Chapter no 11 – Heave and Toil

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

The cold water closed around Murtagh in a deadly embrace. He couldn’t see, couldn’t hear, didn’t know which direction was up.

The impact had knocked the quiver off his back. His cloak tangled his arms and legs, making it impossible to swim.

Even through the tumult of water, he heard Thorn roaring, and a wash of red dragonfire lit the depths of the lake from above, wherever above was.

He ripped off the brooch that held his cloak clasped around his neck and

kicked and punched heavy fabric away. Ribbons of white bubbles flowed sideways past his face. Up!

With a swing of his arms, he righted himself and swam toward the

surface. His werelight had vanished, but floating on the choppy laketop, he saw the shape of his bow, a bright-burning crescent.

A warning instinct caused him to glance around.

From the murky depths of the lake rose Muckmaw, silt streaming from the corners of his enormous, shovel-shaped mouth: an ancient monster made of stone scales, sharpened ridges, and hateful malice.

Murtagh raised his right hand, the one with his gedwëy ignasia, and prepared to cast a spell by thinking the word. Even if he couldn’t directly affect the fish with magic, he could still shield himself or else attack the beast with water or flame or other means.

Before he could, the monster wriggled forward with shocking speed, moving faster than any creature Murtagh had seen before, even Thorn.

The fish’s mouth closed about his right arm, and he felt the bony plates within its maw grinding against his skin. Then the creature began to thrash and roll, dragging him through the water.

Murtagh’s head snapped from side to side. Yellow stars flashed before his eyes, and he had to fight not to let out all his air.

His wards kept the fish from ripping off his arm. But they didn’t do much more. They couldn’t. He’d never thought to restrict his own movement.

He glimpsed Thorn’s head and neck sticking under the water, like an enormous serpent. And he saw one of Thorn’s forelegs reaching toward him, claws extended.

Then Muckmaw dove deeper, spiraling as he went. Murtagh felt himself slam into the bottom, and a cloud of impenetrable mud billowed up around them. He tried to focus well enough to cast a spell, but the fish wasn’t giving him the chance.

Muckmaw dragged him across the freezing lakebed. His back, left arm, and legs banged into rocks, and the impacts left his skin numb.

Murtagh’s lungs burned, and he felt his wards sapping his energy at an alarming rate.

He groped for the dagger he’d taken off bird-chest. His fingers brushed the hilt of the weapon, and then it tumbled away, knocked loose by Muckmaw’s violent thrashing.

Desperate, Murtagh flailed, trying to catch hold of something—anything

—he could use as a weapon.

A few seemingly endless moments of fumbling and then…

…his hand closed around a long, hard object that felt more like a rod of iron than a piece of wood.

He grabbed it and yanked it free from the sucking mud and stabbed it toward Muckmaw’s broad head. Kverst! he cried in his mind.

A bolt of static seemed to run up his arm along with the shock of

impact, and he felt himself grow faint as the spell consumed what little remained of his energy. Then new strength filled him as Thorn joined his effort, sustaining him as the spell’s demands increased beyond reason.

A brief flash of light emanated from the point where the rod pressed against Muckmaw’s brow, and then Murtagh felt the object sink through flesh and bone, deep into the fish’s armored braincase.

The fish convulsed and released Murtagh’s arm. Before Murtagh could swim out of range, Muckmaw’s enormous tail slapped him broadside and all went black.



Murtagh regained awareness with a panicked start. How long had he been unconscious? It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds. Muckmaw was still twisting and thrashing perhaps twenty feet away.

Fire filled Murtagh’s lungs and veins. He was going to burst or pass out if he didn’t get air, but he refused to open his mouth. If he inhaled water, he’d have no chance of reaching the surface.

He kicked and clawed upward.

Another wash of red dragonfire illuminated the interior of the lake, and for a moment, Murtagh lost all sense of time or place. Thick ropes of water weed rose like great floating vines around him, swaying softly through the teal water. Billows of mud drifted from the track Muckmaw had gouged across the lakebed, and a mesh of shadows flickered and wavered throughout. And rising from the morass of mud and slime, like sun-bleached branches stripped of bark, was a forest of bones: arms and legs and hands hooked in claws of anguish. Bracers and cuffs and tattered garments hung from some, and scraps of tendons and withered muscle. Hundreds of dead, consigned to the deep, consumed by the fishes and insects and lesions of green mosslike growths. A battalion’s worth of shields, swords, and spears lay scattered among them, the wood soft and decayed, the steel plated black with rust.

Murtagh stared with horror. Then instinct jolted him back to reality, and he tore at the water with his hands and scissored his legs until—

His face breached the surface. Air struck his skin, and he gasped, unable to empty and fill his lungs fast enough. His vision went red and dark around the edges, and he again sank under the water.

