Chapter no 14 – Uniforms

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

The captain’s hands, have they always been—”

“You don’t ask about the captain’s hands,” Esvar said firmly. “Not unless you want Gert to beat the tar out of your


“That’s good to know. Thanks.”

Esvar gave a companionable nod and pointed toward the far barracks as they exited the stone tower. “Thatwise is where we’re headed.”

The yard had emptied during Murtagh’s interview with Captain Wren, and the shadows had shrunk beneath the midday sun. Someone had removed the cart with Muckmaw’s head.

Murtagh glanced at the deep blue sky. It had been only a few hours, but he already missed Thorn. They were too far apart to easily exchange thoughts, and he didn’t want to risk shouting with his mind when there were those within Gil’ead who might notice. I hope he’s safe. He could barely feel his connection with Thorn—just enough to know that Thorn was alive and not in pain.

Esvar gestured at the yard and the high fortress wall that backed the compound. “This all is ours. Captain Irven has command of the other half of the guard, at the grounds ’cross the fortress, but this here is Captain Wren’s fiefdom.”

“Do the captains get along?” Murtagh asked.

“Not hardly. But that’s all right. Lord Relgin favors our captain, so you chose the right company, Task.”

“I’m just glad to be one of you.”

Esvar laughed. “Say now, you killed Muckmaw! No one in their right mind would turn you away.”

Murtagh made as if he were embarrassed. “I got lucky, but thanks. So have you been part of the guard for long?”

Esvar beamed with pride. “Two months, an’ I’ve loved every day of it, even the drilling. Even the standing watch, though it does get mighty miserable when it’s raining.”

“I’m sure.”

“An’ where do you hail from? Your tone’s not from around here.”

“Far to the south,” said Murtagh as they entered the barracks. It was a long, half-domed room with rows of cots, each with a wooden chest at the foot. A number of men were on the cots, playing runes, napping, or oiling their boots. Shields hung on the walls, and a rack of pikes and spears stood by the door. At the back of the barracks, as Carabel had said, was a stone archway and, through it, a staircase that led down into darkness.

That’s where I need to go. But finding an opportunity was going to be difficult. Either the barracks would have to be empty or he’d have to wait until the men were asleep.

A knot of anxiety twisted within Murtagh’s gut. Would Silna even still be in the compound by the end of the day? He could always try to ambush any group that left the enclosed grounds, but he had no means of knowing all the ways in and out, and in any case, an open attack would make further subterfuge impossible.

He was tempted to reach out with his mind, to see if he could detect Silna’s consciousness underneath them, but he resisted the urge. There were too many people around, any one of whom might notice the touch of his thoughts.

Esvar walked him through the room, introducing him to the men, who varied from friendly to standoffish to outright hostile. But they all wanted to hear the story of how he’d caught Muckmaw, and Murtagh found himself

regaling them with the same account he’d given Captain Wren. The men seemed well enough impressed, but they followed up with plenty of comments about the state of his clothes, or else joked about him being fish food. He accepted the remarks with good grace, for he knew who he was. A certain amount of ribbing and gibing was normal for an outsider. Until he proved himself, the men wouldn’t trust him.

Of course, he wasn’t going to be there long enough to prove himself.

For some reason, the thought caused him an obscure sense of regret.

Three-quarters of the way through the room, Esvar stopped by an empty cot. “You can bunk here for now. If ’n Gert or the captain likes you, y’ can request a change, but I wouldn’t bother were I you. It doesn’t serve to be too close to the front; someone or other is always getting up in th’ night to visit the privy.”

That could be a problem, Murtagh thought. He glanced around as he dropped his bedroll on the cot. “Where does that go?” he asked, pointing at the archway at the back.

“Down t’ the catacombs,” said Esvar.

“There are catacombs?” Murtagh said, feigning surprise.

Esvar bobbed his head. “Oh yes. We use ’em for all sorts. The captain an’ the other officers meet down there every week, an’ we use ’em for storing supplies an’ such.”

“I see.”

A doleful expression formed on Esvar’s face. “It’s not so nice. Th’ catacombs are dark an’ full of spiders, an’ the captain insists that we keep watch on th’ storerooms. He says no fighting force is prepared ’less they know their weapons an’ supplies are secured.”

“The captain sounds like a wise man.” Privately, Murtagh cursed Wren’s cautious nature. It wasn’t going to make it easy to find out what was behind the closed door.

“That he is!” said Esvar. “An’ speaking of supplies, I ought t’ get you your kit. Thisways!”

