Dragons, elves and dwarves have been bewitching readers in recent years, and Christopher Paolini, author of the Inheritance trilogy, is no exception. He started writing his first book, "Eragon," at age 15, and by 19 had sold more than 2 million copies. Paolini was invited on the “Today” show to discuss his anticipated second installment, “Eldest.” Here’s an excerpt:
The songs of the dead are the lamentations of the living.
So thought Eragon as he stepped over a twisted and hacked Urgal, listening to the keening of women who removed loved ones from the blood-muddied ground of Farthen Dûr. Behind him Saphira delicately skirted the corpse, her glittering blue scales the only color in the gloom that filled the hollow mountain.
It was three days since the Varden and dwarves had fought the Urgals for possession of Tronjheim, the mile-high, conical city nestled in the center of Farthen Dûr, but the battlefield was still strewn with carnage. The sheer number of bodies had stymied their attempts to bury the dead. In the distance, a mountainous fire glowed sullenly by Farthen Dûr’s wall where the Urgals were being burned. No burial or honored resting place for them.
Since waking to find his wound healed by Angela, Eragon had tried three times to assist in the recovery effort. On each occasion he had been racked by terrible pains that seemed to explode from his spine. The healers gave him various potions to drink. Arya and Angela said that he was perfectly sound. Nevertheless, he hurt. Nor could Saphira help, only share his pain as it rebounded across their mental link.
Eragon ran a hand over his face and looked up at the stars showing through Farthen Dûr’s distant top, which were smudged with sooty smoke from the pyre. Three days. Three days since he had killed Durza; three days since people began calling him Shadeslayer; three days since the remnants of the sorcerer’s consciousness had ravaged his mind and he had been saved by the mysterious Togira Ikonoka, the Cripple Who Is Whole. He had told no one about that vision but Saphira. Fighting Durza and the dark spirits that controlled him had transformed Eragon; although for better or for worse he was still unsure. He felt fragile, as if a sudden shock would shatter his reconstructed body and consciousness.
And now he had come to the site of the combat, driven by a morbid desire to see its aftermath. Upon arriving, he found nothing but the uncomfortable presence of death and decay, not the glory that heroic songs had led him to expect.
Before his uncle, Garrow, was slain by the Ra’zac months earlier, the brutality that Eragon had witnessed between the humans, dwarves, and Urgals would have destroyed him. Now it numbed him. He had realized, with Saphira’s help, that the only way to stay rational amid such pain was to do things. Beyond that, he no longer believed that life possessed inherent meaning — not after seeing men torn apart by the Kull, a race of giant Urgals, and the ground a bed of thrashing limbs and the dirt so wet with blood it soaked through the soles of his boots. If any honor existed in war, he concluded, it was in fighting to protect others from harm.
He bent and plucked a tooth, a molar, from the dirt. Bouncing it on his palm, he and Saphira slowly made a circuit through the trampled plain. They stopped at its edge when they noticed Jörmundur — Ajihad’s second in command in the Varden — hurrying toward them from Tronjheim. When he came near, Jörmundur bowed, a gesture Eragon knew he would never have made just days before.
“I’m glad I found you in time, Eragon.” He clutched a parchment note in one hand. “Ajihad is returning, and he wants you to be there when he arrives. The others are already waiting for him by Tronjheim’s west gate. We’ll have to hurry to get there in time.”
Eragon nodded and headed toward the gate, keeping a hand on Saphira. Ajihad had been gone most of the three days, hunting down Urgals who had managed to escape into the dwarf tunnels that honeycombed the stone beneath the Beor Mountains. The one time Eragon had seen him between expeditions, Ajihad was in a rage over discovering that his daughter, Nasuada, had disobeyed his orders to leave with the other women and children before the battle. Instead, she had secretly fought among the Varden’s archers.
Murtagh and the Twins had accompanied Ajihad: the Twins because it was dangerous work and the Varden’s leader needed the protection of their magical skills, and Murtagh because he was eager to continue proving that he bore the Varden no ill will. It surprised Eragon how much people’s attitudes toward Murtagh had changed, considering that Murtagh’s father was the Dragon Rider Morzan, who had betrayed the Riders to Galbatorix. Even though Murtagh despised his father and was loyal to Eragon, the Varden had not trusted him. But now, no one was willing to waste energy on a petty hate when so much work remained. Eragon missed talking with Murtagh and looked forward to discussing all that had happened, once he returned.
