Chapter no 13 – Masks

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Murtagh scooped up his bedroll and fell in next to Gert as the stocky man headed away from the courtyard, toward a stone structure attached to one of the barracks. It looked more like a

square-sided watchtower than a house, but Murtagh guessed the tower contained the officers’ living quarters.

As they walked, Gert said, “Where’d you learn to handle a sword like that, boy?”

“There was a man in our village who had some experience soldiering when he was young. He taught me as I was growing up.”

The guard grunted, and Murtagh wondered if he believed him. The skills Murtagh had demonstrated hardly matched those of the average foot soldier. But Gert had the good manners not to inquire further.

The interior of the tower was cool and dark, illuminated only by the occasional arrow slit or wall-mounted torch (few of which were lit). The stones smelled of damp, and the smell reminded Murtagh of the bolt-hole tunnel he had used when meeting Carabel: a mossy, moldy scent that spoke of caves deep underground and of dripping stalactites and blind fish nosing against cold rocks.

Gert led him straight through the building to a closed door by one corner. He knocked and said, “It’s me, Cap’n. Mind if ’n I come in?”

“Enter,” answered a man from within, strong and clear.

Gert gave Murtagh a stern look. “You wait here now an’ don’t move.” Then he pulled open the door and stepped through.

Murtagh glanced up and down the stone hall. It had an arched roof similar to some of the dwarf tunnels around Tronjheim. There was a low wooden bench against one wall, but he decided it was better to stand. Next to the bench was a planter full of artfully arranged bundles of dried baby’s breath.

He wondered who had requested the flowers.

Gert kept him waiting for over ten minutes. Then the door swung back open, and the weaponmaster poked his head out. “Cap’n will see you now.”

Murtagh hefted his bedroll and walked in.

The captain’s study was a modest affair, as such things went. Murtagh had seen officers commission or commandeer far more ostentatious chambers in order to flaunt their family’s wealth or improve their chances of climbing the ranks of power at court. Wren’s tastes were more restrained, if somewhat unusual.

The walls were the same bare stone as the outside, but they were lined with racks of scrolls, over which hung maps of Gil’ead, maps of the Empire, and maps of Nasuada’s new queendom, the Spine, and Alagaësia as a whole. A broad table dominated one side of the room, and even more maps—these pinned with small flags and carvings of soldiers—lay strewn across it, along with scrolls and piles of parchment covered with writing.

The captain himself sat behind the desk, marking runes on a half sheet of vellum. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a touch of grey at his temples and a few fine wrinkles about his eyes from years spent drilling in the sun. Lean, focused, with an intelligent and perceptive gleam to his gaze, he struck Murtagh as the sort of man who could both plan a campaign and execute it, while also earning the love of his men.

His hair was neat, his tabard and jerkin neater. Even his nails were clean and trimmed. The one flaw in his appearance was his hands; the knuckles were swollen and the fingers twisted with arthritic distortion in a way Murtagh had only seen before among the extreme elderly.

On the wall behind the captain was the room’s most notable feature: two lines of wooden masks mounted on the stone. They weren’t the ornate party masks of the aristocracy, with which Murtagh was well acquainted. Rather, they were rough, barbaric-looking creations that evoked the faces of different animals: the bear, the wolf, the fox, the raven, and so forth, including two animals that he didn’t recognize. In style and execution, they resembled no tradition he was familiar with; if pressed, he would have said they had been crafted with the crudest of stone tools.

And yet the masks had a certain entrancing power; Murtagh found his gaze drawn to them as a lodestone drawn to a bar of iron.

Wren put down his quill and, with a slight grimace, flexed his hand. He eyed Murtagh. “So you’re the one who caught Muckmaw.”

At the back of the room, Gert slipped out and closed the door. Murtagh stood at attention and nodded. “Yes, sir.”

“How did you manage it, son?”

The run to Gil’ead had given Murtagh plenty of opportunity to think of an answer. As always, the best deception was the one that hewed most closely to the truth.