Murtagh hoped the younger man might take him down into the catacombs, but instead Esvar headed back out of the barracks and led him

toward a small storehouse set against the fortress’s outer wall.

Esvar was still talking; he never seemed to stop. “The catacombs were built ages ago. They say it were the elves that first quarried ’neath here, but I’ve never seen no elf digging in the ground or cutting stone. But Gil’ead has more ’an its share of history, yes it does. Right on th’ other side of that wall is where Morzan an’ his dragon were killed, near on twenty years ago.” He gave Murtagh a wide-eyed look. “It were before my time, but my ma, she says the whole city shook, and there were fire and flames and lightning like a great storm.”

Cold tingles ran up Murtagh’s arms. Right through there, he thought, staring at the wall. That’s where his father had died while trying to track down the dragon egg—Saphira’s egg—that the Varden had stolen from Galbatorix.

Esvar seemed encouraged by Murtagh’s expression. “It’s true! A magician came to Gil’ead an’ challenged Morzan to a duel. No one knows his name, only that he wore a hooded cape and carried a wizard’s staff, like in th’ stories.”

“I wonder who it was.” But Murtagh knew: Brom. The old man had lost his dragon during the fall of the Riders, but he had still been a clever spellcaster. Not clever enough to ward off the Ra’zac’s dagger, though.

Esvar shrugged. “Probably one of the Varden. Or maybe a sorcerer from th’ plains. Captain Wren says nomads know all sorts of magic.”

The yellow-haired youth kept chattering as he ushered Murtagh into the storehouse and gathered equipment for him. It wasn’t long before Murtagh found himself fitted into a new set of clothes, with a red tabard over his mail corselet and a warm woolen cloak clasped about his throat. He quite liked the uniform. It was neat and clean, and there was something appealing about the fact that folks would no longer see him as a person apart but as just another member of the guard. There was safety in numbers, after all, and he had never before felt joined to a larger group of like-minded people.

Yet he knew the truth was otherwise, and his disquiet remained.

Along with the clothes, Esvar presented him with a spear, an arming sword—complete with belt and sheath—and a deftly painted kite shield.

“You’ll have t’ talk with Gert about being issued a pike,” said Esvar. “He won’t let new recruits have one till he’s gotten to train ’em.” He made a face. “I’m still stuck with a spear myself.”

As Esvar showed Murtagh around the rest of the compound—the privy, the stables, the mess hall, the smithy, and the small garden where they grew crabapples for cider—he continued to shower him with questions. Murtagh kept his answers short, but when it came out that he had participated in the battles of the Burning Plains and Ilirea, Esvar grew visibly excited, and his questions redoubled.

Murtagh fended them off as best he could while they went to the mess hall for the company’s midday meal. The food was nothing special—half a loaf of dark-brown bread, a bowl of stew, and a mug of small beer—but Murtagh enjoyed what he now knew was the not-so-insignificant luxury of having someone cook for him. Still, it was a muted pleasure. He could not forget his purpose for being there: Silna. Frustration burned within him and dulled his appetite. He wanted nothing more than to act, but until the moment was right, all he could do was bite his cheek and wait.

So he ate and pretended at niceties.

Esvar sat on the other side of one of two long wooden tables that filled the mess hall, still talking. “Did y’ see Eragon, then? And the dragon Saphira?”

“I saw them,” said Murtagh.

“Were you close to them? Did you get to talk with them?” He shook his head. “No. I only saw them at a distance.”

“Ah,” said Esvar, disappointed. “But still, you were awful lucky to see ’em! I’d love to have th’ chance someday. Can you believe how brave they were t’ face the king and Shruikan, and they killed ’em too!”

Not without my help. Murtagh bit back his annoyance and, in a mild tone, said, “I’m sure they were very brave.”

Esvar didn’t seem to notice. “Supposedly Eragon is only a year older’n me! How strange is that?! Can you imagine being a Dragon Rider? Can you imagine having a dragon! Why, I don’t know what I’d do. Fly to the top of the sky and fight every bandit and traitor I could find.”

Murtagh smiled into his mug and then tipped it toward Esvar. “You know, I believe you would.”

Esvar leaned in toward him, face shining, cheeks reddened with excitement. “Did y’ fight any Urgals at th’ Burning Plains, or had they already joined with the Varden?”

“They’d already joined.”

“That’s too bad. I always wanted to fight an Urgal. But surely you saw some up closelike, yes?”

Sitting at the other table, Gert looked over from the food he was busy shoveling into his mouth with the practiced haste of a man who had been a soldier for most of his life. “Don’t bother Task with so many questions. The man must be half dead from ’em.”