As Eragon and Saphira rounded Tronjheim, a small group became visible in the pool of lantern light before the timber gate. Among them were Orik — the dwarf shifting impatiently on his stout legs — and Arya. The white bandage around her upper arm gleamed in the darkness, reflecting a faint highlight onto the bottom of her hair. Eragon felt a strange thrill, as he always did when he saw the elf. She looked at him and Saphira, green eyes flashing, then continued watching for Ajihad.
By breaking Isidar Mithrim — the great star sapphire that was sixty feet across and carved in the shape of a rose — Arya had allowed Eragon to kill Durza and so win the battle. Still, the dwarves were furious with her for destroying their most prized treasure. They refused to move the sapphire’s remains, leaving them in a massive circle inside Tronjheim’s central chamber. Eragon had walked through the splintered wreckage and shared the dwarves’ sorrow for all the lost beauty.
He and Saphira stopped by Orik and looked out at the empty land that surrounded Tronjheim, extending to Farthen Dûr’s base five miles away in each direction. “Where will Ajihad come from?” asked Eragon.
Orik pointed at a cluster of lanterns staked around a large tunnel opening a couple of miles away. “He should be here soon.”
Eragon waited patiently with the others, answering comments directed at him but preferring to speak with Saphira in the peace of his mind. The quiet that filled Farthen Dûr suited him.
Half an hour passed before motion flickered in the distant tunnel. A group of ten men climbed out onto the ground, then turned and helped up as many dwarves. One of the men — Eragon assumed it was Ajihad — raised a hand, and the warriors assembled behind him in two straight lines. At a signal, the formation marched proudly toward Tronjheim.
Before they went more than five yards, the tunnel behind them swarmed with a flurry of activity as more figures jumped out. Eragon squinted, unable to see clearly from so far away.
Those are Urgals! exclaimed Saphira, her body tensing like a drawn bowstring.
Eragon did not question her. “Urgals!” he cried, and leaped onto Saphira, berating himself for leaving his sword, Zar’roc, in his room. No one had expected an attack now that the Urgal army had been driven away.
His wound twinged as Saphira lifted her azure wings, then drove them down and jumped forward, gaining speed and altitude each second. Below them, Arya ran toward the tunnel, nearly keeping apace with Saphira. Orik trailed her with several men, while Jörmundur sprinted back toward the barracks.
Eragon was forced to watch helplessly as the Urgals fell on the rear of Ajihad’s warriors; he could not work magic over such a distance. The monsters had the advantage of surprise and quickly cut down four men, forcing the rest of the warriors, men and dwarves alike, to cluster around Ajihad in an attempt to protect him. Swords and axes clashed as the groups pressed together. Light flashed from one of the Twins, and an Urgal fell, clutching the stump of his severed arm.
For a minute, it seemed the defenders would be able to resist the Urgals, but then a swirl of motion disturbed the air, like a faint band of mist wrapping itself around the combatants. When it cleared, only four warriors were standing: Ajihad, the Twins, and Murtagh. The Urgals converged on them, blocking Eragon’s view as he stared with rising horror and fear.
No! No! No!
Before Saphira could reach the fight, the knot of Urgals streamed back to the tunnel and scrambled underground, leaving only prone forms behind.
The moment Saphira touched down, Eragon vaulted off, then faltered, overcome by grief and anger. I can’t do this. It reminded him too much of when he had returned to the farm to find his uncle Garrow dying. Fighting back his dread with every step, he began to search for survivors.
The site was eerily similar to the battlefield he had inspected earlier, except that here the blood was fresh.
In the center of the massacre lay Ajihad, his breastplate rent with numerous gashes, surrounded by five Urgals he had slain. His breath still came in ragged gasps. Eragon knelt by him and lowered his face so his tears would not land on the leader’s ruined chest. No one could heal such wounds. Running up to them, Arya paused and stopped, her face transformed with sorrow when she saw that Ajihad could not be saved.
“Eragon.” The name slipped from Ajihad’s lips — no more than a whisper.
“Yes, I am here.”
“Listen to me, Eragon ... I have one last command for you.” Eragon leaned closer to catch the dying man’s words. “You must promise me something: promise that you ... won’t let the Varden fall into chaos. They are the only hope for resisting the Empire ... They must be kept strong. You must promise me.”
“Then peace be with you, Eragon Shadeslayer ...” With his last breath, Ajihad closed his eyes, setting his noble face in repose, and died.
