Arya awoke suddenly and her eyes snapped open. She shuddered and drew her blanket tighter around her as she pressed herself into Fírnen's warm body. Even with the thick blanket wrapped about her and the protective warmth of Fírnen's wing above her, the cold was unbearable. It filled her body and heart, chilling her to the bone.
It was the middle of the summer but a shiver ran through her body. She thought about the last moments of her waking dreams. Eragon had been reaching for her—about to touch her hands—when she woke up. Tears filled her eyes as she wished she could reenter her dreams and let them continue. She felt certain that if Eragon could just reach her, she would feel some warmth, the first she had in years. Yet she always awoke at the same moment, right before he touched her.
Arya held her hand in front of her face and studied the three fingers she had pressed to his lips just before they parted ways ten years ago. Ten years, she thought. Such a short amount of time compared to her years of life, but the longest ten years she had ever endured.
Eragon had asked her to stay with him until the first curve in the river, and she had. When they reached it, he had pulled her cowl away so he could look at her eyes. He said her name and whispered her true name, and she had reciprocated by whispering his true name in reply. He had opened his mouth to speak again, but she had stopped him by placing her fingers against his lips.
Arya remembered how warm and soft his lips were. Surprisingly soft compared to his hands, which were rough and callused and strong. As she had so many times, she wondered if she had somehow transferred all her internal warmth into him in that simple touch. She had felt cold ever since, and it grew worse with each passing year.
Arya pressed the same fingers to her own lips and willed the warmth to return, but it didn't.
Fírnen's mind touched hers. Little one, he said in his deep voice, his thoughts full of concern.
Another pang filled Arya's breast. He had adopted that endearment from Saphira, the same she had always tenderly used for Eragon. It certainly was fitting, for Fírnen was enormous, and Arya was littler next to him each year. Her dragon now stood nearly as tall as the tree house of the Head Rider they occupied, when he stood with his neck stretched up. He poked his long, handsome face under his wing and breathed warm air from his nostrils onto her body.
Thank you, Arya thought, wishing the warmth would extend past her skin and do something—anything—to alleviate the chill in her bones.
You grow worse, Fírnen stated. His anxiety for her well-being increased with every passing day. Even staying near him all day didn't help stave off the cold like it once had. Arya felt weak and achy from the constant tension in her muscles as they worked to keep her warm.
Yes, she agreed.
They had conversed many times about her dilemma, but Arya's confusion over what she should do never seemed to clear. When she had returned to Du Weldenvarden eleven years ago with Fírnen's egg in her lap, she had been overcome with grief at her mother's death. She had felt it would be enough to keep her content to remain in the home she had forsaken for so many years as ambassador to the Varden.
When Fírnen had hatched for her, Arya knew it would change many things. But if anything she thought it would help her find fulfillment and companionship during what she assumed would be the lonely, boring duty of being the queen, if indeed the position was offered to her.
It had been. And her sense of duty and responsibility had compelled her to accept, though she had resisted at first. At the time she had been filled with the excitement and wonder of raising Fírnen. Arya worried she had been shortsighted in her plans by not expecting the strength of their bond—and by extension, the depth of his longing to be with others of his own kind—to shape her own feelings so much. Fírnen thought often of the few weeks he had enjoyed the company of Saphira. They were his fondest memories. He had such a limited amount of time to interact with other dragons, and he longed to be with members of his race.
And Arya also felt a deep longing to be with the other Riders. Save for the few times she had flown to assist Nasuada in the settling of various skirmishes, Arya had little to do that occupied her as a Rider. She was lonely in Ellesméra, and without the threat of Galbatorix looming over them any longer, the land of the elves was once again quiet and unchanging.
Arya had thought she would find respite in the peace of the forest, but she actually longed again for adventure. But flying with Fírnen, while exhilarating, became more and more uncomfortable with the cold that never left her. His sadness at her situation and his inability to help her weighed heavily on her consciousness, though he tried not to burden her with it.