A flush turned the tips of Esvar’s ears bright red. “Yessir. Sorry, sir.” And he bent over his own food.

Murtagh gave the weaponmaster a thankful nod, but Gert looked away without acknowledging it.

At the far end of the tables, several of the guards were talking amongst themselves. With Esvar quieted, Murtagh took the opportunity to eavesdrop.

“—as you will, but th’ queen is still young,” said one man.

“Ah. ’S never too early,” said another. “Till she has an heir, the kingdom won’t be settled. She’d best marry King Orrin, and—”

That mewler?” broke in a third guard. “Lord Risthart o’ Teirm would be a far better match. Or even our own Lord Relgin. At least he—”

“Old Relgin’s wife might have something t’ say ’bout that,” said the first man, followed by a rather crude suggestion.

As the guards laughed, Murtagh stared into his bowl, his fist tight around the handle of the spoon. The thought of Nasuada marrying any of those men, much less some faceless stranger, filled him with an inexpressible rage.

How difficult her position is. The men were right. If Nasuada didn’t produce an heir in the next few years, the crown would rest uneasy upon her head, and the continuity of her lineage and the peace the Varden had fought so hard for would be in jeopardy.

Murtagh didn’t want to think about whom Nasuada might have to choose as her consort. The demands of statehood and diplomacy made no allowances for personal feelings. Nasuada would do what was best for her realm, and as for him…if he could work from the shadows and help keep Alagaësia stable, perhaps he could buy her some more time to consolidate her rule.

He forced himself to keep eating, even though his appetite had deserted him.

It wasn’t long before Esvar started talking again. He didn’t ask so many questions as earlier but instead went on about the guards, Captain Wren, and his own experience in the company (all two months of it), as well as his life in general. Murtagh was happy to listen; he’d spent so long with only Thorn for conversation, the sound of another human’s voice was in itself rewarding. But he also found interesting the things that Esvar considered important.

Only a handful of years separated the two of them, and yet Murtagh felt as if he were decades older. Esvar’s mind was full of dreams of daring, adventure, and honor. He nearly worshipped Captain Wren and others he considered to be shining examples of heroic accomplishment, including, of course, Eragon. And he was devoted to the guards with the fevered conviction of youth or the newly converted.

Over the course of his talking, it came out that Esvar’s father had died in a storm, out on Isenstar Lake, when Esvar was only seven. At that, Murtagh felt a sympathetic pang; he understood Esvar’s need to find guidance and a sense of purpose. It was an almost physical longing.

Esvar had an additional motivation for joining the guards, one Murtagh had never experienced: a need to provide. As he said, “An’ this ways I can give coin to my ma, and she doesn’t have to spend so much of th’ day at the market. I’m able t’ put bread an’ meat on the table, and my sisters can get a new dress each year, both of ’em.”

“That must make you proud,” said Murtagh.

Esvar nodded, but his expression was serious. “It’s an awful responsibility, though. If something were to happen to me while on duty…” He shook his head. “It doesn’t bear thinking about.”

“No,” said Murtagh. None of them had any shield against the vagaries of fate. Not even Dragon Riders were safe from tragedy.

After they ate, Murtagh attempted to return to the barracks while the rest of the men were still in the mess hall, but Esvar forestalled him, saying, “What for? Y’ have everything y’ need, Task. ’Sides, Gert’ll be wanting us on th’ field.”

Murtagh clenched a fist even as he forced a smile. “Of course. After you.”

With Esvar, he joined the guards who weren’t stationed on watch in drilling with spear and pike in the yard. It was an odd experience. Murtagh had always trained alone or with a single instructor, such as Tornac, and he had never fought as part of a massed formation, not even in Farthen Dûr. Moving in unison with the other men, shouting as they shouted, stamping his feet against the ground as they lunged and stabbed, advanced and retreated…there was a comfort to the experience. Murtagh found himself relaxing, feeling as if he could stop the run of his thoughts and simply exist.

For the first time, he realized how appealing it was to follow instead of lead. The guards could trust Gert and Captain Wren to think for them. All they had to do in turn was obey. Which, admittedly, was sometimes easier said than done. Even so, the effort of drilling or standing watch paled in comparison to the responsibilities of command.

As the sun descended, and their boots kicked up a haze of golden dust in the yard, Murtagh felt a sudden and strong regret that he couldn’t stay. That he had to break his oath to Captain Wren and—yet again—prove himself a liar and betrayer.

Murtagh’s enjoyment of the moment turned to bitter ashes, and his mood remained dark and dour throughout the rest of the drilling.