Then a rough, pointed object slid under his back and arms, lifting him.

He rolled over and clung to Thorn’s head with all his strength.

I have you, Thorn said.

Murtagh hacked and coughed, unable to answer, but he held Thorn even tighter.

They were over a hundred feet from the shore; the dragon lay in the water, most of his bulk hidden beneath the surface, only the spikes along his spine and the tips of his folded wings showing.

I could not reach you any faster, said Thorn.

“I know,” said Murtagh, still coughing. “It’s all right.”

I would have rescued you and killed Muckmaw no matter what.

He hugged Thorn again and then turned to look over the lake. “You don’t have to convince me…. I didn’t think I could hate Durza any more.”

What other evils has he left in Alagaësia?

The question gave Murtagh pause. “I wish I knew.”

A roiling disturbance in the water twenty feet away caused both of them to tense, and Murtagh started to climb onto Thorn’s back.

Then Muckmaw bobbed to the surface and rolled belly-up, his entire length limp.

Murtagh swore and brushed his wet hair out of his eyes. His heart was still pounding, and he felt ready to leap back into battle.

“Hold on. There’s something I have to check.” He pushed off from Thorn, set out paddling, and swam to Muckmaw’s enormous corpse. Thorn followed at a slower pace, slithering through the water with sinuous ease.

Murtagh pulled himself around Muckmaw to the creature’s head. Sticking out of the overgrown sturgeon’s skull was—as he’d thought—a length of broken bone. A human thigh bone, by the look of it.

Murtagh’s mind returned to the butchery that lay submerged beneath them, and a disturbing suspicion formed within him. The sheer number of corpses made absurd the idea that they could be Muckmaw’s victims and his alone. No one would have endured the presence of such a monster. The amount of slaughter—even spread across the past sixty years—would have driven the common folk from the lake and sent word of Muckmaw

throughout the land until others more fearsome still came hunting the murderous fish.

He glanced at Thorn. “I’ll be right back. Brisingr!” Again he set a werelight burning in front of himself, only this one was blue white and brighter than before.

Then he took a deep breath and again dove under. The water bubbled and steamed around the ball of fire, but the glowing ball of gas still provided enough light for him to see.

Down he swam into the freezing depths, down and down until the field of crusted skeletons came into view. In the seething illumination of his werelight, the bones seemed to shift and stir with unnatural life, as marionettes badly puppeted and desperate to escape their casement of decay.

He kicked himself to the nearest skeleton and dug through the mud and silt covering the torso. The muck was cold as despair. His fingers found a tattered scrap of leather, and he pulled it free, held it up. Suspicion solidified into certainty. As he had feared, there was embossed on the leather the standard of Galbatorix’s infantry.

Murtagh took one last look over the watery boneyard where so many of the Empire’s soldiers lay. The weird and grotesque desolation made his heart hurt to see.

Then he pushed off and again ascended.

With a burst of spray, he broke free of the water. He gasped and clung gratefully to Thorn when the dragon swam over to him.

What is it?

Murtagh swore and banged his forehead several times against Thorn’s hard scales. The water was a frigid blanket around him, heavy and constraining.

“They’re down there,” he mumbled. He kept his brow pressed against Thorn’s neck. “Blast it. They’re all down there.”

Thorn’s alarm increased. Who?

When Murtagh shared what he’d seen, Thorn’s sorrow joined his own. “The elves must have driven them into the water. They never stood a chance.” The last he’d seen of Galbatorix’s battalions, the squares of men had

been huddled together upon the smoke-shrouded plains outside Gil’ead while the ranks of tall elves marched upon them with inexorable force.

In a gentle tone, the dragon said, It is unfortunate, but their deaths are not our responsibility.

“They are. If Galbatorix had let us stay, we could have—”

The elves would have killed us. Even with Yngmar’s strength at our disposal, we could not have withstood their combined might.

“We should have at least tried!”

Would you have seen the elves defeated and Galbatorix triumphant? “No! But there must have been a way to save the men. Somehow.”

Thorn’s neck vibrated as the dragon growled. You cannot force the world to be as you will.

“Can’t I?” Murtagh lifted his head to look at Thorn. “If you want something badly enough—”

Want is not always enough. Thorn nuzzled the top of his head. The means must be there also. You know this.

Murtagh took a shuddery breath. His vision blurred. Tears or lakewater dripping from his hair, he wasn’t sure which. While Galbatorix himself had been evil, Murtagh couldn’t help but pity the ordinary men who had marched under the Empire’s banner, many of whom had been pressed into service. He had campaigned with them. Broken bread with them. And he knew them to be good and true. They’d had no choice whether to fight, and at Gil’ead and Ceunon, they had faced an attack from outside their lands and outside their race.