It had taken some time for the two eggs Eragon had left with Arya to hatch for their new Riders. Finally, nearly nine months after Eragon's departure, the large black one had hatched for a young Urgal ram named Varhog. Arya had given the egg over to Nar Garzhvog's care, since Garzhvog had been the spokesperson for the Urgals in their alliance with the Varden and had pledged his friendship to Nasuada once she was crowned high queen of Alagaёsia.
The Urgal Choosing Ceremony had taken place in the Urgralgra capitol Anghelm, and Varhog, as it so happened, was one of Nar Garzhvog's nephews. After several months of allowing the hatchling to grow until he could fly with his Rider on his back—which took a month longer than normal since Varhog was so large—Varhog had joined Arya in Ellesméra to formally begin his training as a Dragon Rider. That had been in the spring, a year after Eragon left, and it had been a time of great excitement among the Urgals of the Bolvek clan. They revered Eragon for including them in the honor of bonding with the dragons and becoming Riders.
Arya found herself increasingly in awe of how wise and mature Eragon had grown in those final few months before leaving Alagaёsia. She realized long ago that for most of the brief time she had known Eragon, she had rarely tried to see him as anything more than a human teenage boy with a crush on her. She had not initially found his affections flattering. But she had regretted that view more and more as the years had passed. She hadn't given him enough credit for his growth. And her sense of duty then had still been so strong, as well as her feeling of commitment to her people and her mother's legacy.
Arya, Fírnen, and the Eldunarí who had remained in Alagaёsia were responsible to oversee the raising of the hatchling and the instruction of the Rider and dragon until they were ready to join Eragon on the Isle of the Eldunarí. This they did in the case of Varhog the Urgal, who left their tutelage but a few months after arriving so he could fly to the Isle.
The location of the Isle was a closely guarded secret to discourage curious adventurers from pursuing its discovery. Arya alone was privy to it until the new Riders were ready to journey thither. It was an island off the eastern coast of the wilderness beyond Alagaёsia. It was within sight of the land and the majestic falls that marked the end of the Edda River but far enough that it was all but impossible to reach unless flying on the back of a dragon.
The falls, in particular, provided the most daunting obstacle. Eragon and the twenty-nine elves accompanying him had safely maneuvered their craft—the Talíta—down to the ocean below using magic. But few other sailors would have the hope of successfully imitating such a feat.
After Varhog and his dragon, Black Thunder—which was a translation from the Urgal tongue of a name Arya found most difficult to pronounce—had flown to the Isle, the second egg had hatched for a kinsman of King Orik named Knilf. In this case, Arya had been able to fly to Tronjheim and return to Ellesméra with Knilf and his tiny hatchling. Then she, Fírnen, and the Eldunarí had supervised the raising of the dragon and the instruction of the pair until they were ready to fly to the Isle, which happened almost as soon as the dragon was large and strong enough to carry its Rider. It happened earlier with Knilf, as he was so much smaller in stature than Varhog. That had given Arya and Fírnen only a short two and a half months with another Rider and dragon before once again being alone as the only dragon and Rider in Alagaёsia.
After those two eggs had successfully found their Riders, Arya had been surprised to meet Murtagh the following year, bearing the next egg meant to hatch for a Rider. He had joined Eragon some months after Eragon had discovered the Isle and deemed it an appropriate home for the dragons and Riders. Apparently, after Murtagh had attempted to remain hidden and aloof for some months, Eragon had scryed him with an invitation to join him, the elves, and the Eldunarí on the Isle. Murtagh had accepted and been given the assignment of returning each year to deliver the next egg to find a Rider.
A pattern had been identified. With the exception of Murtagh, a dragon had hatched for a human, an elf—Arya herself—then an Urgal, then a dwarf. With the approval of the dragons, the Riders had decided to repeat it. The dragons agreed to next hatch for a human, and after meeting with Arya and explaining the system, Murtagh had departed for Ilirea where the Human Choosing Ceremony would be held. Arya vaguely recalled from something Nasuada had shared that the brilliant, pink-orange egg had hatched for a female.
During that brief visit, Murtagh—at Eragon's request—had asked that Arya scry the Isle once a year in case there was a need to exchange information regarding the process. Arya knew Eragon could use the name of the ancient language to bypass the magical wards and barriers protecting Du Weldenvarden to contact her if the need was great. But he had promised not to do so—out of respect for the privacy of the elves—unless there was a true emergency.