Afterward, as he and Esvar replaced their weapons on the racks along the yard, the yellow-haired guard said, “It wears y’ down some, but it always feels good t’ practice, don’tcha think?”

Murtagh grunted.

Esvar misunderstood. “Ah, don’t let it get t’ you. Few days of it, an’ you won’t even notice th’ weight of a spear.”

Once more, Murtagh attempted to return to the barracks, only for Gert to quickly remind him of the downside of belonging to the company: the lack of personal freedom. The weaponmaster set them to drawing water for the scullery, and then there were shirts of mail to oil and stables to muck and stocks and stores to organize.

Captain Wren, Murtagh soon came to understand, did not believe in letting his men stand idle when not on watch.

Murtagh’s frustration grew. In the stables, he saw evidence for what Carabel had mentioned: a wagon readied for departure, saddles laid out, bridles being repaired. A blacksmith was seeing to the shoes of several horses, including Captain Wren’s black charger, a great fearsome beast by the name of Beralt.

When Murtagh asked about the preparations, Esvar shrugged and said, “Couldn’t say. Captain’s business.”

Murtagh took consolation in the fact that whatever was planned had yet to happen. Regardless, it hardened his opinion toward Wren and the guards. If Carabel was right, at least some of them were engaged in inexcusable villainy.

As they were shifting firewood for the captain’s quarters, as well as the kitchens, Gert came by. “We had word from th’ fortress,” he said. “First thing tomorrow, Lord Relgin wants to see th’ one what killed Muckmaw. Best make sure your boots are shined and your hair is combed, Task. Won’t do to offend his Lordship.”

“Yessir.” An iron door seemed to slam shut inside Murtagh’s mind. There was no choice now. He couldn’t stay among the guards past the night. An appearance at Relgin’s court would be the surest way of breaking his disguise.

Once the sun was down and the guards were asleep, he had to try to reach Silna. It would be his only chance. Don’t give up, he thought. I’m coming.



Evening had settled over Gil’ead, and the streets were mired in purple shadow. Warm candlelight started to appear behind shuttered windows, and lanterns and torches bobbed along the ways as late travelers and early carousers hurried to their destinations.

Murtagh trotted between the wooden buildings, nose wrinkled in distaste at the smoke that had settled across the city along with the late-afternoon chill. His duties with the guards were over for the day, but Wren’s company closed and locked their gatehouse at sundown, so he had only a few minutes of freedom left.

Was that a familiar face among the knot of men and women standing by the door of a common house across the street? No…no, he didn’t think so. He ducked his head and hurried on, trusting that the tabard of the city watch was all anyone would see when they looked at him.

At the eastern edge of Gil’ead, he found a lone poplar tree by the edge of a barley field. After checking that no one else was in the vicinity, he sat and closed his eyes and focused on the thread of thought that joined him to Thorn.

As the window between their minds widened, the dragon’s relief was a palpable sensation washing over Murtagh’s body. For a time, they merely enjoyed their shared embrace, and then Murtagh said, Are you safe? Has anyone found you?

Only a wandering jackrabbit, who was much surprisedI can imagine. Did you eat it?

Murtagh could feel Thorn snort. To what end? I find larger pieces of meat stuck between my teeth. What of you? How goes it?

He made no attempt to hide his aggravation. They’ve kept me running ragged all day long. I haven’t had more than five minutes to myself.

Do they smell something wrong with you?

I don’t think so. It’s just how they operate. I’m going to try for the door once everyone’s asleep. If all goes well, I can sneak Silna out without being noticed, and then I’ll take her to Carabel, and we can be rid of this city.

Thorn noticed his grimness at once. Why do you hate it so?

Words were insufficient, so Murtagh shared the images and feelings dominating his mind—Esvar’s comments about Eragon and Saphira; his own conflicted response to being so close to the death place of his father; the sense of unity he’d experienced moving together with the other men in the yard; his distaste at breaking another oath; and in general, the deep and growing discomfort Murtagh felt for the situation and his place within it.

This is why I prefer to avoid your kind, said Thorn. They are too difficult, too complicated. Things are simpler when we stick to the sky.

If only we could.

Then, too, Murtagh shared the men’s comments about Nasuada and her need for an heir. And he made no attempt to hide his distress at the thought.

Thorn hummed in his mind, and in Murtagh’s mind, he saw the dragon’s tail wrapping around him, as if to protect and comfort him.

Perhaps you should seek her out, if you feel so strongly about whom she chooses as her mate, said Thorn.

It’s not that simple.

It is as simple as you make itIf I were a dragon, maybe.

Slight amusement colored Thorn’s response: You are as close to a dragon in human form as I have ever met.