He adopted a somewhat abashed expression. “Truth be told, I weren’t trying to. I were out fishing for eels, and Muckmaw grabbed my bait and pulled me into the water. I’m not ashamed to say, I thought my last moments were upon me. I saw the fish come at me, and I tried to use my dagger on him, but it just bounced off his hide.”

Wren nodded, as if this were expected. “And then what?”

“Well, he knocked me down into the mud, and I’m pretty sure he were fixing to eat me, but I meant to make it a real pain for him. I caught hold of what I thought were a stick, and I gave him a good poke in the head. You can imagine my surprise when the stick went right in and that were the end of him. After I got out of the water, I saw it weren’t no stick but a piece of bone from some unfortunate soul. You can see it if ’n you want, out in the yard.”

“So his weakness was bone,” Wren murmured. “No wonder it escaped discovery until now.” He gestured at Murtagh’s clothes. “I see you managed

to dry off since your misadventure.”

Blast it. Murtagh shrugged. “It were a long walk back to Gil’ead dragging that monster’s head. It’s bigger than a bull’s.”

“I see.” Wren tapped his fingers against the desktop. “What’s your name, son?”

For the second time in as many days, Murtagh had to choose a new name. And not just a name, an identity. “Task,” he said. “Task Ivorsson.”

Wren picked up the quill again and made a note. “Well, Task, you’ve done a great service for the people of Gil’ead, and you’ve more than earned your reward.” From a small box on the desk, he counted out four bright gold crowns into Murtagh’s palm.

Murtagh felt a small shock as he saw Nasuada’s profile stamped onto the front of each coin. It was the first time he had encountered the new currency of the realm, and he allowed himself a moment of inspection, disguised as the gawking of a man who had never before held so much gold.

The likeness was an uncanny one. So skilled was it, Murtagh felt sure magic had been used in its creation. The sight of Nasuada’s all-too-familiar profile—proud and perfect in resplendent relief, with a modest diadem upon her brow—set a familiar ache in his heart, and he touched the image with hesitant fingers.

Wren noticed. “I take it you haven’t seen our new queen before.”

“Not as such, no.” It was an unfortunately ambiguous answer, and Murtagh berated himself the instant he spoke, but to his relief, the captain didn’t request further clarification.

“Her Majesty’s treasury issued these near winter’s end,” said Wren. “I understand all the coinage is to be replaced in due course.”

Murtagh closed his hand over the crowns. It made sense. Nasuada would hardly want images of Galbatorix circulating throughout the land for the rest of her reign. He slipped the coins into his pouch.

“Now then,” said Wren. “I understand you want to join my company specifically. Why?”

Murtagh straightened further. “Everyone says it’s the best in the city, sir.

And I’d like to be of some use again, aside from just guarding caravans.”

“Very commendable of you. Gert seemed impressed with your swordsmanship, and it takes a lot to pry a compliment out of that old goat. He also says you have some experience. So tell me, Task, where did you serve?”

It was a question with many meanings, and they both knew it. Murtagh noted that the captain had been careful not to ask with whom. “At the Battle of the Burning Plains,” he said quietly. “And I were also at Ilirea when it fell.”

Wren nodded, keeping his gaze fixed on the vellum. As Murtagh had expected, the captain didn’t inquire further. Most of the men in Galbatorix’s army had been conscripts forced to swear oaths of loyalty to the king in the ancient language. Since the king’s death, and since Eragon had used the Name of Names to break those oaths, the many thousands of soldiers had been free to pick their own path. The majority returned to their homes. But a significant portion opted to continue their profession as men-at-arms, and Nasuada’s current regime was not so well established that they could afford to turn away so many trained men.

Besides, there were plenty of people throughout Nasuada’s realm who still held sympathies for the Empire and who regarded the Varden with no small amount of ill will. It was possible that such was the case with the captain.

Either way, it would have been impolitic for Wren to press for more details as to Murtagh’s past service. Knowing that, Murtagh had avoided mentioning his presence at the Battle of Tronjheim, for the only notable human forces there had been among the Varden, whereas humans had fought on both sides at the Burning Plains and Ilirea.

Captain Wren said, “How were you trained?”

“As a footman, but I’m better with a blade than a spear or pike, and I’m more than passable with a bow.”