That year, since Murtagh had been the custodian of the egg taken to the humans, he had overseen the raising of the hatchling and had accompanied the new Rider and her dragon back to the Isle.
The Rider Choosing Ceremonies were held in the summer, which allowed time for the hatchling to grow large enough to fly with its Rider to the Isle before winter fell upon the land. So the following summer Murtagh delivered the egg into Arya's care, as it was meant to hatch for an elf. And hatch it had for Hanin. Arya had once again enjoyed the privilege of helping to raise the hatchling and train the pair until the dragon had been able to carry Hanin to the Isle.
That was six years ago. Hanin and his violet dragon, Vera, were the last dragon and Rider Arya and Fírnen had seen. It was now Murtagh's responsibility to deliver the eggs to the other races, along with the first Riders from each race—Varhog, Knilf, and the human girl—if they wished to accompany him.
And six years ago was also the last time Arya had spoken to Eragon by means of the enchanted scrying mirror they had placed before his departure. She contacted him to inform him that Hanin was ready to journey to the Isle and that Eragon should expect his arrival within a fortnight.
The pattern had continued uninterrupted once more through, and the next dragon had hatched for another Urgal. The second Urgal Rider was a Kull ram named Grintuk, who hailed from the northern Delvhtuk tribe that dwelt in Anghelm. After Grintuk, another dwarf—even Bodin of Tarnag—had joined the Riders.
The following year, Arya had learned during her annual scrying session—which never happened with Eragon but usually Murtagh or Hanin—that the dragons had insisted on waiting two years to begin the cycle once more. The many new male Riders needed time to develop the bonds of friendship and brotherhood that would enable them to peacefully progress in their order.
This news had been difficult for Arya to receive, for she found herself desperately anxious for a reason to have the company of another Rider and dragon. And the next year had been a year for another human, so she had been forced to wait even longer. Yet another male had been chosen, this one a young man from Daret of only thirteen years of age. Arya didn't know his name.
Only two months before, Arya had scryed the Isle and found herself inexplicably disappointed that she spoke with Hanin, not Eragon. She learned the next egg would be delivered to Ellesméra by Hanin later that summer, and she anticipated his arrival more every day, but she wasn't sure she could wait that long anymore.
Arya thought of that last scrying conversation with Eragon nearly six years earlier when Hanin was preparing to leave for the Isle. It had been formal and to the point. Eragon had asked how she was, of course, and Arya had answered in turn. Then she had asked after him. But the main purpose of the visit was to exchange information.
She had scryed Eragon only a few times before then. The first time had been about six months after his departure from Alagaёsia to see if he had discovered a suitable location for raising the dragons and training the new generation of Riders. He had and had been busy with Murtagh, Blödhgarm, and the other elves in beginning the organization and construction of the stronghold on the Isle, with the memories of the Eldunarí to guide them. The other times Arya had contacted Eragon by scrying had been only to obtain directions to the Isle to help the new Riders find their way or to inform him one was preparing to begin their journey.
But six years ago, while their conversation had been formal, one thing had stood out to Arya above anything else, and that was the look in his eyes as he spoke with her. She hadn't been sure at the time, but now she felt certain it had been a look of longing, like he desired her presence there with him. Eragon had once promised her his feelings for her would never change. Indeed, she remembered for herself, as she thought of his true name, how central his affection for her was in his being.
Arya shivered again. The only time she felt a sliver of warmth penetrate the never-ending cold was when she thought of Eragon's true name and how much he loved her.
Loved her? she thought. Did he really? Eragon had never said those words exactly, but Arya was sure he would have if she had allowed him to. Perhaps those were the very words she had stayed his lips from speaking ten years earlier when they last stood before one another. Is that why she had lost all warmth? Because she couldn't allow herself to be loved? Had she forced the heat of his love to stay within him and drained herself of any in the same moment?
Arya shook her head in frustration, blinking back tears. She felt she knew what she needed to do to find relief from the cold and from the lonely, empty feeling inside her. It was what she wanted to do more than anything else, but her sense of duty as queen and to her people had always kept her from following her heart in the past.