Coming from Thorn, that was no small compliment, and Murtagh knew it. If only I could breathe fire like you.

That’s what magic is for. Then, changing the topic, Thorn said, What do you make of Captain Wren’s intentions?

Murtagh opened his eyes and looked at the first few stars appearing in the orange and pink sky. I don’t know. Politics? Personal ambition? He seems intelligent and devoted to his men, but I have a feeling…

The wood face masks.

Yes. Anyone who has masks like that has an interest in secrets, in hiding themselves, and in magic. It’s a dangerous combination.

An image of the masks passed through Murtagh’s mind as Thorn returned the memory to him for notice. Which mask would you choose?

A short laugh escaped him. None. I wear too many already.

Not with meNo, not with you.

Then Thorn wished him luck, and they said their farewells, and—with a strange feeling in his heart—Murtagh headed back to the barracks.



As Murtagh sat on his cot and started to unlace his boots, Esvar came over and, in a somewhat subdued voice, said, “Look, ah, Task, I’m sorry if I were bothering you earlier.”

“It’s fine. Don’t worry about it,” said Murtagh. He pulled off his right boot.

“Well, that’s kind of you to say. I just got excited t’ have someone new in our ranks, ’specially one as fought with Eragon and Saphira.”

“Again, it’s fine.” He pulled off his left boot.

Esvar shifted uncomfortably. “Well…I know ’tisn’t easy settling in thisways. It’s a big change joining the guard. Least, it were for me. But… anyways, I wanted you t’ know you’re welcome, an’ I’ll be glad t’ stand watch with you any day, even if ’n it is raining.”

The words struck Murtagh to the bone. He stared at the boot in his hand for a moment, and then looked up at Esvar. “That’s very kind of you, Esvar.”

Esvar bobbed his head, embarrassed, and was about to leave when Murtagh said, “Are you standing watch tonight?”

“Me? No, no. I get t’ sleep tonight.”

Good. Murtagh watched Esvar walk back to his own cot. Then he shook his head, undid the clasp of his new cloak, and pulled off his red tabard.

As did the other men, Murtagh stored his clothes and belongings in the chest at the bottom of his cot. To his displeasure, the hinges of the chest made an annoying squeal loud enough to wake anyone who heard it.

It was night then, and Gert stood at the front of the barracks, looking them over with a half-shuttered lantern in his hand. He gave a satisfied

grunt. “Right. Turn in. First call is two bells before dawn.” Then he closed the lantern and left through the front door.

The interior of the barracks was profoundly dark, even after Murtagh’s eyes adjusted to the absence of light. The only hint of illumination was a thin beam—pale and indistinct—that slipped through a crack in the shutters facing the stone tower of the officers.

Murtagh lay on his back with his eyes open, listening to the breathing of the other men. The black underside of the curved ceiling was deadly dull, but he was afraid to close his eyes, lest he nod off and lose his chance.

It probably wasn’t much of a risk—the thought of sneaking into the catacombs filled his veins with too much fire for sleep to be a likely prospect

—but it was best to be cautious. Any mistakes in the barracks could prove fatal. If not for him, then for the men around him, and Murtagh preferred to avoid fighting them.

As long as he did everything right, no one should know what he had done or where he had gone. He felt sorry about Esvar—the youth’s optimism and enthusiasm were bright spots of positivity in the day, but some things couldn’t be helped.

Time passed with creeping slowness. Murtagh tried counting the beats of his heart, but that only made the minutes seem even longer.

He was determined to wait until at least an hour past midnight before he chanced the catacombs. That would allow the guards plenty of time to fall asleep, and it might even be long enough for the man standing watch underground to nod off.

At least Murtagh hoped so.

He shifted on the cot, uncomfortable. He’d spent so long out of doors with Thorn, it felt strange to be lying on a bed again, even an unpadded cot. The canvas backing sagged beneath his weight, putting a curve in his spine that made his lower back ache. He tried shifting to his side, but that only put a painful crook in his neck.

He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. It was going to be a taxing few hours.

To distract himself, he set to composing another poem, this one not an Attenwrack, but a form of his own devising. In a silent voice, he said:

Sing of sorrows soft and sad.

Cry, O winged herald, of battles won and lostWho mourns for fallen men, in conflict slain? What comfort tears when flocks of crows descend?

The words echoed in his mind as he lay in the dark. “Forgive me,” he whispered. Whether the words were meant for the ghosts of his past or the men in the barracks, he wasn’t sure, but when he closed his eyes, a field of drowned bones filled his vision.

You'll Also Like