The captain nodded, making another note. “And why are you looking to serve again, Task? Yes, you wish to be of use. But why now? I assume you’ve not marched under a banner since Ilirea.”

“No, sir…I wanted to see my family. I’m from a village called Cantos, in the south. I don’t know if you’ve heard of it….”

Wren shook his head. “I can’t say I have.”

“Well, it’s not a big place, sir. Or, it wasn’t. There weren’t much left of it when I got there.” Cantos had been the village Galbatorix had ordered Murtagh to burn, raze, and eradicate; he’d fled before obeying, but he knew the king would have found someone to commit the crime all the same.

“I see. I’m sorry to hear that, Task.” Murtagh shrugged. “It were a hard war, sir.”

At that, a flicker of some indefinable emotion appeared in Wren’s eyes. “That it was, Task. That it was.” The captain leaned back in his chair and gave Murtagh a thoughtful look. “Have you any of your old kit?”

Murtagh gestured at his bedroll. “A shirt of fine mail, sir, but that’s all.” “It’s better than most, Task. There are some required items you will have

to purchase of your own, but with your reward for Muckmaw, you have more than sufficient funds. The rest of your equipment can be provided, assuming…”

Murtagh cocked his head. “Assuming what, sir?”

Wren rested his elbows on the desk and placed one gnarled hand over the other. “If you’re serious about joining my company, Task, you’ll have to swear fealty to the queen, to Lord Relgin, and to this unit, with myself as its commander. Do you understand?”

A sick feeling formed in Murtagh’s stomach, and the back of his neck went cold. I should have realized. Something of his reaction must have shown, because Wren’s expression hardened. “Is that a problem for you, Task?” He picked up his quill again.

“That depends, sir. Does the queen require swearing in this tongue or… or…”

Wren’s expression cleared. “Ah, I take your meaning. No, the queen does not believe in enforced loyalty. After all, a man’s word should be an unbreakable bond, no matter what language he speaks. One’s honor and reputation are more valuable than the greatest of riches, as I’m sure you agree.”

“Yes, sir.” Murtagh couldn’t help but think of his own reputation among the common folk, and he suppressed a grimace.

The corner of Wren’s mouth quirked in a partial smile. “Of course, the reality isn’t always as pure or shining as the ideal, but we must trust in the goodness of our fellow men. And we must allow them to make what mistakes they will, without corralling them with magical enforcement.”

What are you playing at? Murtagh wondered. It sounded as if Wren were criticizing, if only indirectly, the means and methods of Du Vrangr Gata. Or perhaps he was trying to assess Murtagh’s own sympathies. Which reinforced his impression of the captain being a cautious, clever man.

“In that case, sir, I’ll be happy to swear.” He wouldn’t be, and wasn’t, but Murtagh couldn’t see a way to avoid it.

“Excellent,” said Wren, and started to shuffle through the sheets of parchment on the desk. “Pay is given on the twenty-first of every month. For that, you’ll have to see Gert. Leave is subject to our duties, but normally you will have every fifth day to yourself, and harvest days and queen’s celebrations are divided among the company. Someone has to stand watch, but you are guaranteed leave for at least half those days.”

“Yes, sir.”

Again, Murtagh found his gaze drawn to the masks on the wall, as if their empty eyes contained secrets worth learning. There was something odd about the masks that he couldn’t quite identify; looking at them was like looking at objects through a slightly warped mirror.

Wren noticed his interest. “Ah. You find my humble collection interesting, do you?”

“I’ve never seen anything quite like those masks before,” Murtagh confessed.

The captain seemed pleased. “Indeed. They’re not easily found in Alagaësia. It took me over ten years to acquire these few. The masks are made by the nomads who frequent the grasslands. Their artisans produce all sorts of arcane objects that are unknown to the rest of us.”

“They seem quite lifelike, in a curious sort of way,” said Murtagh.