Eragon hadn't said anything to her when they had conversed six years before, hadn't entreated her once again to come to him. Arya knew he would never ask again, at least not with words, but she felt his eyes had communicated the message clearly enough. At the same time, she wondered if he actually didn't want to talk to her again. This conversation those many years ago was the last time she had spoken with Eragon, since her pre-appointed scrying time usually happened with Murtagh or Hanin. Deep within, however, Arya felt that couldn't be right. Perhaps it was too painful for Eragon to see her.
Arya had a feeling there might always be a part of Eragon that wouldn't give up hope things might change between them. But he had clearly made a solemn decision to leave the matter in her hands and go about his responsibility to raise the dragons and train the Riders without letting his feelings affect him. She felt her admiration for his growth and maturity surface again, and suddenly she wished she could see him—even if it was only in a scrying mirror—and speak with him in the friendly way they once had.
Fírnen, who had been quietly keeping his peace during her musings, entered her thoughts again. When will you decide to admit your feelings and be honest with yourself?
Fírnen, what good would it do! Arya thought petulantly. He was the only one she ever acted that way with, and it was sometimes a relief not to be perfectly formal and proper all the time. So what if I were to admit I love Eragon? She inhaled sharply as the thought abruptly stopped her. She realized she had never given that idea form before, not even in her thoughts. Now that she had, the truth of it slammed into her and filled her with an unexpected but blessedly welcome warmth.
I love Eragon, Arya thought in amazement.
Yes, little one, Fírnen replied patiently.
You knew? Arya wondered.
For some time now I have suspected. It would have done no good to suggest it, however, before you were ready to admit it on your own.
But. . . . But that doesn't change my duties here, Arya protested. My responsibility to my people and my mother's memory.
No, but you have been thinking for many months now about a way to carefully and dutifully arrange for them to be taken care of. Put your plans in place. We should go. It is what you and I both want. We belong with the dragons and the Riders, for so we are.
Arya felt a stirring of excitement within her. Could she do it? Her sense of duty had always been her most defining characteristic and had guided her in making all of the most important decisions in her life. Could she leave behind the obligations she had chosen to take upon herself? Could she abandon her duty?
You would not be abandoning your duty, Arya, Fírnen reminded her. You have a duty to yourself as a Dragon Rider. You need to learn the ways of the Riders in the flesh and that happens on the Isle of the Eldunarí. Yes, we have learned much from the Eldunarí of my brethren who remained behind with us, but it is not the same as being amongst those of our kind. You have a duty to me as your bonded dragon to allow me also to learn what I must and be among others of my own kind. And your duty to your own heart, which you have always regarded as least important, is in actuality perhaps the most significant duty you have. You would not be abandoning your most important duties by going now to finally fulfill them.
You're right, of course, Arya agreed. Why then do I still feel so reluctant?
Because you are unsure of what to expect with Eragon. You hope he still feels the same and would welcome you there, not only as a Rider but also as the object of his affection and love. Having only just admitted your true feelings for him, you doubt now he still returns them.
You know exactly why I'm reluctant. You can read my thoughts after all, Arya thought wryly. She could feel Fírnen's amusement. What if that is the case, Fírnen? We haven't spoken, not even by scrying, in years. It's as if he doesn't want to speak with me.
You know that is not true, little one. A moment ago you thought about the more likely reason. He swore his feelings for you would not change. I am sure they have not, though so many years have passed. It is most likely too painful for him to see you when he believes he will never again be with you in person.
Arya's heart ached in a strange yet familiar way, and she realized her feelings must have been evolving for a long while. To imagine that Eragon was in pain over their separation caused her pain, and she wanted to ease the suffering by going to him. But she couldn't completely shake the worry that he had perhaps moved on. Maybe the human female had caught his eye.
Nonetheless, Fírnen continued, whether he feels the same or not, on that island with the other dragons and Riders is where we belong. I know you agree.
Yes, Arya thought, I do. She took a deep breath. Her decision now would change everything for the rest of her life. Let us go counsel with Lord Däthedr.