It was not so hard to understand why they spent their lives in defense of the Empire. Under different circumstances, Murtagh would have done the same.

They trusted us to be their champions, and we couldn’t help them, he thought.

The conclusion was profoundly depressing.

Thorn responded with firm force: No. We did what we could, and none can claim otherwise. Do not torment yourself over this.

A small wave struck Murtagh in the mouth. He spat out a thimbleful of water and shook his head. It wasn’t a fair fight. He had seen how human

might failed before the speed and strength of the elves. Even were they fairly matched, the elven spellcasters alone would have devastated Galbatorix’s army.

Magic unbalances all things, said Thorn.

He thought about that as he extinguished the werelight and swam back to Muckmaw’s floating body. You’re right. And it always has. Galbatorix had his solution. Nasuada is trying her own, by means of Du Vrangr Gata. Even the ancient language itself was an attempt at control.

You could no more seek to control the wind or the rain than to control magicThen what hope has the ordinary man in a world of magicians?

The same hope any creature has when battered by the storms of fate.

Murtagh hooked a hand through Muckmaw’s exposed gills and tried to pull the fish toward the shore. It barely moved. He turned to Thorn as the dragon slithered closer.




With Thorn’s assistance, moving Muckmaw to the shore was—while not easy—a fairly quick process. Once there, Thorn crawled out of the water, and then extended a paw and dragged the fish onto the bank.

Murtagh collapsed next to the fish and stared at the ceaseless stars in their slow rotation. Images of the submerged skeletons continued to pass through his mind.

Thorn kicked Muckmaw’s corpse out of the way with one of his hind legs before curling around Murtagh and draping a wing over him to form a warm, safe pocket.

Murtagh closed his eyes. His wards had exhausted him even more than the strain of the fight, and his body ached from the battering he’d taken. Especially his left forearm, where the bone beneath the old cut throbbed as if bruised. He needed food, and a warm fire, and a long sleep.

Not yet, he thought. Silna still needed rescuing, and he was worried that he didn’t have enough time to install himself in Captain Wren’s company

before the guards departed with the youngling. Assuming that Carabel’s suspicions were correct. He comforted himself with the thought that Silna’s captors likely wouldn’t leave until morning.

A tremor passed through Thorn; the dragon was shaking, as if cold. “What’s wrong?” Murtagh murmured, and stroked Thorn’s belly.

The dragon growled slightly. You’re hurtNot too badly. I’ll be fine in a day or two.

Thorn shivered again and growled slightly. I was too slow. I could not catch you in time.

That’s not—

The fish could have killed you.

“It takes a lot to kill me,” Murtagh said out loud. The sound of his voice usually had a calming influence on Thorn. “And you too.”

At first Thorn didn’t respond. Then Murtagh heard rather than saw the dragon’s teeth snap together. Yes. A lot.

“And nothing has succeeded so far.”

I would rather keep it that way.

He patted Thorn and, with a groan, rolled onto his feet. Thorn’s wing lifted as he stood, again revealing the night sky and Muckmaw’s slumped corpse.

Murtagh rubbed his arms and wrung water from his sleeves. “This is the day that never ends.”

It’s already past midnight. A new day, said Thorn.

“Doesn’t feel like it.” Murtagh eyed the lake. Drifting some distance from the slate overhang was his bow. Or what was left of it. The string was broken, and the wood charred to a twisted cinder. The spells bound to the weapon protected it from many things, but the full heat of dragonfire wasn’t one of them.

He sighed. In one night he’d lost two of his three weapons. All he had left was Zar’roc, which was formidable, but not exactly helpful if he wanted to shoot from a distance or carve a piece of bacon.

Speaking of carving…He went to Thorn and unbuckled the lowest saddlebag. Its contents, he was pleased to see, were still dry, a consequence of

the spell he’d cast after the torrent he and Thorn had gotten caught in early last year.

Murtagh pulled out Zar’roc and walked over to Muckmaw’s corpse. He stood looking at the glistening mass of flesh for a minute, judging the best place to cut. Just how much of the fish did the guards want? There wasn’t a clear distinction between head and neck on the animal.

“We’ll need something to wrap the head in,” he said. “I don’t want to use my blanket, but—”

Thorn stalked past and dipped his snout into the lake. With water streaming from his chops, he deposited Murtagh’s soggy cloak at his feet.

Murtagh picked it up with one hand. Holes and long tears let moonlight shine through the felted wool. He sighed again. “I hope it’s big enough.”

Zar’roc wasn’t a two-handed sword—at times Murtagh missed the proportions of his old bastard sword—but he wrapped his off hand around the pommel and raised the weapon above his head, like an executioner about to deliver the final, fatal blow. He inhaled, and then swung the sword down with a loud “Huh!”

