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When at last everyone had paid their respects, Nasuada bowed over Ajihad and touched her father’s hand, holding it with gentle urgency. Uttering a pained groan, she began to sing in a strange, wailing language, filling the cavern with her lamentations.
Then came twelve dwarves, who slid a marble slab over Ajihad’s upturned face. And he was no more.
Eragon yawned and covered his mouth as people filed into the underground amphitheater. The spacious arena echoed with a babble of voices discussing the funeral that had just concluded.
Eragon sat on the lowest tier, level with the podium. With him were Orik, Arya, Hrothgar, Nasuada, and the Council of Elders. Saphira stood on the row of stairs that cut upward through the tiers. Leaning over, Orik said, “Ever since Korgan, each of our kings has been chosen here. It’s fitting that the Varden should do likewise.”
It’s yet to be seen,thought Eragon,if this transfer of power will remain peaceful. He rubbed an eye, brushing away fresh tears; the funeral ceremony had left him shaken.
Lathered over the remnants of his grief, anxiety now twisted his gut. He worried about his own role in the upcoming events. Even if all went well, he and Saphira were about to make potent enemies. His hand dropped to Zar’roc and tightened on the pommel.
It took several minutes for the amphitheater to fill. Then Jörmundur stepped up to the podium. “People of the Varden, we last stood here fifteen years ago, at Deynor’s death. His successor, Ajihad, did more to oppose the Empire and Galbatorix than any before. He won countless battles against superior forces. He nearly killed Durza, putting a scratch on the Shade’s blade. And greatest of all, he welcomed Rider Eragon and Saphira into Tronjheim. However, a new leader must be chosen, one who will win us even more glory.”
Someone high above shouted, “Shadeslayer!”
Eragon tried not to react—he was pleased to see that Jörmundur did not even blink. He said, “Perhaps in years to come, but he has other duties and responsibilities now. No, the Council of Elders has thought long on this: we need one who understands our needs and wants, one who has lived and suffered alongside us. One who refused to flee, even when battle was imminent.”
At that moment, Eragon sensed comprehension rush through the listeners. The name came as a whisper from a thousand throats and was uttered by Jörmundur himself: “Nasuada.” With a bow, Jörmundur stepped aside.
Next was Arya. She surveyed the waiting audience, then said, “The elves honor Ajihad tonight. . . . And on behalf of Queen Islanzadí, I recognize Nasuada’s ascension and offer her the same support and friendship we extended to her father. May the stars watch over her.”
Hrothgar took the podium and stated gruffly, “I too support Nasuada, as do the clans.” He moved aside.
Then it was Eragon’s turn. Standing before the crowd, with all eyes upon him and Saphira, he said, “We support Nasuada as well.” Saphira growled in affirmation.
Pledges spoken, the Council of Elders lined themselves on either side of the podium, Jörmundur at their head. Bearing herself proudly, Nasuada approached and knelt before him, her dress splayed in raven billows. Raising his voice, Jörmundur said, “By the right of inheritance and succession, we have chosen Nasuada. By merit of her father’s achievements and the blessings of her peers, we have chosen Nasuada. I now ask you: Have we chosen well?”
The roar was overwhelming.“Yes!”
Jörmundur nodded. “Then by the power granted to this council, we pass the privileges and responsibilities accorded to Ajihad to his only descendant, Nasuada.” He gently placed a circlet of silver on Nasuada’s brow. Taking her hand, he lifted her upright and pronounced, “I give you our new leader!”
For ten minutes, the Varden and dwarves cheered, thundering their approbation until the hall rang with the clamor. Once their cries subsided, Sabrae motioned to Eragon, whispering, “Now is the time to fulfill your promise.”
At that moment, all noise seemed to cease for Eragon. His nervousness disappeared too, swallowed in the tide of the moment. Steeling himself with a breath, he and Saphira started toward Jörmundur and Nasuada, each step an eternity. As they walked, he stared at Sabrae, Elessari, Umérth, and Falberd—noting their half-smiles, smugness, and on Sabrae’s part, outright disdain. Behind the council members stood Arya. She nodded in support.
We are about to change history,said Saphira.
We’re throwing ourselves off a cliff without knowing how deep the water below is.
Ah, but what a glorious flight!
With a brief look at Nasuada’s serene face, Eragon bowed and kneeled. Slipping Zar’roc from its sheath, he placed the sword flat on his palms, then lifted it, as if to proffer it to Jörmundur. For a moment, the sword hovered between Jörmundur and Nasuada, teetering on the wire edge of two different destinies. Eragon felt his breath catch—such a simple choice to balance a life on. And more than a life—a dragon, a king, an Empire!
Then his breath rushed in, filling his lungs with time once again, and he swung to face Nasuada. “Out of deep respect . . . and appreciation of the difficulties facing you . . . I, Eragon, first Rider of the Varden, Shadeslayer and Argetlam, give you my blade and my fealty, Nasuada.”