon flushed but did not lower his gaze. “Still, you are right. Your position gives you the privilege to say such things. You cannot escape the politics of your situation—youwill be influenced, one way or another. I don’t want to see you become a pawn of any one group or purpose any more than you do. You must retain your freedom, for in it lies your true power: the ability to make choices independent of any leader or king. My own authority over you will be limited, but I believe it’s for the best. The difficulty lies in making sure that those with power include you in their deliberations.

“Also, despite your protests, the people here have certain expectations of you. They are going to bring you their problems, no matter how petty, and demand that you solve them.” Ajihad leaned forward, his voice deadly serious. “There will be cases where someone’s future will rest in your hands .

. . with a word you can send them careening into happiness or misery. Young

women will seek your opinion on whom they should marry—many will pursue you as a husband—and old men will ask which of their children should receive an inheritance. Youmust be kind and wise with them all, for they put their trust in you. Don’t speak flippantly or without thought, because your words will have impact far beyond what you intend.”

Ajihad leaned back, his eyes hooded. “The burden of leadership is being responsible for the well-being of the people in your charge. I have dealt with it from the day I was chosen to head the Varden, and now you must as well. Be careful. I won’t tolerate injustice under my command. Don’t worry about your youth and inexperience; they will pass soon enough.”

Eragon was uncomfortable with the idea of people asking him for advice. “But you still haven’t said what I’m to do here.”

“For now, nothing. You covered over a hundred and thirty leagues in eight days, a feat to be proud of. I’m sure that you’ll appreciate rest. When you’ve recovered, we will test your competency in arms and magic. After that

—well, I will explain your options, and then you’ll have to decide your course.”

“And what about Murtagh?” asked Eragon bitingly.

Ajihad’s face darkened. He reached beneath his desk and lifted up Zar’roc. The sword’s polished sheath gleamed in the light. Ajihad slid his hand over it, lingering on the etched sigil. “He will stay here until he allows the Twins into his mind.”

“You can’t imprison him,” argued Eragon. “He’s committed no crime!” “We can’t give him his freedom without being sure that he won’t turn

against us. Innocent or not, he’s potentially as dangerous to us as his father was,” said Ajihad with a hint of sadness.

Eragon realized that Ajihad would not be convinced otherwise, and his concernwas valid. “How were you able to recognize his voice?”

“I met his father once,” said Ajihad shortly. He tapped Zar’roc’s hilt. “I wish Brom had told me he had taken Morzan’s sword. I suggest that you don’t carry it within Farthen Dûr. Many here remember Morzan’s time with hate, especially the dwarves.”

“I’ll remember that,” promised Eragon.

Ajihad handed Zar’roc to him. “That reminds me, I have Brom’s ring, which he sent as confirmation of his identity. I was keeping it for when he returned to Tronjheim. Now that he’s dead, I suppose it belongs to you, and I think he would have wanted you to have it.” He opened a desk drawer and took the ring from it.

Eragon accepted it with reverence. The symbol cut into the face of the sapphire was identical to the tattoo on Arya’s shoulder. He fit the ring onto his

index finger, admiring how it caught the light. “I . . . I am honored,” he said.

Ajihad nodded gravely, then pushed back his chair and stood. He faced Saphira and spoke to her, his voice swelling in power. “Do not think that I have forgotten you, O mighty dragon. I have said these things as much for your benefit as for Eragon’s. It is even more important that you know them, for to you falls the task of guarding him in these dangerous times. Do not underestimate your might nor falter at his side, because without you he will surely fail.”

Saphira lowered her head until their eyes were level and stared at him through slitted black pupils. They examined each other silently, neither of them blinking. Ajihad was the first to move. He lowered his eyes and said softly, “It is indeed a privilege to meet you.”

He’ll do,said Saphira respectfully. She swung her head to face Eragon. Tell him that I am impressed both with Tronjheim and with him. The Empire is right to fear him. Let him know, however, that if he had decided to kill you, I would have destroyed Tronjheim and torn him apart with my teeth.

Eragon hesitated, surprised by the venom in her voice, then relayed the message. Ajihad looked at her seriously. “I would expect nothing less from one so noble—but I doubt you could have gotten past the Twins.”

Saphira snorted with derision.Bah!

Knowing what she meant, Eragon said, “Then they must be much stronger than they appear. I think they would be sorely dismayed if they ever faced a dragon’s wrath. The two of them might be able to defeat me, but never Saphira. You should know, a Rider’s dragon strengthens his magic beyond what a normal magician might have. Brom was always weaker than me because of that. I think that in the absence of Riders, the Twins have overestimated their power.”

Ajihad looked troubled. “Brom was considered one of our strongest spell weavers. Only the elves surpassed him. If what you say is true, we will have to reconsider a great many things.” He bowed to Saphira. “As it is, I am glad it wasn’t necessary to harm either of you.” Saphira dipped her head in return.

Ajihad straightened with a lordly air and called, “Orik!” The dwarf hurried into the room and stood before the desk, crossing his arms. Ajihad frowned at him, irritated. “You’ve caused me a great deal of trouble, Orik. I’ve had to listen to one of the Twins complain all morning about your insubordination. They won’t let it rest until you are punished. Unfortunately they’re right. It’s a serious matter that cannot be ignored. An accounting is due.”

Orik’s eyes flicked toward Eragon, but his face betrayed no emotion. He spoke quickly in rough tones. “The Kull were almost around Kóstha-mérna.

They were shooting arrows at the dragon, Eragon, and Murtagh, but the Twins did nothing to stop it. Like . . . sheilven, they refused to open the gates even though we could see Eragon shouting the opening phrase on the other side of the waterfall. And they refused to take action when Eragon did not rise from the water. Perhaps I did wrong, but I couldn’t let a Rider die.”

“I wasn’t strong enough to get out of the water myself,” offered Eragon. “I would have drowned if he hadn’t pulled me out.”

Ajihad glanced at him, then asked Orik seriously, “And later, why did you oppose them?”

Orik raised his chin defiantly. “It wasn’t right for them to force their way into Murtagh’s mind. But I wouldn’t have stopped them if I’d known who he was.”

“No, you did the right thing, though it would be simpler if you hadn’t. It isn’t our place to force our way into people’s minds, no matter who they are.” Ajihad fingered his dense beard. “Your actions were honorable, but you did defy a direct order from your commander. The penalty for that has always been death.” Orik’s back stiffened.

“You can’t kill him for that! He was only helping me,” cried Eragon.

“It isn’t your place to interfere,” said Ajihad sternly. “Orik broke the law and must suffer the consequences.” Eragon started to argue again, but Ajihad stopped him with a raised hand. “But you are right. The sentence will be mitigated because of the circumstances. As of now, Orik, you are removed from active service and forbidden to engage in any military activities under my command. Do you understand?”

Orik’s face darkened, but then he only looked confused. He nodded sharply. “Yes.”

“Furthermore, in the absence of your regular duties, I appoint you Eragon and Saphira’s guide for the duration of their stay. You are to make sure they receive every comfort and amenity we have to offer. Saphira will stay above Isidar Mithrim. Eragon may have quarters wherever he wants. When he recovers from his trip, take him to the training fields. They’re expecting him,” said Ajihad, a twinkle of amusement in his eye.

Orik bowed low. “I understand.”

“Very well, you all may go. Send in the Twins as you leave.”

Eragon bowed and began to leave, then asked, “Where can I find Arya? I would like to see her.”

“No one is allowed to visit her. You will have to wait until she comes to you.” Ajihad looked down at his desk in a clear dismissal.

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