The crimson blade sliced through Muckmaw’s bony hide and the dark meat underneath with hardly any resistance. The fish was so large, though, that Murtagh was only able to cut through a third of its neck on the first blow.

He lifted Zar’roc again, and again slashed downward.

It took four cuts to decapitate the fish. Separated from the body, Muckmaw’s head was nearly as wide as Murtagh was tall; he could barely wrap his arms around it if he tried.

The fish’s giant saucer-dish eyes stared at him, pale and blank, devoid of motive force, but with what he felt was a certain accusatory expression.

“To all things an end,” Murtagh murmured, and put a hand on the beast’s cold forehead.

The scale, said Thorn.

“Ah.” Murtagh took up Zar’roc again and pressed the tip against Muckmaw’s belly, just below the fish’s ribs. With a whisper of a sound, he

sliced open the giant sturgeon, and a length of grey, wormlike intestine fell slopping around his boots in great slippery coils.

He grimaced and held his breath as he felt along the intestine until he found the stomach. Another quick cut, and the stomach opened to reveal a ghastly collection of smaller fish, frogs, half-digested eels, and even some branches. And buried amid the reeking refuse, Glaedr’s golden scale, bright as a polished plate.

Murtagh leaned Zar’roc against the curved side of Muckmaw’s corpse and fetched a piece of cloth from Thorn’s saddlebags. With it, he removed the scale from the pile of filth before quickly retreating. Sickened, he leaned over and retched, though nothing came up but bile and regret.

He poured a handful of dry dirt over the scale, shook it off, and then stowed it in the saddlebags before returning to Muckmaw’s head and body.

He’d just started to wrap the head in his ruined cloak when a pair of voices echoed across the shifting water. He looked up. A small coracle was approaching, and in it, two men working the paddles. Night fishers, drawn by the noise and light.

A wave of exhaustion passed through Murtagh. He was out of energy to deal with more problems. Nevertheless, he squared his shoulders and, with his left hand, reached behind the bulk of Muckmaw’s body and grabbed Zar’roc, careful to keep the sword hidden.

“Don’t make any sudden movem—” he said, glancing at Thorn.

The dragon had vanished. Murtagh stiffened, but then he searched with his mind and realized that Thorn had simply dropped back into the shadows behind the lake and was lying flat among the brambles that grew along the top of the banks.

For a creature so large, he could be remarkably quiet. Murtagh looked back at the boat.

“Ho there!” called one of the men when they were about fifty feet from shore. Grey streaked his beard, and his shoulders were heavy from years of rowing. His companion put up his oars, lifted an oil lantern, and unshuttered it, releasing a key of yellow light that illuminated Murtagh, and Muckmaw’s corpse beside him.

Murtagh shaded his eyes with his free hand. He could see the men gaping at him. He could only imagine what he looked like, covered in mud, blood, and fish slime.

“Wh-who goes?” said the greybeard, stuttering slightly.

The other man said, “We heard a commotion fit t’ raise th’ dead, but…”

In a soft voice to himself, Murtagh said, “But you kept away until it was over.” Then, louder: “Ho there! Muckmaw is dead.” He gestured at the corpse. “His head is mine, but do with the rest as you will.”

The fishermen neither moved nor spoke as Murtagh leaned Zar’roc against Muckmaw’s open belly—where they couldn’t see—and finished wrapping his tattered cloak around the sturgeon’s severed head. The length of shattered thigh bone buried in the fish’s brow stuck out through a hole in the cloth.

He straightened and slung the corner of the cloak over his shoulder. “Who…who are y’, stranger?” said greybeard, his voice faint in the night


“Just a traveler,” said Murtagh. He turned his back on them, picked up

Zar’roc while being careful to keep his body between the fishermen and the jeweled sword, and then dug his heels into the damp ground.

Step by step, he dragged the giant fish head into the brambles atop the bank. He heard the fishermen muttering to each other behind him, followed by splashing as they started for the shore.

Atop the bank, Murtagh cast a quick spell: the same one he used to hide Thorn when they flew. It wasn’t perfect—anyone who looked closely would see the air rippling like liquid glass where they stood—but it would be enough to hide them in the dark of night.

As soon as he reached Thorn, he dropped the corner of the cloak and scrambled up Thorn’s side into the saddle. “Go, go, go,” he whispered.

Thorn picked up Muckmaw’s head in his enormous talons and, silent as a hunting owl, jumped across the moonlit field and glided on half-extended wings. He landed with a soft jolt and leaped again, this time with wings at their full spread. Two more leaps, and they were far enough from the lake that it was doubtful anyone would hear.

Whoosh! Thorn flapped once, and then again, and they were away, spiraling up into the starry sky.

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