Wren’s eyes brightened. “Oh, it’s more than that, Task. Look.” He reached out and pulled a mask from the wall, the one carved in the likeness of a bear. Wren placed it over his face, and in that instant, his appearance shifted and warped, and he seemed to swell in size—shoulders widening, growing sloped and heavy and shaggy—and the mask moved with his face as if it were made of flesh and bone, and not wood, and an overpowering sense of presence made Murtagh fall back a step. It was as if the essence of bear had enveloped Wren, burying the man beneath a bestial cloak.

Then the captain pulled the mask away, and the impression vanished. Once again, he was just a man sitting at a desk, holding a wooden mask in his twisted hand.

“That…What is that, sir?” said Murtagh.

Wren chuckled and rehung the bear mask. “A powerful glamour, Task. I don’t know why the tribes make them, but I can tell you they’re not for hunting. Animals react quite badly if they see you wearing one of the masks. Dogs and horses especially. They go mad with fear.”

“I see, sir.”

Wren went back to searching the contents of his desk and, after a moment, produced a sheet of parchment covered with lines of runes. “Ah, there we are.” He rang a small brass bell and then dipped his quill in the inkpot. “Let’s see. Task Ivorsson, was it?”

“Yes, sir.”

The captain was already writing the name on the parchment. It was a form; Murtagh could read some of the upside-down words, but he pretended otherwise. A common foot soldier wouldn’t be likely to know his letters.

The door to the study opened, and a young guard entered. At first glance, he reminded Murtagh of a friendly, overeager hound: jowly and red-cheeked, with a shock of straw-colored hair and a ready smile. “You wanted me, sir?”

“I do, Esvar. Task here is joining our merry band, and I need you to stand witness.”

Esvar saluted and stood at attention next to Murtagh. “Sir, yes sir!”

Wren gave him a tolerant smile. Then he read from the parchment. It was a contract outlining Murtagh’s responsibilities to the company and the company’s responsibilities to him. He barely listened; he was familiar with the terms. What bothered him was the part to follow….

“—and make your mark here,” said Wren, handing him the quill and pointing to a blank spot near the bottom of the parchment.

Murtagh drew an X. “Good. Now, Esvar.”

Murtagh passed the quill to the young guardsman, who also made an on the contract.

“Excellent,” said Wren, and took back the quill and signed the parchment himself. Only he used runes; the captain had had a noble’s upbringing and education, Murtagh guessed. Or that of a particularly well-off merchant.

Then Wren placed his knotted fist over his heart, and Murtagh followed suit. And the captain said, “Repeat after me. I, Task Ivorsson, do hereby swear—”

Murtagh’s voice caught in his throat, and it was only with conscious effort—and not a small one—that he was able to obey: “I, Task Ivorsson, do hereby swear—”

“—my fealty to Queen Nasuada—” “—my fealty to Queen Nasuada—” “—and to Lord Relgin—”

“—and to Lord Relgin—”

“—and to the city guards of Gil’ead, as commanded by Captain Wren.” “—and to the city guards of Gil’ead, as commanded by Captain Wren.” “And I swear to uphold all laws and orders—”

“And I swear to uphold all laws and orders—” “—such as I am subject to as a member of this force.” “—such as I am subject to as a member of this force.”

The captain smiled, showing his strong, straight teeth, and extended his crooked hand. “Welcome to the company, Task. You’re one of us now.”

“Thank you, sir,” Murtagh said, forcing the words past the constriction in his throat.

“Esvar will get you settled into the barracks, and then he’ll see to it that you’re properly kitted out.” Wren gave the guardsman a mock-stern look. “Do see that he’s kitted out, Esvar.”


“Oh, and, Task, do you know if you have any wards on you? Charms against magical attacks or a spear to the skull? That sort of thing.”

“Not that I know of, sir, but then, how would I know?” Murtagh hoped the answer was vague enough to save him trouble later on.

Wren waved a hand. “No matter. We’ll see to it that you’re charmed up tomorrow. I can’t have my men walking around vulnerable to the slightest piece of magic.”

Startled, Murtagh said, “You have a spellcaster in your ranks, sir?” “Hardly,” said Wren. “We coordinate with Du Vrangr Gata. Their

magicians provide wards for everyone who follows the queen’s standard.” “I see. Thank you, sir.”

Wren waved a hand. “That will be all, Task. Dismissed.”

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