Eragon bowed his head. He had trouble breathing past the lump in his throat, which was so hard it hurt. Arya blessed Ajihad in a ripple of the ancient language, then said in her musical voice, “Alas, his death will cause much strife. He is right, you must do all you can to avert a struggle for power. I will assist where possible.”
Unwilling to speak, Eragon gazed at the rest of the bodies. He would have given anything to be elsewhere. Saphira nosed one of the Urgals and said, This should not have happened. It is an evil doing, and all the worse for coming when we should be safe and victorious. She examined another body, then swung her head around. Where are the Twins and Murtagh? They’re not among the dead.
Eragon scanned the corpses. You’re right! Elation surged within him as he hurried to the tunnel’s mouth. There pools of thickening blood filled the hollows in the worn marble steps like a series of black mirrors, glossy and oval, as if several torn bodies had been dragged down them. The Urgals must have taken them! But why? They don’t keep prisoners or hostages. Despair instantly returned. It doesn’t matter. We can’t pursue them without reinforcements; you wouldn’t even fit through the opening.
They may still be alive. Would you abandon them?
What do you expect me to do? The dwarf tunnels are an endless maze! I would only get lost. And I couldn’t catch Urgals on foot, though Arya might be able to.
Then ask her to.
Arya! Eragon hesitated, torn between his desire for action and his loathing to put her in danger. Still, if any one person in the Varden could handle the Urgals, it was she. With a groan, he explained what they had found.
Arya’s slanted eyebrows met in a frown. “It makes no sense.”
“Will you pursue them?”
She stared at him for a heavy moment. “Wiol ono.” For you. Then she bounded forward, sword flashing in her hand as she dove into the earth’s belly.
Burning with frustration, Eragon settled cross-legged by Ajihad, keeping watch over the body. He could barely assimilate the fact that Ajihad was dead and Murtagh missing. Murtagh. Son of one of the Forsworn — the thirteen Riders who had helped Galbatorix destroy their order and anoint himself king of Alagaësia — and Eragon’s friend. At times Eragon had wished Murtagh gone, but now that he had been forcibly removed, the loss left an unexpected void. He sat motionless as Orik approached with the men.
When Orik saw Ajihad, he stamped his feet and swore in Dwarvish, swinging his ax into the body of an Urgal. The men only stood in shock. Rubbing a pinch of dirt between his callused hands, the dwarf growled, “Ah, now a hornet’s nest has broken; we’ll have no peace among the Varden after this. Barzûln, but this makes things complicated. Were you in time to hear his last words?”
Eragon glanced at Saphira. “They must wait for the right person before I’ll repeat them.”
“I see. And where’d be Arya?”
Orik swore again, then shook his head and sat on his heels.
Jörmundur soon arrived with twelve ranks of six warriors each. He motioned for them to wait outside the radius of bodies while he proceeded onward alone. He bent and touched Ajihad on the shoulder. “How can fate be this cruel, my old friend? I would have been here sooner if not for the size of this cursed mountain, and then you might have been saved. Instead, we are wounded at the height of our triumph.”
Eragon softly told him about Arya and the disappearance of the Twins and Murtagh.
“She should not have gone,” said Jörmundur, straightening, “but we can do naught about it now. Guards will be posted here, but it will be at least an hour before dwarf guides can be found for another expedition into the tunnels.”
“I’d be willing to lead it,” offered Orik.
Jörmundur looked back at Tronjheim, his gaze distant. “No, Hrothgar will need you now; someone else will have to go. I’m sorry, Eragon, but everyone important must stay here until Ajihad’s successor is chosen. Arya will have to fend for herself ... We could not overtake her anyway.”
Eragon nodded, accepting the inevitable.
Jörmundur swept his gaze around before saying so all could hear, “Ajihad has died a warrior’s death! Look, he slew five Urgals where a lesser man might have been overwhelmed by one. We will give him every honor and hope his spirit pleases the gods. Bear him and our companions back to Tronjheim on your shields ... and do not be ashamed to let your tears be seen, for this is a day of sorrow that all will remember. May we soon have the privilege of sheathing our blades in the monsters who have slain our leader!”
As one, the warriors knelt, baring their heads in homage to Ajihad. Then they stood and reverently lifted him on their shields so he lay between their shoulders. Already many of the Varden wept, tears flowing into beards, yet they did not disgrace their duty and allow Ajihad to fall. With solemn steps, they marched back to Tronjheim, Saphira and Eragon in the middle of the procession.
Excerpted from “Eldest” by Christopher Paolini. Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Paolini. Published by Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.