Chapter no 15 – Softly Creeping…

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Somewhere in the sleeping city, a black-faced owl hooted and then hooted again.

Murtagh levered himself into a sitting position on his cot. Throughout the barracks, the guards lay still and silent, their breathing slow, even, measured. One or two of them snored, but not loudly enough to wake the others.

Ever so carefully, Murtagh opened his mind and extended his consciousness to touch the thoughts of the other men. They were, as he hoped, all deeply asleep, lost in the confusion of their dreams.

He maintained a delicate contact with their collective minds as he edged down his cot and put a hand on the lid of the chest. “Maela,” he whispered. Quiet.

Holding his breath, he lifted the lid.

It swung up and back with hardly a sound.

Relieved, he slowly pulled out his bedroll and all it contained, as well as the boots, cloak, and arming sword he’d been given.

But he left the kite shield. It would just slow him down and make stealth that much more difficult. Besides, he had his own shield, albeit with Thorn. And he left the tabard. It might have helped him to avoid unwanted attention, but he no longer felt comfortable wearing the uniform of the guard.

He wrapped the cloak around the belt of the sword so the buckle wouldn’t jangle, and then slowly stood and padded on sock-covered feet toward the back of the room.

At the last cot in line—which was empty—he tripped.

He cursed silently as he regained his balance, his face frozen in a snarl.

Across the barracks, one of the guards stirred, and he sensed a twinge of awareness from the man’s mind.

Murtagh remained hunched in a half crouch, afraid to move.

After several minutes, when the man seemed to again be deep in slumber, Murtagh straightened inch by inch and continued to the ink-black archway at the rear of the barracks.

He put a hand against the cold stone wall and felt his way down several steps. Then he sat and pulled on his boots, laced them tight, unwrapped the sword, buckled it around his waist, and secured the clasp of the cloak at his throat. The cloak was a gamble; it could easily get caught between his legs at an inopportune time, but it would also serve to muffle his movements. Lastly, he slung his bedroll across his shoulders. He wasn’t planning on returning to the barracks—not to sleep, in any case—and there was a chance he’d have to leave in a hurry, and he didn’t want to lose any more of his belongings. When you owned only a few things, they became all the more precious.

He stood and resumed feeling his way down the stairs. He wanted to cast a werelight, but it would be too risky, and besides…

…a dull orange glow appeared before him as he spiraled beneath the surface of the earth, gilding the face of the stone wall so that every pit and pock and chipped imperfection stood in high relief.

At the bottom of the stairs was another archway, this one easy enough to see in the flickering light.

Murtagh pressed himself against the outer curve of the staircase as he edged down to the archway and poked his head around the frame of mortared stone.

A long, dark tunnel stretched out to the left and right. Despite what Esvar had said, it didn’t look like elf-work to Murtagh, but rather ordinary

human craftsmanship. The passage to the right extended underneath the fortress, while the left-hand branch reached toward the city.

Too many tunnels, he thought. It would have been helpful to know of them when he’d been trying to rescue Eragon from the fortress. He’d had no idea that the city was sitting on a rabbit warren of underground passages.

It was the left-hand side of the tunnel that interested him the most. Several wooden doors, reinforced with bands of wrought iron, were set into the walls. Bolted to the walls between the doors were sconces that held tall candles, two of which were lit and which cast a field of dancing shadows across the stones.

A guard stood next to the middlemost door, leaning on his pike, head slumped forward, eyes half closed.

Murtagh took a moment to consider. From what Captain Wren had said, he knew the guards had wards on them. And he knew that some of the wards were intended to protect against magical attacks. But what exactly constituted an attack was open to interpretation.

Murtagh didn’t want to harm the man. The guard was doing his duty

without obvious malice. But he did have to get past him.

He frowned. If he cast a spell on the guard and it triggered any of his wards, the man was sure to know. The drain of energy would alert him, if nothing else. Which left only two options: either Murtagh could physically overpower the man or he could use the Name of Names to strip the man’s defenses and then incapacitate him with magic.

He tightened his hand on the hilt of the arming sword. The Name of

Names was the obvious choice, but he hated to keep using it. The Word was a powerful secret—one of the most powerful secrets—and every time he uttered it, he risked teaching it to some unknown listener, even if he paired it with a concealing spell, as he had done in the Fulsome Feast. And no matter how well constructed a piece of magic, there was always a chance it might not have the intended effect.

It was bad enough that he, Eragon, and Arya knew the Word. Three was two too many to keep a secret, and every additional person who learned the Name was another chance for someone to cause untold harm.

If Murtagh had known more of the ancient language and its uses—if he’d been properly trained as a Rider and magician, as Eragon had been—he would have felt more confident of bypassing the guard’s wards without the Name of Names. But as it was, he keenly felt the inadequacy of his instruction, and he resented it.

The arguments for and against using the Word flashed through Murtagh’s mind, but he knew he had already made his decision. He had to avoid making noise, and since he wasn’t going to kill the guard…

Keeping his voice as low as possible, he uttered the Name of Names, and with it, he said, “Slytha.” Sleep.

Even as he spoke, he darted into the tunnel and ran toward the guard.

The man twitched and fell forward, arms and legs going limp, pike slipping from his slack fingers.

Murtagh caught the guard before his head slammed into the floor, but the pike clattered against the stones, and his helmet slipped off and bounced away, sending echoes chasing back and forth through the tunnel.

“Ah!” said Murtagh. He lowered the man to the floor and then fled down the tunnel, out of the range of the candlelight and into the shadows. There he waited, breathless, straining his ears to hear if anyone in the barracks was coming to investigate.

Long moments passed. A breath of wind tickled the back of his neck, and he watched a large brown spider crawl along the corner of the wall, a sac of white eggs webbed to its back. His lip curled.

He loosened his grip on the hilt of the arming sword. They’re still asleep. He didn’t feel safe, though. All it would take was one of the guards waking up to use the privy, and his absence could be discovered.

Moving quietly, he returned to the guard he’d put to sleep and placed a finger against the man’s stubbled neck. His pulse was strong and steady, and his chest continued to move.

Satisfied that the man was fast asleep, Murtagh stepped over the pike on the ground and went to the middlemost door. It was the one the man had been standing watch by, so Murtagh guessed it was the door he wanted.

He pulled on the iron ring bolted to the wood. The door didn’t move.

Of course. He pushed instead. The door still didn’t move.

Murtagh’s eyes narrowed as he searched the wood planks for a keyhole. In the dim light, it took him a few seconds to find: a small round hole by one corner of the iron plate that backed the ring.

He raised a finger and touched the keyhole, prepared to use magic, but a thought stopped him.

He knelt by the sleeping guard and searched along his leather belt. The man smelled of smoke, mutton, cardus weed, and long hours spent drilling in the sun. Murtagh wrinkled his nose. He didn’t understand why more folks didn’t bathe on a regular basis. Cold water was no excuse to walk around stinking like a tannery.

Metal clinked as his fingers found something hard hanging off the guard’s belt. He looked; as he’d hoped, a key.

He fit the key into the lock and turned it until he heard an unpleasantly loud clunk. With a final glance up and down the tunnel, he pushed open the door.

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